26th December 1804

Sinking of HMS York spurs the building of Bell Rock lighthouse

Bell Rock lighthouse has saved countless lives since its construction in 1810. It stands on the rock after which it’s named – also known as Inchcape – around 11 miles from Arbroath, which is entirely submerged unless the tide is low, which makes it a significant hazard for shipping.

Sinking of HMS York

With 64 guns, HMS York had enormous firepower but, as a converted cargo ship, she wasn’t as nimble as other warships. This may have counted against her on her final, fateful voyage, which began on Boxing Day 1804, from the docks at Woolwich, south-east London. When she slipped out of her berth, that was the last anybody would see of her.

To all intents and purposes, HMS York disappeared, and her fate was a mystery until, some time later, debris of a wreck washed up on the Scottish coast. It was clear, at that point, that she’d struck the rock and sank. All who had been onboard were lost and the calamity only amplified existing calls for the construction of a light on Bell Rock.

An expensive undertaking

There had been some reluctance to build a lighthouse at Bell Rock, as it was not only a technical challenge, but a financial quandary, too, with nobody quite sure how they could make it pay.

The matter was the subject of debate in the House of Commons, with the Lord Advocate reminding the chamber, on 27 June 1806, that Bell Rock “was peculiar danger [and] that seldom a vessel came near it without being almost instantly dashed to pieces; and that from the circumstance of its being covered at half tide, there was hardly an instance where such an occurrence took place, but every soul perished.”

Despite this danger, there was reluctance in the house to make funds available to a scheme that was seen to be chiefly of benefit to Scotland. This was despite the fact that HMS York, which has sharpened focus on the danger the rock posed, had sailed from a port in London.

A levy on shipping

Eventually, a scheme was devised under which ships would be levied a charge based on their weight. As explained in the Commons by Abolitionist MP William Smith, “the committee [exploring the feasibility of erecting a lighthouse] passed resolutions declaratory of the advantages which would result from the erection of the lighthouse in question; and that there be paid for every British vessel passing in the line pointed out, being between Peterhead and Berwick-upon-Tweed, a duty of 1½d. per ton, and for every foreign vessel so passing 3d. per ton.”

At last, work could begin. Construction got underway in 1807 under the command of John Rennie, with Robert Stevenson on the team as engineer. It was completed in three years.



Other events that occured in December

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