Lighthouse Keepers

Lighthouse Keepers' Duties


22. Though we were able to visit only a handful of lighthouses, we formed some clear impressions of the life and conditions of work of the light-keeper. Undoubtedly the job calls for a particular temperament and despite some dissatisfaction over pay and conditions, there appears to be a widespread spirit of dedication to the service and men who survive the first few years tend to remain in it. Social and physical isolation are the main problems of the men, and more particularly of their wives and families, even on many shore stations. The facilities for visiting the nearest centre of population are often minimal and, apart from the more obvious disadvantages of isolation, the education of children can present serious problems. The working conditions on shore stations appear to be good in general, but living accommodation tends to suffer the defects of buildings which, for the most part, were put up a long time ago. The lighthouse authorities have, however, been taking steps to renovate and modernise these dwellings.

23. Men serving on rock stations face not only complete isolation for extended periods but also the problems of living often in extremely confined spaces with two other men with no room for exercise and minimal recreational facilities (although television now seems to be standard equipment), sparsely furnished accommodation-including curved bunks-and sometimes primitive sanitary conditions. Their diet tends to be meagre and monotonous and supplies are sometimes ruined in transit by being drenched with sea water; and water has to be carefully rationed. The temperature in a lighthouse can fall to levels that would not be tolerated in a factory. The mere task of getting on and off the rock is often hazardous and relief is delayed in very bad weather. There are obviously formidable problems in making alterations to structures which are pillars of granite, in some cases rising sheer out of the sea, but our impression is that more might be done to alleviate some of the disagreeable features of life on a rock station and to make working conditions more tolerable.

24. On shore stations the keepers get 28 days leave a year except for Supernumeraries who get only 17 days if they have served for less than four years. At the rock lighthouses under the control of Trinity House, Principal and Assistant Keepers serve 2 months continuously in the lighthouse and are then given one month's shore leave during which time they are regarded as free of official duties except in case of emergencies. Until fairly recently Scotland had the same system but at most Scottish rock stations the rota is now 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off and in the remainder it is 6 weeks on and 3 weeks off. In Scotland, the rock station keepers have certain minor duties whilst ashore and are completely free of duty in all for only half the time that they spend on shore. The more frequent relief of rock stations in Scotland was introduced by the management when it was found that the additional cost involved was not significant in their case. Most of the light-keepers in Trinity House to whom we spoke were in favour of shorter spells of duty on rock stations. There seems to be no firm policy on the part of the union, although as a long term aim they seek a rota of one month on and one month off.

25. Light-keepers are required to serve in any lighthouse within the jurisdiction of the authority concerned and postings appear to be fairly frequent. The Northern Lighthouse Board said that the average tour of duty at any one station was about 4 years. Trinity House said that their tours of duty varied considerably but from the information which we have on the careers of the light-keepers whom we interviewed, posting seems to be at least as frequent as in Scotland. It is recognised by both authorities that some stations are more unpleasant to serve on than others and some effort appears to be made to take account of this in posting the light-keepers.

26. The Principal Keeper carries full responsibility for the lighthouse but he is also expected to take an equal share of the work with the other keepers. He is also responsible for judging when a supernumerary posted to the lighthouse has reached a standard of proficiency adequate to qualify him for his next certificate, though for training purposes, the Supernumerary is put in charge of the senior Assistant Keeper. A light-keeper's main duty is to keep watch on the navigation light during the hours in which it is exhibited to ensure that it is functioning properly and displaying the correct character at all times. A light is identified by its character which is precisely defined, for example, in terms of intervals between flashes or periods of eclipse. When conditions demand it, the light-keeper has also to start up and attend to the fog signal. A majority of the manned lighthouses have such signals. At some stations, a check has also to be kept on the proper functioning of the radio and/or radar beacon which operate continuously.

27. During daylight hours a fog watch is kept at stations with a fog signal and part of this period is devoted to cleaning, inspection and maintenance work on the lighthouse machinery and equipment. Maintenance work requiring particular skills is done by specialist maintenance men from central pools in each of the authorities. Light-keepers are expected to report the presence of any dangers to navigation and, where possible, to co-operate with the coast-guard and coastal rescue services. A daily log is written up by the keeper on duty during the daytime.

28. The duty hours that light-keepers are expected to work are not laid down but regulations provide that watch-keeping arrangements shall, as far as possible, ensure that no watch shall exceed 8 hours or include more than 4 hours during the period of darkness. Watches are changed every night so that the same keeper shall not have the same watch two nights consecutively. At shore stations, the watches are, as far as possible, arranged so as to allow each keeper to have 24 hours free from duty every week and where necessary an occasional keeper is employed to make this possible. Keepers on rock stations, however, work a 7-day week. An actual example of a 24-hour period of duty by a keeper on a rock station was as follows:

22.00 - 02.00 Light watch 02.00 - 09.00 Sleep (but on call) 09.00 - 10.00 Free time (breakfast) 10.00 - 14.00 Cleaning and maintenance (minimum 2 hours) and relief of man on duty for short periods 14.00 - 18.00 Free time 18.00 - 22.00 Light watch

29. In the lighthouse service, hours of work have been determined by traditional acceptance of what the job involves at the current manning standards; and at rock stations, manning standards are limited by the accommodation available. In addition to the basic hours set by the current pattern of watch-keeping, the light-keeper is on call for emergencies and he has to remain on duty if, for any reason, the keeper due to relieve him is unable to do so. Such eventualities are spasmodic and unpredictable but some of the regular tasks of the light-keeper also cannot be fitted into the normal watch-keeping pattern; thus, as the example in the previous paragraph shows, cleaning and maintenance duties cannot be done during a night watch. At some stations, a second keeper is needed on watch when sounding for fog at night because the keeper on light duty is unable to look after the fog signal compressor as well. This is, however, a diminishing problem as more and more compressor plants are being adapted to semi-automatic operation which enables the light-keeper on watch to attend to the fog signal as well as the light. Of the 22 Trinity House stations at which "doubling-up" is necessary at present, 15 are scheduled to be converted by 1972. 20 out of a total of 30 shore stations in Scotland are due to be converted by the end of this year. Our investigations suggested that the additional hours worked over the year as a whole at stations where doubling-up is still necessary are, in any case, relatively small and keepers on shore stations get an additional 7 days leave a year by way of compensation.

30. Thus the duty hours of light-keepers are apt to extend significantly beyond the basic watch-keeping hours and there is considerable variation in this respect between different stations and at different times at the same station. So far as we are aware no attempt has been made to assess the actual hours of work of light-keepers over a given period. Apart from the practical difficulties involved it would not be possible to avoid making some arbitrary assumptions in trying to measure the working week: a day watch is hardly to be equated with a night watch*; the extensive shore leave of the rock keeper would, on some basis, have to be set off against the long hours spent on duty; and some allowance would have to be made for times when a keeper was off duty but on call. For the purpose of rewarding light-keepers for long hours on duty it would not be impossible to arrive at an agreed basis on which to calculate a notional basic working week which took account of these factors but the administrative task of assessing individual overtime payments on such a basis would be formidable. An alternative would be to compute for light-keepers as a whole an average working week on the same basic assumptions and work out a consolidated overtime payment based on the excess of the notional average working week over, say, 40 hours. But the answer obtained would depend upon the arbitrary assumptions made in calculating hours worked. * We were told that the Norwegian Lighthouse service counts the day watch as to half-time.