A Brief History of the Lookout

Early history

Prawle Point is Devon’s southernmost extremity. Projecting into the English Channel between Bolt Head to the west and Start Point to the east, its lofty promontory has served as a vantage point since ancient times and, appropriately enough, the word ‘Prawle’ derives from the Anglo Saxon word prǣwhyll, meaning ‘lookout hill’.

In medieval times it is possible that a chapel dedicated to St. Brendan stood on the site of the present Lookout and later, during the Napoleonic Wars, an Admiralty Signal Station was in operation nearby.

Signal Station 1882-1956

The present building is believed to have been erected by the Admiralty as a Coast Guard Lookout in the 1860s. It became a Lloyd’s Signal Station in 1882 and from here signalmen telegraphed details of passing ships to Lloyd’s of London for the benefit of anxious owners and underwriters.

Prawle Point Signal Station c1930
Prawle Point Signal Station c1930

Between 1903 and 1951 the Lookout served as a Royal Naval Shore Signal Station with both Lloyd’s and Admiralty signalling undertaken by Naval personnel who also carried out coastguard functions. (Lloyd’s signalling continued until 1956).

HM Coastguard 1951-1994

In 1951 the Admiralty handed the Station over to HM Coastguard and by the early 1970s a constant 24 hour watch was being maintained by a team of five regular officers and six auxiliaries.

The growing use of VHF radio for distress signalling led to a steady reduction in visual watchkeeping and, from 1982, the Lookout was manned only during bad weather by the local Auxiliary Coastguard company.

Closure finally came in 1994. The former Prawle Point Coastguard Rescue Team is now based in Kingsbridge and has been renamed accordingly. 

Prawle Point NCI watchkeepers 2019

Wreck and Rescue in the Twentieth Century

Over the years Prawle Point has gained a fearsome reputation as a ‘ship trap’. In the last century, for example, no less than seven merchant ships were wrecked on the west side of the Point (just two of these are pictured here). There’s more about the Prawle Point Ship Trap on the Submerged website.

SS Ida 1930
SS Ida 1930

With the help of the Prawle Rescue Team, a volunteer Life Saving Apparatus Company formed in 1872, the men at the Prawle Point Station brought many of the survivors of these and other wrecks safely ashore using rocket lines and breeches buoy.

Benmohr 1931
Benmohr 1931

National Coastwatch Station 1997 to the present day

In May 1997 retired sea Captains John Chapple and Christopher Trinick saw the potential in restoring the abandoned Lookout to form Devon’s first National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) station.

Whilst it was closed the familiar landmark above the Point had become semi-derelict and open to the elements. However, with the help of generous funding from local people, companies and organisations it was transformed into a well equipped and efficient working station.

Regular watchkeeping was resumed in August 1997 and in April 1998 the Prawle Point NCI Station was formally opened. In 2001, following a successful appeal that raised £50,000 the Lookout was partially rebuilt and completely refurbished.

In 2012 Prawle Point NCI was honoured to receive the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service (the MBE for volunteer groups).

The Prawle Point NCI Station is now a fully trained team of over 60 volunteers who turn out in all conditions to keep the station open 365 days a year. Between them they keep morning and afternoon watches between 9am and 5pm, with an additional evening watch between 5pm and 8pm during the summer months.

Roger Barratt’s histories of Prawle Point and Start Point may be purchased at the Lookout.

You can learn more about our recent history and upload a photo of your own by visiting the NCI Living History website.