During a severe winter storm 70 sailing ships and 600 men were lost off the Norfolk coast. An Inquiry which drew attention to the complete lack of warning lights between the fire beacon at Cromer and the candle powered light at Winterton resulted in Trinity House building two lighthouses at Happisburgh.
It is thought that in 1789 the towers only were built, light being provided by coal fires burnt in the open air. Soon after, the lanterns were added to house candles. It is also thought that the towers were at first divided into floors to provide living quarters for the keepers, with a steep ladder connecting floors. Ascent today is by an open spiral staircase.
The LOW LIGHT, 80 feet high, was erected on the cliff top, and the HIGH LIGHT, with a 100 foot high tower, a quarter of a mile inland.
January 1st 1791
Both lighthouses were used for the first time, the illumination being by many candles set in huge lanterns. By keeping both lights in line, vessels were guided between Haisbro Sands and the shore.
Early 19th Century
The candle lanterns were replaced by oil lamps set in silvered reflectors.
The HIGH LIGHT was much improved by the installation of a lens composed of hundreds of glass prisms set within a huge domed shape. “The new apparatus for ‘Haisborough’ resembles a huge crystal beehive which, in the sunlight, flashes with the radiance of gems – a perfect rainbow of’ colour”
Cannel gas lighting replaced the oil lamps. The Gas, which was made on the premises of the High Light ( see illustration to right ) in five coal-fired retorts, was stored in two holders.
The Low Light was threatened by coast erosion, withdrawn from service and demolished. The fixed beacon of the High Light was then changed to an occulting one to avoid confusion with the fixed light at Winterton. One year later, the white tower of the High Light was painted in the familiar red and white bands.
Paraffin vapour burners replaced gas lighting.
Acetylene light made it possible to dispense with the need of a resident keeper, the cottages were put up for sale and the lighthouse closed to the public.
Electricity was installed using a 500 watt lamp with a range of 18 miles. The white light, which flashes three times every thirty seconds, is 136 feet above sea level.
The lighthouse was due to be closed on 13th June, but an energetic campaign was launched to prevent this happening. Petitions from local residents and fishermen were sent to Trinity House, who, after serious consideration, did not feel justified in reversing their original decision, but gave every encouragement to the Light being operated independently. “The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse” was formed to raise funds. Under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, ‘Trinity House can only dispose of a working lighthouse to an Established Lighthouse Authority. It was therefore necessary for parliament to pass a Private Bill to establish “The Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust”. Nat West Bank, when asked for an interest free loan, gave £l5,000 to cover legal costs.
The Bill was passed and received the Royal Assent on April 25th. The Trust is a registered Charity governed by 6 appointed Trustees who are required by the Act to assume responsibility for operating and maintaining the Light, which became the first Independent light in the British Isles. The occasion was marked by a most memorable visit of H.M. the Queen Mother on July 20″. A new lighting and back-up battery system with solar cell was installed.
“The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse” continue their fund raising work, and have become a separate Registed Charity whose aim is to assist in the maintenance and preservation of the Lighthouse, augmenting the work carried out by the trust. The Lighthouse is now open for educational visits and to the public on certain days and by arrangement.