In 1774, John Phillips was in need of some money. A small group of wave-washed basalt and dolerite rocks off the coast of Pembrokeshire was in need of a lighthouse. What a happy coincidence they were both in need at the same time.
Phillips did the right thing and took a lease out on The Smalls from the Treasury. He was after the lighthouse dues that had to be paid by ships that benefited from their light. These ‘Light Dues’ were collected at the nearest dock and were principally for the maintenance of the lighthouse and wages of the keepers. I guess there was a lot to spare because people made quite a bit of money out of them.
Anyway, Phillips put an ad in the paper looking for someone to design and build a lighthouse in this inhospitable spot. Ignoring common sense and going for the cheapest tender, he decided to go with a young chap called Henry Whiteside. Interestingly, Henry, age 26, had had no experience of lighthouses or the sea (except for what he could see from his house in Liverpool) given he was actually a musical instrument maker. Still, I guess salt water runs in the most unlikeliest of veins and Henry set to work.
It wasn’t easy work either. He collected a group of Cornish miners together and they set off for the Smalls in order to set the piles. In the next three and a half months they only managed to work nine full days, the weather was so bad. Even so, they managed to get the work done.
Henry actually erected the lighthouse on the coast, in order to test his design. It was a good job he did because his original design called for iron legs to hold the cabin which would house the lamp…and the iron was too rigid. He quickly realised he would have to make the legs out of oak.
The construction was completed in 1776. The following winter was appalling even by the usually appalling standards of the local weather. Henry decided to stay there to check the stability of the build. Once the worst of the weather was passed, Henry called up his blacksmith mate and a couple of workers to complete some running repairs on the lighthouse.
It was during this time that a great storm sprung up and blasted their row boat to smithereens. They were stranded. No-one was coming to rescue them. They were a couple of miles off shore and even the birds kept away. Henry knew they were in trouble but, ever resourceful and not afraid of a challenge, he came up with a completely stupid solution.
Grabbing a scrap of paper and a quill he wrote a note requesting help. He rolled the paper up and slipped it into a bottle. He corked and sealed the bottle then threw it in the general direction of the coast of Wales. One can only imagine what the other three chaps thought of this idea. Mind you, at least Henry came up with an idea. From what I’ve read the other three didn’t have any.
And would you know it? The bottle not only washed up on the beach the next day but it was right where a local fisherman went to lay out his nets. He spotted the bottle and took out the note. I guess he could read because he straight away realised the import of the missive. He sent for the authorities and they sent a boat out to rescue Henry and the others.
Here’s a picture of Henry’s lighthouse. Mirinda reckons it looks like something out of the War of the Worlds and would contain Martians.
Another (possibly true) story about Smalls Lighthouse concerned a couple of keepers who were working there. In those days it was customary to have two lighthouse keepers there all the time so that there would always be someone watching while the other slept. The light was not much more than a oil lamp after all.
In around 1800 the keepers where Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith. It seemed they didn’t get on…so an odd sort of occupation for them, if you think about it. Then, suddenly, Thomas Howell died. Griffith was really, really worried that he would be blamed for the death, convinced they’d think he murdered his workmate. In order to prove that Howell died of natural causes, Griffith decided to keep the body rather than toss it into the sea.
He fashioned a crude coffin out of bits of driftwood and anything else he could find and, after putting Howell inside, strapped the whole thing to the outside of the cabin. This would have been fine except for the fact that one of Howell’s arms came free and would wave at Griffith whenever the wind blew…which was pretty much all the time.
When Griffith was relieved three months later, his mental state was questionable. He babbled something incoherent and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.
One good thing came out of it: After this, Trinity House decided to have three keepers at manned lighthouses at all times. The third person was a back-up…sort of like Freya was.
Smalls Lighthouse, the amazingly amazing concept of a musical instrument maker, stood, defying the elements for about 85 years before being replaced in 1861, by a big granite tower…which remains there today. Henry Whiteside clearly knew what he was doing.
Poor John Phillips didn’t make any money from his venture. The lighthouse cost much more to build and look after than he thought and he was soon well on his way to penury. He sold up his rights in 1777 to a syndicate of Liverpool businessmen headed by Thomas Golightly, mayor of Liverpool. The lighthouse was eventually sold to Trinity House who ran it successfully for the remainder of its existence. Poor John died in 1783 very, very miserable.