A Rock and a Hard Place: Storms, Death and Madness at the Smalls Lighthouse

One of the more popular requests we receive at our enquiries@thls.org helpdesk is for background information on the near-mythical death of a lighthouse keeper on the offshore Smalls Lighthouse in 1801. Another very enduring enquiry relates to how there came to be three lighthouse keepers per station instead of two. As it happens, they are one and the same question.

The lighthouse that sits atop one of two tiny clusters of rocks lying close together in the Irish Sea, 21 miles off St. David’s Head in Wales, was built by a private interest in 1776; that lighthouse had both an unusual design and a history of bringing misery to its inhabitants. To understand a bit about the misfortunes suffered by its residents, one should first look at the origins and design of the original lighthouse…

Because of the rising toll on shipping lost to the coastal rocks of Pembrokeshire, steps were taken by private interests in the early 1770s to put a permanent light in that channel. John Phillips, a Liverpool dockmaster, obtained a lease and went with the lighthouse design sent him by a 26-year-old Henry Whiteside, a distinguished maker of musical instruments. Trinity House were not involved with the design or the construction of this lighthouse, it may be worth nothing.

Smalls Lighthouse chart

Detail of a chart from 1861 showing location of Smalls Lighthouse off Welsh coast

During the winter of 1775-1776, Whiteside erected the whole structure temporarily at Solva, a small Welsh haven over 25 miles from the Smalls. This was a fortunate decision as the iron legs proved to be faulty and had to be replaced by wood. Before work was resumed, iron rings were fixed to the rock to which the workmen tied themselves. In the Spring of 1776, and thanks to the preliminary assembly when the parts were carefully fitted together, work proceeded so well that by September the oil lamps were lit. Before leaving the rock, the workmen excavated a hole 10x6x6 ft. to hold coals, and fresh water in a wooden tank.

By December it was obvious that the structure was incapable of withstanding the sea forces and in January 1777 Whiteside and his blacksmith proceeded to Smalls to repair and strengthen it. They encountered a period of severe storms. In February a letter in a cask, one of three which had been tossed into the sea by Whiteside, was picked up on the beach of a neighbouring Welsh coast. It begged “immediate assistance to fetch us off the Smalls before the next Spring or we fear we shall all perish, our water near all gone, our fire quite gone and our house in a most melancholy manner.”

To Mr. Williams.

Smalls, February 1, 1777

Sir,
Being now in a most dangerous and distressed condition upon the Smalls, do hereby trust Providence will bring to your hand this, which prayeth for your immediate assistance to fetch us off the Smalls before the next spring or we fear we shall all perish; our water near all gone, our fire quite gone, and our house in a most melancholy manner. I doubt not but you will fetch us from here as fast as possible; we can be got off at some part of the tide almost any weather. I need say no more, but remain your distressed

Humble Servant,
Hy. Whiteside,

We were distressed in a gale of wind upon the 13th of January, since which have not been able to keep any light; but we could not have kept any light above sixteen nights longer for want of oil and candles, which makes us murmur and think we are forgotten.

Ed. Edwards
Geo. Adams
Jno. Price

We doubt not but that whoever takes up this will be so merciful as to cause it to be sent to Thos. Williams, Esq., Trelethin, near St. David’s, Wales.

Interestingly, one of the other casks was found in Ireland at Galway Bay.

Drastic repairs and alterations became necessary after the storms of December, 1777, which Whiteside and his men survived, but Phillips had no funds to carry them out. He discharged the keepers and extinguished the light and made over his interest to a Committee of Liverpool Traders. They induced Trinity House to obtain an Act of Parliament in 1778 which authorised the Brethren to repair, rebuild and maintain the lighthouse and to collect and levy reasonable dues. In view of Phillips’ services and his financial losses, they granted him a lease on 3 June, 1778 for 99 years at a rent of £5.

One very interesting account of the lighthouse and its cast of characters comes from Ivor Emlyn, written in 1858:

“To give a correct description of the Light-house, it should be stated that it is an octagonal building, resting on eight strong oak pillars at the angles, and one in the centre; the pillars at the north and north-east angles are supported by diagonal stays, the lower ends of which are fixed in the rock, to resist the violence of the waves. It was first built with eight pillars only, and it was not until many years afterwards that the centre one was added. Most of the stays were fixed at a subsequent date by Mr Whiteside; while two or three of them were put in their positions by some of the gentlemen who succeeded him in the Agency. It is only three of the original stays that now exist, the others were renewed either to cover accidents or the effect of time.

“To enable the Light-keepers to ascend and descend, a strong rope-ladder reaching and fastened to the rock, is securely fixed beneath the floor; where also is the trap-door, through which ingress and egress are made. A heavy fine is incurred by the one, who shall, even for a moment, leave this door unclosed, as its remaining open, is not only dangerous to the occupants, but necessarily infringes on the already-scanty walking space of their dwelling apartment. Communication is effected from this room with the light-room. The south-west angles of the dwelling apartment are partitioned off as a room for storing oil, coal, provisions, and other necessaries, and as extra berths for the accommodation of the mechanics who attend annually to the repair of the edifice. A door – inserted in the north-east angle – leads out to a small platform, through which, by means of a crane fixed in the north pillar, all the heavy stores are conveyed from the rock; from this platform a ladder leads to the gallery surrounding the lantern, and which in fine weather forms a delightful promenade. On this gallery, the lifeless bodies of birds are very often found, whose deaths have been caused by striking themselves with great violence against the lantern in their nocturnal flights.” (The Smalls: A Sketch Of The Old Light-House Its Projector, And Builder. Ivor Emlyn 1858)

Recognition and vindication for Whiteside’s design would not only be apparent in the lighthouse’s 85-year life span, but in Douglas Hague’s excellent survey of lighthouse architecture, written in 1975:

“In this his judgement was vindicated by the fact that it stood for eighty-five years, after which it was removed on completion of a new tower. It consisted originally of eight massive oak posts over 15.25m long set in a 6.4m diameter circle around a central post; these were about 0.6m in diameter. On top a small wooden cabin of two floors was devised, the lower providing living quarters, the upper the oil lantern. Over the years posts were replaced or doubled up and many raking posts or struts were added. The unusual construction made it necessary to excavate a coal cellar and store in the rock, which have now been greatly extended during the alterations connected with the electrification of the station. An irregular-shaped helicopter pad now occupies the site of the old tower, but the weathered stubs of two original posts survive, together with eleven post-holes of the raking struts, some with their posts, of which a number are paired.” (Hague, Douglas Bland, and Rosemary Christie. 1975. Lighthouses: their architecture, history and archaeology. Llandysul: Gomer Press.)

Smalls Lighthouse 1776

Henry Whiteside’s Smalls Lighthouse, 1776

At this time, the job of tending the Smalls Lighthouse was not an especially arduous one, aside from the physical circumstances. As Ivor Emlyn described the station in 1858

“the Light-keepers had little to do in lamp cleaning, and the “ancient mariners” were content with paying for a dim light, as at this time only 4 lamps with glass reflectors, were used; in 1817, the number was increased to 8; and again to 16, with silver reflectors, patented by a Mr John Wilkinson, of London.

Fifty years ago, the annual consumption of oil did not exceed 200 gallons – now [1858] there is seven-and-a-half times that quantity burned, viz: 1500 gallons”

So now that the scene is laid out, we can finally present Mr Emlyn’s account of the death of Thomas Griffith and the suffering of Thomas Howell:

“About twenty-five years after the event of 1777, a painful circumstance occurred in connection with the Smalls. From its establishment until that time, two Light-keepers only inhabited the place together; and the two on duty at the period were Thomas Howell, of Kingheriot, and Thomas Griffith, of Solva. The former was a Cooper by trade, and the latter, previous to his appointment, was a labourer; both were married and had families;

For four months it was found impossible to land the rock. Many attempts were made, but all to no purpose. A storm had set in, and in the course of a week or two, a signal of distress appeared hoisted at the Light-house. At that time there was no code of signals – no system of super-marine communication established by which the exact position and wishes of the distrest could be made known. The many vessels that passed the place, reported at the ports they got to, that a signal of distress was out on the Smalls – but what that distress could be, none of them could tell. The Custom-houses at Milford, Bristol, and Liverpool had it told them weekly –“that the signal was still flying.” Vessels with strong boats and hardy crews were sent to the locality to try, if possible, to land, or if unable to land, to get within hailing distance, and learn the nature of the disaster. They could only get near enough to see the dim outline of one of the men standing on the gallery of the Light-house. Whether he spoke, they could not tell. They would return to their harbour; but the bearers of no intelligence! Again and again would the same attempt be made, and unfortunately with the same result.

The anxiety of Mr Whiteside, and the relatives of Howell and Griffith, all this time was intense. Night after night saw some of them on the cliffs, watching the lights – fearful of something having befallen the both. The non-appearance of a light would have been direct proof that such was the case; but as regularly as they watched, the light burned with its usual brightness, and gave no indication of the suffering of the poor sick and imprisoned Light-keepers!

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, 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?

Mr Whiteside from this calamity, wisely determined that three Light-keepers should inhabit the structure at the same time; and three continue to be the number employed hitherto.”

Like any good story as old as this one, the particulars of the story vary from account to account. Whether or not this event was the actual reason (or simply one of many sound recommendations at that time) for taking a third keeper on at lighthouses is not readily known.

Smalls lighthouses

The 1776 and 1861 towers as seen side by side for comparison

What is known is that the lighthouse remained in the private ownership until 1836, when an Act of Parliament handed responsibility of all remaining privately-owned lighthouses in England and Wales to Trinity House. The lighthouse was purchased from the Reverend A Buchannan (John Phillips’ grandson) and Thomas P Clarke, for the colossal sum of £170,468.

Work on constructing the new tower began in 1858 and was completed in 1861; it is noted as being one of the finest achievements of the famed lighthouse engineer James Walker, and the tallest of the Welsh lighthouses.

Smalls Lighthouse 1861

The Smalls Lighthouse as it appears today

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