Tag Archives: Trinity House

Female Lighthouse Keepers

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 UK’s last manned lighthouse, 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 at the lighthouse.

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].

In 1975, the Lancaster Port Commission appointed Peggy Braithwaite née Swarbrick (9 Jul 1919 – 12 Jan 1996) as Principal Keeper of Walney Island Lighthouse, when her husband, the lighthouse keeper, died. Peggy retired at the age of 74.

If you know of any women who served as Principal Keeper, please let us know by commenting on this post.

References

  1. John and Diane Robinson, Lighthouses of Liverpool Bay, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2011.

St. Bees

Yesterday, I posted this drawing of an unidentified lighthouse, and appealed to Twitter and Facebook for help in identifying it.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

Plan and elevations of unknown lighthouse, 1871.

The drawing shows a site plan along with front and side elevations. We found it several years ago in a box containing plans of Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection at the Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives. It is signed and dated Jas. N. Douglass, 5th April 1871. If my reading of the signature is correct, then the architect would be the famous James Nicholas Douglass F.R.S. who built many important lighthouses for Trinity House, including the fourth Eddystone Lighthouse.

Today, the mystery is solved, thanks to social media.

Facebook user Steve Kean was the first to identify the lighthouse correctly. It is St. Bees Lighthouse in Cumbria.

Then Jay Gates found an aerial view that clinched the matter.

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

Aerial view of St Bees Lighthouse from the Visit Cumbria website

The distinctive kinks in the perimeter wall, the paths within the lighthouse compound, and the location of the buildings and outbuildings all match perfectly. Even the annotations “Fence Bank” on the drawing make sense once you realise that these describe features that are clearly visible in the aerial view. It’s astonishing how little St Bees has changed in 145 years.

A little research reveals that St Bees was re-built in 1865 (although, strangely, Trinity House’s page on St. Bees doesn’t mention this at all).

So how did a drawing of St Bees Lighthouse come to be filed in a box of drawings pertaining to Bidston Lighthouse in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board collection?

Here is one possible explanation. In 1871, George Fosbery Lyster, then Engineer-in-Chief for the MDHB, was planning a replacement for the first Bidston Lighthouse. He would have been aware of the new (1865) lighthouse at St Bees, and may well have written, one engineer to another, to his counterpart James Douglass at Trinity House requesting a drawing. Then Douglass’ office prepared a drawing, perhaps a copy of an existing drawing or perhaps a fresh one, which was signed off by Douglass and sent on to Lyster’s office. It may have inspired some aspects of Lyster’s own 1872 design for the new Bidston Lighthouse. The layouts of Bidston and St. Bees do have much in common, but Lyster gave Bidston’s cottages a third wing, as Bidston needed three keepers to look after the telegraph as well as the lighthouse. Then, it would be natural for Douglass’ drawing to be filed away with the rest of the Bidston papers, where it stayed until the MDHB collection was deposited in the archives many years later.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that James Douglass was the architect of St. Bees – he could have just signed off a copy of an earlier drawing by someone else. However, he had been Engineer-in-Chief of Trinity House since 1862, and even if someone else did draw up the plans for St. Bees, it was Douglass who was ultimately responsible.

I then turned to email, and wrote to Neil Jones at Trinity House, and to the Cumbria Archives Service (since they have some of the best on-line resources about St. Bees).

Then I went to bed.

Next morning, my inbox held a reply from Neil Jones confirming that the drawing is indeed of St Bees, and that it is most likely a tracing or copy of an earlier drawing.

At this point, I left my investigations for a pleasant Maritime Heritage conference. Proceedings started aboard the newly re-launched steamer the Daniel Adamson at Liverpool’s Canning Dock.

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

Reconnections Conference aboard the Daniel Adamson, 11 May 2016

After lunch, the conference resumed at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the very same building where we first found the drawing several years ago. Even as young Jamie Davies of the Ironbridge Institute was lecturing on the value of social media for heritage projects, my phone beeped to alert me of incoming email from Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service, which said:

I can confirm that the plan attached to your email is indeed St Bees lighthouse. The plan matches exactly with modern site plans we have in our collection, and photographs of the front elevation confirm its identity.

There is plentiful historical information regarding the old St Bees lighthouse scattered around various collection we hold here and at Carlisle Archive Centre. However information and plans relating to the rebuilt lighthouse is held at our reference YGLA/1 and spans 1962 – 1989 only.

I have not seen the attached plan before and it is a delight to see it.

Although I can confirm the plan is definitely St Bees, I cannot throw any light on how the plan came to be where you found it, but your theory is quite plausible.

I cannot thank you enough for bringing this fascinating plan to our attention.

I barely managed to contain my excitement. I waited for the opportunity for questions at the end of the talk, determined to share my social media success story with the audience, whether they wanted to hear it or not. No such opportunity came, as we were running behind schedule. By the time of the closing discussion the moment had passed.

All of which leads me, at the end of a most pleasant day, to write this post. Needless to say, I shall share it on social media.

Stephen, at Bidston Lighthouse, with thanks to Michael Vicente (photographer) and my wife Mandy for finding the drawing in the first place; to Steve Kean, Jay Gates, Neil Jones at Trinity House, and Lesley Park at the Cumbria Archive Service for their help in identifying it; to the Daniel Adamson Preservation Society and the Maritime Heritage Trust for a great conference; to Jamie Davies for talking about social media at that particular time; and especially the Merseyside Maritime Museum for the parts it played at the beginning and the end of my story.

Catoptrics

William Hutchinson, Liverpool Dockmaster, revolutionised lighthouse optics with the introduction of the parabolic reflector. He conducted experiments at the Bidston Signals Station during the 1760s, and subsequently installed reflectors in the Wirral Lighthouses. He writes, in his Treatise on Practical Seamanship:

“We have made, and in use here, at Liverpool, reflectors of one, two, and three feet focus ; and three, five and a half, seven and a half, and twelve feet diameter ; the three smallest being made of tin plates, soldered together ; and the largest of wood, covered with plates of looking glass”.

Hutchinson installed the largest one at Bidston Lighthouse, which was furthest from the sea. The large reflectors had some problems: they used a lot of oil, and smoke from the wick tended to obscure the reflector. Eventually, it was found that several smaller reflectors, arranged so that their beams were parallel, gave an equally bright light and used less oil.

Trinity House have an eighteenth century parabolic reflector in their collection. Its diameter is twenty inches.

18th century catoptric reflector, in the Trinity House collection.

18th century catoptric reflector, in the Trinity House collection. Photograph courtesy of the Corporation of Trinity House.

Little is known about the provenance of this reflector, because, sadly, Trinity House was bombed in 1940, and many of its records destroyed. The reflector will be on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from March 2014 until January 2016.

Trinity House is 500 years old this year. Henry VIII granted a Royal Charter to Trinity House in 1514.

Most of the lighthouses of Liverpool Bay were built and run by the port of Liverpool, not Trinity House. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board took over from the Liverpool Dock Trustees in 1858. It was not until 1973 that Trinity House took over Hilbre Island Lighthouse and Point Lynas Lighthouse from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.

Catoptric lights are based on the principle of reflection. They were eventually superseded by dioptric lights, based on the principle of refraction, thanks to the work of Augustin-Jean Fresnel. When Bidston Lighthouse was re-built in 1873, it was equipped with a Fresnel lens manufactured by Chance Brothers.

Acknowledgments. My thanks to the Corporation of Trinity House and Neil Jones, Archivist, for permission to use the photograph of the catoptric reflector.