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Nicholas Douglass







Mr. Nicholas Douglass, was associated with an engineering and shipbuilding firm on the Thames. The Douglasses came, however, from an old Scottish border family which had been settled in Northumberland since the thirteenth century, and has been connected with Blaydon and Winlaton since the latter part of the seventeenth century, as shown by records in Ryton church. It was in Blaydon that Mr. Nicholas Douglass was born, and in Newcastle-on-Tyne that he served his engineering apprenticeship with a Mr. Burnett. He and both his sons were freemen of the city.

In 1839 Nicholas Douglass was engaged by the Trinity House as a constructive engineer - rising in course of time to be its superintending engineer

In 1847 Mr. Nicholas Douglass was selected by his employers to erect the first lighthouse on the Bishop Rock, situated about seven miles from St. Mary's, Scilly Isles. There are over a hundred islands or rocks forming the Scilly group, many of them highly dangerous to shipping; and the Bishop, until it was lighted, was among the most perilous of all. It was on the Bishop and Clerk that in 1707 the " Association," carrying the flag of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, then Commander-in-Chief of the British fleets, struck and broke up, with the loss of eight hundred lives. Two other ships of the squadron - the " Eagle" and "Romney" - were wrecked at the same time; the total loss of life from these disasters being about two thousand. And a visitor to the island of Tresco is confronted with tangible proofs of the deadly character of the surrounding rocks and reefs; for in the Abbey grounds thereat is a ghastly array of figure-heads of various ships that have foundered locally during subsequent years.

Nicholas Douglass was a man of iron nerve and tireless energy - qualities which the nature of his calling specially demanded.

Despite his pluck, Nicholas Douglass was never rash, and consequently carried out with remarkable immunity from serious accidents the several dangerous engineering operations that were entrusted to him. Dr. Smiles, in his book" Duty," tells the story of Mr. Walker once presenting Nicholas Douglass to the great Duke of Wellington, with the remark:
"Here is a man who has fought as many battles as your Grace, but he has never lost a single life." "I wish I could say the same" was the Duke's reply.

It should further be mentioned of Nicholas Douglass that he was one whom it was never safe to trifle with. Fearing no foe, he not only contended valiantly with the angry winds and waves, but held his own on several occasions (while engaged in erecting the Bishop lighthouse) against even the great Mr. Augustus Smith, then lord of the Scilly Isles. That gentleman was an autocrat, to which fact the Scilly Isles owed much of their prosperity, for his lordly rule was, on the whole, a beneficent one. Sometimes, however, his arbitrary methods brought him and the lighthouse engineer into conflict, when the latter, in defence of the interests committed to his charge, would courageously withstand the mighty man.

The Corporation of Trinity House took the earliest opportunity of recording the high sense they entertained "of the good services rendered by every person engaged in this difficult operation," and of expressing their warmest appreciation of the labours of Mr. Nicholas Douglass (whom they presented with a handsome sum of money) '* to whose intrepid courage and energy, combined with the coolest judgment and forethought, may be ascribed the successful termination of a work carried on during a period of eight years under circumstances at all times dangerous, and frequently of great peril, without loss of life, or the occurrence of any accident of a serious nature." The cost of the tower was £34,500, and that of the iron structure which was destroyed £12,500.

The construction of the second Bishop lighthouse was a work of immense difficulty and danger. The rock is covered at high-water, ordinary spring tides, and afforded only just sufficient base to receive a stone tower of adequate strength to withstand the tremendous Atlantic billows to which the site isexposed. Throughout the early stages of the work there was no shelter whatever from the heavy seas which would suddenly submerge the rock - the men at such times clinging for safety to stanchions fixed for the purpose, or even to one another. To get on to the rock was generally difficult, and to get of, frequently more so - many of the company being often detained there until late at night, owing to the surf preventing the landing boats from approaching near enough to remove them. To plunge into the sea and be hauled to the boats was then a quite ordinary occurrence. In all such scenes William Douglass (like his brother before him) was an intrepid and capable lieutenant to his father; and it was in no small degree due to the younger, and therefore more agile, man that the tower, after eight years' excessive and arduous labours, was successfully completed and lighted, namely in September 1858.

There was some difficulty, when the tower was nearly ready for lighting, in finding keepers to inhabit it ; but the dilemma was met by two of the best of the workmen who had been employed in erecting the building volunteering, and being accepted, for the duty. The fact is, the spot was known to be, on the whole, perhaps the roughest of any lighthouse station in the world, and then there was the memory of the disastrous fate of the first structure to scare even the ordinarily brave ; or else such an incident is quite exceptional in official experience, light keepers readily going anywhere under orders. All honour to them ! They are a worthy body of men, the value of whose services to the general weal is not sufficiently understood by the public.

The method adopted, in the case of the present tower, as well as in that of every rock light-house erected by the Trinity House since the "Hanois" (completed in 1862) is the invention of Mr. Nicholas Douglass. It consists in having a raised dovetailed band, three inches in height, on the top bed and one end joint of each stone. A corresponding dovetailed recess is cut in the bottom bed and end joint of the adjoining stones, with just sufficient clearance for the raised band to enter it freely in setting. The work, when thus put together and set in Portland cement, is nearly as homogeneous as solid granite.

  • James Nicholas Douglas

  • William Douglas

  • See also:
  • Douglass Brothers Limited, Globe Iron Works, Blaydon



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