Saffron Walden’s famous son, Henry Winstanley

PUBLISHED: 10:21 13 July 2015 | UPDATED: 10:21 13 July 2015

Henry Winstanley's house in Littlebury

Henry Winstanley's house in Littlebury


Henry Winstanley is a famous son of Saffron Walden and best known for designing the first Eddystone Lighthouse. Here Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office shares his story

Henry Winstanley (1644-1703) was an engraver and engineer, best known for designing the first Eddystone Lighthouse, which was completed in 1698. As the first offshore lighthouse in the world, the building was considered to be of national importance.

Winstanley was baptised in Saffron Walden on March 31, 1644, the eldest son of Henry Winstanley senior, who was steward to the Earl of Suffolk at nearby Audley End House. The young Henry attended Saffron Walden grammar school between 1652 and 1660, and in 1665 was himself employed by the Earl of Suffolk.

When Audley End House was sold to King Charles II in 1669 (so he could stay conveniently close to the racing at Newmarket), Winstanley was appointed as Clerk of Works at both Audley End and Newmarket. Winstanley trained as an engraver and his works include several views of Audley End published in the 1670s and 1680s.

During this time Winstanley lived at Littlebury, near Saffron Walden, and became known for his eccentric mechanical and hydraulic inventions. His house became known as the House of Wonders and a popular local visitor attraction. Later he opened the Mathematical Water Theatre in Picadilly which included fireworks, fountains and automata.

In 1696 Winstanley was appointed to design a lighthouse for the Eddystone Rocks. The rocks are an extensive reef 12 miles from Plymouth, which had become one of the most important naval bases in England.

The Eddystone Rocks were notorious and many ships were wrecked on them, with many lives lost. It was believed to be impossible to build a lighthouse on the rocks, but Winstanley took on the task.

As well as the engineering challenges faced during the build, Winstanley was taken prisoner by a French privateer (England and France were at war at the time). The French King Louis XIV ordered his release with the words, ‘France is at war with England, not with humanity’.

The lighthouse was completed in November 1698 and the lantern lighted for the first time. Celebrations broke out back on land, but Winstanley and his crew were unable to join in — they were stuck on the rocks for five weeks due to bad weather.

The lighthouse design looks very eccentric to modern eyes, but as it was the first offshore lighthouse there was no pattern for Winstanley to follow. Inside it was well-appointed, with carvings by Grinling Gibbons (who oversaw the interior wood carvings of St Paul’s Cathedral), paintings by Louis Laguerre and decorative ironwork by John Tijou. As a building of national importance, a visit from the king was expected.

Five years after its opening, in November 1703, Winstanley was at the lighthouse making repairs when a gale blew up. Known as the Great Storm, it swept away Winstanley and the five other men at the lighthouse that night.

During the five years that the lighthouse operated, no ships were wrecked on the Eddystone Rocks. The lighthouse that stands on the rocks today is the fourth one to be built there.

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