Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Keepers' difficulties at the Bluff Lighthouse 1870s

Drawing by Cathcart Methven showing the Bluff Lighthouse, keepers' quarters and signal station.

From the moment of its commissioning, the Bluff Lighthouse was kept well-supplied with oil, wicks and other necessities for the maintenance of the light. However, the human beings who tended it - a vital part of the operation - had several difficulties to contend with.

For a start, the lighthouse wasn't within easy reach of the town of Durban. Though not far distant as the crow flies, accessibility was limited by the Bluff's wooded and steep terrain. Although a pathway, originally constructed by the Godden brothers,  merely a track, ran up the side of the headland from the shore and had been used to carry building materials during construction of the beacon, it was not an ideal access to civilization. A boat was required to cross the channel to the Point. This was still a long walk from the commercial centre, where lightkeepers needed to purchase personal supplies of food etc.

The keepers' quarters were rudimentary though were later improved on.  Everything took much longer due to colonial bureaucracy.

One of the biggest difficulties was the lack of a fresh water supply on the Bluff. This vital commodity had to be carried in casks from the mainland, by boat across the channel, or across the Bay then transferred to unwieldy ox-carts which would continue on to the seaward end of the Bluff for the casks to be delivered to the signalman and lightkeepers.

Letter from Thomas Gadsden, lightkeeper,
to Alexander Airth, Port Captain.
Thomas Gadsden was forced to write to the port Captain (then Alexander Airth) in August 1878, most respectfully begging that something be done about the water problem. The lightkeepers were running short of water - only a week's supply left. 

Apparently the signalman was in the same predicament. 'Therefore, Sir, it will be absolutely necessary to supply us with water from the other side ...' (i.e. from the town of Durban). Thomas signs 'Your obedient servant' but was clearly a worried man. He had a wife and a young family, and was also responsible for the various boatmen and other assistants employed at the lighthouse.

The water problem was not resolved for some time and led directly to the death of one of the Gadsden children, Phillip, who died in infancy of typhoid - a water-borne disease which was rife in the Colony until well into the following century.

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