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William Douglas






William DouglassThe Douglasses were an old Scottish border family which settled in Northumberland in the 13th century. William's father, Nicholas Douglass, was born in Blaydon, Northumberland, and served his engineering apprenticeship under a Mr Burnett of Newcastle-on-Tyne.

Nicholas joined Trinity House in 1839 as a Construction Engineer, advancing to Superintendent Engineer. Nicholas was a man of iron nerve and tireless energy. He carried out several dangerous engineering operations entrusted to him, with remarkable immunity from serious accident.

Nicholas was presented to the Duke of Wellington with the remark 'Here is a man who has fought as many battles as your Grace but he has not lost a single life'.

'I wish I could say the same' was the Duke's reply.

William Douglass was born in London in 1831. Apprenticed to Robert Stephenson & Co, Newcastle-on-Tyne, he studied under Robert, the son of George Stephenson. In 1852 he replaced his brother James as Assistant Engineer to his father on the construction of Bishop Rock Lighthouse.

In 1858 William was appointed Trinity House Construction Engineer on the building of Les Hanois Rock Lighthouse, Guernsey, which was completed in 1862. The design and construction experience which William acquired on this project was to prove invaluable forty years later when, as Engineer to the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the onerous task fell on him to design a replacement structure for the original Fastnet cast iron lighthouse. Many similar design and construction details are to be found in both structures.

On the Les Hanois project William's father Nicholas invented the construction method of bedding and side dovetailing each masonry block. When the blocks are laid and set in a Portland cement mix the bonding effect is nearly as homogeneous as solid masonry.

It was against this background of both working in the severest of site conditions and the exposure to inventive design and construction methods that William, as a 21 year old, acquired his formative lighthouse engineering training and character building. Both were to serve him well in later years.

In 1862 James was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House. William replaced his brother as Construction Engineer in the building of the lighthouse on the Wolf Rock which is situated about half way between Land's End and the Scilly Isles. The base station for the construction of the lighthouse was at Penzance, Cornwall.

Wolf RockThe Wolf Rock is submerged during half tide and had long been a terror to mariners in all weathers. Exposed to the full force of the Atlantic, it took three years to prepare the foundation before the first stone could be laid. To prevent the workmen from being washed away it was necessary to tether each of them to heavy iron stanchions sunk into the rock. Landing on and leaving the rock invariably required one to be hauled through the surf on a line. To effect this procedure William, being a strong swimmer, was the first to land and last to leave. The building of the lighthouse took eight years to complete.

While working at Penzance William met and married Jane, daughter of Henry Hodge of St Levan, in 1868. They had four children, two sons and two daughters.

In 1869 William was appointed Executive Engineer on the construction of the lighthouse on the Great Basses Reef, eighty miles eastwards of Point de Galle, Ceylon. The granite lighthouse was designed by his brother James. On its completion in 1873 both brothers played similar roles in the erection of a lighthouse on Little Basses Reef, built in a more exposed location a further 20 miles from Point de Galle.

On completion of the Little Basses Reef Lighthouse in 1878 William was appointed Engineer to the Commissioners of Irish Lights, succeeding John H. Morant. Thus, the Douglass brothers achieved the unique distinction of serving simultaneously as Engineer-in-Chief to two lighthouse authorities. Both made their distinctive contribution to their respective organisation. James introduced electricity as a lighthouse illuminant while William perfected the efficiency of oil and gas as illuminants.

Over the next 22 years William's engineering design and administration output in the service of Irish Lights was equally as dynamic as the 26 years he spent in the construction of lighthouses for Trinity House. His tenure as the Commissioners' Engineer ended a relatively dormant engineering period in Irish Lights.

Being qualified and experienced in both civil and mechanical engineering, William was instrumental in the introduction of long overdue new technology and a revived construction programme. Major projects carried out under his supervision are listed below.

In 1894 sanction was given to appoint Charles W. Scott as Assistant Engineer. Notwithstanding Scott's capable assistance the ever increasing works programme, coupled with age and building difficulties on the Fastnet, took its toll on William's health. From 1898 onwards ill health became an increasing drain on his strength.

Still William persisted in taking overall responsibility for work on the Fastnet. Continuous foul seas and inclement weather disrupted progress to such an extent that by spring 1899 the foundation preparation work had all but ceased-not a single masonry block had been laid. In May William went to the rock to bring his vast construction experience personally to the work. On leaving the rock in early July the fourth foundation course had been laid. By August the work had progressed to being able to receive the first full solid course.

On returning to Dublin, having overtaxed his strength, William was compelled to take sick leave. He returned to the office in September 1899 but again overtaxed himself. Two further attempts to resume full-time duty failed. Eventually, ill health finally forced him to retire in September 1900.

William Douglass retired to Stella, Penzance, Cornwall. He died on 10 March 1923, aged 92 years. He was interred in Penzance cemetery on 14 March 1923.

Contemporary reports record that William was quiet and reserved in speech. Privately a man of strong religious beliefs, practising more than he professed, he showed his faith by his works. Fearless of his own well-being, however mindful of the wellbeing of others, he was greatly respected by those he had charge of.

A study of the archival records of his tenure in Irish Lights and an analysis of the structures built reveal a period where 'a passion for excellence' by all involved was sought as a mark of personal honour. A hundred years on sufficient examples survive, either in-situ, on the coast, or in the Baily Museum.

Under William's leadership Irish Lights experienced a renaissance in lighthouse architecture and improved construction methods, detailing, and interior fitting out. New mechanical technology and methods of illumination continuously underwent critical examination both for quality of construction and efficiency.

Fastnet is the quintessential tower lighthouse. In its creation, William Douglass brought the art of masonry design and construction to a pinnacle of perfection. However impressive photography can try to do it justice, its awesome radiant spiritual beauty, the overwhelming wonderment of its construction, can only truly be experienced when viewed from the rock's shoreline. A hundred years of continuous Atlantic seas and storms have failed to blemish the inspired architecture of its designer or the craftsmanship of its builders.

A considerable number of other buildings, both domestic and industrial, from the Douglass era are still intact. Each contains architectural gems and construction excellence which are worthy of wider appraisal and increased public awareness. The depth of the detailing illustrated in the drawings prepared for these works set the standard for the builder and craftsman. The painstaking attention given to the draughtsmanship ensured that after the drawings had fulfilled their original intended function they would survive as engineering works of art from the period.

In 1880 William Douglass was Engineer to the Commissioners of Irish Lights and in that capacity produced a detailed specification for the iron lantern masts on lightships. Such masts were installed on Cormorant, Puffin and Torch.

Major works carried out under the direction of William Douglass
Superintended the completion of works started by his predecessors John H. Morant and John S. Sloane:
Tuskar: installation of a rocket fog signal;
Baily: replacement of the Daboll Steam Horn with a siren driven by a Crossley Otto gas engine;
Straw Island: completion of a new lighthouse station;
Coningbeg Lightship: installation of a siren driven by Caloric engines;
Poer Head: completion of the steam siren fog signal;
Galley Head: erection of the quadriform 1st order gas light (new station, designed by J.S. Sloane, completed 1879).

Installed sirens driven by Caloric engines on two further lightships.
Commenced a programme of changing lighthouse burners from colza oil to mineral oil, using Trinity House pattern burners-programme completed in 1898.
Tuskar: replaced the fog bell with an explosive fog signal.
Wicklow Head: constructed road to a new route.
Walter Rock: Proposed erection of a beacon.

Established a lightship on the Barrels Rock with a new lantern and rotation equipment.
Recommended and prepared design proposals for replacing Copeland Island station with a new installation on Mew Island; extensive upgrading of Tory Island, Fanad Head, and Tuskar; and establishing a beacon on Muglins Rock.

Built the beacon on Muglins Rock.
New lightship Torch built.
Calf Rock station demolished by a storm-erected a temporary light on Dursey Head.

Bull Rock: established a new station in place of Calf Rock comprising tower with a biform hyperradial apparatus complete with 10-ring Douglass oil gas burners supplied by a Pintsch oil gas plant, explosive fog signal, Keepers' and Workmen's accommodation, and shore dwellings.

Galley Head: constructed additional dwelling and enclosure of link corridor.
Installed a siren fog signal, engine room etc. on Shamrock Lightship.

Mew Island: established a new station in place of Copeland Island, comprising dwellings (rock and shore), tower, gas works, and fog signal.

Inishtearaght Rock: replaced the single flashing light with a double flashing 1st order apparatus.
Rathlin O'Birne: replaced the catoptric light with the single flashing apparatus ex Inishtearaght.

Installed enlarged gasometers at Mine Head, Hook, Wicklow, Baily, St John's Down, Rockabill.
Valentia Island: constructed leading beacons.
Hook: constructed Principal Keeper's dwelling and enclosure of gas yard.
Eagle Island: constructed new landing and derrick

Tory Island: built two new dwellings and rebuilt the tower with a triform hyperradial apparatus complete with gas works and 128-jet Wigham gas burners; also a fog siren driven by Crossley gas engines.

District Stores (Dun Laoghaire): erected a buoy maintenance shed, jetty, and extension to stores. 1885
Copeland Island: dismantled lantern and tower.
Clare Island: constructed a new landing, road and bridge.

Fanad Head: rebuilt the tower to accommodate a 2nd order occulting oil light.

Tuskar Rock: adapted the tower to receive a new enlarged lantern to accommodate a biform 1st order oil light. Replaced the rocket fog signal with a cotton powder explosive signal fired from a jib. Built four shore dwellings at Rosslare.

Blackrock Sligo: constructed additional Assistant Keeper's dwelling on Oyster Island.
Dundalk: constructed Keeper's dwellings.
Highland Rock: erected perch.
Pladdy Lug: erected beacon.

New lightship Puffin built.

Carlingford Leading Lights: built shore dwellings at Greencastle Co. Down.

Blackrock Mayo: built four shore dwellings at Blacksod.
Rathlin O'Birne: light changed to revolving.
Baily: built two dwellings (Baily Cottages).

Rockabill: constructed new retort house and additional gasometer.

Poer Head: installed a siren fog signal driven by a pair of Priestman oil engines and air compressors. Constructed additional dwelling and engine house.
Blackrock Mayo: improvements to south-east landing.

Collaborated with the Engineers to Trinity House and Northern Lights in a series of elaborate experiments to ascertain the exact intensity of every type of burner and optic apparatus used in the three Services expressed by a Pyre of one thousand candles). Resulting from these trials the Admiralty List of Lights was henceforth able to list the power of each light.

St John's Point Down: increased the height of the tower to 106 feet to accommodate a triform 1st order revolving optic complete with Douglass gas burners. Enlarged the gas plant. Installed a siren fog signal driven by Crossley gas engines. Built two additional dwellings.

Blackrock Sligo: replaced the catoptric light with a 4th order fixed optic complete with oil wick. Oyster Island: disestablished the south station and demolished the tower; demolished the north tower and re-erected it further north.

Kinsale: constructed an additional dwelling.

Baily: constructed additional gasometer, new gas works and plant.
Two new lightships Shearwater and Guillimot built.

Hook: constructed additional dwelling.

Tuskar: installed a submarine cable operated by the GPO to enhance shipping notification and life saving response.
Eagle Island Lower station wrecked in a storm necessitating demolition.
Eagle Island Upper station converted from a catoptric light to a 1st order occulting light.

Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) East: raised the tower, re-erected the lantern, and installed a double flashing 3rd order optic with four-wick Douglass oil burner.
Kingstown West: installed a new lantern to house a 6th order fixed optic with one-wick oil burner.

Loophead: constructed an additional dwelling.

Roches Point: installed a new siren fog signal; constructed an additional dwelling and engine house, air receiver etc.
Slyne Head: disestablished and dismantled the south station. Installed a new lantern to accommodate a biform optic incorporating condensing prisms (the only Irish Lights example) at the north station.
Fastnet: design work and site preparation to replace the cast iron structures commenced.
Crookhaven: constructed an additional dwelling and base works station for the Fastnet project.

New lightship Kittiwake built.

Inishowen: installed a new siren fog signal. Constructed an additional dwelling, engine house, and increased height of tower, air receivers etc.
Mew Island: moved the fog siren to balcony level, increased the capacity of the gas installation and replaced the siren fog signal plant with more powerful Crossley gas engines.

Chaine Tower: light installed and converted to lighthouse status.
Loophead - additional storey added to the double dwelling block, explosive fog signal established.

Bull Rock: replaced the explosive fog signal with a siren driven by Campbell gas engines; constructed an engine house and siren house, air receivers etc.
Blackhead Antrim: established a new lighthouse station comprising a tower containing a 1st order optic with six-wick burners, a cotton powder explosive fog signal, and three dwellings.
Eagle Island: built four Keepers' shore dwellings at Corclough, Belmullet.
Valentia Island: built eight shore dwellings at Knightstown for Skelligs and Inishtearaght Keepers.

Wicklow: constructed an additional dwelling.
Poer Head: constructed an additional dwelling.

New lightship Seagull built.



See also:

  • Douglass Brothers Limited, Globe Iron Works, Blaydon



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