The rise and fall of the Chapman Lighthouse
I have recently been given an article by Frank George Whitnall called ‘The last of the Chapman lighthouse’. The article was from the Essex Countryside magazine (V12-No92 September 1964). I read it with interest as I have heard lots about the lighthouse but have never seen it only in pictures and as a model, it was gone long before I came to Canvey. I will try to give a condensed history using Frank Whitnall’s article and Mike Millichamp’s interesting website about lighthouses. (http://www.mycetes.co.uk/)
The Chapman Sands to early mariners were the last of many serious perils which they had to navigate on their journey to London. As Whitnall writes ‘the Chapman Sands marked the end of a sea voyage and the beginning of a trip up river’.
The archive has been asked where the name Chapman comes from. Whitnall writes that the Chapman Sands appeared in the patent rolls of 1402 as “Chapmansond”. (The patent rolls are a primary source of English History, in this case the entry made on the 15th October at Westminster was regarding the ‘Chapmansond’ with all the fishery and other profits for the benefit of Henry IV’s son Humphrey). The name has not changed in over 500 years but where was its origin. Whitnall suggests two possibilities.
- They could have been named after the farm called ‘Chapmannesland’ which existed at Leigh around 1385
- In medieval times a ‘chapman’ was a travelling merchant, and Whitnall speculates that the sands immortalised those merchant adventurers who sailed in search of new lands and fortunes.
Throughout history attempts have been made to improve the navigation of the estuary. It is thought that the Romans during their occupation of the Island built a small beacon close to The Point to warn passing ships of the dangers of the Sand Banks. For many centuries the church towers of Prittlewell and Leigh were the only landmarks on the shore to help with navigation.
In the middle of the nineteenth century shipbuilders led by Mr James Laming ask for a permanent beacon on the edge of Chapman Sands to warn seafarers and ‘to guard the river middle’. The Masters of Trinity House responded by mooring a lightship in the area in 1847 replacing it by a permanent lighthouse four years later.
The Chapman lighthouse was designed by Mr James Walker, (who died in 1862) he was the consultant lighthouse engineer to Trinity House. His commission was to plan and supervise the erection of a small lighthouse paying particular attention to the unstable conditions in the Yantlet Channel. The Chapman was a pile lighthouse very different to the norm being based on the invention of an Irish man called Alexander Mitchell. (Mitchell Screwpile & Mooring – Invented by blind engineer Alexander Mitchell, this is a simple, yet effective means of constructing durable lighthouses and ship moorings in deep water, mud banks and shifting sands.)
When built the structure was supported on seven adjustable tubular ‘legs’ made of iron, these were screwed into the river bed to the depth of at least forty feet. A lighthouse of this type is adaptable for any area where the light does not need to be seen from a great distance. The piles offer no resistance to the waves as they pass through the structure.
The lantern was fifty feet above the mean tide at first showing a fixed light visable for 11 miles. Laterit was changed to a rhythmic white light of 8,000 candle power plus a red light of 4,000 candle power. The clockwork device was synchronised to emit a white beam and a red flash every ten seconds or so. The red warning light showed through a blank arc on the shoreward side of the lighthouse with vessels steering to the seaward of the signal. The lighthouse also had a fog bell which gave three strokes every fifteen seconds during foggy weather.
The living accommodation was underneath the lantern in the hexagonal-shaped body of the lighthouse. The cramped quarters housed a living room, bedroom with three bunks, large storeroom and a tiny washroom-cum-kitchen, living space for both the keeper and his assistant. Their only way ashore at high tide was a small rowing boat suspended from the superstructure. The lighthouse was painted a bright red standing 74 feet high and positioned 800 yards offshore on the edge of the sands between Canvey Point and Hole Haven. The lighthouse became operational in August 1851 and continued for over 100 years. Whitnall remarks in his article ‘It was a fine sight to watch the tall-masted clippers gracefully passing Chapman on the last leg of a long journey to the busy port of London’.
During both world wars the lighthouse was a marshalling point for ships assembling in convoys waiting for the tide to bring the armed escorts who would accompany them to ports as far away as South Africa.
It was during a routine inspection the 1950’s that the metal supports were found to be badly corroded and the lighthouse was in danger of collapsing into the sea. Effective repairs were considered impracticable therefore it was decided to discontinue using the light. In August 1956 after 106 years the Chapman lighthouse was taken out of service and demolition started in 1957, the final pieces were removed in December 1958. The retiring keeper was Mr Ritter.
Today the mariners are warned of the Chapman Sands by a bell-bouy, easy to maintain, efficient and most importantly, economical. I thought Whitnall’s final sentence is very apt.
“Lighthouses are looked at and lived in. Only birds bother with bell-bouys”
The pictures below are of the Chapman lighthouse both exterior and interior, they are published here by permission of Mr Jon Swinn, from a collection of postcards maintained by the late Mr G.E.Danes Trinity House Lighthouse keeper. The Chapman Lighthouse 1909-1910. The postcards have been sent to and from other Keepers, friends and relations.