Experiences of a Lighthouse Keeper
The following account was written by JOHN BALL, a Trinity House lighthouse keeper. Originally “handwritten in beautiful copper-plate script, and with not one full stop throughout” it was typed by Elizabeth Slatter, John Ball’s great-grand-daughter, and sent to pharologist Ken Trethewey in the mid-1990s. We offer sincere thanks to Elizabeth for permission to publish it. To maintain its authenticity, we have not attempted to edit it in any way.
John Ball was born in December 1847. The details of his career which we have are as follows:
Apr 1874 Outer Farnes
Oct 1874 Dungeness
Dec 1876 Soutar Point
Mar 1888 St Catherine’s
Dec 1888 Longships
Tragically, John Ball drowned off the Bishop Rock on 19 Dec 1898.
Having been asked to give my experience as a Light Keeper, I do so willingly, trusting you will excuse all defects, I joined the Service of the Trinity Corporation in January 1873, I was a Supernumerary for 17 months, our duties during that time, being to learn the various duties of a Light Keeper, such as burning the different kinds of Lamps, also a certain time in the Fitters and Lamp shops also the working of Boilers and Engines, and from that to an Electric Lt. and Foghorn or Siren Station, we having to pass and obtain Certificates for each, and having obtained them, we then were entitled to assistant Keepers pay, we were then sent to various Lighthouses round the coast on Sick duty, until a vacancy occurred, we then being appointed in rotation as Assistants, at Rock or Pile Lights, for between 4 and 5 years, before obtaining a Shore station, I was sent to the South Foreland, an Electric Lt. and remained there 11 months, during the whole of the Fog Signal Experiments, it gave us all a lot of extra work and the Board remunerated us for it, the first Siren was introduced and tried there, and afterwards sent to Dungeness Lighthouse, in place of the old Reed Foghorn; after leaving Sth. Foreland, I did 8 weeks sick duty at St. Bees in Cumberland, and after that to Souter Point an Electric Lt. on temporary duty, while there I received my appointment to the Longstone or Outer Farnes, of Grace Darling fame, but before going out there, I did 3 weeks sick duty at the Inner Farnes, during the time I was there I got two rather amuseing frights, it is a very lonely island to be on, there are two Lts., a High and a Low, the latter one showing a Light on a rock out at sea; on the island a Donkey is kept for carrying coals and oil up from the Beach, and it is the duty of the man on Watch, to go down occasionally to the Low Lts. to see after it, a night or two after I got there I took a small hand lantern to go down there, a distance of 200 yds or so, it was a very dark and wild night I remember, and when about half way down, by the garden wall, I fell over something soft, I lost my lantern, and so was in total darkness, I got up as fast as I could and made for the High Lts. where after getting composed a little I got another light, and I went out again not very bravely I must confess, and I looked for the object I fell over, and I found it was the donkey he was lying right on the path, and was quite unconcerned, two nights again after that, I went down as usual just after midnight and it certainly is a most uncanny place to be on at night time, and the entrance door opened outwards, I went up and closed it after me, I was up rather longer than usual, having trimmed the Lts., on coming away again I found I could not get out, I pushed and sang out for some time, and I got rather nervous, at last the door gave way, and who should it be but my old friend again the donkey, he had lain down there for shelter, while I was upstairs, so I gave him donkey then, I think that is about all worth mentioning on that island, I then with my wife and 2 little children, proceeded to the Longstone or Outer Farnes an isolated island about 2 miles farther out, at that time termed a Shore Lt., a most dreadful place to put woman and children on, besides my family, there was a Principal, his wife, and 6 or 7 children, that completed the number, we were the last two families stationed off there, we have petitioned the Board to make it a rock or relieving Lt., on account of not being able to educate our children, it was granted, we both being sent to Shore Lts., on the arrival of someone to relieve us, I must now tell you of a very sad affair that took place by the drowning of a young Keeper who had arrived to relieve the Principal, about two days after him coming off, a Storm arose from the North, and I think it was the grandest sight I ever saw, it calmed down after a day or so, and it left a very big sea behind it, one day the young Keeper and one of the boys went roaming about the island, and while they were in the act of jumping over a gulley a big sea came through from the Eastward, and it caught his legs, and washed him along this gulley a distance of 150 yards into an open place near the East landing, it was enough to have knocked the poor fellows brains out, coming such a distance, a cry was heard, and we all ran out at once, women and children, they all being very much frightened, we ran down to try to reach him, he was then holding on to the sea weed, on a flat rock, the poor fellow seemed to be trying speak(?) to us, but we could get no where near him, at last 2 great seas came in from the Eastward, and took him from our sight, we searched the rocks at night, after the tide went down, but could see nothing of him, his body was picked up about a month afterwards, at a place called Newton, about 10 or 12 miles south of us, he was only recognized by a button on his waistcoat, it was a great shock to my wife at the time, she being near her confinement, our Tender came out the next day, with our Superintendent they had brought out two planks to carry the body ashore on, they thinking it was her (she) who had died, it was a great blow to us all, I must tell you of another fright I had while I was there, and one I shall never forget either, we the Keepers were allowed every now and then, to go ashore and return again the same day, with our Tender which was a Coble, with 3 hands in her, and very fine sailing boats they are, it had come out with water, and the P.K. decided to go ashore, taking his wife and 2 sons also my wife, we had a small keel boat of our own, so it was arranged, for our Tender to tow it ashore, they intending to return in it, to save our Tender coming again, I was of course left in charge of the station, also had the P.K.’s 4 young children, and my own two as well, one of mine being about 4 years old and the other two years old rather a great undertaking for a young married man however I fully intended to do the best I could for them all towards evening I kept anxiously looking out for them, at last I saw them leaving Nth. Sunderland Harbour, soon after the wind began to increase, also the sea, and it increased so much, that they had to make for the Inner Ferns, thinking it would ease down, and darkness came on I lost sight of them, I began to get very nervous indeed about them, and the children were getting very cross as well, now my duty must be attended to, I could see I was going to have a night of it, I went up, and put my Light in and started machinery, then down again to look at both little families then up again, it was a very rough night too, I kept going out to listen, then the children were crying for Mother but no Mother came, so you may picture my feelings that night, I thought the morning was never coming, however it is a long lane that has no turning, at last daybreak came, then I kept the Telescope to work, went down to see if children were alright, got my work all done and between 10 and 11 am they all arrived safe, they had been made very comfortable on the Inner Ferns all night, but they like myself, had been worrying as well, I dont wish to go through the same experience again, soon after then I was transferred to Dungeness Lt. House, an Electric Lt. & Siren station, this being the first Siren introduced in the Service, and the one we had been experimenting with at the Sth. Foreland, I have great reason to remember this one having lost the top joints of my finger with the engine for driving it, we had here two of the smallest lenses in the Service, it was also the 1st. Electric Lt. the Board had The Carbons we used here, were only about 3/16 in thickness, I spent two very happy years here, with good mates, I saw a great many Casualties to shipping while I was there, I will first relate two of them, that took place; one very wild night, with the wind blowing hard from NE, two large Barques and a Brig came ashore in the East Bay, one of them, a Russian Barque, loaded with jute with a Crew of 18 or 19 hands on board, she was well in on the sands, and she commenced to settle down, and as the tide made, so her decks were covered, the crew having to take to the riggings, it was a cold bitter night, she lay about 3/4 of a mile from the lighthouse, and the whole of that night we could hear the cries of those poor fellows, it being so dark the vessel could not be seen, and a tremendous sea on at the time, Now for the Lifeboat, who will volunteer, is the cry heard through the howling wind, the boat being manned by volunteers, chiefly the Coastguard and fishermen, the answer comes from 3 brave Light Keepers, we will, they only having just come off duty, well, after waiting till break of day the lifeboat is launched through a very heavy sea, they toil bravely on, till near the doomed vessel, the anchor is let go, and the line is thrown, the poor fellows being numbed with the cold, some of them only half dressed, they have missed the line, the lifeboat having drifted pass the vessel, well, they must return and try again, ah, but that is more easily said than done, precious time is being wasted, the lifeboat returns to try again, but some one else is preparing their boat to endeavour to reach the poor fellows, and they are two sturdy fishermen, and into their boat my three mates jump, not waiting to go in lifeboat again, they thinking the smaller boat could be handled easier, the boat is got afloat, and after a good pull, they reach the vessel, a line is thrown and is caught, and all made fast, and “Hurrah” 7 poor fellows are taken of f and brought safely to shore, the lifeboat has started again, and this time is successful and bring off the remainder of the crew now those are Mates one cannot speak too highly of, you will now see that we have men in the Lighthouse service ready to risk their lives for their fellow creatures, the other Barque and Brig were loaded with Coals, and were further up on the Beach, and next day very little of either vessels, were to be seen, having gone to pieces, the beach being strewn with wreckage and coals, the next affair worth mentioning is, we had a very heavy Gale came on from the S.W. which did a deal of damage along the Coast, the Sea washing a large opening in the beach in the West Bay, which flooded the land for 2 or 3 miles distance, and during the Gale, a large Steamer called the H.A. Brightman, of Nth. Sheilds, came ashore in the West Bay, and ran right into the opening in the beach, which the sea had made, and it required a large gang of men for some days to dig away the shingle, so as to try and float the steamer again, which after a deal of labour they succeeded in doing, and got her to sea again, A. Board of Trade Inquiry was ordered to be held on her at Westminster before Mr. Rothery, which I attended as a Witness, Not very long after this, the Electric Light was discontinued here, on account of its being so deceiving, through the beach and sea encroaching; from here I was sent to another Electric Station, a much more powerful light, called Souter Point on the Durham coast, I was there between 12 & 13 years, it was a very comfortable and convenient station to be, and after I had been there 5 or 6 years, singular to say, I had to attend another Board of Trade Inquiry, again on the H. A Brightman this time coming in at the death, this time it was held at South Sheilds, the Steamer had left the Tyne, bound for Alexandria, loaded with a general Cargo, she ran ashore at Staithes in Yorkshire, but got off again and while returning again to the Tyne, to be examined, a thick Fog came on, I was on duty at the time, working the Fog Signal, and when the Steamer was off Seaham Harbour, she sank, so that was the last of her, I also attended two other inquiries while I was there, one of them for a Vessel coming ashore in a fog, and the other I attended as an Independant Witness the last being a Claim for Damages, it was held at the Newcastle Assizes before Mr. Justice Mathews, it was between the owners of a large Steamer called the Czar and the Wear Commissioners, I having to produce the Weather reports for a certain day, it seems the Dock Authorities had buoyed a tier of 4 vessels in their dock to a buoy, & during a gale of wind from S.W. the shackle of the buoy gave way, and the force of wind, drove the tier of vessels, down onto the Czar, as she lay along the quay loading up, the Wear commissioners produced 5 or 6 Dock Masters from some of our largest Docks, to prove there was no neglect on their side, but that it was due solely to the great force of wind, but my weather report proved its quite the contrary, so the Commissioners lost the day, while at Souter Pt. I attended an Ambulance Class, and gained a certificate, I was on one occassion assisting to restore a poor young man who was drowned while bathing close to the Lthouse, but we were rather late in being called, so were not successful, on another day, I was down on the beach, roaming about when I saw something white showing up on the rocks, I went towards it and climbed up the rocks to it and when I got to it I was startled to find it was a body of a man naked with his head gone, and it had a side spring boot and a striped sock on the left foot. notice was sent to the Police at the Village, and the body was removed to the Mortuary, about a week after, a poor woman came to see me asking for a description of him. I gave it to her, she said she felt sure it was her poor man, she seemed quite broken hearted over it, she told me he left the Tyne a fortnight before in a Steamer called the Tyne, which was wrecked on the reef of rocks, at the entrance to the Tyne, called the Black Middens. I well, remember the occasion, the Light here was much more powerful than where I came from, it being equal to 1300 candle power, produced from two of Holmes’s Machine, our Carbons being 1/2 to 5/8, I saw also great improvements made here in the Fog Signal from the old reed foghorn, driven by Friction gear, to a more powerful Siren driven by a very large engine, which during fog at night time, drove both Electric Machines and Siren, we also had another Boiler added, making in all three, from here I was transferred to St. Catherines Lt. in the Isle of Wight, at that time considered the most powerful light in the world for lighthouse illuminant it being produced by two of Demiritons Machines, bringing our lights up to 7 million Candle power, they being driven by Robeys’s Locomotive Engines, the steam pressure being from 120 lbs. to 140 lbs., the old foghorn here being driven by two Horizontal Caloric engines, they were taken away, and a Siren put here our Lens here was also made to revolve by compressed air, instead of the old way, with a clock and weights, showing what great strides were being made, we were very comfortable here, having such a good house and garden, but I was destined not to remain here more than about 8 months unfortunately the Engineer and I did not hit it together at all, he being my superior he had the best of it, so we were parted, I was not dealt with fairly, so I was transferred to the Longships, but I forgot to say that the Carbons we were burning there, the smallest size for single power were 2 in. and for double power they were 3 in., you will now see what great strides were made with the Electric Light, I had altogether 15 years with the Electric Lt. I had been at 4 of the Electrics out of the 5, and that one I had been just to visit so I may venture to say, that no keeper in the Service had had so much varied experience with the Electric Light, and the different kinds of Engines as I had, I am saying this out of no boast in any way, well, now for a discription of rock life and its work, in the first place, it is an isolated (?) rock, lying about 1 1/2 miles from the Lands End, and is considered the most treacherous and dangerous rock in the Service, more lives having been lost here than the whole of our rocks put together, showing the necessity of having old experienced hands here, there seems to be a kind of tidal wave come in occasionally, and when one least expects it, and often when there is very little sea on, and we are walking on the top rock for exercise and fresh air, (the rock being between 30 & 40 ft. high) without much warning a sea will often come in and wash the whole of the rock over, showing one that they must always be on the look out, it is indeed a very rough station, we are so subject to ground seas here, why it is so I am unable to say, for many years now, the Longships has been noted for the queer noises so frequently heard off there, I my self have often been asked if it was true or not, I must say, it is quite true, and I will try to explain the cause of it as far as I am able to account for it, it seems to me and also to many others that have been stationed here, that somewhere at the base of the rock there is a hole or crevice, into which some large boulders have been washed, and when we are troubled with a heavy ground swell, chiefly a NW sea, it rolls in and recedes again, and so washes these boulders about, and causes a great noise, and which ever room you are in, it seems as though it was in the room beneath you and the lower one goes down the nearer the noise seems to you, that of course is quite natural as you are nearer the seat of it, some of the keepers who have been here, are inclined to think that it comes from an opening in the rocks on the east side of the tower, facing the entrance door, in which is called the old man, into which the sea rushes with such tremendous force, throwing the water up to an height of 70 to 80 feet, of course we are unable to account for it in any other way, it certainly causes a most unpleasant feeling, should you have occasion to go below at night time, until you get use to it, you can distinctly hear it is only boulders washing about, at the base of the rock, now for the last 8 or 9 months, I myself have not heard it , so possibly they have been washed out of the hole, I thought I would try to explain these noises, as the house has got rather a bad name by some of the residents in the locality, for being haunted, there was one of the keepers who used to be here, got so nervous one time, that he ran up from the kitchen(?) into the lantern and said to the Principal, oh. captain come down, he is at it again, so who he meant I dont know, unless it was the old gentleman himself, or his imps, in the summer we often have a few visitors come of f of course that would only be when the weather is fine, and the landing good, they are then able to step from the boat without much trouble then, it is a most difficult place to land when there is any sea on, we have three landings here, they are the North Point, the Pollon or South landing, and the Bridges, it then depends on the state of the tide and direction of the wind, as to where to land, we have a jib we put up at the Nth. Pt. and also the Pollon, when it is a bit rough, and then all stores, water, coals & oil are hoisted on to the top rock, ready to be carried up into the house, and when it is too rough to step from the boat on to the landings, the keepers when we are relieving, are hoisted up in the same way each man being provided with a lifejacket, to be used on all occassions when landing or embarking, we do not get many visitors at such times as that, but only in fine weather and generally their first words on landing are, oh, ain’t this jolly, how nice, what a delightful place, how I should like a week off here, yes to a stranger it would look nice but when they are able to land Davy Jones is generally in one of his quiet moods, but for them to know what the place is like, they should be out here, when it is blowing hard from the westward, or when there is a heavy ground swell on, then I think they would think very different(ly) then when they get on the top rock, they generaly ask, do you ever get the sea up here, and when they are told yes, and over the top of the lantern as well, they seem surprised, and hardly credit it, Now for the inside, on entering the bottom room, you see ropes & landing gear stowed away ready for use, also the tank for keeping the house supplied with water, that having to be brought from the shore, then comes the coal room, in which there is a Pump, for pumping water from the lower room up to a tank in the kitchen, then comes the store room, in which there are roomy cupboards, for each keeper, also a cask (?) for each man, to keep potatoes in, then there is also a Magazine for storeing our Fog signal explosives, we next come to our oil room, where we have large tanks for oil, also our Lifeboat Signals, next we come to our kitchen or living room, then comes our Bedroom in which there are 5 Bunks, the two top ones being used for any Mechanic that may have to be here, we have also a cupboard here, in which we have a good supply of Tinned Meat kept in reserve, then comes the Service room and Lantern, in which everything looks bright and clean how nice everything is, yes, but there are times when things do not look so pleasant, and that is when there is a change coming, then they would see the walls and the floors running with water, and everything you touch feeling cold and clammy, then again with a heavy sea on, (and we do get some heavy seas now and then, I have seen it myself come down the chimney and on to the kitchen range,) and all the shutters closed up, making the house look very dark and miserable or then again when there is a thick fog on for a couple of days not being able to get out, and one continual booming going on with the fog signal, sleep then being out of the question, they would then see that we have a few dis¬comforts to put up with, and that everything was not always so nice as it looked, but give us fine weather so that we can get out for excercise and fresh air, and also good cheerful mates then we are as happy and comfortable as can be, Now as to our reliefs, that is a thing all keepers at rock lights are always very anxious about, in fact it is our cheif anxiety a day or two before relief day, all hands are watching the Barometer, and the weather & sea, the day before relief letters are wrote to wife and family, boxes packed, bunks all washed out for the incoming keeper or keepers, wind & sea looking favourable for a good relief next morning, the morn arrives, the cry comes from the man on watch, to tell us that a small flag is up, hoisted by the keeper on shore to tell us the boat with the relief is coming of f, then there is a stir amongst us getting boxes tied up, that being left until we can see the boat, as we are sometimes taken in that way, the boatmen sometimes thinking there is too much sea, then the landing gear is got out, and put up, ropes all made fast ready for boat, at last it arrives, the anchor is thrown out and ropes thrown to them, very often the anchor does not hold and so comes home, causing a great delay, at last all is right, a box being sent up first to see that the landing gear is alright before the keeper is hoisted up, well everything is up and carried into the house, the boat leaves again for another 14 days very often more, however it has turned out a very good relief, and thankful we are it is done, now the boxes must be got up and unpacked, letters from home being of course the first item, after having mastered the contents of them, and the contents of boxes all stowed away, we sit down with our pipes and listen to all the latest news, and little bits of scandal, and then peruse our newspapers, now we are settling down again, till our relief comes again, it arrives again, the same anxiety the wind and sea being very fine indeed for the whole fortnight but the night before relief is due, we note the sea is making (?) and glass begins to drop, however if it will only hold out for a few hours more we shall do, at last they come and we can see we are going to get a drenching, the sea being rough the boat is unable to come in very close to the rock, the consequence is everything gets very wet, we on the rock being also continually drenched with the sea, but the relief perhaps is sometime over due, so we do not mind the soaking so much provided it is not too dangerous for us to remain on the rock, however we have got the relief done, then again it is often the sea is smooth for some time, and the day before the relief, a ground swell will come on so sudden and in an hour or two what was so calm, is now one mass of foam for 1/2 a mile around us, and that perhaps may last for nearly a fortnight, so you will now see we have our disappointments, and only those who have had it know what it is, and sometimes the sea will go down again very quick and we think there will be a landing in the morning, but very often our boatmen think different and so good landings are often missed through them, then it may be days before there is another chance, now who is the best judges to know, we who are out here and know the place so well, also the ways of Davy Jones, or the boatmen looking at it from the shore and very often from the fields, so we have to bear it, we have some very nasty landings at times, only a short time ago, we had a young keeper come here to do sick duty for one of our men, and it was rather rough the day the keeper came off to relieve him, we were continually getting drenched that day with the seas washing over the landing, and as we were lowering him into the boat, a sea came in, and to me it seemed as though it washed him out of the sling but others say he left go, when he saw the sea coming, however he went in, and I must say he struck out bravely for the boat, fortunatly he had on a lifejacket at the time, so came off with nothing more than a fright and a good soaking, it was rather singular, but the night before we were talking at tea time about swimming and I remarked to him, can you swim, he said to me, now did you ever know a coastguards boy that could not, we little thinking at the time, he would be put to the test so soon, we are rather more fortunate at the Longships than most of our other rocks, with regard to signalling we being well up in the Morse Code and Semaphore, great strides have been made, we are able now to hold communication with the Wolf Rock a distance of nearly 8 miles, we also signal to dwellings ashore every night and day so are now able to get all the latest news both for Service & private use which is a very great boon, the old style of signalling by hoisting flags being with us here almost obsolete, then again people wonder how we can manage to pass away our time of f here, well it is a very dull monotonous life, but we manage to get over it very well, by passing our time away after our duty is done, by fishing, carpentering, knitting and various other things, nothing coming amiss to us, so with good cheerful mates, rock life is not by any means to be despised, then again there is our boatmen it lays in their power to make our lonely life more comfortable by being obliging and attentive to us, I will now draw my short narrative to a close, having endeavoured to give you a correct account of my experience as a Lightkeeper
and beg to remain
Beacon Lights 1896