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There is a Light That Never Goes Out

When I was a young boy, my bedroom window looked out over fields towards Strumble Head lighthouse. I used to fall asleep to the comforting rhythm of the lighthouse beam scanning across my window: one, two, three, four, then a dark gap of four, then it would start up again. It was a nocturnal equivalent to counting sheep, only for Welshmen, possibly more wholesome. I often used to wonder what it was like for the Lighthouse keepers out there on Ynys Meicel . . .

Strumble Head & Lighthouse Aerial Pembrokeshire Coast South Towns & Villages

Until I was seven years old, there were probably three keepers out on Strumble Head due to an infamous incident that took place on another lighthouse off the Pembrokeshire Coast . . .

Small unpainted stormy

The Smalls Lighthouse is on a cluster of rocks twenty miles southwest of St Davids. The first structure was built as early as 1776 to designs by Henry Whiteside, a talented young musical instrument maker from Liverpool and a relative of mine. Whiteside designed an octagonal timber hut perched on nine oak legs. During the Winter of 1775-1776, he temporarily erected the structure at Solva harbour and thanks to this successful practice-run, the lighthouse was built quickly out on the Smalls by September that year. The following year, Whiteside and his blacksmith went to the Smalls again to repair and strengthen the lighthouse. This time they encountered severe storms and were stranded there for months. Whiteside sent out three messages-in-a-bottle. One turned up in Galway and another was picked up on a Pembrokeshire beach. The dignified but desperate note ended with: “We doubt not but that whoever takes up this will be so merciful as to cause it to be sent to Thomas Williams of Trelethin, St. Davids, Wales.”  The note must have made it to Treleddyn because the men were eventually rescued.

Smalls Lighthouse 1776 2

In 1801, the occupiers of the Smalls lighthouse were not quite so fortunate. The two-man team, Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith, were apparently known to quarrel. Unfortunately, Griffith died in a freak accident. Howell feared that if he discarded the body into the sea, he might be suspected of murder. So as the body began to decompose, he built a makeshift coffin for the corpse and lashed it to the external lantern rail. Strong winds soon blew the coffin apart and the body’s arm fell within view of the hut’s window. The wind caught the arm in such a way that it seemed as though it was beckoning. Working on his own and with the decaying corpse of his former colleague hanging outside, Howell managed to keep the coal-fuelled lamp lit. When he was finally rescued from the lighthouse, it was clear that the ordeal had not been good for Howell’s mental health. Henry Whiteside recommended that lighthouse teams were changed to rosters of three men. This practice continued in all British lighthouses until their automation in the 1980s.


Whiteside ended up marrying Mary? Williams who ran the Ship Inn in Solva. His timber lighthouse survived, amazingly, for 80 years and his basic design was later adopted for hundreds of sea structures. The present Smalls Lighthouse – the tallest in Wales – was built under the supervision of Trinity House in 1861. This time it was built of granite and Solva harbour was again used as the base for the builders. The surplus granite left in Solva was used for building many chimneys in the area, including those on the original cottage at The Old Boathouse in Trefin. When this cottage was demolished in the late 1960s, my grandfather salvaged the Smalls granite from its chimneys and reused them when building chimneys at Ysgubor Fach nearby.

In the pre-GPS age of sea trading, lighthouses were of vital navigational importance and must have saved countless lives and valuable cargos. They’re also such cool structures! Life as a lighthouse keeper must have had a sense of purpose and exhilaration, but it would have required superhuman levels of mental and spiritual strength. In this age of celebrity endurance shows, their premise is lightweight compared to spending months of monotony and isolation on a remote lighthouse. For the election debates, maybe we should send Cameron, Milliband, Clegg, Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Farage out there and film the ensuing drama. I wonder who’d end up being lashed to the ledge?

Smalls painted


Image 1: Strumble Head Lighthouse –
Image 2, 3 & 4: The Smalls Lighthouse – Trinity House
Image 5: The Smalls Lighthouse (before being sand-blasted to remove the red and white paint) – RCAHMW