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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER II. BELL ROCK LIGHTHOUSE. 1798–1811.
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    Resolves to practise as a Civil Engineer—Journals—Reports—Design for the Bell Rock Lighthouse—Improvements on Smeaton’s design—Application to Parliament for Act in 1802—Act of Parliament passed in 1806—Works begun in 1807—Tender breaks adrift—Life in the floating light—Boating between the lightship and the rock—Anxiety for workmen—Sunday work—Life in the Barrack or Beacon—Visits the Eddystone in 1813 and 1818—Sir Walter Scott’s visit to the Bell Rock.

From what has been said in the preceding chapter, it will be seen that Mr. Stevenson, from an early period, evinced a decided liking for general Engineering, and I find that almost simultaneously with his appointment under the Lighthouse Board, for whose peculiar duties he had qualified himself by a pretty large and hard-earned experience, he resolved to prosecute the practice of Civil Engineering, in all its branches.

I find also that coincident with this start in life, he commenced a systematic “Journal,” beginning in 1801, of the various travels made in the prosecution of his profession, which occupies nineteen octavo and quarto manuscript books.

His Reports, many of them on subjects of great interest, occupy fourteen folio manuscript volumes, and his printed reports occupy four thick quarto volumes.

13 These books, together with relative plans, the number of which I fear to mention, are the documents I had to consult in obtaining the records of my father’s professional life. The Journals, Reports, and Plans extend over a period of nearly fifty years, and the selection of topics from such a mass of matter has been no easy task. But as the duty I have undertaken is to convey to the reader a sketch of my father as a Civil Engineer, I have been content, passing over many interesting subjects, to select from the documents before me only so much as should be useful in carrying out that object; and even in this I encountered the difficulty of determining the best order in which the selections I have made should be given. To do so according to any chronological arrangement I find to be impossible, and having resolved to give them not as a consecutive narrative, but in the form of detached notices, I think it will be most appropriate that I should commence the story of Mr. Stevenson’s professional life with his great work—the Bell Rock Lighthouse,—which extended over a period of twelve years, commencing with his early conception of its structure in 1799, and terminating with its completion in 1811.
* * * * *

The Inchcape or Bell Rock lies off the east coast of Scotland, nearly abreast of the entrance to the Firth of Tay, at a distance of eleven miles from Arbroath, the nearest point of the mainland. The name of “Bell” has its origin in the legend respecting the good intention of a pious Abbot of Aberbrothock being frustrated by the notorious pirate, Sir Ralph the Rover, as related in14 Southey’s well-known lines, which I have given in an Appendix.

Of the origin, progress, and completion of the lighthouse Mr. Stevenson has left a lasting memorial and most interesting narrative in his quarto volume of upwards of 500 pages, a great part of which was written to his dictation by his only daughter, and was published in 1824.2

But there are some circumstances connected with the early history of the Bell Rock, which, while they could not properly have found a place in his narrative, have been noticed in his Memoranda, from which I shall transcribe a few paragraphs detailing his early efforts and disappointments while engaged in designing and arranging for the prosecution of that great work:—

    “All knew the difficulties of the erection of the Eddystone Lighthouse, and the casualties to which that edifice had been liable; and in comparing the two situations, it was generally remarked that the Eddystone was barely covered by the tide at high water, while the Bell Rock was barely uncovered at low water.

    “I had much to contend with in the then limited state of my experience; and I had in various ways to bear up against public opinion as well as against interested parties. I was in this state of things, however, greatly supported, and I would even say often comforted, by Mr. Clerk of Eldin, author of the System of Breaking the Line in Naval Tactics. Mr. Clerk took great interest in my models, and spoke much of them in scientific circles. He carried men of science and eminent strangers to the model-room which I had provided in Merchants Hall, of which he sometimes carried the key, both when I was at home and while I was abroad.15 He introduced me to Lord Webb Seymour, to Admiral Lord Duncan, and to Professors Robison and Playfair, and others. Mr. Clerk had been personally known to Smeaton, and used occasionally to speak of him to me.”

It is impossible to read this little narrative without feeling a respect for Mr. Clerk’s hearty enthusiasm, and perceiving the beneficial influence which a kindly disposition may produce on the pursuits of a young man, by stimulating an honourable emulation and discouraging a desponding spirit.

    “But at length,” the memorandum continues, “all difficulties with the public, as well as with the better informed few, were dispelled by the fatal effects of a dreadful storm from the N.E., which occurred in December 1799, when it was ascertained that no fewer than seventy sail of vessels were stranded or lost, with many of their crews, upon the coast of Scotland alone! Many of them, it was not doubted, might have found a safe asylum in the Firth of Forth, had there been a lighthouse upon the Bell Rock, on which, indeed, it was generally believed the ‘York,’ of 74 guns, with all hands, perished, none being left to tell the tale! The coast for many miles exhibited portions of that fine ship. There was now, therefore, but one voice,—‘There must be a lighthouse erected on the Bell Rock.’

    “Previous to this dreadful storm I had prepared my pillar-formed model, a section of which is shown in Plate VII. of the ‘Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse.’ Early in the year 1800, I, for the first time, landed on the rock to see the application of my pillar-formed model to the situation for which it was designed and made.

    “On this occasion I was accompanied by my friend Mr. James Haldane, architect, whose pupil I had been for architectural16 drawing. Our landing was at low water of a spring-tide, when a good space of rock was above water, and then the realities of its danger were amply exemplified by the numerous relics which were found in its crevices, such as a ship’s marking-iron, a piece of a kedge-anchor, and a cabin stove, a bayonet, cannon-ball, silver shoe-buckle, crowbars, pieces of money, and other evidences of recent shipwreck.

    “I had no sooner set foot upon the rock than I laid aside all idea of a pillar-formed structure, fully convinced that a building on similar principles with the Eddystone would be found practicable.

    “On my return from this visit to the rock, I immediately set to work in good earnest, with a design of a stone lighthouse, and modelled it. I accompanied this design with a report or memorial to the Lighthouse Board. The abandoned pillar-formed plan I estimated at £15,000, and the stone building at £42,685, 8s. But still I found that I had not made much impression on the Board on the score of expense, for they feared it would cost much more than forty or fifty thousand pounds.”

It was as to some of the details of this stone design that my father asked Professor Playfair to give his opinion, and received the following reply, which was not a little encouraging to the young engineer attempting to improve on the design of the great Smeaton:—

“Mr. Playfair is very sorry that he has scarce had any time to look more particularly over the plans which Mr. Stevenson has been so good as to send him. Mr. Playfair is too little acquainted with practical mechanics to make his opinion of much weight on such a subject as the construction of a lighthouse. But so far as he17 can presume to judge, the method of connecting the stones proposed by Mr. Stevenson is likely to prove perfectly secure, and has the advantage of being more easily constructed than Mr. Smeaton’s.”

“9th August 1802.”
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The Lord Advocate Hope, one of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, and Member of Parliament for the city of Edinburgh, who had interested himself much in the Bell Rock question, and often conferred with Mr. Stevenson on his design for the work, determined that the matter should not be allowed to rest, and introduced a Bill into Parliament in 1802–1803 to empower the Board to carry it out.

This Bill passed the House of Commons. The Committee to which it was referred report—“That it appears that a sufficient foundation might be prepared on the north end of the rock, where the surface is highest and of greatest dimensions: That artificers could work five hours at the times of each low-water in the day-time of the summer months, and that if the building should be made of masonry the stones to form it might be prepared on shore, marked and numbered, and carried off to the rock and properly placed: That as the present duties may not for a long time enable the Commissioners to defray the expense of erecting and maintaining a lighthouse on the Bell or Cape Rock, it will be expedient to authorise the Commissioners to levy and take further duties for that purpose, with power to borrow a further sum on the credit of said duties.”

18 At that early date there was no “standing order” of the House requiring the promoters of a Bill to lodge plans of their proposed works, and my father in his Memoranda says:—“The only plans in Mr. Hope’s hands were those which, in 1800, I submitted to the Lighthouse Board.”

In the House of Lords the Bill met with opposition from the Corporation of the City of London, as including too great a range of coast in the collection of duties, and such alterations and amendments were introduced in the Upper House as rendered it necessary for the Lord Advocate to withdraw the Bill.
* * * * *

In order to fortify Mr. Stevenson’s views as to the practicability of building a stone tower in such a situation, which was apparently the chief difficulty in all the early negotiations, the Board resolved to take the advice of Mr. Telford, then employed by Government in reporting on the Highland Roads and Bridges and the Caledonian Canal, who, however, was unable to overtake the duty, and thereafter, on Mr. Stevenson’s suggestion, they applied to Mr. John Rennie, Mr. Stevenson’s senior by eleven years, who had, like himself, at the early age of twenty-one, commenced the practice of his profession, and was then settled in London as a civil engineer. Rennie having concurred with Stevenson as to the practicability and expediency of adopting a stone tower, the Lighthouse Board resolved to make another application to Parliament.

19 The second application was made in 1806, in a Bill introduced by Lord Advocate Erskine, and proceeded on the same design and estimate of £42,685, 8s., prepared by Mr. Stevenson, in 1800; and the following is an extract from the Report of the Committee of the House of Commons to whom was referred the petition of the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses:—

“Proceeded to examine Mr. Robert Stevenson, Civil Engineer, who, in his capacity of Engineer for the Northern Lighthouses, has erected six lighthouses in the northern parts of the kingdom, and has made the erection of a lighthouse on the Cape or Bell Rock more particularly his study,—especially since the loss of about seventy sail of vessels in a storm which happened upon the coast in the month of December 1799, by which numerous ships were driven from their course along the shore, and from their moorings in Yarmouth Roads, and other places of anchorage, southward of the Firth of Forth, and wrecked upon the eastern coast of Scotland, as referred to in the report made to this House in the month of July 1803; the particulars of which he also confirms: That the Bell Rock is most dangerously situated, lying in a track which is annually navigated by no less than about 700,000 tons of shipping, besides his Majesty’s ships of war and revenue cutters: That its place is not easily ascertained, even by persons well acquainted with the coast, being covered by the sea about half-flood, and the landmarks, by which its position is ascertained, being from twelve to twenty miles distant from the site of danger.

“That from the inquiries he made at the time the20 ‘York’ man-of-war was lost, and pieces of her wreck having drifted ashore upon the opposite and neighbouring coast, and from an attentive consideration of the circumstances which attend the wreck of ships of such dimensions, he thinks it probable that the ‘York’ must have struck upon the Bell Rock, drifted off, and afterwards sunk in deep water: That he is well acquainted with the situation of the Bell Rock, the yacht belonging to the Lighthouse service having, on one occasion, been anchored near it for five days, when he had an opportunity of landing upon it every tide: That he has visited most of the lighthouses on the coast of England, Wales, and Ireland, particularly those of the Eddystone, the Smalls, and the Kilwarlin, or South Rock, which are built in situations somewhat similar to the Bell Rock: That at high water there is a greater depth on the Bell Rock than on any of these, by several feet; and he is therefore fully of opinion, that a building of stone, upon the principles of the Eddystone Lighthouse, is alone suitable to the peculiar circumstances which attend this rock, and has reported his opinion accordingly to the Commissioners of the Northern Lighthouses as far back as the year 1800; and having given the subject all the attention in his power, he has estimated the expense of erecting a building of stone upon it at the sum of £42,685, 8s.

“Your Committee likewise examined Mr. John Rennie, Civil Engineer, who, since the report made to this House in 1803, has visited the Bell Rock, who confirms the particulars in said report, and entertains no doubt of the practicability of erecting a lighthouse on21 that rock, is decidedly of opinion that a stone lighthouse will be the most durable and effectual, and indeed the only kind of building that is suited to this situation: That he has computed the expense of such a building, and after making every allowance for contingencies, from his own experience of works in the sea, it appears to him that the estimate or expense will amount to £41,843, 15s.”

This application was fortunately successful, the Act having obtained the royal assent in July 1806, when the Commissioners at once determined to commence the work.

Mr. Stevenson now began to feel the full stress of his responsibility. He accordingly says in his notes:—

    “The erection of a lighthouse on a rock about twelve miles from land, and so low in the water that the foundation-course must be at least on a level with the lowest tide, was an enterprise so full of uncertainty and hazard that it could not fail to press on my mind. I felt regret that I had not had the opportunity of a greater range of practice to fit me for such an undertaking. But I was fortified by an expression of my friend Mr. Clerk, in one of our conversations upon its difficulties. ‘This work,’ said he, ‘is unique, and can be little forwarded by experience of ordinary masonic operations. In this case Smeaton’s Narrative must be the text-book, and energy and perseverance the pratique.’”

Mr. Rennie also, who had supported the Bill of 1806 in Parliament, and afterwards was appointed by the Commissioners as an advising Engineer to whom Mr. Stevenson could refer in case of emergency, and who had suggested some alterations on Mr. Stevenson’s design22 of the lighthouse in which he did not see his way to acquiesce, nevertheless continued to take a kind interest in the work, and they continued to correspond frequently during its progress. “Poor old fellow,” Rennie says in one letter, alluding to the name of Smeaton, “I hope he will now and then take a peep of us, and inspire you with fortitude and courage to brave all difficulties and all dangers, to accomplish a work which will, if successful, immortalise you in the annals of fame.”3

How well Mr. Stevenson met the demands which, in the course of his great enterprise, were made on his perseverance, fortitude, and self-denial, the history of the operations, and their successful completion, abundantly show. The work was indeed, in all respects, peculiarly suited to his tastes and habits; and Mr. Clerk truly—although perhaps unconsciously—characterised the man, in his terse statement of what would be required of him: “The work is unique—ordinary experience can do little for it—all must depend on energy and perseverance.” No one can read Mr. Stevenson’s “Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse” without perceiving the justness of this estimate of the difficulties that lay before him, and his ability to overcome them.

Though ever maintaining the highest respect for Smeaton and his noble work, Mr. Stevenson was led, in his original design of 1800, as we have already seen, and further in his actual execution of the Bell Rock tower, to deviate to a considerable extent from the design of the Eddystone. Mr. Stevenson adopted a23 height of one hundred feet instead of sixty-eight for the height of the masonry, and he carried the level of the solid part of the tower to the height of twenty-one feet above high water, instead of eleven feet as at the Eddystone. In addition to these deviations in the general dimensions of the tower, he increased the thickness of the walls, and he also introduced some changes of importance in its interior structure, whereby he secured a greater continuity, and therefore greater strength of the masonry of the walls and floors, which he describes in his book as follows:—

    “Each floor stone forms part of the outward walls, extending inwards to a centre stone, independently of which they are connected by means of copper bats, with a view to preserve their square form at the extremity, instead of dovetailing. These stones are also modelled with joggles, sidewise, upon the principles of the common floor, termed feathering in carpentry, and also with dovetailed joggles across the joints, where they form part of the outward wall.... The floors of the Eddystone Lighthouse, on the contrary, were constructed of an arch form, and the haunches of the arches bound with chains to prevent their pressing outward, to the injury of the walls. In this, Mr. Smeaton followed the construction of the Dome of St Paul’s; and this mode might also be found necessary at the Eddystone, from the want of stones in one length, to form the outward wall and floor, in the then state of the granite quarries of Cornwall. At Mylnefield Quarry, however, there was no difficulty in procuring stones of the requisite dimensions; and the writer foresaw many advantages that would arise from having the stones of the floors to form part of the outward walls, without introducing the system of arching.”

Smeaton in fact adopted an arched form for the floors24 of his building, which rendered it necessary, in order to counteract the outward thrust, to insert chains, embedded in grooves, cut in the masonry; but Mr. Stevenson, in designing the Bell Rock Lighthouse, improved on Smeaton’s plan, not only by a better general arrangement of the masonry, but by converting the floors into effective bonds, so that, instead of exerting an outward thrust, they actually tie or bind the walls together. This is at once apparent from Figs. 1 and 2, which show the floor-courses of the Eddystone and Bell Rock in section.
Fig. 1.—Eddystone.
Fig. 2.—Bell Rock.

The engineer of the Bell Rock had all the advantage of Smeaton’s earlier experience, which he ever thankfully acknowledged; but there can be no doubt whatever that the Bell Rock presented peculiar engineering difficulties. The Eddystone Rock is barely covered by the tide at high water, while the Bell Rock is barely uncovered at LOW WATER, rendering the time of working on it, as we shall afterwards find, extremely limited; and the proposal to erect a stone tower on this low-lying isolated reef, at a distance of twelve miles from land, was no less remarkable for its novelty than for its boldness.



W. & A. K. Johnston, Edinburgh.



W. & A. K. Johnston, Edinburgh.

25 Plate I. is an elevation of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, and Plate II. is a section showing the manner in which the interior is laid out, and, so far as the size of scale admits, the peculiar arrangements of the masonry, to which reference has been made.

The following is a brief statement of the progress of the work:—

The spring of 1807 was occupied in preparing a floating lightship to be moored off the rock, erecting the timber framework which was to support the barrack to be occupied as a temporary dwelling by the workmen, and in carrying out other preliminary arrangements. During this first season the aggregate time of low-water work, caught by snatches of an hour or two at a tide, amounted to no more than thirteen and a half days’ work of ten hours each.

In 1808 the foundation-pit was excavated in the solid rock, and the building was brought up to the level of the surrounding surface, the aggregate time of low-water work amounting to twenty-two days of ten hours, so that little more than a month’s work was obtained during the first two years.

In 1809 the barrack for the workmen was completed, and the building of the tower brought to the height of seventeen feet above high water of spring-tides.

In 1810 the masonry of the tower was finished and the lantern erected in its place, and the light was exhibited on 1st February 1811. The light is of the description known as revolving red and white, and hence Sir Walter Scott’s “gem of changeful light” (see page 47).

26 These weary years of toil and peril were also years of great professional responsibility for the Engineer, and of constant anxiety for the safety of his devoted band of associates, including shipmasters, landing-masters, foremen, and workmen, in all of whom Mr. Stevenson took a cordial and ever friendly interest, and in whom he invariably placed implicit confidence when he found that their several duties were faithfully discharged. To form strong attachments to trustworthy fellow-workmen was ever a marked feature in my father’s character, and after a lapse of nearly half a century many who joined in his labours at the Bell Rock were still associated with him in the business of his office, or as Inspectors of works.

His daily cheerful participation in all the toils and hazards which were, for two seasons, endured in the floating lightship, and afterwards in the timber house or barrack, over which the waves broke with very great force, and caused a most alarming twisting movement of its main supports, were proofs not merely of calm and enduring courage, but of great self-denial and enthusiastic devotion to his calling. On some occasions his fortitude and presence of mind were most severely tried, and well they stood the test.

The record of this great work is, as I have already said, fully given in the “Account of the Bell Rock Lighthouse,” to which I must refer professional readers; but as this volume is out of print, and is not easily accessible, I shall give a few extracts from it, which I feel sure will be read with deep interest, and convey to the reader at27 least some idea of the difficulties with which this undertaking was beset:—

    “Soon after the artificers landed on the rock they commenced work; but the wind coming to blow hard, the Smeaton’s4 boat and crew, who had brought their complement of eight men to the rock, went off to examine her riding-ropes, and see that they were in proper order. The boat had no sooner reached the vessel than she went adrift, carrying the boat along with her; and both had even got to a considerable distance before this situation of things was observed, every one being so intent upon his own particular duty that the boat had not been seen leaving the rock. As it blew hard, the crew, with much difficulty, set the mainsail upon the Smeaton, with a view to work her up to the buoy, and again lay hold of the moorings. By the time that she was got round to make a tack towards the rock, she had drifted at least three miles to leeward, with the praam boat astern; and having both the wind and tide against her, the writer perceived, with no little anxiety, that she could not possibly return to the rock till long after its being overflowed; for, owing to the anomaly of the tides, formerly noticed, the Bell Rock is completely under water before the ebb abates to the offing.

    “In this perilous predicament, indeed, he found himself placed between hope and despair; but certainly the latter was by much the most predominant feeling of his mind,—situate upon a sunken rock, in the middle of the ocean, which, in the progress of the flood-tide, was to be laid under water to the depth of at least twelve feet in a stormy sea. There were this morning in all thirty-two persons on the rock, with only two boats, whose complement, even in good weather, did not exceed twenty-four sitters; but to row to the floating light with so much wind, and in so heavy a sea, a complement of eight men for each28 boat was as much as could with propriety be attempted, so that in this way about one-half of our number was unprovided for. Under these circumstances, had the writer ventured to despatch one of the boats, in expectation of either working the Smeaton sooner up towards the rock, or in hopes of getting her boat brought to our assistance, this must have given an immediate alarm to the artificers, each of whom would have insisted upon taking to his own boat, and leaving the eight artificers belonging to the Smeaton to their chance. Of course, a scuffle might have ensued, and it is hard to say, in the ardour of men contending for life, where it might have ended. It has even been hinted to the writer that a party of the pickmen were determined to keep exclusively to their own boat against all hazards.

    “The unfortunate circumstance of the Smeaton and her boat having drifted was, for a considerable time, only known to the writer, and to the landing-master, who removed to the further point of the rock, where he kept his eye steadily upon the progress of the vessel. While the artificers were at work, chiefly in sitting or kneeling postures, excavating the rock, or boring with the jumpers, and while their numerous hammers, and the sound of the smith’s anvil, continued, the situation of things did not appear so awful. In this state of suspense, with almost certain destruction at hand, the water began to rise upon those who were at work on the lower parts of the sites of the beacon and lighthouse. From the run of sea upon the rock, the forge-fire was also sooner extinguished this morning than usual, and the volumes of smoke having ceased, objects in every direction became visible from all parts of the rock. After having had about three hours’ work, the men began, pretty generally, to make towards their respective boats for their jackets and stockings, when to their astonishment, instead of three they found only two boats, the third being adrift with the Smeaton. Not a word was uttered by any one, but all appeared to be silently calculating their numbers, and looking to29 each other with evident marks of perplexity depicted in their countenances. The landing-master, conceiving that blame might be attached to him for allowing the boat to leave the rock, still kept at a distance. At this critical moment the author was standing upon an elevated part of Smith’s Ledge, where he endeavoured to mark the progress of the Smeaton, not a little surprised that the crew did not cut the praam adrift, which greatly retarded her way, and amazed that some effort was not making to bring at least the boat, and attempt our relief. The workmen looked steadfastly upon the writer, and turned occasionally towards the vessel, still far to leeward. All this passed in the most perfect silence, and the melancholy solemnity of the group made an impression never to be effaced from his mind.

    “The writer had all along been considering various schemes—providing the men could be kept under command—which might be put in practice for the general safety, in hopes that the Smeaton might be able to pick up the boats to leeward, when they were obliged to leave the rock. He was, accordingly, about to address the artificers on the perilous nature of their circumstances, and to propose that all hands should unstrip their upper clothing when the higher parts of the rock were laid under water; that the seamen should remove every unnecessary weight and encumbrance from the boats; that a specified number of men should go into each boat, and that the remainder should hang by the gunwales, while the boats were to be rowed gently towards the Smeaton, as the course to the Pharos or floating light lay rather to windward of the rock. But when he attempted to speak, his mouth was so parched that his tongue refused utterance, and he now learned by experience that the saliva is as necessary as the tongue itself for speech. He then turned to one of the pools on the rock and lapped a little water, which produced an immediate relief. But what was his happiness when, on rising from this unpleasant beverage, some one called out ‘A boat! a boat!’ and on looking30 around, at no great distance, a large boat was seen through the haze making towards the rock. This at once enlivened and rejoiced every heart. The timeous visitor proved to be James Spink, the Bell Rock pilot, who had come express from Arbroath with letters. Spink had for some time seen the Smeaton, and had even supposed, from the state of the weather, that all hands were on board of her, till he approached more nearly and observed people upon the rock. Upon this fortunate change of circumstances sixteen of the artificers were sent at two trips in one of the boats, with instructions for Spink to proceed with them to the floating light.5 This being accomplished, the remaining sixteen followed in the two boats belonging to the service of the rock. Every one felt the most perfect happiness at leaving the Bell Rock this morning, though a very hard and even dangerous passage to the floating light still awaited us, as the wind by this time had increased to a pretty hard gale, accompanied with a considerable swell of sea. The boats left the rock about nine, but did not reach the vessel till twelve o’clock noon, after a most disagreeable and fatiguing passage of three hours. Every one was as completely drenched in water as if he had been dragged astern of the boats.”

After this accident difficulty was experienced in getting the men to turn out next morning, as related in the following extract:—

    “The bell rung this morning at five o’clock, but the writer must acknowledge, from the circumstances of yesterday, that its sound was extremely unwelcome. This appears also to have been the feeling of the artificers, for when they came to be mustered, out of twenty-six, only eight, besides the foreman and seamen, appeared upon deck, to accompany the writer to the rock. Such are the baneful effects of anything like misfortune31 or accident connected with a work of this description. The use of argument to persuade the men to embark, in cases of this kind, would have been out of place, as it is not only discomfort, or even the risk of the loss of a limb, but life itself, that becomes the question. The boats, notwithstanding the thinness of our ranks, left the vessel at half-past five. The rough weather of yesterday having proved but a summer’s gale, the wind came to-day in gentle breezes, yet the atmosphere being cloudy, it had not a very favourable appearance. The boats reached the rock at six A.M., and the eight artificers who landed were employed in clearing out the bat-holes for the beacon-house, and had a prosperous tide of four hours’ work, being the longest yet experienced by half an hour.

    “The boats left the rock again at ten o’clock, and the weather having cleared up, as we drew near the vessel, the eighteen artificers who remained on board were observed upon deck, but as the boats approached they sought their way below, being quite ashamed of their conduct. This was the only instance of refusal to go to the rock which occurred during the whole progress of the work.”

The state of suffering and discomfort, as well as danger, on board the floating light, which lay moored off the rock during the first two seasons of the work, before the timber beacon was used as a habitation, is described, in the following passage, which presents a striking illustration of the continual anxiety that must have existed in the minds of those engaged in the work, and of the frequent calls for energetic and courageous exertion:—

    “Although the weather would have admitted of a landing this evening, yet the swell of the sea, observable in the morning, still continued to increase. It was so far fortunate that a landing32 was not attempted, for at eight o’clock the wind shifted to E.S.E., and at ten it had become a hard gale, when fifty fathoms of the floating-light’s hempen cable were veered out. The gale still increasing, the ship rolled and laboured excessively, and at midnight eighty fathoms of cable were veered out; while the sea continued to strike the vessel with a degree of force which had not before been experienced.

    “During the last night there was little rest on board of the Pharos, and daylight, though anxiously wished for, brought no relief, as the gale continued with unabated violence. The sea struck so hard upon the vessel’s bows that it rose in great quantities, or in ‘green seas’ as the sailors termed it, which were carried by the wind as far aft as the quarter-deck, and not unfrequently over the stern of the ship altogether. It fell occasionally so heavily on the skylight of the writer’s cabin, though so far aft as to be within five feet of the helm, that the glass was broken to pieces before the dead-light could be got into its place, so that the water poured down in great quantities. In shutting out the water, the admission of light was prevented, and in the morning all continued in the most comfortless state of darkness. About ten o’clock A.M. the wind shifted to N.E., and blew, if possible, harder than before, and it was accompanied by a much heavier swell of sea; when it was judged advisable to give the ship more cable. In the course of the gale the part of the cable in the hause-hole had been so often shifted that nearly the whole length of one of her hempen cables, of 120 fathoms, had been veered out besides the chain-moorings. The cable, for its preservation, was also carefully “served” or wattled with pieces of canvas round the windlass, and with leather well greased in the hause-hole. In this state things remained during the whole day,—every sea which struck the vessel—and the seas followed each other in close succession—causing her to shake, and all on board occasionally to tremble. At each of these strokes of the sea the rolling and33 pitching of the vessel ceased for a time, and her motion was felt as if she had either broke adrift before the wind, or were in the act of sinking; but when another sea came, she ranged up against it with great force, and this became the regular intimation of our being still riding at anchor.

    “About eleven o’clock, the writer, with some difficulty, got out of bed, but, in attempting to dress, he was thrown twice upon the floor, at the opposite side of the cabin. In an undressed state he made shift to get about half-way up the companion-stairs, with an intention to observe the state of the sea and of the ship upon deck, but he no sooner looked over the companion than a heavy sea struck the vessel, which fell on the quarter-deck, and rushed down-stairs into the officer’s cabin, in so considerable a quantity that it was found necessary to lift one of the scuttles in the floor to let the water into the limbers of the ship, as it dashed from side to side in such a manner as to run into the lower tier of beds. Having been foiled in this attempt, and being completely wetted, he again got below and went to bed. In this state of the weather the seamen had to move about the necessary or indispensable duties of the ship, with the most cautious use both of hands and feet, while it required all the art of the landsman to keep within the precincts of his bed. The writer even found himself so much tossed about that it became necessary, in some measure, to shut himself in bed, in order to avoid being thrown to the floor. Indeed, such was the motion of the ship, that it seemed wholly impracticable to remain in any other than a lying posture. On deck the most stormy aspect presented itself, while below all was wet and comfortless.

    “About two o’clock P.M. a great alarm was given throughout the ship, from the effects of a very heavy sea which struck her, and almost filled the waist, pouring down into the berths below, through every chink and crevice of the hatches and skylights. From the motion of the vessel being thus suddenly deadened or34 checked, and from the flowing in of the water above, it is believed there was not an individual on board who did not think, at the moment, that the vessel had foundered and was in the act of sinking. The writer could withstand this no longer, and as soon as she again began to range to the sea, he determined to make another effort to get upon deck.

    “It being impossible to open any of the hatches in the fore part of the ship in communicating with the deck, the watch was changed by passing through the several berths to the companion-stair leading to the quarter-deck. The writer, therefore, made the best of his way aft, and on a second attempt to look out, he succeeded, and saw indeed an astonishing sight. The seas or waves appeared to be ten or fifteen feet in height of unbroken water, and every approaching billow seemed as if it would overwhelm our vessel, but she continued to rise upon the waves, and to fall between the seas in a very wonderful manner. It seemed to be only those seas which caught her in the act of rising which struck her with so much violence, and threw such quantities of water aft. On deck there was only one solitary individual looking out, to give the alarm in the event of the ship breaking from her moorings. The seaman on watch continued only two hours; he had no greatcoat nor overall of any kind, but was simply dressed in his ordinary jacket and trousers; his hat was tied under his chin with a napkin, and he stood aft the foremast, to which he had lashed himself with a gasket or small rope round his waist, to prevent his falling upon deck or being washed overboard. Upon deck everything that was moveable was out of sight, having either been stowed below previous to the gale, or been washed overboard. Some trifling parts of the quarter-boards were damaged by the breach of the sea, and one of the boats upon deck was about one-third full of water, the oyle-hole or drain having been accidentally stopped up, and part of the gunwale had received considerable injury. Although the previous night had been a35 very restless one, it had not the effect of inducing sleep in the writer’s berth on the succeeding one; for having been so much tossed about in bed during the last thirty hours, he found no easy spot to turn to, and his body was all sore to the touch, which ill accorded with the unyielding materials with which his bed-place was surrounded.

    “This morning about eight o’clock the writer was agreeably surprised to see the scuttle of his cabin skylight removed, and the bright rays of the sun admitted. Although the ship continued to roll excessively, and the sea was still running very high, yet the ordinary business on board seemed to be going forward on deck. It was impossible to steady a telescope so as to look minutely at the progress of the waves, and trace their breach upon the Bell Rock, but the height to which the cross-running waves rose in sprays, when they met each other, was truly grand, and the continued roar and noise of the sea was very perceptible to the ear. To estimate the height of the sprays at forty or fifty feet would surely be within the mark. Those of the workmen who were not much afflicted with sea-sickness came upon deck, and the wetness below being dried up, the cabins were again brought into a habitable state. Every one seemed to meet as if after a long absence, congratulating his neighbour upon the return of good weather. Little could be said as to the comfort of the vessel; but after riding out such a gale, no one felt the least doubt or hesitation as to the safety and good condition of her moorings. The master and mate were extremely anxious, however, to heave in the hempen cable, and see the state of the clinch or iron ring of the chain cable. But the vessel rolled at such a rate that the seamen could not possibly keep their feet at the windlass, nor work the handspokes, though it had been several times attempted since the gale took off.

    “About twelve noon, however, the vessel’s motion was observed to be considerably less, and the sailors were enabled to walk upon36 deck with some degree of freedom. But to the astonishment of every one it was soon discovered that the floating light was adrift! The windlass was instantly manned, and the men soon gave out that there was no strain upon the cable. The mizzen-sail, which was bent for the occasional purpose of making the vessel ride more easily to the tide, was immediately set, and the other sails were also hoisted in a short time, when, in no small consternation, we bore away about one mile to the south-westward of the former station, and there let go the best bower-anchor and cable, in twenty fathoms water, to ride until the swell of the sea should fall, when it might be practicable to grapple for the moorings, and find a better anchorage for the ship.

    “As soon as the deck could be cleared the cable end was hove up, which had parted at the distance of about fifty fathoms from the chain moorings. On examining the cable, it was found to be considerably chafed, but where the separation took place, it appeared to be worn through, or cut shortly off. How to account for this would be difficult, as the ground, though rough and gravelly, did not, after much sounding, appear to contain any irregular parts. It was therefore conjectured that the cable must have hooked some piece of wreck, as it did not appear from the state of the wind and tide that the vessel could have fouled her anchor when she veered round with the wind, which had shifted in the course of the night from N.E. to N.N.W.

    “Be this as it may, it was a circumstance quite out of the power of man to prevent, as, until the ship drifted, it was found impossible to heave up the cable. But what ought to have been the feeling of thankfulness to that Providence which regulates and appoints the lot of man, when it is considered that if this accident had happened during the storm, or in the night after the wind had shifted, the floating light must inevitably have gone ashore upon the Bell Rock. In short, it is hardly possible to conceive any case more awfully distressing than our situation would have been,37 or one more disastrous to the important undertaking in which we were engaged.”

The distance at which the floating light was moored from the rock was about three miles, and the passage of the men to and from their work, and boarding the vessel in rough weather, was a source of great anxiety and danger, and is described in the following paragraphs:—

    “When the tide-bell rung on board the floating light, the boats were hoisted out, and two active seamen were employed to keep them from receiving damage alongside. The floating light being very buoyant, was so quick in her motions, that when those who were about to step from her gunwale into a boat, placed themselves upon a “cleat” or step on the ship’s side with the man or rail-ropes in their hands, they had often to wait for some time till a favourable opportunity occurred for stepping into the boat. While in this situation, with the vessel rolling from side to side, watching the proper time for letting go the man-ropes, it required the greatest dexterity and presence of mind to leap into the boat. One who was rather awkward would often wait a considerable period in this position: at one time his side of the ship would be so depressed that he would touch the boat to which he belonged, while the next sea would elevate him so much that he would see his comrades in the boat on the opposite side of the ship, his friends in the one boat calling to him to ‘jump,’ while those in the boat on the other side, as he came again and again into their view, would jocosely say—‘Are you there yet? You seem to enjoy a swing.’ In this situation it was common to see a person upon each side of the ship for a length of time, waiting to quit his hold. A stranger to this sort of motion was both alarmed for the safety, and delighted with the agility, of persons leaping into the boat under those perilous circumstances. No sooner had one quitted his station on the gunwale38 than another occupied his place, until the whole were safely shipped.”

On their return trips from the rock to the floating light, the men had a no less hazardous and trying ordeal to undergo, for Mr. Stevenson records the following as an example of the risks to which they were exposed:—

    “Just as we were about to leave the rock, the wind shifted to the S.W., and from a fresh gale it became what seamen term a hard gale, or such as would have required the fisherman to take in two or three reefs in his sail. The boats being rather in a crowded state for this sort of weather, they were pulled with difficulty towards the floating light. Though the boats were handsomely built, and presented little obstruction to the wind, as those who were not pulling sat low, yet having the ebb-tide to contend with the passage was so very tedious that it required two hours of hard work before we reached the vessel.

    “It is a curious fact, that the respective tides of ebb and flood are apparent upon the shore about an hour and a half sooner than at the distance of three or four miles in the offing. But what seems chiefly interesting here is, that the tides around this small sunken rock should follow exactly the same laws as on the extensive shores of the mainland. When the boats left the Bell Rock to-day, it was overflowed by the flood-tide, but the floating light did not swing round to the flood-tide for more than an hour afterwards. Under this disadvantage the boats had to struggle with the ebb-tide and a hard gale of wind, so that it was with the greatest difficulty they reached the floating light. Had this gale happened in spring-tides, when the current was strong, we must have been driven to sea in a very helpless condition.

    “The boat which the writer steered was considerably behind the other, one of the masons having unluckily broken his oar. Our prospect of getting on board, of course, became doubtful, and39 our situation was rather perilous, as the boat shipped so much sea that it occupied two of the artificers to bale and clear her of water. When the oar gave way we were about half-a-mile from the ship, but, being fortunately to windward, we got into the wake of the floating light at about 250 fathoms astern, just as the landing-master’s boat reached the vessel. He immediately streamed or floated a life-buoy astern, with a line which was in readiness, and by means of this useful implement, the boat was towed alongside of the floating light, where, from the rolling motion, it required no small management to get safely on board, as the men were much worn out with their exertions in pulling from the rock. On the present occasion, the crews of both boats were completely drenched with spray, and those who sat upon the bottom of the boats to bale them were sometimes pretty deep in the water, before it could be cleared out. After getting on board, all hands were allowed an extra dram, and having shifted, and got a warm and comfortable dinner, the affair, it is believed, was little more thought of.”

An interesting incident, showing the constant anxiety of the chief for his men, is given in the following passage:—

    “The boats left the ship at a quarter before six this morning, and landed upon the rock at seven. The water had gone off the rock sooner than was expected, for as yet the seamen were but imperfectly acquainted with its periodic appearance, and the landing-master being rather late with his signal this morning, the artificers were enabled to proceed to work without a moment’s delay. The boat which the writer steered happened to be the last which approached the rock at this tide; and, in standing up in the stern, while at some distance, to see how the leading boat entered the creek, he was astonished to observe something in the form of a human figure in a reclining posture upon one of the ledges of the rock. He immediately steered the boat through a narrow entrance40 to the eastern harbour, with a thousand unpleasant sensations in his mind. He thought a vessel or boat must have been wrecked upon the rock during the night; and it seemed probable that the rock might be strewed with dead bodies—a spectacle which could not fail to deter the artificers from returning so freely to their work. Even one individual found in this situation would naturally cast a damp upon their minds, and, at all events, make them much more timid in their future operations. In the midst of those reveries, the boat took the ground at an improper landing-place; but, without waiting to push her off, he leapt upon the rock, and making his way hastily to the spot which had privately given him alarm, he had the satisfaction to ascertain that he had only been deceived by the peculiar situation and aspect of the smith’s anvil and block, which very completely represented the appearance of a lifeless body upon the rock. The writer carefully suppressed his feelings, the simple mention of which might have had a bad effect upon the artificers, and his haste passed for an anxiety to examine the apparatus of the smith’s forge, left in an unfinished state at the evening tide.”

In the following words Mr. Stevenson explains his resolution to regard the operations at the Bell Rock as a work of mercy, and to continue them, when weather permitted, throughout all the seven days of the week:—

    “To some it may require an apology, or at least call for an explanation, why the writer took upon himself to step aside from the established rules of society by carrying on the works of this undertaking during Sundays. Such practices are not uncommon in the dockyards and arsenals, when it is conceived that the public service requires extraordinary exertions. Surely if, under any circumstances, it is allowable to go about the ordinary labours of mankind on Sundays, that of the erection of a lighthouse upon the Bell Rock seems to be one of the most pressing calls which could41 in any case occur, and carries along with it the imperious language of necessity. When we take into consideration that, in its effects, this work was to operate in a direct manner for the safety of many valuable lives and much property, the beautiful and simple parables of the Holy Scriptures, inculcating works of necessity and mercy, must present themselves to every mind unbiassed by the trammels of form or the influence of a distorted imagination. In this perilous work, to give up every seventh day would just have been to protract the time a seventh part. Now, as it was generally supposed, after taking all advantages into view, that the work would probably require seven years for its execution, such an arrangement must have extended the operation to at least eight years, and have exposed it to additional risk and danger in all its stages. The writer, therefore, felt little scruple in continuing the Bell Rock works in all favourable states of the weather.”

He however conducted a regular Sunday service, as noticed in the following paragraph:—

    “Having, on the previous evening, arranged matters with the landing-master as to the business of the day, the signal was rung for all hands at half-past seven this morning. In the early state of the spring-tides, the artificers went to the rock before breakfast, but as the tides fell later in the day, it became necessary to take this meal before leaving the ship. At eight o’clock all hands were assembled on the quarter-deck for prayers, a solemnity which was gone through in as orderly a manner as circumstances would admit. Round the quarter-deck, when the weather permitted, the flags of the ship were hung up as an awning or screen, forming the quarter-deck into a distinct compartment with colours; the pendant was also hoisted at the main-mast, and a large ensign flag was displayed over the stern; and, lastly, the ship’s companion, or top of the staircase, was covered with the flag proper of the Lighthouse Service, on which the Bible was laid. A particular toll of the bell called all hands to the quarter-deck, when the writer read a chapter42 of the Bible, and, the whole ship’s company being uncovered, he also read the impressive prayer composed by the Reverend Dr. Brunton, one of the ministers of Edinburgh.”

Fig. 3.—The Beacon or Barrack.

So soon as a barrack of timber-work could be erected on the rock as a substitute for the floating light, it was inhabited by Mr. Stevenson and twenty-eight men. This barrack was a singular habitation, perched on a strong framework of timber, carefully designed with a view to strength, and no less carefully put together in its place, and fixed to the rock with every appliance necessary to secure stability. The tide rose sixteen feet on it in calm weather, and in heavy seas it was exposed to the assault of every wave. Of the perils and discomforts of such a habitation the following passages give a lively picture:—

    “This scene” (the sublime appearance of the waves) “he greatly enjoyed while sitting at his window. Each wave approached the43 Beacon like a vast scroll unfolding, and in passing discharged a quantity of air which he not only distinctly felt, but was even sufficient to lift the leaves of a book which lay before him....

    “The gale continues with unabated violence to-day, and the sprays rise to a still greater height, having been carried over the masonry of the building, or about 90 feet above the level of the sea. At four o’clock this morning it was breaking into the cook’s berth (on the Beacon), when he rang the alarm-bell, and all hands turned out to attend to their personal safety. The floor of the smith’s or mortar gallery was now completely burst up by the force of the sea, when the whole of the deals and the remaining articles upon the floor were swept away, such as the cast-iron mortar-tubs, the iron hearth of the forge, the smith’s bellows, and even his anvil, were thrown down upon the rock. The boarding of the cook-house, or story above the smith’s gallery, was also partly carried away, and the brick and plaster work of the fireplace shaken and loosened. It was observed during this gale that the Beacon-house had a good deal of tremor, but none of that ‘twisting motion’ occasionally felt and complained of before the additional wooden struts were set up for the security of the principal beams; but this effect had more especially disappeared ever since the attachment of the great horizontal iron bars in connection with these supports. Before the tide rose to its full height to-day, some of the artificers passed along the bridge into the lighthouse, to observe the effects of the sea upon it, and they reported that they had felt a slight tremulous motion in the building when great seas struck it in a certain direction about high-water mark. On this occasion the sprays were again observed to wet the balcony, and even to come over the parapet wall into the interior of the light-room. In this state of the weather, Captain Wilson and the crew of the ‘Floating Light’ were much alarmed for the safety of the artificers upon the rock, especially when they observed with a telescope that the floor of the smith’s gallery had been carried away, and that the triangular cast-iron sheer-crane was broken down. It was quite44 impossible, however, to do anything for their relief until the gale should take off....

    “The writer’s cabin measured not more than 4 feet 3 inches in breadth on the floor; and though, from the oblique direction of the beams of the Beacon, it widened towards the top, yet it did not admit of the full extension of his arms when he stood on the floor; while its length was little more than sufficient for suspending a cot-bed during the night, calculated for being triced up to the roof during the day, which left free room for the admission of occasional visitants. His folding-table was attached with hinges immediately under the small window of the apartment; and his books, barometer, thermometer, portmanteau, and two or three camp-stools, formed the bulk of his moveables. His diet being plain, the paraphernalia of the table were proportionally simple; though everything had the appearance of comfort, and even of neatness, the walls being covered with green cloth, formed into panels with red tape, and his bed festooned with curtains of yellow cotton stuff. If, on speculating on the abstract wants of man, in such a state of exclusion, one were reduced to a single book, the sacred volume, whether considered for the striking diversity of its story, the morality of its doctrine, or the important truths of its Gospel, would have proved by far the greatest treasure.”

The Barrack was not removed immediately on the completion of the tower, and on Mr. Stevenson’s first visit to the rock after the light had been established, it was with feelings of emotion that he viewed his old quarters. His Journal says—“I went up the trap and entered my own cabin with mingled thoughts of reflection upon the many anxious hours I had spent within the narrow precincts of its little walls, and here offered up thanks to God for the happy termination of this work.”

Mr. Stevenson’s merit as Engineer of the Bell Rock45 Lighthouse does not rest in his bold conception of, and confident unshaken belief in, the possibility of executing a tower of masonry on that submerged reef, or even in his personal courage and discretion in carrying out so difficult a work, in the face of so many dangers, when he had neither “steamboat” nor “steam-crane” to call to his aid. But his mechanical skill in all the arrangements of the work was pre-eminent in bringing his labours to a successful issue. Not only did he conceive the plan of the moveable jib and balance cranes, described in a subsequent chapter—which he applied with much advantage in the erection of the tower, and the former of which is now in universal use,—but his inventive skill, ever alive to the possibility of improving on the conceptions of his great master, Smeaton, led him to introduce all those advantageous changes in the arrangements of the masonry of the tower, which have been already described, as distinguishing it from the Eddystone.

The Commissioners entertained a high sense of Stevenson’s services at the Bell Rock Lighthouse; and, as many of them took a deep interest in the execution of that remarkable work, and paid occasional visits to it during its progress, they were well able to appreciate the ability and zeal with which he devoted himself to this arduous task, and they resolved, at a meeting held in the lighthouse itself—“That a bust of Mr. Robert Stevenson be obtained, and placed in the library of the Bell Rock Lighthouse, in testimony of the sense entertained by the Commissioners of his distinguished talent and indefatigable zeal in the erection of that lighthouse.” A beautiful bust in marble, by Samuel Joseph, from which the frontispiece46 has been engraved, was accordingly placed in what is called the library, being the upper apartment of the tower.
* * * * *

Mr. Stevenson’s interest in the Eddystone did not cease on the completion of his own work. We know that he paid at least two visits to the Eddystone after the completion of the Bell Rock. One of those visits was made in September 1813, when, by the courtesy of the Trinity House, he was accommodated with the use of the ‘Eddystone’ tender, and, though the weather was not very favourable, succeeded in landing on the rock and making a hasty inspection of the far-famed lighthouse.

Mr. Stevenson’s last visit was made in 1818, on a voyage in the Northern Lighthouse tender, on which occasion he was favoured with a smooth sea and a low tide, and enabled to make a thorough inspection of the rock. It is important and interesting to record that this examination strongly impressed him with the ultimate insecurity of the structure, as appears from the following almost prophetic extract from his Journal:—

    “The house seems to be in a very good state of repair, and does not appear to have sustained any injury by the lapse of time. The joints are full of cement, and the stone exhibits little appearance of decay, being granite or syenite. The rock itself upon a narrow inspection seems to be gneiss. The rock is shaken all through, and dips at a very considerable angle, perhaps one in three, towards the south-west; and being undermined on the north-east side for several feet, it must be confessed that it has rather an alarming appearance. I am not, however, of opinion that it has altered its state perhaps since the date of the erection of the tower. Since47 my last visit in 1813 I am not sensible of any change upon it. On the north-east side, however, at what is called the ‘Gut’ landing-place, where the men sheltered themselves from the fire of Rudyerd’s Lighthouse, but especially at low-water mark of spring-tides, there is a hollowing of the rock which penetrates at least to the circumference of the base of the lighthouse. I therefore conclude that when the sea runs high there is danger of this house being upset, after a lapse of time, when the sea and shingle have wrought away the rock to a greater extent. Nothing preserves this highly important building but the hardness of the rock and the dip of the strata, but for how long a period this may remain no one can pretend to say.”



That period has at length arrived, and the Trinity House, under the advice of Mr. Douglass, their Engineer, have resolved that Smeaton’s Eddystone—the engineer’s long cherished object of veneration—must be renewed, and henceforth Stevenson’s Bell Rock must be held as the earliest existing type of a class of bold and skilful works—still few in number—which, by converting a dark sunken danger into a source of light and safety, have saved many a ship, and cheered the heart of many a tempest-tossed sailor, as happily expressed in Sir Walter Scott’s impromptu “Pharos loquitur,” written in the Album of the Lighthouse, when he landed with a deputation of the Commissioners in 1814.
“Far in the bosom of the deep O’er these wild shelves my watch I keep, A ruddy gem of changeful light, Bound on the dusky brow of night; The seaman bids my lustre hail, And scorns to strike his timorous sail.”

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