Lighthouse keeping is generally regarded as a male profession. But it was not uncommon for a lighthouse keeper to be assisted by his family, and no doubt many seafarers owe their lives to the wives and daughters who kept the light burning when the keeper was ill, asleep or in his cups. Most of these women have been forgotten by history, with the notable exception of Grace Darling.
Lucy, the keeper in Margaret Elphinstone’s well-researched and insightful novel “Light“, is fictional.
Trinity House, which celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2014, never appointed a woman to the post of Principal Keeper (PK). It probably never will, because the last manned lighthouse operated by Trinity House, North Foreland, was automated in 1998.
Liverpool’s Dock Committee was more enlightened. They appointed Elizabeth Wilding as keeper of Bidston Lighthouse in 1797 (albeit with conditions attached), following the death of her husband Richard. She was succeeded by her son-in-law and assistant William Urmson in 1800. Ann Urmson, William’s second daughter by his second wife, was PK at Bidston from 1835 until 12 May 1869. Richard, Elizabeth, William and Ann all died in service. William’s other daughters helped at the Bidston station: Jane kept the telegraph, and Catherine assisted with the light.
Leasowe Lighthouse also had two female Principal Keepers. When John Jones was dismissed “for intoxication and insubordination” in 1854, his wife Ann was appointed in his place. John died in 1857, still a resident of the lighthouse. Ann Jones died in service on 23 Jul 1867. [1, pages 33-34]. The last lighthouse keeper at Leasowe Lighthouse was Mary Elizabeth Williams. When her husband Thomas Williams died in 1894, Mrs Williams took over as PK. Apart from the lighthouse, she also had eight children (including a baby) to look after. Fortunately, some of her children were old enough to help. She was still in post when Leasowe’s light was discontinued on 15 July 1908. After the closure, she carried on as caretaker until November of the following year [1, pages 37-40].
Elizabeth Wilding was the first female lighthouse keeper to be appointed by Liverpool. But the Chester trustees were a few years ahead, having appointed Mrs Cormes as keeper of Point of Ayr Lighthouse in 1791 [1, page 46].
The Lancaster Port Commission appointed Margaret Grace Braithwaite née Swarbrick (9 Jul 1919 – 12 Jan 1996, known as Peggy) as Assistant Keeper of Walney Island Lighthouse in 1967, and promoted her to Principal Keeper in 1975. Her father Fred Swarbrick (died 5 Oct 1952) , sister Ella (died 16 Jan 1967), and Ella’s husband Albert Wheeler (known as Bert) had kept the lighthouse before her. Peggy was awarded the MBE in 1984. When she retired ten years later at the age of 74, she was the last Female Principal Keeper in England. Walney Island Lighthouse was not de-manned until 2003, making it the last manned lighthouse in the British Isles.
If you know of any women who served as Principal Keeper, please let us know by commenting on this post.