The Princess Royal heard yesterday how an iconic Victorian lighthouse survived a storm that breached a Somerset harbour’s breakwater, sinking ships and terrifying crews.
Watchet Harbour Commissioners rejected Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s bid and went for the cheapest option when they invited tenders to enlarge the harbour and provide a lighthouse back in 1860.
The winner, James Abernethy, subcontracted the cast iron lighthouse to Hennet Spink and Else of Bridgwater for the princely sum of £75. The oil light at the top of the 22ft structure cost another £90, was made in London and cost £2 18shillings and 5d to transport. Local man Alfred Wedlake was paid 12 shillings for helping to erect the light.
On December 27, 1900 the worst storm on record hit the coast and caused major damage to the western breakwater. But the contractor’s faith in local engineers paid off and the lighthouse remained intact. The breakwater was rebuilt and the pillar box-red light remains today as a vital aid to navigation, something which Princess Anne can appreciate in her capacity as President of the Royal Yachting Association.
The lighthouse was recently repainted by Coastguard man Ian Wedlake, and his son, Tom, 20, descendants of the man who helped erect its light.
Princess Anne was in Watchet to unveil a plaque to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the lighthouse. When it was built, Watchet was a thriving port exporting iron ore brought down from the Brendon Hills via the Mineral Railway and sent by ship to smelting works in Wales.