Sir John Meldrum and the first South Foreland Lighthouse

National Portrait Gallery

John Meldrum (1584-1645)

Sir John Meldrum was a soldier and adventurer and initially a supporter of the Stuart Kings.

Coastal lights were at the gift of the King. Once a charter was granted, the owner had the right to collect dues from every ship that passed the light; hence they were seen, especially by the King’s favourites, as a source of good income.

About 1618 Meldrum purchased from a previous grantee the half-share in a patent for maintaining a lighthouse at Winterton Ness Norfolk, by means of a tax of a penny a ton on passing ships. The patent was complained against as a grievance in the parliament of 1624, but the king refused to consent to its abolition.

In 1635 Meldrum obtained a similar patent for erecting lighthouses on the North and South Foreland, which involved him in controversies with adjacent ports and with Trinity House. The desire to preserve these lucrative privileges was, according to the royalists, the reason that led Meldrum to adopt the service of the parliament during the civil wars.

At South Foreland a tower was constructed, possibly of timber and the light was a fire in a cresset, a type of brazier, on the top. Sir John was, for a short time, Britain’s principal lighthouse owner.

Sir John Meldrum was killed in 1645 fighting for the Parliamentary Army at the siege of Scarborough.

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