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This page contains the history of the lighthouses on the River Thames. I visited them all in April 2003 and went as close as I was publicly allowed in order to photograph them.
I have undertaken many journeys down the River Thames from London Bridge to the open sea whilst sitting in an armchair in my lounge with a good book; but always in the company of such writers as A.G.Linney 'Peepshow of the Port of London' (1929) and 'Lure and Lore of London's River' (1933); A.G.Thompson 'The Romance of London River' (1934); and 'The Thames from Tower to Tilbury' (1939) and paid attention to their description of the lighthouses as we passed them by.
In practice I fear that I never will make the journey as the romance of the river seems to have gone just as some of the lighthouses have long since disappeared and those that are left behind fall foul to river erosion and vandalism and look likely to be replaced with modern light buoys.
But the nine lights left, some, which have been doing their duty for almost 150 years, have never been acknowledged. Strictly speaking they are not lighthouses in the accepted sense if you think of the immensely strong structures normally associated with lighthouses. These river lights are mainly mounted on steel lattice structures rising about 35 to 40 feet above the high water mark. The lights do not have to be visible over great distances and the height is chosen to give maximum visibility in the horizontal plane at the average height of a ship's bridge.
Sailors have a custom of naming a river after the port which it serves; thus the Thames to seafarers is 'London River' as far as it navigable by them. Above that point it is the 'Thames' and they are not interested in the upper and non tidal reaches.
The tide reaches as far upstream as Teddington where there is an imaginary boundary line running from one bank to an obelisk on the south bank. This is the start of the Port of London Authority; a distinction made by lawyers and not mariners when founded in 1909.
Today I would like you to take a nostalgic trip down the River Thames with me and pay our respects to the remaining lighthouses. We, however, will start our journey at London Bridge where all distances are measured to the sea.
We have already passed the disused training lighthouse at the old Trinity House Depot at Blackwall opposite the Millennium Dome and as we pass London City Airport on our left sitting calmly on the King George V Docks and pass the Woolwich Free ferry we enter the section of the river known as Gallions Reach. Gallions Reach joins Barking Reach as the river makes a sweep round Margaret Ness. In the days of sail Margaret Ness went under the name of Trip Cock Point as beyond this point vessels coming up the river were prohibited from carrying their anchors 'cock billed' or hanging from a cable.
On this Kent bank 11 miles from London Bridge is London's nearest lighthouse; Margaret Ness light being the first of the shore lighthouses that we shall pass outward bound. It nestles on hard ground on the river side of the flood defense banks on which is a cycle track and coastal path littered with the wrecks of joy rider's stolen burnt out cars and other items of rubbish that people have felt fit to dump there. The red iron framework tower is surrounded by a sharp pointed metal fence and topped with razor wire. The compound gate carries a health warning of the dangers of razor wire; the danger of climbing the tower; and other health and security warnings in an attempt to keep vandals out and the Port of London Authority free from litigation. It was established in 1902 and today at 30 feet high shows a light visible for 8 miles.
In less than a couple of miles as we leave Barking Reach where again on the Kent bank at 13 miles is Cross Ness or Leather Bottle Point, the second lighthouse. In exactly the same circumstances as the previous light, and in all ways identical to it, Cross Ness is placed in front of a modern luxury penthouse type of housing at Thamesmead; except that in keeping with the area the coastal path and cycle track is free of any dumped rubbish or burnt out cars. It was established in 1895 and today at 41 feet high shows a light visible for 8 miles.
Next we enter Halfway Reach and rather more than a mile further on is Jenningtree Point, or Julian Tree Point as it used to be called, situated on the Kent bank at 15 miles from London Bridge. Here the river is bounded by pile driven concrete walls with a concrete path weaving around the various industrial wharfs and factory outlets. Jenningtree Point lighthouse was established in 1901, and was similar to the last two lighthouses already described. It stood on foundations on the land side well below the level of the river bank on the land side. It was 44 feet high and operated by a sun valve controlling the acetylene gas which was recharged every six months. By 1990 it was demolished and all trace of it has gone.
Round the bend is Erith Reach. Erith Reach lies between Rainham Creek and the Coldharbour Point where the river takes a turn into Erith Sands. At Coldharbour Point on the Essex bank is lighthouse No. 3 at 17 miles from London Bridge. This lonely lighthouse, again identical to Margaret Ness and Cross Ness, and similarly secured, is situated on the shoreline by the vast landfill site. It was established in 1885 and today at 38 feet high shows a light visible for 3 miles.
Less than a mile further down on the Essex bank is Erith Rands where for about 30 years from 1960 to 1990 there was a red metal frame tower lighthouse on the north east end of Wallace's jetty.
Virtually opposite on the bend of Erith Rands and Long Reach on the Kent bank is Crayford Ness, our fourth lighthouse, at 18 miles from London Bridge and established in the 1950s as a stone tower. It is situated on the land side of the flood defense barrier on the edge of an isolated and run down industrial estate that mainly serves a car-breaking yard. The lighthouse was moved 165 feet to its current location in 1981 as part of the overall arrangements for the construction of the Greater London Council Thames Flood defenses. The old familiar red metal structure (identical to the old Northfleet Upper light, also demolished) which replaced the stone tower in 1967 was demolished and the light now sits in a rather unattractive corrugated iron shed mounted midway on the Port of London Authority radar tower. This grey painted 74 feet high metal tower is connected by a walkway to another similar tower, but twice the size, which acts as a radio communication tower. The light is visible for 3 miles.
At the top of Longreach is Purfleet where all trace of the experimental lighthouse has long since disappeared. Here in 1828 at the Botany on Beacon Hill at a height of 150 feet Trinity House acquired a plot of land and built Purfleet lighthouse at the top with commanding views of the river. Experiments with lamps and light reflectors were carried out here for a short time and then abandoned. By the 1920s only the stump of the lighthouse remained. Today the chalk hill has been carved away rendering the ground level for modern urbanisation.
As we continue into Long Reach and after we have passed under the new Queen Elizabeth bridge on the bend opposite Greenhithe and the mammoth Bluewater Park Shopping Centre we come across Stone Ness on the Essex bank and at 22 miles is lighthouse No.5. It was established in 1885 and is the first of the more interesting red metal framed lighthouses on the river. It carries a wind generator on its top and at 44 feet high the light is visible for 9 miles.
Between Greenhithe and Northfleet the river make a big loop round Swanscombe Marshes and the Broad Ness Lighthouse guides vessels from St. Clement's Reach into Northfleet Hope. This is the sixth lighthouse and is 23 miles from London Bridge. It was established in 1885 but a new light tower was erected in 1975 and it was converted to electricity in 1981. Although today at 43 feet high it shows a light visible for 12 miles the future of both Stone Ness and Broad Ness look uncertain as they become unstable through river erosion.
A little further down stream on the Kent bank is Northfleet. Northfleet lies opposite to Tilbury Ness and adjoins Gravesend. Here is Northfleet Lower lighthouse, No. 7 on our list, at 25 miles distance.
Trinity House established a light here as early as 1859. Its purpose was to guide inward bound vessels safely around the bend from Gravesend Reach to Northfleet Hope on their way to the Port of London. The current 1883 lighthouse was placed on India Arms Wharf close to the India Arms Tavern and was a white occulting light of 10 seconds visible for 6 miles. The red painted iron framework tower stands 53 feet high with the light exhibited at 48 feet above High Water.
As with all the London River lights it was an unmanned or unwatched light (i.e. it did not have a resident keeper) as it was inspected three times a fortnight by a Trinity House attendant and by the Trinity House Elder Brethren on a formal annual visit.
Originally all lights were lit by acetylene which was stored in great metal flasks capable of fueling the light for twelve months. In practice, however, they were regauged every three months. A sun valve ensured that the light was off during the hours of daylight.
Northfleet Lower light was converted to town gas and in 1975 it was converted to 120 volt mains shore electricity supply and today shows a red or white sector light according to the angle of approach.
Northfleet Upper lighthouse, No. 8, was established on the western end of the Associated Portland Cement Company's jetty in 1926 and maintained by Trinity House. The iron work structure was not as complicated as the Lower light and was initially painted black but by 1950 was painted white. It stood 29 feet high but in 1972 it was removed and replaced with a modern light contained in a small lamp room placed on the roof of the 8 storey office block belonging to Lafarge Cement UK Ltd at Bevans Wharf; only a matter of yards from the lower light and is still used as a navigational aid today.
Tilbury Docks are the first docks in the Port of London on approaching from the sea and are 25 miles below London Bridge. They were built in 1886 and were improved in 1930 with the construction of a new entrance lock. The unusual lighthouse at Tilbury Ness was no longer required and demolished in 1931. It was established by Trinity House in 1892 near Tilbury Cargo jetty and consisted of a red painted iron cylindrical tower 35 feet high. Today an uninteresting light beacon on a blue diamond shape acts as its successor.
Next we pass Gravesend when in the good old days the incoming vessels were boarded by the Customs and the 'Channel' Pilots handed over to the 'mud' pilots who brought the vessels up river. In its prime in the 1930s the river here saw 500 vessels a day pass this spot that was the entrance to the Port of London.
Coming out of Gravesend Reach into the Lower Hope, Shornemead lighthouse can be seen on the Kent shore almost opposite East Tilbury Fort. This is No. 9, our last lighthouse at 30 miles from London Bridge,
Shorne lies a couple of miles inland and is named after Sir John Shorne who was supposed to be able to cure malarial fever so prevalent at that time in the North Kent marshes; he is also credited with imprisoning the Devil in a boot.
It was established in 1913 by Trinity House on the edges of the Kent shoreline of Shorne Marshes and Higham Saltings where Gravesend Reach meets Lower Hope Reach.
The whole structure is 48 feet high and consists of a red painted iron work cylindrical galleried tower supported by four metal legs which in turn stands on a plinth resting upon piles driven firmly into the river bed. The whole lighthouse area is surrounded by a stout metal fence and is reached by an enclosed metal walkway also supported on piles.
The constant erosion here on the bank is a continuous problem and as the bank erodes further from the lighthouse an additional modern extension to the walkway has been added and it is only a matter of time before its position is inappropriate. Since my visit in April 2003 the light has been replaced with a modern pile like structure inaccessible from the shore. The remains of the old lighthouse, which was cut off at the base, now stands at the PLA's Denton Wharf waiting for its future to be determined.
The lighthouse has never had a permanent keeper and has relied upon weekly inspections and cleaning sessions, first by a keeper on bicycle, and then by one using a car who could only approach the light by using the old military road through the adjacent rifle range on his way to Shornemead Fort. A fire in the timber of the approach pier in 1991 caused problems; firstly with the local fire engine having to cross the railway line; then with the need to arrange for rifle practice on the firing range to cease forthwith; and finally when the heavy laden fire engine could go no further on the rough ground. The firemen armed with axes, ladders and buckets freed the burning timber and doused it with river water.
The light was originally fuelled by acetylene gas stored in bottles but and then lit with mains electricity from the shore but with a standby generator and batteries in case of power failure.
The new solar powered light continues to give its unique flash every 10 seconds to some 3,000 vessels that pass it each year.
At the end of Lower Hope Reach is the beginning of Sea Reach and the limit for sea going tankers and where the oil installations are. Mucking Bight or Flats is a mud bank which starts at Coalhouse Fort and extends down the river to Shellhaven. At 33 miles from London Bridge Mucking Bight lighthouse was built here on piles in 1851, maintained by two keepers and connected to the shore by a long footbridge. It was painted in black and white bands and in 1881 it was raised to 70 feet high and painted red. The 1953 floods and a collision with a barge in 1954 led to the removal of this lighthouse beautifully described in Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames (1882).
You can read the full history of Mucking Bight lighthouse and see more archive photos of it on my Lost Lighthouses - Mucking Bight Lighthouse page.
At the end of Sea Reach are the Chapman Sands near Canvey Island. The last of the London River lighthouses was built here in 1849.
At 39 miles from London Bridge and known as Chapman lighthouse it was a screw pile structure with accommodation for three keepers. A rowing boat was suspended for use in high tides. The lighthouse was painted red and remained so during both World War I and World War II as it was an important meeting point for many convoys waiting an armed escort before leaving the estuary. The light was evacuated in 1956 when it was discovered that the iron screw piles were rusting away and by 1958 all trace of the lighthouse had been removed.
You can read the full history of Chapman lighthouse and see more archive photos of it on my Lost Lighthouses - Chapman Lighthouse page.
Maplin lighthouse was built in 1838 on the same style as Chapman and Gunfleet and served well for many years until swept away in floods in 1932.
You can read the full history of Maplin lighthouse and see more archive photos of it on my Lost Lighthouses - Maplin Lighthouse page.
Further on behind the Maplin Sands is Havengore Creek on the Essex side. Here the limit of the jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority stretches from this bank to Warden Point on the Kent side, a distance of 50 miles below London Bridge.
All the lighthouses on this tour were constructed and maintained by Trinity House. The 1991 Ports Act which effectively 'privatised' the UK ports also allowed for the transfer of certain lighthouses, the result of which all the London River lights were transferred to the Port of London Authority in whose responsibility and custody they rest today.
My thanks go to the Port of London Authority who kindly assisted me in my research and to Tony for providing additional information and photographs of the lights from the seaward side, and Roy for photographing the old Shornemead light at Denton Wharf.
Additional thanks for the archive pictures which are by permission of Mr.J.Swinn and are taken from a collection of postcards maintained by the late G.E.Danes,a Trinity House Lighthouse keeper.