Royal Sovereign shoals
Around eight miles off the coast at Bexhill lie the Royal Sovereign Shoals, a series of dangerous rocks and sandbanks responsible for more than 600 wrecks during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The shoals are named after the Royal Navy warship, the HMS Royal Sovereign, which had served in the War of Spanish Succession and was believed to have been wrecked on the sandbanks in 1757. As it happened, HMS Royal Sovereign was in Chatham Dockyard at the time, and the identity of the warship that was actually wrecked here remains a mystery.
The light vessel
From 1875, a light vessel was established on the sandbank, the first of its kind to deploy a flashing light. A succession of light vessels kept watch here for nearly a hundred years until Trinity House commissioned a lighthouse to be built on the most southerly reef. Called the Royal Sovereign lighthouse, it came into operation in September 1971.
Commissioning the lighthouse
Maintaining light vessels was an expensive business. By the second half of the twentieth century, Trinity House were considering measures to replace many of the vessels with more economical devices. In 1966, Trinity House commissioned Sir William Halcrow & Partners to investigate and report on the feasibility of a light tower at Royal Sovereign. They were subsequently appointed Consulting Engineers for the project.
The project was put out to tender and the tender was won by Christiani & Nielsen Limited, a renowned civil engineering company experienced in building bridges, marine works, and other reinforced concrete structures.
Originally proposals were invited for a steel structure but Christiani & Nielsen Limited offered an alternative design made from concrete.
The entire structure, with the exception of the steel lantern tower, was built in reinforced pre-stressed concrete. The high density concrete was designed for durability, with a life span of at least 50 years. The tower was designed to withstand the most severe storms, with breaking waves 50 feet high and winds in excess of 110 knots. A gravel bed was prepared as a foundation for the base, with heavy stone pitching protecting the gravel from being scoured away by tidal and wave induced currents.
Here’s a Pathe newsclip from 1967 that showcases the proposed design for the new lighthouse
The base and tower were constructed on the Tide Mills beach at Newhaven. A deep basin was excavated, so that once construction was complete, a breach could be made in the shingle to flood the basin, enabling the base to float out into the sea.
Work began in 1967, but was delayed when a severe southerly sea broke through into the basin, filling much of it with shingle. It took three months to clean out and reinstate the basin so that work could begin again.
Meanwhile, out on the Royal Sovereign Shoals, large boulders on the sea bed had to be charted and removed, before the ground could be levelled, and suitable foundations established, using gravel dropped from a barge. On average, weather permitted this work only on eight days each month, and foundation work was not completed until the early summer of 1970.
Construction of the tower and base was completed late in 1968. The tower itself was made in two telescopic sections, one inside the other, so that the base and tower unit would be stable when towed to sea. In the summer of 1969, the basin was breached and the base unit was towed out and grounded a few hundred yards out in the bay to await completion of the sea bed and suitable weather for a tow to the site.
In June 1970, the base was floated into position and made to sink on to the prepared gravel bed. Work then began to consolidate the foundation.
The cabin section was built on the beach at Newhaven, and then towed to the relatively sheltered Admiralty mooring in Portsmouth Harbour. It left Portsmouth for the shoals on 12th May 1971, but had to turn back in the night because of deteriorating weather. A second attempt was made on the 15th May, and early next morning the cabin arrived on site and was moored close to the base and tower. At high tide it was pulled over the tower to marry the two parts accurately.
The final, and most difficult operation, was to jack up the inner, telescoped tower and lift the cabin up 45 feet to its proper height. Later, the outer part of the tower was extended by 12 feet to its full height, by concrete brought by helicopter from Eastbourne, and placed in situ. The base is designed to be filled with sand.
The cabin roof was designed as a helicopter deck, ensuring that the crew rarely missed their monthly changeover. In one corner of the deck the red and white painted, steel-lattice tower was built, housing the 22 million candela lamp inside a revolving cage of lenses.
The total cost of building the lighthouse was £1,600,000.
This is a remarkable British Film Institute (BFI) documentary about the commissioning of the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, how it was built onshore and then floated into position.
When brought into service in September 1971, Royal Sovereign was equipped with four 20kW diesel generators for the light, radio beacon (to monitor shipping) and domestic use, three diesel compressors to power the diaphone foghorn, and radar
There was comfortable accommodation for three keepers and four visiting mechanics. Facilities included a modern all electric kitchen, sitting room with television, hobby room, laundry and deep freeze unit for food storage.
Tanks in the tower stored 5,000 gallons (about 22,750 litres) of diesel for the generators, and compartments in the cabin store 9,000 gallons (nearly 41,000 litres) of fresh water.
Initially, navigational aids included the light, fog signal and radio beacon.
The main light was an AGA catadioptric lens with an output of 2,500,000 candelas. It gave a white flashing light, every twenty seconds, with a range of twenty-eight miles. The fog signal was a Stone Platt omni-directional diaphone with a range of between four and 5 miles.
Royal Sovereign Lighthouse was brought into service at noon on 6th September, 1971. Trinity House issued a press release stating that:
At noon today Trinity House brought into operation the new Royal
Sovereign Lighthouse six miles off Eastbourne. The tower costing £1,600,000
replaces the light vessel which has been stationed at the Royal Sovereign
shoal since 1875. The commissioning ceremony was performed by
Captain Sir George Barnard, Deputy Master of Trinity House and Chairman
of the Board of Elder Brethren.
Ever wondered about what the lighthouse looked like inside? Or thought about what life must have been like for a lighthouse keeper posted at Royal Sovereign?
Peter Halil is a former lighthouse keeper who made hundreds of hours of film footage about lighthouse keepers and his own time in service with Trinity House.
In this video from 1993, Peter takes us on a guided tour of Royal Sovereign Lighthouse.
Royal Sovereign Lighthouse was considered a true representation of ground-breaking British civil engineering technology of its time. It gave extremely reliable service as an aid to navigation for every one of its anticipated fifty year life span.
For almost half its service, it was manned by three lighthouse keepers, each working on a month on, month off basis. Relief crews and supplies were delivered by helicopter.
How loud was the foghorn?
On Tuesday 30 July 1974, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse in his capacity as Master of the Corporation of Trinity House.
According to Trinity House, “HRH Prince Philip flew and landed a Wessex Helicopter from the Queens Flight on to the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse helicopter platform. He spent an hour aboard Royal Sovereign Lighthouse and not only inspected the lighthouse in great detail but was obviously very interested and impressed by all he saw aboard the ‘lighthouse of the seventies’.”
In 1994, the lighthouse was automated and converted from diesel to solar power, reducing its range from twenty-eight miles to twelve miles. Since then, maintenance crews have landed on the lighthouse platform periodically, but no one is stationed permanently at the lighthouse.
In June 2019, Trinity House announced that having monitored the fabric of the lighthouse over the last decade and observing the expected signs of deterioration, the ongoing safety of the mariner required that the structure be decommissioned.
In preparation of the removal of Royal Sovereign Lighthouse, Trinity House upgraded Beachy Head Lighthouse, increasing the number of solar panels around the base of its lantern gallery and installing a longer-range LED lantern. The offshore CS2 buoy has also had its range extended, whilst the Royal Sovereign buoy has been retained.
Royal Sovereign Lighthouse was switched off and decommissioned on 21 March 2022.
Drone captured footage of the lighthouse, October 2021