Scarborough’s lighthouse has been a guiding light to sea farers for over 200 years. One of the town’s iconic structures, the building has been bombed, rebuilt and transformed during its lifetime. Here is a brief history of one of the town’s best-loved landmarks.
Standing on the 18th century Vincent’s Pier, Scarborough’s lighthouse was first constructed sometime between 1801 and 1806. An exact start date is difficult to pin down, but sometime between these years, a permanent brick structure was built, paid for by levies from the many vessels which used the port of Scarborough at the time.
The lighthouse was a brick tower with a flat top, which was surrounded by iron railings. A coal brazier burned on the top platform during the night, while a warning flag was flown during the day.
Probably due to the ravages of wind and rain and their affect on the coal-fired flames, the warning light was soon replaced by six tallow candles, placed in a circular tin that resided in an oblong-shaped window beneath the flat roof. An on-duty watchman replaced the candles as they burnt out.
In 1818, a copper reflector replaced the circular tin; however, one of the difficulties of this arrangement was the resulting light could be confused with the lights shining from the town itself, behind the lighthouse. Shutters on appropriate windows helped ease this problem.
By 1840, a gas supply had reached the harbour area and the lighthouse. Around this time, a harbour master was also recruited. He lived in the town rather than at the lighthouse. From 1843, harbour masters and their families lived in specially-built premises adjoining the lighthouse tower, in use until 1937. Today, this building houses Scarborough Yacht Club. The watchman worked from a brick construction to the rear of the lighthouse, called the waterhouse.
In the 1840s, the lighthouse tower was heightened by 17ft to make the light more visible to mariners. By now, the gas-fuelled lantern, called the Bude light, gave off a powerful beam. After extortionate gas bills (£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. A black ball replaced the flag for daytime warning. During long winter nights, two of the five gaslights were light permanently to warn shipping.
While the latter half of the nineteenth century appears to be a quiet period for Scarborough lighthouse, the most dramatic event for Scarborough lighthouse was the World War One bombardment, which took place on 16 December 1914. Around 500 shells were shot into the town, killing 18 Scarborough residents and causing considerable damage throughout the borough.
The lighthouse was badly damaged when a shell clipped the tower and tore a gaping hole through its centre. A shell also damaged the harbour master’s quarters. The damage to the lighthouse was so severe it was pulled down three days later on 19 December.
Surprisingly, the lighthouse existed without its tower until it was reconstructed in late 1931, through public funding. During the rebuild, a foghorn was added, sounding off a single two-second blast every minute in F-sharp. It was run by electricity, and during World War Two, it doubled up as an air raid warning. The lighthouse lantern changed to white occulting light, again powered by electricity.
In the 1980s, the current lantern room was added to the building. The rest of the tower and its spiral staircase date from the 1931 rebuild.
The last 24-hour lighthouse watch took place in 1997. After this date, the decision was taken to man the lighthouse during the summer months only.
The most recent, dramatic turn of events took place in December 2013, when an incredible tidal surge swept along the eastern seaboard of the UK, and hit Scarborough in the early evening of 5 December. Some reports claim it was the worst tidal surge for over six decades. When the sea broke over coastal defences in Scarborough, the lighthouse stood like a beacon against adversity.