Lighthouse Keepers

A Lightkeeper's Life:

A personal narrative by a Senior Principal Keeper.

I think it is true to say that although the general public appreciate vaguely the value of lighthouses, a very small percentage have ever visited a Lighthouse and still fewer have any idea of the life and duties of a Lightkeeper. In attempting to give some account of that in a few pages I think it would be best if my description of it is based closely on my own Service of 36 years to date.

At the age of 22 I entered the Trinity House Service as a Supernumerary Assistant Keeper. Supernumerary Assistant Keepers are called upon to do duty at any Lighthouse, vice Assistant Keepers who may be sick or on leave, and also for quarterly duty at Rock Lighthouses. I had, therefore, to undergo instruction in signalling and maintenance of petroleum vapour burners, and also in the use of tools to enable me to do ordinary minor repairs. Next I had to have practical instruction in the management of a Lantern actually at a Shore Lighthouse, then in the maintenance of a Fog Signal equipment at an Engine Station, that is a station having machinery to drive the Fog Signal, and finally at an Electric Light Station where engines are used to run the generators supplying the power for the Light. These several courses qualified me to do duty at any type of Lighthouse and in fact I did periods of duty at 11 rock stations and 4 shore stations during my 2 years as Supernumerary Assistant Keeper.

When promoted to Assistant Keeper I served as such for the next 24 years (with certain periodical increases of pay) at nine different stations. In my case it happened that with the exception of SOUTER POINT (near South Shields) and DOVER PIER, all my service has been in the South-West (Devon and Cornwall) but others have served further afield including the Channel Islands.

A newly appointed Keeper is usually sent first to a Rock Station, that is one isolated out at sea, where he lives with 2 comrades for 2 months. There are two types of Rock Station, Island and Tower; at an island rock one is able to get exercise, but at a tower rock there is greater confinement as it is built on a rock which is covered at high water. The relief takes place every 28 days, and is done by the District Steamer, when the weather permits. Often during the winter months there is an overdue relief caused by bad weather conditions, but at each relief the 28 days count from the time of going ashore. Lighthouses around the coast are divided into Districts, there are 6 districts where there is a Depot, Penzance being the Depot for the South-West District and Keepers from the various rock stations on that District go ashore to Penzance where their families live. Keepers do 2 months on the rock and 1 month on shore.

I was no exception as regards first appointment being a rock and was posted to the LONGSHIPS Lighthouse a Tower rock which is about a mile from Land's End. Although the LONGSHIPS is under the Penzance District, the relief is not effected by the District Steamer but by a local boat from Sennen Cove - a motor boat now - but when I was there it was sail and often that meant several tacks to do that mile strip of sea. I was stationed at the LONGSHIPS some 3 years; when on shore I lived at the Trinity House Cottages at the top of Sennen Cove. It could be very tantalizing at times when on the rock, we could see our families taking their walks and we could only get a walk of a few yards, a case of so near and yet so far. Our wives could semaphore so we were able to have a yarn at times.

I had spent a month at the LONGSHIPS as Supernumerary Assistant Keeper so knew a little about the place but I had much to learn about it while I was there as Assistant Keeper. It's a small tower in comparison with other rocks such as the EDDYSTONE and BISHOP ROCK (Scilly Isles) about 100 feet high and very small inside; in fact it was one of the things that I noticed most after I had had my turn on Shore - going off again the rooms always seemed so small, but the feeling would wear off after a day when I got used to the surroundings. Although not such a high tower the vibrations were more noticeable in bad weather, when the seas washed over it, than I had noticed at other tower rocks I'd been in. The reliefs were often overdue, the longest spell I had on the rock was 4 months owing to¬ bad weather and exigencies of the service.

One of the peculiarities of the LONGSHIPS is that a ground swell can be forecast hours before by a certain rumbling noise caused by some granite blocks, (originally part of an earlier lighthouse) rolling about in a basin-like formation of the rock bottom in a cave situated to one side of the tower. The disturbance of these blocks is brought about by the undertow which precedes the ground swell and it produces a noise much like a huge weight being rolled down some solid steps. My first experience of that was during my first turn off as Assistant Keeper. I was going to get married that turn on shore and the night before the relief I was yarning to my mate who had relieved me for watch at midnight. The weather was quiet and the sea calm, naturally the topic was about the relief due to take place in a few hours, when I heard the bumping rumbling noise. I asked my mate what the noise was, he said "It's just that you won't be going ashore yet". I got rather annoyed and told him he didn't know what he's talking about, with the weather holding so good the relief was bound to take place. He said, "Well you'll see" and I did see, he was quite right, by morning the sea was coming up to the kitchen window, that lasted some days so instead of being married in December it was January before I got on shore.

Life at the LONGSHIPS could be very monotonous, there was no wireless then, nothing to give conversation a fillip, until the relief with its newspapers and letters. Then conversation would liven up for a while till subjects were exhausted. Books were a great asset, Trinity House supplying a box of books which could be changed on relief, travel and fiction mainly. We had hobbies such as mat making, carpentry, model making and the like, one of my mates with a more mechanical turn of mind made an electric clock. It occupied most of his leisure time and was an interesting hobby.

The duties at the LONGSHIPS are much the same as at any other rock station. The forenoon is taken up with general duties such as preparing the light for that night's exhibition, cleaning the lens, lantern and service room, that is done every day, the cleaning of the various rooms, brasswork etc. are allotted to different days. The day is divided into four watches, 4 a.m.-noon, Noon-8 p.m., 8 p.m.-Mid, ¬Mid-4 a.m. In the event of Fog the Keeper on duty in the Lantern calls out the man who he relieved to take over Fog watch. When he in turn is relieved he takes over for fog watch, so in foggy weather it means an extra watch has to be kept, which is cut out of ones "watch below". During the daytime the keeper on watch works the fog signal himself. Fog causes extra work in many ways, besides upsetting routine work.

To understand Lighthouse life more fully a description of the interior of a Tower will help. First the entrance at the base of the tower, where ropes etc. are hung on hooks ready for reliefs, and the fresh water is stored in tanks below the floor. The next floor up would be the coal locker, then the magazine room for storing the explosives for the Fog Signal etc. Next the oil store (some stations have two rooms for this) and then above that would be the store room, in some cases the winch would be here too, provisions and general stores would be kept in this room, then still up, we come to the kitchen and living room. In this room would be a sink, overhead a tank for freshwater (pumped up from the basement) a dresser, cupboard, lockers, a round table and three chairs and last but not least a kitchen range. Then proceeding upwards we arrive at the bedroom, usually there are five bunks, three at the bottom and two above, drawers are fitted under the lower bunks, and usually there is a small cupboard. Next would be the service room where equipment for the light etc. is kept, such as the oil and air receivers spare parts for the lamps and all cleaning gear. Here too are kept the weather journals and books, barometer and thermometer, then immediately above that is the Lantern, so it will be seen that it is all stair work and its a good policy to remember all that one may need from the store to save having to make another journey. The staircase is built outside the rooms so that each room is closed in, the steps are usually of iron and very steep.

One Keeper is cook for the day, he prepares dinner and cleans the kitchen and bedroom, the keepers take that job in turns so it works out for each man every third day. Each keeper makes his own bread though, some are better than others at the job but each man thinks he makes the best bread. Some keepers are very good cooks and turn out some good dishes, others are not so good, then its plain fare that day. Cooking experience is gathered at the various stations whilst doing Supernumerary duty. Some of the dishes that are prepared when a station is overdue for relief for several days and the food stocks are low leave Mrs. Beeton flat. I saw some fancy dishes while at the LONGSHIPS.

One Christmas I spent on the rock the dinner was quite different to that which we had looked forward to. We had been overdue for a couple of weeks owing to bad weather, and our supplies had got very low. Christmas Eve came around and no sign of the relief taking place so we searched our cupboards for stuff to make a Christmas dinner; amongst us we found some currants and a few raisins, spice and luckily some suet. That pudding was made and boiled twelve hours and was really good. We had for our first course a tin of Bully Beef, some ships biscuits soaked and then fried with slices of beef on top garnished with haricot beans. When the relief eventually arrived there was a parcel for me from my folk, among the contents had been a Christmas Pudding, I say "had been" because when I got it the parcel was so badly knocked about that the pudding basin was smashed into hundreds of pieces and squashed into the pudding with dates and oranges etc. making one glorious mess.

From the LONGSHIPS I was transferred to SOUTER POINT Lighthouse a shore station near South Shields, where I stayed four years. This station is near a coal mine, the workings of which run under the Lighthouse and for a considerable distance under the sea. Being at this station was a complete change for me after 3 years rock service. Besides the Light there is a Siren Fog Signal, there are 2 engines of 22 H.P., one of which is run to compress the air for the signal, the other is a standby in case of a breakdown.

To many people, when a lighthouse is mentioned, it is probably thought of as a structure with a light at the top for the guidance of shipping, that it flashes is taken for granted, but why and how it flashes is seldom thought about. There are two types of Light, whatever the medium of lighting may be whether electric or oil vapour. The types are (1) revolving, that is flashing, and (2) occulting; they are easily distinguished as with an occulting light the period of light is longer than that of darkness, with a revolving or flashing light, the reverse is the case.

The actual light is fixed, the effect of flashes is by lenses revolving around the light, or in the case of occulting by a screen inside a fixed lens being automatically raised and lowered. Each Lighthouse has a different character, some are red but mostly they are white, or white with red sectors. All red have red shades fitted around the light itself or the lantern may be glazed red. Where there are red sectors, shades are fitted both outside the lens and on the lantern glazing. Each light his its own timing, no two neighbouring stations have the same characters, some have one flash at intervals of a few seconds, others have 2, 3 or 4 flashes at intervals, these are group flashing, so it will be seen that each lighthouse can be distinguished by its character. The lenses weigh anything up to six tons, some revolve on rollers, others float in a bath of mercury. The apparatus is kept revolving by a mechanism which has to be wound up at frequent intervals during the exhibition of the light. Occulting screens have a smaller clock or mechanism which has also to be wound up, usually the winding is necessary every hour, at some stations every half hour, while at a few about every four hours.

A strict lantern watch is kept, there are several reasons for this, not the least being the winding of the revolving mechanism, then a lookout is kept for the approach of Fog, when the keeper on duty would have to call a man out to start the Fog Signal, then too, there is a possibility of the nipple in the vapouriser becoming choked, which would cause the vapour to cool off and fire, damaging the lamp, so the nipple has to be kept clear by pricking out at intervals especially during the long winter nights. A record of the weather has to be entered in the Weather Journal every three hours, this both by night and day, Pressure in the tanks supplying oil to the lamp has to be maintained by pumping up with a hand pump, this is done usually just before calling the relief for watch. Condensation, caused by change of humidity is another evil to contend with, this causes an obstruction to the light and necessitates cleaning the glazing inside the lantern. After Mantles have been in use a certain number of hours they are liable to crack. Moths too will break the mantles, I have known large moths to get into the lantern, especially during the misty weather, become attracted by the light and fly into it, that means changing the mantle; this is an easy operation and takes but a few moments. Mantles are always kept in readiness for emergency so it will be seen that a lantern watch is essential.

While at SOUTER POINT during the 1914-18 war I saw on several occasions the result of enemy action, vessels sunk in convoy, our own Warships with the scars of battle, and a few times heard the Zepps pass over. One moonlight night we saw the Zeppelin hover over the tower and then make off in the direction of Newcastle. Soon we heard the explosion of the bombs. There is a considerable lot of fog off that part of the coast and the fog signal is sounding for days at a time. On one occasion just after the Armistice in 1918, the signal was sounding for three weeks much to the disgust of the miners and their families who live close to the station. While there I saw one large vessel the SS Linerton drag her anchors and go ashore on South Shields sands, she broke in half during the night. Later on, tugs towed both halves into dock and she was made seaworthy again. No lives were lost, the searchlights from a nearby fort were trained onto the ship while the lifeboat took the crew off.

My next transfer was to the West Country again, to the START POINT Lighthouse. This is also a shore station. My family of two sons were now of school age and I found that being at shore stations had disadvantages as well as advantages, the schooling problem is one. Start is very isolated, the nearest village with one small general shop is three miles away, the nearest school just over three miles away. Kingsbridge, the nearest town is eleven miles away. The butcher would come once a week at a point about a mile and a half distant, where we would meet him, the grocer come once a month, but no baker or milkman, we baked our own bread and went a mile for milk and in bad weather it was far from pleasant. In fact with a south-westerly gale it was as much as a man could do to cross the fields at the top of the cliff. As the distance to the school was too great for boys of 5 and 6 years to undertake, especially in bad weather, I applied for a transfer and in due course was transferred to the Lizard Lighthouse.

This station has an electric light, there is also a fog signal. The duties at this station were somewhat different from those at SOUTER and START, there were 4 keepers and an engineer, so a two-handed watch was kept as two keepers would be on lantern duty for a week and the other two have the engine room duties for a week. The lamp was an arc lamp, the power being supplied from alternations in the engine room, there were powerful arc lamps and the candle¬power through the lens was several million. It was necessary to re-carbon the lamp after a certain number of hours burning, so two lamps were inside the lens one in use the other ready carboned, and when it was necessary the lamps would be changed over, and the used lamp re-carboned ready for the next change over.

During fog one night the SS Bardic, 10,000 tons, went ashore on the stag rocks in front of the station, the sea was smooth and the entire crew was rescued by lifeboat, she remained on the rocks for several days and the cargo was taken off to lighten the ship which was eventually towed to Falmouth. I had been stationed at the Lizard about four years when it was decided to install filament lamps to work automatically, two filament lamps and an acetylene lamp on a turn¬table. Should one or both filament lamp fail the acetylene lamp would automatic¬ally be brought into use and a warning bell ring in the engine room, the keeper on watch there would then go to the lantern and put in the necessary filament lamps. These changes caused me to become redundant. As it was no longer necessary for a lantern watch to be kept, the station was made three-handed a Principal and two assistants maintaining watch in the Engine room. I was there¬fore transferred to HARTLAND POINT Lighthouse in North Devon: I was only there a short while.

This promontory has been much eroded by the sea and costly sea defence works have had to built to prevent further erosion. The cliffs above the long approach road to the Lighthouse are precipitous and falls of rock often damage or block the road. Recently the road, out in the edge of the cliff, itself has collapsed at one point and for the time being the station has been given rock status, that is the keepers families no longer live at the station.

On leaving HARTLAND I returned to START for 2 years, and during this second period of my stay new engines and a Radio Beacon were installed. The Beacon sends out signals automatically, the signal is G.S.M. repeated at intervals, twice every half hour in clear weather and in foggy weather every six minutes. This has made more duties for the keepers as the batteries have to be charged every other day, and the equipment examined at frequent intervals. There were other changes too, we become more modern and up to date in that the Butcher came right down to the Station once a week and a grocer once a fortnight, but the distance to the village and town could not be shortened and these eleven miles could be very long and tedious at times. On one occasion after a heavy fall of snow we were snowed up and unable to get away from the station for goods or mail for a week. My two sons walked three and a half miles to the bus stop and went into Kingsbridge to go to school, remaining there in lodgings for the week.

From START Lighthouse I was transferred to GODREVY Lighthouse, an Island Rock Station off St. Ives, I was at this station 5 years, it was a two-handed rock, that is two keepers were off together, the third on his turn ashore. The Fog Signal was a bell fixed to the gallery of the lighthouse, a very doleful sound especially if fog was of long duration; the mechanism for working the bell had to be wound up every half hour. On one occasion a tidal wave swept the Rock damaging the landing gear and washed away some stone steps. In recent years GODREVY has been converted to an unmanned light which lights up automatically and only requires occasional visits by an attendant for cleaning purposes etc.

After 5 years at GODREVY I was glad of a change and found myself at DOVER PIER Lighthouse for a year; it was classed as a Rock Station, as our families could not live there. It was a good station, we could get provisions when required by walking into Dover. There was always a lot of activity especially when the Cross Channel boats arrived. The Dover Harbour Board later took over the station and it was manned by their employees. I was then transferred to PENLEE POINT Fog Signal Station. This is one of two stations in the Service which has a fog signal but no light, it is near the entrance to Plymouth and there is a lighthouse nearby on Plymouth Breakwater. The duties at this Fog Station are not so onerous as at an ordinary station, as we have only the fog signal to attend to. After 4 years at this station I was promoted to Principal Keeper.

When a keeper is promoted to a Principal it is a recognised thing for him to start again at a Rock station or a 3 year shore station, the reason for being limited to 3 years being on account of its isolation. I was sent first to LYNMOUTH FORELAND Lighthouse (North Devon), this is an isolated station where service is normally limited to 3 years. I, however did 4 years there. This is a two-handed station which, in addition to the light, has an explosive fog signal. The fog signal is automatic, the charges are loaded into a revolving drum and an endless chair, takes a charge which explodes on reaching the contacts at the end of a jib, once every five minutes. The keepers and families live at the station and a car is allowed once a week for shopping purposes as the nearest town is Lynmouth 5 miles distant.

The duties of a Principal Keeper remain the same as his Assistant Keeper so far as watch-keeping is concerned but he has complete charge of his station and is responsible for the maintenance of the Light and Fog Signal and appearance of the station in general, he also shares in the work of the station. The station books and correspondence are also in his care. The 1939-45 war broke out while I was at this station, and the result of enemy action was soon evident. I saw eight vessels sunk and soon the air raids over Swansea, Newport and Cardiff, these towns being visible from the Lighthouse.

After that, the powers that be saw that I did not miss my Rock service for which I was due and I served for 3 years at the EDDYSTONE Lighthouse, a Tower Rock Station, 14 miles off Plymouth. The EDDYSTONE is famous for being the first at which a light was established on an isolated rock in the open sea. The present lighthouse is the fourth erected on the rock. Being a Rock Station my family lived at Plymouth, and from seeing air raids on other towns, we found ourselves in them. We had anxious times while at the rock, we could see raids on Plymouth and naturally wondered how our families were faring. The Germans often gave us a burst of machine gun fire as they passed us on the way out from Plymouth, but did no damage beyond chipping bits off the granite. On one occasion, though, they did damage, they dropped 4 bombs close to the rock and fired cannon shell into the Lantern, the glazing and lens were damaged then, the bombs exploded in the sea which shook the tower just as if a heavy sea had struck it; after the explosions there were hundreds of bass floating on the water stunned but they went away in the tide which is very strong off the EDDYSTONE, so we were unable to get any.

Fishing is one past time off there. A kite is used and it's an exciting sport, there is an art in working the kite to make it fly just above the water and a fish of 5 or 6 lb would cause the kites to rise and the fish would be lifted clear out of the sea while being pulled in. Heavy fish would be pulled through the water with their heads just out, it's a thrill when pulling a large fish a hundred feet up the side of the tower, wondering if the tackle will hold and it's a relief when the fish is landed in the gallery. Bass and Pollock up to 14 lbs have often been caught, then whoever was fishing would tap on the gallery rails, this would sound through the tower and the man below would go to the winch room doorway and the fish would be swung inboard to save the risks of losing it. One Christmas dinner consisted of a 12 lb Bass which we stuffed and roasted and fried chips to go with it. The sweet course was a Christmas pudding which had been brought off on the relief. That fish was much tastier than the beef which we had had almost a month.

At Rock Stations keepers take off their own provisions. There is an emergency stock of tinned meat (beef and mutton) and tinned flour and biscuits which are only allowed to be taken up when a relief is overdue, or, as happens at times, the meat should go bad. The general practice is to take off dry goods according to individual tastes, potatoes, vegetables, (cabbage, carrots, onions) are in common use, meat is pooled. The old method used to be cook one piece of fresh meat and salt the rest, but the general practice now is to keep one piece out for immediate cooking and cut the rest up into pieces, put it in pound jars and cook it slowly; when cooked you cover it with the fat that would be on the meat, the idea being to keep it airtight. Meat done like this will keep good for two months. A common stock of yeast too is taken off, this is put in 2 lb jars and covered with water, it will keep good for a month and I have made bread with yeast six weeks old. A tin of dried yeast is a wise investment it's not so good as fresh yeast but certainly better than having to use baking powder if the yeast does go "off" owing to thundery weather. Cabbage remains good for about 10 days, carrots and turnips last longer. We hang on to the vegetables as long as possible, potatoes and meat (stewed) every day can be very monotonous variety is the spice of life, well, there is not much "spice" in Lighthouse diet.

In recent years I have been stationed again at START Lighthouse and PENLEE POINT Fog Signal Station.

It has been said that "Life is what you make it"; that is very true at both Shore and Rock Station. A Shore station is a little colony of its own, dependent on each other. With good neighbours, the station is a happy one and time passes pleasantly enough. Sometimes there is a discordant note and it can affect the whole social life of the station.

At Rock stations, especially Tower rocks, it's more pronounced, there three men have to share the same quarters spending a full month in each others company. The winter months are the most trying, owing to the weather it is necessary to spend more time inside often with the storm shutters closed for days on end. These shutters are of gunmetal with two small panels of plate glass at the top and are flush with the outside surface of the Tower walls, to prevent the sea from bursting in the windows. With these shut the rooms are very gloomy, and that is when it's very necessary to Have an interesting hobby, or a good book. The advent of wireless has made a great difference to lighthouse, as before wireless, life on rocks was more grim, conversation lagged, no fresh news of any kind between reliefs, but today there is an added interest, conversation is kept up to date, then there is always some item in the programme to suit such tastes. Boxing and Football match commentaries are favourite, Music Hall and the like; serious music too gets a place, and there is a spirit of give and take regards to the choice of programme. As there is always a keeper on duty in the lantern from sunset, card games can only be two handed, usually it's cribbage. Draughts are played a lot too, personally I like chess but it's surprising how few play that game. Between the wireless games and hobbies, time passes pleasantly enough, there are humorous moments and an occasional argument, but generally speaking an amicable atmosphere prevails.

An unfailing item of beauty are Sunsets and Sunrises, (especially in the West Country) when seen over the sea; they are often gorgeous in colour and cloud formation, but unfortunately that denotes bad weather. On quite a few occasions I have seen rainbows at night especially when there has been a full moon. Another fine spectacle has been the Northern Lights. I once saw it while at START Lighthouse, like dozens of searchlights playing in the sky. Most Lighthouses have a tame gull, which stays by the rock the whole time waiting for tit-bits, some are very tame and will come to the window and take food from ones hand, it's a rare sight to see them during a strong wind hovering just by the kitchen window almost like a hawk, then too, there are seals, I have often seen them strip a conger or skate and eat it.

There are many disappointments to get used to at Rock Lighthouses - fine weather almost up to the day of relief then a falling glass, perhaps a gale warning over the wireless, and all hopes of relief fade, even fine weather on relief day, but the steamer delayed by some other relief, and doesn't show up, so unpack gear again, dirty weather sets in and there is another "overdue" to stick out.

Self control is an essential quality at Rock Lighthouse; irritating little habits, such as tapping on the table, or tapping feet on the floor, which often pass unnoticed ashore, can become more irritating in a confined place, tempers become a little frayed, especially after the first month off; it's the reaction from the sameness. Imagine seeing the same things in the same place, the same faces, voices, habits, day after day. That is when the wireless helps, and is in fact a boon. There is not a great deal of criticism of the programme by Rock Keepers.

There is one thing to look forward to and that is the annual leave of 21 days, it's a holiday really earned, as there are no weekends or public holidays possible for Light Keepers, so naturally 21 days leave is really welcomed.

One of the relaxations at Shore Stations is taking visitors over the station, The Public are allowed to view on weekdays after 1 p.m. and one meets quite an assortment of people, but it's curious how little so many know of how a Light¬house is worked or manned, some of the questions are very amusing, one in particular is "What do you do in your spare time"? I suppose it's asked because the station looks clean and there is no evidence of work in hand. There is a Superintendent in charge of each district and he visits and inspects the station at intervals while the Elder Brethren of Trinity House make an annual inspection of all Stations. Life in the Lighthouse Service like all other jobs has its advantages and disadvantages, much depends on temperament and adaptability, there is a tendency to monotony caused mainly by routine, at isolated stations especially, but with the wireless, a good hobby, or an interest in birds or moths, life in the Service isn't too bad and at the end there is the consolation of retiring on a pension after an arduous life in maintaining the coastwise lights for the benefit of the mariners of all nations.