Keeper of the Bluff Light

KEEPER OF THE BLUFF LIGHT: Thomas Alfred Gadsden in Natal

The following description of the Bluff Lighthouse at Port Natal, South Africa, appears in the Natal Almanac & Yearly Directory of 1872, under the heading Notice To Mariners. 

"This Lighthouse is in latitude 29° 52' 50" S. and longitude 31° 3' 35" E. and is an iron tower in the form of a frustum of a cone, 81 feet in height, and painted white. The centre of the light is 70 feet in height above the base of the building. The light exhibited is a revolving one of the second class (dioptic) attaining its greatest brilliancy once every minute; is visible at sea in all directions from north (round by east and south), to south 59° west; and can be seen from a ship's deck 24 miles distant, if the weather be clear.

The light is not visible from the Aliwal Shoal1, which is 25 miles south and 53° west, from the Lighthouse, so that vessels should not, when coming from the southward and westward, approach the shore nearer than four miles, or shoal the water under 40 fathoms, using the lead freely until they make the light well from the deck, when they may stand in until it bears N. 59° E., which bearing will keep them out of all known danger until they are abreast of the Umlazi River (about 9½ miles below the Lighthouse), when they must keep it more to the northward, as the land tends more to the eastward, giving the shore a good berth of a mile; and when the light bears about E.N.E. they can haul in to the northward for the anchorage; anchoring in 8½ to 10 fathoms, with the Lighthouse bearing S.W. to ½ - W., distant one mile". 

Natal's inhabitants had waited impatiently for their lighthouse since the 1850s. It wasn't until 22 November 1864 that the foundation stone was laid, and even then, with delays in delivery of the necessary materials, as well as difficulties in transporting these to the actual site, it was another two years before the tower was finally completed, in October 1866. Mr Patterson, Colonial Engineer, circulated the following details about the structure: 

"The lighthouse is to be erected upon the Bluff, on the northern side of the entrance to the Bay of Natal. It is to consist of a cast iron, conoidal tower, loaded at the base with concrete, surmounted by a cast iron lighthouse plinth, and a gunmetal lantern, glazed with plate glass, with a domed roof covered with copper. The lighting apparatus is to be a second class holophotal lenticular apparatus on Fresnel's system with a first class lamp. The lights will be revolving with brightest flashes at intervals of sixty seconds. The apparatus is composed of concentric glass lenses in gunmetal frames forming an eight-sided figure. The light which would otherwise radiate through the portion of the azimuth which is landwards, and therefore does not require illumination, is intercepted by an arrangement of totally refracting lenses, and returned to the focus to strengthen the seaward portion of the light. The revolution of the apparatus is effected by means of clockwork fixed inside the iron pedestal upon which the apparatus is supported2".

Despite the claim made above as to prevention of the light shining landwards, many complaints from Durban's citizens were later received about the beam disturbing their slumbers. 

However, on the date of the official opening of the Bluff Lighthouse, 23 January 1867, the mood of the townsfolk was one of jubilation and everyone turned out in full force for the gala occasion. It was a glorious day "with just enough of a southerly breeze to temper the full radiance of a summer sun". Businesses were closed, and the railway carried throngs of spectators to the Point from where boats were taken to the Bluff. The scene at the Bay assumed epic proportions. 
Members of the Durban Rifle Brigade and Artillery Company formed a Guard of Honour. The Mayor, George Cato, and some of his friends were on the little steamer, the Enuna Scott. The ship Umgeni, the barque Priscilla and other vessels were lying peacefully in the Bay, dressed from stem to stern with flags, and little boats were laden with family parties. Dignitaries included His Excellency Colonel Bisset, the Administrator, the Hon. Theophilus Shepstone, Secretary for Native Affairs, the Mayor and Councillors and Rev. W. H. C. Lloyd, the Colonial Chaplain. Officers of the 99th Regiment added a splash of colour. 

With everyone gathered at the foot of the lighthouse, the ceremony began. An address was presented to Colonel Bisset by the Colonial Engineer, pointing out the reasons for the delay in completion of the work and adding that the completed structure had cost £5,800, £200 less than estimated. His Excellency was handed the keys and was asked to inaugurate the opening of this important public work "upon which, above all others, we may humbly hope the divine blessing will be given, as it is instituted for the benefits and welfare not only of this Colony, but for those of our fellow men of whatever name or nation they may be, who approach our shores". 

After the Governor had inspected the tower and surveyed the scene from the lantern gallery, Rev. Lloyd offered up a prayer for the safety of the structure. His Excellency delivered himself of the opinion that it was one of the best lighthouses on the South African coast and confidently expected it would bring to the port the commerce of the Australian, the African and Eastern World. "God Save the Queen" was enthusiastically rendered, followed by repeated hurrahs for the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Administrator and the Misses Bisset, followed by a toast by the Mayor: "May the light of Natal never grow dim". Much to the disappointment of the spectators, permission to view the lightroom was refused, though the tower could be inspected3. 

Opening of the Bluff Lighthouse: Is Thomas Alfred Gadsden in the photo? And can we see Captain Bell among the dignitaries present?

It's entirely possible that among the crowd present on this festive occasion was my great-grandfather THOMAS ALFRED GADSDEN4, who had arrived in Natal from Britain in 1863. Born in Waterford, but with London origins, Thomas sailed on the barque Priscilla5, and on arrival at Port Natal one of his first recorded actions was to buy cartridges for his gun. Contrary to what one might suppose, he wasn't fearing attack by local tribes, but more likely wanting to take advantage of the excellent hunting in the area. Several varieties of buck and fowl inhabited the coastal bushlands, and in particular the densely-wooded Bluff, the long peninsula whose protective arm guarded both Town and Bay.

Of course, no lighthouse stood on this promontory when Thomas had his first glimpse of the harbour entrance. "The African Pilot For the South and East Coasts of Africa" by Captain A. F. R. De Horsey RN, describes the port thus in 1865: 

"Cape Natal, in lat. 29° 52' 45" S., and long. 31° 3' E., is formed by a high wooded tongue of land, terminating in a remarkable bluff 195 feet high. This cape is easily made out, the coast to the northward being low for several miles. There are no outlying dangers in approaching it, and the water is deep close to the land. At the foot of the bluff, on its eastern side, a flat rock 20 feet high, and about 40 feet long projects. From this some sunken rocks, uncovered at low water springs, extend to the northward towards the bar. Cape Natal has a flagstaff and watch house on its summit, from whence a light is shown at night when a vessel is coming in towards the anchorage. There are two white marks6 at the foot of the bluff, on its northern side". 

De Horsey's description of the approaches to Natal having "no outlying dangers" is sanguine in view of the numerous shipwrecks associated with the area. He continues: "A vessel intending to enter the port and in want of a pilot should anchor in the road in 9 or 9½ fathoms, sandy bottom, when the flagstaff on the cape or bluff bears W.W. one mile. A signal being made, a pilot will be sent off from the port office, or, if the surf on the bar is too heavy, it will be communicated by signal from the flagstaff on the cape". 

The notorious Bar, a sandbank across the entrance to the Bay itself, 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 came to grief 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.

Thomas's first employment was as turnkey at the local Gaol, at the princely sum of 72 pounds per annum, but a dramatic change in his career followed when he was appointed to the post of lighthouse keeper at the Bluff. It's not impossible that by this time Thomas had already met and fallen in love with Eliza Ann Bell, daughter of the Port Captain, William Bell, and that nepotism may have had something to do with Thomas's new occupation. Or it may be that it was through Thomas's employment by the Natal Harbour Board that the acquaintance with the Bells came about. Had the idea of becoming lighthouse keeper taken root in Thomas's brain as he saw the work on the tower gradually move towards completion ? It would be a steady job (though with odd hours), and there would be the keeper's cottage which went with the post. The salary, too, was a slight improvement on a turnkey's remuneration, and Thomas, with matrimony in mind, would have carefully considered these advantages. Thomas and Eliza Ann were married by Archdeacon Lloyd at Conch Villa, the Bell family home on the Bluff, on 6 August 1873. 

The original handwritten Instructions for the Keeper of the Bluff Light (several pages of them) reveal there was more to the task than may have been at first apparent to Thomas as he briskly commenced his duties. His primary function was "to keep the light burning bright and clear throughout the night", not as simple as it sounds. To this end, the wicks had to be trimmed as often as necessary to ensure the steady maintenance of the light at its best. A regular and constant watch had to be kept in the lightroom during the night, first watch beginning at sunset and continuing till midnight, and the second from midnight until the light was extinguished at daybreak. Immediately after the morning watch the optical apparatus, lamps and revolving machinery were to be thoroughly cleaned, and the glass lenses and prisms dusted, wicks trimmed and everything connected with the apparatus made ready for lighting again in the evening, as well as carefully covered. 

Shifts were shared by two keepers (at one stage Thomas's brother-in-law, Douglas Bell, was the other). The lightkeeper having the second day shift had to clean the glass of the lantern lamp, glasses, copper and brass work and utensils, the walls, floor and balcony of the lightroom together with the lower stairs, passage doors and windows from the lightroom to the base of the building, all of which duties were to be completed daily before three in the afternoon. 
The importance of the night watches is emphasised in this extract from the Instructions for the Keeper: 

The lightkeeper on duty at night shall on no pretence whatever during his watch leave the lightroom or balcony until he is relieved. A bell is fixed at or near the base of the tower with a cord leading to the balcony to enable the lighthouse keeper on duty to summon the absent keeper, and if at any time the lighthouse keeper on duty shall think the presence or assistance of the lighthouse keeper not on duty is necessary he shall call him by ringing this bell and the keeper so called shall repair to the lightroom without delay. In like manner when the watches come to be changed the bell shall be rung to call the lighthouse keeper next in turn after which the lighthouse keeper on duty shall at his peril remain on guard till he is relieved by the lighthouse keeper who has the next watch. 

Part of Thomas's routine was the inspection and care of stores, utensils and apparatus, checking that everything was put to its proper use and kept in its correct place. The strictest economy was to be used in regard to stores, and there was to be no wastage, and yet the keeper should still ensure the maintenance of the best possible light at all times. Should there appear to be any danger of imminent shortage of stores, this had to be reported. As Head Lightkeeper, Thomas kept a daily journal of the quantity of oil expended, details of the duty roster, and the state of the weather, plus any remarks as to unusual occurrences. The entries were to be noted every day and "on no account to be entrusted to memory". On the first of the month, a return was sent to the Colonial Engineer comprising an accurate copy of the journal for the preceding month. (Despite this fail-safe method, sadly neither journals nor copies have survived). There was also a report-book kept at the lighthouse in which each keeper wrote down the times of coming on and going off duty, noting any remarks as to the trimming of the light and any accidents or incidents which might occur during his watch, and especially of any delay in his relief by the keeper on the other shift; these entries were signed by the person making the observations. 

Attention to the light apparatus itself took up a great deal of the keeper's time. The lenses and prisms suffered from the effect of dust injuring their polish, and proper burning of the lamp would be impaired by neglect of cleaning or of the state of the wicks. A feather or a soft chamois was used to keep the lenses dust free. If the glasses became greasy, a linen cloth steeped in spirits of wine was used to wipe them clean, and then dried with another cloth which must be free of all grit. Finally, they were rubbed gently with a chamois. Brass fittings were polished with whitening or polishing paste. The lamp had to be kept accurately in the focus of the illuminating apparatus, and the flow of oil constantly regulated. 
The mechanical lamps being constructed to give a plentiful flow of paraffin oil, from three to four times the quantity consumed, meant that the wicks charred very slowly. When in good order the lamp should be able to burn the whole night through without the wicks requiring to be touched. If the flame appeared to be sinking, the lamp had to be trimmed. This was done by using trimming hooks which were pressed up the air spaces of the burners and used to knock off and pick out the pieces of charred wick. A spare burner, trimmed and ready for lighting, was constantly kept in the lightroom so that if anything went amiss with the burners in use, this could be substituted. 

Daily and nightly cleaning of the windows of the lantern was required to keep them free of spray, condensation, sweating or other obstructions to the passage of light. Ventilators were opened to admit a sufficient supply of air for the burning of the light and to prevent condensation as much as possible. Storm frames were kept handy in case of any accidental damage. 

It was the Head Lightkeeper's responsibility that the entire lighthouse operation ran smoothly, regardless of whether he himself or another keeper was on duty, and also that the tower and associated storerooms and buildings were kept clean and in good order. The same applied to the grounds surrounding the tower and the steep path leading towards it and the landing-place below. A boat from Bluff to Town across the Bay was the only means of communication. It was to be many years before a proper road was constructed to the lighthouse. 

And so Thomas passed his days - and nights - carrying no small burden for the efficient functioning of the Bluff Light. Alarms and excursions were many and varied. Visitors were permitted to view the lighthouse but were under no circumstances allowed to enter the lightroom. Such guests were recorded in a visitors' book: what a wealth of names of Durban's inhabitants, or even those from further afield in the Colony, this would offer if only it were still in existence. The interest of future generations in the lighthouse and its activities remained apparently unconsidered by the authorities, and its unlikely that even Thomas himself gave the matter a thought in the midst of more immediate reality. 
He had little spare time, but there were compensations. A panoramic 180 degree view of Durban, across the harbour with its islands and shipping, to the Berea beyond, and along the sparkling shoreline to the north or out to the ever-changing sea, must have been a daily delight. There was good fishing and hunting on the Bluff, so usually something to bring home for the family pot - and Eliza Ann to do the cooking. Thomas had found the paradise he'd sought, or so it seemed. 

The keepers were allowed to arrange between themselves for some free hours on alternate Sundays, presumably for church-going, and Thomas may well have been a member of St. Paul's congregation, for his children were all baptised in that parish. The Gadsdens' first-born, William, arrived on 18 July 1876, followed by Phillip, on 5 November 1879 (the year of the British disaster at Isandhlwana and the Defence of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War) but the new baby did not survive long, another statistic in the infant mortality rate of the Colony during that era. One of the problems encountered was the difficulty in obtaining a fresh water supply - drinking water was taken across to the Bluff from the town by boat in casks or other containers. Enteric (typhoid fever) and dysentery were rife among the colonial population.

Sydney Bartle Gadsden,
son of Thomas Alfred Gadsden

A third son, Sydney Bartle (my grandfather), was born on 3 September 1880 and two daughters followed, Faith and Hope (no prizes for guessing what a third would have been named). With his increasing family responsibilities, Thomas found his salary, virtually unchanged during sixteen years in the Government service, inadequate. Lighthouse regulations prohibited the keepers from conducting any trade or business with which to augment their incomes, or from having boarders or lodgers in the keepers' quarters. 

Another concern was Eliza Ann's state of health, which dwindled steadily. The constant night watches took their toll on Thomas's own health and he made several applications to be removed from his lighthouse duties and be given other employment. Records show that his position changed to that of Timekeeper for the Harbour Board, and he remained in that post until his death on 25 October 1893 at the age of 54.

Eliza Ann survived him by seven years. Their eldest son William married, had a daughter and died of enteric at Verulam in 1900 in his early twenties. Faith and Hope both married, and Sydney Bartle was the only one of Thomas's children to continue the Natal Gadsden line, with the appearance in 1910 of William Bell Gadsden, named for Eliza Ann's father, the Port Captain. 

Some of Thomas and Eliza Ann's descendants, with their unique link to the history of the port, still reside in Natal. The lighthouse remained as Thomas Gadsden knew it until July 1922, when improved optical apparatus was introduced. Some ten years later came the installation of electricity, and the iron tower, considered by then to be unsafe, was encased in concrete. After seventy three years in service, the old Bluff Light shone for the last time on 15 October 1940 and the following June the lighthouse was demolished. 

Bluff Lighthouse and Signal Station early 20th c

1. A dangerous submerged reef about 5 kilometres off Scottburgh on Natal's South Coast; named after the vessel "Aliwal". 
2. Quoted in The Weekend Advertiser, 21 January 1933 in an article by C J Eyre, and also in "Southern Lights: Lighthouses of Southern Africa" by Harold Williams 
3. C J Eyre in The Weekend Advertiser, 21 January 1933 
4. Thomas Alfred Gadsden 1839-1893; son of John Gadsden and Mary Ann nee Bone. 
5. "Priscilla", English barque 253 t, Capt. George Brown, departed Gravesend 2.4.1863 arrived Natal 21.6.1863; the same vessel was present in the Bay on the occasion of the opening of the lighthouse, 1867. 
6. The "leading marks" at the harbour entrance, a guide for mariners arriving at the Bay. 
7. Preserved in Pietermaritzburg Archives, Natal. 

© Rosemary Dixon-Smith (nee Gadsden) 
Sources & Further Reading: 
Gadsden & Bell Family Papers and Photographs: Author's Collection. 
Gadsden Family History News 
Pietermaritzburg Archives: Natal Harbour Board, Gadsden & Bell Estate documents, European Immigration Registers. 
"Southern Lights: Lighthouses of Southern Africa": Harold Williams (William Waterman 1993 ISBN 0958375119) 
"African Keyport": Captain Tony Pearson (Accucut 1995 ISBN 0620194944) 
"Who Saved Natal ? The story of the Victorian Harbour Engineers of Colonial Port Natal": Colin Bender (1988 ISBN 0620128852)


Unknown said...

Is there a list of the lighthouse keepers and their assistants in any record. When my mothers family moved from the UK to Durban in 1924 they stayed at the lighthouse until they got settled in their own accommodation. This was obviously prearranged before leaving the UK and I would like to find out who their contact person would have been.

I have a photo of them taken at Christmas around that time.

Mole said...

Thanks for your interesting comment. There is a list of SA keepers at the back of Southern Lights, a book by Harold Williams. The lists are not 100% correct, some omissions. But it is the closest thing we have to a database of this info. The book is not easy to find now but you could try a good library or even find a copy online. Whether a 'contact person' would be found I am not sure - the keeper at that time might have helped with arrangements but more likely someone on the Natal Harbour Board. It sounds as if your mother's family may have known the lighthouse keeper to be able to stay there - usually guests/visitors were not permitted on the premises so I wonder if this story is apocryphal. Best wishes, Mole.

mike ranson said...

Hi there,
I have a collection of photographs that were addressed a Miss MJ & Dennis Goulding that are dated bewtween 1910 and 1917 who must have been the keepers in Bluff. They belonged to my father in law who recenlt passed away who live in Pinetown. We dont know how they come into his hands but presume he purchased them somewhere as he loved his history. I would be happy to scan and email these to anyone who would like to see them. I am based in the UK and have travelled frequently back and fore SA.
I would also be interested if anyone can forward any links to sites that would also be intersted in having copies.
I can be contacted at

Mole said...

Hi Mike, thanks for your comment. I have a copy of Southern Lights by Harold Williams and at the back the author provides lists of the keepers at various lighthouses including the Bluff. Unfortunately the people you name do not appear in the relevant list so they may not have been keepers. It's possible that they were linked in some other way to the lighthouse service or merely friends of the keeper who passed on the correspondence. Sorry I can't help further. Best Wishes, Mole

TaniaK said...


I would like to source a copy of Southern Lights as my grandfather, RW Gardiner was a keeper at a number of lighthouses during his lifetime. I would love to find what years he speand at each and any letters, pictures or anything of his. I am aware of his being at Cape Columbine, Port Nolloth, Bird Island, Robben Island and Cape St Blaize (my grandmother, Janet Dewar passed away there is 1942 during his time and is buried in Mossel Bay. I would appreciate any info.

Thank you

Mole said...

Hello Tania, I regret that Southern Lights is seldom available to buy these days though can be found at libraries such as Killie Campbell Durban and at Pietermaritzburg Archives. Occasionally it comes up at an online auction. There is a list of keepers by lighthouse given at the back of the book so you should find RW Gardiner's years of service at each of the places you mention. As to personal material such as his letters and photos, unless these have been preserved by descendants they are unlikely to have survived. I note several (rather expensive) copies at

Best Wishes, Mole

mike ranson said...

Thankyou mole for your reply.
I joined a facebook group called Durban, down memory lane and within minutes of posting, i was put in touch with the granddaughter of the person in the postcards. I have scanned the poscards and emailed them to her as she has a relative who is still alive and able to fill in the stories that are on the postcards.
We have a family member who is going over to SA next month who will take them back over and meet up with the family to hand over the whole collection to her.
There were some 4o plus cards with about 30 of them written on from various parts of the world. The person in question was serving in the middle east mainly and stationed in and out of the Uk and Ireland.
Much appreciate your response.

Mole said...

Wonderful! I love a positive result! Thank you for telling me the rest of the story. All the best, Mole