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Interview: For Those in Peril on the Sea…

Posted on 01 Oct 2018

RG Grant, the author of 'Sentinels of the Sea: A Miscellany of Lighthouses Past' spoke to us about his collaboration with the National Archives what inspired to tell the story of lighthouses all over the world.

Proposal for Warm Climates Lighting, 1833. Designs by James Walker. The National Archives, London, England ©2018 Crown Copyright

From the early beacons on land through to the great ring of structures on the coast of America, the history of lighthouses tells of ingenuity, endeavour, suffering and endurance. Author RG Grant spoke to us about what inspired him to tell the story of lighthouses all over the world.

How, when and where did your fascination for lighthouses begin?

I would love to be able to say that I found a love of lighthouses in some wondrous formative experience, but the truth is that I became fascinated with them through my study of history. I had always liked lighthouses, as most people do – the charming stripy seaside ones that go with sticky rock and donkey rides, the stern romantic ones that defy the wind and the waves on storm-torn coasts. But it was studying the history of travel – how people got around the world in earlier times – that drew my attention to the extraordinary historical importance of lighthouses. I had always casually seen them as picturesque objects. Now I came to realise that in their day they had been vital cutting-edge technology, the object of a vast heroic effort of engineering without which the growth of world trade and global sea travel could never have happened. And it seemed to me this story was too little known; indeed, had hardly been told, in its global scope.

The book looks like a magnificent labour of love. How far and wide have you had to go to find the stories of lighthouses across the globe?

 

The original visual basis for the book was the magnificent collection of engineers’ plans for lighthouses in the National Archives. Many other organisations across the world turned out to have similar material in their vaults, some of it rarely if ever seen by the public. Some of these lighthouses were famous, with oft-told stories attached to them, but others were relatively obscure and stimulated research that turned up some unlikely gems. My favourite discovery was the tragic story of British Army engineer John Kitson, who landed the job of building lighthouses in the then almost uninhabited Bahamas in the 1830s. Being a family-loving man, he had his wife and three young children join him. Before he could complete his task, Kitson died of disease; and travelling sadly home along the still unlit coast, his wife and children were shipwrecked and drowned. The whole disaster is recorded in a plaque in Portsmouth Cathedral.

The prologue tells the remarkable story of the Eddystone lighthouse. To build all four versions of it must have involved remarkable dedication and bravery. Could you describe what life must have been like for the men building those early modern lighthouses on remote rocks?

 

The more you learn about the building of the offshore lighthouses in the 18th and 19th centuries, the more improbable it sounds that the projects ever succeeded. A gang of men equipped with primitive tools such as pickaxes were ferried out to a rock in the middle of the ocean that might be no bigger than a tennis court and was only above water at low tide. There they had to excavate foundations in solid rock and then erect courses of granite blocks each weighing several tons up to a height of 40 or 50 metres. Even in good weather the worksite was swept by the occasional freak wave. In bad weather it was simply inaccessible. In the notorious case of the Ar-Men lighthouse off the coast of Brittany, what with tides and bad weather, it took seven years just to establish the foundations. Because of the difficulty of ferrying men back and forth from the land, it became customary to build a barracks on site to house the workers, often a flimsy structure on legs sticking up out of the sea. When storms set in, the workers might be cut off in their barracks for weeks without supplies or relief, living in rooms not big enough for you to stretch out your arms sideways, expecting at any moment their temporary home to be swept away by the battering waves. On the whole, the workers seem to have accepted the conditions phlegmatically enough, without drama or fuss.

The book is in part a testament to the ingenuity of the Stevenson dynasty. How did they all become such gifted engineers (apart from RL) and what marked them out as so distinctive in lighthouse history?

 

Robert Stevenson was a young Scottish engineer who became a national hero after succeeding in building a lighthouse on the deadly Bell Rock in 1811. After that he took responsibility for building all the lighthouses in Scotland and was allowed to pass on the task to his children, creating a lighthouse-building dynasty that lasted into the 20th century. Its only black sheep was Robert Louis Stevenson, who refused to become an engineer, instead writing Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was consequently regarded as a failure by his family, who couldn’t understand that a man might rather write fiction than build lighthouses. What set the Stevensons apart was the almost religious enthusiasm and dedication they brought to building and running lighthouses. They were largely responsible for the fanatically strict rules and routines to which all Scottish lighthouse keepers became subject and that were subsequently adopted by services across the world. They even frowned on lighthouse staff making any effort to save drowning victims of shipwreck within sight of their lighthouse on the grounds that it would lead to deviation from their duty to the light. Something of their stern sense of duty is clearly reflected in the magnificent lighthouses they built such as Skerryvore in the Hebrides, puritanically chaste stone towers without ornament but aesthetically perfect in form. The demands they placed on their workers in lighthouse construction were extreme, but they never hesitated to share the dangers and hardships of the job themselves.

The British and the French were the most prodigious builders of lighthouses as they both had empires to run. Did they bring national characteristics to bear in how they went about the job?

 

The French benefitted from a rational central bureaucracy that co-opted scientists into the business of systematic technological development. So in the 19th century they worked to a rational plan that would line the French coast with lighthouses at regular intervals and they financed scientific development of the Fresnel lens which provided the powerful beam that lighthouses needed. England proceeded in a chaotic and ill-organized fashion, preferring tradition and experience to science. Penny-pinching authorities were unwilling to put up cash and initially depended on the profit motive and private enterprise to stimulate lighthouse building. Yet if the English way was a mess, it got there in the end. There was finally little to choose between the achievements of the two countries. Incidentally, neither built as many lighthouses as the United States.

 

The iconic lighthouses of the British coastline have long since stopped being manned. Do you regret the march of progress which has brought that about?

 

I do regret it. Being a lighthouse keeper was hard, monotonous work and probably it shouldn’t be romanticized. But nonetheless, it always was one of those jobs that people fantasized about, like being an engine driver in the days of steam trains. There was a joy to looking at a lighthouse at night and thinking of the keeper up there in his rather splendid solitude. Something in the imaginative life of the world is lost through this automation, inevitable as it may be.

Could you bear to nominate a favourite lighthouse and explain why you’ve picked it?
My favourite lighthouse is one that disappeared three centuries ago. The first Eddystone lighthouse, built on an almost inaccessible reef by the crackpot inventor Winstanley and looking like ‘a pagoda in the sea’, must rank as one of the most extraordinary buildings ever made. The fact that it was swept away in a great storm with its creator inside it adds poignancy to its slightly mad glory.

Related Topics

Sentinels of the Sea

A Miscellany of Lighthouses Past R. G. Grant
£19.95