FORTY YEARS ON LIGHTHOUSES by A. Nethercott.
A series of short articles about the life and times of lighthouse keeper Alec Nethercott during the period 1920-60. The articles were written by him in the mid 1960s and published in Torpoint Topics. They were collected by pharologist Ken Trethewey in the early 1970s and republished in the Lighthouse Encyclopaedia CD-ROM in the 2000s after his death.
No doubt, many of you have wondered what induced young men to take up a career in the lighthouse service. Looking back I have often asked myself the same question, yet strangely enough, I have few regrets because I have had such a variety of experiences that would never have been my lot had I followed the life mapped out for me by my parents. I will endeavour to relate some of the most interesting of these from time to time, which I trust will be of interest to many of my own townsfolk, especially the lads on the tugs who often risked their lives when landing and relieving me at the Eddystone Rock during the seven years I spent there in the 30s.
In the old days it was the practice for sons of lightkeepers to follow in their fathers footsteps. They lacked the opportunities offered in the outside world, as well as knowledge of it, owing to their existence in out of the way spots such as islands and headlands, devoid of education and the normal amenities of civilisation.
After the first World War, a big change began in lighthouses. New methods, mostly due to mechanisation, took over from the older forms of navigation warnings, necessitating a new type of person qualified to operate them. At that period in the big Depression, surplus mechanics were available and happy to accept employment which offered security and a pension on retirement. Being in this category, I decided to give it a trial, although my concept of lighthouses or who controlled them and the conditions they worked in were extremely vague.
Training for a career
Trinity House, London, controls all important lighthouses around the coasts of England and Wales so I applied to them. I was accepted after an educational and medical examination, although at the time the competition was severe. I received training in signalling, morse, semaphore, knots and splices, as well as general boat work, metal work, carpentry, steam and early types of oil engines. This training was carried out at their Blackwall Workshops on the Thames. We learned about all the various lighthouses equipped with the more modern types of engines, lamps and fog signals, for example, and also coping with isolated rock lights which posed a severe physical and mental test. After six years training I eventually attained the required certificates in the various types of engines, charging plants, wireless equipment, Post Office R/T and others. An early (and one of my worst experiences) began when I was ordered to the Wolf rock, an isolated lighthouse stuck far out into the Atlantic, between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
The Wolf Rock lighthouse
After a delightful three months sojourn on Lundy Island, I returned to the London depot only to be ordered immediately to Penzance to relieve a sick keeper on the Wolf Rock. I arrived on a cold drizzly day in early December, received my instructions and, being advised to expect overdues - not unusual on the western rocks - duly ordered a good stock of provisions, meat and Christmas fare. They were very helpful and packed provisions and clothes in a huge cask fastened down to prevent seawater from damaging the contents. The meat was placed in tubs of brine and all were lowered into the hold of a small steam tender called the MERMAID. By today's standards, she was quite a 'tub' and inadequate for the hazardous work she was called upon to execute. Surprisingly she was looked upon with pride after the old sailing vessels recently discarded. The weather worsened as we steamed out of the bay to the open Atlantic. The old tub rolled around like a sick animal and I began to feel quite ill. Then we sighted the Wolf. It seemed a lonely sentinel, so insignificant, small and narrow-looking, with white water breaking around the rocks. It seemed incredible that three or four men could reside there for months on end. Yet, many years later I was to spend nearly three unforgettable and exciting years here when 'Jerry' tried his utmost to blow us clean off the surface of the sea.
A Difficult Landing
On closer inspection it was decided impossible to land anyone as the seas were then sweeping over the landing, so we 'hove to' waiting for a brief chance as the tide receded. The long boat was lowered and I scrambled aboard with my gear. The crew rowed over to a buoy some hundred yards off the place, lashed a strong rope from the stern which was paid out as the boat approached the landing. The lads above threw heaving lines to which were attached bow ropes. These were lashed on either side to sampson posts. The bowline was lowered into the boat and the first man was hauled out.
Having messed around in boats since a child, I thought I knew a thing about seamanship. I was a flop compared to these Cornish 'sea dogs' and I would have panicked if it wasn't for the competent, complacent old coxswain, who sat there quietly giving orders, with a kindly smile, through all the turmoil and excitement. I lay in the bottom of the boat with a stomach like lead, waiting for the boat to be smashed to splinters. It appeared suicidal from the start to attempt anything. Try to imagine being in a boiling white surf, black ugly rocks all around with seaweed literally being torn off. The roar of the sea, men shouting, their voices being drowned. At one moment we were down in the yawning depth looking up about forty feet, when a huge swell smashed against the tower with a roar. Thousands of tons of water rushed each side of it, hitting the small craft which strained on the six inch grass ropes making them taut like a steel bar. We swirled and raced about like a bucking bronco and then jerked to a halt as we became level with the landing once again. It was a mystery how those ropes held. I fully expected to see the sampson posts wrenched out. (This actually occurred on a later occasion.)
As the first chap was nearing the landing the sea completely enveloped him. I saw his sou' wester float away so this fact did not exactly improve my fast declining courage. When the coxswain said, "Your turn now, young man," I told him to lash me securely as I should certainly have an impulse to swim in such circumstances. I was hauled up and dropped safely on terra firma and was wet only up to the armpits. Wasn't I relieved! I had no chance for emotional outbursts for there was work to do, dashing forward and back with the stores and dodging every sea that swept across the landing by climbing the old beacon for safety. I helped to get the sick man into the boat which then made its way back to the ship. As it headed back for port I had mixed feelings, wondering why I was there and what was in store for me.
Inside the 'Wolf'
We soon hoisted the crane and riggings inside the tower and closed the heavy gunmetal doors until the next relief. We climbed the iron stairs to the kitchen where a welcoming stove warmed our cold, wet limbs. We drank a hot mug of tea and had a well-earned smoke, the Englishman's delight and salvation. We were soon in dry togs and assigned our various duties and watches for the ensuing period.
Potted history and description
The Wolf was built on this rock under adverse conditions with no modern construction tools and took eight years to complete, yet only 1814 working hours were possible. It came into service in 1870. The rock itself is of volcanic origin, similar to another off northern Italy and a geologist's dream to possess one sample - I was able to make several very happy. A granite landing adjoins the front of this 135 feet high tower, some forty feet above low water and roughly 100 feet by 20 feet. On it stands a conical cast iron beacon which during the erection of the tower was used as a day mark. Then and today it is convenient as a refuge into which men climb when a sea smashes across the landing.
A massive metal post at the extreme end of the landing is used for attaching the jackroll and boom which is used, as on a coaster, for lifting men and gear from a boat and swinging them aboard. The whole assembly is rigged and de-rigged on each occasion that a boat calls.
The entrance door is about 20 feet up and is reached by climbing gunmetal dog-steps. When we arrive in the bottom flat the fresh water is contained in tanks below the floor, well protected from salt water and other impurities. This level is also used as a store for coal, ropes and crane, as well as housing a pump to force domestic water up to the kitchen. After climbing the next flight of iron steps we find the oil store. The next level is the crane room and upper oil store. This horizontal sliding crane goes through a trap door above the lower door and enables stores to be hauled from the landing and swung into the bottom flat to avoid being washed away.
The fog engine is in the room above. It is one of the first 10 h.p. Hornsby type, heated by a blow-lamp to start it and fitted with an air compressor which supplies the necessary power for the fog siren - three small trumpets facing in different directions - which emits a squeal far too weak in these modern days of speed.
Above this is situated the store room where each keeper has large cupboards for his personal use and for his food. The living room, or kitchen, above this, has a large round table with chairs and a Cornish range where the cooking and baking of bread takes place. Small lockers are fitted around the walls.
Up again to the bedroom containing three bunks below and two above, shaped to the tower, the two spare bunks used for workmen who might be in residence. It has often been asserted that most keepers suffer from a curved spine sleeping in such conditions. The Service room above the bedroom contains spare equipment for lamps, engine and fog signal, and a table before which the keeper on Watch sits, keeping his log, reading or writing during the long, lonely vigil through the night.
Oil containers connected with compressed air tanks feed the lamp above inside the huge lens in the lantern, surrounded by 5/8" curved plate glass. Some panes have frequently been smashed by heavy seas. The lamp is on the principal of a primus stove with a burner head over which an incandescent mantle is placed with an estimated candle power of 30,000. This is intensified to over a million candle power after passing through a series of bulls eyes and refracting prisms of the huge lens. This weighs several tons, and revolves on rollers, operated by a clock beneath, worked by heavy weights on chains going down a tube to the base and rewound periodically by the keeper on watch. A gallery goes around the outside for a better look out and, incidentally, somewhere to stretch a chaps legs when it is safe and when everything is battened down. By battened down I mean that every gunmetal shutter outside the windows are closed and screwed tightly so that it becomes just similar to a chimney stack with very small thick panes in every shutter through which very little light can penetrate. This is normal practice in southerly gales.
I was very fortunate to be off with three decent mates, one being a young Trinity House mechanic of my own age and new to the job like myself. He made a foursome at cards and a great entertainer. We had two darts teams and other competitions. sometimes I would relate some of my exploits in the goldfields of Northern Canada, perhaps a little exaggerated, I'm afraid, to give it added glamour and thrill, play my mandolin and a little singsong to prevent depression and gloom. We had to make our own fun seeing we weren't blessed with wireless or television or no news of the outside world.
Strange Duties at Strange Times
On Christmas Day I roasted the little chicken with the few vegetables that were still edible, quite a change to salt tack, and in the evening we held a party -everyone invited - nuts, fruit, a bottle of drink and cigars, we were really enjoying ourselves when the man on watch reported fog approaching. From then on everything seemed to go wrong. The engine broke down after a short period, the lamp up top was giving trouble and eventually all hands had to go on the manual, taking turns to pump air to blow the siren whilst the mechanic was tackling the trouble in the engine room. We were at it all night and eventually overcame our difficulties by the early hours. We each took watches , eight hours and four alternately, and took our turns as cook of the day. This was an interesting task until fresh food ran out, butter gone rancid and the yeast perished, but we always took the precaution to save some yeasty dough for the following batch - it took much longer to rise - yet it ensured a continued supply of fresh bread, barring accidents.
We also had to maintain efficiency of all operational equipment besides doing normal household chores - idleness contributes to unrest - gloom and sows the seed of discontent - that is the reason we indulge in such a varied number of hobbies from woodwork to knitting.
The time passed fairly pleasantly until the four weeks were nearly over, then everyone began to get the jitters, watching the weather vane, hoping to see the wind veering and glass rising, each one talking of plans and pleasures he intended to indulge in as he stepped ashore. My anticipated joys were nipped in the bud. We received a morse message from Longships one night when it is only possible to see a flashing light, stating I was to remain another month. This seemed the last straw but it taught me from then on never to make plans in this service. The day of departure for the other three approached and so did the gales, the wind backed to the south and the seas began to pound the tower and so it continued for a fortnight. Our foodstocks were greatly diminished and tempers short. Towards the end, our diet consisted of baking powder bread, bully beef and biscuits, with a few dried peas cooked. All I craved for was a good cooked meal and news from home. I became immune from the perpetual howl of the wind and the rocking tower, we were all feeling rather down in the dumps. The weather eased up temporarily and a rather risky attempted relief succeeded without mishap, except a wetting as usual.
That first meal of eggs and bacon was delicious and after reading all my letters and Christmas cards, I soon settled down to normal routine. My two new mates were a far different cup of tea, far from congenial and rather illiterate, having nothing of interest to relate and they hated each other intensely - what a kettle of fish, thought I. Anyway, I was determined not to let that get me down. I roughed it with a wild unruly crowd of foreigners and French Canadians and survived. I kept more or less to myself in the next six weeks as we were fated to spend the most terrible winter - never experienced by people down around the Cornish coasts for over twenty years. It is a miracle that the Wolf, Longships and Bishop survived, but they did not escape damage.
It would take far too long to relate all the happenings as space is limited apart from normal routine and duties we managed to get along fairly well, one learns to adapt themselves in the company and varied conditions they happen to be placed. There was little left to amuse myself except letter writing, water painting or a tune on my mandolin in the Service Room to drown the incessant howling outside.
The most frightening time we had was during a terrific storm that lasted for days, when we were afraid to sleep and the perpetual buffeting shaking the old tower, rattling anything unsecured or slack, such as the apparatus in the lantern and utensils, china etc in the kitchen. One night the three of us stayed in the lantern two fixing mantles to the carrier as one inside the lens replaced the broken ones when each sea that completely enveloped us extinguished the light. A sturdy oak ladder on the gallery was wrenched from its lashings being smashed to splinters and to crown the lot, there was a terrific explosive report from down below followed by the rushing of water. The old man shook and cried with fear. I said a short prayer to myself waiting for the end, yet by morning our courage returned as the sea abated a little. We were able to go below to assess the damage. It seems incredulous what happened. The huge three inch gunmetal doors had been smashed in and twisted like a piece of tin, and the four inch thick strong backs were buckled and useless - coal, ropes and gear flung everywhere. We salvaged most of the rigging equipment thank heavens.
After another two weeks overdue, which made my sojourn over three months on the most exposed and desolate lighthouse of Britain. Everything appeared more like some horrible nightmare of the past once I was safely aboard the "Mermaid", the cook made me a nice meal and I found letters and cigarettes from my family. We steamed to the Bishop's rock to land stores, if possible, but after three days and nights they gave up the attempt owing to the heavy western roll which persists after southerly gales.
At last I stepped ashore none the worse for my harrowing three months and although I vowed I wouldn't even stay to pass in my resignation, but to get to Torpoint as quickly as possible, I soon forgot all unpleasant memories, hoping that happier things were in store. The long queues of haggard men at the labour exchanges soon strengthened my determination to carry on, having had a taste of the dole and means test when joining the two and a half million during the big discharges in the dockyard - fates decided for me I think.
Training at Trinity House
My six weeks initial training at Trinity House, London, passed very pleasantly and was extremely interesting in the experimental room trying out new ideas for modernising lighthouses around the coasts. The instructor was a retired chief engineer and a very nice old sport. I attained the standard of qualifications required of me to qualify as a keeper at the less mechanised stations so waited for the moment when I would receive my first assignment, rather mixed feelings of anticipation perhaps. One rather strange impression I had of the place was that one could never discriminate between the 'high-ups' or the little cocky clerks, not by their attire or manner at least. I remember one amusing incident clearly. The chief left me in charge one day and warned me to watch the consignment of paint samples recently arrived. He said, "I bet that old so-and-so will be around scrounging as soon as my back is turned. He is due to retire soon and wants paint for his bungalow." I knew the old gent to whom he referred, of course and sure enough he soon appeared on the scene looking pretty scruffy. I was concerned about a special little lot I had set aside for myself to take home and I was soon on his tail as he was sorting through the tins. I told him he could have certain ones but please keep his paws of those tins. I want them to take home in the Easter weekend. He gazed at me amazed and asked many personal questions which I resented and then left in a huff. I told the chief what had transpired between myself and the old scrounger. He spluttered and was unable to speak. I thought he was ill or having a stroke. At last he managed to explain that it was the Secretary himself, the King of Trinity house. He said we may as well pack our bags straight away, yet strangely we heard nothing more on the subject and my paint and myself arrived safely back in Torpoint, very proud and important in my new uniform with gold buttons.
I was eager to get a station after that scare and very shortly I received instructions to proceed to Neyland near Pembroke Dock and report to the local Depot. It is difficult to analyze my feelings now, yet I felt excited but had a few qualms of how I would react. The only lighthouse I had visited was Smeaton's Tower on the hoe. On arriving at the depot, everyone was kind and helpful. I was informed that I should not be required for a week or so. Make the most of it, which I certainly did at the employer's expense.
I made many friends in the short period who helped to make the days pass pleasantly, visiting places of historic interest, local penny races, Pembroke dockyard, which had been closed down and looked very grim, the town was a ghost town, houses for sale and no buyers. It set me to thinking that the same fate could befall Plymouth if ever the dockyard closed down. I attended an Eisteddfod and local sports days until finally I reported for duty, If this was a sample of my future career in the Service, I felt it was worth a good try out. My colleagues helped me order my supplies and gave me excellent advice and assured me I had nothing to worry about at Lundy South lighthouse where I was destined. All food and necessities were placed aboard the Trinity house Tender 'Vestal' and we proceeded down the channel on a beautiful summer's morning, calling at various lightvessels en route to relieve the men after their two months period of service aboard, also fresh supplies of food water coal and oil.
Eventually we steamed into the Lundy roads, unloaded and reached the beach about four in the morning, everything was put ashore, the relieved keeper and gear taken to the ship and she was away on another mission. normally the stores were lifted to the top of the cliff by a hoist. This was out of order so it had to be man-handled up a flight of steps some hundred odd feet up. We were very weary at the end of the task. I was somewhat surprised on viewing my new home. The lighthouse was rather short and stood among many buildings, one of which was the dwelling quarters which we approached and entered, where a large breakfast awaited me which I greatly needed and appreciated. My clothes were unpacked and aired bedding hung out. This surprised me as I was under the impression I had to rough it. I had a vague suspicion I was being taken for a ride, especially when I was shown a comfortable little room with furniture and bed, which was to be mine until I left with a clear warning to leave it as I had found it, which was fair enough. Being clear of duties I wandered around outside which increased my curiosity and surprises.
The old principal was a very peculiar type; not quite what I expected to see after meeting many in my short period of service, he had a face like a Billy Goat with pointed beard and beady eyes, very small in stature and shrunken. His uniform hung on him like a sack, he never ceased chattering from the moment he awoke until he slept again with a perpetual sly grin making one feel on the defensive and uneasy and quite an expert in dodging work. He allocated jobs to each of us and ended up by saying, "Jump to it lads, as I must put my collar and tie on, then we'll all be doing something."
There were several outbuildings adjoining the tower apart from our dwellings, oil stores, point store, another place with all the usual equipment such as signal lockers, ropes, spares for lamps and the old steam engine that was used in hauling the relief box up the wire rope from the cliff top down to the sea. This antiquated donkey engine was unique. I derived hours of pleasure messing around with it. It was a fine art to operate it and keep it going for any length of time. The magazine was at the end of the lawn where rockets, flares and a huge quantity of explosives were kept which were used for the fog signal. I was rather surprised to see a small herd of goats around the lawn. Ralph explained that it saved a lot of work. They kept the grass short, the hedges neat, and devoured any rubbish around, in fact, as a precaution, he warned me to watch my washing on the line, they ate almost anything.
There was a fair sized vegetable garden that kept the chaps in fresh food most of the year, and seeing I was so interested he appointed me head gardener on the spot as he hated interfering in other people's pleasures. I followed him around as he talked my head off. At first he struck me as an extremely humorous character, but as time went on it wore one down. He exhausted me that in the end I avoided his company.
I was taken up to the tower, the usual shaped granite structure, although rather short, about seventy feet high approximately - spiral stairs lead up to the Service room where the daily log was kept and the keeper kept his watches going up top periodically to attend to the light, winding mechanism and looking around outside at the weather conditions and to report on any unusual happenings at sea.
The lighting system was the usual pressurised oil lamp with a mantle (incandescent) on the head giving many thousand candle power. This is surrounded by a huge revolving lens, built up with refracting and reflecting prisms to increase that power, once it converges with the beam that penetrates each bull's eye so that if it should possess four or six faces, four or six powerful beams of light are thrown across the sea and flashes on a certain point, according to the speed of the lens.
All lighthouses have a distinctive character, light or fog signal and are found in the mariner's chart so that the navigator, by studying the type of flash and timing, or noting the timing or blast of the fog signal, and consulting his chart, knows immediately his position and takes his bearings accordingly. They act similarly to road signs on land. There are various types of fog signals used, especially toady with the radio beacons in use. This explosive fog signal was excellent in the old sailing days perhaps, but not so efficient in these days of speed. It consists of a 'T'-shaped apparatus pivoted near the bottom of the T to a worm screw which can be raised or lowered by a wheel. A quarter pound charge of tonite is connected by wires leading from electric detonators to each arm of the T, raised in position well above the roof and fired by a charger inside at certain intervals, an alarm clock controlling the timing. Damage has been caused to the roof, also the large diamond panes surrounding the lantern have been shattered by the blast and fragments flying around from time to time.
The lens is revolved by a heavy gauge clock beneath it, similar to a grandfather clock worked by weights on the end of chains that run through a tube to the base of the tower and are rewound by means of a handle whenever necessary. Lighthouses are divided into various categories. This is an island light. There are land stations around the coast, many of which have been and are in the process of being made automatic. Tower rocks are isolated towers stuck out in the ocean such as Eddystone, Wolf Bishops, etc. Then there were several pile lights at that time and I had the unfortunate experience of having to do duty at all of them, so when I mentioned that the Wolf was my first experience of a rock tower and this an island light you will understand my reference more clearly.
I must mention that at all fog stations a barograph chart is provided which revolves on a drum, and as soon as the first blast or charge is made, this fact is recorded and continues until it ceases so we have a record of the time of starting and stopping and duration of the fog signal. This chart is then sent to any Board of Trade enquiry in the event of marine disputes over shipping hazards attributed to fog. Incidentally this exonerates keepers of any blame should the master of the vessel state there was no fog signal sounding. This has actually occurred on numerous occasions when collisions were involved.
I finally satisfied old Ralph that I was competent to cope with any emergencies that might arise, so he told me I was free until the "Graveyard Watch" - Midnight - Four. I strolled around the southern end of the island feeling rather elated at the surrounding view, and down below some lovely stretches of sandy beaches, with boats bathers and the hopes of spending the summer months here. The prospects were most stimulating after being cooped up in London during the winter. to realise I was to reside on such an interesting island, cut off from the world apart from duties, free to enjoy myself as I wished, and I can assure you these were some of my happiest times during my whole career.
Life generally on the lighthouse was strange to me at first. After shipwrighting, it was rather difficult to adapt myself to the housework, cooking etc., which I thought effeminate and menial, especially when told on the first morning I was cook of the day. Prepare and cook meals for all hands by one o'clock; clean the dishes, pots and pans, polish brasswork, glazing, then scrub the floors. this was too much! I immediately flared up and told Ralph there was nothing stated in my training to this effect. "I'm no charlady!" However, when he quietly pointed out to me that women were not provided for, we all have to our share of cooking if we are to survive, and to remain healthy, man must keep himself clean, also the house in which he must reside, which I thought sensible and obvious after due consideration. He then told me to go out to milk the goats. I really thought he had surpassed himself in humour when I realised he was serious. I explained I didn't even know which end to start and never heard of anyone milking goats. However he explained that I should have to do quite a bit of milking whilst there and this was a good time to learn. I became an apt pupil in no time and not only became an expert milker but showed them how to make Devonshire cream instead of throwing away the surplus milk. They were all pleased at the results. Very few lighthouses could boast of having fresh cream every day. In later years, I introduced the idea to several island lighthouses on my travels where goats were kept and I believe they still continue to make cream.
Lundy Island itself is a very interesting place indeed. Apart from the lighthouses and duties entailed with them, there are numerous types of seabirds such as the common, herring black-headed and black-backed gulls, cormorants, divers, shearwaters, stormy petrels, oystercatchers, and the puffin often called the Lundy parrot as they are not unlike a parrot. This is a very amusing and strange species being of an inquisitive nature they suddenly appear from nowhere and stand together like an army on top of the cliffs. As one approaches they turn their heads simultaneously without bothering to change their position. Everything they do appears to be automatic even when they decide to go fishing, they fly clumsily and appear to fall onto the sea. Their favourite nesting place is in a rabbit hole, as I found out to my great discomfort when collecting a set of seabirds' eggs for my brother. I was determined to add a pair of puffin eggs to my collection so began investigating a number of holes around. I reached into one but extracted my arm quickly - but not quick enough. One of these cheeky birds held on tenaciously with his powerful beak which I found most painful so I decided discretion was the better part of valour and left them severely alone. He never completed this collection.
We collected enough gulls eggs to last throughout the year. They are not too palatable, I must admit, but excellent for making sponges with the goats milk in plentiful supply, also cakes etc. We pickled the eggs in tubs of water adding an amount of waterglass, a preparation that dissolves and seals the porous shells preventing the air penetrating. Egg collection today is strictly prohibited as this is one of our bird sanctuaries.
The old man for all his faults was very lenient towards me and relieved me of many of my household duties if I elected to wander off to spend the evening with friends at the Coastguards or up at the Canteen (local pub).
As one gets older, one gets wiser and I discovered the reason why I was allowed so much license. He was reputed to be one of the craftiest chaps in the job and hated work even more than he disliked showing favours. Painting and gardening were his greatest aversions, so when I told him I rather enjoyed pottering around doing jobs or painting and in the garden he suddenly embraced me as a long-lost brother, I was given a free hand to paint the lighthouse and all the outbuildings at my leisure and he would do the brass work, cooking and floor scrubbing and so on, as long as I was on time to take over my watches at night. It cut both ways and everyone was pleased with these arrangements. The greatest advice for anyone leading lonely lives is to occupy themselves with some interesting occupation. "The devil finds work for idle hands" is a true adage and applies especially to those on lighthouses and lightvessels.
I'll endeavour to give you a rough idea of life on this island back in 1925 but there's a vast contrast today under the ownership of the financier, Harmond. There was a good family then who owned it called Evans, who cared for human beings their comforts and happiness, and although wealthy they were humble and kind and loved by this little community of fifty-odd people, which included the crews of both lighthouses and six coastguards and their families.
Some half a dozen ran the hotel where some visitors resided, there was a "Canteen" or local, drinks being acquired most any time of day. Also dances, parties and whist drives were organised by the ladies from time to time. I was invited to them all being the only eligible bachelor around. In fact I was elected M.C. unanimously by the Committee so missed very few such gatherings.
The postmaster was the general factotum, took charge of Church affairs and local government, also teacher to the few children who resided there. Of course, the others were engaged in agriculture or fishing mostly, there being an abundance of shellfish, lobsters, crayfish and crab, apart from the usual inshore fishing which found a ready market on the mainland.
I made great friends with the coastguard families there and spent many pleasant hours in the family gatherings with their two attractive daughters who helped to make life more interesting and were themselves good dancing partners. The man in charge, strange to say, was a Lieutenant Sleep, a brother to the late George Sleep, the builder of Torpoint, which many of you may have remembered. He was a frequent visitor to our town so we had plenty in common to discuss. Everyone was so kind and pulled together as one big family. I've never experienced such a wonderful gathering since. They possessed very little in the way of wealth or luxuries of any description, no newspapers, wireless, amenities that are usually shared in towns ashore, yet they found peace and contentment.
The Old lighthouse
Near the hotel on the top of the island is a very tall lighthouse. In fact, this was the original Lundy light, now replaced by the lighthouses at the north and south ends. There was a mistaken idea years ago to build these beacons as high as possible above sea level, which was sensible of course if visibility was always good, but this one proved disastrous to one of our largest battleships in 1906 when HMS Montague ran aground on the rocks just below the lighthouse and became a total loss.
During the Admiralty enquiry that ensued, the Captain asserted that there was no light visible although visibility was very good. It was ascertained that low cloud hung over the island that particular night, obliterating the rays from the lantern. It was clear for miles around below a hundred feet. This proved conclusively the fallacy of having beacons too far above sea level. Obviously, the light isn't of benefit for road vehicles or aircraft.
I remember one night not long after arriving, I was on watch during a very dense fog that had persisted for days, which we term "summer soup", visibility being down to a few yards. Apart from the periodic blast from my signal and the howling of sirens of distant vessels feeling their way up channel, everything was strangely quiet, the sea birds having made a hasty retreat to far off places when the gun blasts out. I was busy on the gallery connecting up a fresh lot of tonite when I heard the thump-thump of engines of some vessel approaching too close to be safe. I had hoped she would have missed us but she struck the rocks below with a crunching screaming noise. Everything became pandemonium, orders and shouts in a foreign tongue, men rushing up and down the metal deck in a panic, the engine-room bell on the bridge ringing "full astern" and I could not penetrate fog or discern what was happening. Immediately I alerted the coastguards and explained briefly the position. He then got through to the mainland and called out the Bideford and Ilfracombe lifeboats, also a powerful tug which apparently arrived in the vicinity some hours later. It was all so frustrating in those days, bereft of modern scientific appliances. They apparently searched the vicinity thoroughly unable to communicate to us or to each other, morse lamps, flags etc were useless in such circumstances and they themselves were afraid to approach the rocks too closely, so returned to their depots and reported finding nothing. Naturally my mates and a few others thought I was a little over-imaginative or an exhibitionist, maybe, I felt far from happy having caused so much trouble to everyone, but Lieutenant Sleep gave them all a severe reprimand and said, "Young man, remember the rule of the sea. When in danger or in doubt, never fail to warn the lookout". I often thought this rule might apply to most people when there is sickness suspected or suspicious characters are observed around your neighbourhood or property. However, to cut a long story short, I was proved correct and quite in order that night. It was later reported that a big Spaniard of 12,000 tons had limped into Barry Docks after ripping her bottom out on Lundy rocks. She managed to refloat herself on high spring tides at dawn.
Life went along serenely for me, meeting people and rambling over the island studying bird life, etc, when not on duty or working around the place, spending evenings at the local, treating my friends rather lavishly, although my drinks consisted of stone ginger beer, still it was all worth it.
I had the choice of five pretty dancing partners with a gramophone as the musical accompaniment and I could always rely on nice company on my rambles or down below swimming or boating. The lady who owned the hotel told me her dinghy was badly damaged in a storm. I told her I would soon get her ship-shape again, so after repairs and renovation she was so pleased she gave the boat into my charge during my stay on the island, which I greatly appreciated, taking full advantage of my new acquisition for fishing and many other activities.
The large trawlers often called in on their return from the fishing grounds, mooring in Lundy roads for the night. I went to them to fetch the skippers and crews ashore so that they were able to spend a convivial evening at the Canteen. I soon got closely acquainted and was always invited aboard to take my pick of the catch, which I distributed among the keepers of both lights, the coastguard families and my friends.
During the summer, Campbells' paddle-wheel excursion boats called there often with visitors. I transported many of them ashore, their lifeboats being too deep-draughted to land closely to the beaches. On one occasion when a bit of heavy swell was running, one of the boats swung broadside onto the beach, turned over and filled, depositing the people into the water. I got most of the women and children ashore rather frightened and bedraggled, but none the worse for their experience. After a nice cup of hot tea at the lighthouse and a chance to dry off their wet garments, I put them aboard their steamer for home. It was decided after this not to use their boats which were unsuited, but that the islanders and myself were to transport their passengers in future, the Company making us a substantial remuneration for our services, which incidentally found its way into the Canteen's till, whilst some went into the Church restoration fund for the old Lundy church in a bad state of decay.
Of Pirates and Treasure
I made friends with a young graduate from Oxford who spent quite a lot of time on the island in the course of his studies. He related the history of the pirates who once controlled the place under the leadership of Captain Benson. They plundered the trading vessels arriving from foreign parts, whilst making their way up the Bristol channel. Lundy island was an excellent hide-out for them and they evaded capture for many years. His ill-gotten wealth was never recovered, although it is evident that it was hidden on the island or in Benson's cave that takes his name because of this belief. I, like many hundreds more, went foraging and living in hopes, but to no avail. Someday, maybe, we shall learn of these vast treasures being uncovered, accidentally, no doubt.
I trust this hasn't been too boring. I could write heaps more about Lundy in the old days. Still, I want to point out that lighthouse keeping is not all loneliness and monotony. "Variety is the spice of life," and I certainly found more variety in this service than ever I found in H.M. Dockyard or on the dole. The day arrived for my departure at last. There was a great deal of handshaking, drinking and a few tears shed, maybe from one or two members of the gentler sex, as my ship receded in the distance and the sun was sinking behind the hills. I saw little white handkerchieves fluttering from the Coastguards houses, and then later the light of Lundy began to sweep its huge powerful rays across the water, for the final adieu to a beautiful dream-like little world and fine people.
A New Recruit?
After a short period of relaxation and visiting places of interest during my stay at the London Depot with other young keepers newly returned from lighthouses, I was anxious to get away again to visit another place. I disliked cities and longed to be near the sea, and incidentally to enjoy city life one must have plenty of financial resources. Mine were becoming depleted rapidly. The authorities gave us clerical duties etc to keep us occupied in these waiting periods, or visit a vessel just arriving. All this was frustrating. However, one day the gave me a special assignment to meet a prospective candidate from a fishing village in Cornwall keen to join the Lights Department. I waited at Paddington and sure enough out jumped this fisherlad with an enormous buttonhole, full of enthusiasm and zeal. Obviously he was advised that a keeper in uniform would be waiting for him. He dashed over and quite overwhelmed me. "Ow ar ee boy. Do e naw me - I'm Dicky boy, I be 'avin' buttons like e." I felt terrible and told him to shut up and follow me. We caught the bus to Tower Hill, sitting on top and told him to sit at the extreme end. Suddenly he jumped up shouting and waving his arms. "Look, Mr. Can e read this? Can e semavore boy? People thought he was crackers. I was relieved to usher him into Trinity House where the examiners were waiting.
The Board of Examiners were a stern-faced assembly of Elder Brethren, devoid of humour or even sympathy and many other human qualities, so imagine their reaction when Dicky Boy rushed in and pointed to the Chairman. "I naw e boy. You naw me uncle at Sennen, don e? E be gwan to send e lobsters when I pass." It was wonderful to watch their expressions really, but the pleasure was cut short. Dicky Boy was hurried back on the train, but before he left, he had instructions from home to send a telegram they had written for him, as soon as the examination was over. It read:- "Passed successfully." Rather pathetic, I think.
When I arrived back at Headquarters, panic stations reigned. I was ordered to get packed and collect food for a trip down the river that night. The keeper on shore leave from the Maplin lighthouse was recalled and neither of us knew what the excitement was about until we were aboard the tender steaming down the Thames. It finally transpired that a passing vessel had observed a distress signal N/C and the two flag signal R X (Mutiny) were flying from the Maplin lighthouse. Then after a short period they appeared to be cut down instead of lowered. In fact, the halyards were hanging overboard. Naturally, there was great anxiety and many wild conjectures, this being a precedent in the history of lighthouses.
It was decided to approach the place with caution, so the ship hove to some distance away. Two boats were lowered with tough hardy seamen ready for any emergency. They approached in opposite directions, converging on the steel ladders on either side, that led up to the platform on which the house rested. At a given signal they dashed up and into the dwelling, prepared for any eventuality.
They discovered the poor old Principal barricaded with a table and other articles of furniture, with a poker in his hand in a complete state of collapse. Some of the crew dashed up the short flight of stairs leading to the lantern and gallery surrounding it, where they found the young keeper raving and brandishing a carving knife which he had been sharpening for some time previous, ready for the sacrifice of evil doers, so the old chap explained.
He defied them all screaming, "The day of judgement is at hand", "The wages of sin is death", and other blood-curdling slogans. Eventually the lads managed to overpower him until they got him aboard ship where he was placed in a straight-jacket. The old man was treated for shock when he went aboard and told his story to the Captain. He had noticed the youngster acting very strangely for days previously, shouting in his sleep, preaching sermons to imaginary congregations saying he was a messenger sent to destroy all wickedness among men. He then tried to prevent the Principal from exhibiting the light at night. Only after friendly persuasive explanations that God is light and "let your light so shine before men" and other relevant biblical quotations would he co-operate. There was no means of communication other than signals, but he was unable to do this even whilst the other was watching him so closely. He managed to hoist the signals just as the vessel passed close and fortunately was observed and reported. The sick man also saw what happened and chased the old man with a knife and no doubt would have finished him off had we not arrived when we did. The last I heard of this sad affair was the lad jumped overboard whilst being rowed ashore but was rescued and eventually placed in a cab and taken to hospital.
Life on a Pile Light
When at last the excitement and turmoil of this unsavoury episode had finally subsided and we were left alone to sort out our supplies and provisions, the first task was to cook a good meal, which we appreciated, being without meals for some considerable time. It struck me that everything here was so incredibly cramped for two men to occupy for any length of time. It is difficult to explain exactly the shape and construction of this so-called Pile Light. As you probably know that from Harwich to the mouth of the Thames there a tremendous number of sandbanks, many of which shift their positions periodically, and have to be continually surveyed and remarked on the charts for the benefit of shipping to plot new channel ways, even with all modern precautions, many vessels end up in a sandy graveyard, more especially large sailing yachts or vessels not obliged to take pilots. Trinity house built several Pile Lights in the early days, but they proved useless, so now the channels are well buoyed or marked with lightvessels that can be moved according to the altered change of the various channel ways.
The Maplin was one of the first such experiments, long steel cylinders with Archimedean screws at one end, were screwed down into the sand, eight such piles forming an octagon on a wide base, each one sloping into a smaller plane on top where a platform was fixed. They were all cross-tied and made very firm. The house was erected on this platform similarly shaped and more than nine or ten feet floor space, getting smaller as it reached the lantern where there was just room for a small lens around a lamp and space enough to walk around singly. There was also a wooden addition fastened to the bottom of the platform called the "Hopper" where the ropes and stores were placed; also coal for the cooking stove and to warm the place in winter when it was extremely cold but stiflingly hot during the summer months. I've always compared these places with a dovecote on stilts. There were four such monstrosities manned by keepers, namely, Mucking, Chapman, Maplin and Gunfleet. Only the Gunfleet off Walton still stands as a lonely sentinel, unmanned and just a shell remaining. We were hurriedly evacuated from there early one morning at the outbreak of war. Jerry found great amusement in using it for target practice during his many raids on London. It seems incredulous that men lived in such confined places for so many years and remained sane.
I wasn't at all impressed or pleased at the prospect of spending a month or two here, after I had thoroughly investigated the living and sleeping quarters and to think I should have this one man for a companion, day in, day out, with no means of even being alone. I began to loathe him. He had no conversation, topics of any type. I knew when he was going to sneeze, I think! And when sitting together at meals or endeavouring to read, he continually beat out "The Devil's Tattoo" with his fingers. I got him to discontinue this mad tapping after several weeks, but he began to tap, tap with his feet, no rhythm or sense, it just tended to drive one insane. I couldn't possibly get away for any length of time and as for exercise, I would shift out the two chairs and walk three paces one way and two the other, or walk up and down the ladder or on the narrow platform. The bars made my feet sore.
There was a boat in the davits I had hoped to use, but there were strict orders not to lower it, only in the event of a fire, the other reason was it was too heavy and I venture to say, unseaworthy. The whole place was a fire hazard, made of wood mostly with inflammables aboard such as paraffin, coal and explosives. I lived two months with that chap and look back on it as a nightmare. I began to hate everything about him. I knew what his next move would be, what he would touch or do or say (which was very little) then I would sit and wonder why I was there, what crime had I committed? This loneliness and frustration was getting me down. We hear so much about the poor convicts confined behind prison walls. At least he meets and talks with people, his loved ones are allowed to visit him, he receives letters, newspapers, someone to cook and provide him with fresh meals, vegetables, fruit etc. and almost all the amenities enjoyed by normal civilians. I spent hours and days trying to analyze my present environments - perhaps I thought too much and too deeply over these problems and found no solution. When I arrived there I received letters containing simple matters that could very easily have been dealt with on shore, but as the days and weeks passed by they seem to magnify and get exaggerated all out of proportion. The more I thought about them my mind was on the verge of collapse and looking back I can quite understand what solitude can do to a man. No news, no music, no wireless and no-one to talk over your problems or have discussions of any type.
A New Mate
I was terribly depressed as time passed. Thank heavens I was able to draw and read and amuse myself with my mandolin. The two months had elapsed and I was instructed to stay another month. I read my letters from home, the newspapers and found that my future mate was a cheerful old chap. All the stress and worry simply disappeared as if it were a bad nightmare. To give my late companion his due, I must point out that to meet him on shore he was one of the nicest persons one could wish to know, excepting that he was of a reticent nature and found great difficulty in communicating his thoughts or views unfortunately. So I am not blaming him for my experiences of those two months. Men should never have been subjected to those conditions which were intolerable compared with present day standards.
The remaining month passed pleasantly enough with a cheerful mate. All my little domestic and girl problems were sorted out. also we had the company of a young sailor lad several days of the week who was "tide watching". HMS Kellett was resurveying the channel owing to the shifting of sandbanks and landed the man every Monday until Friday to take soundings. He was most amusing and forever trying to "take the mickey" out of both of us in a quite innocent sort of way. The funniest incident happened one Sunday morning. The old man started throwing his weight about in rather an officious manner. The lad was already upset because they were unable to get him off because of bad weather and he resented Harry's attitude and refused to help in any way. I talked with Harry and said that Jack was very hurt indeed, we couldn't get any more cheap cigarettes and would have to do our own cooking, etc. Eventually I persuaded him to make friends with young Jack and, relieved that everything was soon normal and status quo, Jack offered to cook the meal and he was an excellent little cook. Harry was pleased and really over-reached himself in displaying relief, rushed down to his cupboard and fetched up a very long packet of macaroni for afters or a sweet. Jack looked at the contents, puzzled like, and said he must have a very long dish to cook them in, so Harry had to climb down the "hopper" and dig around for a suitable receptacle, a long metal pan that required a lot of cleaning and polishing up. When Jack was satisfied with his handiwork, he told Harry to rub down each tube thoroughly with a duster and blow through each one in the event of Italian microbes or foreign matter that usually adheres to tubes of this type. Harry said now he wished he had ordered rice instead. Imagine the poor old chap's surprise and disgust after all these operations were completed to see the lad breaking the tubes up small and placing them in the normal dish. He thought it most advisable to do this to ensure that the milk penetrated each portion more easily and evenly. Macaroni was never mentioned again in the old man's presence and his one fear was that I might introduce the subject when in company aboard ship or ashore.
I completed three months on that confined cramped house on stilts, not much worse for the experience excepting that I found it very difficult to walk any distance and lost a bit of weight. But a visit to couple of land lighthouses in Suffolk and Norfolk soon put me right and colour in my cheeks. Not many weeks after I had left the Maplin it was reported she had listed dangerously as the sand had been completely washed away and she was resting on four legs. The ship dashed out to take the men off and it was great difficulty that Harry could be convinced of the seriousness of the position. He wanted to stay but they abandoned the place that night intending to remove valuables and stores the next day. The place toppled over during the night and not a trace of anything was ever found. I think that most of us were pleased that such a place no longer existed.
A Spot of Leave
Many months had elapsed since I had visited my home and in that period I had gained an enormous lot of experience in visiting various lighthouses in England and Wales. Imagine my feelings when I was informed that I may proceed on leave until I was required for further duties. It was a thrilling experience on boarding the old "Lady Beatrice" early on a summer's morning and to gaze across the calm waters to see Torpoint and the many types of boats and small yachts about it shores, everything looking so peaceful and inviting to a youngster suffering from nostalgia.
Once among my family and friends I was kept busy talking, answering questions concerning my travels, and life on lighthouses, they having little or no conception of these places except a few exaggerated romantic stories they had read in books. So after learning a few hard facts they endeavoured to persuade me to leave the job which I had no intention of doing.
There were very few pleasures to be had in those days and very little money to be spent on amusements or luxuries yet we found plenty of happiness in the simple things of life such as cycling, rambling, boating, the cinema with silent films or a dance at the Church House or Institute. We had to resort to our own initiative in organising amusements for the youth of Torpoint, Most of us derived fun from messing around on the river in small boats or the long club boats from the several religious denominations. Most important of all was the wide interest taken in the yacht racing organised by the Mosquito club. Rowing clubs offered young and old interest everywhere. Young people were far happier and contented in the old days and not so lonely and frustrated as they appear to be today. The days passed pleasantly for me, among my old friends again and familiar environments, sailing, boating and fishing.
Plymouth Breakwater Lighthouse
Arriving home one evening from one of these exploits, my mother informed me that Mr. Reynolds, proprietor of the tugs, was waiting to see me. He was just as puzzled as myself, I not knowing why he wished to see me, and he was ignorant of the fact that I was a Trinity House employee. He had received an urgent message from London to contact me and arrange to take me off to Plymouth Breakwater light to relieve a sick man. Mr. Reynolds was then the local agent of this district and arranged the reliefs of the Eddystone and Breakwater, and other work involved such as supplies and transporting workmen on repairs. Early next morning after collecting my supplies, I boarded the old "Briton" and was eventually landed, whilst the other keeper was taken aboard en route for Plymouth hospital. This was rather a novel experience for me, having on many previous occasions when a boy landed there just for a picnic or a run around. Now I was about to make my home in the short tower for some considerable time to come, the prospects giving me mixed feelings on entering this small place. Normally the period of duty was two months afloat and one month ashore but not having all my certificates I was sent where there was an emergency or to relieve men on leave. This suited me nicely, giving me the opportunity to travel and meet people in various walks of life. I was rather surprised on entering this building to discover it was more roomy than I had first anticipated. The living room was very compact but cosy, fitted out with a bookcase containing a vast selection of reading material. There were two comfortable armchairs and the usual round table in the centre of the kitchen, a small kitchen Cornish range where the bread and meals were cooked and a neat little dresser and glass cupboards built around the granite wall whilst large windows gave plenty of light and an excellent view of the Sound and the open sea. Above the kitchen was the bedroom containing three bunks built around the wall and a fixed light with lens which showed a steady beam onto the Mew Stone and other dangerous rocks. This was not exactly conducive to peaceful sleep with the roar of the pressure lamp and its intense heat, but one gradually accepts the situation and makes the best of a bad job.
The lantern above contained a very powerful lamp of the type already mentioned in previous articles. This was surrounded by a large fixed lens and the character of the light or flashes was controlled by a "Heath-Robinson" affair called an occulter which needed a lot of attention and plenty of lubricant to ensure its continued operation. The clanging and banging was terrible. All it did was to lift and drop a metal can like a shutter over the light periodically, its incessant din tended to unnerve one. This was later replaced by a revolving drum with slots which gave the necessary flashes and was far more efficient in every way. The pilot cutters complained about the power of the light so this was reduced. Today (1967) of course the place is automatic and controlled from Plymouth.
Fog bells were prevalent in the early days before advanced mechanisation took over so it wasn't surprising to find one on the gallery outside. The fog bell no doubt served its purpose in the sailing ship era but was absolutely inefficient in modern times. I remember returning from the Eddystone after being relieved by the "Alexander" in a dense fog and approaching the entrance all hands kept a lookout for the lighthouse and sometimes closed down the engines to listen for the warning bell. We were nearly stranded. We heard the surf breaking before we heard the chimes but luckily we had very little way on the tug. Shipping entering or leaving the Sound rely on the fog signal at Penlee Point rather than the lighthouse bell. The keepers were not very impressed with the ancient mechanism that operated it I can assure you. It consisted of a huge clock with falling weights which were continually wound up by means of a handle by the man on watch. It was a back-aching job by the time the weights were raised. He had just a few minutes in which to make a cigarette or drink a cup of coffee and the weights were at the bottom again. I assume that it was originally designed to make certain the men were kept busy. It achieved that function at least.
Life on the Breakwater
My mate was a very congenial type but terribly nervous, as I discovered after a short time in his company. Still, I liked him and this is a terribly important factor at these tower rocks where tolerance and a kindly disposition towards one another, under conditions which are not exactly congenial or normal by ordinary standards, can make life pleasant or a living hell. The days passed pleasantly enough and although it was rather cramped inside, one could go along the breakwater for a stroll, and when the chaps at the fort were not too busy they would come over for a chat or coffee. Invariably, the old crabber from Plymouth called with papers, mail and fresh crab or fish to replenish the larder. Perhaps it was strictly against the rules, but members of my family paid a visit on fine days and I remember my mother derived great satisfaction relaxing in a chair beside the large window enjoying the view around and watching the passing vessels. She did most of our cooking when there, and kept the little home clean and polished as only a woman knows how. Joe very much appreciated her company and that of my brothers who were frequent visitors. There was one occasion when he called me out very excitedly to tell me that several youngsters were approaching on a plank or something low in the water. I dashed along the breakwater and although not exactly surprised, I saw the lads scramble ashore and haul up their flat-bottomed dinghy, which they emptied of water. I remonstrated with them, naturally, and told them they could not return home in such a leaky boat. They just grinned at my concern for them and back home they went on the flood tide, none the worse for their venture. I think several of the lads who made up the crew still live in Torpoint, Mutt Jeffery, Morgan, Wilf Squance and another. They bore a charmed life apparently and saw no fear of the sea.
The old man hated to be left alone for any length of time, following me around day and night. Sometimes, when having dozed off after a long period on watch, he would awaken me and request that I come down to sit and chat with him, or play the mandolin as he felt rather melancholy. Obviously, this state of affairs could not go on indefinitely, much as I sympathised with the old chap. I had a duty to the mariner and to myself, and it was essential for a man to snatch a few hours sleep at a two-handed station where the twenty-four hours were shared. I pointed this out to him and he reluctantly agreed he was not acting fair. He improved a little after this.
I think the visit made by my dad bucked him up quite a lot with the funny stories and the beverages they shared that dad never failed to fetch out with him. It appears that his mental state was brought on just previous to my arrival. He told me that whilst walking around the gallery early one morning he happened to look down and saw the corpse of a dead marine, with his face uppermost, apparently staring up. The continued movement of the head caused by the waves upset Joe. In the end he plucked up enough courage to push the offending object clear with a boat hook so that the current took it away. Next morning whilst looking around he espied it again, looking at him, and the sight haunted him ever since. Although the police boat arrived and took the body away that day, it left the old chap a nervous wreck, hence the reason for being so scared alone on watch.
He might have been the cause of doing likewise to myself if I did not discover that he was responsible for a terrible scare I experienced just in time. I was on watch looking at the lights of Plymouth, longing to be ashore again before the summer weather had passed. Everything around was so peaceful and tranquil, when suddenly I heard a piercing cry as of a woman calling for help, apparently from below. I grabbed a torch and dashed down to the breakwater which was alone and desolate. I searched everywhere flashing the torch on the water and listening intently for further cries of distress. All I heard was the lapping of the sea and a few water rats scurrying away, so I gave up the search. I said nothing to anyone about this little scare, believing I must have imagined the whole happening. Not many nights had passed when I again heard this wailing cry that certainly emanated from the sea, and it was no seabird, this I was convinced of. I again repeated my search calling out and receiving no reply as before. I now began to really worry over the state of my own mind and feel concerned over the apparent hallucinations. I mentioned this fear to my parents who quickly advised me to quit the job before it was too late. That night whilst up in the lantern, I decided to slip down for a bite of supper when, passing the bedroom door, I nearly had a stroke from the horrible cries and shouts from the old man. I approached cautiously and found him asleep. I shook him and asked rather rudely what game he was playing, scaring the daylights out of me. He apologised and explained that he suffered from horrible nightmares. However, I felt relieved to know I was sane and the previous cries I had heard were not my imagination. I think he was invalided not long afterwards. I felt really sorry as he was one of the best.
The Power of the Sea
There was little of interest to relate on my first visit there. I arrived back home to resume my broken leave but the summer had then passed by and plans which I had made a few weeks previously had to be abandoned. This gave me a sense of frustration. I wasn't sorry to receive a telegram to proceed to St. Catherine's, Isle of Wight, to train for my electric and steam engine ticket. Years after I did a spot of duty at the breakwater during the winter months and experienced a raging storm that lasted some considerable time. Whilst perusing an interesting article on the Breakwater, it brought to mind the power that the sea had on the blocks of the Breakwater. We were there listening to the howl of the wind and the roar of the sea worked up by a strong south-easterly gale, when suddenly there were crashing, groaning noises down below. We investigated as soon as we were permitted to do so and found huge scores in the granite caused by one of the fifty ton boulders that had been literally thrown over from the outside to the inside. It had hit a large steel crane during its journey and buckled it as if it were lead. I was really amazed and, after witnessing the unbelievable effects of the sea, I can appreciate the benefit the Breakwater must be to shipping running to Plymouth for shelter and the lighthouse that has been a comforting guide to thousands of mariners out on the cruel seas, especially in the old windjammer days.
To St. Catherine's
Arriving at Cowes early on a cold December morning, I was directed to the Trinity House depot from where all lighthouses, lightvessels and the numerous navigation buoys are maintained on the district, south-east coast including the Channel Islands. A taxi arrived to transport me across the island to St. Catherine's lighthouse where I was to receive training in the operation and maintenance of steam engines, boilers, electric generators, lamps, etc. The station itself was not a very great distance from the village of Niton, where the children attended school and the wives did most of their shopping, although most of the domestic requirements were delivered to the door. I was struck by the appearance of utter isolation which the station presented on viewing it from the top of the hill on approach. Its white tower surrounded by its numerous buildings, with the gardens and lawns laid out so picturesque against the background of the sea, were quite a different cup of tea to the lonely bleak towers that most of associate with lighthouses in general. I received a warm welcome and was soon relaxing with my new colleagues beside a cheerful fireside, with the inevitable cup of tea and cigarettes.
I was then presented to the Chief Engineer, who was in charge, and shown around the tower and engine room. This tower was rather unique in its construction, octagonal in shape with turrets at the top, below the lantern. It was rather medieval in appearance and reminiscent of a tower in one of the old Norman strongholds. It stood approximately 90 to 100 feet in height and, on entering, one was impressed with the immaculate cleanliness and its spacious interior, with the winding staircase reaching up to the Service room and lantern. As you reached the Service room and lantern, you are impressed by the highly polished brass and steelwork and the sparkling prisms or glasswork of the revolving dioptric lens and spotless paintwork throughout, living up to the high traditions of Trinity House, of which they are proud. The same can be said of all their lightvessels and tenders where efficiency and perfection is their trademark.
Many have asked me how do we pass away the loneliness and spare time. Our work was never done, especially in those days when all the painting, exterior and interior, was executed by the keepers themselves.
The lighting system was a powerful arc lamp, now superseded by gas-filled filament lamps of high power. The beam of light emitted through the lens was built up to 8 million candlepower and visible fifteen to twenty miles in clear visibility. The keeper changed around from week to week, alternately sharing watches in the lantern and engine room. He spent the greater part of his watch attending to the lamp, adjusting or changing carbons when necessary to maintain maximum power.
I understood that my first three weeks were to be spent in the engine room, but was greatly disillusioned when told I must make myself acquainted with steam and boiler work to begin with. Many of the larger stations around the England and Wales coasts operated by steam but oil engineers were fast taking their place. There were only the Lizard and St. Catherine's operating in this manner. The former was shortly to be converted to oil when all lighthouses were being mechanised and improved to modern standards of efficiency.
A Difficult Task
I was soon initiated into my new job which was a nightmare, even now as I look back. There were three huge locomotive-type boilers, two in use day and night in the event of fog which comes down suddenly in that area. After a short period of instruction I was left to carry on. I was nothing more or less than a stoker, shovelling coke into two furnaces that consumed faster than I could feed them. The clinkering was the worst with long bars and scrapers. Digging them out in a fiery furnace is no picnic by any standards. If I failed to maintain the correct head of steam, the engines would slow up, light lose its power and a wigging into the bargain from the keeper on watch. If I allowed the steam pressure to rise, the safety valve would sound, waking all the women and children. Worse than that, the crusty old engineer would run out in his dressing gown and call me a few impolite epithets that would best be forgotten.
Another little task was to load the clinkers into a heavy metal wheelbarrow and endeavour to balance it over narrow sloping boards. This performance needs a great deal of practice to perfect, so obviously it can be assumed that I met with several calamities and bruises. Each morning I wheeled them down to the cliffs to deposit the ashes into the sea when invariably the up-draught would obligingly carry it back up again, covering me from head to foot. I must have resembled one of the awful characters from Dr. Who. The least said about the engines the better. It did not need an engineer but a magician to operate them and I often wonder now how it was possible to drive the generators and maintain full power. They were old and weary with service, jointing blowing out, steam escaping everywhere, but as they were to be replaced in the not too distant future, we had to do our best. The generator was of early French design and apparently unique in construction. It was of very great historical interest to the public who study this type of alternator. A similar one is now on view in the Science Museum, London, where it causes a considerable amount of attention and interest to all nationalities. No blame can be laid on Trinity House for such poor equipment, the economic squeeze was on during the late twenties with tons of shipping lying idle in the ports, subsequently reducing light dues and expenditure in the modernisation programme.
The little community appeared to be very sociable indeed, living in harmony and ready to help one another when sickness or domestic problems arose. I was provided with quite comfortable and adequate quarters consisting of bedroom and living room and all cooking facilities, but preferred to have meals with one of the family, who were very kind and considerate, supplying excellent meals, which I needed badly with such exhausting duties. Often I fell asleep in the middle of them and was always eager to hurry to bed after a gruesome watch of eight hours. When fog descended it was purgatory, maintaining steam pressure for both light and fog signal.
I greatly appreciated the change over to Lantern watch and was able to get around the district to visit places of interest, indulge myself with a dance or two in the village, or spend a pleasant evening with one of the keeper's family with a hand of cards and pleasant chats. As Christmas approached there was tremendous excitement and activities, decorating or preparing surprises for the dozen or more children on the station and arranging parties, carol singing or shopping in a small town that boasted a picture palace or two. The Christmas parties were a huge success. We fixed the watches to coincide with everyone's arrangements. When I shortly afterwards received orders to proceed to the Channel Islands I had a few regrets at leaving such a friendly and sincere party of people, but not for long. To complete my memories of St. Catherine's I may just add that, after completing my duties at the Channel Islands I arrived at Cowes to learn that they were short-handed and needed assistance desperately owing to the excess amount of fog around the coast at that time. So back I went to the boiler room once more, but to make matters more intolerable there was a rail and coal strike paralysing the country. We were unable to procure the normal type of fuel so resorted to bales of waste soaked in paraffin, smashed-up packing cases or any timber that was available. Yet this was inadequate until emergency power of the government was put into action and supplies could once again be transported from various parts of the country. The fog persisted for over a fortnight and a great sigh of relief went up by all keepers and crews of the lighthouses affected. I regret to state that during the war, as they were preparing to leave for lunch, four of mates there were killed when the engine room received a direct hit from a bomb.
On various occasions whilst sitting comfortably watching television, such as those programmes depicting wildlife on many of our uninhabited islands around our coast, my thoughts invariably wander back to some of the lonely spots that I have found most interesting. One example is Skokham, a small island situated off St David's Head on the Pembrokeshire coast, the sole inhabitants being the lighthouse keepers. The reports and opinions of my colleagues were far from favourable regarding the desirability of residing there owing to the isolation. Other factors were irregularities in being relieved on time, making their shore leave limited, and also the reputation of the old Principal circulating amongst the younger element to the effect that he was a veritable old slave driver keen on spit and polish. This did not deter me in the least when asked to go there for a spell of duty. I desired to experience every type of station possible before making a final decision regarding future plans. The train journey was cold with few fellow passengers, no heating system and no buffet en route, but a jolly looking old guard invited me to his warm cabin and we shared a delightful breakfast of bacon and eggs early on Sunday morning.
The fact that we both came from the west country had an important bearing for this sudden friendship to materialise, as on many previous occasions and during my travels I have experienced this strong affinity that exists when suddenly meeting up with west country folk similarly separated from their kinsfolk.
After arriving in Neyland I found a boarding house with little difficulty. The town was so small an uninteresting visitors at this time of year were seldom seen and very welcome. I resided with a young couple who appeared to be congenial and affable companions, so when the man was explaining that he had a bit of a problem on his hands constructing a greenhouse I immediately fell for the bait, offering my services to assist during my sojourn there, having very little outside interests. Unfortunately March gales were prevailing making it impossible to venture to sea for a week or more, enabling me to construct the building, leaving him to complete the decorations and glazing.
When the gales had abated sufficiently for me to leave and settle up my accounts, I was charged full board with extras, including cups of coffee and biscuits served on the job. I considered this a gross imposition and informed them in no uncertain manner, so wishing them a lightkeeper's farewell, I vowed there and then to be extra cautious volunteering assistance or advice on future occasions. My meeting with the people who had contracted to take me to Skokham were a complete contrast to this couple and they regretted very much that I had not made myself known to them on arrival. I would have been most welcome and far happier in the company I now found myself in, a beautiful quaint building on the river bank. They were the five Rowse brothers from Penzance, all ex-naval officers or merchantmen who had bought a vessel for salvage work after the war but now retired excepting for some local operations and employed by Trinity House on lighthouse work at the various stations situated off the Pembrokeshire coast.
I found them most interesting and amusing party of veritable sea dogs seldom met with, especially when aboard their old tramp of a vessel, the SS Eden, which in my opinion should have gone to the scrap yard many years ago. I listened to their exciting narratives and hazards they faced during World War I and narrow escapes whilst on salvage jobs, perhaps with a certain amount of scepticism, but my later contacts with these chaps filled me with admiration and the greatest confidence in dealing with any emergency arising at sea. They were first rate seamen, inspiring those who came into contact with tem, nothing short of admiration and trust in their judgement when faced with serious decisions and the risks boatmen have to take in approaching lighthouses in treacherous seas and conditions to land or relieve the keepers and their supplies.
When conditions appeared favourable we launched the longboat and rowed out to the SS Eden. A couple of lads were already aboard stoking up the furnaces with tree logs and steam coal. This caused belches of black smoke to hang over the harbour and envelope the ship itself. After climbing up the side of this old tub and gazing around at the rusty decks, broken davits, cowls etc, I grew a little concerned at her ability to float long enough to fetch the island, but they convinced me there was no cause for concern whilst the prospects of finer weather held for a few days.
She was on the move at last, heading out into the open sea, wallowing and rolling like a huge whale, having little ballast to maintain stability or sufficient speed from her derelict engines that I felt pretty sick as I clung onto the rails, much to the amusement of the crew. After a few hours I got accustomed to her peculiar antics and joined the skipper on the bridge, who set the course and I proudly took over the wheel. He joined the brothers down below.
Whilst taking bearings periodically, it became apparent that we were making little or no headway and I brought this fact to the notice of the skipper. He changed course for St. Ann's Head, explaining the tide was on the ebb and we must drop hook until the young flood. We did some fishing and card playing. Presumably this was the normal procedure aboard this obsolete craft.
During the remainder of the trip we passed several small wind-swept islands, the natural homes of seabirds of many varieties, comparatively safe from their natural enemy - man. We cruised around Grassholme viewing thousands of gannets that have selected this island as their private domain where they breed each year before taking their long journey north. This immense gannetry is now protected against man who once harvested their eggs and young for his own use. It was wonderful to watch the parents training their young to dive out of the sky into a shoal of sprats until they were competent to catch their own food.
Another interesting island covered in moss, coarse grass and gorse, made an ideal sanctuary for various other types of seabirds comprising mostly of greater and lesser blackback, common and herring gulls, storm petrels, also guillemots up in the clefts of the cliffs and a small colony of kittiwakes, the most oceanic of all gulls, and found on few parts of Britain during the breeding season. This was Skomer where peregrine falcons were to be found and where they prey on seabirds.
We proceeded slowly and laboriously towards our goal where we eventually dropped anchor in the lee of the island and was safely landed on a small jetty, waving farewell to my friends as they steamed back home. My mates and I loaded supplies and stores onto a waiting open truck which I discovered to be the island donkey railway. Noddy was soon harnessed up and much to my surprise hauled that carriage along the rails at a remarkable speed with the provisions and crew sitting comfortably. She needed no encouragement orders, presumably this was normal practice for her on the homeward run. She was eager for supper and relaxation and never hesitated until the gates were reached and she was unharnessed. My impression of the place was very favourable, so tranquil and peaceful with goats lazily grazing outside, the sound of chicken and fowls in the run. These had been introduced to the place from time to time by the keepers which helped to vary the menu besides providing a fresh egg when desired. They had also cultivated a flower and vegetable garden, despite enormous pest of rabbits that infested the island and, to enhance this somewhat unusual lighthouse home, a friendly little terrier bitch called "Boy-oh" came running out to welcome me.