AS11: China

The history of lighthouses in China has not yet been told and will be long and detailed once it is elucidated. The report presented here is in its early stages and will be developed in more detail in later versions of this paper.

In some ways, the early stages of the construction of lighthouses in China mirror those for Japan. Whilst Japan had taken her own decision to follow the path towards western-style industrial development, and invited French and British engineers to assist, China was rather more reluctant to do the same, but was forced into it by the outcome of the ‘Opium Wars’. This resulted in the port of Shanghai receiving a flood of European immigrants and becoming the focus for a strong engineering influence that was to assist in the ‘opening-up’ of China to trade with the west. As in other countries, the British led the way in this period of development largely through its Board of Trade Office in Shanghai. One of the most significant engineers was David Henderson.

Almost all trade, carried out over large distances, was by sea, so the development of safer sea passages was in the interests of all nations. A number of famous lighthouse engineers applied their skills and expertise to problems in the farther reaches of the expanding British Empire. One of these Imperial lighthouse engineers was David Marr Henderson.

Henderson’s activities came to the fore in the late 1860s. He was actively writing papers on the engineering of both lighthouse structures and equipment and he presented these works to the appropriate meetings of the learned Institutions in London. He spent the winter of 1866/7 in Paris, where he studied the French methodologies being developed by Teulère and became a member of the French Institution of civil Engineers. Britain and France were actively exporting lighthouse technology to the Far East and it was through exhibitions such as the one in Paris that companies could develop their businesses.

In 1867 Henderson reported his opinions of the marvellous array of lighthouse equipment on display at the Paris exhibition [9, 10], whilst a year later he presented a major paper on lighthouse apparatus and lanterns. [11].

At about the same time, he became caught up in an argument in the columns of the Engineer on the subject of lighthouse optical glass [12-15]. The critical, and at times bitter, exchange of letters that occurred between Henderson and an anonymous writer known as the “Practical Man”, tells us that Henderson had spent time in Paris during 1866. Between the lines, it indicates a serious rivalry, if not between the men’s employers, then between the individuals themselves as a result of them previously working together. Henderson had studied engineering at the Queens College Birmingham before becoming a pupil of “Messrs Fox, Henderson and Co of the London Works”, from which we might assume that he was employed by the engineering firm in which his father was a partner. He did, however, serve an appointment of several years with the Chance Brothers before a term of employment with Messrs. P. D. Bennett of Spon Lane, Birmingham. It would appear to be either during or just after his employment with Chance, that he so easily offended the “Practical Man”, who, we are to suppose, worked for the Chance Brothers, and whose work Henderson had criticised. Perhaps the Practical did not take too kindly to the modern thinking of this young upstart!

Henderson took up a position in the “China Office” sometime in late 1868 [16]. The announcement was made in January 1869 of his appointment to the position of Chief Coast Lights Engineer for China. The appointment was made by Captain Forbes, R.N., Maritime Commissioner to the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, under its head, Mr Robert Hart. The announcement went on to say that China was “presently devoid of lighthouses”, but that there were plans afoot to build about twenty over coming years, commencing with the seas around Shanghai.

Early in 1869, the results of his efforts were beginning to become apparent. A lighthouse known as Gutzlaff, and which is today called Dajishan (F3748) was built on the eastern summit of an islet 165 km southeast of Shanghai in the southern approaches to the Yangtze River. A cast iron tower, it was erected quickly in 1869 from pre-fabricated components. A report of the construction, which we presume to be written by Henderson himself, was published in the Engineer early in 1870 [17].

The foundation stone of this lighthouse was laid on 20th July, last (1869). All the materials used were obtained in Shanghai and carried in the lighthouse tender, the Kua-Hsing, a distance of sixty-five nautical miles. The landing was one of considerable difficulty, as the island is so small as not to afford any shelter, and the rocks, which are of volcanic formation, are very rugged and steep. The tides run very strong, and close to the island it is not safe for a vessel, so that everything had to be unloaded into native fishing boats that could go close to the rocks, and from these the materials were hoisted by means of a Henderson derrick crane. The light was exhibited for the first time on 1st November 1869 but the works on the island were not completed till the end of the year. A couple of small guns have been mounted as protection from pirates; they will also be of use as fog signals. The lightkeepers are well armed with rifles and revolvers. This light, which was manufactured in England, is of the third order, and has been placed at an elevation of 270 ft above the sea. It will be of great use to the mail steamers of the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, and the Messageries Imperiales of France, as well as the local coasting trade. This light is the first of a number proposed for the entrance to the Yangtsze Kiang River. The designs for this lighthouse were made by Mr David M Henderson, the chief coast lights engineer, who personally carried on the works with native workmen.

The 1879 edition of Findlay [18] has an entry for Gutzlaff Island under China, as follows:

One fixed bright light. At entrance of Yang-Tse-Kiang. Signal gun and flag-signals. Third-order lens. Light 270 ft above water. Range 20 miles. Established in 1869.

The lighthouse was apparently rebuilt in 1900, for the 1904 edition of Jenkins [19] has the following information:

One flash every 5 seconds. Range 24 miles. Light 283 ft above water.

The light in this description is an extra 13 feet (4 metres) above sea level and has a flashing characteristic, rather than a fixed light.

Henderson’s great impact on the region’s lighthouse infrastructure must have been brought to bear very quickly, for in 1870 he was responsible for placing orders for a number of new lighthouses in Chinese waters.

On September 15th 1871 a report appeared in the Engineer of the completion of the Sha-wei-shan lighthouse, situated on a small island to the north-west of Shanghai [20, 21]

The island of Sha-wei-shan is situated at the mouth of the Yangtze River, opposite to the Tsung-ming, or north Channel branch, in latitude North 31 degrees 24.5 minutes and longitude E. 122 degrees 14.25 minutes. All vessels trading between Shanghai and the Northern ports of China have to pass this island, which lies right in the course, and there has been very generally felt the want of a lighthouse upon it. The Tsung-Ming Channel has long been used by native craft, and now a few of the light draught steamers occasionally use it. The Channel generally used, however, is the southern one, and vessels bound North go round the Tsung-sha light vessel before the course for Sha-wei-shan is steered.

In the beginning of last year designs and estimates were prepared by Mr. David M. Henderson, C. E., the Chief Lighthouse Engineer, for this lighthouse, and shortly afterwards Mr. Robert Hart, the Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs, sanctioned the prosecution of the works. The tower, lantern, and light were ordered in England by Captain Forbes, Royal Navy, who at that time was marine commissioner, but has since resigned. In the autumn a few natives were sent to clear away the dense mass of trees entwined with creepers that were growing on the top of the island, and to cut pathways up two of its sides, which are exceedingly steep. The island is about 600 yards long 300 yards broad, and 190 feet high, with a narrow ridge on the top, that had to be cut down to afford space for the lightkeepers dwellings. On the first of January of the present year (1871) a European foreman landed with a number of natives, and put up the huts for the working party. The Henderson's steam derrick crane manufactured by the Messrs D. Cameron and Co of Glasgow, was erected on the cliff 50 feet high, at the southeast corner of the island, rendering the landing of the heavy materials a simple operation, even in a heavy swell. The water for the building operations and working party was partly of obtained by spreading out the corrugated iron, which was afterwards to be used for the roof, on a framework of bamboos, and the ridge pieces, when inverted, served as gutters to conduct the rain water into casks buried in the soil. On a few favourable places on the rocks narrow ridges of Portland cement guided the surface water into reservoirs of bricks, which were rendered watertight by being backed with puddled play and plastered with cement. As a further precaution in case of there being little rain, a condenser extemporised out of gas pipe was attached to the boiler of the steam crane. On one occasion, when short of water, it was tried, and produced about two hundred and fifty gallons of water in nine working hours. The water for the lightkeepers is stored in brick tanks set and plastered with cement, of a total capacity of 2400 gallons.

...and in the event of the gale of wind the tender had to run for shelter inside of the Tsung-sha light vessel which is 20 miles distant. The ports of Shanghai, from whence all the building materials were procured, is 64 nautical miles distance. The light materials were landed in ordinary ships boats and a fish boat of about five times capacity was ready to land the heavy cargo. The whole of the plates for the tower and base course of granite were stowed in a Chinese lorcha, which was towed to the island by the steam tender, and as a favourable opportunity occurred a temporary buoy was moored off the landing place, and the lorcha was hauled alongside the rocks under the steam crane, discharged, ballasted, and hauled off safely without the slightest damage. When the tower was erected the whole of the light and lantern were taken in the relief, of sailing tender, and is landed at one time. In this case the whole afternoon of the tenth of May was expended in getting the tender under the crane, on account of the strong tide and swell that was on, and at six o'clock her crew wanted to haul out to sea for the night. The men had some food given to them, and at half-past six o'clock the first case was landed. By 11 p.m. the whole was safely landed and the tender hauled off to the buoy. At 5 a.m. the following morning a gale of wind was blowing, and a clearer it had to be made.

The whole of the works were executed by natives, under Mr. Henderson's superintendence, with the assistance of English foreman and mechanic. The light was first exhibited at sunset on the 1st July. The optical apparatus is a catadioptric one of the first-order, showing a fixed white light all round the horizon, and having its centre 229 feet above high water, so that in clear weather it will be visible 22 nautical miles. The tower is painted black, and the light keepers dwellings are white. The House is built of the brick, at a distance of 90 feet from the tower, and has a passage running through its centre, with the keepers rooms opening from it. These rooms are 16 feet by 14 feet, and 10 feet by in the clear. Various thorough ventilation under all the floors and over the ceilings. The roof is boarded with 1.5 inch tongued and grooved Singapore red wood, felted, tarred, and covered in with corrugated galvanised iron, supplied by the Messrs Morewood and Co of Birmingham. The cast iron tower was manufactured by the Messrs Eastons, Amos and Anderson, of London, whilst the light and lantern were by the Messrs Chance. There was the usual difficulty in erecting the optical apparatus, as the putty used to secure the prisms in the gunmetal framing had swelled up and bulged all the lining plates to such an extent that the panels could not be got into to place. The lining plates were consequently removed and the putty, which crumbled to pieces, was brushed out and replaced by material procured in Shanghai. In ordinary weather the work men on Sha-wei-shan could see the light of the Tung-sha light vessel, although distant 20 nautical miles. This light is a catoptric one, by the Messrs Wilkins and Co of London.

The new light vessel for Niuchuang has arrived at Shanghai, after very lengthy passage from London, and on the 9th of July she proceeded north to her station at the mouth of the Liau river.

Henderson, working in a busy office in Shanghai, but ordering optical and mechanical equipment from England, could not afford any lost time following the receipt of sub-standard equipment. We might suspect that he was still suspicious of the optical equipment that he would receive from Chance Brothers at Birmingham. The problem was that there were no other British suppliers of this equipment. The rancour of his disagreements with the Practical Man must have made him distrustful of the quality of work from Chance Brothers.

Working to tight timescales and managing numerous lighthouse projects in parallel, he needed an independent third party to check the items being supplied from Chance Brothers and who, having verified that the work was satisfactory, would then authorise that they be paid. Henderson employed the services of the (then) Mr. (and later Sir) James Nicholas Douglass as a consultant to ensure that the quality of the Chance Brothers items was not compromised. Somehow, he succeeded in annoying Douglass too. Douglass was not satisfied with Henderson’s report of building the Sha-wei-shan lighthouse, as it appeared in the Engineer. It seemed that he was expecting some kind of confirmation of the quality of his (and Chance’s) work in the report, but he did not find it. In his report Henderson used the words, “There was the usual difficulty in erecting the lantern...” These words are somewhat ambiguous for they do not make clear whether he is blaming the English suppliers or whether this is a difficulty brought about by the local climate, perhaps. However, we might conclude from these words that Henderson was inclined to blame Chance Brothers and, by implication, Douglass too. It seems likely that Douglass was anticipating a complaint from Henderson that would imply that he, Douglass, had not done what was expected of him. He did not want his reputation to be impugned. He quickly sent off a letter to the Engineer [22].

12th October 1871

Referring to an article in the Engineer of the 15th ultimo, an evident omission renders it necessary for me to state that the Sha-wei-shan, and the other apparatus supplied by Messrs. Chance Brothers and Co., for the Imperial Maritime Customs of China, were constructed under my superintendence and were deficient in no points, optically or mechanically, which constitute a perfectly good lighthouse apparatus. (Jas. N Douglass, Trinity House, London EC.)

The appearance of this letter sparked a quick and most sarcastic riposte from Henderson [23] who, it appeared, was not at all impressed with Douglass’s efforts.

28th February 1872.

In your issue of the 20th October last, I observe a letter from Mr. J. N. Douglass stating that the lighthouse apparatus supplied by the Messrs. Chance Bros and Co. for this Department were constructed under his superintendence. I much regret the evident omission of this engineer’s name in the account of the Sha-wei-shan lighthouse which appeared in your paper of 15th September last, as he was specially instructed to inspect that light (amongst others ordered in 1870) during construction, to permit no deviations from the drawings and specifications and to certify for payment. Mr. Douglass’s favourable testimonial must be highly consoling to Messrs Chance, as I have written to them complaining of several deficiencies. The effect of the Sha-wei-shan light, however, at sea is very good and I have frequently seen it at a distance of twenty-two nautical miles. (D M Henderson, Engineer-in-Chief, Imperial Maritime Customs of China, Engineers Office, Shanghai.)

In Douglass’s defence, there is no evidence that these deficiencies, which were the subject of complaints from Henderson, were responsible for significant delays to the programme. It seems that Henderson was frequently involved in published arguments with his contemporaries and perhaps it was his nature that caused more than the normal amounts of jealousies and professional friction. We might conclude that Henderson was a perfectionist and that these ‘deficiencies’ that Douglass is accused of not spotting were of a minor nature. Douglass was an extremely busy man at this point and may be forgiven for this. His attentions, besides being focused on a major programme of building for Trinity House at home, were also concerned with the design and build of a number of major lighthouses abroad.