Sunday, June 28, 2015

Forty Years on (British) Lighthouses

Lighthousekeeper Geo Knott


(A series of short articles about the life and times of a lighthouse keeper during the period 1920-60. The articles were written in the mid 1960s.)

I wasn't at all impressed or pleased at the prospect of spending a month or two here, after I had thoroughly investigated the living and sleeping quarters and to think I should have this one man for a companion, day in, day out, with no means of even being alone. I began to loathe him. He had no conversation, topics of any type. I knew when he was going to sneeze, I think! And when sitting together at meals or endeavouring to read, he continually beat out "The Devil's Tattoo" with his fingers. I got him to discontinue this mad tapping after several weeks, but he began to tap, tap with his feet, no rhythm or sense, it just tended to drive one insane. I couldn't possibly get away for any length of time and as for exercise, I would shift out the two chairs and walk three paces one way and two the other, or walk up and down the ladder or on the narrow platform. The bars made my feet sore.
There was a boat in the davits I had hoped to use, but there were strict orders not to lower it, only in the event of a fire, the other reason was it was too heavy and I venture to say, unseaworthy. The whole place was a fire hazard, made of wood mostly with inflammables aboard such as paraffin, coal and explosives. I lived two months with that chap and look back on it as a nightmare. I began to hate everything about him. I knew what his next move would be, what he would touch or do or say (which was very little) then I would sit and wonder why I was there, what crime had I committed? This loneliness and frustration was getting me down. We hear so much about the poor convicts confined behind prison walls. At least he meets and talks with people, his loved ones are allowed to visit him, he receives letters, newspapers, someone to cook and provide him with fresh meals, vegetables, fruit etc. and almost all the amenities enjoyed by normal civilians. I spent hours and days trying to analyze my present environments - perhaps I thought too much and too deeply over these problems and found no solution. When I arrived there I received letters containing simple matters that could very easily have been dealt with on shore, but as the days and weeks passed by they seem to magnify and get exaggerated all out of proportion. The more I thought about them my mind was on the verge of collapse and looking back I can quite understand what solitude can do to a man. No news, no music, no wireless and no-one to talk over your problems or have discussions of any type.

A New Mate
I was terribly depressed as time passed. Thank heavens I was able to draw and read and amuse myself with my mandolin. The two months had elapsed and I was instructed to stay another month. I read my letters from home, the newspapers and found that my future mate was a cheerful old chap. All the stress and worry simply disappeared as if it were a bad nightmare. To give my late companion his due, I must point out that to meet him on shore he was one of the nicest persons one could wish to know, excepting that he was of a reticent nature and found great difficulty in communicating his thoughts or views unfortunately. So I am not blaming him for my experiences of those two months. Men should never have been subjected to those conditions which were intolerable compared with present day standards.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Lighthouse: the Smalls calamity

Smalls Lighthouse

In 1801 one of two lighthouse keepers on the offshore Smalls Light, near the Welsh coast, died.The men on duty were Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith.
It was found impossible to land on the rock for four months, though attempts were made, storms made landing, or even sailing within hailing distance, dangerous. A distress signal had been hoisted at the lighthouse.  The dim outline of of one of the keepers could be detected standing on the gallery of the lighthouse. It was not clear enough to tell which of the men it was.
The keepers' relatives, during the long delay, were extremely anxious about the men's well-being. Strangely, the light burned brightly as usual during this period giving no indication of what might be amiss on the rock.
Author Ivor Emlyn wrote about the Smalls incident thus:
A day or two before the signal was hoisted, Griffith complained of being unwell, and the means employed by his companion of affording relief proved ineffectual, recourse was had to draw the attention of those passing the Channel, who could either render assistance themselves, or make the emergency known at the proper quarters. No help came! After weeks of extreme suffering poor Griffiths breathed his last; and then perhaps, commenced the worst chapter in the surviving Light-keeper’s experience of that sad time. 
Decomposition would quickly follow; and the “body of death” would vitiate the atmosphere of the too confined apartment. The body could not be thrown, to find its grave, into the sea; suspicion with her thousand tongues would point at Howell as the author of foul play – that to hide a lesser fault he had committed the greater one of murder! The world is too apt to condemn ere it judges!
Howell’s skill as a cooper (which was his normal trade), enabled him to make a coffin for his dead companion, out of boards obtained from a bulk-head in the dwelling apartment. After a great deal of labour the body was carried to the platform and firmly secured to the railing. For three weeks – weeks apparently as long as months – it occupied this position, before the weather moderated. A Milford boat at last landed two Light-keepers, and brought away Howell and the body of his companion; but the wind not being fair for Solva, they made Milford. Howell’s attenuated form demonstrated the sufferings, both mental and physical, he had undergone; his friends, in some instances, failed to recognize him on his return home. Four months in such a place, and under such circumstances, what would it not effect?
From the time of this calamity it was determined that three Lightkeepers should inhabit the structure at the same time; and three continue to be the number employed on this and other isolated lighthouses.
Chart 1861 showing (at left) position of Smalls rock off Welsh coast

Further information at:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 3

Hood Point Lighthouse, East London, SA

The Head Lighthousekeeper is held responsible for the regularity of watches during the night, for the cleanliness and good order of the apparatus, machinery, utensils and for the due performance of the whole duty of the lighthouse whether performed by him personally, or by the assistant, or occasional keepers, and he shall in event of any accident or obstruction to the regular and efficient exhibition of the light occurring, report same to the Engineer-in-Chief. The Head Lighthousekeeper is also responsible for the cleanliness of dwellings, store-rooms etc. The Head Lighthousekeeper shall see that the ground around the lighthouse and both keepers’ quarters, is kept in good order together with all the other things placed under his charge.

The assistant lightkeeper shall act under the orders of the principal lightkeeper.
[Note both terms are used throughout the instructions – lighthousekeeper and lightkeeper.]

The lighthousekeepers are prohibited from carrying on any trade or business, also from having any boarders or lodgers in their dwellings.

Lightkeepers may arrange to absent themselves on Sunday for the whole or part of a day, not earlier than 8 a.m. and not later than 1 hour before sunset.

Only one lightkeeper shall be absent from the lighthouse at one and the same time.

Lightkeepers are to conduct themselves with civility to strangers, showing the premises at such as convenient and do not interfere with the proper duties of their office. Strangers are not admitted into the lightroom at any time.

No money or gratuity is to be accepted from visitors on any pretence whatever. No more than three visitors to have access to the lighthouse at any one time. No persons in a state of intoxication is to be admitted. The Lighthouse is not open to the public on a Sunday. Visitors may not handle apparatus or make drawings thereof or take any dimensions.

No smoking by visitors to the Lighthouse is permitted. No food or liquor and no dogs allowed.

A visitors book to enter visitors names is in the charge of the Head Lightkeeper.

In the event of any neglect in performance of duties, the offending party shall send immediate notice to the Engineer-in-Chief.

Lightkeepers are to observe these rules; these rules are without prejudice to any other special instructions issued by the Engineer-in-Chief.

Any breach of rules will render the offender liable to a fine not exceeding 2 pounds or to dismissal if the offender be in the service of the Government.

A copy of the foregoing rules shall be furnished to each lightkeeper.

Scrimshaw of sailing ship near a lighthouse

The Lighthouse Rules, edited due to length, are taken from the Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 3

The lightkeeper having the 2nd day shift shall cleanse the lanterns, lamp glasses, copper and brass work and utensils, walls and floors and balcony of the lightroom together with the tower stairs, passage doors and windows from the lightroom to the base of the building. The duties in this shift must be completed before 3 p.m.

For the more effectual cleaning of the glass of the lantern and management of the lamps at the time of lighting, both lightkeepers shall be upon watch throughout the 1st watch of the night.

The lighthousekeeper on duty at night shall on no pretence whatever during his watch leave the lightroom or balcony until he is relieved.

A bell is fixed at or near the base of the tower with a cord leading to the balcony to enable the lighthousekeeper on duty to summon the absent keeper, and if at any time the lighthousekeeper on duty shall think the presence or assistance of the lighthousekeeper not on duty is necessary, he shall call him by ringing this bell and the keeper so called shall repair to the lightroom without delay. In like manner, when the watches come to be changed, the bell shall be rung to call the lighthousekeeper next in turn after which the keeper on duty shall at his peril remain on guard till he is relieved by the keeper who has the next watch.

The Head Lighthousekeeper is responsible for the safety and good order of stores, utensils and apparatus, to see none of the stores or materials are wasted, observe the strictest economy and most careful management, yet so as to obtain in every respect the best possible light.

The Head Lighthousekeeper shall keep a daily journal of the quantity of oil and other stores expended, and also a log book containing the routine of duty and the state of the weather, embodying other remarks that may occur. These shall be entered in the books to be kept at the lighthouse for the purpose. These entries shall be made daily: they are on no account to be trusted to memory.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Rules and Regulations 2

Disaster near a lighthouse: engraving

The lamp shall be kept burning bright and clear every night from sunset to sunrise and in order that the greatest degree of light may be maintained throughout the night, the wicks must be trimmed as often as necessary to ensure steady maintenance of the light at its best. The keeper who has the first watch shall take care to trim the oil valves so as to let the oil flow into the burner a sufficient time before lighting.

The lightkeeper shall keep a constant and regular watch in the lightroom throughout the night. There are to be two night watches. The 1st watch to begin at sunset and to continue until midnight. The 2nd watch to be from midnight until the period of extinguishing the light. Before leaving the lightroom the keeper having the 2nd watch shall extinguish the light, turn off the oil, and close the curtains of the lantern. The lightkeepers are to take alternate watches in such manner that he who has the 1st watch one night shall have the 2nd watch next night.

Daily duty shall be laid out in 2 shifts, taken alternately, he who has 1st watch at night shall take 1st shift and he who has 2nd watch shall take the 2nd shift.

Polishing a fourth order Fresnel lens

Both keepers shall be present in the lightroom for 5 minutes immediately before the light is extinguished in order to see that the flame is at its maximum brilliancy and that everything is right and in proper order when the lightkeeper going off duty leaves the light

Immediately after the morning watch, the lightkeeper taking the morning shift shall thoroughly cleanse the optical apparatus, lamps and revolving machinery and carefully dust the glass lenses and prisms, trim the wicks, and leave everything connected with the apparatus ready for lighting in the evening and shall carefully cover the optical apparatus before cleaning the lightroom. The duties included in this shift must be completed daily before 10 a.m. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lighthousekeepers: Rules and Regulations

A Lighthousekeeper and his family

Lighthousekeeping was no sinecure. Keepers fulfilled a vital role and carried a heavy responsibility for maintaining the light.  Every aspect of their duties was covered by the printed Rules and Regulations of which every keeper received a copy. It would be his ‘bible’ for the entire period of his service.

‘Rules for the Proper Care and Maintenance of the Light on the Bluff at Port Natal’ would have been my ancestor Thomas Gadsden’s daily reading, in-between all his other activities. The Rules were published in each annual edition of the Natal Almanac and Yearly Register and changed little from their inception to the phase after Thomas’s death.

The following instructions give some idea of a keeper’s many and varied tasks:

Great care is to be bestowed in keeping everything connected with the Lighthouse in a thorough state of cleanliness and efficiency, as the optical apparatus, consisting of lenses and prisms, suffers materially from the effect of dust injuring its polish, and as the proper burning of the lamp is impaired by a want of due attention to its cleanliness and the state of the works.

Fresnel lens close-up

The glass lenses and prisms are to be cleaned every day, being first freed from dust by a feather or other soft brush and then rubbed down with a soft chamois skin, free from anything that would injure the polish of the glass. If the glass becomes greasy it is to be first washed with a linen cloth steeped in spirits of wine and afterwards carefully dried with a soft dry linen cloth or rubber free from all dust and gritty particles and finally rubbed with a fine chamois leather.

The brass work of the lamps is to be kept clean by polishing with whitening or suitable  polishing paste. Great care is to be taken that the lamp is accurately in the focus of the illuminating apparatus and that the flow of oil is such that a proper height of flame is maintained. If the flame cannot be maintained to its proper height, the lightkeeper must immediately examine whether or not it is due to want of cleanliness of the burner, want of proper flow of oil, or any imperfection in the wicks or oil, or the draught of the lamp’s chimney. The wicks should be gradually raised during the first 20 minutes of burning until the flame reaches the proper height to give the maximum amount of light.

Note: the mechanical lamps being constructed to give a plentiful overflow from 3-4 times the quantity consumed, the wicks char but slowly. The lamp should burn, when in good order, the whole night without the works requiring to be touched when paraffin oil is used. [Paraffin came into use about mid-19th century]

All moving parts in the revolving machinery and mechanical lamps must be kept scrupulously clean. Ventilator to be opened to admit sufficient supply of air to ensure  proper burning of the light and prevent condensation. Storm frames are to be kept in readiness for immediate use in case of accident.

The windows of the lantern are to be regularly cleansed every day and washed with water when necessary to remove the sea spray or other obstructions to the passage of the light, and for the same reason they are to be rubbed during the night when they become obscured by condensation or sweating.

To be continued ...

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Light on the Bluff 2

Durban from the Bluff ca 1870s - a view my ancestor Thomas Gadsden would have gazed out upon frequently during his years as lighthousekeeper at the Bluff Light.

When the light was first commissioned it was claimed to be the only lighthouse on the East African coast between Port Elizabeth and Egypt. The light boasted 3 million candlepower with a nominal range of 21 nautical miles, though usually this was claimed to be 28 miles.

Despite this apparent power, the revolving light did not 'come up to expectations', according to the authorities, and was replaced by a new light mechanism in mid 1869.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Light on the Bluff

Port Natal struggled through the 1850s - the era when emigration to the Colony was at its height - without a lighthouse on the Bluff to aid navigation of arriving ships. There were frequent mentions in the press of this lack.

The Natal Mercury reported thus:

We have on former occasions urged the great importance of this provision. Another illustration of its necessity has just been furnished. The Rydal would have anchored off this Port two days sooner than she did, if a light on this promontory had identified the spot.

The currents on this coast cannot always be allowed for with certainty, especially after such weather as has recently been experienced, and the Rydal after sighting the land, came to anchor during the night, at a point which in the darkness was mistaken for the outer anchorage of this Port, but in the morning, instead of the Bluff, it was found the vessel was opposite a headland of the coast which, when an observation could be taken, was ascertained to be some point about 60 miles north of Port Natal.

A light on the Bluff, duly notified, would be invaluable, not only to the shipping frequenting this Port, but to passing vessels which would then commonly make the land at the point, and the advantages of the Port would then also be brought more generally  into notice.

January 1860, the Cape and Natal News stated: The Rydal, from Liverpool had arrived with 70 immigrants, a considerable number of persons had also come to the colony from the Cape, Mauritius, and Australia, the latter chiefly Australians, who declared their preference "for the land of sugar and arrowroot over the land of gold".

One of many shipwrecks at Port Natal
 before a lighthouse was built on the Bluff.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers 2

by Peter-John Hannabus (P-J) – Retired Lighthouse Keeper 1970s

From the 1800s to the late 1970s, fifty three manned stations spanned the South African coast, before automation slowly forced the Lighthouse Keepers out of their cottages and away from their unique way of life.

The Hannabus Dynasty entered the Lighthouse Service in the early 1900s and covered eighteen lighthouses between them, stretching from the east coast at Cape St. Lucia Lighthouse, Natal, at position 28°31´08´´S., 32°23´50´´E, to the opposite west coast at Diaz Point in Luderitz, Namibia, at 26°38´11´´S, 15°05´37´´E.

Born at Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, P-J grew up in an environment with characteristics and influences at play, which attracted him to follow in the footsteps of his father, his uncle and his grandfather.

P-J’s duties, often as a Relief Lighthouse Keeper, took him from coast-to- coast exposing him to many different situations. Drawing on these experiences, plus stories handed down and childhood memories, he provides us with a window into the world of these men.

Bird Island Lighthouse Eastern Cape Lat 33°50´29´´ S. Long 26°17´13´´E.  is a familiar name to P-J, where his grandfather, A.E. (Bill) Hannabus, started his career in 1906 and in the 1950s his uncle C.H. Hannabus was also stationed there for a period. This story from P-J, recorded in the history of Bird Island, reflects tragedy, but also immense courage and bravery from the Lighthouse men, their wives and children.

One Saturday morning on February 1st, 1919, Mr. Abbott, a guano foreman and his assistant, were fishing in a longboat off the island. Around midday a strong sou ‘westerly wind came up, whipping up the sea. Abbott’s stepdaughter, Frances, worried for their safety, climbed onto the roof of their cottage and saw the men battling the wind to get back to shore.  Frances raised the alarm and all three of the Lighthouse Keepers, Hayward, Hughes and Ward, rushed to their aid in another longboat.

Once out to sea, a fog enveloped the three Lighthouse Keepers and they were lost to sight fighting wind and waves. Just before dark, the wives who had no idea how to operate the Light, together with the children, gathered all the lamps in the houses and took them up to the lighthouse lantern room to guide the husbands back and to warn ships on this stormy night! The families took turns to rotate the lens throughout the night with still no sign of the men. About midday the next day, the men made it back to shore but alas, without Abbott. He and his assistant were never found.

In recognition of the bravery of the Keepers, Harry Claude Lee Cooper, the esteemed Lighthouse Engineer, awarded the men gold watches and the wives received crafted handbags!

These are just part of the large band of lighthouse men and women whose brave deeds prove their commitment to their duties, irrespective of the risks to their own lives.

Whilst we are still on Bird Island, an intriguing similarity has come to my attention.

In 1884 Thesen and Company of Cape Town purchased their first coastal steamer in Norway and brought her out to the Cape. This was the SS Agnar, an iron vessel of 427 tons. The Agnar soon found a place for herself in the trade between Cape Town, Mossel Bay and Knysna and after five years a second steamer the SS Ingerid joined her. The Agnar and Ingerid sailed regularly between Table Bay and Knysna and before long they enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the steamship traffic to the little port. (Ships and South Africa by Marischal Murray)

From 1920 to 1928 Agnar loaded guano on Bird Island.  Strangely similar in shape and design to the SS Waratah, which disappeared off the Transkei coast in 1909, Agnar was a very much smaller vessel. The Agnar also met her fate by disappearing without trace twenty nine years later, between Madagascar and Mauritius. With thirty four souls aboard, a cyclone had raged across her track and she never reached Port Louis. All that was ever found was a damaged hatch cover. A tragic end to those poor souls on a hardworking little steamer.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers 1

A series by Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson

A long dynasty of Lighthouse Keepers stands proud in our South African history. Some families have had three generations follow one another and here, close to home, from the late 1860s to early 1880s, Rosemary Dixon-Smith’s own great-grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, was Keeper of the Bluff Light Durban. In the late 1870s he was promoted to Head Lightkeeper and alongside him, as Assistant Lighthouse Keeper, was his brother-in-law, D W Bell.

In this series of anecdotes to preserve the manned history of South African lighthouses, as well as to recognise and honour our Lighthouse Keepers and those closely associated with lighthouse life, we hear evocative stories from their ancestral lines and from our few remaining, active, Lighthouse Keepers.

The Lighthouse Keepers had to be men of resilience, often supported by their wives, children and colleagues.  Men of strong character with total commitment to duty, Keepers and their families would face the harsh realities of loneliness and isolation, danger and wild weather, and on occasions, experience shipwrecks and the loss of lives.

It is this solidarity and the common purpose of these men and women that brings to mind the Latin inscription which I read on the etched glass panels set into the heavy cedar door of Cape Byron Light, New South Wales, Australia: 

“Olim periculum nunc salus” - Once perilous, now safe.  

Along every coastline, these men and women have kept vigil at the numerous lights around the globe. Throughout the world on stormy nights, with howling tempests, their nocturnal duties have ensured that those searching beams have swept out and across the sea, guiding sailors along their coastal courses. Many a captain would have felt a sense of relief in sighting a light after the deep darkness and dangers of foul weather.

These lights, with their engaging, resilient and dependable structures, fully exposed to all the elements, stand firm against screaming winds and thunderous seas, defying Nature’s wildest tantrums. Bearing testimony to this durability was the Lighthouse of Alexandria which, having been built in the 3rd century, stood for nearly 1,500 years. This is the maritime history that is nearing its end, as the men and women of these South African lighted towers continue to be replaced by the mechanical automation of our modern technology.  Their stories are part of each of us and before they are lost, we will record them for posterity.

To be continued.

Friday, June 5, 2015

My lighthousekeeper ancestor

When my great grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, arrived in Natal on the barque Priscilla in 1863, there was no lighthouse on the Bluff – the wooded promontory which sheltered the harbour of Port Natal, later named D’Urban.

Despite numerous shipwrecks in the area, especially during the settler ship era of the 1850s, and the pleas of the town’s inhabitants, no beacon had yet been erected as an aid to navigation. Whether Thomas noticed the lack of a light on the Bluff in the early days of his arrival is not recorded, and in any case his priority at that stage was to find gainful employment. He acquired the position of turnkey at the Durban gaol, probably not a well-paid occupation and certainly without much job satisfaction. It seems likely that Thomas would look around in the hope of more suitable employment.

The British colonial government finally overcame its reluctance to provide a lighthouse for the Port and the foundation stone was laid on 22 November 1864. However, with various delays impeding progress, it wasn’t until two years later that the structure was completed in October 1866. During that time, Thomas had undoubtedly become acquainted with the famous Port Captain, William Bell, whose daughter Eliza Ann would later be Thomas’s wife, and there must have been many an unofficial discussion on the topic of the new lighthouse.  Whether Thomas went through normal bureaucratic government channels, making application for the position of lightkeeper, with his father-in-law to be putting in a good word for him, or whether Bell had more influence in the matter, is uncertain. There’s no question that Thomas’s future looked much brighter: he would have a reasonable and regular salary and an extra perquisite in the shape of a keeper’s cottage.

Opening of the Bluff Lighthouse 1866

As far as we know, Thomas had no experience of lighthousekeeping, though he may have had some maritime knowledge which would come in handy. His mother Mary Ann Gadsden had been part-owner of at least one vessel, the Susan, which is on record as having been involved in a collision with another ship on a voyage between Liverpool and Waterford, Ireland, in the 1830s.  In any case, as soon as Thomas was appointed as keeper of the Bluff lighthouse he would be given very detailed instructions as to what was expected of him. He would soon discover that lighthousekeeping was no sinecure.

At that time, Natal was a fledgling colony, its population diminished in numbers since a downturn in the economy during the 1860s had led to some of the settlers of the Byrne years leaving for fresh pastures in Australia, or even returning to England. The town was still a straggle of unpaved streets and most houses were of wattle and daub, tough some public buildings, such as the Court House, were of stone.

The Bluff was sparsely populated, densely wooded and inaccessible other than by boat across from the Point or via a track constructed by Richard Godden for conveying building materials. Therefore, the lighthousekeeper would not be in easy reach of such civilization as existed below in the town of Durban. Provisions of all kinds would have to be brought by boat and then hauled up the steep hill to be offloaded at the lighthouse. Another serious matter was the lack of fresh water, which also had to be carried in barrels for the use of the keeper and his family. Thomas wrote to the authorities in some distress concerning the water problem. It would not be completely resolved for some time and would have drastic results for one of Thomas’s children, Phillip, who died in infancy of typhoid (a water-borne disease rife in the Colony until well into the twentieth century).

Hunting was good, the Bluff being home to various species of buck as well as monkeys, birds and other wildlife. The sea was at Thomas’s doorstep and like most keepers he would have spent some of his spare time fishing.

View of Durban and the Bay from the Bluff, as Thomas Gadsden would have seen it.

Unfortunately, Thomas left us no written record of his years as keeper, though gradually a picture has been built up of what his life must have been like. It was in many ways idyllic, looking out over the beautiful Bay with its continual stream of shipping, happy with his lovely wife and their growing children and kept busy with his duties. His brother-in-law, Douglas Bell, became Assistant Keeper for some years. The keepers worked in shifts and there was plenty for them both to do, keeping the equipment maintained and everything shipshape and well-polished. Failure to keep the light burning throughout each night would result in instant dismissal.

How Eliza Ann adjusted to the somewhat isolated life, near the town but not of it, is not clear. The shock of losing her eldest child, Phillip, must have been severe, though infant mortality at the time was generally high. She had two further sons and two daughters, but like most mothers never forgot her lost first-born.  We know of his existence only through his baptismal record in the St Paul’s register. From the time of Phillip’s death Eliza Ann’s health slowly deteriorated and Thomas, anxious about her, began to suffer from stress.

The constant night watches took their toll on Thomas's own health and he made several applications to be removed from his lighthouse duties and be given other employment.
After an argument with the then Port Captain, Alexander Airth (William Bell had died in 1869) Thomas was dismissed from his post. He pleaded to be reinstated, writing that he and his wife and children were reduced to living in a tent on the Bluff.

His plea went unheard. This disaster took a further toll on Eliza Ann’s health. Eliza Ann’s widowed mother was in no position to assist the little family as she had been left in straitened circumstances after Bell’s death: George Cato, Bell’s old friend from Cape sailing days, continued to pay Bell’s salary to his widow until her own death.

Records show that Thomas’s position changed to that of Timekeeper for the Harbour Board and he remained in that post until his death on 25 October 1893 at the age of 54.

Eliza Ann survived him by seven years. Their eldest son William married, had a daughter and died of enteric at Verulam in 1900 in his early twenties. Of the other siblings Faith and Hope both married, and Sydney Bartle was the only one of Thomas's children to continue the Natal Gadsden line, with the appearance in 1910 of William Bell Gadsden, named for Eliza Ann's father, the Port Captain. 

The lighthouse remained as Thomas Gadsden knew it until July 1922, when improved optical apparatus was introduced. Some ten years later came the installation of electricity, and the iron tower, considered by then to be unsafe, was encased in concrete. After seventy three years in service, the old Bluff Light shone for the last time on 15 October 1940 and the following June the lighthouse was demolished. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


The Lightkeeper

My task to keep the light
Burning clear throughout the night.
Beyond, the wild unfathomable sea.
Invisible below, even to me,
The jagged reef lies still and dark,
Its prey the unsuspecting barque
Which blindly strays too near.
No sound can reach me here.
Encapsulated in the glass
I watch the lantern's steady pass,
From north to south and back again
The beacon shines through mist and rain.
But in the dark night of my soul
No friendly beam to keep me whole.
My daughter lies across the shore.
Her laughter I will hear no more.

The poem was suggested by a line in a keeper's log:
'This morning I rowed my little daughter's body across to shore for burial.'

The Lighthousekeeper's Daughter by Norman Rockwell

'Their task to Keep the Light ...' 2

Cape Agulhas Lighthouse

I was delighted to read the article written by Peter-John Hannabus.  My father, D M Stewart, was a lighthousekeeper at Cape Agulhas at the time Peter-John was born, and in fact, if I recall correctly, my mother helped with his delivery. The nearest hospital was in Bredasdorp -25 miles of rough gravel road away. In those days (1954), Agulhas was still  pretty remote.

At the time, I attended the Rhenish Girls' High School in Stellenbosch as a boarder and came home on holidays every school quarter That in itself was a whole day's travel by train, and then from Bredasdorp station a road trip by grain truck to Agulhas.

My sister was born at Cape Point, and I was born at Cape St Francis, and  as children we lived around the coasts of Kommetjie, Dassen Island, Danger Point and Cooper Light on the Bluff in Natal. Our school holidays were quite unique and the envy of our school friends. 

While stationed on Dassen Island, we were brought by tug from Cape Town docks to Hout Bay where we anchored and from there, believe it or not, by long boat to the jetty - us still in our navy and white school uniforms and hats, among the food supplies, equipment, spares etc. What wonderful holidays those were. We fished, collected penguin eggs and were never bored for a minute..

As Peter-John so correctly states, it is indeed the end of a great era and how fortunate we were to be part of it.

Helen Pfell

Suzanne Jo-Leff Patterson, researcher