Sunday, June 28, 2015

Forty Years on (British) Lighthouses

Lighthousekeeper Geo Knott


(A series of short articles about the life and times of a lighthouse keeper during the period 1920-60. The articles were written in the mid 1960s.)

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.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Lighthouse: the Smalls calamity

Smalls Lighthouse

In 1801 one of two lighthouse keepers on the offshore Smalls Light, near the Welsh coast, died.The men on duty were Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith.
It was found impossible to land on the rock for four months, though attempts were made, storms made landing, or even sailing within hailing distance, dangerous. A distress signal had been hoisted at the lighthouse.  The dim outline of of one of the keepers could be detected standing on the gallery of the lighthouse. It was not clear enough to tell which of the men it was.
The keepers' relatives, during the long delay, were extremely anxious about the men's well-being. Strangely, the light burned brightly as usual during this period giving no indication of what might be amiss on the rock.
Author Ivor Emlyn wrote about the Smalls incident thus:
A day or two before the signal was hoisted, Griffith complained of being unwell, and the means employed by his companion of affording relief proved ineffectual, recourse was had to draw the attention of those passing the Channel, who could either render assistance themselves, or make the emergency known at the proper quarters. No help came! After weeks of extreme suffering poor Griffiths breathed his last; and then perhaps, commenced the worst chapter in the surviving Light-keeper’s experience of that sad time. 
Decomposition would quickly follow; and the “body of death” would vitiate the atmosphere of the too confined apartment. The body could not be thrown, to find its grave, into the sea; suspicion with her thousand tongues would point at Howell as the author of foul play – that to hide a lesser fault he had committed the greater one of murder! The world is too apt to condemn ere it judges!
Howell’s skill as a cooper (which was his normal trade), enabled him to make a coffin for his dead companion, out of boards obtained from a bulk-head in the dwelling apartment. After a great deal of labour the body was carried to the platform and firmly secured to the railing. For three weeks – weeks apparently as long as months – it occupied this position, before the weather moderated. A Milford boat at last landed two Light-keepers, and brought away Howell and the body of his companion; but the wind not being fair for Solva, they made Milford. Howell’s attenuated form demonstrated the sufferings, both mental and physical, he had undergone; his friends, in some instances, failed to recognize him on his return home. Four months in such a place, and under such circumstances, what would it not effect?
From the time of this calamity it was determined that three Lightkeepers should inhabit the structure at the same time; and three continue to be the number employed on this and other isolated lighthouses.
Chart 1861 showing (at left) position of Smalls rock off Welsh coast

Further information at:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 3

Hood Point Lighthouse, East London, SA

The Head Lighthousekeeper is held responsible for the regularity of watches during the night, for the cleanliness and good order of the apparatus, machinery, utensils and for the due performance of the whole duty of the lighthouse whether performed by him personally, or by the assistant, or occasional keepers, and he shall in event of any accident or obstruction to the regular and efficient exhibition of the light occurring, report same to the Engineer-in-Chief. The Head Lighthousekeeper is also responsible for the cleanliness of dwellings, store-rooms etc. The Head Lighthousekeeper shall see that the ground around the lighthouse and both keepers’ quarters, is kept in good order together with all the other things placed under his charge.

The assistant lightkeeper shall act under the orders of the principal lightkeeper.
[Note both terms are used throughout the instructions – lighthousekeeper and lightkeeper.]

The lighthousekeepers are prohibited from carrying on any trade or business, also from having any boarders or lodgers in their dwellings.

Lightkeepers may arrange to absent themselves on Sunday for the whole or part of a day, not earlier than 8 a.m. and not later than 1 hour before sunset.

Only one lightkeeper shall be absent from the lighthouse at one and the same time.

Lightkeepers are to conduct themselves with civility to strangers, showing the premises at such as convenient and do not interfere with the proper duties of their office. Strangers are not admitted into the lightroom at any time.

No money or gratuity is to be accepted from visitors on any pretence whatever. No more than three visitors to have access to the lighthouse at any one time. No persons in a state of intoxication is to be admitted. The Lighthouse is not open to the public on a Sunday. Visitors may not handle apparatus or make drawings thereof or take any dimensions.

No smoking by visitors to the Lighthouse is permitted. No food or liquor and no dogs allowed.

A visitors book to enter visitors names is in the charge of the Head Lightkeeper.

In the event of any neglect in performance of duties, the offending party shall send immediate notice to the Engineer-in-Chief.

Lightkeepers are to observe these rules; these rules are without prejudice to any other special instructions issued by the Engineer-in-Chief.

Any breach of rules will render the offender liable to a fine not exceeding 2 pounds or to dismissal if the offender be in the service of the Government.

A copy of the foregoing rules shall be furnished to each lightkeeper.

Scrimshaw of sailing ship near a lighthouse

The Lighthouse Rules, edited due to length, are taken from the Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 3

The lightkeeper having the 2nd day shift shall cleanse the lanterns, lamp glasses, copper and brass work and utensils, walls and floors and balcony of the lightroom together with the tower stairs, passage doors and windows from the lightroom to the base of the building. The duties in this shift must be completed before 3 p.m.

For the more effectual cleaning of the glass of the lantern and management of the lamps at the time of lighting, both lightkeepers shall be upon watch throughout the 1st watch of the night.

The lighthousekeeper on duty at night shall on no pretence whatever during his watch leave the lightroom or balcony until he is relieved.

A bell is fixed at or near the base of the tower with a cord leading to the balcony to enable the lighthousekeeper on duty to summon the absent keeper, and if at any time the lighthousekeeper on duty shall think the presence or assistance of the lighthousekeeper not on duty is necessary, he shall call him by ringing this bell and the keeper so called shall repair to the lightroom without delay. In like manner, when the watches come to be changed, the bell shall be rung to call the lighthousekeeper next in turn after which the keeper on duty shall at his peril remain on guard till he is relieved by the keeper who has the next watch.

The Head Lighthousekeeper is responsible for the safety and good order of stores, utensils and apparatus, to see none of the stores or materials are wasted, observe the strictest economy and most careful management, yet so as to obtain in every respect the best possible light.

The Head Lighthousekeeper shall keep a daily journal of the quantity of oil and other stores expended, and also a log book containing the routine of duty and the state of the weather, embodying other remarks that may occur. These shall be entered in the books to be kept at the lighthouse for the purpose. These entries shall be made daily: they are on no account to be trusted to memory.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 2

Disaster near a lighthouse: engraving

The lamp shall be kept burning bright and clear every night from sunset to sunrise and in order that the greatest degree of light may be maintained throughout the night, the wicks must be trimmed as often as necessary to ensure steady maintenance of the light at its best. The keeper who has the first watch shall take care to trim the oil valves so as to let the oil flow into the burner a sufficient time before lighting.

The lightkeeper shall keep a constant and regular watch in the lightroom throughout the night. There are to be two night watches. The 1st watch to begin at sunset and to continue until midnight. The 2nd watch to be from midnight until the period of extinguishing the light. Before leaving the lightroom the keeper having the 2nd watch shall extinguish the light, turn off the oil, and close the curtains of the lantern. The lightkeepers are to take alternate watches in such manner that he who has the 1st watch one night shall have the 2nd watch next night.

Daily duty shall be laid out in 2 shifts, taken alternately, he who has 1st watch at night shall take 1st shift and he who has 2nd watch shall take the 2nd shift.

Polishing a fourth order Fresnel lens

Both keepers shall be present in the lightroom for 5 minutes immediately before the light is extinguished in order to see that the flame is at its maximum brilliancy and that everything is right and in proper order when the lightkeeper going off duty leaves the light

Immediately after the morning watch, the lightkeeper taking the morning shift shall thoroughly cleanse the optical apparatus, lamps and revolving machinery and carefully dust the glass lenses and prisms, trim the wicks, and leave everything connected with the apparatus ready for lighting in the evening and shall carefully cover the optical apparatus before cleaning the lightroom. The duties included in this shift must be completed daily before 10 a.m. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lighthousekeepers: Rules and Regulations

A Lighthousekeeper and his family

Lighthousekeeping was no sinecure. Keepers fulfilled a vital role and carried a heavy responsibility for maintaining the light.  Every aspect of their duties was covered by the printed Rules and Regulations of which every keeper received a copy. It would be his ‘bible’ for the entire period of his service.

‘Rules for the Proper Care and Maintenance of the Light on the Bluff at Port Natal’ would have been my ancestor Thomas Gadsden’s daily reading, in-between all his other activities. The Rules were published in each annual edition of the Natal Almanac and Yearly Register and changed little from their inception to the phase after Thomas’s death.

The following instructions give some idea of a keeper’s many and varied tasks:

Great care is to be bestowed in keeping everything connected with the Lighthouse in a thorough state of cleanliness and efficiency, as the optical apparatus, consisting of lenses and prisms, suffers materially from the effect of dust injuring its polish, and as the proper burning of the lamp is impaired by a want of due attention to its cleanliness and the state of the works.

Fresnel lens close-up

The glass lenses and prisms are to be cleaned every day, being first freed from dust by a feather or other soft brush and then rubbed down with a soft chamois skin, free from anything that would injure the polish of the glass. If the glass becomes greasy it is to be first washed with a linen cloth steeped in spirits of wine and afterwards carefully dried with a soft dry linen cloth or rubber free from all dust and gritty particles and finally rubbed with a fine chamois leather.

The brass work of the lamps is to be kept clean by polishing with whitening or suitable  polishing paste. Great care is to be taken that the lamp is accurately in the focus of the illuminating apparatus and that the flow of oil is such that a proper height of flame is maintained. If the flame cannot be maintained to its proper height, the lightkeeper must immediately examine whether or not it is due to want of cleanliness of the burner, want of proper flow of oil, or any imperfection in the wicks or oil, or the draught of the lamp’s chimney. The wicks should be gradually raised during the first 20 minutes of burning until the flame reaches the proper height to give the maximum amount of light.

Note: the mechanical lamps being constructed to give a plentiful overflow from 3-4 times the quantity consumed, the wicks char but slowly. The lamp should burn, when in good order, the whole night without the works requiring to be touched when paraffin oil is used. [Paraffin came into use about mid-19th century]

All moving parts in the revolving machinery and mechanical lamps must be kept scrupulously clean. Ventilator to be opened to admit sufficient supply of air to ensure  proper burning of the light and prevent condensation. Storm frames are to be kept in readiness for immediate use in case of accident.

The windows of the lantern are to be regularly cleansed every day and washed with water when necessary to remove the sea spray or other obstructions to the passage of the light, and for the same reason they are to be rubbed during the night when they become obscured by condensation or sweating.

To be continued ...

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Light on the Bluff 2

Durban from the Bluff ca 1870s - a view my ancestor Thomas Gadsden would have gazed out upon frequently during his years as lighthousekeeper at the Bluff Light.

When the light was first commissioned it was claimed to be the only lighthouse on the East African coast between Port Elizabeth and Egypt. The light boasted 3 million candlepower with a nominal range of 21 nautical miles, though usually this was claimed to be 28 miles.

Despite this apparent power, the revolving light did not 'come up to expectations', according to the authorities, and was replaced by a new light mechanism in mid 1869.