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Penzance Lighthouse

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Penzance in Cornwall is popular with tourists as the port from which to board the "Scillionian" to the Isles of Scilly; the furthest point west in the United Kingdom to reach by railway; and the magnificent views of St. Michael's Mount. Few realise that it is the second largest natural and safest port in Cornwall or realise that it has its own small lighthouse.

The first pier (called the Old pier, but now the South pier) was built in 1766. It was extended in 1785 and 1812. In 1817 the Corporation obtained a Local Pier Act with the authority to light the harbour and placed a small lighthouse on the end of the quay to replace a lantern which had been washed away in a great storm in January of that year. This lighthouse was first lit in 1818 to warn vessels when there was 10 feet of water in the harbour. A second great storm on February 22nd to 23rd 1824 caused destruction again and the top of the lighthouse was carried away and part of the building removed from its base, thus effectively destroying the lighthouse.

In 1825 the Corporation resolved to replace it with a similar one which was described by the engineer and surveyor to the local authority, John Mathews, to a delegation of Lighthouse Commissioners visiting Penzance in 1859 as a very poor lighthouse with the light being a common Argand lamp exhibited from a wooden shed on the end on the pier.

During the 1830s various proposals were made for the construction of railways in Cornwall, one of which was suggested in November 1836 involving the extension of the breakwater ¾ mile seaward in an easterly direction with a lighthouse on its extremity, but nothing came of that idea.

The South pier was again extended starting in December 1852 and after its completion in 1855 a new cast iron lighthouse was erected at its seaward end. The height of the white painted tower was 34 feet from base to vane and was made at the Copperhouse Foundry of Messrs. Sandy Vivian & Co. The tower cost £ 318 and the lantern and apparatus a further £ 219.80.

The light went into service on 1st August 1855 and was visible for 9 miles at a height of 33 feet above high water showing an occulting light eclipsed twice for 2 seconds in 7 seconds and then visible for 23 seconds.

The light itself was a 5th order dioptric, fuelled by colza oil except in stormy weather in the winter when whale sperm oil was used on the basis that a full lamp supply of cheap colza oil would only last 14 hours but a full lamp supply of expensive sperm oil would last a much longer time thus saving the keeper a perilous journey down the storm lashed pier in the height of a gale. It was lit to show a red light when there was less than 15 feet of water at the pier head and green when a greater depth with the remaining sector being white. For this the keeper received the princely sum of 75p a week and as no dues were collected for the light the local authority maintained it.

In December 1874 the power supply was changed over to gas and in due course changed again to electricity. There used to be a gallery around the lantern but by the 1950s it was removed.