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Joseph Nelson (1777-1833)

Lighthouses which Joseph Nelson was responsible for building:

South Stack (1809)
Bideford (1820)
Bardsey Island (1821)
Longstone (1826)
Berwick-upon-Tweed (1826)
Burnham-on-Sea lower light (1832)
Nash Point (1832)

Biography [D B Hague and R Christie, “Lighthouses, Their Architecture, History and Archaeology, Gomer Press, 1975, p221-2]

A native of Whitkirk, Leeds, where he died. Although it is tempting to think that his choice of career might have been influenced by the fact that John Smeaton came from the same area, there is no evidence of any connection. His name is associated with at least fifteen lighthouses and he is first recorded as builder of the South Stack, designed by Daniel Alexander in 1809. In the same capacity he was engaged with the two lights on the Inner Farne in 1809-10. In 1826 he returned to the area, when he is recorded as Engineer of the Longstone. He built several Welsh towers including the square Bardsey in 1821 and others on each side of the Bristol Channel. His Berwick pier light of 1826 shows the influence of Daniel Alexander’s Harwich. During the building of his last towers at Nash he made use of the Dowlais Iron Company as a bank and MSS preserved in the Glamorgan Record Office are in his hand as is the drawing of Longstone at Trinity House. A handsome building only recently demolished was the high light at Bideford. This, designed by Joseph Nelson, was clearly inspired by the method of bracing used in wooden windmill construction, and also very probably by the triangular construction used by Robert Stevenson as a barrack during the building of the Bell Rock. Nelson was also responsible for the wooden Burnham low light which like the famous Smalls was a piled structure supporting an enclosed cabin and lantern.

[By James Hogg, descendent:]
“Nelson was not a native of Whitkirk as stated in the quotation, but was born at Birstall, near Batley, Yorks in 1777. He came from a family of stonemasons, still operating in Birstall until last year. Perhaps it was his skill with stone which led him into lighthouse building. I can imagine that in his young days he might worked cutting and dressing the stone on a lighthouse job, and, having shown some aptitude, slowly became a builder and designer himself.”

1809: Inner Farne

Improvements to the Inner Farne lighthouse in which William Darling was living with his family.

[Richard Armstrong: “Grace Darling, Maid and Myth”, J M Dent and Son, London, 1965, page 41]

In the summer of 1809 large-scale improvements were made to the Inner Farne Light. The work was supervised by Joseph Nelson, engineer to Trinity House, and consisted of erecting a round tower and installing a revolving light equipped with seven reflectors and Argand lamps. This lamp was an invention dating back to around 1780 which used a circular wick to increase the current of air and intensify the flame. Similar alterations were made on the Brownsman in 1810, and in the back end of that same year the Darlings began to keep a 'regular Journal'. By this is meant, one would assume, a record of events, written up daily; but the number of entries in the published version does not increase to any great extent, and the inference previously noted that the Journal was expurgated in transcription becomes in escapable. The work on Brownsman was completed before the end of the year and on 10th December 'the revolving light first lighted' on the island.

1809: South Stack

[Douglas B Hague, “Lighthouses of Wales”, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 1994, p57-8.]

The South Stack lighthouse occupies a site of dramatic grandeur on the 30.5 m (100 ft) summit of a small island off the north-west of Holyhead Island. Since the 27.7 m (91 ft) high lighthouse was erected in 1809 the scene has attracted and inspired countless artists, photographers and geologists. The 122 m (400 ft) high mainland cliffs display fantastic and flamboyant faults of pre-Cambrian rocks. During the building operations a cable way was used to carry materials from the mainland to the island and in 1828 this and an early rope bridge were replaced by a suspension bridge at a cost of £1046, which in its turn has been succeeded by a rigid tubular lattice-type bridge. Both lie at the foot of a spectacular descent of 400 stone steps. The engineer and builder of the tower were Daniel Alexander and Joseph Nelson respectively. Nelson later designed several more lighthouse towers on the West Coast of Britain. The cost was £11,828 exclusive of the attendant dwellings also built by Nelson. Revolving Argand lamps and reflectors were added in 1818. In 1874 the white painted tower was heightened and a new lantern fitted. The simple, dignified, and whitened tower is dominated by its atypical cornice with modillions (projecting brackets). An unknown artist painted two versions of an excellent view showing the tower under construction with rock being carried from the clifftop.

The site had two unusual features, an inverted fog bell weighing 2.5 tons and an ingenious arrangement whereby, when the frequent fog or low cloud obscured the light, a small clockwork operated 3.05 m (10 ft) square lantern mounted on wheels was lowered down the quarry-like railed inclined to within 15.2 m (50 ft) of the sea. The builder and engineer of this early 1832 traveller-incline, cut into the north side of the rock, was a Hugh Evans. Only the bed of the incline survives today. The compressed air horn was later fitted on this site and this in turn has been replaced by the fixing of an electronic fog signal.

The lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in 1984 and is operated from the Holyhead control centre. The former Trinity has fog signal station at Holyhead north stack has now been sold off.

1818 Lundy Lighthouse

In the early days of his lighthouse career, Joseph Nelson is reported as being the builder to Daniel Alexander’s designs. The two men obviously worked closely together and this quotation from Hague and Christie mentions the building at Lundy, as well as those at South Stack, Heligoland and Harwich.

[D B Hague and R Christie, “Lighthouses, Their Architecture, History and Archaeology, Gomer Press, 1975, p102]

An interesting innovation, due no doubt to the British climate, was the use of cavity-wall construction which was used in the mid-eighteenth century. The 33.53m high Leasowe tower on the Mersey which was built in 1763 is a good example. The regular thickness of brick made it possible to separate the outer and inner skin by a uniform cavity. It is interesting to note that this essentially brick technique was adapted by Daniel Alexander who after using solid masonry at South Stack in 1809 tried a cavity at Heligoland in 1811 in a masonry tower. The two skins were each 0.34m thick at the base (brick-sizes) with a 75mm cavity, this increased to 0.23m at the top where the walls also thinned. In 1818 he was engaged on the construction of the Lundy granite tower and the decagonal and enneagonal brick towers at Harwich. The latter had two skins of 34 m, but the former is exceptional, as recorded in 1861, in having two granite walls.

The following extract adds confirmation about the roles of Daniel Alexander and Joseph Nelson.

[Robert Farrah “The Trinity House Lundy Archive. A Paper in Memory of the Lighthouse Keepers of Lundy”, Flash, 1996]

The building [Lundy lighthouse] was designed by Daniel Alexander, one of the best known of architects and civil engineers at this time; the builder was Joseph Nelson. Alexander had succeeded Samuel Wyatt as Consultant Engineer to Trinity House in 1807 and designed many lighthouses the first of which was South Stack in 1809.

1821: Bardsey

[Douglas B Hague, “Lighthouses of Wales. Their Architecture and Archaeology”, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical monuments of Wales, 1994.]

Bardsey: Ynys Enili,
Gwynedd (Caernarfonshire. SH 111206)

The site is significant for having the tallest square tower of any lighthouse site in the British Isles.

The 30.2m (99ft) high Bardsey tower of 1821 is a sea light set on the southern tip of Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula and marks the division between Caernarfon and Cardigan Bays. Application for a light here was first made in 1816 by Lt. Thomas Evans RN, but several other applications made in 1820 finally resulted in the building of the tower by the Corporation of Trinity House. The tight was first exhibited on 24 December 1821 [24]. Joseph Nelson is recorded as both engineer and builder, but the heavy weathered string-course near the base and the
blocked and hooded directional-light window show the influence of Daniel Alexander, who succeeded Samuel Wyatt as architect to Trinity House, and under whom Nelson served. Joseph Nelson is

[24] Royal Commission on Lights and Buoys, 1861.

associated with the design of at least fifteen light houses, mostly in the Bristol Channel. This hand some tower is well built of ashlar limestone unplastered inside and out, but painted externally with white and red bands; the stone was supplied by William Thomas. It is unusual amongst Trinity House towers of this period in being square in plan. It is also one of the few lighthouses of this authority to retain its original gallery railings. These are of iron and bellied (i.e. curved out in width at their crowns) towards the top. Other examples are to be seen in the disused harbour light at Salt Island, Holyhead, designed by John Rennie in the same year, on Rennie's companion tower of 1818 at Howth, and also on the east coast of Britain's Great or Inner Fame light of 1811, designed by Daniel Alexander with Joseph Nelson recorded as builder. When the present lantern was fitted in 1856 it was found possible to retain the original gallery railing.

The unusual square tower at Bardsey had a ground-floor oil-store ceiled by a shallow vault. There is a central counter-weight tube for the rotative mechanism. The tower has a powerful and elaborately enriched plinth about 4m (13ft) high. At ground level the structure is 7.6m (25ft) square reducing to (2Oft) at the top of the plinth and to 4.6m (15ft) at the summit of the tower below the crowning cornice which is itself 5.5m (18ft) square. The walls are l.2m (4ft) thick at their base diminishing to under 0.9m (3ft) at 22m (72ft), above this the lantern makes a total height of 30.2m (99ft). The tower is non residential, but has a floor over the 2.4m (8ft) high ground-floor oil-store which is celled by a shallow vault of slabs. A similar vault carries the next stage 9.lm (29ft 8ins) above the ground at the level of the bkcked low-light; above this the interior is open and contains a cantilevered stair. In the east wall of this second floor can be traced the outline of a 1 .2m (4ft) wide blocked window with a shouldered head, and this feature is clearly expressed externally by recessed blocking and a projecting or hooded lintel. Nothing is known of the history of this opening which was clearly intended to display a sector light, perhaps intended to assist landing. As its blocking stones are dressed in exactly the same fashion as the Surrounding masonry this may well have been done at the time of construction and the low-light may never have functioned. The external hood closely resembles those at Harwich and Lundy, both designed by Daniel Alexander (1768-1846) in 1818. As Nelson was employed as builder at Lundy, it is tempting to consider that the idea came from there. The original illumination was by reflectors, but these were changed for a dioptric (refracting) apparatus in 1838; the appearance of the original lantern is not known. The present lantern of 1856 is a 4.27 m (l4 ft) wide chamfered octagon, its glazing is rhomboidal with two horizontal glazing bars and inclined up rights. The light itself remained fixed, rather than revolving. The lower iron walling is 1.5m (5ft) high


and the glazed area 3 m (l0 ft) high, its cost was £2,950 16s 7d. As already noted, the original railings were retained as they were just curved enough to enable keepers of average girth to continue to circulate around the new apparatus. The present revolving apparatus was installed in l873~' and this entailed the reconstruction of the lantern floor and the provision of a weight tube down to the second floor. This gives a group of five flashes and the vapourizing oil-lamp was replaced by electricity shortly before 1973. The installation of the generators resulted in the fog-signal changing to the electrical emitters installed in a new building to the west.

The original keepers' houses have a connecting corridor to the lighthouse tower through its east wall. They have now been converted to other uses
and new dwellings have been erected to the south-east. The station also retains a circular, nineteen century vaulted oil store or magazine. Bardsey is also unusual amongst island rock stations in lacking any sort of harbour or quay facilities, although one was planned just before World War 11. As it is on a well established migratory route the tower has claimed many bird victims. The Royal Society the Protection of Birds and Trinity House ha attempted to reduce this slaughter. They include the provision of perches on top of the lantern flood-lighting the tower to lessen the dazzle of the lamp; alas, neither has proved successful.

The Bardsey Lighthouse is now an automatic light operated from the Holyhead Control Centre. Keepers' houses are leased out to the Bardsey Island Trust.

1825: Longstone
Nelson was architect for the construction of the Longstone lighthouse

[Richard Armstrong: “Grace Darling, Maid and Myth”, J M Dent and Son, London, 1965, page 54-59]

The new year came in roaring, and the toll of shipping went on unabated as if to confirm Trinity House in its momentous decision and hurry on the execution of it. On 24th January the sloop Arms, laden with coal, was lost on the south point of the Megstone in a southerly gale and blinding sleet. The crew were able to scramble on to the rock and were eventually taken off by a boat from Holy Island. Then more tragically:

March 18: The Thomas Jackson, barque, 300 tons of and from Hull to Leith and Miramichi (New Brunswick), struck south side of Crimstone, blowing fresh from south, and became total wreck. The Captain and seven men got off from her bows on the rock and were taken off by two boats from Holy Island; but the Captain's wife, two men and two boys were lost. The Captain had his leg broken but recovered.

And as if in answer to this, the very next day - i.e. 19th March 1825 - the Trinity House yacht brought Captain Fullerton and others of the Brethren, together with Mr. Nelson, their engineer, to the Brownsman Island in order to begin the initial survey for the new lighthouse on the Longstone Rock.

The Corporation of Trinity House, for all its dignity and aloofness, its aura of tradition and formalism, let no grass grow under its feet, and once it had decided on a course of action its progress along it had something of the inevitability and rhythm of the seasons. The survey was completed, the plans drawn up and passed, the barracks to house the workmen built on the rock itself, the foreman Thomas Wade and Mr. Nelson, the architect, settled in on the Brownsman with the Darlings and the work of erection well under way before the end of April 1825. That would be good going even in a war or in our own age of advanced technology and highly sophisticated organization; in those days, when the smoke from Waterloo had hardly yet dispersed, it was terrific.
The proposition was to throw up a tower of masonry eighty-five feet high. It had to be circular and smooth and its centre of gravity as low as clever shaping could make it. The stones would have to be dovetailed into each other. Precision was everything and nothing must be left to chance. The first step was to cut that part of the living rock which was to form the base of the tower into horizontal shelves or terraces. Into these the lower courses of stones were exactly dovetailed until a level foundation had been achieved. Then the tower began to mount and each stone in it was dovetailed into its neighbours on either side and each course into the one below it. The stones were quarried at Bramley Fell in Yorkshire and loaded into billyboys and sloops at Selby to be brought down the Humber and round by sea to the Farnes. They were probably worked to size and shape and dressed smooth at the quarry, leaving only the fitting to be done on the exposed rock.

As usual the Journal grudges information. It tells us nothing of the difficulties encountered, the accidents suffered, the set backs overcome or even of the progress made. We are also left in the dark about the number of men engaged, the kind of people they were and the sort of life they led on that wind-swept rock. The piece about the origin of the stones is appended to the entries for the year as a postscript, and it is followed by a curiously precise list of wage rates which reads:

Foremen 5s. 6d. per day
Masons 5s. 0d. ,, ,,
Boatmen 4s. 4d. ,, ,,
Labourers 3s. 0d. ,, ,,
Boys 2s. 0d. ,, ,,

No lost time, unless detained on shore.

It must of course be assumed that these rates of pay took into account the peculiar hazards and discomforts involved in the job, but they form a useful basis for comparison. The project would bring an upsurge of prosperity to the longshoremen of Bamburgh and North Sunderland, and one wonders what William Darling made out of it. His son William at nineteen could conceivably have been in on the racket as a 'boatman' and both Job at fifteen and Robert aged eleven on the payroll as 'boys'. But the Journal is silent on this point as on so much else, and the question inevitably arises, was this the kind of information subsequently expunged on Thomasin's insistence? It could be that she had It scrubbed from the record because it implied her father always had an eye on the main chance, and she was anxious to present him to the world as a man to whom money meant nothing.

Be that as it may, the tower mounted rapidly. As the year wore away, Nelson the architect and Thomas Wade, his foreman, drove themselves and their men to the limit. Even at the height of the summer they were keenly aware of the threat of winter and used every available hour of daylight in a race to complete the job, or at least get it high enough into the air to be safe from the sea before the weather broke.

On 29th September Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland, who among other things was Vice-Admiral of the Coast, came to the Longstone to view the new building. He arrived in his cutter-rigged yacht, the Mermaid: 'Captain John and Mr Joy, mate.' Hugh was the third duke, and at this time very much involved in the affairs of the world. Four years later he was to become Viceroy of Ireland, and in due course of time Sir Robert Peel pronounced him the best viceroy that unhappy country had ever known. Greville, however, commented on his vanity and the way he flaunted his wealth. 'A good sort of man', he called him, 'but narrow-minded....' He also appears to have been pretty feudal in his attitude to the common people. Nevertheless he seems to have got on very well with the lighthouse keeper. A number of letters that subsequently passed between them have been preserved. Those from the duke have in them faint under-tones of patronage, but the dominant impression is of respect for the man. On this occasion he apparently showed great interest and was most amiable.

According to Miss Smedley, who had it from some of the old man's grandchildren, the duke was keenly interested in the family and the way they lived in their isolation. He asked questions about their husbandry and wanted to know if they caught much fish. 'He found the Darlings admirably sound. The duke admired their thrift; in spite of his magnificence, he also was thrifty; he liked their diligence; he also was diligent.' It was a memorable occasion, especially for the children.

After this demonstration of his 'common touch' the duke went on his ostentatious way and the building proceeded. There is no mention of any hitch or any kind of crisis, and it must be assumed everything went according to plan, which says a lot for the plan and those at Trinity House who made it.

The weather broke as usual around the time of the equinox, and on i7th October the Journal records that a curlew, driven by the high wind, 'broke one square glass in the Lantern, falling dead inside'. Then on 26th November in a whole gale from the west a boat with four men in it was wrecked on Rodamund Green Islet. The men 'were detained four hours on the rock before I could get them off it', writes the lighthouse keeper.

By the middle of December the tower was completed, nine months that is almost to the day after the initial survey; the masons and the labourers were paid off on the seventeenth, and on the same day a party of three experts arrived to erect the lantern.

That must have been a trying nine months for the Darlings- their quarters crowded, their privacy continually invaded, their little lost world overrun with strangers; and on top of all that there would be the coming and going of small craft, the shouting and the cursing and the hammering, scaring the birds and disturbing the sheep. Then there would be the sudden extra demands on their hospitality, with consequent extra cooking and washing and cleaning. The excitement would be some compensation, but they must have been glad when it was all over, and none of them more so than Grace. She was now ten years old and, if her brother William Brooks Darling is to be believed, 'timid and retiring, but not afraid of the sightseers or workmen'.

The three men who came to erect the lantern are identified by the Journal as a Mr. Wilkins, a Mr. Nicholson and a young man of eighteen named John Wheldon. Miss Smedley has worked up a very strong line on the latter. He was, she says, born in Newcastle upon Tyne of humble parents who took him as an infant to London where the only education he received was at the Silver Street Sunday school. At the age of sixteen he was in the employment of a firm of booksellers in Henrietta Street, but left them and got a job with the firm which did the Trinity House installations. 'He was dour, reserved, with a moonish visage, long upper lip and deep-set eyes; but he was of great tenacity both of purpose and affections.' We are asked to believe that this character and the ten-year-old girl-child were drawn together.

Grace [says Miss Smedley], smiling, happy, gentle, found nothing to be afraid of in a lad like her own brothers. He shared her enthusiasm for the tower. He marvelled at her knowledge of the natural wonders round them, at her fearlessness, her diligence, her undeviating cheerfulness and kindness. It was a wonderful Christmas for the hard-featured, determined lad.

William Darling perceived John Wheldon's intelligence and grit; a friendship was begun which brought him back to the lighthouse, year after year.

If there was any truth at all in this, surely Thomasin would have made some reference to it in the True Stoiy, even if her father omitted to do so in his Journal; but there is no mention of it in either place nor in any of the available correspondence. Thomasin merely quoted the Journal entry naming the three men with a footnote reading: 'The Weldon or Wheldon above mentioned was the father of a well-known bookseller in Paternoster Row.' Miss Smedley, however, carries the story through to its bitter-sweet end and tucks that neatly away. She avers John Wheldon watched Grace 'grow in charm as well as stature'; that 'she won and kept his heart'; and notes that when he died nearly half a century after she did, The Times obituary mentioned he was 'a great admirer of Grace Darling'. This can be taken or left according to taste. Miss Smedley's follow-up of John Wheldon revealed that he went back to bookselling and eventually founded the firm of John Wheldon & Co., scientific booksellers. This firm became the English agent of the Smithsonian Institute which was founded by the bastard son of the first Duke of Northumberland. It might be a small world, but some of the threads by which we make it so are tenuous almost to the point of non-existence!

The lantern experts stayed and worked over the Christmas. We are not told when they left, but Thomasin informs us: “The London Gazette of the 4th February, 1826, contains a notice by the Trinity House, signed J. Herbert, Secretary, that the new Longstone light would be exhibited on the evening of Wednesday, the 5th of February, and the Brownsman light be then discontinued,”

and the Journal, in eight short sharp words, notes under the specified date that what the Corporation had ordained was done.