As an interesting picture of life on the lightvessels at the turn of the last century, the following article is an extract from a 1959 edition of Trinity House’s in-house journal Flash, written by the Harwich District Clerk Stanley Cooper.
‘OUR OLDEST PENSIONER’
Stanley H Cooper
“It has always seemed sad to me when men, who have given the best part of a lifetime to the Service, pass away a month or two after being pensioned. I am equally pleased however when I hear of Trinity House people enjoying their well-earned pensions for many years, like Mr. E Baugh—at one time District Clerk at Blackwall—who retired at the age of 63 in 1918 and lived to the age of 94!
Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Thomas Ashby at his old cottage at Stones Green—some ten miles from Harwich where he lives with his wife (82) and three stepdaughters. Mr. Ashby was 94 last May, and is the oldest living Trinity House pensioner, and I am very glad to say that, although a little frail looking, he is still hale and hearty, and manages to cultivate a vegetable garden of some 15 rods! Mr. Ashby’s sight is not as good as it used to be, but his hearing and memory are excellent, and many an interesting yarn he can tell of the days when he served in the old wooden Light Vessels.
Mr. Ashby was born in 1865 at Whitstable, Kent, and ran away to sea when he was 12 without telling his mother. A man asked him, after school one day, if he would like to go fishing, and he was away for three months fishing on the Dogger Bank! There was an escort to meet him when his boat docked at Ramsgate!
After that he served on sailing Coasters carrying coal from Whitstable to towns on the South Coast—in some cases unloading the cargo on the beaches. He eventually became Mate. He joined the Light Vessel service at Ramsgate Depot in 1886 at a time when there were Stores, or Sub-Depots at Harwich and Ramsgate, to the London Depot at Blackwall. Incidentally, the Relief from Ramsgate extended from the Goodwin Light Vessels to, and including, the Royal Sovereign Light Vessel.
Mr. Ashby was in at the birth of radio in the Service, for he was a Lamplighter in the East Goodwin Light Vessel (No. 13) in 1898 when Marconi was experimenting with Wireless Telegraphy between this vessel and North Foreland. These experiments went on for two years. Senator Marconi himself spent a week on board, but was a very bad sailor, and spent much of his time at the rail. Whilst on board he wanted to send a signal to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Ashby asked if he could send it. The reply was that he could, if he knew the Morse Code. Ashby sat up all night learning it, and sent the signal next day. The Prince of Wales replied, and sent each member of the crew ½lb. of tobacco.
Mr. Ashby had noticed that when it was raining hard, or spray blowing about, that the signals were much weaker, and rigged up a 2lb. treacle tin on the aerial to cover the joint to the lead-in. North Foreland sent a signal asking what they had been doing, as the signals had increased threefold. Mr. Kemp, Marconi’s right hand man, told Mr. Ashby afterwards that he had given them the idea to make the first ever R/T [radio telephone] condenser ever made.
Whilst experiments were going on, the East Goodwin Light Vessel was run into by one of the Hill Line boats (a four-master). The Light Vessel’s stem was broken and the “Knight heads” message was sent by R/T to South Foreland [Lighthouse] and the East Goodwin was taken to Blackwall for repairs.
This incident caused a boom in the share of the Marconi Company as it made people realise the far-reaching possibilities of R/T. It is quite likely that this was the first occasion perhaps in the world, on which a distress signal was sent from any ship by wireless. Quite an historical event!
In the 1914/1918 War Mr. Ashby was transferred to the Lynn Well Light Vessel in view of his electrical experience. This Light Vessel is off Sandringham, on which it was feared Jerry might make an attack, and the vessel was fitted with a primitive Hydrophone (forerunner of submarine bells with which most Light Vessels were fitted in the 1920s). In Mr. Ashby’s words “they just threw an iron plate overboard on a wire, and then retired below to listen on headphones.” It is said that they could hear a ship’s engines 30 miles away, and could tell when the relief vessel left Yarmouth! One day unusual engine noises were heard, which were suspected to come from a U boat. Hunstanton [Lighthouse] were told by telephone, Admiralty were informed and shortly after a destroyer appeared, and sunk the U-boat with depth charges.
On another occasion when the Light Vessel on Varne Station was being towed to Blackwall, one of the crew went berserk, and had to be sewed up in overcoats to keep him quiet, till the ship arrived at Blackwall.
We all hope that besides having the record of being the oldest Trinity House pensioner, Mr. Ashby will become the first Trinity House centenarian pensioner. If any of his shipmates are still in circulation I am sure he would be very pleased to hear from them.”
Confirmation of the distress signal sent out from the East Goodwin Light Vessel has come from the records of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Co. Ltd. The following is an extract from a letter received from their publicity department:
“History does indeed show that the first wireless message from a ship constituting a distress signal was sent from the East Goodwin Light Vessel – the year being 1899, not ‘98. The collision report, however—when she was rammed by the ss. R F Matthews in April of that year—really came third in the list, because in January she used her radio to report her own storm damage and then in March to report the ss. Elbe grounding on the Goodwins. The radio report on the second and third occasions brought out the Ramsgate lifeboat, although perhaps “distress” applied more to the collision than to the other two events.”
The Corporation’s association with Ramsgate commenced in the year 1795, when the Goodwin (later North Goodwin) Lightvessel was first placed on station. For each of the early lightvessels an Agent was appointed at the nearest harbour, who had the management of the light, and a cutter under his control which acted as a tender to the lightvessel to supply stores and new cables, and quite frequently to assist the lightvessel back to her station after she had dragged away during gales. The crew of the tender were the relief crew of the lightvessel. In 1914, the Board made a further rearrangement of the lightvessels and Lighthouses between the Yarmouth, London, and Cowes Districts which included the abolition of Ramsgate. London became known as the London and South Eastern District; the personnel, the Stores, buoys etc., at Ramsgate were transferred to Blackwall.
Our records show that Mr. Ashby passed away in February 1961, at the age of 95.
The author of the above article was born in 1906 and joined Trinity House in 1921 as a Boy Clerk to the Engineer-in-Chief’s Department at Blackwall. Working up through the various ranks of clerk, he became District Clerk and transferred to Harwich in 1947 as Higher Clerical Officer. He retired in 1966 and remained in Harwich until his death in 1982.