If, as a child, your dream job was to sit by yourself and watch the waves and the wind, for days at a time — for months at a time, perhaps — you’ll have to become a solo round-the-world yacht skipper. It’s too late to become a lighthouse keeper. The last lighthouse in the UK to be automated was North Foreland Lighthouse, in Kent, in 1998. Some countries still have actual people in their lighthouses but, with the pace of automation and the development of electronic navigation systems, not for much longer.
Lighthouses have been with us a long time. First they marked safe entrances to ports, later they warned of shoals, rocks, reefs, or any number of navigational hazards. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world was a lighthouse, at Pharos. Begun around 270 BC, it reached the dizzy heights of around 140 metres and the light was provided by an open fire and bronze mirror. Lighthouse technology gradually developed beyond open fires to oil lamps, electricity, and fabulous lenses to concentrate the light. The keepers trimmed the wicks, polished the lenses, wound the clocks, and cleaned the windows.
The keepers provided other services, too. After all, if you’re sitting at the top of a tall tower expressly positioned above a maritime trouble-spot, it’s to be expected that you might occasionally have to provide rescue services when some less fortunate mariners find themselves at odds with that trouble-spot.
Grace Darling, daughter of a lighthouse keeper is a notable example. One morning in 1838, Grace looked out from the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands and spotted the wreck of the SS Forfarshire on a low rocky outcrop. The 22-year-old Grace and her father, William, set out in a rowing boat in the fearsome weather to rescue the nine survivors.
Marcus Hanna, principal keeper of the Cape Elizabeth Light-Station near Portland, Maine, braved freezing conditions to rescue two men from the wrecked ship Australia in 1885.
Ida Lewis, keeper of the Lime Rock Light lighthouse off the coast of Rhode Island, rescued so many people, she lost count.
Lighthouse keepers were a resourceful bunch, thawing out shipwreck survivors encased in blocks of ice, or keeping the light burning as the prisoners of Alcatraz waged a break-out and prowled the island with a submachine gun.
You had to be resourceful when you were living an unorthodox, isolated existence at the literal margin of society with the wind and the water your only dependable companions. On Christmas Day, your only contact with your family might be through a telescope. Monotony, fragility and unpredictability could wrench even the staunchest of minds into madness.
Some stories of madness are real. Henri Guézennec at the storm-battered Tévennec lighthouse thought that mysterious voices speaking in Breton were telling him to leave.
Assistant light-keeper Robert Dickson did shoot relief light-keeper Hugh Clark on the island of Little Ross.
But some stories of madness are mere legend. Herbert James Yates probably didn’t go on a murderous spree at the Tasman Island light.
Some say the isolation wasn’t to blame for any madness at all. The magnification of light from lighthouse lamps happens via huge curved prisms which weigh several tons. These float in baths of liquid mercury, which keep the lamp level and allow it to turn without friction. Perhaps it was the vapour from the mercury that affected people? (Hatmakers, who used mercuric nitrate to treat the fur of small animals to make hats, also suffered from mercury poisoning, developing tremors and mental confusion. That is why the Hatter at Lewis Carroll’s tea party is Mad.)
Light-keepers themselves say any madness was over-rated. They had quite a nice time, whiling away the days tending their gardens, making ships in bottles, and doing the odd bit of embroidery.
If you still yearn for the life of a lighthouse keeper in this age of GPS, try The Association of Lighthouse Keepers. You don’t have to be or have been a keeper of a lighthouse to join, just “interested in lighthouses”. Who isn’t? Be warned: their lighthouse-related events sell out fast.
Or, you could simply stay in a lighthouse for a holiday.
Lighthouse keepers may be vanishing, if not as mysteriously as those in the Flannan Isles, but our love for lighthouses is not. Their strange blend of safety and threat is too powerful to evaporate so easily.