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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER XI. WOLF ROCK LIGHTHOUSE.
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About the year 1812, Mr. Stevenson having, as adviser of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, attained the position of being the most eminent Lighthouse Engineer of his day, was requested by the Admiralty to report on the practicability of erecting a lighthouse on the Wolf Rock, lying about eight miles off the Land’s End in Cornwall.

I give, from Mr. Stevenson’s “Journal,” the following curious account of the first visit he made to the rock; and it may perhaps be as well to say that all quotations made from what I have called his “Journal” are records of what he roughly noted down at the time in the form of a Diary, and are on that account perhaps all the more interesting, at least to non-professional readers.

    “14th Sept. 1813.—Waited upon Sir Robert Calder, Admiral of the port of Plymouth, on the 13th, in consequence of letters from Lord Melville relative to a vessel to carry me to the Wolf Rock.

    “The Admiral accordingly appointed the ‘Orestes,’ Captain Smith, to proceed with me to the Wolf, and after landing me there, and having made my observations, Captain Smith was directed to land me at any port most convenient for me, according to the state of the weather. Captain Smith, in consequence of this order, and169 to suit my convenience, got the ‘Orestes’ in readiness two days sooner than he otherwise intended, and I embarked on the 14th at 2 P.M. agreeably to appointment.

    “The Captain took me by the hand and welcomed me on board His Majesty’s ship, and introduced me to his first lieutenant, Mr. Fallick. He then proceeded to give orders for casting off, which was done in an instant after the word was given. The ‘Orestes’ is properly a gun brig, but rigged as a ship, has 28 guns and 100 men. Kept plying to windward, and in the evening had the Eddystone light in view, still upon our lee quarter, distant eight or ten miles.

    “15th.—Kept working along the shore all day, and at 7 P.M. a pilot from Mousehole by Penzance came on board. Upon consulting the pilot, he recommended that the ship should be brought to an anchor in Mounts Bay, or rather Newland Road, all night, as it would answer no good purpose to go round the land so soon after a fresh gale of wind, with the view of landing on the Wolf, which he represented as being only practicable in the finest of summer weather. This was poor heartening. The Captain submitted to me whether it were not more advisable to come to an anchor, in which, with all submission to him, I consented. The ship, accordingly, was brought to an anchor in twelve fathoms, clean sand.

    “On board of the ‘Orestes’ two of the people were punished,—one for threatening to knock down the serjeant of marines, while on duty, received three dozen; another who offered an insult to a lieutenant, received one dozen.

    “I was sitting below, the time this was going forward, when all hands were piped on deck, and the Captain began to read the Articles of War. He had previously said to me that two men were in irons, whom he meant to punish and liberate. I went upon deck to learn the cause of all being so quiet, and discovering what was intended, I went below and waited in great suspense till the men began to call out for mercy. I took the liberty of sending a note170 to the Captain—the circumstances were so painful to me—to see if he could remit any part of the punishment, to which I afterwards understood he had listened, as he did not give them so many lashes as was intended. Captain Smith had by no means the character of a severe commander, as I understood from some of the officers he had been two years in the ship, and had only punished twice.

    “About 9 P.M., while the Captain and myself were at supper, we heard a conversation between the pilot and Mr. Fallick, the first lieutenant, about a vessel being on fire. The former was of opinion that it was a pilchard boat, the crew of which were roasting pilchards, while Mr. Fallick insisted that it was a vessel on fire. In a short time the vessel or boat appeared to be in flames, and with all sail set she approached the ‘Orestes.’ On shore the people of Penzance and Mousehole were afraid of the ‘Orestes’ taking fire and discharging a broadside upon the town. In the meantime the vessel on fire approached the ‘Orestes’ so directly that Captain Smith gave orders to veer out all the cable, stand by to cut or bend on more rope, according to circumstances.

    “The weather became moderate, and we had little or no wind, and the vessel on fire (which turned out to be a sloop of 80 or 90 tons, bound for St. Sebastian with bottled porter and bale goods) passed ahead of the ‘Orestes’ about half a cable’s length. Her hull was then completely on fire, but the rigging and sails had not then caught fire, and she kept an undeviating course till she grounded on the shore.

    “Captain Smith then despatched officers and men in three boats to endeavour to save as much as possible, but a report having gone abroad that she had gunpowder on board no person ventured near the vessel on fire till it was too late to be of any service, and in the morning when Captain Smith and I went on shore nothing remained but the keel and a few of the ‘futtocks’ half burned, and the mast over by the deck, the lower part having been consumed by the171 flames. The vessel was just getting under weigh when the accident occurred, through the carelessness of a boy, who set a lighted candle into a crate of straw in which bottles were packed. The crew soon afterwards appear to have carelessly deserted the vessel and landed at Mounts Bay, three miles from Mousehole, and appear not to have been very active in doing what was in their power. The loss of ship and cargo was estimated at £14,000.

    “16th.—Got under weigh at 6 P.M., and left Mousehole Bay with an intention to go round the land; but the weather fell calm, and after shutting in the Lizard lights came to an anchor in Mounts Bay till next morning. The Lizard lights appeared to very great advantage.

    “17th.—Got under weigh at 6 A.M., wind shifting from southwest to east with a fine breeze, and at 11 A.M. got up with the Wolf Rock. At 12 noon two boats were manned—one commanded by a midshipman, and the other by Lieutenant Fallick, into which I went, and after pulling round and round the rock with both boats, sounding all the while, we made preparations for landing. Mr. Fallick arranged his boat’s crew, and let go a grapling over the stern, then veered away upon this stern rope watching a smooth, and when the boat was near enough the young man (the same who had two days before got one dozen of lashes) appointed to land with a bow rope to make fast, leaped upon the rock, and upon these two ropes the boat was hauled off and on with great ease and facility. In this manner Lieutenant Fallick landed next, then I landed, but not without much difficulty, and watching an opportunity to get on the rock with a smooth between the seas.

    “Upon leaving the ship, about a quarter of a mile from the rock, I began to sound, and at from two to three cables’ length off the rock have 41, 40, and 38 fathoms water, with shell sand of a fair colour. At about one cable’s length have 13 fathoms, same bottom. Within this distance have 10, 8, 5, 3?, and 2 fathoms, chiefly rocky bottom.

    172 “The rock is steep in all directions; the south-west if anything draws to a point with rather less water near it than in other directions.

    “At low water of a neap tide the rock appeared to be about twelve or fourteen feet in perpendicular height above the surface of the water. Its surface is very irregular, jutting up in masses of from six to ten feet in height. These inequalities all presented marked and angular outlines, termin............
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