The Bizarre Death of a Keeper at The Eddystone Lighthouse

Jun 19, 2024 1 comments

Off the coast of Cornwall, on the English Channel, about 14 km south of Rame Head, lies a group of rocks, half submerged and half exposed, known as the Eddystone Rocks. These seaswept and eroded formations have been a hazard for ships for centuries. Mariners entering the English Channel feared them so much that they often hugged the coast of France to avoid the danger. This avoidance led to shipwrecks not only locally but also on the rocks of the north coast of France and the Channel Islands. Consequently, it was decided that a lighthouse was needed directly upon the treacherous rocks.

Painting by Charles Henry Seaforth depicting HMS Forte sailing past the Eddystone Lighthouse.

The first lighthouse on the Eddystone Rocks was a wooden structure built between 1696 and 1698. Exposed to the relentless crashing of the waves, the lighthouse required repairs before its first year was complete. Subsequently, it was changed to a stone-clad exterior on a timber-framed construction with an octagonal top section. The lighthouse lasted four more years before the great storm of 1703 erased almost all traces of it. The engineer who built the lighthouse, Henry Winstanley, was inside the structure that night making repairs. He perished along with the lighthouse.

Following the destruction of the first Eddystone lighthouse, a second lighthouse was built in 1709. In contrast to its predecessor, the second tower was smooth and conical, built on a base of solid wood topped by a stone structure. This substructure rose to a height of 63 feet and was interspersed with layers of wood to serve as ballast. On top of this foundation were four stories of timber, sheathed in vertical wooden planks and caulked like the hull of a ship. To ensure the construction's integrity, two master-shipwrights from Woolwich Dockyard were brought in for this addition. An octagonal lantern crowned the tower, which first shone from the lighthouse in 1708.

The lighthouse was designed by John Rudyard, a silk merchant who was neither a trained architect nor a professional engineer. Despite his lack of formal training, the tower he designed proved more durable than its predecessor, serving its purpose on the reef for nearly 50 years, until one fateful night in December 1755.

A painting of Rudyard's lighthouse by Isaac Sailmaker.

That evening, there were three keepers in the lighthouse, the oldest of whom was Henry Hall, who was 94 years old. Despite his incredible age, Hall was said to be “of good constitution and active for his years.” In the early hours of December 2, Hall was on duty, when, during a routine inspection of the lantern room he found it to be on fire. Immediately Hall threw open the trap door of the lantern room, but in doing so he inadvertently allowed fresh wind from the outside to fuel the flames, causing them to burn with greater intensity. With no time to awaken his companions, Hall grabbed a leather bucket and from a tub of rainwater that was kept in the lantern gallery, began throwing water into the lead cupola which conducted the candle smoke out through the vent in the roof. The fire had likely started from a spark emitted by a cracked chimney pipe leading from the kitchen stove below, which traveled through the lantern room and out through the roof. The lead covering over the candles, encrusted with soot and grease from nearly half a century of candle burning, had readily caught fire.

Hall’s companions eventually woke up and joined him in his effort to save the burning tower, but it was too late. Flames had already engulfed the lantern roof causing lead to melt and drip down upon Hall’s head and neck and over his clothes as he stood below hurling water towards the flaming room. At that moment, Hall had a violent sensation from within. “God help me, I’m on fire inside!”, he screamed and explained to his companions that a nugget of molten lead had dropped into his open mouth and passed down his throat.

It’s not known how Hall’s companions might have reacted to this suspicious claim, but there was no time to dwell upon it. The heat of the flames was becoming unbearable, and the three men escaped out of the tower to take shelter in a cave on the east side of the rock. At ten o’clock in the morning, after the fire had been burning for eight hours, some boatmen found the frightened, weary and sea-drenched men. They hauled them through the icy water on the end of a rope and into the boat.

Henry Hall, who was still complaining about the metal he had swallowed, was taken to Stonehouse, near Plymouth, and was placed under the supervision of Dr. Henry Spry. The doctor was understandably skeptical of Hall’s story about swallowing molten lead. Dr. Spry could scarcely believe it possible for any human being to survive after ingesting molten lead, much less endure towing through rough seas. Additionally, Hall was not exhibiting other symptoms typically associated with such an injury, leading Dr. Spry to reason that the trauma of the accident and Hall's advanced age were causing him to make wild claims.

On the 6th day after the accident, Hall made a slight recovery. He regularly took his medicines, and had no difficulty swallowing food, both solid and liquid, until the 10th day when he suddenly grew worse. On the 12th day, Henry Hall died being “seized with cold sweats and spasms.”

Dr. Spry conducted an autopsy on Hall, and made the following report on the condition of the stomach:

Examining the body, and making an incision through the left abdomen, I found the diaphragmatic upper mouth of the stomach greatly inflamed and ulcerated, and the tunica in the lower part of the stomach burnt; and from the great cavity of it took out a great piece of lead ... which weighed exactly seven ounces, five drachms and eighteen grains (about 208 grams).

The piece of lead taken from the stomach of Henry Hall after the fire of 1755. Photo credit: National Museums Scotland

Dr. Spry reported the incredible case to the Royal Society, but it was met with such skepticism that he felt compelled to conduct his own experiments to determine whether any living being could survive after ingesting molten lead.

Dr. Spry poured molten lead, by means of a funnel, down the throat of a small dog, which had eaten nothing for 24 hours, and kept the dog afterwards without food or drink. The dog was killed the next day and his stomach, when cut open, was found to be “much corrugated, but its internal coat was not excoriated.”

In another experiment, Dr. Spry fed a large dog with milk and soon afterwards poured molten lead down his throat. The dog, according to the doctor, showed no reaction and heartily ate more milk that was offered. The dog lived for three days without any affliction before he was killed and autopsied. Dr. Spry noted that “the pharynx and cardiac orifice of the stomach were a little inflamed and excoriated, but the esophagus and stomach seemed in no manner affected.”

Dr. Spry performed similar experiments on fowls with alike results. Only after an account of these experiments were presented to the Royal Society, Dr. Spry’s paper was published in the Society’s magazine.

The lump of lead retrieved from Henry Hall’s stomach is now kept in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. There is a also small plaque dedicated to Henry Hall with a few details as to the nature of this death located in Plymouth city centre.

Henry Hall’s plaque in the Plymouth City Centre. Photo credit: ZepherusWIKI

# Christopher P. Nicholson, Rock Lighthouses of Britain: The End of an Era?
# H. Baillière, The Zoist, Volume 11


  1. That's a terrible thing to do to dogs. Weren't there any politicians available?


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