The original lighthouse was erected in 1785 on the summit of the Downs at the western extremity, 462 ft above sea level. However, it was generally considered that the building was too elevated above sea level to be really useful, especially in poor visibility, and it became disused when its replacement had been built.
The name 'Needles' is believed to have been derived from a slender tapering rock pinnacle which was formerly situated a little to the north (i.e. on the Alum Bay side) of the present central rock. This needle-shaped rock, about 120ft high and known as 'Lot's Wife' collapsed into the sea in 1764 with a crash which was said to have been heard many miles away! The stump of this pinnacle can still be seen at low water where it forms a dangerous reef.
The present lighthouse, 109ft high, clings to the base of the most westerly rock of the Needles group. It started working on 1st January 1859, taking over from the original lighthouse on the cliff top. The light, 80 feet above high water mark can be seen 14 miles away at sea level, either white, red or green accordingly to the position of the observing ship; it is easily identified by the double-occulating nature of the light, eclipse for two seconds, light for two seconds, eclipse for two seconds and then darkness for fourteen seconds. Many visitors, however, will be most familiar with the lighthouse foghorn which sounds every fifteen seconds during periods of poor visibility.
Originally this lighthouse had a keeper and three assistants. The men were on duty for two months and then on leave for one month. There were always three men on duty at the lighthouse at any one time. Sadly, the lighthouse was automated in 1994 and we said goodbye to the keeper and his assistants. In spite of the presence of the lighthouse, the Needles have always constituted a danger to shipping - over the years many ships have foundered on or near these rocks.
Apart from its natural beauties and geological curiosities, Alum Bay has another claim to fame for its part played in the early days of radio transmissions. In early December 1897, to investigate and experiment with transmission to ships at sea, Guglielmo Marconi set up his revolutionary wireless equipment in the Royal Needles Hotel, above Alum Bay, and sent the very first wireless transmission.
A huge 168 feet high mast was set up outside the hotel and over the next couple of years Marconi conducted ever more complex experiments with wireless transmissions. In 1898 messages were received from Marconi at Queen Victoria's Osborne House and on the royal yacht. Little now remains of Marconi's experimental stations, as the hotel and masts have long since gone. However, a monument to him stands on the cliff top within the park and information lecterns provide a detailed history of radio, Marconi and the role played by Alum Bay.
Between 1955 and 1971 a top secret Space rocket and missile development centre was built on the site of the old Needles Battery. There were over 2,000 sq ft of control rooms with up to 240 people working there at any one time. They developed the space rockets called 'Black Night' and 'Black Arrow’. The Black Knight rocket was very successful with 22 test missions launched. Originally, the rocket was purely a test rocket, but in the early 1960s it was used to carry research modules into the upper atmosphere and in 1971 the only all British satellite was launched into orbit.
In and around Alum Bay there are some twenty named wrecks. Probably the best known is the 'Campen'. She was a ship financed by the Dutch East India Company which, with four other sister ships, set sail for the West Indies in 1627. She was caught in a southerly gale, and ran for shelter in the western Solent. The anchors were lost when she tried to anchor off Freshwater Bay and a desperate attempt to save the ship failed. She sank with great loss of life on the south side of the Needles rocks.
To the south of the Needles is Scratchells Bay which can be seen from the cliff top and is only accessible by sea. Its crumbling chalk cliffs were reputedly a favourite training area for some of the more celebrated sections of our armed services but would be no fun for an exhausted shipwrecked sailor at night in a southwest storm.
Perhaps the greatest rescue off Scratchells Bay was that of the thirty-strong crew of the 'Irex' a full-rigged ship of 2,248 tons. All the way down into the Western Approaches and in to the Bay of Biscay she encountered storms and in the end she turned and ran for shelter with injured crew members and a shifted cargo. After twenty days of storms she failed to navigate the entrance to the Solent and crashed ashore at Scratchells on the night of 26 January 1890. When daylight came the wreck was discovered and it was found that the Captain, Mate and four crew had disappeared overnight.
Another famous wreck is that of the Ernst. She was a German three masted vessel whose sails were torn apart by a ferocious storm in November of 1898. She was blown onto the Shingles, where some of the crew were crushed to death when they tried to launch a boat. The local lifeboat, which in those days was rowed, could not get near enough to the wreck because of the massive waves, and she only managed to save two crew members after the ship had totally broken up some hours later. The roof of the Ernst's galley became a makeshift raft for four other members of the crew who were rescued from the waves at Christchurch.
The last boat of any size to be wrecked on the Needles was the SS 'Varvassi', 4,000 tons, on the 5 January 1947. The Varvassi was en route to Southampton from the Mediterranean with a cargo of wines and, needless to say, quite a bit came ashore!
One thing is sure, the tides mean that little diving is done in the area. Many secrets still wait to be uncovered in, what has for centuries, been a maritime trunk route.