East Usk

East Usk Lighthouse
East Usk
Current Version Built:
Height (ft):
Sir Thomas Matthews
Newport Harbour Commissioners

In the 1830s, just as the Industrial revolution was starting to kick-off, Newport was becoming key in the distribution of coal and iron mined in the South Wales Valleys, quickly making it one of the largest towns in Wales. Newport's success was largely due to it's location on the River Usk, a tributary to the River Severn through which these goods could be transported. In the coming Decades Newport grew rapidly.

Increased demand for its exports lead to a boom time in Newport, with several docks opening in the town. The Town Dock opened in 1842 and later the Alexandra Dock in 1875, followed by The South Dock in 1893, however with more ships coming to Newport, the risk of them straying from safe passage and running aground on the approach to the River Usk increased.

The more substantial West Usk Lighthouse had existed on the opposite bank since 1821, but it wasn't until 1893 that this lighthouse on the East bank was erected by Trinity House to mark safe passage on the approach to the river.

This new structure was the first of Sir Thomas Matthew's lighthouses, having succeeded Sir James Nicholas Douglass as the board's Engineer-in-Chief a year prior - the tower was therefore the first of Matthew's prefabricated pile/skeletal lighthouses.

Thomas's new skeletal towers were purely functional and were designed in such a way that they could be assembled for use in a number of locations around the country, but would also be semi-automatic from the get-go, only requiring a local attendant to ensure the clockwork mechanism driving the lens was wound, and to perform routine maintenance and refuelling. Almost identical structures were constructed around the country in the next two decades, and at least a couple remain in their original locations, with one at Blacknore Point, and another at Peninnis Head.

The tower is tapered up to the lantern room. The enclosed section of the tower sits atop 6 legs, which on later versions are made of tubular steel, but appear in old photos of East Usk lighthouse to have been concrete held together with steel cross-braces. More typical of these lights, the centre of the tower incorportated a thicker central column from the lantern room to the base, through which the clockwork's weight would descend to rotate the lens. Inside are two rooms, one above the other; the lower of the two rooms is where the access door is located and there are air vents in the wall panels as this is likely where the gas cylinders that provided the light's fuel source were stored. The more compact upper floor has a single porthole window on the west side of the structure.

Originally the lighthouse also had a domed copper roof typical of this design, although this was replaced with the current roof sometime in the 60s or early 70s.

The gas for the light came from 12 gas cylinders. An attendant would have replaced these at intervals, and would have been responsible for the winding of the lens mechanism, but this was still a departure from the more intense work of more traditional lighthouse keepers, and an early step in lighthouse automation.

Although it is not documented when the Sun Valve (Invented in 1907) was adopted here, it is claimed that this was the first Trinity House Lighthouse in the UK to make use of the technology, which would automatically cut off the gas supply in hours of daylight and reinstate it in darkness. An article on the Newport harbour commissioners website claims that coupled with a flasher unit this saved up to 94% more gas compared to operating the light around the clock - this would have allowed the light to operate for several months without the need for refuelling.

In 1948 construction began on Uskmouth 'A', the first of two coal power stations to be built here, and over time the tipped ash from the coal burning process raised the height of the land in the area, eventually leading to the lower half of the lighthouse being buried.

Nowadays the light is an electronic beacon housed inside the lantern room, which is visible for 15 miles. The light is owned and operated by the Newport Harbour Commissioners.