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Purfleet is a pleasant urban area on the banks of the River Thames within easy commuting distance of the city of London and is now considered to be part of the Greater London rather than an individual town of Essex. However if you get off the train at Purfleet railway station and walk about 100 yards to the east you will arrive at a suburban street of 1930s houses on a road called 'Beacon Hill' and behind is an industrial site . This is the nearest that you will get to finding the footprint of the old lighthouse and even then you may have to look up towards the sky as the hill is not as high as it once was.
Pufleet makes some very convincing claims to be the source of inspiration for Bram Stoker's book 'Dracula' but overlooks the unique history of this lighthouse.
In August 1828 Trinity House decided to build an experimental lighthouse for the purpose of testing the various types of lamps and lamp oils; reflectors and lenses that were being invented or improved upon by the new generation of inventors.
Beacon Hill at Purfleet was about 100 feet above the high water mark and was close to and overlooked the River Thames. It was part of a large estate owned by W.H.Whitbread; a name famously remembered today for the brewing dynasty.
Initially Whitbread's agent offered Trinity House a quarter of an acre at a rental which Trinity House considered too much, but when Mr. Whitbread discovered the intended use of the land, he agreed to lease it for a nominal rent and so the construction of the lighthouse was started.
The lighthouse and attached keeper's cottage was built to the standard design of the time and was similar to the Pakefield lighthouse and the Freshwater lighthouse on the Isle of Wight. It appears to have been used on an irregular basis at which times the keeper's cottage was also occupied. In 1830 Whitbread's agent acknowledged receipt of a duplicate key and as requested by Trinity House, agreed to arrange for someone to inspect the property from time to time to ensure that no damage was done.
At the base of Beacon Hill Whitbread owned a chalk quarry and as output increased then great inroads were made into the chalk Beacon Hill so that as shown in the 1832 engraving of the site, the lighthouse sits perilously close to the edge of a 100 feet high white chalk cliff.
Trinity House conducted various experiments throughout the 1830s and 1840s and reports of these are well documented together with the observations of the lights shown made by those on board the Corporation's yacht in the River Thames or those at Blackwall Wharf some 10 miles away who had a clear and unobstructed view of the lighthouse.
This lighthouse had four revolving sides or faces, which were provided with lights of different kinds; in the 1st was an Argand lamp before a single parabolic reflector 21 inches in diameter, 3 inches focal distance; in the 2nd there were seven lamps and seven reflectors, all 21 inches in diameter and 3 inches focal distance; in the 3rd was a powerful lamp with a French convex lens before it; in the 4th was a single reflector with the lime ball light. Lieut Drummond superintended the experiments at Purfleet, and Captain Basil Hall observed the effects at Blackwall. All the lights were accurately placed in focus and the machine set to perform one revolution every 8 minutes. Arrangement no 4 was considered far superior to the remaining three.
When it was no longer required for experimental purposes it was abandoned, probably around 1869 as the 1863 Thames Sailing Directions describes is as thus 'on rising land called Beacon Hill, Purfleet, there is a flagstaff and a small circular lighthouse used by Trinity House for experiments.' The reference is repeated in the 1871 edition but not in the 1879 and 1887 editions.
Mr Punch of the satirical magazine of the same name wrote in his 1869 political sketch on Parliament that 'he hid himself in the abandoned lighthouse on top of the hill in the enclosed gardens at Purfleet in the least likely place in all England to be searched'.
By the 1930s the estate was owned by Messrs. Harrisons (London) 1931 Ltd and the open chalk quarry was levelled with the remainder of the hill sculptured to a smooth mound resplendent with a wild meadow. A.G.Linney who wrote the book 'Lure and Lore of London's River' visited it in 1933 and said 'All that remains of the lighthouse which used to stand on top of the cliff is a round brick stump 5 or 6 feet high'. Fortunately for us he took a photograph of it.
During the 1940s the area was home to a World War II Prisoner of War camp and in subsequent years an industrial site and housing occupies the ground with small parcels of land left wild and overgrown; but the surviving stump would have dismantled well before then.
Despite the lighthouse being shown on navigation charts it would never have been of any use to the mariner because of its position and occasional use; but it did make an important contribution in the developments of illuminants and lenses for both home and abroad.
Sadly not many people know that fact.