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Thomas Matthews

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1909. Unwatched flashing gas-lighted boat.

Sir Thomas Matthews (1849-1930), engineer-in-chief of Trinity House.

1904 Engineer in Chief to Trinity House

1909 Matthews was responsible for the design of a small unmanned lightship. This was described in detail in 'The Engineer'[1]. The flame was supplied with gas from four tanks initially pressurised to 7.5 atmospheres. The pressure was reduced by a regulator to 7 psi, and then passed through a three-cylinder radial engine with pistons of just 0.75" diameter to rotate the lens assembly. The engine's spindle was sealed against leakage of gas by a mercury seal. The gas exhausted at very low pressure from the engine to supply the burner. The lamp assembly was carried in gimbals. The vessel was also supplied with a 6 cwt bell.

1930 Obituary [2]

Sir THOMAS MATTHWS, brother of the late Sir William Matthews, Past-President, was a son of John Matthews, Engineer and Borough Surveyor of Penzance.

He was born there on the 8th August, 1849. Between 1868 and 1871 he assisted his father on the waterworks, drainage, harbour, and sea defences of the town, and in the following 2 years he practised at Penzance as an architect and surveyor.

In 1874 he entered Trinity House as an assistant in the engineer's office, under Sir James Douglass, M. Inst. C.E., and the rest of his professional life was spent in the service of that Corporation. In 1879 he was appointed Chief Constructive Assistant Engineer, and in that capacity he was engaged in the superintendence of new lighthouses at St. Tudwal's, Bull, and Anvil Points, and alterations to the Casquets, Nash, Bideford, Heligoland, Lizard, Bardsley, and Start stations.

He made the survey and the contract and detail drawings for the Eddystone lighthouse, and had charge of the construction of river walls at Yarmouth and Blackwall and various sea-defence works.

He visited the Island of Minicoy in the Arabian Sea in 1881, to report on the construction of the lighthouse, and subsequently prepared the detail drawings for the strengthening of the Bishop Rock lighthouse.

In 1892 he became Engineer-in-Chief on the retirement of Sir James Douglass. In that capacity he was responsible for the design and erection of new lighthouses at Spurn, East Usk, Withernsea, Blacknore, Lundy, St. Mary, Foreland, Pendeen, Dungeness, Beachy Head, Portland Bill, Berry Head, Strumble Head, and Cape Pembroke (Falkland Islands). He was also consulted by the Crown Agents for the Colonies and the India Office.

He designed an incandescence oil burner for use in lighthouses, which was much more efficient than the concentric wick burner previously employed and enabled much higher candle-powers to be obtained. In addition to his work in connection with lighthouses, he evolved improvements in light-buoys and beacons, and he was responsible for important advances in coast-lighting and signalling and in fog-signalling.

He also devised and carried out various experiments on dioptric and signalling apparatus. He was elected an Associate Member of The Institution in 1877 and transferred to the class of Members in 1884. In 1908 he mm elected a Member of the Council, and in 1915 a Vice-President. Having, however, retired from Trinity House in 1915 and taken up residence in Torquay, he felt he could no longer adequately discharge the duties, and he retired from the Council in 1916.

He married in 1875 Frances, daughter of Mr. H. Blackwall, who survived him. By her he had three sons and two daughters. He died at Torquay on the 13th January, 1930.

1930 Obituary[3]


Whether because we are essentially a seafaring nation, or on account of the romantic isolation of many of the keepers, lighthouses possess a peculiar fascination for the public. Apart from engineers, however, there is little realisation of the exceptional problems involved in their construction and operation. The work of Sir Thomas Matthews, for example, is probably hardly known to the public, although he designed many of the important lighthouses around our coast, including the High and Low Lights at Dungeness, familiar to so many visitors to the South Coast.

Sir Thomas, whose death at Torquay on Monday last we regret to record, was born on August 28, 1849. His father was engineer and borough surveyor for Penzance, and in this capacity was responsible for the harbour and sea defences of the town. After a private education, the son became assistant to the father in 1868, and was thus brought early into touch with problems associated with the safe entry of vessels into port. While occupying this position, he acquired sufficient architectural experience to set up for himself, in 1872, as an architect and surveyor, and the experience that he gained in this way was no doubt useful to him in his later work. In 1874, he was appointed assistant to Sir James N. Douglas in the Engineers’ Department at Trinity House, and thus commenced an association with that body only severed by his retirement from the position of Engineer-in-Chief in August, 1915.

At the time of his appointment, consideration was being given to the replacement of the Eddystone lighthouse, erected by Smeaton over a century earlier. It will be recalled that the replacement of this structure was rendered necessary by the destructive action of the sea upon the reef on which the lighthouse stood, and not by any weakness in the building itself. The design of the new lighthouse was due to Sir James Douglas, and the survey and detail drawings were made under his supervision by Sir Thomas, then Mr. Matthews. The new lighthouse was completed in March, 1882, the lantern being 133 ft. above high-water mark, or some 50 ft. higher than Smeaton’s light. Other works on which Mr. Matthews was engaged, in his capacity of chief constructive assistant engineer, were the construction of the St. Tudwal’s Bull and Anvil Points lighthouse, and alterations and additions to the Caskets, Nash, Bideford, Heligoland, Lizard and Bardsey lights. He was appointed Engineer-in-Chief in December, 1892, and was afterwards responsible for many important lighthouses around our coast, among which may be mentioned the Spurn, Beachy Head, Withansea, Foreland, Pen-deen, and Strumble Head. Of these, the most important was undoubtedly that at Beachy Head, of which an interesting account was given by Mr. Matthews in a paper read before the International Engineering Congress in 1904.

This lighthouse, which was completed in October, 1902, superseded the one which had stood on Belle Toute since 1834. The old light was 284 ft. above high water, but was frequently capped by fog when the atmosphere below was comparatively clear. The site for the new building was selected between low water of spring tides and that of neap tides, being 700 ft. out from the cliffs, which at this point rise vertically to a height of about 430 ft., and are washed at the base by spring tides. The work yard was formed at the top of the cliffs, immediately facing the site of the tower, and was connected by cableway to a sea stage erected on piles close to the lighthouse site. Communication was thus secured whatever the state of' the sea. The cableway consisted of two fixed steel wire ropes 6 in. and 5| in. in circumference, with an 800-foot span. The 6-in. cable was used for loads up to 5 tons, and the lighter cable for carrying a cage with a balancing load, and also to carry the workmen. Steam haulage was used for the return run. In excavating the foundations for the lighthouse, a concrete tidal dam was constructed, the top being 8 ft. above low water. The tower foundations were carried 9 ft. 6 in. below low water, and 11 ft. below the average rock surface. No blasting was permitted, for fear of disturbing the surrounding ground, all excavation being done by hammer and wedge. The tower is cylindrical in , form at the base for a depth of 9 ft. 2 in. and is 47 ft. in diameter. The shaft of the building, starting from the rock surface, is a concave elliptic fustrum. The masonry is Cornish granite, the stones being dove-tailed both horizontally and vertically, and set in Portland cement.

The Spurn light, for which, as stated, Sir Thomas Matthews was also responsible, involved foundation work of a somewhat exceptional character. Each tide percolates through the site of the lighthouse premises, being 12 ft. at high water, and 31 ft. at low water, under the surface of the sand. It was ultimately decided that the foundations for the structure should consist of concrete cylinders. There are 21 such cylinders, each being 22 ft. in depth. They were constructed, in sections, and placed in position as sunk, forming a circle of about 40 ft. diameter. The shingle was carefully removed from inside the cylinders after the latter were sunk, when the cylinders, and also the space between each, were filled with mass concrete. A heavy concrete bed was then placed over the whole area. The light-house was erected on the concrete bed so formed, the focal plane of the; new light being 120 ft. above high water. The walls of the structure are 5 ft. 6 .in. thick at the base, and 2 ft. 9 in. thick at the top. The light was first shown in. September, 1895, the full intensity of the beam, subsequently greatly increased, being 179,500 candle-power.

Apart from his work in connection with lighthouses on the English coast, Sir. Thomas was selected in 1881 to proceed to Minicoy, in the Indian Ocean, for the purpose of reporting on the installation of a suitable light, and he acted for many years as adviser to the Crown Agents for the Colonies, and to the India Office, in matters relating to lighthouse work. His duties at Trinity House included the supervision of defence works; such as the river walls at Yarmouth and at Blackwall, and the sea defence works at Orford, Bideford and Hartland. He also introduced many important improvements in coast lights and signalling, of which the best known is the Matthews burner. In 1901, wick burners, so far as lighthouse illumination was concerned, gave place to the method of vaporising oil and burning it as a Bunsen flame with an incandescent mantle. The first attempt in this country to apply the system to lighthouse illumination was made in 1900, when Mr. Arthur Kitson brought his burner to the notice of Trinity House. This burner was installed in Lowestoft lighthouse, but did not prove a success, with the result that Sir Thomas developed a new burner on the same principle. This burner embodied such considerable improvements in both construction and illuminating power that in a very short time it brought about the supersession of nearly all the wick burners on the English coast. The vaporiser consisted of two loops of brass tube brazed into the sockets of a small brass union. The preheating of this burner, which was of two types, single mantle and triple mantle, was effected by means of the flame from a paraffin lamp applied to the vaporiser. The burner successfully stood the test of time for nearly twenty years, in practically all the lighthouses on the English coast, and in many other parts of the world. The cost of repair of the vaporiser was, however, always considerable, and became the subject of very serious consideration during the war. As a result, a new type of burner, which superseded the Matthews type, was developed by Mr. D. W. Hood. An account of this development was given in our columns in 1922.

Sir Thomas, who was knighted in 1909, was elected a member of the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1908, and a Vice-President in 1915."

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