The rise and fall of the Chapman Lighthouse


The Chapman Lighthouse on an ebb tide

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. (

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.

  1. They could have been named after the farm called ‘Chapmannesland’ which existed at Leigh around 1385
  2. 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.

1930’s shows Mr Quintin, the lighthouse keeper inside the lantern

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.)

The internal workings of the lighthouse

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 small rowing boat is lowered from its divits ready to go ashore

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.

The Chapman lighthouse bedecked with flags and bunting for the centenary celebrations. 1951

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.

Comments about this page

  • Hi Jan

    Excellent piece about the lighthouse. Frank Whitnall was history master at Furtherwick Park School and a great friend of my Dad’s. The article could probably have come from the Essex Countryside magazine as he also wrote a piece for them about the Wilberforce House. In the late 1970’s early 1980’s he took up a headmastership at Bury St Edmonds.

    Re the Lighthouse, a couple of years ago I was chatting to Johnny Baker [now sadly passed away] who told me that he worked for Malcom Hammond when they de-commissioned the Lighthouse and several of the legs were swinging free of the mud.They were also working from the original plans which were, I believe, given to my Dad for safe-keeping and should be at the Heritage Centre.


    By graham stevens (10/08/2008)
  • Interesting about the screwpile structure being invented by a blind man…extrordinary.
    Would love to get hold of a picture of a clipper ship being towed past the Chapman Light. Even the Thames barges were a facinating sight. I do remember seeing two of them still operating out there in 1943. Very picturesque.
    One morning in 1944 I woke up and looked out my bedroom window to take my daily glance at the lighthouse, to see hundreds, yes hundreds of ships, big and small, lined up packed close together stretching from Southend Pier to out of sight towards Gravesend. I called mum to have a look. We had no idea what they were there for. Then of course D Day began soon after. Then the doodlebugs started. All hell seemed to break loose around that time.
    We think a doodlebug actually fell out near the lighthouse one night after tea. Mum threw us under the kitchen table and sprawled herself across us when it conked out. We counted to ten…and we were still alive, so it went into the mud somewhere.

    By Stan Pierce (27/08/2008)
  • Hi Stan

    What a sight that must have been with all those D Day ships – I wonder if any Mulberry Harbour sections were amongst them


    By David Bullock (29/08/2008)
  • I have vivid memories of the Chapman light,as we called it,and remember,as a boy,with my aunt boarding the small pleasure boat called “The Summer Rose” from a small jetty at Shellbeach in the late 1940’s and going for a trip round the lighthouse and the skipper giving the keeper his daily paper as we passed the ladder.Also was’nt the seawall much lower then!

    Ian Newman

    By Ian Newman (05/09/2008)
  • I am unable to add further information about the lighthouse but I do hold a pencil drawing of it. This is by a Sam J. M. Brown & dates from about 1920. It also features a Thames Sailing Barque & a steam ship.

    By George Gill (07/09/2008)
  • I thought people might be interested to know that this lighthouse is also mentioned in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ at the beginning when they are on a yacht on the Thames. The passage reads.. “The Chapman Lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly.” I was studying this in my English class and realised I lived there! V. Interesting to find out about it properly on this website.

    By Amber (16/02/2010)
  • Great site… My 3x Great Grandfather was a Principal Light House Keeper here at Chapman in 1881 (In 1871 he was at St Annes light house in Pembrokeshire, Wales and in 1861 he was at Casquets Light House, Alderney, Channel Islands as an assistant light house keeper.) His name was George Staples. 🙂

    By Daniel Filtness (08/04/2010)
  • A friend told me a few years ago (someone correct me if im wrong) that after it was dismantled it ended up at a scrap yard at the Point opp Canvey Supply by the roundabout.

    By jay arnold (13/10/2010)
  • Very interesting article and comments on the Chapman Sands lighthouse. I was particularly interested because I bought an oil painting by Henry Redmore (famed marine artist 1820 – 1887 from Hull) which I now know depicts the lighthouse (in red) with a collection of boats in the foreground, some with fishermen pulling nets. It is quite an evocative work and was once on loan to the Royal Academy.

    By Steven Beasley (11/02/2014)
  • A silver model of the lighthouse was also presented to Her Majesty the Queen by Bernard Griffiths of the Canvey Island RNLI branch. This was I believe around 11″ tall and crafted by Morris (forget his last name) of Eastern Esplande, Canvey. I remember seeing B/W pictures of the model in Bernard’s photo albums pre 1980, but not sure on the actual dates.

    By Phil Wright (25/02/2014)
  • Some years ago, like Steven Beasley, I bought a small oil painting showing what I take to be either the Maplin or the Chapman lighthouse, but it would be good to know which. Is there any way of telling? The artist was J A Kew and the date 1903.

    By Jim Armstrong (27/03/2014)
  • Hi Jim, The website referred to by Jan in the 1st paragraph is pretty useful for making comparisons of these screwpile lighthouses that existed along the Essex coast. It seems quite possible that the Chapman was the only one painted red (I remember the one on Mucking Flats nr Coalhouse Fort was dirty grey). Also you could compare your painting with the many pictures of the Chapman, especially by Harry Russell, in our Art section.

    By Graham Stevens (28/03/2014)
  • Hi Graham: Thank you for your help. The lighthouse in my picture is certainly red, the same colour as the original Forth Bridge, which I had assumed was just a standard Victorian corrosion-resistant treatment, and the structure is identical both to those pictured above and those of Harry Russell. Clearly it was a popular subject. Mine seems to show about half-tide, and there is nothing but water between the artist and the lighthouse but the background is very busy, with a couple of barques under sail, a steamer, a barge or two, and a pair of tugs. I do have a second picture by Kew but it shows only shipping, and so far I have been unable to find anything about him.

    By Jim Armstrong (30/03/2014)
  • I remember when I was a lad I used to play in the Lighthouse Keepers row boat while he was in the hotel collecting supplies and maybe having a beer or two. More than once he lifted us out of the boat because it had dropped with the tide to far below the jetty. He then got in it and rowed back to the Lighthouse

    By keith (28/02/2015)
  • I have one of the brass lion heads from the light house. 

    By Suzanne Scott (12/05/2015)
  • Can you send us a picture please Suzanne and do you know where abouts on the lighthouse it was placed?

    By Janet Penn (12/05/2015)
  • I have recently been told by someone who came to one of our talks that there were 2 local salvage companies. One was Pearce near Benfleet Station and the other was Hammond which could be found at The Point. One or possibly both of these companies may have been involved in breaking up the Chapman Lighthouse when it was removed in 1957.

    By Janet Walden (06/10/2017)
  • The other chap in the Chapman Lantern picture is my Grandfather William James who served on it as assistant keeper in the 1930’s

    By Charles James (06/07/2020)
  • I should add that my Grandfather was on Chapman for 18 years. My Grandmother would bring sandwiches to the shore and and wave a yellow duster to let my Grandfather know she was there. He would then row across and have a cup of tea with her.

    By Charles James (06/07/2020)
  • I well remember going round the lighthouse in the “Summer Rose ” in the 1950’s. The Canvey model village used to have a model of it, I think about a foot high, at its entrance.

    By Ron (19/07/2020)
  • Like Amber in a much earlier comment from 2010, I found out about the Chapman lighthouse via The Heart of Darkness, which I am currently reading. I was intrigued as Chapman was my mother’s maiden name. I love it’s shape!

    I wonder if ‘Chapmansond’ referred to ‘Chapman Sound’, as in a small body of water connected to the sea?

    By Karen Chapman Newton (04/12/2021)
  • Referring back to my original comment in 2008 Hammonds yard WAS up by the roundabout at the Point and I think the remains of the lighthouse remained there for several years until the sight was cleared for terraced houses. Graham.

    By Graham (05/12/2021)
  • Graham if you draw a straight line from the light house to Leigh Beck school Edina bungalow was in the middle, I was on the seawall that day, and the plane went over my head, I saw the pilot lift the plane up to miss the school, a few years ago I paid a visit to a military services museum in Maldon, there was the b17 engine, there ?how did it get there, the hair, alopecia stess old mate died regards

    By BEN COOK (05/12/2021)
  • Hi Ben. Thanks for confirming your ‘hair-raising’ story! 😀😄. Regards. Graham.

    By Graham (08/12/2021)
  • Very interesting page. I visited via Joseph Conrad’s short novel. “Heart of Darkness”. It is mentioned early on as part of the boat journey.

    By Lee (20/12/2022)

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