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Tag Archives: Structure & Design

  • Bell Rock Lighthouse by Michael A. W. Strachan

    More than Stevenson and Rennie

    Historians now debate whether Robert Stevenson (1772-1850) or John Rennie (1761-1821) deserve the credit for the engineering behind the Bell Rock. While Rennie was Chief Engineer, Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef arguable allowed him to construct from his own plan. (National Galleries Scotland, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    When I was first approached by my Amberley editor regarding the possibility of writing a book about the Bell Rock Lighthouse my almost immediate answer was absolutely not. In my view there had been enough books written about the Bell Rock, most of which were nothing more than edited versions of Robert Stevenson’s 1824 Account of the Building of the Bell Rock Lighthouse. What new information was there still left to find? In the end I was persuaded to write the book by one of the Bell’s many enthusiastic fans: a person from Dundee who had tried to convince me of its superior status among lighthouses.

    The Bell Rock was built 12 miles off the coast of Arbroath between 1807-10. The light was first exhibited from 1st February 1811. (Taken from Stevenson's Account of the Building of the Bell Rock, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The Bell Rock, long seen as the lighthouse that made the name of the Stevenson Engineers, was built between 1807-10 to mark the deadly Inchcape Reef. As one might expect from the wealth of material published regarding the construction of the tower, it was not only seen as a monumental feat of engineering in its own time, but one which continues to draw appreciation and admiration today. To tame the Inchcape Reef, Stevenson and his men would need to build a solid stone tower on a rock which was submerged 12-feet under water at the high water and barely exposed during low-tide. At the outset of the construction it was expected it would take seven summers to build, but thanks to Stevenson’s ingenuity on the reef it was completed in less than four summers with the light first being exhibited on the 1st February 1811.

    The Bell Rock was manned by a chain of light-keepers from 1811 until it was finally automated in 1988. (Courtesy of Signal Tower Museum, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite this impressive record, if I was going to write a book about the Bell Rock it was not going to focus solely on the construction: Robert Stevenson wrote that book in 1824 and the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust has made that meticulous text available online. In more recent times authors have studied the construction while questioning whom the credit should go for masterminding the tower: although Robert Stevenson’s name is most associated with the Bell, it is not disputed that he was but an assistant to the project’s chief engineer John Rennie. While history has favoured Stevenson, in the last ten years or so Rennie’s vital improvements to Stevenson’s plans are becoming more emphasised and recognised, particularly following Professor Paxton’s 2011 publication Dynasty of Engineers: one of many works published in that year to mark the Bell’s bicentenary. But if I wanted my book to do anything, it was to show that the history of the Bell Rock lighthouse spans more than 4 years: it is more than just Stevenson and Rennie!

    This new book is different for it purposely goes beyond Stevenson and Rennie to explore the wider history of the Bell Rock, charting how things have changed in the tower through time to the present day. Yes, Stevenson and Rennie have an important part in the book, but they are contained to only two chapters. The majority of the book instead focusses on another aspect of the Bell which in my view draws just as much interest and admiration from pharologists and novices alike: what was it like to live and work on the Bell Rock? The story of how the keepers’ lived on this lonely tower for over 175 years, marooned for six-week periods 12 miles off the Angus coast, is just as fascinating as the over-documented story of construction. The book allows readers to chronologically drop in on the lighthouse during certain periods to see how, in many cases, situations had improved from the previous chapters while in other cases see how persistent challenges remained in what was considered to be Scotland’s worst light to man.

    The interest in the Bell Rock led to the old Signal Tower in Arbroath being refurbished into a museum which tells the history of the lighthouse. (Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    It is acknowledged in the book that the job of light-keeping, particularly on the Bell, could be mundane: like at every other lighthouse there were long periods at the rock where very little changed and where the exact same vigils in the lightroom were carried out night-in and night-out. Such periods were, though, punctuated by the arrival of the engineers in their efforts to update and modernise the station. The more recent engineering challenges have been tackled by non-Stevensons and have been largely overlooked and ignored by pharologists and historians. Among those featured in the book are the four main ‘punctuations’ of the 20th Century: David A. Stevenson’s 1902 improvements; the Bell Rock adaptions for war; Hyslop’s 1963/4 modernization; and the Northern Lighthouse Board’s 1987/8 modifications for automation. While none of the above may match the gargantuan challenge and achievements of Stevenson and Rennie, they are important steps by the direct successors of those two men in the making of a modern and functional lighthouse. These engineering projects are just as fascinating a read and just as important to the history of the tower than those overseen by Robert Stevenson in the century before.

    Mr John Boath (left), last principal light-keeper of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, was interviewed by the author (right) for the book telling of his experience on the Bell. Pictured at Kinnaird Head Lighthouse (Photo: Ian Cowe, Bell Rock Lighthouse, Amberley Publishing)

    The book is illustrated with 100 images which have largely been taken from the extensive collection of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh as well as from other institutions and private collections, with many historical internal views of the tower. Some of these images have never-before been published which should be of interest to fans of the Bell Rock, and fans of lighthouses in general. The images represent the best collation of Bell Rock images in a single publication on the subject, while the approach to chronicle the full history of the lighthouse represents a welcome break from the traditional and well-trodden focus of that lights prestigious past.

    Michael A. W. Strachan's new book Bell Rock Lighthouse: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

  • St Albans in 50 Buildings by Kate Morris

    St Peter's Church. (Kari Lungaard, St Albans in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    Patronal saint’s day in St Albans – Albantide 2018

    22nd June, the height of midsummer, is the day on which the Feast of St Alban is celebrated, and celebrated it is, in a big way, in the town named for that saint, which grew on the site of the execution of Alban, the first recorded British Christian martyr.

    The Alban Pilgrimage will take place in 2018 on Saturday 23rd June, culminating in a re-enactment of the execution of that citizen of Verulamium on the hill overlooking the Roman city in the 4th century. The spot is outside the West End of the modern cathedral and the drama will be followed by a Festival Eucharist in the church. The procession begins at St Peter’s Church at the northern end of the town and makes its way through the market area to the Cathedral and Abbey Church, which began its life as a shrine to the martyr on the site of his execution.

    This celebration and festival day is truly of national significance for the culture of this island, given the impact of the event on the development of Christianity in Britain. Locally, the procession is a highlight of the community year, with the multitude of twelve feet tall carnival puppets depicting the saint, Roman soldiers, lions, gladiators, horse drawn chariots, played by 300 or so adults and children.

    Rebuilt in the 12th century by the Norman invaders, the abbey was all but destroyed completely in 1539 following Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries. Only the abbey church and the great gateway entrance survived, having been bought by the newly formed Corporation as parish church, school and prison.

    The West End of St Albans Cathedral. (Kari LundgaardSt Albans in 50 Buildings, Amberley Publishing)

    These buildings form a notable introduction to the story of the medieval and modern city of St Albans which grew over the last one thousand years in South West Hertfordshire, just 20 miles north of London on the old Watling Street. The story is told in my recent book St Albans in 50 Buildings published in February this year. The town has a remarkable number of buildings to illustrate how it developed from being the premier abbey of the land in the Middle Ages, to staging post for packhorse trains and wagons, tourist destination and commuter town. Designated a city by Queen Victoria following the creation of the new Diocese of St Albans in the late nineteenth century, with the Abbey Church as its cathedral, the town had a long and interesting history as a corporate borough with a thriving market throughout the early modern period. With trade and transport at its heart, it hosted not only the Establishment with parish government, but a significant range of dissenting congregations, all of which leave us chapels and meeting houses to remind us of the town’s diverse and wide-ranging history.

    Industrial buildings from the cotton, silk and straw trades as well as printing and other trade premises remain as well as ancient inns and grand eighteenth century town houses, mostly now in commercial occupation, allowing us an insight into the social history of the town, which can truly be said to represent a microcosm of that of the English nation as a whole.

    St Albans in 50 Buildings with a map identifying the location of each of the buildings described, provides not only a good history read, but acts as a guide book for the thousands of tourists and new residents in the town. It also provides a taster for further investigation into the pattern of development of the town and its many more interesting buildings from all periods.

    For information about the Alban Pilgrimage https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/whatson/the-alban-pilgrimage/

    Kate Morris' book St Albans in 50 Buildings is available for purchase now.

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