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Sir James Douglass



Sir Jams Nicholas DouglasSir James Nicholas Douglass, FRS, (16 October 1826 – 19 June 1898), was an English civil engineer, a prolific lighthouse builder and designer, most famous for the design and construction of the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse, for which he was knighted.

James Nicholas Douglass was born in Bow, London, in 1826, the eldest son of  Nicholas Douglass, also a civil engineer, from a 'respected Northumbrian family'. After serving an apprenticeship with the Hunter and English company, he joined the engineering department of Trinity House, the United Kingdom's lighthouse authority.

Along with his brother William, James worked as an assistant to his father during the construction of James Walker's Bishop Rock Lighthouse, earning the nickname 'Cap'n Jim' during the process. After a brief period working for the Newcastle carriage builders R J & R Laycock, he returned in 1854 to assist in the lighthouse's final completion and to marry his fiancee Mary Tregarthen. Trinity House then engaged him as Resident Engineer to design the Smalls Lighthouse off the coast of Pembrokeshire, his first solo project.

Douglass based his plans on the proven design of John Smeaton for the third Eddystone lighthouse, which had used dovetailed granite blocks for strength. Douglass sourced his granite from the De Lank Quarries near Bodmin, Cornwall, and had it shipped to Solva on the Welsh coast where it was dressed. The Smalls light was completed in 1861, at a cost of £50,125, and in a record-breaking time of two years. Douglass immediately went on to supervise the construction of the Wolf Rock Lighthouse, designed by James Walker, and was appointed as Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House in 1862.

Douglass's work on the Smalls light was a great success and he went on to build some twenty lighthouses for Trinity House, including some wave-swept towers which remain major engineering achievements, such as the Longships Lighthouse off Land's End. Douglass's designs were also used in Sri Lanka. His brother William became the Engineer-in-Chief to the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1878, serving in the post until 1900.

The crowning achievement of James Douglass's career was the construction of the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse. Douglass was engaged to build a replacement for Smeaton's tower in 1877, and the new lighthouse was completed in 1882, the project being finished both without loss of life or serious injury and £18,745 under budget. Douglass received a knighthood shortly afterwards for his services to engineering. He also carried out work on improving illumination using oil and gas burners and electricity, though in this capacity he was involved a bitter public dispute in 1883 with scientist John Tyndall and inventor John Richardson Wigham, in which the latter accused Douglass of copying elements of his rival gas illumination system (Wigham eventually received £2500 from the Board of Trade for infringement of his patent).

In 1887 Douglass was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He retired in 1892, being succeeded as Engineer-in-Chief by Thomas Matthews, and died in 1898 at his home on the Isle of Wight. His youngest son Alfred also trained as a lighthouse engineer. His eldest surviving son was William Tregarthen Douglass, who gained a considerable reputation as a civil engineer in the construction of lighthouses.

Examples of Douglass's designs

Souter Lighthouse
Eddystone Lighthouse
Bishop Rock Lighthouse (a rebuild of Walker's design)
Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, London
The fourth Eddystone Lighthouse
Hartland Point Lighthouse, Devon
Great Castle Head range lights, Milford Haven
Les Hanois Lighthouse, Guernsey
Longships Lighthouse
Smalls Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse, Tyne and Wear
Southwold Lighthouse, Suffolk

Sir James Douglass appears to have been buried in two places.

Memorial at St Petrox Church 

The first instance is an inscription on a slate tablet placed in the cemetery of Bonchurch Old Church, Isle of Wight - 'In this churchyard lies buried Sir James Nicholas Douglass FRS, Lighthouse builder 1826 - 1898.  He was re-interned Aug 1913 St. Petrox, Dartmouth'

The second instance is a grave is in the church yard of St. Petrox Church, Dartmouth, Devon. The church east facing side of the monument reads :-

'Sacred to the memory of James Nicholas Douglass, Knight, F.R.S. Late engineer in Chief to The Honourable Corporation of Trinity House.'

The reverse town west side of the monument reads :-

'Walk as he walked in faith and righteousness;
Strive as he strove the weak and poor to aid;
Seek not thyself but other men to bless;
So win like him a wreath that will not fade.'

A commemorative table in the church reads :-

In proud memory of Sir James Nicholas Douglass, KT, FRS. Died June 19th 1898 age 71.
And of Mary, his wife, died June 22nd 1922 aged 92.
Also of their three beloved grandsons who fell in the Great War .
Percy Cuthbert Douglass Douglass; FLT. Commdr. RN. Died December 10th 1917 at Salonica aged 31.
William Douglass James, Lieut. RGA. Died September 26th 1915 at Loos age 23.
Douglass Charles James, 2nd Lieut S.Staff Reg. Died September 30th 1915 at Loos age 20.


The place of birth in this article is at odds with the above:

James Nicholas Douglass was born at Stella House, Penzance, in 1826, and died at Stella House, Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, on July 19th 1898. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that it was he who gave the name of 'Stella House' to 11 College Road, (?Dulwich) which in 1877 (when it was one of the very few freehold properties on the estate) was purchased by W. T. Douglass "for the use of J. N. Douglass". The association of the word 'stella' (Latin for 'star') with Douglass is entirely appropriate, as he devoted his working life to creating artificial suns as navigational and safety aids for sailors - in other words, lighthouses. The inventor of the 'Douglass Burner', he was the designer and engineer in charge of construction for the replacement for the Eddystone Lighthouse, for which work he was knighted in 1882. At various times he had been resident engineer on the Bishop Rock, Smalls, and Wolf Rock Light-houses off the south-west coast of England, and then held the post of Engineer-in-Chief to the Trinity House until his retirement in 1892.

As well as being a Fellow of the Royal Society, Douglass became an Estates Governor and a Governor of Dulwich College, to which he sent two of his five sons. One of these was William Tregarthen Douglass (the purchaser of Stella House in 1877), who was himself a distinguished engineer, the author of several books on the subject, and Consulting Engineer to various public boards.

Lady Mary Lady Mary Lady Mary Douglass
The former Mary Tregarthen, who became
Lady Mary Douglass born 2 May 1832,
St Mary's, Isles Of Scilly, Cornwall, England
Reverse of photograph  

1.  The story is told that Mary's father, Captain James Tregarthen, a shipowner, was also the owner of the first hotel on Scilly. Guests could only leave the island and hotel when the 'Little Western' was running - and sometimes it did not run..!



See also:

  • Douglass Brothers Limited, Globe Iron Works, Blaydon


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