Living in the land locked Midlands one has to travel at least 90 miles to reach tidal water and the sight of a real lighthouse. One image002such area is the Severn Estuary which, with the Bristol Channel, is tidal with a vengeance.  At 40feet plus its tides are the second highest in the World.  I have long been intrigued by the unique wooden lighthouse on the beach at Burnham on Sea and since the 2000 Millennium year I have used opportunities during short stays at nearby Mooseheart to find out more about it.


Around 1969/70 Trinity House passed control of the Burnham lights back to the local authority but they were very much involved around 1832 to 1834 when the two main lights were built  - and there is some interesting history before those dates.


Burnham is an ancient place, mentioned in the Doomsday Book (when it was worth 4 pounds) yet largely isolated by sand dunes until the 18thC.  Its only connections with the outside world were sand roads and the River Parrett, gateway to the harbours at Bridgewater and a wharf at Dunball. The village grew from a few cottages huddled around the 14thC parish church of St Andrew. It was in one of those cottages in the late 18th century that a fisherman’s wife placed a candle near a window to help guide her husband home from the sea. This thoughtful act was much appreciated by the husband and his colleagues as a local fishing fleet grew until one night when tragedy struck and the husband failed to come home. The grief stricken widow, in the forlorn hope that her husband would yet return, continued to trim and light an oil lamp each evening. It was so much appreciated by the fishermen that they paid her small sums to keep the light burning for their benefit until she too passed away.

image004        There were few lights to guide sailors along the southern shores of the Bristol Channel in the 18thC. One light which survived the “dissolution period”, as recorded  by  Leland (Antiquarian to King Henry VIII ), was at Pendinas, Cape Cornwall.   The tower light on Flatholm Island was established in 1737 and a light was also known to be main­tained from mid 17thC in the Church tower on Lantern Hill, Ilfracombe.


In 1681 when Samuel Pepys was Secretary of the Navy and Master of Trinity House, he had commissioned Captain Greenville Collins, RN Hydrographer and a younger Brother of Trinity House, to carry out a survey of the British coasts.  Collins pursued the task until 1693 when he published his results thus far under the title “Great Britain's Coasting Pilot”. This work, the first sea atlas, was a major advance but Collins died in 1694, however, Pepys and Collins initiative was the lead for a long line of Naval Hydrographers and further editions of the Coastal Pilots.   Between September 1828 and March 1835, Lt Henry Mangles Denham RN, surveyed the Bristol Channel, Milford and the port of Liverpool thus providing the basis for the “West Coast of England  Pilot” – of which more later.  

As a result of his observations in the Bristol Channel, Henry Denham recommended the provision of “some structure to ensure safe navigation across the sandbanks off Burnham”.

 Denham`s hydrographic assignments continued across the world and he went on to reach the rank of Vice Admiral, and a Knighthood.


The Atlantic approaches and our western coasts are notoriously dangerous for shipping and the problems extend into and affect the Bristol Channel not least because of the very high tides which, at a possible 40 feet are the second highest in the world.  I recall a short item discussing Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in the D.Telegraph in which it was stated that the mass of seawater involved at each tidal change produced a detectable rise and fall in the land.

 There can be few places where these hazards are better described than in the pages of “The West Coast of England Pilot”; I have just found a copy of the 1948 Edition of that manual among the mountain of “stuff” which I have gathered from old Chance Brothers colleagues of more than 60 years ago.  It is a comprehensive catalogue of tortuous tides, ragged rocks, shifting sands and other horrible hazards with every warning underlined by repeated notes of caution.

  An early paragraph reads:- “DEGREE OF RELIANCE.  It should be clearly understood that the value of a chart depends on the character of the original survey and on the completeness with which the information is kept up to date with all subsequent changes.”

Since Henry Denham appears to have been the original hydrographer for the Bristol Channel out to Milford Haven (and later Liverpool), with Josephh Huddart on record as the surveyor of St Georges Channel,  these gentlemen deserve  our great respect.   

In addition to the West Coast Pilot I also have a 1954 Edition “Admiralty List of Lights”.

 It is interesting to read in there that some 200 plus navigation lights of all types and sizes were sited along the southern shores of the Bristol Channel and beyond, between Avonmouth and Pendeen (beyond St Ives).  Of these only the leading lights established on the River Taw near Bideford in 1820 existed before the 1832 Burnham lights. Henry Denham’s recommendation seem to have been quickly implemented – maybe due to the traffic already using the River Parrett.

Along the northern/Welsh shores from way out at St Annes Head (outside the Bristol Channel I know) to the Usk River, including Flatholm Island, there were around 60 illuminated navigation aids of one kind or another.

A great advance from the dark shores of the 18thC referred to above.


Through the 18th and 19th centuries much of the potential of Burnham and Bridgewater seemed to lie inland when several factions proposed, even surveyed, water ways to connect between the English and Bristol Channels thus providing an alternative to the long and dangerous voyage around Lands End thro those “Wild Western Approaches”. Some of these propositions involved famous canal engineers such as James Brindley and John Rennie.  The Burnham, Bridgwater, Taunton, Exeter route appeared favourite holding as it did two “ace cards”, the Rivers Parrett and Tone, which were naturally connected  and were made navigable to Taunton by the early 18thC.  However, supporters of the Channel to Channel connection could not agree on a route whilst mid-Somerset tradesmen seemed happy with the status quo. Steady trade links already existed between mid-Somerset, South Wales and up the River Severn to the Midlands.  Despite two lengths of canal being cut, above and below Taunton, they were never joined up.  Unfortunately this has left Bridgewater somewhat cut-off and the quays there stand unused.  In addition the port of Bridgewater was overtaken by the coming of the railway, roads and motorway and the growth of Avonmouth docks at Bristol. 

On a happier positive note - the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal is still well maintained and provides a wonderful location for walkers and canoeists.


So no charts existed to show the widow's light, but the fishermen of Burnham had learned to know and rely on it and when it ceased they took steps to find a replacement.  The Sexton at the church agreed to place a light on the tower where it would be most effective – with the Curate`s permission

 The Curate at that time was the Rev David Davies, a prominent man in Burnham’s history who, about 1800, reputedly more out of good-nature than any eye to business, offered to build a lighthouse if the fishermen, and owners, would contribute towards its upkeep. They consented; a patent was obtained;  and the Rev Davies duly built the Round Tower Light­house attached to his house and adjacent to the Church.  Local merchants and ship owners began contributing to maintain the light but by 1813 the arrangement ran into difficulties and Rev Davies successfully appealed to Trinity House for a grant and permission to levy dues because the “£135 annual income” was insufficient to maintain an effective light.  He can never have regretted his actions for the trade of Bridgewater increased, the “income from dues” became quite respectable and when, after nearly thirty years the lease was redeemed by Trinity House he got a handsome return for his rights.

The patent/lease granted to Rev Davies had been for 100 years, now he had permission to collect dues of 3/- from coasting vessels, 5/- from British ships and 10/- from foreign ones. At that time the port at Bridgewater was flourishing and the number of ships entering the River Parrett increased from 600 per annum at the beginning of the century to 2,000 per annum by 1832, a far cry from a few fishing vessels.  Nevertheless, Rev Davies was thankful to accept £13,681 17s 3d from Trinity House when they purchased the remaining 85 years of his lease in August 1829.

image006Within 3 years of purchasing the lease Trinity House set about the planning and erection of the High Light as per Henry Denham’s recommendation beginning with a request

that the height of the  Round Tower be reduced by two storeys and crenulations added to avoid confusion. This picture of the Round Tower was taken from the churchyard April 2003

In their book "Lighthouses - Architecture, History and Archaeology", Douglas Hague & Rosemary Christie describe Rev Davies as the only truly altruistic private lighthouse owner.

Although by 1814 he had moved to a living in Hampshire, the Reverend is reported to have spent most of his summers in Burnham where he used his `bonus` in the attempted development of a spa and holiday resort.


Big strides in lighthouse technology had taken place in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and both mariners and ship owners of the time expressed growing criticism of the English authorities because of their indecisions in investigating, much less promoting, the new dioptric techniques developed by French Lighthouse Engineers.  As a result the Government, in 1858, was driven to appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the unsatisfactory condition and management of Lights, Buoys and Beacons around the United Kingdom.  To commence their work the Commissioners carried out a survey of the navigation aids already in existence.  Information collected from that survey was included in the Commissioners 1861 Report and has been used in the following descriptions of the High and Low lights built at Burnham by Trinity House


The HIGH LIGHT was built in 1832 by Trinity House (Joseph Nelson). Set inland on the Berrow Rd, behind the dunes. This pillar light was of brick construction its circular tower having solid walls 3 feet 6 inches thick at its base and 2 feet at the top supporting a lantern room with an open gallery protected by iron railings; the whole was coated with mastic and coloured white. Total height from base to vane was 99 feet with the focal plane of the light 91 feet above high water spring tides, the lightroom being 10ft 6in diameter and 20 feet high.

The catoptric light unit consisted of 4 parabolic reflectors each with Argand lamp having 7/8 inch diameter wicks (of cotton at 2s 6d per gross). The reflectors 21 inches diameter, 9 inches deep were supplied by Robinson & Wilkins and the lamps by R.Wilkins & Son both Companies from London.

The light unit was stationary exhibiting an intermittent (occulting) light by virtue of a shutter at the lightroom window moved up and down by a clockwork mechanism the light being visible for 3½ minutes and obscured for ½ minute.  Its light was first exhibited 1st December 1832

Light range was 15 miles to naked eye 18 ft above water, in clear weather 

The lightning conductor and ventilation system for the Argand paraffin burners were to designs by Michael Faraday.

The total cost of buildings (inc Low Light) on the site was recorded as £2702 7s 5d

Three lightkeepers were employed (for both lights) one at £65 and two £45 each per annum plus one suit of clothes per year and coal, oil and furniture for dwellings. There was no recorded provision for relief. 

More details were recorded by the Commissioners regarding running and maintenance costs etc.

                                                            -  -  -  -  -  -  -  -

The LOW LIGHT was built on the flat of the Berrow/Burnham Sands 500 yards seaward of the High Light.  Its construction was “of wood on a timber frame” ( more detail later), the lightroom 10 ft square was supported on nine oak piles; all painted white with a black streak down the centre of the lighthroom for one third of its width.  Lightroom window given as 2 feet 6inches square.(?)

The fixed catoptric light was bright white from two parabolic reflectors 21 inches diameter, 9 inches deep each with Argand burner having 7/8 inch diameter wicks, as for the High Light  - and supplied by the same London Companies.

Ventilation for the burners was a Faraday 1. 1/8 inch diameter tube above the flames and venting through the lightroom  roof. There was no lightning conductor and no fog horn.

Height of lighthouse base to vane was 36 feet with the light centres 23 feet above high spring tide.

The first date for exhibition of its light is given as  1st December 1832  - Note: I believe this date to be a misprint or inaccurate  and should be some date during 1834 -  all accounts suggest the two lights were built in immediate succession.

The light would have been visible to the naked eye 9 miles distant 18 feet above sea level.

No separate cost is given for building of the Low Light (total £2702 7s 5d for both)

More details are given for running and maintenance together with other information applying equally to both lights

For both lights the Trinity House builder, engineer and Superintendent of Works was Joseph Nelson who was around that same time (1832)  also responsible for the Nash Point light in Glamorgan. The agent/local authority for both lights was given as William Jones of Bridgewater. 


Extract from Findlays Lighthouses of the World.  1891 Edn.  - listing nearby Bristol Channel lights.

Notes   – black dots indicate catoptric/reflector light

             - and 1884 should read 1834 as year established.



Note! - This is a non sailors interpretation of the comprehensive coverage of the coastal areas adjacent to Burnham on Sea contained in the 1948 edition of the “ West Coast of England Pilot”.

Vessels approaching from the west will leave Watchet harbour on their starboard side; a light is exhibited there from a red hexagonal iron tower 16 feet high at the head of the breakwater.

 The 5.1/2 miles of coast eastward between Watchet and the entrance to Bridgewater Bay at Stoke Bluff consists of cliffs of variegated colour.  The Coastal Pilot then details numerous spits, bluffs, patches, sandbanks and shoals with depths between 1 and 23 feet adjacent to the buoyed channel

Culver sand is an off-lying danger roughly parallel with the coast about 5 miles north of Stoke Bluff and midway between the English and Welsh coasts and clearly buoy marked on all sides.  It is composed of hard sand with patches of gravel that dry in places to a few feet. 

The marked channel divides to pass on either side of Culver sand, with that on the northern side being the principal line for vessels continuing east.

The southern channel passes between Culver sand and Graham Banks the latter occupying a con­siderable area north off Hinkley Point (power station) between the Culver and Gore sands..

From this point mariners will see Weston-super-Mare in line with Brean Down at the northern end of Bridgewater Bay approx 10 miles distant.

The approach to the River Parrett may be identified from a distance by Brent Knoll, a table- topped hill which rises abruptly 438 feet 2 miles inland of the Burnham lighthouses and on their exact line of bearing

Pilotage is compulsory for all merchant vessels.  Pilots for the River Parrett and Port of Bridg­water did not usually operate outside Gore sand, and arrangements had to be made to meet outside the Bar.  When the River Parrett is closed to traffic signals are shown at the Coastguard station about half a mile southward of Burnham Church.

The whole southern area of Bridgwater Bay, between Hinkley Point (3 miles from Stoke Bluff) and the Gore sand about 4 miles east­ward is taken up by Stert Flats. These Flats form the southern  banks/edges of the entrance to the River Parrett, and in places are composed of rock covered with sand (the Chisel Rocks), and detached beds of shingle which dry out. Once over the Bar the River/channel runs eastward to round the northern extremity of Stert Flats at Lark Spit where it veers south in front of Burnham Low light and St Andrews Church to pass behind Stert Island and Fenning Island soon beyond which the river banks become all mud.

There is a least depth of 7 feet in the River channel for the first 2 miles after which the channel becomes even more restricted (least depth of one foot at low tide),  Local knowledge is absolutely necessary.

The northerly bounds of the approach channel are formed by the Gore Sands and Berrow Flats.   Chart of Burnham on SeaGore Sand, which lie generally north of Burnham dry out about 3 miles from the coast and have been the scene of many disasters and wrecks over the years.  Berrow flats, which dry out for 1- 1/2 miles in places, extend north­ward of Gore Sand along the coast, as far as Brean Down

There is a swatchway across Gore Sand which may be used by vessels of light draught when the state of the tide permits, as far as the buoy where it re-joins the main entrance channel

Buoys mark the  Gore Sands, each side of the channel and salient depth but these are moved to meet the changes in the channel and considerable alterations in depth which are constantly taking place.

Burnham and its Lighthouses..  A number of prominent buildings front the beach; including a Customs House and the 14thC parish church of St Andrew with its leaning tower – the 3foot lean developed due to suspect foundations

Leading lights are exhibited, the Front light, at an eleva­tion of 23 feet, from a white square tower with a red vertical stripe, 30 feet in height, situated on the beach about 1000 yards NNE of Burnham Church, and the Rear light from a white tower with a red vertical stripe, 99 feet high, situated 500 yards inland of the Front light, at an elevation of 91 feet. These lights on line bearing 083°, lead through the entrance channel.

Beyond the Low Light and the Church  a second pair of leading lights are exhibited on line bearing 095°.  The front light from an iron column 10 feet high situated on the sea front westward of Burnham Church, with the rear light close westward on an iron column 25 feet high.

River Parrett.

 The River Tone was made navigable from Taunton to the River Parrett at Burrow Bridge in the early 18thC. The Parrett then flows north to the Bristol Channel through Bridgwater and thence, by a winding course of 14 miles (7 miles as the crow flies) to Burnham.  A small bore, 2 feet high, travels up the river most days at spring tides, The Parrett joins the Bristol Channel about 3.1/2 miles north-west of Burnham out between Stert Flats and Gore Sand,

Bridgewater.   The remains of quays at Bridgewater serve as a reminder that this was once a busy port serving local industry, esp brick and tile works. It was once ranked fifth amongst Britain’s ports and a safe haven for schooners.  See paragraph above re “Another Approach”.  Vessels up to 180 feet long and 31 feet wide could be accommodated with 840 feet of quayage.

The wharves at Dunball brickworks, about 2 miles below Bridg­water, are still operational with 750 feet of quayage. There is also a quay at Combwich, 3 miles down river, occasionally used to service Hinckley Point power station.

The Burnham coast guards told me that there is often a vessel standing at Dunball and went on, with some humour, to relate that because there is little room to manoeuvre some masters will drive the bows into the opposite bank and use the current flow to swing the stern around.

Chart of Burnham on Sea


The following paragraph is taken from “British Lighthouses ”. by  J.P.Bowen.

Mr Bowen was Engineer in Chief at Trinity House (1924-49).  He frequently visited Chance Brothers Lighthouse Works where I must have (unwittingly) seen him during my time as an apprentice in the Drawing Office there.

For estuary and harbour approaches it is often necessary to provide a system of lights/beacons which indicates a course through a narrow channel, and for this purpose leading lights are established with a front and rear light positioned on the same bearing to   “lead the mariner“ to the line of approach.  In order to avoid confusion between them the two lights must at all times be clearly visible as separate lights and thus capable of being distinguished one from the other.  To achieve this objective the rear light is elevated above the front light with a vertical separation commensurate with their distance apart and the distance off at which they have to be viewed, while for distinction they show different light characters. The Burnham leading lights are in line on bearing 083° for giving a line of approach to cross the bar between the Gore Sand and Stert Flats when entering the River Parrett.  The rear light is shown from a tower 90 feet high just inland and the front light from a low 40feet piled structure inaccessible at high water and 500 yards from the rear light. The lights are electric, supplied with current taken from the Burnham and District Electric Supply Co.'s mains, and are entirely automatic in operation. They are inter­connected by a submarine cable, and a motor driven character machine controlling both lamp circuits together is installed in the rear light tower so that the light characters can be synchronised. The rear light makes one occultation every 5 seconds and the front light one occultation (by window shutter) every 2.1/2 seconds, each alternate light appearance of the front light coming up at the same time as the rear light, so that the two lights are distinct and yet regularly visible together. Time switches are fitted for shutting down the lights during the day and automatic stand-by acetylene lights are provided in case of electric mains failure. Both towers arc painted for daymark alignment with a red stripe running their full height.

Note re  lifeboats.

image014There have been many shipwrecks on the Gore sands and the first lifeboat was established in Burnham by the Bridgwater Corporation in 1836, and replaced in 1847. The first Royal National Lifeboat was funded by the town of Cheltenham in 1866. The lifeboat was removed in 1930 because of the difficulty in getting a full crew, and because the launching arrangements were not suitable for a powered boat. The RNLI returned to Burnham in 2003.  In addition Burnham Area Rescue Boats provide additional support with two hovercrafts, and H M Coastguard provide shore services 







These two pictures show the High Light from front and side in 2004.

There is a clear footway between High and Low lights.

When the High Light was first lit it was found that the choice of vantage point had been too low to cover for the massive tides.  The Low Light was immediately built on the beach by 1834 to complement the High Light  - using Canadian Teak with English oak legs.

 Hague & Christie suggest that the two towers were always intended as leading lights ( an opinion which I share) since this could explain the use of wood. ie semi permanent and so capable of re-siting.

The High Light was de-commissioned by Trinity House around 1969 and sold off to become a private dwelling entered from the Berrow Road.  It is now a guesthouse sitting among neat bungalows.

image020In this view from the beach the High Light is just visible over the dunes

For obvious reasons very few wooden lighthouses have survived but the 36ft Low  Light at Burnham (built 33 years before the  Cutty Sark) looks in very good condition thanks to skilful maintenance and modification after a period of disuse.

Around 1969/70 it was taken out of use in favour of lights on poles near Huntspill some distance up the River Parrett  (Presumably the second pair of leading lights).  It must also have been around this time that Trinity House had passed responsibility back to the local authority. My assumptions here are based on the following extract from “Grandpas Lighthouse”, Vol2, by K C Sutton-Jones.

The following remarks by Ken Sutton-Jones, Stone-Chance Technical Sales Director, describe a visit he made in 1968.   I knew Ken from my time at Chance Lighthouse Works in Smethwick.

“The Burnham Leading Lights were established in 1832.  I made a working visit there in 1968 to investigate their possible replacement. The existing lights were a rear tower light with the front low light on a pile beacon 500 yards in front  on a dried out sandbank looking forlorn and, at first glance, unnecessary to me. Together they defined the access to the River Parrett in the Somerset levels.

 Nine miles to the north is Weston -Super-Mare with its enormous foreshore of sandy beach. I reached there an hour later and the tide was so low that it was difficult to define the actual shoreline. But, not six hours later, the rollers of waves were buffeting the sea wall, so rapidly had the high tide returned.  Looking back south beyond Brean Down I observed a large vessel approaching bow-on to the shore.  I hastened to Burnham to find, with some surprise, the vessel had entered the River Parrett on the leading markers and cruised up to its berthing point some five miles up river – all possible because the tidal range in the locality exceeded thirty feet (at that time of year and moon aspect).”


In 1993 the Low Light was brought back into service following refurbishment.  Repairs to the legs, involving graftsand steel plates, are visible in the picture - right.  


Trinity House engineers (from Stone-Chance I presume) were contracted for the interior work which involved complete re-wiring, new control systems, an extra window and new modern navigation lights.

 In conversation with local Coast Guard volunteers (one of whom was himself an electrician) I was left in no doubt of their admiration for the quality of work carried out.

The new navigation lights are shown on the left, with the extra, lower, window. The upper light shows a white flash every 7.5 sec whilst the lower is a green-white-red sector light; the colour seen will depend upon the line of approach with “white” being the safe line.


The photograph below was taken from a spot just in advance of the rising tide on New Years Day 2004 to shows the relative positions of St Andrews Church, the remains of the old Round Tower (left of centre), and the present daymark painted on the sea wall. The wooden Low Light is approx 1000 yards to the left.


More local information can can be found in Robin Jones book “Lighthouses of the South West”.

I shall be returning to Mooseheart and Burnham and look forward to maintaining my interest in this intriguing and endearing old Lighthouse.

If anyone out there is able to make comment, provide more information or can help me in any way I will be pleased to hear from them.



image028Burnham on Sea Map showing approach to river Parrett
- Coverage approx 8 miles square