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Of Ingenuity & Tempest

Henry Winstanley Gent.

Chances are you have never heard of this man and I hope that by the end of this blog you'll be wondering why he's not yet been featured on a banknote.

Born in Saffron Walden in Essex, when Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth was clamping down on 'fun & games'. As a young man he learnt how to make architectural drawings in the estate office at Audley End. Having missed out on a job promotion there he took a 'gap tear' and explored Europe.

On his return he set out to learn the art of engraving to add to his existing mechanical/engineering skills. With the end of the commonwealth and the return of Charles II to the throne (the 'merrie monarch') people were able to have fun again, without fear of prosecution.

Henry spotted a gap in the market and printed a set of "Geographical' playing cards. Each card carried information on a country or continent, giving an educational air to those who wanted to gamble and relax.

Henry returned to Audley End as the Clerk of Works (to Charles II who now owned it) and began a series of 24 engravings of the huge house. He also produced prints of friends country houses in an attempt to generate more business by selling sets of prints and obtaining more private commissions. Henry was doing well for himself - he married and oversaw the construction of his house at Littlebury, which was to become another business venture - 'Henry Winstanley's House of Wonders'.

Travellers form London to Audley End, or the races at Newmarket, could call in and, for 1/- (£0.05) could experience....."an abundance of fine curiosities performed by clockwork, which appears very strange to the beholder. A chair descends into a dark and dismal place and another carries the sitter from the house to the garden orchard".

It must have been quite a place.

He also became a theatre entrepreneur - building a wooden theatre at 100 Piccadilly in London. His mechanical expertise was employed to create sound and light spectaculars featuring fire, water and actors recreating historic extracts from ancient history.

But Henry's greatest achievement was the building of the first offshore lighthouse in England. The Eddystone Lighthouse

Shipwrecks were common of the English coastline and Trinity House had been created during the reign of Henry VIII, to help protect sailors and shipping. The lack of a lighthouse near to Plymouth, one home of the Royal Navy and a busy port, meant that many ships foundered on the rocks offshore. Henry saw a business opportunity. If he built a lighthouse on the rocks shipping would be safeguarded and a thankful government would pay him a commission on each safely delivered ship and cargo. (Some historians also believe that Henry himself lost a ship on the rocks and vowed this would not happen again).

Most people had considered this was an impossible task. There were plenty of good reasons in the 1680s why this was the case. The location would make it difficult to get ashore and transporting men and materials to commence building would be a daunting task.

Nevertheless Henry began and with what must have been a very loyal workforce. During its construction he and his team were captured by French sailors and Henry was taken as a prisoner of war to Paris. The Frenchmen destroyed the work that had taken place and on his release Henry had to start from scratch. After three years he had completed the first version and on 14th November 1698 a light shone from the top of the tower.

Henry was now a 17th century celebrity. The people of Plymouth commissioned a solid silver model of the lighthouse as a 'thank you' gift. It is now on display in the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Never one to stand still Henry began a refurbishment and improvement programme and completed a bigger, better version the next year.

it was during a trip in November 1703, to carry out maintenance on the lighthouse that Henry and his workmen arrived just before the greatest storm to ever hit southern England. It devastated the coastline and caused many ships to sink.On the morning of 27th November nothing was left of the lighthouse - or Henry.

Thus died Henry Winstanley Gent. aged 59. His widow continued to run the House of Wonders and the 'Mathematical Water Theatre' for a number of years.

There have been five lighthouses on the Eddystone Reef off Plymouth. The most recent is now automated and still doing the job that Henry began in 1698.

If you want to find out even more about Henry you can read books by Alison Barnes and Adam Hart-Davis or you can book me to give your group or society a lecture - "Of Ingenuity & Tempest. Mr Winstanley Gent. and the Eddystone lighthouse".

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