St Agnes lighthouse


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1014999

Date first listed: 18-Jun-1965

Date of most recent amendment: 27-Aug-1996


Ordnance survey map of St Agnes lighthouse
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

District: Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)

Parish: St. Agnes

National Grid Reference: SV 88019 08202


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social development of early communities. Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands' settlement. The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post- medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post- medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard for the nation's shipping in the western approaches. The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of documentation, including several recent surveys.

Lighthouses have been used to aid shipping around Britain since Roman times, although only two of that date have been recognised. In the late Middle Ages (AD 1066-1540), lights were simple structures, usually a fire in an iron basket, or in a stone bowl called a cresset, placed on church towers. True lighthouses in purpose-built towers began to be built by the early 17th century. They were first fuelled by coal or wood, but oil lamps were in use from the 1780s, to be replaced later by gas or electric lamps. Other technological improvements were made during the 19th century, including the introduction of light reflectors, flashing lights, identification patterns and sound signals for fog. Over the same period, tower design was improved, including the provision of staff accommodation. Lighthouses are found around the whole coast of Britain and, since 1698, on offshore rocks and reefs. Numbers varied over time, and many were short-lived or frequently replaced. Lighthouses were relatively rare until the 17th century, relying on local or private initiatives. Few medieval examples survive in recognisable form. From 1676, Trinity House, which had been first established with limited duties in 1514, began to build lighthouses itself rather than merely licensing their use by others. In c.1875, around 100 major lighthouses existed, supported by many minor lights and lightships. By the 1970s Trinity House still maintained 90 major lights, with 30 manned light- vessels and c.700 light-buoys. A number of private lights also existed. All surviving Roman and medieval lighthouses and lights are nationally important. Post-medieval examples retaining early fabric or fittings to a significant extent are also considered likely to be of national importance. The St Agnes lighthouse survives well, its tower providing a little modified and rare example of the early post-medieval coal-burning lighthouse towers, the incorporation of gun ports in its design being a particularly unusual feature. Although the lantern has been replaced, the form of the original lantern and light-source is known in detail from the rare survival nearby of one of the braziers used in this monument, together with the good 18th century illustrations of the lighthouse. This monument's survival together with the daymark on St Martin's demonstrates well the nature of coastal warning structures prevalent in the later 17th century. The existing lantern, though later, is also an unusual survival of an earlier 19th century form largely superseded at lighthouses that have remained in use. As one of the first Trinity House lighthouses this monument occupies an important place in national maritime studies, a role considerably enhanced by the wealth of surviving historical documentation pertaining to its development since its original construction.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes a former Trinity House lighthouse built in 1680 at Middle Town, on one of the highest points of St Agnes, the south western inhabited island in the Isles of Scilly. It operated as a lighthouse until 1911, since when it has continued to serve as a daymark. This monument is also a Listed Building Grade II*. The lighthouse survives as a relatively squat circular tower of rendered granite rubble masonry rising 14.8m high from its base to a stone vault forming the floor of the lantern. The cylindrical lantern rises a further 3.3m, capped by a sheet metal dome and supported by cast iron ribs descending from the dome to an outer walkway. The dome carries a further smaller domed projection supporting a weathervane. The tower tapers from 9.7m to 7.2m in external diameter from base to vault. Its fabric is almost entirely original apart from the uppermost c.1m which dates to 1806 when the vault and lantern were rebuilt. Above a slight projecting plinth, the outer face is painted white and subdivided into three horizontal bands by two moulded ribs. Above the ground floor, the south east quadrant of the tower is pierced by five small casement windows, four lighting the internal floors plus a small window lighting the lower staircase. The tower is also pierced by four small gun ports at first floor level above the lower external rib; these are now closed by windows inserted at the junction of their inner and outer splays. The ground floor entrance to the tower is on the east, its doorway containing a relatively recent wooden door with upper glass panelling. Above the doorway is an original lintel plaque bearing the incised inscription `Erected by Capt. Hugh Till and Capt. Symon Bayly 1680'. The tower entrance is now approached via a lean-to porch erected c.1840 against the north east curve of the tower's ground floor. A door at each end of the porch opens to a narrow yard defined by a low mortared rubble wall around the base of the tower. A doorway in the outer wall of the porch opens to a corridor, beyond the monument, linking the lighthouse to a large house to the north east, also built c.1840, to house the lighthouse and coastguard staff but now a private dwelling. Internally the tower rises through four storeys below the lantern, each 4.7m in diameter. Access from ground to first floor is by a flight of stone stairs within the wall thickness. A timber spiral staircase against the inner wall links the first and second and the second and third floors. From the third floor, a wooden staircase with plain wooden newels, balusters and handrail rises, clear of the walls, to a curved hatchway in the north west side of the tower's stone vault, giving access to the lantern above. The outer edges of the tower's vault, deriving from the 1806 alterations, project slightly from the wall-face as a moulded cornice supporting the metal railing parapet of an open walkway around the lantern. The lantern itself consists of a cylindrical structure, 4.3m in diameter and 3.2m high, with a low wall supporting a fine iron lattice framework containing almost-square glass panes. A doorway is inserted in the north side. The vertical members of the iron lattice extend upwards to form the supporting ribs of the lantern's sheet metal dome, painted white externally and black internally. The lantern dome is further supported by six curved iron stanchions rising to its edge from the outer walkway. Crowning the dome is a further smaller domed cylinder from which a slender spike rises to form the pivot for a weathervane and a lightning conductor. An abundance of historical documentation relates to this monument, recording major developments given below, together with a wealth of detail about its operation and manning. Private individuals and companies had unsuccessfully applied for patents to establish a light on St Agnes in 1665 and 1679, attempting to counter losses to shipping and trade caused by wrecks on the notorious submerged reefs and rocky coasts of the Isles of Scilly, and especially their south western approach. Letters Patent for the erection of the lighthouse were eventually granted on 24 May 1680 to the Brotherhood of Trinity House, producing only the second lighthouse to be built by Trinity House, on a site and to a design selected by Captains Till and Bayly, builders of the first Trinity House lighthouse at Lowestoft in 1676. The original light source was by a coal-burning iron brazier within a glass lantern; it was first kindled on 30 October 1680. In his detailed description of the lighthouse in 1752, the antiquary William Borlase noted that the lantern rose from a brick platform and comprised a timber and glass structure containing 16 vertical sash lights. The roof of the lantern had a central chimney with subsidiary chimneys around it and the brazier was assisted by a set of bellows. The original external appearance of the lighthouse is shown on a 1721 sketch by George Vertue, and even more clearly in an illustration accompanying Borlase's text, depicting a hollow buttress, since removed, against the SSE side of the tower for discharging the brazier's ashes. One of the lighthouse's circular iron braziers still survives, beyond this monument, in the Tresco Abbey Gardens in the north of the Isles of Scilly; standing 1m high, it has a stokehole near the base and tapers upwards to the base of a flared grille with vertical slots. In 1790, the light was converted to employ 21 Argand oil lamps, a much brighter, smokeless light source invented less than a decade earlier. The lamps were mounted with reflectors on a revolving triangular frame, producing three flashes per minute and enabling the St Agnes light to be distinguished from the other lights along the Channel approach. In 1806, the lantern, its platform and the light source were replaced, producing the structural alterations to the top of the tower noted above. The light still employed Argand lamps, increased in number to 30 and fitted with parabolic reflectors, on a frame revolving to give a peak of light intensity once every half-minute. By 1856 this had been altered to once every minute, but by 1891 had once again reverted to once every half-minute. Despite these improvements, the light's visibility was still seriously diminished in fog, a problem aggravated by its inland situation. This was eased to some degree when its light was supplemented by that of the Bishop Rock lighthouse from 1858. In 1910, Trinity House decided to replace the St Agnes lighthouse with a new lighthouse built on Peninnis Head, the southernmost point of St Mary's. When this replacement was erected in 1911, the light at St Agnes lighthouse was discontinued, but since then its white-painted exterior has been maintained as a formal daymark, serving as a highly-visible known location to guide mariners during the hours of daylight. Beyond this monument, the Isles of Scilly also contain a prominent daymark tower privately erected in 1683 or 1687 on Chapel Down, St Martin's, in the north east of the archipelago, visible on the approach to the islands from the mainland.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 15451

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Borlase, W, Observations on Ancient and Present State of the Isles of Scilly, (1756)
Bowley, R L, The Fortunate Islands: A History of the Isles of Scilly, (1968)
Heath, R, A Natural and Historical Account of the Isles of Scilly, (1750)
Laws, P, The Buildings of Scilly, (1980)
Mudd, D, Cornish Sea Lights, (1978)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Noall, C, Cornish Lights and Shipwrecks, (1968)
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly's Archaeological Heritage, (1992)
Tarrant, M, Cornwall's Lighthouse Heritage, (1993)
Tarrant, M, Cornwall's Lighthouse Heritage, (1993)
Thomas, C, 'Cornish Studies' in Three Early Accounts of the Isles of Scilly, , Vol. 4/5, (1977), 28-40
p6;SV80NE;1358-0/6/10; The Lighthouse, DNH, List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, (1992)
Saunders, A D, AM7 scheduling documentation for CO 629, 1964,
Spoken during MPP visit on 23/10/1993, Information from tenant Mr Francis Hicks told to MPPA & MPP IAM, (1993)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8808 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:

End of official listing