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date: 02 July 2022

Winstanley, Henryfree

(bap. 1644, d. 1703)

Winstanley, Henryfree

(bap. 1644, d. 1703)
  • Paul Waterhouse
  • , revised by Mike Chrimes

Winstanley, Henry (bap. 1644, d. 1703), engineer and engraver, was baptized at Saffron Walden on 31 March 1644, the eldest son of Henry Winstanley (d. 1680) of Saffron Walden. William Winstanley (1628–1698), biographer and poet, was his uncle. After attending Saffron Walden grammar school from 1652 to 1660, in 1665 he was a 'porter' in the service of James Howard, third earl of Suffolk. He was employed on Suffolk's buildings at Audley End. From 1666, Suffolk was in negotiation to sell the place to Charles II. After the sale was completed in 1669, John Bennet was appointed clerk of the works there in October 1670. It is likely that Winstanley was transferred to the king's service with some informal duties, and he became clerk of works there and at Newmarket in 1679, with the support of Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, the lord treasurer.

In the early 1670s Winstanley undertook a continental tour. On his return he began to dabble in engraving, producing a set of playing cards. He engraved and published a set of twenty-four plans and views of Audley End, between about 1676 and 1688. The original issue was followed by a smaller set in quarto and the plates were afterwards reissued as a supplement to the Britannia illustrata of Johannes Kip. Winstanley obtained a certain notoriety from the whimsical mechanisms with which he embellished or encumbered his house at Littlebury in Essex; he was also the inventor and proprietor of a place of entertainment known as the Water Theatre at the 'lower end of Piccadilly'. A man of growing prosperity, he married Elizabeth Taylor at Little Munden, Hertfordshire, on 18 April 1683.

Winstanley had shares in a ship, the Constant, which was destroyed in a storm off the coast near Plymouth in 1695. The number of wrecks in the area had prompted Trinity House, in 1692, to grant a patent to Walter Whitfield to build a lighthouse on the Eddystone reef. This had not been fulfilled. Either on the strength of his reputation as an inventor or at his own suggestion following the loss of the Constant, Winstanley submitted to the authorities of Trinity House a design for a lighthouse to be placed on the Eddystone Rock off Plymouth. The design was accepted and work began in July 1696, although his first project was succeeded by one, if not two, modifications. The solid base, 12 feet high and 14 feet in diameter, was, after two years' work, increased to a diameter of 16 feet, and the superstructure was erected to a total height of 80 feet from rock to vane. At this stage the building is said to have been drawn on the spot by Jaaziell Johnston, and an engraving of the drawing is given in Smeaton's Edystone Lighthouse. In June 1697, while working at Eddystone, he was carried off by a French privateer, and the work destroyed, though the Admiralty intervened to have him returned to England in July. In the fourth year of the work the solid base was increased to a diameter of 24 feet, and its height raised to nearly 20 feet. In the same year (1700) the superstructure of the lighthouse appears to have been completed from a fresh design, with the overall height from the bottom of the base to the top of the vane now of the order of 115 feet. The whole was a fantastic erection, largely composed of wood bound with iron straps, the stonework of the base being bound with copper or iron. The engraving of the completed building as given by Smeaton is 'drawn orthographicaly' from a perspective view made by Winstanley himself. The entire structure was swept away on the night of the notorious storm of 26–7 November 1703, immortalized by Daniel Defoe, carrying with it the unfortunate designer, who had gone out to superintend some repairs. John Smeaton suggests that an insufficient knowledge of cements was one cause of Winstanley's failure.

While working at Eddystone, Winstanley designed a pier at St Agnes, erected between 1699 and 1705. Following his death his widow Elizabeth married Jean Tijou, the Huguenot craftsman who was responsible for the iron gates at St Paul's. As late as 1712 the house at Littlebury and the Water Theatre were maintained as shows by Elizabeth and exhibited at a charge of 12d. a head. Winstanley's self-portrait hangs in Saffron Walden Museum.


  • J. Smeaton, A narrative of the building and description of the construction of the Edystone lighthouse, 2nd edn (1793)
  • [W. Papworth], ed., The dictionary of architecture, 11 vols. (1853–92)
  • Richard, Lord Braybrooke [R. Griffin], The history of Audley End (1836)
  • N. Luttrell, A brief historical relation of state affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, 4 (1857)
  • N&Q, 8th ser., 2 (1892), 466–7
  • Essex Review, 2 (1893), 63
  • R. N. Worth, History of Plymouth from the earliest period to the present time (1890), 146–7
  • A. C. Todd and P. Laws, Industrial archaeology of Cornwall (1972)
  • A. Hart-Davis and F. Troscianko, Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone lighthouse (2002)
  • A. Barnes, Henry Winstanley: artist, inventor and lighthouse-builder, 1644–1703 (2003)
  • private information (2005) [A. Barnes]


  • RS, Smeaton drawings


  • self-portrait, Saffron Walden Museum
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