Thomas Rogers and South Rock Lighthouse
The following year, 1789, he was invited by Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser at the express desire of the Marquis of Buckingham, then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, to construct a new lighthouse at Howth. The original Howth light was a brazier burning on a square tower. He replaced this with a circular tower about 20 feet high surmounted by a 12 foot diameter lantern displaying an oil light.
The next ten or twelve years was a period of great advance in measures to increase the safety of navigation around the Irish coast. Thomas Rogers was at the forefront of these developments. He built new lighthouses at Cranfield and South Rock in County Down, and Aranmore Island off County Donegal. As well as Howth he rebuilt Loophead and altered the lantern system from candles to oil on Copeland Island, Old Head of Kinsale, Kinsale Harbour, Hook Head and Waterford Harbour. In 1792 Rogers broke his connection with Robinson and settled permanently in Ireland.
Between 1793 and 1797 he was engaged in building a lighthouse on the South Rock.
The North and South Rocks off the Co Down coast are serious hazards to shipping and had been the scene of numerous shipwrecks resulting in great loss of life. During the second half of the eighteenth century several petitions were presented to the Irish House of Commons for aid to build a lighthouse on the South Rock. Eventually on 14 November 1783 the Irish Parliament passed a resolution that a sum of £1,400 be granted to Lord Kilwarlin, Robert Ross, and George Hamilton towards erecting a lighthouse on the South Rock. It was another decade before work began.
The Belfast Newsletter of 19 July 1793 reported the following -
'Mr Rogers an eminent artist (sic) has now begun the lighthouse on the South Rock, under the patronage of the Earl of Hillsborough. The several lighthouses now in the Kingdom have been viewed by Mr Rogers preparatory to their being improved.'
THE South Rock Lighthouse, about two miles off-shore from the small townland of Newcastle in the Ards Peninsula, (not to be confused with the town of Newcastle 'where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea') is one of the most interesting constructions of Thomas Rogers. It was originally named Kilwarlin Lighthouse in honour of Lord Kilwarlin, the Marquis of Downshire, one of its chief promoters.
During the summer of 1794 a masonry platform 30 feet in diameter was prepared at Newcastle for the assembly of stones when they were dressed. A short quay with loading sheers was constructed as a harbour. Daily a six- ton wherry (a type of barge) and a rowing boat, with a foreman, three masons, and eighteen labourers set out from Newcastle to cut out the circular foundation on the rock.
Stone used in the building was from several different places including Wales, Wexford, and Newry. Two sloops were bought to carry the stones. One was wrecked on her first trip and the other was driven badly off course coming from Wexford. Fortunately a suitable quarry was discovered near Newry which made transport much easier.
In March 1795 on resuming operations the workmen found their work undone by the force of the sea during the winter, but by June the building of the tower began. By now there were 20 masons, 18 labourers, 2 smiths, and 2 foremen employed. A schooner rigged ship on which the men could live was purchased for £400 and moored near the rock, but owning to her sharp bow she rode so hard the men were seasick. After eight days they slipped her cable in a gale and continued thereafter to row out to the rock.
The Belfast Newsletter of 6 April 1795 reported -
'The lighthouse is at present in a state of considerable forwardness. A pier has been built on the shore opposite to it, for landing the stone from Wales.'
The South Rock Lighthouse is a circular tower of ashlar granite with strongly battered walls rising to a height of 60 feet. It was reinforced with vertical iron rods connecting iron plates built in as the building rose. The tower is solid for 20 feet, at which height the entrance faces south east. Access was by an iron ladder secured to a narrow stone platform. The door was the only source of light at the entrance level which was used to store coal and water.
The door is surmounted by the Downshire Arms in honour of Lord Kilwarlin. The second floor was used to store oil cisterns, and above it was the kitchen with the living room at the top. These top three low chambers each have a small rectangular window at the cardinal points. Holes 2 feet square cut in the floors allowed passage between the rooms. The walls of the tower were built first, the floors being added later.
SURMOUNTING the tower on South Rock was a lantern of dodecagonal design of 8 feet diameter, with a lead covered cupola and weather vane. The light, which was first exhibited on 25 March 1797, consisted of a revolving frame giving a white flash from 10 lamps with 2 inch diameter wicks and 10 silvered reflectors of 15 inches diameter. The frame connected with a machine kept in motion by a weight which kept the whole turning on its axis. This was the first revolving optic in an Irish lighthouse. Unfortunately the machine was occasionally out of order leaving the Keeper to operate it by hand.
The light gradually increased and decreased in strength, reaching the maximum intensity once in every 90 seconds. The light was 60 feet above Mean High Water Springs and could be seen in clear weather at a distance of 12 miles. During foggy weather a bell was struck repeatedly. Eventually the entire apparatus was renewed and bells were fitted to be rung by machinery.
Rogers's lights were highly esteemed. The light fitted by him at Portland in 1788 remained in use for 30 years but the apparatus installed at the South Rock eventually proved to be unsatisfactory.
In 1801 the sea began to undermine the foundations of the tower causing a considerable gap below it; this was remedied with granite blocks held together with iron chains.
Among the papers of the Savage family, the resident landlords of Portaferry, Co Down, is a letter unsigned and written to the Revenue Board about 1804. It begins -
'My Lords and Gentlemen, I proceeded last week according to your wishes to Kilwarlin Lighthouse to examine the propriety of adopting the measures recommended by Mr Rogers for the safety of the lighthouse. It is curious to look over the growing charges that attend on this little building. Since 1793 to June 1803 the expense and actual payments made to Mr Rogers have amounted to the sum of £22,274-7-3 and the estimate for further repairs in order the secure the original building is about £7,000. There are also other charges that are not yet computed in conformity to Mr Roger's opinion. He contracted to build the lighthouse for the sum of £9,525 and since that time for various reasons in the course of six years received the sum of £12,739 making in all £22,274 and that the demand that we are called upon to authorise for further work is about £7,000 making in all £29,274. Mr Rogers has a yearly allowance of £553-15-0, this appears to me to be infinitely too great. He also has half a guinea a day for Superintendence of this and many other lighthouses, and he is himself the lighter of 10 lighthouses. From the nature of his very extensive employment he might be in the counties of Clare, Waterford, Cork or Donegal and it would be nearly impossible to expect him to see immediately the damage of the day. Some person should be contracted by the year for keeping the Rock and the Lighthouse in repair'.
Thomas Rogers was not short of critics at the time. John Rennie an eminent civil engineer who later designed lighthouses himself visited the South Rock in September 1805. He condemned the materials and design, and added that the building -
'was constructed with but little judgement . . . unless some speedy and effectual steps are taken, I apprehend its duration will scarcely exceed the life of the architect . . .'
A spot of professional zero tolerance, perhaps.
FOR some years before 1810 the government began to get complaints about the inefficiency of the lighthouse service and it was suggested that the Dublin Ballast Board would be a more suitable body to manage Irish lighthouses than the Revenue Board which was not totally committed to maritime affairs. In 1810 by an Act of Parliament the Ballast Board took over ten lighthouses and three harbour lights. Unknown to Rogers, the new authority lost no time in appointing three inspectors to visit and report on the state of the lighthouses. On 26 September 1810 George Halpin, Thomas Baker and William Baker inspected Kilwarlin Lighthouse and made this report -
'The lantern of this building is well constructed and contains a revolving light of 10 lamps with glass cylinders and reflectors showing its full force once in a minute and a half, when wound up continues in motion two hours (sic). The lamps and apparatus were in clean good order, but the reflectors were bad, two frames of glass are broke, one badly and should be immediately replaced. There is to this light attached a bell to ring in foggy weather. The upper part of the building appears in good order but we must observe that part of the platform or apron round the base has been blown up by the sea and requires to be made good with as little delay as possible to leave a plain surface around the building. The Lightkeeper appears to attend very particularly to his duty, the entire house being in the order we could wish.'
Reports from other stations were less flattering however. Most of the lights were satisfactory but many were poorly maintained with broken lenses, and some had lanterns where the rain freely beat in. The Board began to take action and ordered that Rogers be instructed to prepare estimates for the necessary repairs.
Soon after the 1810 confidential report on lighthouses the Ballast Board set out to make changes. George Halpin (Senior) was appointed as Engineer and Inspector of Lighthouses.
Shortly afterwards the Board began to dispense with Rogers' services by gradually terminating his contracts for the superintendence of various lighthouses. He appealed to the Board and then to the Lord Lieutenant but the Board were -
'decidedly of the opinion that the Business can best be conducted under their management and inspection with credit to themselves and advantage to the Public.'
Rogers received no compensation for his loss of contract, which was harsh treatment. The Revenue Board itself had been lax in leaving everything to the contractor without any regular system of inspection. On the other hand Rogers tried to manage the lighthouses himself, with little assistance, thereby making huge profits. He appointed unsuitable men as Keepers, gave them little training, and paid them poorly - an average of £15 per year.
Some dwellings were used as shebeens and in others some men carried on trades. His contract price for maintaining nine lights in 1810 was £5,899 with one Keeper to each light; in 1832 the same nine lights with several Keepers at each cost £3,363.
Before long many of the lanterns and apparatus installed by Rogers began to be removed. In August 1812 a foreman of Robert Stevenson, the famous Lighthouse builder, visited the Kilwarlin at the request of the new Irish Lighthouse Board and reported -
'This machinery was first intended to make one revolution in one minute but at present it will not do so in two minutes, and the keeper is obliged to be almost continually at it, driving at one of the wheels which has a pin on it for that purpose. The ten Reflectors in the lightroom had been so carelessly made and because of the use of coarse cleaning materials little reflecting quality remained. The whole of the upper part of the Reflectors is in one minute after they are lighted entirely black with smoke and the lightroom immediately filled. It would be useless to supply a new apparatus until the lighthouse is better kept, as to which the Superintendent could not direct the keeper.'
Control had passed from Thomas Rogers the previous year but Halpin had not yet had time to establish a new system of management.
FOR the first 23 years the Keeper in the South Rock Lighthouse lived with his family in the tower, food and supplies being brought out by boat from the Quay at Newcastle. The boat which also supplied oil for the lantern made the trip once a week; in 1804 the expense for the boat was 6 shillings in summer and half a guinea in winter. About 1820 conditions improved and three cottages measuring 20 feet by 15 feet by 8 feet were built ashore beside the New Quay for the three Keepers attached to the station, two to be on duty on the rock while the third was ashore. On 14 June 1821 Mr Crosthwait and Mr Lunell reported -
'We inspected the Lighthouse on South Rock Kilwarlin which we found in order, the lantern and apparatus well taken care of and the Keepers appeared to do their duty. It is worthy of remark that in all weathers the rock is difficult of access and that could a landing place be formed much risk of every nature would be avoided. The residences at Newcastle were in good order and well taken care of.'
Another dwelling, a two storey house, was built in 1863 for a fourth keeper.
THE Kilwarlin Light was discontinued on 1 April 1877, as it was then considered too far from the submerged South Rock. The light was replaced by a lightship positioned further to the east, and the South Rock Lighthouse became an unlighted beacon. Some members of the lightvessel's crew continued to live in the dwellings at Newcastle until the premises were surrendered c. 1905. Today the cottages are occupied as two homes, and the two storey house is for sale.
An official inspection of the tower was carried out in 1958 by A.D.H. Martin, Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioners of Irish Lights. He found it to be in an excellent state of repair in spite of having no maintenance whatever since being decommissioned, a tribute to the ability of Thomas Rogers as a designer and builder of lighthouses. This is the only remaining example of his lighthouse building skills.
Unfortunately the lantern was removed by thieves about 1972, which takes away from its appearance. In this year of its bicentenary let us salute the Kilwarlin South Rock Lighthouse and the man who designed, built and first exhibited it on 25 March 1797, Thomas Rogers.
Appendix 1: Some Keepers on the South Rock Lighthouse and their families
Daniel Whelan, married Mary Ann Gilmore 2 October 1850, Portaferry; witnesses Peter Corish and Margaret Gilmore.
Peter Corish, married Mary Ann Owens 10 July 1851, Portaferry; witnesses John and Jane Stitt.
Naphtali Thomas of Naphtali Hackney baptised 11 October 1854, Cloghey.
Walter Adamson, died Portaferry 5 July 1856 aged 85 years.
Anne of Mr Butler, baptised 28 September 1857, Ballygalget; witnesses Mr and Mrs Stapleton.
Edward of Nick O'Donnell, baptised 23 June 1858, Ballygalget; witnesses J. C. and Mrs O'Donnell
Patrick of Mr Carlin, baptised 17 July 1859, Ballygalget; witnesses Mr and Mrs O'Donnell.
Ellen of John Whelan and Ellen Hill, born 20 May 1868, Newcastle.
Mary Elizabeth of Andrew Goodwin and Theresa Somers, born 12 Dec 1868, Newcastle; witnesses Michael and Honoria Barry.
Wm James Maginn, 24, married Sarah Eliza McNabb 22 October 1874, Poraferry.
John Whelan, married Catherine Walsh 1 Feb 1875, Portaferry; witnesses John Walsh and June Whelan.
Thomas of Michael Barry and Honoria Walsh, baptised 22 June 1876, Ballygalget.
Timothy and Michael twins of John Whelan and Catherine Walsh, baptised 11 January 1877, Ballygalget.
Walter Adamson was born in Kirkaldy, Scotland, in 1771. During 1821 - 22 his salary on the South Rock was £66-15-0. By 1844 he had retired on a pension of £37-13-8. His wife Jane died on 12 April 1864 aged 76. They are buried in Slanes graveyard.
Peter Corish died 20 May 1897 aged 78. His wife died 16 July 1903 aged 80 years. His son-in-law Nicholas Murphy was Master of the Skulmartin Lightship, Co Down, between 1907 and 1912. They are buried in St Ibar's Wexford.
After serving three years on Rockabill William Maginn came to the South Rock on 1 November 1872 when Jn. J. Kennedy left after being appointed to Maidens South.
M. O'Donnell was the last Principal Keeper of the South Rock Lighthouse. Unfortunately he was temporarily reduced to Assistant Keeper two weeks before the Lighthouse was abandoned on 1 April 1877 for neglecting to forward his oil journals to headquarters.
Appendix 2: South Rock Expenses 1834 - 1843
D.A. Stevenson: The World's Lighthouses before 1820 (Oxford University Press, London, 1959); T.G. Wilson: The Irish Lighthouse Service (Allen Figgis, Dublin, 1968); E.R.R. Green: The Industrial Archaeology of County Down (HMSO, 1963); The Archaeological Survey of County Down (HMSO, 1966).
I am grateful to David Bedlow, Frank Pelly and Michael Costeloe of Irish Lights; Dick Roddy and Raymond McGrattan, Newcastle; Desmond Rogers, Portaferry; Fr Oliver McStrarick, PP Ballygalget; Dr Anthony Malcolmson, Public Record Office (NI); and Linda Dennison, Trinity House London.
© Jim Blaney, August 1997