Tales from End to End
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Tale
by Bob Vickers
In 1969 I applied to become a Lighthouse keeper with Trinity House, the organisation that manages all of Britain’s lighthouses. There were over 100 of us who went on the initial training course but only two of us – myself and one other – lasted the course and became lighthouse keepers. Clearly, the job of lighthouse keeper is not everyone’s cup of tea!
There are three different sorts of lighthouse. The main group is what are known as ‘Land Stations’ (like Flamborough); the second type is ‘Island Stations’ (like Lundy Island) and the third kind is ‘Tower Rocks’. These latter are lighthouses ‘out on rocks’ out at sea like Small’s Lighthouse in the Irish Sea. After I had been accepted as a lighthouse keeper, my training then involved being sent to lighthouses all round the country in order to gain experience of the different types of lighthouse that operate in different places. We were not given any choice as to where we went; we were just told and had to go to where we were posted. My first posting was to Skokholm Island off the Pembrokeshire coast.
A lighthouse keeper’s daily routine worked like this. Each lighthouse had a team of three men and we worked a three-day rota system. On Day One we were on watch from 4.00am to 12noon and from 8.00pm to midnight; on Day Two from 12noon to 8.00pm and from midnight to 4.00am; and then Day Three was our ‘off duty’ day. But ‘off duty’ still meant that we had to carry oil up to the lamp, clean the lens and wash the floor. This work pattern was standard for lighthouse keepers throughout the country.
My training finished at Small’s Lighthouse in the Irish Sea, 26 miles out off the coast of Pembrokeshire. Life ‘on the rocks’ was interesting. Every six months a supply vessel would bring drums of fuel oil, which, of course, had to be pumped up into storage tanks at the bottom of the tower. Then the keepers had to carry the oil to the top of the tower in 5 gallon gerry cans, 30 gallons every three days up about 120 steps. As well as the oil, fresh supplies of drinking water were also delivered. Each member of the three-man team did a two-month shift at the lighthouse and we were each responsible for our own personal supplies so when we started our two-month stint we had to bring enough food with us for those two months. At our initial training we had been taught how to be self-sufficient and one of our first tasks had been to learn how to bake bread for ourselves! We also learned how to survive without modern luxuries. Our sleeping accommodation consisted of curved 4′ 6″ bunks and for toilet requirements we used a bucket at the top of the tower and then emptied the contents into the sea below. Washing ourselves involved a strip wash on the midnight shift when the other two were in bed.
Whilst I was ‘on the rocks’ at Small’s, I learned how to do kite fishing. We would make a kite with a 10-20 foot long tail, put bait on the tail and then float the kite down to the water from the gallery. As soon as a fish took the bait and got hooked, the kite would fly up into the air off the surface of the sea and we would pull it into the gallery.
I first came to Flamborough Lighthouse in 1981 and worked for two separate periods giving me a total of 13 years in all. The lighthouse here was built in 1806 in just five months without the use of any scaffolding. The lens weighs 3½ tons and floats on a 10 cwt bath of mercury. As there is no frictional loss of energy in mercury, the lens can be turned using just a single finger. The lamp itself is 3.5 kilowatts strong and this produces through the lens 3.5 million candle power. Being a land station, living conditions here were rather different from Small’s. For accommodation, I was given the Fog Signal Station cottage just a short walk from the lighthouse – no longer did I need to use a curved bunk for a bed. However, because the chalk cliffs are under constant attack from the sea, there are numerous caves at Flamborough and every six months we had to be lowered by rope to check whether the cave under the Fog Station had increased to a size thought to be dangerous.
By the 1970s it was clear that the role of the lighthouse keeper would soon be coming to an end. The increased use of helicopters meant that service engineers could be regularly transported to offshore lighthouses, carry our their maintenance work and then be flown back to the mainland. It was only a matter of time before all lighthouses became automated and we keepers became redundant. By the time I finished work in 1994, I had been employed on 22 different lighthouses; on some for just a month, on others for much longer. At the end of our career we were presented with a medal from Prince Philip in recognition of our long service.
Was it a lonely job? Well, yes and no. I had only two or three companions on any one lighthouse. But I made life-long friends. You had to learn to accept other people just as they were and not as you would like them to be. You had to get on with your mates, even though you might sometimes disagree with them.
I think that’s not a bad rule for all people, no matter what their job in life.