Probably one of the most interesting lighthouses in Southern Africa is Roman Rock, the fifth oldest in South Africa, situated in False Bay at the entrance to the historical naval harbour of Simons Town.
But what makes this lighthouse so interesting is the fact that it is the only lighthouse on our coast to have been erected on a single offshore rock (and one of only a few worldwide) and it is completely surrounded by water. It is exposed at low water, while at high tide is covered completely.
The 14m circular cast-iron tower of the landmark is painted white with a white lantern house.
The lighthouse owes its existence to a Joseph Nourse Commodore, Royal Navy, Simons Town, who when writing to the Secretary General of the Admiralty in London, stressed the importance of the safety of His Majesty's ships coming in to anchor at Simons Town at night.
But the proposed site for this lighthouse was not always to be Roman Rock, and from 1823 to 1853, three or four other possible sites were suggested. But in the end it was Roman Rock who won, despite the great costs of erecting it on this site.
The lighthouse was designed by Alexander Gordon of the British Lighthouse Authority.
The cost was to be between £3,000 and £3,500.
It took four years to complete the installation of the prefabricated cast iron tower, with only 96 working days of calm sea.
But on the 16 September 1861 the Roman Rock lighthouse shone its first light, and still remains today having defied the South-East gales and surging seas which have submerged it every summer for 160 years.
Construction was undertaken by the shipping community of Simons Town who felt the need of a light to be so great that they offered to build it if the colonial government would maintain it.
Stone was quarried from Seaforth beach, assembled there and numbered, before being ferried out to the site. The cast-iron segments of the tower itself were prefabricated in England, shipped out and then bolted together in-situ.
The base of the lighthouse is washed by waves even at low tides so the initial design allowed for a circular trench cut into the rock as the foundation and for the first three metres to be filled with concrete. Despite this cracks soon appeared and the structure was then strengthened with wrought-iron hoops.
However, with the structural integrity of the lighthouse in question, the colonial government would not assume control and the responsibility for manning the lighthouse until their engineers were satisfied with its construction.
The base was then further reinforced with a 4 ft. granite wall cladding of blocks estimated at 3 tonnes each and a granite and Portland cement fill. The lighthouse was then finally handed over to the department of public works on the 28 February 1867.
Roman Rock lighthouse keepers manned the light in 7 day shifts and were amongst the highest paid in the service on account of the light’s isolation. The first keeper, Mr. J. Williams eared £110 per annum and his assistants £95 per annum. In 1914, a gas powered light was installed and since then the lighthouse has been unmanned and in 1919 a fully automatic lighting system was installed.
Helicopters were introduced in the 1960s and the protruding gangway was used as a platform onto which the visiting technical personnel and equipment were lowered.
In 1992 the South African Navy asked for the lighthouse to be electrified as by now the bright lights of Simons Town and Kalk Bay over-shadowed it.
In March 1992 a four-core 25 mm submarine cable was laid to power the new rotating beacon to a candlepower of 147 656 CD with a range of twenty sea miles at a period of 1 flash every 6 seconds.
In 1994, a helipad was installed on top of a freestanding stainless steel tower on a separate protruding rock, and solar power replaced the mains supply. The solar modules were mounted on the 13m walkway linking the lighthouse and the helipad.
An automatic weather station was erected on the Roman Rock Lighthouse during April 2002.
This new facility provides for an ideal monitoring site of maritime air.
You can view a part of the 1914 mechanism on display at the Simon’s Town Museum.
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