Lighthouse Keepers

Eddystone – A Story to tell the Grandchildren

by Clifford Trethewey

Reproduced from the book: Lighthouses of Cornwall and Devon.

It has never occurred to anyone, as far as I can tell, to question the origin of the unique marking of the three broad, red stripes applied to Smeaton’s tower. Whose daft idea was it to paint a lighthouse on a dangerous reef ten miles out into the English Channel and when was it done? The first census in 1841 was conducted in June and that was the perfect time for some outside house painting. The return for the Eddystone lighthouse showed seven men on board and four of them were painters under the direction of Robert Crossley, Master Painter, who was only 25 years old.

However, in an attempt to answer one of the questions I searched for antique prints and paintings of the tower only to find that none of those currently on the market carried the three red bands. So I looked a bit closer. Few of them were dated, but one that was, carried a date of 1845 and it was ‘unadorned,’ a word used to describe Smeaton’s aesthetic work. A little more reading suggested that lithograph makers copied each other’s work if an image sold well and there were distinct similarities with the 1845 publication. So why were there four painters on the light? I suggest that they had come to create a day-mark from Smeaton’s tower similar to the one that adorned St. Martin’s in the Isles of Scilly, which is contemporary with Eddystone at 1683, but not Smeaton. William Gibbons’ magnificent painting in the Plymouth Art Gallery dates from 1868 and shows the finished result in all its glory.

Take a moment to think into the problem that faced those four men in 1841. They had to create three bands about 12 feet in height and make a line around the tower that was perfectly horizontal whilst swinging from a bosun’s chair lowered from the gallery. Yes, they would have started at the base, but they could not reach the top of the first band without a platform and that would be hazardous on the rock. The middle and top bands were totally out of reach and Gibbons’ picture suggests that they also painted the cupola above the lantern. So who were these brave adventurers with a paint pot and brush?

The gang led by Robert Crossley included Edward Hawk and John Stanbury, but it is Abel Travers who is the only one who has been fully identified. Alleged to have been 15 at the time of the census, he was born on the 5 February 1823 and baptised Abel Champion Travers in Falmouth at the end of May. Falmouth was his home town and he returned there to marry and settle down and that is where he was found in 1851. He was still a house painter, but now a father of four and he could look forward to telling his grandchildren of the year he hung from the gallery of the Eddystone lighthouse to paint it red.

The three keepers who were spectators to these efforts were James Dilling, the eldest of the three, John Graham and William Welch, who were both Plymothians and all three continued with their careers in the Trinity service. After his spell on the Eddystone, Dilling went to Haisbro in Norfolk as its Principal Keeper, whilst the other two appear on stations in South Wales until 1871. It is disappointing, yet inevitable that the two following returns for the Eddystone in 1851 and 1861 have been ‘lost’ and 1861 is particularly frustrating as our own George Knott was about to take up his first appointment as Principal Keeper after leaving his ‘beloved’ family light at South Foreland. The disciplined hierarchy, gradually imposed on all light keepers from the late 1840s, had now reached George Knott.

The return for the lighthouse might have been lost, but two keepers were found in the Town who might have been keepers ‘off duty’ and there is good reason for that conclusion. A third keeper lodging nearby said that he was a keeper at the Breakwater and eliminated himself, but it is worth looking at their accommodation.

The two keepers in question were Joseph Steer from Bovey Tracey, 30 years old, and Charles Jolin aged 27 from Eling in Hampshire. Jolin was living in Jubilee Street and Steer was in Radnor Street and the third man was in Regent Street. All three addresses were close to Charles Church and just a few minutes’ walk to Sutton Harbour from where the Trinity House tender Diligent operated its ferry service to the Breakwater and the rock.

A short distance from Jubilee Street, along Sutton Road towards Coxside stands a small terrace of four old cottages and hidden behind them are four more. It is now St. John’s Road, but hung on the fence is a 20th century nameplate – Alma Cottages. It was here, at No. 2, that George Knott arrived with his family sometime in 1861/62, whilst coincidentally at No. 6 lived Thomas Ditcham, the South Western District Lighthouse Superintendent, with his wife and daughters. It was here also that George and Catherine Knott sat with their daughter Matilda in October 1863 as she faded away aged 10 years old and it was her Death Certificate that records George Knott as a lightkeeper on the Eddystone.

George’s colleague on the light, Charles Jolin married Emma King towards the end of 1856 in Shoreditch in whose parish of St. Luke Emma had been born. They brought a 3-year old daughter with them to Plymouth and a daughter Maria was born one month before the census. Charles would have been on the light when George Knott arrived, but as I could not find any subsequent career for him, it was shocking to see that he had been buried in Plymouth’s Ford Park Cemetery on 10 April 1864 aged 30. There was no drama in the death announcement in the Western Daily Mercury. He had died on the 3 April at his home at 23 Jubilee Street as an Assistant Keeper at the Eddystone light. Six months had passed since George’s own tragedy, but Trinity House now had to a find a replacement whose name may never be known.

In 1865 something else happened in the family that had been previously unknown. George Knott had made a detailed model of his lighthouse in his spare time that was scaled at ½ inch to 1 foot (see p31 and p33). He entered it into an exhibition ‘in a field near the Hoe’ that had the title The Devon & Cornwall Industrial Exhibition. It opened in July and the list of models is extraordinary. It was open to the public until mid-September, when the closing ceremony included the awards to the prize winners. George Knott’s Smeaton tower gained a First Prize, presented by the Earl of Morley.

Fifteen years after George Knott had left the Eddystone, the days of Smeaton’s tower were numbered. It had served continuously for 122 years, but it wasn’t the sea that would put it out. It was the rock on which it stood.

James Henry Gaylard was 22 in July 1878 when work began on the Eddystone reef to build the new tower designed by James Douglass. As a consequence it is unlikely that his new career as a lightkeeper had yet brought him to Trinity’s most famous light. He had been born in Norley Cottages adjacent to Charles Church where his father was the sexton and it is even possible that his father had been on hand to bury Matilda Knott in 1863. On the 19 September 1880 James Gaylard married Elizabeth James in Charles Church confirming that he was a lightkeeper and by that date the new lighthouse tower was approaching its final, 38th course. In April 1881 when the census named him as one of the keepers on duty that night, alongside William Fish (23) and William West (23), the tower was being prepared for the official completion ceremony on the 1 June by Prince Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh. The gallery of Smeaton’s tower provided a rare and privileged view of an event not publicly seen.

The working season began each year in February, but in 1882 there was little work left outstanding with one exception. A report in the Cornishman said that:

“On Tuesday 1 February the men worked through the night in the lantern until 3 o’clock on the Wednesday morning. On Thursday night the lamp were ready for lighting. On Friday afternoon (4 February) the senior lightkeeper, Mr. Gaylard was told off to take charge of the lighting of the new tower while the other two keepers were to remain in the old tower in readiness to light up should anything go wrong with the temporary apparatus. All went well and a telegram was sent on Friday night announcing that the new lights were burning successfully. On Saturday the two keepers were removed from the old tower to the new one and thus the use of Smeaton’s tower has come to an end. Already the work of demolition has commenced and the former lighting apparatus is being taken apart and packed, whilst the old house is being stripped of everything moveable.”

It is very sobering in today’s artificial world of ‘celebrity’ to read that a young keeper at the beginning of his career should be accorded the accolade of ‘lighting the lamp’ without any pretentious pomp and it was an occasion that he could claim was his own when he recounted the story to his grandchildren ... if, of course, he ever had any.