While going through a box of old lighthouse research material donated to us by long time friend and Lighthouse Digest subscriber, Michael Oliviere of New York State, I came across a March, 1960 New York Times book review written by James Dugan about the book The Eddystone Light, written by Fred Majdalany.
When going through hundreds of items that arrive on my desk every week, I have to be quick about pinpointing items that, to the best of my memory, we have not written about before or that might be of great historical significance and should be investigated for a possible story in Lighthouse Digest. So, it was the headline of the newspaper book review, “Man Against the Sea,” that caught my attention about this lighthouse book that was published nearly 30 years before we started publishing Lighthouse Digest.
Naturally, I knew about Eddystone Lighthouse, which for many historians is the most famous lighthouse, or should I say lighthouse towers, in the world and I almost put the old article in the bin on my desk to simply be filed in the Eddystone Lighthouse archival file. That is until I read the review and thought it was of enough historical importance to be shared with others, lest it be forgotten forever.
In 1699 Eddystone Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the world to be built on an exposed rock in the open ocean. Interestingly, its builder, a guy named Henry Winstanley, was taken prisoner at the lighthouse by French privateers during a time when France and England were at odds with each other. However, King Louis XIV of France, in ordering Winstanley’s release, said, “France is at war with England, not with humanity.” Naturally the king was referring to his respect for the importance of the lighthouse to all mariners at sea and, as we believe, also to Winstanley’s architectural abilities. In 1703, as Winstanley was at the lighthouse working on repairs, a monstrous storm destroyed the tower and swept it and Winstanley to their watery grave.
Over time, other structures replaced the first Eddystone Lighthouse and each tower has its own magnificent story to tell, more than I have room for here, especially since I’m supposed to be writing about James Dugan’s 1960 book review.
I had to do a quick search through my mind’s memory banks in an attempt to recall if I even had a copy of the book, The Eddystone Light. I couldn’t recall. Unfortunately, primarily because of the lack of time, we have never made a list of the books we have, primarily because researching and documenting United States lighthouse history, and involvement with lighthouse preservation projects, always took precedent and projects like keeping a record of books fell by the wayside.
In writing about those early authors of lighthouse books, and also, somewhat from my own early experiences, I admire those who did lighthouse research in the days before the Internet, e-mail and mass communication. The book, The Eddystone Light was certainly no exception, especially since many of the records in the archives of Trinity House, which manages England’s lighthouses, were destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1699. Succeeding documents were destroyed again in another fire in the early 1700s and many other documents were destroyed in the German blitz of World War II. However, the author of the book, Fred Majdalany, had one advantage in putting his research into writing. He was one of the few people in the world to actually have been hoisted up to the lighthouse and stayed there.
Now, in the days the Internet, the story of the Eddystone lighthouses has been well documented, but that never would have happened if it had not been for writer and author Fred Majdalany. And then, perhaps, if it had not been for the amazing and dramatic writing style of the popular James Dugan in the New York Times, few very people would have actually purchased the book, let alone know about it.
The popularity of James Dugan, was due in-part because he was widely known to most Americans by 1960 as the ship’s reporter on the Calypso-National Geographic expedition of 1954-55 under Capt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, which explored and photographed marine life on Assumption Reef in the Indian Ocean. As well as being a reporter, Dugan was also a well respected author. He wrote The Great Iron Ship, which was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1953, and Women and Children Last, an account of the sinking of the Arctic in 1854. Although most of what Dugan wrote about pertained to the sea, he did deviate from his norm when he coauthored with Carroll Stewart the book, Ploesti, an account of the 1943 air raid by Libya-based American bombers on Romania’s airfields, which is the story of the worst loss ever suffered by American air forces on a single mission; and should be required reading by anyone with an interest in military or American history.
But, back to Dugan’s style of writing in recommending the book. “The Eddystone Light,” where in his 1960 book review “Man Against the Sea,” he wrote and compared England’s Henry Winstanley to America’s Walt Disney. He wrote, “The first Eddystone Light was built by the Walt Disney of Stuart England, Henry Winstanley, creator of amusement parks, a showman who bewitched all from Charles II and Nelly to Joan who keeled the pot. That he succeeded in planting a tower at sea is as remarkable as if the creator of Mickey Mouse suddenly threw up Grand Central City without an engineer or architect.”
The rest of the review centers primarily on a brief history of the famous Eddystone towers and compliments Majdalany on not being afraid to digress when he reports on a nugget of history, especially that of the quarryman who went to work on the lighthouse.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Fred Majdalany’s book, The Eddystone Light, has been out of print for many years, but used copies often show up for sale very inexpensively on the Internet at Abe Books and sometimes on Amazon. As well as being a writer for England’s Daily Mail newspaper, his most notable book was Cassino: Portrait of a Battle.
James Dugan went on to coauthor The Living Sea, published in 1963, and The Great Mutiny in 1965 telling of the 1797 upheaval of British seamen at the Nore and Spithead bases. In 1964 he was the editor of the Academy Award winning documentary Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s World Without Sun. He also coauthored Men Under Water, written for the Underwater Society of America. Dugan, who resided in Philadelphia, died of a heart attack in Panama City, Florida at the age of 55 in 1967. He was buried at sea.
Editor’s Note: Used copies of “The Eddystone Light” by Fred Majdalany can sometimes be found at www.AbeBooks.com or on E-Bay. To accompany this story we have included a number of historic images from the Lighthouse Digest archives.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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