St Catherine’s lighthouse is set within our land at St Catherine’s Point at the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. It was built in response to local need for reliable light to guide shipping, following the shipwreck of the Clarendon.

Shipwreck

On October 11 1836, the Clarendon – a ship from the Caribbean – struck rocks at the foot of Blackgang Chine in gale-force winds. She was carrying an exotic cargo of rum, coconuts and turtles.

Despite the valiant efforts of local people, the ship broke up in heavy seas with the loss of 23 lives. The bodies were washed ashore, except one. Uncannily, the body of Miss Gourlay was carried on to Southsea, to the foot of her father’s garden.

A trio of lighthouses

Perched high on St Catherine’s Hill, the Oratory is often quoted as being a fine example of a medieval lighthouse, although it’s more likely to have been a bell tower with a beacon alongside.

In 1785, a proper lighthouse was begun nearby but never completed because the hill was so often shrouded in mist. In 1838, work began on a new lighthouse on St Catherine’s Point.

The new lighthouse

St Catherine’s lighthouse began operation in 1840. When the cows on the Downs first saw its light, they’re said to have stampeded in fear. In 1875, the height of the elegant 3-tier octagonal tower was reduced substantially as – like its predecessors – its light was often shrouded in mist.

It was one of the first lighthouses in the world to be powered by electricity when arc lamps were installed in 1888. They could be seen for an incredible 18 miles.

The original fog signal house was on a cliff nearer the sea but was at risk of collapse due to erosion. In 1932, it was replaced by a shorter tower next to the main lighthouse. Being similar in style, they’re known locally as the Cow and Calf.

World War II to the present day

During the war, the lighthouse was an important landmark for shipping and aircraft. Sadly, on June 1, 1943 the engine house close to the lighthouse was bombed and three lighthouse keepers sheltering in it were killed.

In 1997 the lighthouse was automated and is the third most powerful light operated by Trinity House. For more details about the lighthouse itself, visit their website: www.trinityhouse.co.uk.

The sad demise of the Clarendon

One of the most infamous shipwrecks of the Island’s shore was that of the Clarendon. The Clarendon was a three-masted, 345 ton West Indiaman with a crew of 16 and 10 passengers, including 5 young girls. In August 1836 she set sail from the West Indies, and was soon battered by strong Atlantic gales. When the Clarendon entered the Channel, the storms increased, preventing the ship from entering the shelter of Plymouth Sound, forcing her towards Portsmouth.

Late on the October 10, the gale increased to hurricane force. By dusk of October 11 the ship was embayed, with the storm force winds driving the ship towards the Island’s southern shore.

John Wheeler and local fishermen, watching the ship’s fate, sprinted to Blackgang Chine to offer their help. John Wheeler tied a rope around his waist when the ship crashed into Blackgang Chine, jumped into the sea, and rescued a man who jumped off the ship. The tide washed them back to sea. Wheeler dashed into the sea again, grabbing another man, and took him safely back to shore.

The fourth wave to strike the Clarendon completely destroyed the ship, all that remained were splinters of wood spread out among the coast. A third man was rescued. The bodies of the sailors and passengers, including the 5 young girls and two women, were later swept, clothes ripped off by the force of the storm, and broken, to the shore. All but one of the bodies came ashore at Chale, where they were buried. One, though, that of Miss Gourley of Portsmouth, was carried by the water and came to rest at Southsea, at the foot of her father’s garden.

As a result of the disaster, Trinity House was swamped with demands for a lighthouse to be built at St. Catherine’s Point to help prevent further disasters from occurring. A tribute to her story can be found at the Blackgang Chine Theme Park.

Colin Clarke
Author: Colin Clarke