Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lighthousekeeper Ancestors in South Africa

'To Guard This Light From all Eclipse'

Was your ancestor a lighthousekeeper in South Africa? If so, the chances are good that you could find out more about him by using a combination of research sources.

Danger Point Lighthouse, Gansbaai
Published sources save time, and the first step is to check the lists of lightkeepers offered at the back of Harold Williams's volume Southern Lights, a comprehensive study of lighthouses in South Africa. Williams, a lighthouse engineer whose own career began in 1947, spent many years of research before publishing his book in 1993. It's a must-read for anyone interested in lighthouses, and particularly for those with ancestors in the South African lighthouse service. A detailed history of lighthouses in this country is given, illustrated with excellent photographs.

An appendix lists lightkeepers with beginning and ending dates of their employment, as well as category ('senior', 'assistant' or 'relief') and where they were stationed. Sometimes additional detail reveals the reason for the keeper leaving the service, 'resigned', 'deceased', 'retired' or, occasionally, 'dismissed'. The keepers' initials are usually given, but there are some first names, too. These are all useful indicators and can provide a starting point for the family historian.

However, Williams's register is not all-inclusive, as the author himself admits. Despite the wide variety of primary and secondary sources used, such as civil service lists, official visitors' books, directories and letters, there are gaps in the information. The blame for such omissions can be laid partially at the door of bureaucracy: before the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, lighthouses were under the control of the colonial authorities in the relevant provinces. After Union, the SA Railways & Harbours department took over, and there were subsequent changes leading up to the eventual transfer of lighthouse administration to Portnet in 1990. Regrettably, with each successive alteration in the administrative structure, valuable material which should have been preserved was lost.

During my search for information on my great grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, who was keeper of the Bluff Light, Durban, from the late 1860s to early 1880s, I found no mention of his name in Williams's register, which shows keepers at this lighthouse from the mid-1880s onwards. The Bluff Lighthouse was officially opened in January 1867, and there were certainly keepers serving there from that date. Their names appear in the Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory, which lists staff employed in various capacities by the Port Office. In 1870, for example, G Salmon is shown as Lightkeeper, with T Gadsden '2nd ditto'. Later in the decade, the Almanac reveals that T Gadsden was promoted to Head Lightkeeper (at an annual salary of £125), with D W Bell - who was, incidentally, Thomas's brother-in-law - as his assistant (salary £100). So, should your ancestor's name not appear on Williams's book, local directories for the period are an avenue worth bearing in mind, as are civil service lists.

The Bluff Lighthouse, Durban,
with Signal Station and signalman's quarters, plus tent, ca 1900s

NAAIRS (the SA National Archives Index) offers references to lighthouses as well as to the keepers. A search on the ancestor's surname plus the word 'lightkeeper' or the name of the lighthouse (if you know where he was stationed) could bring interesting results. Whether he was applying for employment, requesting leave of absence from duty, asking for a salary increase, going on pension or leaving the service for some other reason, these events would have generated memos, correspondence and other records.

For example, we find W W Ritchie applying to the Natal Harbour Department for a post as lightkeeper in 1906, that F B Shortt, Head Lighthousekeeper at the Bluff, makes application for three weeks leave from 10 May 1904, and C G Johnson, lightkeeper at Green Point, Natal, asks for an increase in pay in 1906. In the same year, the 2nd lightkeeper at Green Point (Natal), Laird, states that he wishes to dismantle the storeroom and use the materials to build quarters for African employees. Another reference reveals that J H Laird had taken his Oath of Allegiance as 2nd lightkeeper at Green Point in 1905, so evidently he hadn't long been in the situation before wanting to make improvements.

These events may not be particularly riveting, but they help to place the ancestor in context, giving date parameters which can be used to build up a chronology of his career. There are more startling examples, such as an enquiry into a lightkeeper reported to be 'drunk and violent', or a request for replacement of a '3rd lightkeeper' who had ended up in jail. Fortunately, such transgressors were in the minority. Most men showed the dedication and devotion to duty which is the keynote of the lighthouse service, and they complied with its strict regulations. Each lightkeeper was furnished with a copy of these and any breach of the rules could result in dismissal.

Some index references give an insight into the nuts and bolts of 19th century and early 20th century lighthousekeeping: reports on materials which were found not to be up to standard or had worn out and needed to be replaced, returns for oil, wicks, lenses etc. A keeper at the Aliwal Shoal Light in 1896 requests that an urgent cable be sent to Messrs. Chance Brothers 'to send at once glass chimneys'. It can't have been easy coping with bureaucratic delays, compounded by communication problems. Just acquiring some red paint to spruce up the exterior of a lighthouse generated a series of memos.

Other more personal details emerge, like the education of a certain keeper's children - a difficulty when living in a remote place far from any available schools. And a lightkeeper applying for a horse insurance proposal form in 1904, not long after the end of the Anglo-Boer War, reminds us that though the railways had arrived in SA, the horse was still vital for everyday transport.

Among archival files you may be fortunate enough to find examples of correspondence in the ancestor's own handwriting. These reveal the day-to-day events of a lightkeeper's life, and provide a unique and tangible link to the man himself.

It's also worth searching NAAIRS  for general references to the lighthouse at which your ancestor worked, as these will give background information. Even if he isn't mentioned by name in connection with that particular lighthouse, you could deduce from Williams's lists that the 'assistant lightkeeper' at a certain date was in fact your ancestor.

Lighthouse, The Hill, Port Elizabeth, after
tower extended

Once you've gleaned the references to your ancestor which relate specifically to his lightkeeping activities, you can spread the net wider and search the index for his deceased estate file - if he died in South Africa, that is. Estate records are informative and include the Death Notice.

Returning to published sources, the works of Lawrence Green offer fascinating anecdotes about keepers: in South African Beachcomber he tells of John Allen of Cape Point lighthouse, who found that a mantle of the wrong size had been supplied. 'It meant that the automatic flashing apparatus could not be used. However, he rigged up a six hundred candlepower electric light with a hand switch. Each keeper in turn sat with a stop watch before him, switching on for two seconds, off for eight seconds. They had to remain at this weary task for three nights until the correct mantle reached them. Try it for only half an hour and you will understand the strain involved'.

In a fitting tribute given at a ceremony on 1 March 1949 to mark the occasion of 100 years of the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, the General Manager of SA Railways, W Marshall Clark, said:

'The Lighthouse Service has developed very considerably in recent years, but neither the men who staff the lighthouses nor the work they do is very well known. Their work confines them to the loneliest spots - like Pelican Point near Walvis Bay, Cape Columbine, Cape St Lucia and others ... As long as they keep their light shining across the seas, to guide mariners in all weathers, they are left alone, and since failure is practically unheard of, the lighthouses are taken for granted.' 

Now the human element has been replaced by technology, lighthouses have lost much of their romantic attraction, but we can revisit the past via the keepers' stories.

North Sand Bluff Lighthouse, Natal


Cyril Fox said...

A fascinating article, particularly for me as my father, Douglas Fox, was assistant lightkeeper at Dassen Island and Cape Agulhas during World War II.

Cyril Fox

Mole said...

Thank you for your comment, Cyril. It must have been a busy time at Agulhas during WWII.
Best Wishes, Mole

BlossomAfrica said...

I have the book "Southern Lights" My late father Peter Irwin Stokes was the third generation to enter the lighthouse service. Sadly his name is not in the book, but that of my great grandfather Harry Ernest Stokes and my grandfather Peter Hary Stokes are in the book. I am most certainly going to try and research my great grandfather some more using your links as I have very little information on him. He was married to Florence Welch on Robben Island on 30th October 1906. I have his death certificate which states he was born on the Isle of Wight but can find no further information on him or his ancestors.

Mole said...

I checked the Index to Natal Civil Marriages on Family Search site but no sign of Stokes or Welch, regrettably. Which makes me wonder if marriages on Robben Island had for some reason been omitted. However, wonderful though Williams' book is there are some names which do not appear.
Best Wishes, Mole

Unknown said...

Good afternoon,

I'm Bertie Lübbe, I also have the book Southern Lights.

I grew up in the lighthouse service, my father was a lighthouse keeper. Places we stayed: Cape Receice, Hood Point East london, Cape Agulhas, Robben Island, Cape Columbine and Swakopmund.
Is it possible to get contact info on Heather Vallance? They stayed next to us at Hood Point, 1958 - 9. She is about 3 years older than I am. I have a photo's of her father at the lighthouse and either her mother or grand mother.

Thank you for your time and effort.

Unknown said...

Hello Bertie,

I have just read your comment and wish to advise that you will not have received a reply from Rosemary Dixon-Smith as she became ill and could no longer maintain her blog. Sadly, our dear friend passed away in August this year.

In response to your comment, I had previously corresponded with Heather and once again, I have the sad news that Heather passed away in Ontario, Canada, in 2012.

I am still engaged in lighthouse research and you are most welcome to contact me at -

Kind regards,
Suzanne-Jo Patterson

Unknown said...

Hi Mole are you able to give me
Any info on my late father George Leonard Coward.I was born in 1950 and am desperate for any history .He was stationed st Port Nolleth Diaz Point Luderits Port T Johns Port Shrpstone was his last post.He died in 1964.

Unknown said...

Sadly our dear Mole passed away in August last year. I am in Lighthouse Research and there is some information in Southern Lights Lighthouses of South Africa on your late father. I see Mrs Coward was also a Lighthouse Keeper.

If you would like to contact me my email address is

Kind Regards
Suzanne-Jo Patterson