Lighthouse Keepers

A Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter

by Helen Scott

Contributed by the author.


Helen Scott (nee Whitchurch) was born in Pwllheli, North Wales. Her father was Assistant Keeper on St. Tudwal's Lighthouse which is on an island guarding Tremadoc Bay. He served two months on the island and one month ashore and his daughter used to visit him by boat.

With the family, mother Helen and brother Tom, she moved to Nayland, then there was another move to Holyhead where Helen's father became Principal Keeper. By now Helen was 11 years old and it was the first time the family were able to be together for any length of time. Even so during school days Helen and Tom had to go into lodgings in Holyhead, four miles away, in order to go to school. Getting home meant a walk down 409 steps from the top of the cliffs to the lighthouse.

The next move was to another rock light, Coquet off Amble in Northumberland. This was towards the end of the First World War. The family was often marooned by bad weather and frequently saw our convoys under attack. Helen learned Morse code and as a girl helped her father send weather reports to the Coastguard stations by signal lamp. She became a Post Office Sorting, Counter and Telegraph Officer, before the family moved once again, this time to Whitby Lighthouse from where Helen married. Her father went on to Southwold. Mrs Scott now lives in Yorkshire.

Looking back on my early life it does not seem possible that mother and I really lived an isolated life on lighthouses. In those days before the First World War lighthouse keepers spent two months on a rock station followed by a month at home. Families lived together on land lights. When father came to Pwllheli to join St. Tudwal's mother never thought she would leave her native Wales. Father never told her that someday he would be sent to another station. Perhaps he was scared she would not marry him if she knew.

The little town of Pwllheli in North Wales where she lived had everything she wanted. You had only to walk a few minutes up the road to get into the country. A walk in the opposite direction took you to the sea with its promenade stretching from the West End to the South Beach. There were lovely stretches of sands on which to play or go for a swim. Chapels there were in plenty and a town hall where concerts were held. It was a very happy place and people knew each other and their children grew up together.

My grandparents had a bakery business and shop serving the town and the outlying district with bread, buns and Eccles cakes. Both my grandparents were well respected. If any one was in trouble people used to say "go and see Thomas Ellis at the bakehouse, he will put things right", and he generally did. He was a Church Elder and a pillar of the Congregational Church where the family worshipped.

Mother was a school teacher. She was due to go to University but decided she would not because her sister was already at Bangor. In those days it was an expensive business to be away from home and Grandma put the money up so that Mother could become a milliner. Secretly, Mother did not like millinery and in time she was looking after the accounts and became a buyer for the shop where she worked. She was well up to all that sort of work, able to socialise, she looked smart and was a very pretty girl.

Then fate took a hand in her affairs. She used to know most of the young men in the town. One day she met some of them and was introduced to a young man called Jack Whitchurch who came from the Isle of Wight. Father was attracted, they met frequently at different functions and bazaars belonging to the Church. Jack told Mother that he always modelled a yacht to give to bazaars. I saw a similar one years after, a lovely model of a yacht in full sail. Mother's sisters soon became curious and wanted to meet Jack. They did and one of them told him that their Mother although fluent in Welsh and English, wouldn't be pleased that he was an Englishman. Jack wasn't daunted and was his own charming self when he met his future mother-in-law, in fact she became quite fond of him.

He told Mother that he wanted to be a ship's engineer. He travelled the world at a young age and thoroughly enjoyed the life. Alas, his mother whom he loved very dearly used to be very upset when he went on long voyages and begged him to have work nearer home. Then she became ill and to please her he left the sea and joined the Trinity House Service so that he could be stationed somewhere in the British Isles yet still be near the sea. He was at Wolf Rock Lighthouse before he went to St. Tudwal's. It was regarded as a easy station with two months on the island and one month ashore.

After courting for some time they decided to ask the parents permission and they married in Caernarvon.

I had always wanted to go to St. Tudwal's to see my father at work and remember the first visit by boat with Captain Hughes. I was very excited the nearer we came to the island. Father was surprised but delighted to see me and we walked along the springy grass past the gardens and into the service room. It had an unforgettable clinical look and smelled of paint and paraffin. I enjoyed the tea of bread and butter, jam and cake. The keepers had a parrot, he was quiet but soon started to say "Pretty Pally", continually then bid us all "Goodnight" even though it was daylight. We walked to the garden where Father picked some young carrots, said he would wash them so I could eat them. The island wasn't very large, there were plenty of rabbits and noisy birds. There was a small rowing boat which Father used to row to fetch letters from the farm at the Headland. I didn't want to go home but eventually we left taking some garden produce with us. Poor Mother had been frantic wondering where I was. She said I looked so pleased with myself when Captain Hughes the boatman brought me home.

So the days went by. Father had a notice to say he was to move to Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire. There was consternation in the family when he broke the news to Mother. I was eight and brother Tom was six and it was quite an adventure for us to travel to Neyland our new home which was a sleepy town. The house was attached to a chemist shop. You could go to the dark room, from our conservatory which was full of plants and a vine of black grapes. When we settled down we used to go for walks; I with my wooden hoop and Tom with his iron one. On the way we passed gypsies camping in the nearby fields. The schools in Neyland were English so we heard no Welsh spoken there (we were fluent in both tongues). We went on holiday to Strumble Head travelling by train and looking forward to the many games we used to play on the Lighthouse.

the keepers used to get a loan of a pony and trap to take us to Goodwick, quite a highlight of our lives. Many a migrant bird used to beat itself on the glass when the light was lit. We used to bury the dead ones in little boxes and make wreaths from sea pinks which grew in profusion on the island.

At Christmas time, we had some wonderful presents from my mother and aunts. I remember getting a woollen coat with three collars on it, a white fur hat and a muff of white fur - I did feel proud in this rig out. Father didn't like Rock life. My mother told me years after that he was jealous of the fact that the Chemist could have access to our home. Mother was quite upset as Mr. Smith was engaged to a very nice person. Anyway. he was restless and Mother reckoned it wouldn't he long before we left Neyland. She was right. Father was next stationed at South Stack near Holyhead, Anglesey, a land station which meant we had to live there and which meant another long journey across country. We looked forward to the new life but not to living on an island. South Stack is about 100 ft. in height separated from land by a suspension bridge. There were 409 steps hewn out of the rocks on the other side of the bridge and we counted them many a time. Probably the most memorable day in the history of the Lighthouse was the 25th October 1859, when one of the worst gales of the century occurred and over 200 ships were driven ashore or lost with 800 passengers and crew losing their lives. The steamship "Royal Charter" foundered with the loss of 500 lives. The Assistant Keeper John Jones was crossing the bridge when a rock hit him on the head. He reached the island before collapsing; the Principal Keeper found him but he died three weeks later. there was a door near the bottom of the steps. This was kepi locked during the First World War. I remember an incident during those days. Mother and I were near the door and rung a bell so that it could be opened for us. There was a lady and her husband wanting to visit I presume, and in those days of wartime it wasn't allowed to let anyone in apart from the families. Well Mother and I were speaking Welsh and no doubt it sounded a foreign language. Anyway the lady accused us of being German and reported to Trinity House the incident of how she wasn't allowed in, but Germans could enter! The whole thing was ridiculous, Father laughed it off, but Trinity House was serious about it. After a lot of hassle things were cleared up. My how stupid some people were, they might have remembered they were in Wales.

There were three families belonging to the Trinity Service: a Mr. and Mrs. Sole and their son, Mr. and Mrs. Pender, their daughter Lilian and us. Besides us there was a family of Mr. Dodd and his wife and his five children; also two young men. They lived in a house belonging to the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board and used to deal with ships that were sailing to Liverpool. They also had a Morse Circuit to the port. We lived in the middle house. Mr. Sole's house had access to the Lighthouse. His wife came from Pwllheli where she had been a children's nurse so Mother and her struck up a friendship that lasted long after they were both at other stations. We had no electricity but very good oil lamps. It was always windy there and I found a spot where I could shelter from the wind and read. In the wintertime it was lovely lying on the rug in front of a blazing fire in our front room. When Father was on watch in the lighthouse I used to take his supper up to him. This was mostly at the weekend when we were home. It was quite a climb up all those steps to the lantern, the first ones were not too bad but they got steeper winding around and around. Father used to play the violin while I sat on some cushions in the service room below. When it was very windy I used to feel the tower move and I used to stay there with my Father for some of his watch. I used to do my homework at times of course, this was when I was home at the weekends for we had to go to school in Holyhead. That meant a walk of four miles each way. We tried that at first but having to face going up and down steps as well proved too much for us. I have forgotten to mention we had a donkey, Tommy. Well, really he was bigger than a donkey, more of a mule. He used to go up and down the steps as good as we did. The trap which Father had was kept in a garage attached to the garden down the hill from the top of the steps. That meant the men had to go up there to do their garden, they also had a small garden opposite.

Father used to grow turnips, peas and other vegetables in the top garden. It was a battle between him and the pheasant. The latter used to eat his peas so Father used to infuriate the gamekeeper who said that Lord Stanley would fine him for taking the game. Father said "Tell Lord Stanley to stop the pheasants invading my garden". "What's the use of me growing things for pheasants to eat". Nothing was done and no summons appeared. We used to get our milk and butter from the third farm down the hill.

During one weekend we had a dreadful thunderstorm. When we got as far as the village we had to pass through on our way from Holyhead we were told to hurry home as our parents were killed. Imagine our fright, we just about ran home and saw the Lighthouse was still there but oh the damage! Great big concrete slabs which covered the water tanks had been flung over the wall, all the guttering was down, the glass in the lounge windows had the pattern of a tree marked on it. China on the mantelpiece was broken and Father had fallen out of bed. Mother said the noise was terrific and was added to by frightened birds screaming. The lightning had cut a trench along the path, one would think some men had been digging, so straight was it. Afterwards they found that the lightning conductor on the Lighthouse was faulty. My Mother was nervous of storms after that. Our telephone bells were severed from the wall. The Service room telephone in the bottom of the Lighthouse blew off and Mr. Sole who was going to use it at the time had marks peppered on his face. He certainly got a fright and I was not too keen on thunderstorms after that, seeing the damage they could do. The gale warning cones always seemed to be hoisted at South Stack.

At the station there were engines to work the fog horn. There was also a 'phone by which one could hear the North Stack submarine fog bell way down out at sea.

Sometimes on a Saturday we used to take Tommy the donkey up the steps to ride on his back, but that didn't last long. As soon as we were mounted he would walk on the hedge side and rub our legs in the brambles yet he was so crafty, when you got off he would walk in the middle of the road.

When I came to leave school, the schoolmaster wanted to coach me to become a teacher. Father wouldn't hear tell of it and said there were enough teachers in the family. He was friendly with the Postmaster in Holyhead and got me the job as a learner Sorting, Counter and Telegraph Officer in the Post Office. I was agreeable because I didn't look forward to going to University further away from home. Father rigged a light in our home and he used to send messages by flashing it and taught me Morse Code. I really liked the challenge and was put on a circuit connecting us to Liverpool. We were given six months to train in the various duties. My love was the ticker tape machine.

As it was wartime a lot of messages were in code or comprised groups of figures. One of the Senior Clerks was friendly with one of the men in the wireless station on top of the steps at South Stack and he used to send me practice articles from various papers, printers pie, on the ticker machine. I used to love to go to the Harbour Board Office and talk to Liverpool on the ticker or look at the ships passing by through the powerful spyglass attached to the windows.

We often had friends calling. Mother used to make them tea with home-made cake. To have anyone to stay the night one had to ask permission from the Superintendent stationed at Holyhead. So when Carrie stayed with me I used to go and ask the Superintendent myself. I remember I was very indignant once when I asked him about Carrie staying. He said I had outgrown my dress. Evidently it wasn't long enough although I thought it was!

The time came when Father was promoted Principal Keeper. There didn't seem to be any vacancies around the Welsh coast but the Coquet up in Northumberland was due to want a new Principal Keeper. We dreaded going there as it was another land light and we would have to live there. The Postmaster wanted me to stay on in Holyhead but that meant being so far from home. It was a terrible wrench, a waste of a good education to leave a good job which I liked, to live on a lonely island. Anyway, I decided to go as well. Mother and I were sad that we had to leave Wales. Mother said "never mind we can still come back for holidays". So the day came that we had to leave. Our furniture was winched on board a boat, I watched the piano being hoisted up and lowered on to the boat; scared that it would land into the sea. We were now going to Northumberland but before we went Mother wanted to spend a few days in Pwllheli before we left.

We arrived in Newcastle then had to travel to a little town called Amble. When we were in the train there was a crowd of young men with us and we couldn't understand a word they were saying. Mother looked at me and there were tears in her eyes. Of course, nothing was said, but Mother told me afterwards that she thought we had come to a foreign country, but in the years she lived there she found that although the people had a strong dialect, they were very warm hearted. The next day we saw the Coquet and couldn't believe that we had to live on an island and go there by boat. It was worse for my Mother as she didn't like the sea at all. What she must have gone through we will never know. Anyway, we went down some slippery green steps on the jetty, boarded the boat and eventually landed on the island. Our house was quite large with a garden at the front. There were two families on the island plus a bachelor who lived on his own. This then was a Land Light although today it has Rock status. It was well known in the Service as a punishment station, but Father didn't go for that reason, he was due to become a Principal Keeper when the Coquet became vacant.

The island is a low tract of pasture land close inshore off the Northumberland coast. It had an explosive fog signal which went off every three minutes. There was no public access to the island. It wasn't a very high tower just 72 ft. The house we lived in had a kitchen, dining room with a very good enclosed stove, and a lounge and bedrooms, all the scenery out of the windows was sea. In the foreground there was Amble with its busy harbour. Away to the North was Alnmouth Bay with Boulmer's rugged headland, scene of many a shipwreck. Away in the far distance is Dunstanburgh Castle. The island is fourteen acres in extent, all grassland around us and the outline of the coast opposite. We could see more land than at South Stack where the vista had been sea and rock. I came to like island life and had every faith in Father manipulating any boat. He had had plenty of experience. Our furniture had to come by boat. There were tables and chairs already there and some bedroom furniture and it was soon made into a home when our furniture arrived. Beside us there were three nanny goats on the island so there was some milk to be had. We had to have quite a lot of stores, and there were tons of coal available. We had our water filtered off from tanks which were spotlessly clean. We explored the island and found that when the tide was out at the North End, we could walk on the rocks. We three went many a time and Father caught one or two lobsters from a pot he put down. You will wonder what on earth one did all day on the island. The house was spotless. I used to write letters, sew. crochet and read books sent by an association.

We had a Morse lamp with which we used to talk to the Coastguard opposite. As it was still wartime, when convoys of ships were due to pass we used to have messages from the Admiralty for the light to be lit at certain times and I used to be frequently in charge of the lamp enjoying the job of using Morse code again.

There was a time when the weather was too rough to go ashore by our boat. It was only a cobble with a very high sail, Father didn't like cobbles as they had no keel and one had to take the sail down to tack when going ashore. There came a day when we couldn't cross owing to the weather. We had no flour at all, no fats, no cereals, nothing of the basic foodstuffs so things were pretty grim. At meal times we lived on potatoes, turnips and lobster. A diet with no variation eaten each day soon gets monotonous and we were soon short of potatoes and had to make do with turnips which weren't very appetizing.

It was fully three weeks before the boat went ashore, and then they forgot to bring yeast to make bread, so we had baking powder bread and scones until the next landing of stores.

There were days of very windy weather when ropes had to be tied around the house to hang on to if we went outside.

One day we had a scare when a German mine landed on the rocks and we were frightened it would go off. It had prongs sticking out and when the tide came in it would move around and could well have been triggered by one of the spikes. A message had to be sent to the Coastguard Station so they could contact the disposal men. A boat came and after some trouble they took it away. They told us afterwards that it was quite dangerous where it was; it was detonated away at sea.

Another night Father went outside and we wondered where he was. I went out and he was standing by the front door and I could hear the sound of motors above us. Father whispered "Hush don't speak, just crouch". An airship was above us, the next thing we knew was a rope with a basket being lowered and we saw there was a man in it. It was frightening crouched there. Then they lifted the basket up and went away towards Amble. That night Hartlepool was bombed. Father reckoned the Zep crew were taking their bearings from the Lighthouse.

Later I was invited to stay the night at Amble so that I could go and see Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe". I shall never forget the journey across. We had had painters across working on some of the houses and a pilot boat was coming to take them back and I was to go with them. As the wind was in the wrong direction plenty of tacking was called for. The men hadn't a clue about boats so the Captain was on his own apart from myself. I knew something about tacking and it meant the men had to shift in their seats and the Captain had to tell them how to do that in a boat at the crouch and not standing upright. I was left with pulling the sail up and down, the Captain at the tiller. It was quite a scary journey.

It was a good job we didn't need a doctor on the island but we were very healthy in those days. Mother used to dread crossing that bit of sea, how she must have suffered. My brother at this time was serving his apprenticeship as a marine engineer at Swan Hunter in Wallsend.

The Superintendent used to visit the island at different times, sometimes bringing his wife and Mother used to be her hospitable self with the usual cups of tea.

There was always the smell of paint in the Lighthouse, everything was nice and smart although the uniform colour was beige. In one of the store rooms at Coquet I remember there were hooks in the walls made of bone. I believe Coquet Island was the home of monks in the olden days. Bede mentions the island as being celebrated for the concourse of monks during the conversion of Northumberland from barbarism to the light of Faith. One hermit, a Dane of noble birth, lived on the island to escape a marriage arranged by his parents. He preferred serving God all his days on the penitent rock. After his death other hermits stayed on the island.

We considered ourselves likened to them in as much as we did not meet any people to have any fresh conversation with. We still used to walk to the North End just for something to do. I picked up many a sea urchin. When the prickles drop out they leave a lovely shell which one could varnish. There was a patch of sandy beach where the cobble used to be winched up. Of course there was a garden to see to, I had a flower patch with a line of everlasting sweet peas which grew every year. Father grew the usual potatoes, peas, turnips and carrots. He was no gardener really but he must have had green fingers, as everything seemed to grow. !here was talk that Coquet was going to be made into a Rock Light which meant the men being on their own on the island, a life my Father detested although we were pleased that we would move to Amble, a likeable place.

The shadow fell again, Father had word to say he would be removed to Whitby Lighthouse. Needless to say Mother was disappointed as we had found a flat in Amble, I more so as by this time I was really friendly with a young man, Bill, and didn't want to leave. He said since we had to go it would be a good test of our - feelings towards one another. (They later married.)

So it was with heavy hearts we soon left friendly little Amble town for Whitby. It was a cold day when we arrived by train. This time the Lighthouse was on terra firma, but quite a distance from the town of Whitby, and perched on very high cliffs with plenty of screaming seagulls about the place. It had a nice garden with all sorts of flowers growing, roses, sweet scented violets and many other varieties. There was plenty of ground for vegetables as well. There were three families living there. One family with four children and another with a boy and a girl. It was about 21/2 miles to Whitby by road; we passed Stevenson's Brook House Farm along the way. The road across the fields belonged to Stevenson's Farm. It wasn't very pleasant at times walking across the fields because the bull was sometimes wandering amongst the cattle. I used to walk along the hedge side when he was about so that I could jump over the hedge. One had to walk through Old Whitby Place which reminded me somehow of Italy. The houses were on hilly ground. The alternative route was down the Abbey Steps which I thought was the longer way. When our furniture had arrived we soon had a home again. Mother was still sad that she had left Amble. The house there was so near the shops and now we were again far away from a town. At this time Mother had bother with an ankle so she couldn't walk very well, so they decided to buy a car. We had a Morris to begin with. Father was as happy as a sand boy. He used to drive the car across the field and down the road. I was with him. He soon learnt to drive, so we were able to go into Whitby by car when he was off duty.

Once more we had a sea view with fields where we used to be able to pick mushrooms to the side of us. The Lighthouse was not very high. Father didn't stay up it like he used to at South Stack. Our domestic passage went through the Lighthouse itself and there was a Fog Station some distance away.

My parents went to Southwold from Whitby. Southwold Lighthouse on the Suffolk coast, is between Lowestoft to the North and Orford to the South. The towers of the Church and Lighthouse dominated the landscape for miles around. As the lighthouse is actually in the town, the impression it gives is that it was built in a back garden.