Solitary Confinement at Godrevy Lighthouse
Godrevy Lighthouse never had more than two keepers, and once, for eight days, it was reduced to one. On Christmas Day in 1925, one of the two keepers was taken ashore by the St. Ives Lifeboat suffering from pneumonia, and unfortunately the weather made it impossible to land a relief keeper until 2 January. During the intervening eight days, Assistant Keeper W J Lewis, alone on the rock, kept the light and fog bell going without interruption.
Mr. Lewis documented his solitary watch in a later edition of Flash magazine:
“It all happened during my first turn off at the Station in December when the hours of daylight were few and myself unaccustomed to the various weird and occult noises, only heard at such Rock Stations, in addition to those noises which are familiar to most Lighthouses. It made everything so strange and in a way fascinating.
Not many days after landing on the Rock, my mate who had already completed one month and commenced his second, complained of a soreness in his throat, which got decidedly worse as the days passed on and gave him cause for anxiety.
The days were slowly closing on Christmas and my mate was all the time getting worse, then the climax came. It was Christmas Day, I relieved the watch at 0400 and my mate retired to bed feeling very ill. Breakfast time he was so ill that he could not carry on any longer, and so we got the rockets ready to call out a boat to take him ashore for medical treatment. However, he delayed firing the rockets for several hours — a delay which on looking back I have no doubt was the cause of my somewhat harrowing experience. With the weather deteriorating every hour, and the wind freshening, a ground swell and misty rain swept in, so that the first series of rockets were not seen from the shore — this was during the afternoon.
The sky broke when darkness fell, a sickly waning moon appeared between the fast fleeting clouds. The wind continued to freshen and the sea in large billows curled and broke over the rocks, leaving a mass of seething spume.
With my mate’s symptoms suggesting pneumonia, instant action had to be taken, so another red rocket sped on its way into the sky to call out the Lifeboat, and from their cheery hearths and festivities of Yuletide on this stormy Christmas evening those brave men put out to answer a call of mercy.
It was a problem to know which Landing to use, those situated on the South of the Rock were out of the question, and it was decided to use the Lower Eastern Landing as the Jib Landing could not be manned by one man.
Down on this Landing it was a boiling pot, the sea roared and crashed with violence over the rocks and Landing place, and the wind howled through the walls of the gulch. The moon hidden by ugly black clouds made it eerie as the dark overhanging rocks towering towards the blackness of the sky, like a sheer wall of rock, seemed as if they would crush and bury everything under it.
Great care had to be taken in approaching the Landing owing to the slope and slippery surface. We were unable to see the gully between the towering rocks. Then we saw the Lifeboat approach the Landing bow first with a kedge anchor over the stern. Suddenly the seemingly large bulk of the Lifeboat loomed up above our heads near the Landing, which was now awash, and we stood beck on some higher rocks. The sea passed on and the Lifeboat came lower in line with the Landing, it was then they shouted for my mate to jump, which he did and was hauled inboard by the bowman. Just then a heavy sea broke astern of the Lifeboat, lifting the black form high above the Landing, and it appeared as if only a miracle could avert the disaster of the Lifeboat crashing to pieces on the rocks, but by clever seamanship she was hauled out quickly to the centre of the gully before the following sea could complete the disaster.
The Lifeboat safely away from the rock, I made my way back to the Tower, it was cosier in there than outside on such a stormy night and being alone there was the problem of keeping things going until assistance arrived.
The hours passed slowly, it seemed a kind of novelty to be alone in a Rock Lighthouse, but then I thought it would only be for one night and not eight as it turned out to be. During the early hours of this first night I had my first attack of utter loneliness and realised fully my unthankful position. I imagined all sorts of things, footsteps on the stairs — lurking figures seemed to creep from room to room. It became uncanny, the atmosphere seemed charged with uneasiness as if caused by those phantoms of the night having gained admittance to the Tower to shelter from the boisterous weather outside. Weird sounds rent the night from time to time. Such phenomenal things do not scare me easily, although on this particular night I was greatly tempted to go down and bolt the Tower door.
Luckily I had plenty to do which helped to take my mind off such phenomena. At this time of the year the nights were long, the lights exhibited before 1600 and extinguished 0830. So that the hours of daylight were limited and occupied with changing and cleaning burners which had been in operation during the night. Carrying up oil to trim the three subsidiary lights and various other jobs which fall in a Keeper’s routine on such Rock Stations.
The day following the one on which my mate was taken ashore (Boxing Day) an effort was made to land another Keeper, but it proved hopeless, because such a heavy sea was running, even though the wind had eased considerably. The sight of the relief boat leaving the Rock without accomplishing its mission left me sick at heart. Alone on an isolated Rock which had no sympathy, imprisoned by a sea which seemed desirous of destroying its very existence. A depressed feeling came over me as the thought of another dreaded night passed through my mind. Those long sixteen hour nights, often eighteen hours when an obscurity sets in — nights which seemed eternities filled with loneliness unbearable and temporary frights which played havoc with the nerves.
To remain awake days even weeks without sleep is not an uncommon occurrence and has often been accomplished. But comparing the different circumstances and conditions under which such are accomplished and it will be found very few have occurred on an isolated Rock Lighthouse with manual labour during the greater part of those days and nights of remaining awake.
Nature may be defied for a while, but sleep is intrinsic to everyone in normal health and cannot be put aside, it comes inevitably even though one is able to subjugate it for a time. When the mind loses its mobility of thought, the body relaxes into oblivion. These conditions faced me, not so much the keeping awake, but the load of responsibility. The knowledge that such a great deal depended on the lights being kept burning and the fog signal sounded. It was the seemingly never-ending winding of the clock for the revolving apparatus and fog signal when in operation. The up and down stairs from the Lantern to Subsidiary Light room and numerous, other things which required attention, put thoughts of sleep during the hours of darkness far from my mind.
It is strange how, imagination plays such tricks to one in solitary confinement — the mind seems conducive to the supernatural and shocks are frequent with unreal objects formed by a vivid imagination.
For instance a waning moon had floated into the heavens, its mellow light casting grim shadows over the rocks. I was standing gazing out of a window facing the Oil-Store, at the end of whose wall was a gate, beyond which a barren waste of rock. A mountainous sea was rolling in and flying spray passing through the rays of the light, thickening them to beams of refulgence. Suddenly my eyes caught sight of an object coming through the gate and creeping along the wall of the Oil-Store, then falling back into the shadows. No one could possibly have landed on the Rock, so it must have been an object of my imagination — a visionary phenomenon. I consoled myself with such thoughts when I was startled with hearing what I thought to be the latch and the Tower door opening, and a rush of cold air came up to the Tower to confirm it. Then a steady fall of footsteps sounded on the stairs and a cold shiver went through me. I was alone, nerves highly strung and tired through lack of sleep. I stood rooted where I stood for some time, the sound of footsteps on the stairs came no nearer, so gaining confidence I descended the stairs to find the cause of the mystery. One of the bedroom windows had blown open and the wind howling through had caused the linoleum on the floor to flap and resemble footsteps.
It was after 54 hours constant watch keeping that I had to succumb to a few hours’ sleep and felt so much refreshed, that the coming night was not so much dreaded, even though I was beginning to feel the effects of loneliness. I craved for someone to talk with, and can hardly credit, that for a week I never uttered a word either in speech or song, not even to myself.
Another fright was the hearing a roaring noise like that of a lion rent the air and shake the Tower. For hours this went on, and kept my nerves on edge. It was solved when I saw in the light of the waning moon, a volume of white spray shoot out of a cave. This cave passed almost under the Tower and out on the North East side, the heavy seas were entering the cave at both ends and compressing the air, which when forced out caused the unearthly roar and shook the Tower. For eight days and nights the Lights and Fog Signal were kept going single handed with eight hours broken sleep during the lone vigil.”
Season’s Greetings from Trinity House!