One of the highlights of walking along Cornwall’s stunning coastal path is coming upon a lighthouse perched precariously on a cliff edge or rocky headland. These are magnificent buildings – bold, seemingly impregnable but undeniably functional. Their towers stand smooth and solid against the rough rock and the inconstant sea. But perhaps the most fascinating lighthouses of all are the ones that were built far away from the mainland. Those towers audaciously constructed on some small wave-pounded, wind-battered platform of rock. Their very existence a true feat of man’s resourcefulness and blind determination. The Wolf Rock Lighthouse is one such monument to ingenuity and resolve.
“The fragile pencil of Wolf’s Rock tapering to a hostile sky, the empty miles of restless ocean . . .”S. H. Burton, 1955
The Howling of Wolf Rock
Once known as “the ancient dread of seamen” Wolf Rock’s name comes from the eerie howling sound which was said to have emitted from a cleft in the rocky reef. According to legend when the wind was in a certain direction an unearthly noise could be heard by those close by. This phenomenon just added to the formation’s already fearsome and haunted reputation.
Such was the unsettling atmosphere and anxiety caused by the sound that local fishermen took matters into their own hands and landed on Wolf Rock to fill in the hole with stones.
” Some report its howling by the waves or tides formerly rushing through its cavities, whence it was called Wolf, which noise some pretend was a signal for mariners to avoid it; but fishermen in those parts being disturbed at the noise, silenced it by filling up the vacuity with stones.”J. T. Blight, A Week at the Land’s End, 1861
But, this being Cornwall, there is also another less innocent theory as to why the fissure in the rock was blocked up.
Because Wolf Rock lies in such a busy shipping lane it was responsible for many wrecks, which in turn brought wreckage, salvageable profit, to Cornwall’s beaches. Some said that the howling in the rock was stopped so that there really would be no possible warning of danger to ships and the wreckers could benefit.
This idea seems unlikely however. It is hard to see the profit to be made from wrecks so far out at sea, and it is more likely that the story comes from an overactive imagination, perpetuating the dark myths of heartless Cornish wreckers.
Indeed, to add further murk to the water, the Wolf does not seem to have always borne this lupine name. It may have originally been called ‘the Gulfe’ or ‘Gulph’.
Christopher Saxton’s map of Cornwall from 1579 marks the rock as ‘The Gulfe’ and as late as the 18th century it is said that many people in the Lands End area still alternatively referred to it as the ‘Gulf Rock’. It was first marked as ‘The Wolf’ in 1658 on a Dutch chart.
The Lonely Light
” A dangerous rock of Greenstone called the Wolf is situated 8 miles from the shore and is geologically interesting for containing veins of Limestone.”Murray’s Handbook for Devon & Cornwall, 1859.
Wolf Rock Lighthouse can be found eight miles out to sea, SSW of Lands End, where the water is between 20 and 40 fathoms (40m-80m) deep and nearly always rough. It is one of three similar lighthouses built in the deep waters off the most westerly tip of Cornwall, the others are the Longships off Lands End and the Bishop’s Rock off the Isles of Scilly. Wolf Rock is also one of the ten lighthouses found around the roughly 400 miles of Cornwall’s coast.
But before this lighthouse was built there had been numerous previous attempts to mark the rock in some way as a warning to shipping.
The first recorded attempt to mark Wolf Rock was in 1750, when a man called Heath suggested mooring a bell buoy there, which would ring with the motion of the waves. This idea was abandoned when local fishermen objected, saying that the sound would scare off the fish!
In 1791 Lieutenant Henry Smith was granted a lease by Trinity House to erect a beacon on Wolf Rock, along with a lighthouse on the Longships and a beacon on the Runnelstone reef. Smith knew this coast well having sailed around the region many times while serving in the Royal Navy but it is unclear his exact motivation for building these guides to navigation. It is likely that the goal was simply profit. At this time if you constructed these warning markers or lighthouses you could levy a fee from any passing shipping and the Lands End area was a particularly busy route.
Smith’s plans did not go as smoothly as he had expected however. By 1795, after a great deal of difficulty and huge financial outlay, he had managed to build a lighthouse at Longships and a beacon of sorts on Wolf Rock. This beacon was described as “a wrought iron mast 20 feet high with a bronze model of a wolf’s head at its apex.” But soon after his dubious success the debts Smith had accured during the enterprise put him into Fleet Prison in London – and the sea tore down his iron mast on Wolf Rock within weeks of it being erected. Snapping it like it was no more than a matchstick.
Smith’s light at Longships didn’t fair much better. It wasn’t tall enough and was constantly being swamped by waves, although it did at least remain standing. And as for the beacon on the Runnelstone, well, that was repeatedly wash away too and eventually replaced by a bell buoy. Sadly Smith never profited from any of his grand ideas and died penniless in prison in 1809.
More ‘best laid plans’ followed and the sea just showed her distain of man’s piddling little efforts . . .
“An attempt was once made to fix upon it [Wolf Rock] the figure of an enormous wolf, which, constructed of copper, was made hollow within, that the mouth receiving the tempest should emit sounds to warn the mariner of his danger. The violence of the elements however frustrated the project.”Murray’s Handbook for Devon and Cornwall, 1859.
There was also cone shaped design with a timber mast 12ft (3.5m) thick protruding from the top which took four years to build. It was destroyed in the first winter after it’s completion in July 1840. A couple of years later in 1842 another mast, this time made of iron and painted red, was installed. The sea bent it in half within months of it being fixed to Wolf Rock.
With so much time and expense being wasted, and a continuing toll being taken on shipping, as the rock claimed wreck after wreck in the 19th century, it was clear a solution had to be found.
In 1790 Thomas Curtis, the man responsible for the Wherry Mine, the amazing feat of engineering once found out in Mounts Bay, suggested that the best way of solving the problem of Wolf Rock was to just remove the rock entirely – by blowing it up.
Building the light
“Upon this fearful rock many a ship and her crew met destruction, for it lies in the midst of a busy shipping lane and its fangs, often hidden by the swirling waters, mists or dark show no mercy to any vessel.”Cryil Noall, 1968
The construction of Wolf Rock lighthouse was a mammoth task, work on the foundation pit alone took three years. The foundation stone was finally laid in 1864 but the 116ft high tower took a further five years to complete, with additional time spent fitting the necessary furnishing and equipment. The construction was painfully slow because the men were only able to work on the exposed rock during the summer months and even then the rough seas would often prevent them from landing on the reef. And at times weeks of work would be destroyed in just a single stormy night, setting progress back further.
“The time available for working on each tide has been reckoned by minutes and in the whole eight years the greatest number of hours during which workmen could land has been 313 in one year but in some years that number has been as low as 83.”
William Douglass was the resident engineer and the tower was designed by James Walker, who followed the form and dimensions of the Bishop Rock lighthouse. Wolf Rock is 116′ 42″ in height and the diameter at the base is 41′ 8″, its construction required 3296 tons of granite. The stones in the tower are all dovetail-jointed together using strong Portland cement and the first 20 courses are bolted together too – they were taking no chances! At the level of the door into the lighthouse the walls are 8ft (2.5m) thick and the first 39ft (12m) of the tower is actually completely solid.
Masonry construction was completed on 19 July 1869, the light first shone from the tower in January 1870 and the total cost of the build was £62,726.
But all the hard work and planning paid off because after all those disastrous previous attempts this lighthouse has stood the test of time and the constant ravages of the sea. But what of the men that have manned it?
The Life of a Keeper
The lighthouse keepers on Wolf Rock had a particularly hard and isolated life. They spent months on end away from the mainland, their families, friends and society, with only the company of the two other men. You had to be extremely disciplined and self-reliant, as well as multi-skilled – being able to repair any of the equipment and rustle up a half decent meal from the scant supplies afforded you. Depending on the conditions, which at Wolf Rock were nearly always rough, there could be a delay in getting food or the relief keepers to the rock, meaning the keepers on duty just had to sit it out and wait. Even when the relief boat did arrive the task of getting men and supplies to the lighthouse was no easy task (as the film below illustrates).
In 1912 it was reported that the weather had been so bad that the keepers on Wolf Rock had been stuck without relief for eleven weeks but worse was to follow.
Wolf Rock makes History
In February 1948 Wolf Rock made history when it became the first ocean rock lighthouse to be resupplied by helicopter. The keepers, Stanley McClary, John Mudge and Clifford Wheeler had been on duty in the lighthouse for 101 days and due to constant stormy weather were running seriously low on supplies, as well as waiting for their relief! The men sent a message to Trinity House by Morse Code saying that they needed beef and bread and, as the weather was showing no sign of improvement, it was decided that a helicopter should be sent to their aid.
The event was reported nationwide by the BBC.
The keepers eventually made it ashore around the 19th February after serving over 100 days, nearly 15 weeks, on Wolf Rock – normal duty was 60 days. But in true Cornish style when they got to the mainland the boys had their priorities right. The Cornishman newspaper carried the headline: MAMMOTH PASTY AWAITED WOLF ROCK KEEPER and the article contained this delightful description:
“Mrs Irene Penalunas [Keeper Stanley McClary’s aunt] had baked Stanley a pasty so big that one end rested in the oven and the other on a chair.”
That certainly sounds like a proper biggun!
More than 150 years after the gargantuan struggle to build it Wolf Rock lighthouse still shines a guiding light into the darkness, warning shipping of the perils lurking beneath the waves. It has surely saved countless lives.
The last of the lighthouse keepers left Wolf Rock in 1988 when it became fully automated and fifteen years later solar power was installed. So it stands out there entirely alone, apart of course from visiting seals and seabirds. These wave-beaten buildings, these deep water lighthouses, and the men so determined to build them really are something to take a moment to wonder at, should you spot the little grey finger of Wolf Rock on the horizon.