Are Lonely Lighthouses for Lonely Men? by Loretta Proctor

Posted by on Dec 15, 2014 in Historical Research, Historical Tidbits | 1 comment

MiddleWatch185x280aLighthouses have been manned since ancient times and most of us feel it must be a very lonely occupation. And indeed it can be and there are terrible tales of lighthouse keepers going mad. The 19th century in particular seemed to have many tales of madness, murder and suicide on the Lights. There is, of course, the famous story of the lighthouse keeper whose colleague died. The weather had turned particularly bad and the poor man was obliged to wait for some weeks with the dead body in this confined space until the relief at last arrived. He was said to have gone mad with the loneliness and horror of it all. After this there were always three men on a light at one time, taking turns to man the lantern. However, it appears that it wasn’t simply the isolation that drove the poor men mad. It was more likely due to the mercury trough in which the great Fresnel lenses (a 19th century innovation) floated. As dirt and dust gathered in the troughs, the keeper had to strain the mercury through a cloth in order to cleanse it. Mercury gives off fumes that can result in madness. Thus the poor men were being poisoned by that which was there to save others.

An interesting couple of sites for spooky lighthouse stories are:

Generally though, the lighthouse keepers were men temperamentally suited to a quiet and lonely existence and the pleasures of their own company. And the more modern amenities of the early 20th century such as radio and cars helped lessen the sense of isolation. In the old days men lived on the Light with their family so that there was a wife and perhaps daughters to cook and care for them all and sons to help maintain the lighthouse. Grace Darling, the famous heroine lived with her parents on Longstone Lighthouse in the beautiful wilds of Northumberland and thought little of it. It was scarcely different to living on some remote farmhouse in the countryside. Except that it was so much more thrilling to be close to the sea with all its storms, moods and rages.

(c) RNLI Grace Darling Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationHer famous exploit came about when the SS Forfarshire was seen to be foundering on the nearby rocks in a violent storm. Her father, as many keepers were wont to do, would often sail out in his little boat to help rescue the sailors but her brothers were all away on the mainland at that time. Grace was so moved by pity that she accompanied her father in their small boat, rowing it back and forth and helping to rescue the mariners and bring them to the safety of their light. Her heroic deeds were made much of in the press and in fact, the fame led to her being so pestered by celebrity seekers (not much changed there) who wanted locks of her hair, portraits of her on cups, plates and other paraphernalia that it made her feel hunted and unhappy. She was used to a quiet life and didn’t want all the attention. Sadly, she died of consumption about four years later in her father’s arms. Thus she remains, as do all those who die young, a myth and, in her case, an ideal of Victorian maidenhood

images(3)For most keepers, the work was repetitive yet absorbing. They took great pride in their uniform, in their light and in keeping it up to naval ship-shape standards. Brass rails that wound up the hundreds of stairs to the top of the light were polished so bright they almost resented using them. And of course, the lenses of the great optics in the lantern had to be kept clean all the time so that the light would shine in all its brightness across the tossing waves, cutting through dark stormy skies and clouds. How welcome that beam of light must have seemed to desperate mariners!

The Watches were run according to naval standards with:

First Watch: 2000 to 0000, Middle Watch: 0000 to 0400, Morning Watch: 0400 to 0800, Forenoon Watch: 0800 to 1200, Afternoon Watch: 1200 to 1600 and so on.

478_001Some people hated the Middle Watch in the deeps of the night as it was considered a particularly lonely period. This inspired the title for my book in which lighthouses form a background, enhancing the feeling of isolation my heroine experiences in the story. She learns to love them and the rugged English coasts about them as well as the lighthousekeeper’s son.   The main two lighthouses in this story are Longships at Sennen Cove in Cornwall and then Flamborough up in Yorkshire. Lighthouse keepers often moved from post to post, taking their family with them. If it was a Land Light, there would be keeper’s snug little cottages, cared for by Trinity House who still run the Lights. If the keeper was sent to a Rock Light in the middle of the ocean, his family might have to rent a place in the nearest town or village.   Longships was a Rock Light but the keepers cottages were situated on the cliff from which they could look out to the Light and look forward to their loved ones coming home on leave. It was an interesting life and keepers were proud of their status and work in the community, proud to be caring for mariners at sea. But perhaps not always so easy for their families who followed them from post to post and were often cut off schools, shops and the larger community.

Sennen Cove was a pleasant spot, however and a short walk to the village and shops.


This Land Light at Flamborough was a snug little community and often pigs and hens were kept and little garden where vegetables were grown. The high walls helped to keep off the gale force winds that swept in from the sea. It can be visited today as a tourist attraction though still operational.

A strange but interesting life, alas, no longer to be enjoyed. As Bella Bathurst (author of The Lighthouse Stevensons) said; lighthousekeepers were ‘the first profession to be made wholly redundant.’

Loretta Proctor, December 16, 2014

One Comment

  1. Fascinating tale. One of the most dangerous lighthouses was in the bay at Crescent City, California.
    It could only be reached by means of a crane that lifted boats out of the water. One one occasion three different keepers were killed in one day, trying to get aboard.