Lighthouse Keepers

Bachelors, Visitors and Born on a Lighthouse

by Clifford Trethewey

Reproduced from the book: Lighthouses of Cornwall and Devon.

Every Institution and significant building has a Visitor’s Book that is kept hidden until someone important comes to visit. The Princess Royal has been Patron to the Northern Lighthouse Board of Scottish lighthouses since 1993 and was elected Master of Trinity House in May 2011. She makes no secret of the fact that she enjoys visiting lighthouses. So, there are many visitors’ books belonging to Scottish and English lighthouses that have her signature on its pages. I must admit to having never heard of a Visitors’ Book until recently. It did not take long to uncover the existence of the book for Godrevy which changed hands recently at auction and contained the signature of Virginia Woolf. Another book is known to exist that came from the Longships and that is even more astonishing. Who could or would want to visit a rock lighthouse?

The Victorians were infectiously curious. A new world was emerging all around them and they wanted to see it and be informed about it and we have seen examples already at Round Island and Godrevy Island, but Wolf Rock was different. That didn’t mean to say that their curiosity didn’t extend to a rock lighthouse. It did, especially if they could see it, far out to sea. They wanted to know how men could live in such isolation and exactly what did they do out there?

The Wolf Rock Visitors’ Book was opened in September 1870, but visitors were sparse, barely three or four each year. On 18 September 1871 two men signed the page as follows – W. Woodall, Scarborough and G. Ball, Penzance. Surprisingly there are two entries in the 1871 census that might fit these men like a glove. George Ball was 36 and a bachelor and he and his sister were living with their aunt Charlotte Hartley in Mount Street, Penzance. George was a tailor, but his aunt was an ‘annuitant,’ a euphemism for ‘comfortable middle-class.’ William Woodall was also a bachelor, but he was 32 and a solicitor, living with his parents on the Parade, Scarborough and his father was also a solicitor. These were just the sort of young men that might expect doors to be opened for them and they obviously wanted to see inside the lighthouse on the Wolf Rock.

In June 1873 two men climbed aboard the lighthouse who had every reason for wanting to see it at close quarters from the outside and the inside. They were Major Elliott of the American Lighthouse Board and Paul Pelz a young architect just 31 years old. He had embarked on his first lighthouse design in Florida which had only just begun building, but over the next five years he would put his name to the drawings of eleven lighthouses all around America’s coasts.

It was May of the following year when three men from Brixham came on board on the 18th of the month. The name Brixham tells us immediately that they were trawlermen delivering a welcome supply of fish, but they could have done that without leaving their boat. This must have been an example of curiosity rewarded by hospitality, so who were these men of the sea?

Henry Ellis signed first and it is very likely that he was the Master and Owner of the Smiling Morn, a typical Brixham trawler of 46 tons and new in 1871. Henry lived with his wife and family in Prospect Place, Brixham and the two crewmen who joined him on the lighthouse were Henry Pitts and John Rackley whilst their fourth crew member played ‘dolly’ and looked after the boat.

Three months after the visit of the fishermen, a visitor arrived who put the keepers on their best, disciplined behaviour. He was Thomas Matthews of Trinity House, London and he had just been appointed by Trinity House to be an assistant civil engineer to the exalted James N. Douglass, the designer of the Wolf Rock light. Matthews probably viewed the lighthouse as ‘his own.’ He had been born in Penzance as his father had spent many years as the Borough Surveyor to the Penzance Town Council and Thomas had assisted him in the improvements to the Penzance Harbour installation. However, he had now arrived to acquaint himself with his new responsibilities with Trinity House and had a very keen eye.

It was All Fools’ Day 1875 when the next fishing trawler hove-to off the rock and landed three men with a basket of fish. These men were from Plymouth’s Barbican fishing community and the first name on the page was RJ Thomas. This was Robert James Thomas aged 28 who was the Master and his Mate, who joined him, was Alexander Potter who was 26. The third man was Jasper Burt, crewman.

Of course the name of their boat is not in the ledger, but Bob Thomas was a very competitive skipper in the trawler races when it came to the Plymouth Regatta. In 1873 he took fourth place in Wildfire, but by 1881 he was the owner of the Vanduara, a splendid trawler from the pen of one of the best westcountry designers and built at Shilston’s Yard at the China Wharf in Coxside.

There can be little doubt when looking at the record and reading the personal stories of the light keepers that Trinity House engendered a loyalty that lasted a man through his entire working life. It is also clear that he had a loyalty to his wife and family, that is, sadly, not so evident today. This meant, however, that he embarked on his career as a young man, invariably in his early twenties and after his initial introduction and training at the Blackwall Depot in London, his first lighthouse was a rock lighthouse. This was not some form of ‘throw them in at the deep end’ philosophy, because not everyone went to a rock as his first appointment, but there was some logic in its reasoning. A rock light is difficult to access and in less than favourable weather conditions a young and supple body is more likely to avoid injury. It is also apparent that Wolf Rock had a higher incidence of young bachelors than other lights and that may have been because of its lack of Trinity House accommodation at Penzance. A genial, motherly lodging house keeper was sufficient for the needs of a young, single man in his 20s.

Census Returns for rock and island lighthouses have a habit of going missing and it is particularly prevalent when the light is new. As a consequence it makes research of this kind very frustrating and we are denied a look at Wolf Rock’s situation in its first decade of operation. In 1881 the first record of a Principal Keeper shows John Chavener, a man who has spent most of his time in South Wales and he has been married for twenty years and has seven children. Two of those children were born on Caldy Island Lighthouse off Cardiff in 1868/70 so they were not a lot younger than his charges. He was sharing the duty with two bachelors aged 21 and 23 and every following decade has one bachelor on the crew, so let us look a little closer at four of them.

Albert Adams was 23 and from St. Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly. He made a career of the service and by 1911 he was the Principal Keeper on the island of Flatholm in the Bristol Channel off Cardiff. He had been married for 27 years and his wife, Jane, had also been born on St. Mary’s so they knew one another as children. Their 26 year-old daughter was still at home and had been born at Orford in Suffolk when her father had been on that light in 1885 after leaving the Wolf.

Alfred May was only 21 and was born at Holyhead in North Wales. His baptism on the 13 January 1860 revealed that his father Alfred Bromley May was the keeper on the Skerries light and in 1881 whilst his son was on the Wolf, he was on the Lowestoft Low Light. This is also a recognised pattern among keepers as they often drifted back towards their own areas and Alfred senior had been born at Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. In 1891 Alfred May junior had found a place on the Hartland light and he was still there in 1901. Curiously, his Principal was William Darling and Bill Rowe was his assistant, and both have their wives with them, but not Alfred. This is a repeat of the situation in 1891, so Alfred’s wife was not keen on lighthouse life and it is noticeable that he still hasn’t made promotion to Principal. In fact, it was more serious than that as Alfred died in the summer of 1903 in Suffolk aged 43. His death was registered in the district that embraced Orford and might suggest that he died ‘in harness.’

In 1891 George Freeman has taken on the Principal Keeper’s position on the Wolf and his bachelor assistant is already 28 years old, but he came from a family of light keepers. He was Nicholas Trahair, son of Nicholas Trahair the Principal on Godrevy Island and he may have been born as his father took over the Longships Light in 1863. So, he was not born on a lighthouse, but with the wind in his hair.

In 1901 there is a more unusual return for the census as the Principal is ashore and there are three young men on board, two of whom were married, but they felt the need to install a ‘pecking order.’ The Principal Keeper was entitled to his month’s leave on shore and his Assistants had to be trusted to do their duty, but it is interesting to see it recorded as Senior ALK, ALK1 and ALK2 with Edmund Ball being the most junior at 24 years old. In fact he may have had more experience of life on a lighthouse than the other two, as he had been born on the light at Dungeness towards the end of 1876 and by 1911 he had moved on to the magnificent tower at Portland Bill.

So this brief glimpse reveals the deep commitment that many men gave to the lighthouse service. To marry a light keeper was also a deep commitment to the service, often living in isolation with only another keeper’s wife on hand to help to deliver the inevitable baby or two. It was a proud boast to be able to say – I was born on a lighthouse – and not many people could lay claim to that distinction. There are still some who can, but it is diminishing and will eventually disappear from living memory. It is tempting to say that no one was ever born on a rock lighthouse, but I can’t be too sure of that, as we have seen with Godrevy in 1859.