“Scarborough Lighthouse, Vincent Pier, circular tower, painted white, Iso.W. 5 sec 9 M. vis 219 degrees through west 039 degrees. Not shown when there is less than 12 feet at the Pier head.”
(From: Olsen’s Fishermen’s Nautical Almanack)
Scarborough is situated on England’s Northeast coast in the county of North Yorkshire. The town has an immense history, dating back to the Bronze Age and boasts a strong medieval influence, which includes an impressive 12th century castle, a bustling town and busy harbor. Scarborough’s harbor has a rich and complex history in itself, in which the lighthouse plays a relatively recent role.
Scarborough’s lighthouse stands on Vincent’s Pier, built in the 18th century and named after its engineer, William Vincent. Defining a date of initial construction for the lighthouse itself is difficult due to the lack of archive material, but research suggests that building commenced sometime between 1801 and 1806, after which a permanent brick structure existed, paid for by many of the vessels entering the harbor.
Scarborough Lighthouse in the early 19th century consisted of a brick tower with a flat top surrounded by iron railings. A coal brazier burned on the top platform during the night and a warning flag was flown during the daytime. Undoubtedly, the light would have been intermittent due to the wind and height of the waves. The coal brazier was soon replaced by six tallow candles placed in a circular tin that resided in an oblong-shaped window beneath the flat roof. A watchman was on duty to replace the candles as they extinguished. In 1818, a copper reflector replaced the tin. One of the difficulties of this arrangement was that the lighthouse emission could be confused with lights showing from the town itself, to the rear of the harbor area. Shutters on appropriate windows helped to ease this problem.
In the summer of 1840, a gas supply had reached the harbor area and the lighthouse. The decision was also made at this time for the harbor master, who then resided in the town rather than at the lighthouse, to live in specially built premises adjoining the lighthouse tower. Thus in 1843, accommodation was added to the lighthouse tower, and was used by harbor masters and their families until 1937. Today it is used by the Scarborough Yacht Club (not open to the public). The watchmen worked from a brick-built hut to the rear of the lighthouse called the waterhouse, which is standing today.
During this period, the tower was also heightened by 17 feet, in order to make the light more visible. The gas-fueled lantern, called the Bude light, gave off a brilliant and powerful beam, but in 1845, after the fuel bills came to an exorbitant £60 per annum, it was exchanged for a smaller four-inch burner, consisting of five gaslights. At the same time, a tidal gauge was installed at the head of the pier and a black ball replaced the flag that had been used for daylight warnings. Two of the five gaslights were lit permanently during the long dark winter nights.
No doubt there were alterations to the lighthouse during the late 19th century, but sadly very little archival evidence exists from this period that would allow an accurate description of any changes. The most dramatic event in Scarborough’s history was yet to come, and the lighthouse played a key role in what is now known as “The Bombardment.”
At around 8 a.m. on December 16, 1914, in the early months of World War I, Scarborough’s townsfolk were starting another ordinary day. The peaceful routine was shattered by a thunderous noise. German battle cruisers Derfflinger and Von der Tann had taken advantage of the disguising effects of the early morning mist that plagues the Northeast coast of England. They mercilessly shelled the town with 12-, 11- and 5.9-inch guns. The attack continued until around 8:25 a.m., during which time 500 shells were recorded. The vessels then steamed northwards towards the town of Whitby which incurred a similar fate. Eighteen civilians were killed during the Bombardment of Scarborough, scores were injured and damage to the town’s infrastructure was severe.
The lighthouse was badly damaged by the bombardment. A shell clipped the lighthouse tower and tore a gaping hole through its center, as the dramatic picture shows. A shell also damaged the harbor master’s living quarters. In fact, the shell that holed the lighthouse tower was the Germans’ parting shot before steaming northwards. The damage was so serious that the structure was deemed unsafe and was pulled down three days later on December 19.
The lighthouse remained without its tower until its reconstruction in 1931 through public funding. During its reconstruction, a foghorn was also added, sounding off a single two-second blast every minute. The foghorn sounds in f sharp, and is run by electricity. During World War II, the foghorn doubled as an air raid warning. The light itself had changed to a white occulting light fueled by electricity.
In the 1980s, the current lantern room was constructed. The rest of the tower and the spiral staircase date from the 1931 rebuilding. Storm shutters are still erected manually over the rear facing windows during heavy weather.
The last full 24-hour watch at Scarborough lighthouse took place in 1997. After this date, the decision was taken to man the lighthouse during the summer season only. The harbor master himself is now responsible for the permanent supervision of the harbor and the lighthouse. The title for workers at the lighthouse is Tidal Officers, whose duties include checking the boats are berthed safely and operating the foghorn, pier bridge and other duties.
I interviewed Richard William Sheader Oakes (“Oakey”), who worked at the lighthouse for 28 years, before retiring in 1997. Richard was also a fisherman for 20 years prior to working at the lighthouse. He took me up into the lighthouse tower along with my husband Michael, who took the photographs. The day of our visit was extremely foggy, and the foghorn was blasting as we talked. He kindly let us take his picture and provided invaluable information. Thanks also to David Whittaker and the Scarborough Yacht Club for their assistance.
Scarborough’s lighthouse has a varied history, and is part of the town’s identity. Visitors and locals alike are attracted to its familiar presence, a signal for safety and shelter for North Sea mariners.
This story appeared in the
March 2005 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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