A rare collection of lantern slides showing the men and materials behind the construction of Beachy Head Lighthouse between 1900 and 1902 will be on display at a special event at The Keep Archives on Wednesday May 23.
Bought at auction by East Sussex Record Office (ESRO) last year, the collection of more than 70 slides records the building project from start to finish, from the unloading of the Cornish granite at the top of the cliff to the finished lighthouse and the installation of the cage and lantern.
The builders are the focus of many of the pictures. They appear first on the shore at low tide before the job begins, then they are shown building the hair-raising ladders used to gain access to the site.
They pose in the cable car and can be seen unloading and aligning the pre-cut granite blocks. The final slides show the uniformed lighthouse keepers standing proudly beside their new home and enjoying the domestic comforts of its circular, wood-panelled sitting room and black-leaded kitchen range.
Archivists at ESRO think the slides were taken by various hands – there were at least two photographic clubs in Eastbourne at the time – and assembled in order to illustrate a lecture.
The chief engineer Albert Havelock Case lived in Eastbourne, was on site full-time and is known to have delivered lectures on the project; maybe the Jack Russell terrier looking inquiringly at the camera in slide number 71 belonged to him.
County archivist Christopher Whittick said, “These fascinating images have already provoked a great deal of interest, from both Britain and overseas.
Beachy Head Lighthouse is regarded as the supreme achievement of its designer Sir Thomas Matthews, but the slides record his work-force, many of them Cornish like the granite they can be seen manhandling into position, and just as rugged.
It is a great surprise to modern eyes how flimsy was some of their equipment, and how dangerous the work. The cost of these slides, all of it covered by grants, was considerable; but their value is limitless, recording as they do the outstanding civil engineering project which produced one of the county’s most iconic landmarks.
The event, which is open to members of the public, will begin with a drinks reception at 6pm. At 6.30pm, Christopher Whittick will give some background to the acquisition of the slides, before introducing director of operations at Trinity House, Commodore Rob Dorey. There will also be an opportunity to view the slides themselves.
Tickets cost £10 or £9 for members of the Friends of The Keep Archives. Booking and payment in advance is essential; for more information and to reserve a place, please call 01273 482349.