On This Day in Trinity House History – 3 March


Orfordness Lighthouse burns down

Trinity House Board Minute, 4 March 1732:

“The Clerk informed the board that he was newly informed that the Lower Lighthouse at Orforedness was burnt down yesterday morning, but that a Jury light would there be maintained till another lighthouse can be rebuilt, Ordered, that notice thereof be given in the Gazette and other public papers, and affixed at Billingsgate.”


Orford Ness, for navigational purposes, is considered to be the northern extremity of the Thames Estuary.

Historically, collier fleets and ships of sail tended to hug the East Anglian coast, navigating amongst the complex of sands, as the sheltering sands broke the full force of the North Sea. But these same sands became a concealed danger in bad sea conditions. A substantial build-up of the sands off Orford Ness resulted in a number of casualties to shipping; 32 wrecks during a single stormy night in October 1627 resulted in a petition to establish lights, and subsequent ongoing formalities between the combined bailiffs, merchants and masters of Aldeburgh, the Elder Brethren of Trinity House and the Privy Council.

Circa 1637, Sir John Meldrum, the owner-operator of the nearby Winterton lights, established two timber sheds containing candle lights as a coastal lighting experiment. As the test gave satisfaction, Meldrum applied to Charles I for a patent to establish permanent lighthouses and was granted the right to erect “two temporary lighthouses to lead between Sizewell Bank and Aldeburgh Napes in the North.”

Meldrum immediately sold the successful Orford grant (the lights not yet built) to Alderman Gerard Gore, who built a pair of timber structures to serve as leading lights. The rear (or ‘high’) light exhibited a coal fire, the front (‘low’) light had candles inside a lantern.

After Alderman Gore, ownership passed to Sir Edward Turnour and then Edward Grey, both overseeing a succession of grants, and rebuilding the towers which were frequently demolished, washed away, burned down and threatened by an encroaching sea.

The tower that burned down in 1732 had been built only a year previously, by Edward Grey. Grey rebuilt the low light, which survived until 1792, after a ruinous storm on 31 October 1789 lashed the coast of East Anglia; it could not be moved back without obscuring the high light, so a new light was built on the same alignment, but behind Henry Grey’s existing 1720 high light, making the latter the new low light.

The new high light stood 89 feet high, with 163 steps to the lantern, and 14 oil lamps set in silver-plated parabolic reflectors. The light came into service on the night of 6 May 1793, and was decommissioned only very recently in the face of extreme coastal erosion, on 28 June 2013.

View of Orford Ness 1822

View of Orford Ness 1822

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