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Historic Building Details

HB Ref No:

Extent of Listing:
Lighthouse, lighthouse keeper's quarters, look-out tower, fog horn engine house, former gasworks compound and two ancillary structures

Date of Construction:
1880 - 1899

Address :
Lighthouse complex Mew Island (off coast of Donaghadee) County Down

Mew Island

Survey 2:

Date of Listing:
20/12/1976 00:00:00

Date of De-listing:

Current Use:
Light House/ Navigation Mark

Former Use
Light House/ Navigation Mark

Conservation Area:

Industrial Archaeology:





OS Map No:

IG Ref:
J6034 8623

Owner Category


Exterior Description And Setting

Off-shore lighthouse complex built 1882-84, consisting of a 37m tall lighthouse tower and attendant single-storey buildings, including lighthouse keeper’s quarters, a fog horn engine house and a former gasworks compound. The complex is set on the rocky northern coastline of Mew Island, a relatively small piece of land - less than half a mile at its greatest length - three miles off the NE coast of County Down (four miles N of Donaghadee). The complex lies roughly on an E-W axis, with the lighthouse to the E of centre, the engine house to the far E, lighthouse keeper’s quarters to the W, a shed beyond this, and the former gasworks compound to the W again. Attached to the N face of the engine house is a two / three level octagonal c.1970 look-out tower with an oversailing control room, similar to those seen at small aerodromes. The lighthouse, keeper’s quarters and engine house, are laid out in a roughly symmetrical H-shaped plan, with the lighthouse linked to both via narrow corridors. The lighthouse is circular in plan and consists of a tall tapered tower, (37m in height), topped with a glazed lantern. The tower is finished in painted render, with a small flat-headed window at each of the four levels to both the N and S, with another to the E and W of the uppermost level. These windows are filled with timber sash frames, some one pane over one, others two over two. At ground level to the E and W the abovementioned linking corridors abut the tower, with access only possible via the link to the W leading from the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. The large multi-sided lantern is totally glazed apart from its lowest section which is clad in painted iron panels, some of which have some simple geometric decoration. The lantern has a sloping (concave) roof which rises to a central cupola. Encompassing the lower level of the lantern is a walkway with iron railings. The lighthouse keeper’s quarters are contained within a small, plain single-storey gabled building. This building is rectangular in plan with a small off-centre flat-roofed porch to W, with the gabled linking corridor and a flat-roofed projection, (a later extension of post 1964), to E. The walls are finished in painted render and the roof is slated and has rendered parapets, a bracketed eaves and two symmetrically arranged rendered chimneystacks. There are entrances to the N and S faces of the porch each consisting of a plain sheeted door; to the W face of the porch is a small flat-headed window with timber sash frame, (two over two). To the left of the porch are two flat arched windows with timber sash frames, (six over six), with another to the right. There is a similar window to the left hand side of the E elevation (to the left of the projection and corridor), with another two to the right. The projection has three flat-headed windows to its S elevation, each filled with PVC frames, (one largely louvred). To the N elevation of the link there is a timber sheeted door to left and a small window with timber sash frame, (two over two), to right. To the W side of the lighthouse keeper’s quarters is a small yard enclosed by tall rendered walls to the N and S and a single-storey shed to W. The shed is finished in painted render to N, S and E, with the W façade, (which actually forms most of the E wall of the former gasworks compound), rubble stone. The slated roof has a single pitch with rendered parapets. To the shed’s E elevation there are three unevenly-spaced timber sheeted doors and two windows with timber sash frames, (that to left two over two, that to right six over six). The engine house to the E end of the complex is broadly similar to the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, being roughly rectangular in plan with a slated gabled roof and walls finished in painted render. To the W, it is abutted by the link to the lighthouse, to the north by the look-out tower, and to the south by a slightly lower gabled projection. The latter has brick quoins. To the W elevation, to the right hand side of the link, there is a large flat-headed doorway with timber sheeted double door. To the right of this, (on the S projection), there is a slightly smaller segmental-headed doorway with brick lintel and similar door. To the N gable there is a flat-headed window with timber sash frame, (six over six), with a similar window to the (S) gable of the projection and two more to the E elevation. To the W end of the complex is former gasworks compound. This consists of a large irregular shaped yard enclosed by a tall rubble stone wall with castellated (rendered) coping and brick quoins. To the W side of the yard there is a single-storey gabled building slightly larger than that housing the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. This building has a long lean-to to the W and a lower gabled projection to the N. The front and S elevations are finished in painted render, with the others in rubble stone with brick dressings to the openings. The roof is slated and has a small metal flèche to the S of centre of the ridge. To the front there are three tall windows with timber frames with hopper openings [likely replacements], and two doorways with timber sheeted doors and large two pane fanlights. To the E elevation of the projection there is a small flat-roofed porch with doorway with door as previous. To the S elevation of the main portion of the building there are two windows as those to E, with another doorway, as before, to the left (actually the side of the lean-to section). To the W side of the lean-to there are two brick-dressed segmental-headed windows filled with glass blocks. To the left of the lean-to, (on the main portion of the building), there are two more windows set at differing levels; that to left is as front, with that to right adapted to allow access for flues from the machinery inside. To the N gable of the projection a small window has been blocked up. To the S side of the gasworks compound there is a single-storey flat-roofed shed, which was added post 1964. This shed is rendered and has three doorways to its N elevation, two pedestrian doorways with doors as before, with a larger (but lower) doorway to right without a door. There is a similar, but smaller, shed to the NE corner of the yard, with a pedestrian doorway (as before) to its S face. To the W of the larger shed is a vehicle entrance with stone piers and a modern replacement metal gate. Within the yard itself there are two (possibly three) large circular gasometer pits; the remainder of the yard has largely been reclaimed by grass. To the south of the complex there is a helicopter landing pad, whilst to the south again there are several small single storey one to two-roomed buildings with whitewashed facades and gabled roofs. These are most likely dwellings built for the workmen who built the lighthouse and are referred to in contemporary newspaper reports (see historical information). It is possible there were originally more of these structures in the vicinity. The lighthouse became fully automated in 1996. In 2014 the optic was removed and the lighthouse converted to solar power. The optic itself was subsequently housed in a purpose built structure on the Titanic walkway in Belfast, opening in 2018.


Douglass, William

Historical Information

In 1881 after many years of agitation from ship-owners and others, the Board of Trade sanctioned the building of a new ‘gaslight’ lighthouse on Mew Island to replace the long-established (and by that time, oil-lit) one on neighbouring Lighthouse Island, which was felt to be inadequate. The design was prepared by the engineer to the Commissioners of Irish Lights, William Douglass, tender notices for the various aspects of the work (‘builders work’, ‘gas apparatus’, ‘lanterns’, ‘lenses’ and ‘fog signal’) were advertised in January 1882, and the successful contractors, ‘Messrs. Thomas S. Dixon Co. of Belfast, commenced on site in July 1882. Construction continued into 1884 with the facility in official operation from 1 November of that year. There have been several changes to the complex since that time. Due to ‘the inadequacy of the [existing] siren’, an additional foghorn was ordered in 1895. A new optic - ‘the world’s first and largest hyper-radial Fresnel lighthouse lens installed in Tory Island lighthouse in 1887’ – was adapted for use at Mew Island and fitted in 1928. In 1928 the gas making plant, the last around the coast, was discontinued and paraffin vapour burners used instead of coal gas. The apparatus was converted to electricity in 1969. The lighthouse became fully automated in 1996 and in 2014 the optic was removed and the lighthouse converted to solar power. In 2018, the optic itself was subsequently rehoused in a purpose built structure on the Titanic walkway in Belfast. The two smaller southernmost buildings to the south of the main complex are likely to have been rudimentary dwellings built for the workmen who built the lighthouse (see contemporary newspaper extract dated 24 July 1883 below). Given that the newspaper reports that 'upwards of 50 hands were engaged' on an island 'entirely destitute of shelter' it is probable that several more of these structures were constructed at the time and perhaps cleared away once work on the island had been completed. The larger more modern building to the north of these is post-1964, and may have been built in connection with the modern look-out tower - which is also post-1964 - to the west of the lighthouse. The extension to the rear of the lighthouse keeper’s quarters was added after this date also. References- Primary sources 1 ‘Belfast Morning News’, 16 February 1881 2 ‘Belfast News-Letter’, 13 August 1881, 4 June 1883.3 November 1884 3 Northern Whig, 28 January, 2 August 1882, 24 July 1883 [see extract below],19 April 1884 4 PRONI VAL12B/23/7G (1883-93) 5 PRONI VAL12B/23/8A (1894-1903) 6 ‘Irish News and Belfast Morning News’, 20 August 1895 7 PRONI OS/6/3/3/3 OS map, County Down sheet 3, (c.1901) 8 OS sheet 116-4, (1964) Secondary sources 1 Long, Bill, ‘Bright Light, White Water: The Story of Irish Lighthouses and Their People’ (Dublin, New Island Books, 1993) 2 Comprehensive history and detailed background information kindly supplied by the Commissioners of Irish Lights 3 (viewed 10/10/2018) [From ‘The NORTHERN WHIG’, 24 July 1883] 'THE NEW LIGHTHOUSE AND SYREN ON MEW ISLAND. The well-known Copeland Islands, three in number, lying at the south side of the entrance to Belfast Lough, have always proved dangerous to navigation. For a considerable period a lighthouse has existed on the highest point of the island lying furthest from Donaghadee. The light was at first supplied by a coal fire placed on the top the tower, and subsequently lamps, each containing a powerful burner, were used. These lamps, twenty-seven in number, are fixed in three rows of nine each. Coiza oil was formerly the illuminating agent, but the illumination is now produced by paraffin oil. The light, though powerful enough to seen from a distance of sixteen mile, was not sufficient, owing to the prevalence of fogs, to prevent shipwrecks—in many cases attended with loss of life - which have taken place on the adjoining island, which lies farther to the southward, and is separated from the Lighthouse Island by a channel one quarter of mile width. After the loss of the Sea King, when there were three steamers aground at the same time, a fog-bell, worked by machinery, and striking three times every [minute] was put up. All these precautions did not prevent vessels going ashore, and the Board of Trade, after repeated representations from the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, determined to erect on the southern and most dangerous part of the Mew Island a new lighthouse and powerful foghorn or syren of most improved construction. Plans were prepared, and about twelve months ago the erection was entrusted to Messrs. Thomas S. Dixon Co., of this town. As the island is entirely destitute of shelter, the contractors were forced to erect houses for the accommodation of the workmen. The site of the new lighthouse is about hundred yards from the spot where the steamer Electric stranded on 30th June, and regarding which event the Board of Trade inquiry concluded in Belfast yesterday; the buildings, being constructed of the rock which the island is composed, with the exception the tops and cills of the windows, which are formed in massive blocks of granite. The stones are joined together with cement and Lough Neagh sand, the tower and dwelling houses will be coated, both internally and externally, with cement. The buildings include gas retort-house, for the gas engine for driving the syren, dwelling for men, including day-room, kitchen, pantries, and sleeping accommodation, tanks for storing water, and the lighthouse tower. This tower, including the lantern, which is 10 feet high, will measure from base to summit 110 feet, overtopping the other islands, so as to render the light visible from all points of the horizon. The external diameter of the tower at the base is 33 feet, and will taper towards the summit. At the bottom the walls measure in thickness 6 feet, and the top they will reduced to 4 feet 6 inches. The stairs will be formed of iron. In the lantern will be placed a dioptric lens of the first class. The light will an uncoloured fixed one, and will visible for thirty miles. The gas employed will be manufactured on the Island with apparatus erected by Messrs. Edmondson, of Dublin, who also supply the lantern. By arrangement, the keeper in charge can, in hazy weather, increase the lighting power threefold. Those who visited the Dublin Exhibition last year will remember that the lantern was a conspicuous object amongst the exhibits, and was frequently illuminated outside the Rotunda. The syren used during time of fog will be very powerful, and will be heard distinctly twenty miles distant. We believe that In Portpatrick its tones will be quite audible. It will be driven by gas engine. To prevent any inconvenience arising from an accident or breakdown two gasometers will be provided with tanks for which each measure feet 25 feet in diameter by 15 feet in depth. At present the houses are built and ready for slating, and the tower is about 56 feet high. Upwards of fifty hands are employed, and the contract will expire in July, 1884, when it is expected that the works will be completed. Formerly the two lightkeepers had to live entirely on the island, thereby depriving to a great extent their children of the benefits of even an elementary education; but we are happy to say that a desirable change is about take place in this respect, and that houses for the accommodation of their families will be erected at Ballywilliam, on the County Down shore, a short distance from Donaghadee. In future there will be three lightkeepers, and two men for the manufacture of gas. These five officials will, of course, relieve each other at prescribed intervals. Some persons will naturally be anxious to know what is to become of [the old] lighthouse tower, which has so long occupied a prominent position, and has been seen for so many years both night and day. We may state that the tower will remain, but without any lantern; in fact, it will only mark the site of the old lighthouse. At present the steamship Alert, belonging to the Irish Light Commissioners, is landing a portion of the massive iron work which is being used in the rearing of the new structure. Judging by the precautions which are being taken in connection with every inch of the lighthouse, it promises to be a building which will withstand the most furious tempest without sustaining the least injury. The work is being carried out under the direction of Mr. F. B. Foote, C.E , Engineer to the Irish Lights Commissioners, and a gentleman remarkably well qualified for the post within he at present occupies.’

Criteria for Listing

Architectural Interest

A. Style B. Proportion D. Plan Form H+. Alterations enhancing the building I. Quality and survival of Interior J. Setting K. Group value

Historic Interest

R. Age S. Authenticity V. Authorship Y. Social, Cultural or Economic Importance Z. Rarity W. Northern Ireland/International Interest


On Mew Island, a substantial off-shore lighthouse complex built 1882-84, comprising a 37m high lighthouse tower and attendant single-storey buildings, including lighthouse keeper’s quarters, a fog horn engine house, former gasworks compound, contemporary workers houses and a twentieth century look-out tower, all surrounded by original boundary walls. The complex - dominated by the tower, stuccoed in Portland cement painted black with a white band and white lantern and reputedly the tallest tower on the island of Ireland - is a testament to the ambition of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and the skills of the nineteenth century engineers and workmen who built it. The tower and dwellings are of rubble masonry quarried on the island, with granite dressings brought from Newry. Their distinctive design a variant of the typology adopted by Irish Lights both on and off shore. The structures have been little altered although navigational equipment - most significantly the two tier Fresnel lens - has been replaced and updated. The keepers were permanently withdrawn from the station on 29th March 1996 following conversion of the lighthouse to automatic operation. The Mew Island complex has group value with the other nineteen listed lighthouses and other navigational aids on the Northern Irish coast.

General Comments

Date of Survey

04 June 2004