Opera Background, Part 2: History of the Smalls Lighthouse


1771: John Phillips calls for designs

1772: Henry Whiteside’s design chosen

1772: First trip to Smalls to prepare rock

1773: Attempt to use iron pillars

1775: Version with 5 wooden, 3 iron pillars

1776: Iron pillars replaced with wood

1777: Whiteside reinforces lighthouse

1801: Keepers isolated by storms*

1802: Decision to use 3 keepers in future

1811: Hurricane blows off lantern housing

1824: Whiteside dies at age of 78

1831: Huge wave slams floor of house against ceiling, injuring 2 and killing 1

1833: Lord Newborough visits lighthouse

1837: Sumner discovers concept of celestial position lines**

1858: Crew of Spanish brig rescued

1861: Original lighthouse replaced by stone tower which still stands today

*(when the story of the opera takes place) **(see note at right)he


Lighthouses in the British Isles in the first part of the 19th century were privately funded and could be very profitable. The right to collect dues from vessels was by warrant from a local authority or the crown. Foreign ships would often avoid seeking refuge on the south coast of England for fear of being forced to pay costly lighthouse fees.  John Phillips, a Welshman residing in Liverpool who formed the company to build the Smalls light, probably obtained his warrant from the port of Liverpool, which must be reached from continental Europe by going around the western part of Wales, where an encounter with the Smalls might well take place.

Henry Whiteside’s previous woodworking experience was in making violins and harpsichords, but it was his design for the Smalls lighthouse that was selected for construction. And it was he who led the expedition along with six Cornish miners, whose job was to pierce the rock for the insertion of the oak pillars, to begin construction in the summer of 1772.

Construction of the lighthouse was an arduous and dangerous process, especially for a man like Whiteside with little nautical experience. When he visited the lighthouse in 1777 to make some repairs, he was stranded for a month by storms, a story that he relates in Scene 12 of the opera.

**Trivia fact: while approaching Smalls Lighthouse in 1837, Captain Thomas Hubbard Sumner discovered the concept of celestial position lines, the basis for modern celestial navigation.

Next: the incident upon which the opera is based! Stay tuned…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>