Happisburgh Lighthouse is the oldest working light in East Anglia, and the only independently run lighthouse in Great Britain. It was built in 1790, and was originally one of a pair. The tower is 85ft tall and the lantern is 134ft above sea level. The `low light`, which was discontinued in 1883, was 20ft lower and the pair formed leading lights marking safe passage around the southern end of the treacherous Happisburgh Sands, seven miles offshore and a notorious shipping hazard.
Today the lighthouse is painted white with three red bands, and has a light characteristic of Fl (3) W 30s (3 white flashes, repeated every 30secs) with a range of 18 miles.
Saved as a working light by the local community, it is maintained and operated entirely by voluntary contributions.
1789 – During a severe winter storm 70 sailing ships and 600 men were lost off the Norfolk Coast. An inquiry, which drew attention to the complete lack of warning lights between the fire beacon at Cromer and the candle-powered light at Winterton, resulted in Trinity House building two lighthouses at Happisburgh: the LOW LIGHT on the Cliff Top and the HIGH LIGHT (the present lighthouse) 400 yards inland.
1791 – Both Lighthouses came into operation on the evening of New Year’s Day, illumination being by many candles housed in the lantern surmounting each tower. By keeping both lights in line, vessels were guided around the southern end of the sands and onto the sheltered stretch of water known as ‘The Would’.
1801 – The candle lanterns were replaced by oil lamps with polished reflectors.
1863 – A new lantern, of revolutionary design, was installed. This is the lantern which tops the lighthouse today. It consists of diagonal frames which cross each other at a constant angle enabling shipping to see the light from all angles to seaward.
1865 – Cannel Gas was introduced as the light source. As there was no local supply, the gas was manufactured from coal on the premises and stored in two large gas holders in the yard behind the lighthouse.
1868 – A new optic was fitted. Because Happisburgh was a fixed light (not flashing) at that time the new equipment did not need to rotate, making the installation much easier. The optic, consisting of many glass prisms and a central lens gave the HIGH LIGHT a range of 17 miles; the LOW LIGHT had a range of 15 miles.
1883 – The LOW LIGHT, threatened by coastal erosion was withdrawn from service and demolished. The fixed beacon of the HIGH LIGHT was changed to an occulting character, the light shining for 25 seconds followed by a 5 second eclipse.
1884 – Now that there was only one tower at Happisburgh, it was necessary to distinguish it from the tower at Winterton during daylight. This was achieved by painting the Happisburgh tower with the three broad red bands which we see today.
1910 – Paraffin-vapour burners replaced the gas light.
1929 – Acetylene made it possible to dispense with the resident keepers, although an attendant was still required to check the light periodically. The Keepers’ cottages were sold shortly afterwards and remain private dwellings.
1947 – Electricity was installed, using a 500 watt lamp with a range of 18 miles. The stand-by light continued to be powered by acetylene. The character of the light was now altered to a flashing sequence – 3 white flashes every 30 seconds.
1988 – Trinity House, after a major review of navigational aids, announced their intention to discontinue five lighthouses, four light vessels, several fog signals and numerous buoys and minor lights. Happisburgh was on the list for closure. The date for scheduled closure and decommissioning by Trinity House was June 13th 1988.
Kay Swan, a Marine Geophysicist and local resident, knew of the dangers of working offshore without a guiding light in this treacherous southern area of the North Sea. She set about organising a petition to oppose the closure and the Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse was formed to promote the campaign. As a result Trinity House agreed to postpone the closure date. Under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 Trinity House can only dispose of a working Lighthouse to an Established Lighthouse Authority. A vigorous fund-raising campaign was therefore mounted to promote the necessary Private Bill through Parliament. Nat West Bank, when asked for an interest free loan, donated the £15,000 needed to cover the legal costs.
On 25th April 1990 the Bill received the Royal Assent. The passing of the Bill made Happisburgh the only independently run operational lighthouse in Great Britain and the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust was established as a Local Light Authority. The Trust is a registered Charity governed by six appointed Trustees who are responsible under the Act of Parliament for operating and maintaining the Light.
On June 20th 1990 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, visited the Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse was repainted inside and out on August 30-31st 1990 during filming for the BBC programme “Challenge Anneka”.
The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse continued their fund raising work after the formation of the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust and in February 1995 became a separate Registered Charity whose aim is to assist the maintenance and preservation of Happisburgh Lighthouse in augmentation of the work carried out by the Trust. The Friends, through membership subscriptions and fundraising events, are a vital source of regular funds to enable the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust to maintain and operate the Lighthouse; the oldest working light in East Anglia and the only independently operated Lighthouse in the UK.