Friday, July 31, 2015

Lightkeeper's View from the Bluff Durban 1870s

The Bay of Natal from the Bluff  ca 1860:
  watercolour by unknown artist, from an Album amicorum

This is the view my light-keeper great grandfather Thomas Gadsden would have looked out upon from the Bluff lighthouse during his tenure there (1867 - 1880s). 

It is taken from the seaward end of the Bluff looking across the Point and Bay towards the heavily wooded Berea, with the buildings of D'Urban clustered onshore, right. A sailing ship negotiates the entrance channel in the foreground, dhows and other small craft are seen in the Bay, and the tug Pioneer, her single stack smoking, is in the centre of the picture, near the Point. At left is the signal station and signalman's house on the Bluff. It is possible that the tall building on the extreme right represents St. Paul's Church.

The painting can be dated as post December 1859 because the steam vessel shown is undoubtedly the Pioneer, Natal's first steam tug. She was 124 tons and was despatched (fitted with masts and sails) from the Thames at the end of July 1859, arriving in Durban 111 days later, having made the journey under sail only, her paddles being fitted in the Bay after her arrival here. On Boxing Day 1859 she was shown, flag-bedecked, to the assembled populace, and crossed the Bar with various dignitaries on board, sailing out into a choppy sea beyond the Bluff - to the discomfort of some of her passengers.

A rare find, this little watercolour in ornate embossed surround, was one of several original drawings in a mid-nineteenth century "Album amicorum", bound in gilt maroon calf. The artist has signed himself (more probably herself) "L.C." and entitled the picture "Bay of Natal  and; Town of D'Urban".

A peaceful and attractive colonial scene, though with hidden dangers lurking - many vessels came to grief on the beach or the Bluff rocks.

The notorious Bar, a sandbank across the entrance to the Bay, was the greatest hazard to shipping at Port Natal, and "should on no account be attempted by a stranger, as the channel frequently shifts in direction and depth". It was this problem, the changing depth of water over the Bar, which frequently necessitated vessels anchoring in the roadstead outside, and, if a gale sprang up, there was a chance of them being driven on-shore or wrecked on the rocks below the Bluff. A case in point was the Byrne settler ship Minerva, 987 tons, which was wrecked on the night of 4 July 1850 when she parted her main anchor in a sudden north-easterly while waiting in the "roads". Though the 2nd mate drowned, all the passengers were saved, but the ship became a total wreck and the immigrants' personal belongings went to the bottom. 

Only three months after Thomas Gadsden's arrival, the Sebastian and the Earl of Hardwicke were beached in a similar gale on 26 September 1863.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bluff Light-keepers 1875: Gadsden and Bell

According to the listing of the Port Office in the Natal Almanac, when my light-keeper great grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, was Head Keeper of the Bluff Light, Durban, he was paid a hundred pounds a year, 'with quarters'. This wasn't an enormous salary but he was doing better than the 'Native Assistant' at twelve pounds. And in comparison with the Port Captain, then Alexander Airth, who received 350 pounds, perhaps Gadsden's salary was fair.

At this date, the Assistant Light-keeper was D W Bell, Gadsden's brother-in-law, the son of the late Captain William Bell who had died in 1869. Gadsden had married Bell's daughter, Eliza Ann, in 1873.

So the lighthouse was very much a family affair. Douglas Bell took over as Head keeper in about 1880. 

This unique photograph, restored from its original damaged condition, shows various members of the Bell family including possibly the only surviving picture of Douglas Bell, left. He could be holding the Dolland telescope which previously belonged to his father, Capt Bell. Unfortunately, it was this portion of the original photo which was water-damaged and the figure may not be an accurate likeness of Douglas Bell - though the telescope was definitely visible in the original.

Capt Bell and his Dolland telescope

The ladies are 'Aunt Ellen' (Ellen Harriet Bell, daughter of Captain Bell, who later married Edward Baxter) and her niece 'Cousin Violet Bell' (Violet Amy, daughter of Sarah Scott Bell and Charles George Pay).  The other little girl may be Natalia Beatrice Pay, sister of Violet. The identity of the bearded man, perhaps Assistant Light-keeper at the time, is not known.

The photograph was taken by W E James who at that date, ca 1880, had a studio at the Point, Durban.

Most interesting of all is the structure in front of which the group is foregathered. This is likely to be the current keeper's quarters near the Bluff Lighthouse. It has a corrugated iron roof over timber walls which are raised above the ground (against white ants). The windows with their top 'awning' detail are typical of the period. Note the plaited fence.

For more about the Gadsden/Bell connection with the Bluff Light see:

Photograph restoration: Hartmut Jager
Photograph from Gordon Brown.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Green Point Lighthouse, Natal, and its keepers

Brought into operation in 1905, Green Point Lighthouse on Natal's South Coast was the second last SA lighthouse to use petroleum vapour burners and the first to be fully automated in November 1961.

Light intensity was approximately  240 000 cd. The lighthouse had an added feature: a subsidiary sector light exhibiting a fixed red light over an arc subtending the extremities of the Aliwal Shoal.

In the days when it was a manned light, Green Point, though not far from Durban, was a comparatively isolated and inaccessible light for lightkeepers and their families.The old South Coast Road to Port Shepstone was seven miles inland and was connected to the lighthouse by a secondary road running through the canefields. The old road was always in poor condition and the staff used the train from Clansthal to visit Umkomaas or Durban. When the new tarred road, running close to the sea, was built, a short access road was cut through the bush to the lighthouse. This enabled those members of the staff who were fortunate enough to own cars to travel to Umkomaas in a few minutes and to Durban in less than an hour. But lightkeepers no longer frequent the road in this area. Another era has gone.

Names of the senior lightkeepers at Green Point before automation:

C G Johnson
E D Bayes
J R Clingen
D Hurley*
C H Cornish
T McInerney
E L Andreasen
J C Addison
H H Hews
W A Hews
F C Miller

* father of Archbishop D Hurley

The last lightkeepers did not benefit from the electricity supply - it resulted in their permanent withdrawal.

Read more in Harold Williams's authoritative volume Southern Lights, Lighthouses of Southern Africa (Published by Wm Waterman 1993)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Waratah 106th anniversary: links

On Monday, 26 July 1909, at 8 pm from ‘C’ Shed, SS Waratah put to sea for the last time. As the ship turned south past Durban Bluff heading for Cape Town none on board would have believed that they would be sailing to their deaths.

As they progressively headed into stronger winds, at around 6.30am on 27 July the following morning, Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due East of Cape Hermes near Port St. Johns.

Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson tells the story:

A must for Waratah enthusiasts, Andrew Van Rensburg's blog:

Buy his book via Amazon now!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Countdown to Waratah Anniversary 2

Waratah officers' signatures

Western Times 19 August 1909

STILL NO NEWS OF THE MISSING LINER: The east coast from Durban southwards is still being vigorously searched for any trace of the missing liner Waratah. One hopeful view is that no signs of wreckage have been seen and it would seem impossible for a ship the size of the Waratah to go to pieces without wreckage being floated ashore.

For much more on Waratah see

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Countdown to Waratah Anniversary

A very poignant letter written by a crew member on 26 July 1909 from SS Waratah in Durban, was received by his sister in London.

‘Just a line to let you know we arrived here safely after a pretty rough voyage from Adelaide. For 13 days after leaving that place we had heavy seas and weather and a lot of the deck fittings were broken and carried away by heavy seas that swept over the vessel. The last five days however have been fine and we got here yesterday midday (Sunday) and we leave the Cape Saturday next on 31st July for London, where we will arrive on August 21st although we are not due until the 23rd….’

Those words still hang in the air more than a century later. The Waratah was destined not to reach London but to disappear off the southern coast of Africa after her departure from Durban for the Cape.  The story of her mysterious final hours continues to haunt us and even now there are plans to search the coastal waters for her final remains.

Was your ancestor on the Waratah's last fateful voyage. Check the passenger list at 

and Andrew van Rensburg's enthralling book of the same title, now available on Amazon. A must-read for all Waratah enthusiasts.

Thanks to Waratah expert S J L Patterson for her input for this post.

The crew of SS Waratah

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Roman Rock

Not an operation to be carried out in stormy weather.

Roman Rock Lighthouse perches on an isolated rock in the harbour at Simonstown.
It is the only lighthouse on the SA coast erected on a rock that is exposed at low water and awash almost continuously at high water.

Joseph Nourse Commodore of the Royal Navy at Simonstown wrote to the Admiralty in London in January 1823 stressing the importance of the safety of HM ships entering anchorage at Simon's Bay at night. A plan was presented in February of the same year, with an estimated cost of 450 pounds, a low figure for the time.

Nothing happened until 1838 when Rear Admiral Elliott urged the need for a lighthouse at the entrance to Simon's Bay. He repeated his request in 1839. Simon's Bay was still waiting for its lighthouse by 1843. Work finally began on a lighthouse in 1857, but it took four years for the structure to be completed. Delays were very much a part of the history of lighthouse building in South Africa.

Despite adverse comments on the safety and stability of the tower in 1861, the same beacon is still in operation having defied the south-east gales and surging seas which engulf it every summer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bluff Lighthouse, Signal Station and keepers' quarters

Pre 1930 - as can be seen from the lack of the additional concrete with which the lighthouse was 'restored' by that date. This is one of the best photographs taken of the lighthouse and its environs between 1900 and 1930. (Note that the shape of the Bluff changes from photo to photo over several decades.)

The concrete sheath was added due to concerns that the foundations of the old lighthouse were shaky: an earth tremor had unsettled the foundations and in a strong wind the tower swayed considerably, throwing the lens which floated on the mercury bath out of kilter.

Lighthouse engineer Cooper's scheme encased the original lighthouse in reinforced concrete, which may have assisted its stability but did nothing for the aesthetic appearance of the landmark.

Bluff Lighthouse with its concrete casing, taken ca 1935

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lighthouse keepers at the Bluff Light, Durban

Senior Lightkeepers

1867 - 1880             T A Gadsden
1885                          Moffat
1898                          J Stephenson
1.7.1898                    B Shortt
1918                          G Johnson
1922                           L R P Daly
1927 - 1933              T F Addison
1938                           G A Orchard
20.1.1941 - 1.4.1942 A Gray

27.7.1889 - 30.6.1898 F B Shortt
1.7.1898                     John Murphy
18.8.1931 - 16.7.1934 A Spring
16.7.1934 - 1.3.1941   E L Andreason                                              

Monday, July 20, 2015

Lighthouse keeper's uniform 1920s: Agulhas Light

My grandfather George Orchard in uniform at Cape L'Agulhas lighthouse where he was stationed from 1921 to 1924 (writes Edith Morris).

This photo shows an interesting example of the keeper's uniform at that time.

George Orchard in uniform, 1920s

L'Agulhas Lighthouse, Cape, SA

PJ Hannabus sends additional information on keepers' uniforms:

The uniforms stayed the same until the 1980's, I think, when they stopped issue. However, our uniform (winter Issue) was the same as the Navy, except on the lower sleeve where the braid was, it was capped with a 'diamond', not a round whorl.  This in fact depicted a Naval Officer, Lieutenant, Captain etc. Junior keepers had 1 & 2 braids, a senior keeper had 3.  The summer uniform was white shorts and shirt, and white long socks. The rank was worn on the shoulders with epaulettes. From a distance it looked like a Navy Officer, as the caps were the same too.  I remember my dad walking down Adderley Street, Cape Town, in uniform, and passing soldiers all saluted him! He returned the salute of course, with a 'Carry on soldier!' My mom said, 'But you're not an officer!' He replied,  'But they know what I should have been!'