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We all have seen models of lighthouses from those most skilfully and artistically constructed to the mass produced cheap seaside souvenirs, but when was the first tourist souvenir lighthouse made. I believe that the Cornish were the first when they turned a simple serpentine stone lighthouse roughly based on Wolf Rock lighthouse, which was one of Cornwall’s granite lighthouses, built in 1870 closely followed by Longships lighthouse at Lands End in 1873 and the subject of James Cobb’s Victorian novel called ‘The Watchers of the Longships’.
In the UK serpentine is found in workable quantities at the Lizard only. It is thought to have gained its name from its likeness to a serpent’s skin. In its natural state it is rough and uninteresting but once polished, its true colours are seen in bands and veins of green, black, yellow, grey, white and red. Its softness and attractive colours were first noticed locally when farmers realised that hedgerow stiles and cattle rubbing posts made of serpentine had highly polished areas where humans and cattle had rubbed against them.
An enterprising builder engaged in the erection of the Lizard lighthouses in 1828 spotted an opportunity and in due course an industry was established. In 1838 the Lizard Serpentine Company was founded at Poltesco and they made large architectural items, such as pillars as seen in the Bank of England, mantle pieces that grace Westminster Abbey, Hampton Court and Chatsworth House, church lecterns, pulpits and fonts, and large ornamental vases.
A visit in 1846 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Penzance where they were made a gift of serpentine vases led to Her Majesty purchasing some serpentine tables and pedestals for her home at Osborne House, Isle of Wight. This Royal patronage of the industry led to a great popularisation of serpentine and a new Company built a factory in Penzance. At the same time a number of small family businesses were spawned who ‘ate the crumbs from the rich man’s table’.
Both the Lizard Serpentine Company and the Penzance Serpentine Company used extremely large blocks of stone to whittle down to the required shape. The chippings, ranging from large pieces of stone to small fragments, which were discarded, were of value no matter their size. The small group of out workers were the next in the chain and would happily buy these in addition to excavating their own stone or collecting cliff fall. They in turn would make from them small items such as inkstands, paperweights, candleholders and small vases.
Both factories prospered well employing 80 men and boys between them but by the 1890s the industry was in a decline and the only two manufacturers had gone out of business. The problem with using serpentine for pillars and columns and lintels is that because it is full of veins of other crystals which contain water, then water seeps into the veins and the rock simply cracks along the seam. The use of serpentine in fireplaces and in hot climates, such as India where the British Raj ordered it by the ton at the height of the fashion, also proved disastrous. The heat dried out the water in the crystals and the serpentine soon turned to dust. The problems of brittleness and crumbling architecture together with the importation of cheap Italian and Spanish marble and changing tastes and fashions meant that the full time commercial manufacture had come to an end.
Some of the workers thrown out of business by the closure of the factories set up their own turning lathes in their garden sheds. In the winter months they worked all day making small serpentine souvenirs, which they then sold in the summer to the tourists and thus the serpentine lighthouse souvenir trade was born.
In 1893 there were 23 independent serpentine workers each turning the stone from home but by 2003 this cottage industry had dropped to six. Each worker learnt the skills from his father and then passed them on to his son so that today workers turn the stone in exactly the same manner as their grandfather did. Not only do they turn to the same simple design but also some even use the same lathe with the added luxury of the foot treadle being powered by an electric motor. They no longer polish with fine sand and crocus oil, but now use olive oil and jeweller’s rouge. Corduroy cloth is essential in the final buffing process and wet and dry emery is still used.
Over the years the quarries have closed and strict planning regulations control the issue of licences and digging permits so that today the obtaining of an annual supply of workable stone of each colour is a difficult task for the serpentine workers and it is understandable that the sources are a closely guarded secret. You will not find their coffin size individual quarries as they are required to back fill the land with earth; only a shallow freshly dug grave will give you a clue to their secret. About 150 years ago there were six main quarries up to 60 feet deep each yielding a different colour of stone but you will have great difficulty in finding them now as nature has reclaimed what is rightfully hers.
When you next pick up a serpentine lighthouse you will now know that it was made in Cornwall and that it represents a Cornish rock lighthouse. The oldest that it can date from is 1870 when Queen Victoria proclaimed Wolf Rock lighthouse ‘a noble granite tower’ and serpentine ‘a noble rock’. What more encouragement could a self employed serpentine worker ask for?
You may even admire the variety of colours in the serpentine, but what else will you be able to deduce? I know a man who when examining a serpentine lighthouse will tell you from which quarry the stone came from; when it was quarried and therefore its date and finally who turned it. All this information is contained in the lighthouse. The colour of the stone will indicate to him the quarry; the density of the colour will tell him that the lighter it is the nearer the surface it was when first excavated and will therefore be the oldest, and the design will tell him the author of the work as each maker has a small difference in his style and none will copy the work of the other.
He will quickly identify those mass produced serpentine lighthouses made by the Cornish Stone Co. Ltd. This company was established in 1933 and after the war operated from the old Victorian Mineral Water plant at Gulval, outside Penzance. They remained in business manufacturing souvenirs for about 20 years and sold them through their own network of outlet shops and also local seaside shops.
You will recognise their products because either they will have an enamel badge (the Cornish County shield or local resort); or a token seagull; or a perpetual calendar; or a mercury filled thermometer with a Fahrenheit calibrated ivory plate; fixed to them. But beware, just because it has a thermometer attached it does not necessarily mean that it was made by the Cornish Stone Co. Ltd. A red alcohol filled thermometer glued to a Centigrade calibrated plastic plate and stuck to the lighthouse indicates a modern manufacture.
Sometimes they were engraved with the name of a seaside resort but invariably their lighthouses were cemented onto a stone base; not all were turned as one single piece of stone. They lacked the intricacies of the Lizard made ones because as the workers were on piece rates at six old pence (2½p) per lighthouse then speed of production was uppermost in their minds.
Mike Millichamp © 2004