Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Last of the South African Lighthouse Keepers 2

by Peter-John Hannabus (P-J) – Retired Lighthouse Keeper 1970s

From the 1800s to the late 1970s, fifty three manned stations spanned the South African coast, before automation slowly forced the Lighthouse Keepers out of their cottages and away from their unique way of life.

The Hannabus Dynasty entered the Lighthouse Service in the early 1900s and covered eighteen lighthouses between them, stretching from the east coast at Cape St. Lucia Lighthouse, Natal, at position 28°31´08´´S., 32°23´50´´E, to the opposite west coast at Diaz Point in Luderitz, Namibia, at 26°38´11´´S, 15°05´37´´E.

Born at Cape Agulhas Lighthouse, P-J grew up in an environment with characteristics and influences at play, which attracted him to follow in the footsteps of his father, his uncle and his grandfather.

P-J’s duties, often as a Relief Lighthouse Keeper, took him from coast-to- coast exposing him to many different situations. Drawing on these experiences, plus stories handed down and childhood memories, he provides us with a window into the world of these men.

Bird Island Lighthouse Eastern Cape Lat 33°50´29´´ S. Long 26°17´13´´E.  is a familiar name to P-J, where his grandfather, A.E. (Bill) Hannabus, started his career in 1906 and in the 1950s his uncle C.H. Hannabus was also stationed there for a period. This story from P-J, recorded in the history of Bird Island, reflects tragedy, but also immense courage and bravery from the Lighthouse men, their wives and children.

One Saturday morning on February 1st, 1919, Mr. Abbott, a guano foreman and his assistant, were fishing in a longboat off the island. Around midday a strong sou ‘westerly wind came up, whipping up the sea. Abbott’s stepdaughter, Frances, worried for their safety, climbed onto the roof of their cottage and saw the men battling the wind to get back to shore.  Frances raised the alarm and all three of the Lighthouse Keepers, Hayward, Hughes and Ward, rushed to their aid in another longboat.

Once out to sea, a fog enveloped the three Lighthouse Keepers and they were lost to sight fighting wind and waves. Just before dark, the wives who had no idea how to operate the Light, together with the children, gathered all the lamps in the houses and took them up to the lighthouse lantern room to guide the husbands back and to warn ships on this stormy night! The families took turns to rotate the lens throughout the night with still no sign of the men. About midday the next day, the men made it back to shore but alas, without Abbott. He and his assistant were never found.

In recognition of the bravery of the Keepers, Harry Claude Lee Cooper, the esteemed Lighthouse Engineer, awarded the men gold watches and the wives received crafted handbags!

These are just part of the large band of lighthouse men and women whose brave deeds prove their commitment to their duties, irrespective of the risks to their own lives.

Whilst we are still on Bird Island, an intriguing similarity has come to my attention.

In 1884 Thesen and Company of Cape Town purchased their first coastal steamer in Norway and brought her out to the Cape. This was the SS Agnar, an iron vessel of 427 tons. The Agnar soon found a place for herself in the trade between Cape Town, Mossel Bay and Knysna and after five years a second steamer the SS Ingerid joined her. The Agnar and Ingerid sailed regularly between Table Bay and Knysna and before long they enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the steamship traffic to the little port. (Ships and South Africa by Marischal Murray)

From 1920 to 1928 Agnar loaded guano on Bird Island.  Strangely similar in shape and design to the SS Waratah, which disappeared off the Transkei coast in 1909, Agnar was a very much smaller vessel. The Agnar also met her fate by disappearing without trace twenty nine years later, between Madagascar and Mauritius. With thirty four souls aboard, a cyclone had raged across her track and she never reached Port Louis. All that was ever found was a damaged hatch cover. A tragic end to those poor souls on a hardworking little steamer.

1 comment:


Interesting post! The SS Agnar does look like a miniature version of the Waratah, with her prominent top hamper. Lost in a storm with all hands, reads like an extract from the Inquiry into the loss of the Waratah. Best wishes, Andrew