Keepers of the Light at Mumbles Lighthouse, by Carol Powell MA

By

Carol Powell MA

 

. . . But when the tempests crash and storm fiends roar,

And the breakers dash on the rocky shore,

And the Mixon is drowned in the thundering gale. . .

 

This is the story of the families who lived and worked at the Mumbles Lighthouse  on the outer of the two islands of Mumbles Head—islands, which it is believed,  had been named mamelles (breasts) perhaps by the Romans or the Normans and which in time, gave their name to the modern locality—Mumbles.
 
 
 

The Mumbles 

 

In 1791, a Harbour Trust was set up, one of its purposes being ‘to warn ships of the hazards off the Mumbles Head’, namely the Cherrystone Rocks and the Mixon Shoals, which were claiming many lives.  By 1794, a lighthouse, built under the supervision of William Jernegan, was in operation and the following year, a house was completed on the island ‘for the person to live in who shall keep the lights.’ The lighthouse originally displayed two open coal-fire lights, one above the other to distinguish it from St Ann's Head Lighthouse to the west, which had two lights on separate towers side by side and Flatholm Lighthouse to the east, which had only one. The coal lights in braziers were expensive and difficult to maintain and so in 1799, they were replaced by oil lamps, which lit a large, Neath Foundry-made lantern, consisting of argand lamps with reflectors within a cast-iron lantern. The costs of the upkeep of the lighthouse and the Keepers’ wages were collected from ships, which ‘passed the light’ and in 1834 by Act of Parliament, the management passed from the Harbour Trust to the Corporation of Trinity House.  
 
    Keepers were employed to look after the light and keep it burning ‘from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise throughout the year, for the benefit and security of ships . . . passing . . . the Mumbles Head.’  In 1794, David Bydder was appointed as the first keeper to ‘keep in and attend to the business of the lights from midsummer-day next.’ He only stayed a short while and was replaced on 14 July 1794 by John Walker, who was appointed at £40 p.a., however, he was sacked soon after for leaving the light unmanned throughout a three-day storm. The next keeper was Benjamin Llewellyn, who initially held the post from October 1794 (the year he married Catherine Williams) at the pay of 18/- per week for only one month. From 1795, keepers were to live on the island, but could bring their families with them, so in 1800, having been appointed to a permanent live-in post and ‘in consideration of his usefull [sic] and faithful services to the Trust,’ Benjamin Llewellyn was to have 15/- per week.  In 1801, he applied for assistance on account of his family’s illness and the ‘late high prices of provisions’ and was awarded a gift of 1½ guineas
 
    Keepers’ duties were round the clock, involving the maintenance and cleaning of lights, lenses and mirrors every day, keeping wicks trimmed, clockworks oiled and fog horns maintained, together with periodic maintenance of the building itself. They would have had to carry oil and any other tools and cleaning supplies with them up the spiral stairs to the top and were expected to man their station regardless of the climate or weather conditions.  In 1809, the Trustees ordered that ‘the men employed at the Mumbles lighthouse . . . were to keep journals of ye weather and of ye times when ye light shall be respectively lighted.’
 
 
Mumbles Lighthouse, 1841,  engraved by W. Mossman and drawn by W.H.  Bartlett  
 
    By 1841, Benjamin Llewellyn had retired as light-keeper but working as a stone mason and living in ‘Mumbles Village’ with his wife and several grown-up children. He had been succeeded by Abraham Ace, the first of a succession of Mumbles Keepers, who were all members of one family—father, son and grandson each being appointed in turn. The 1841 census records that Abraham Ace, 60, was the ‘lighthouse keeper’ who lived on site with his wife, Sarah, 68; their son, Abraham, aged 21, a mariner and twenty-year old daughter, Margaret.
 
    Ten years later,  Abraham senior had retired as Keeper, his wife having died shortly before and his son had taken over—the second Abraham Ace, 30, was now  the  light keeper [sic], who was in residence with his  wife, Margaret, 27; Elizabeth, 5 and John, aged 1. However, it seems that Abraham senior had not retired completely, as he was recorded as living with them, but now working as a carpenter. In 1860, the light was changed to a dioptric one and the 1861 census shows an expanding Ace family growing up to island life—Abraham Ace, 40, lighthouse keeper, his wife, Margaret, 37 and children, Elizabeth, 15, John, 11, Sarah, 7; Margaret, 6, Jane, 4, and Jessie, also 4. The children would have often had arduous journeys to school from their island home, having to dodge the tides and endure bad weather—a fact illustrated in 1867 in the Oystermouth National School log book, when Her Majesty’s Schools Inspector, Mr. Binns, noted that he ‘could not allow a grant [to the school] on account of the lighthouse children who had attended less than two hundred times in the year.’ He could not agree that the weather had made it impossible for them to attend to that degree. This was at a time when education was not compulsory but fees, usually a penny per week per child were expected, the Government grant being given in addition on the basis of children’s good attainment and attendance.
 
     By 1871, Abraham Ace, 50, ‘keeper of lighthouse’ [sic] and his wife, Margaret, 47 had only three daughters still at home—Sarah, 19, Margaret, 17 and Jessie, 10. But the census also notes the inhabitants of an adjacent Battery, built by the War Department on the island in 1860 and occupied by military personnel, Sgt. James Capon and his children, Agnes, 13 and James, 7 as well as Gunners James Owens, 36; John Williams, 27 and  Thomas Haishay, 42. In the late 1870s, a telegraph signal station was erected on the island too. Ten years later,  in one house, only Abraham Ace, 60, lighthouse keeper and his daughter, Jessie, 20 were in residence and in a separate household, were the third Abraham Ace, 36 lighthouse keeper, his wife, Sarah, 34 and children, Abraham, 13 and William, aged 2. Additionally, in the Barracks were Sgt. Henry Roberts, together with his wife, Julia and children John, 9, Lilian, 2 and Ernest, 6 months and Gunners, John Capel and  John Birminhame [sic]—fourteen people in all on that small island!
 

 

Margaret Wright and Jessie Ace, daughters of Abraham Ace

 

Margaret (by now married) and Jessie were the two young women, immortalised in the poem, ‘The Women of the Mumbles head’ by Clement Scott when, with Gunner Edward Hutchings, they helped rescue  two crew members from the ship, the Admiral Prinz Adalbert, which had been driven ashore on the lighthouse island in a fierce storm.  Some say this was merely a story, but in his evidence to the inquiry into the disaster, Abraham Ace affirmed that ‘of those in the water . . . his two daughters and an artilleryman, saved two by heaving a rope to them.’ The Mumbles lifeboat was involved and lost four members of its crew, leaving four widows and fourteen orphaned children.
 
    The autumn of 1885 was one of contrasts for the Aces, as there was a wedding preceded by the deaths of two family members—in September, the second Abraham, who by then was living at Langdon [sic] Place, Mumbles died, followed in the November by his daughter-in-law, Sarah, who passed away aged 38, in the same week that the happy event of Jessie’s wedding to mariner, John Dunnstan took place.
 
    By 1891, Abraham Ace, 47, lighthouse keeper, his  second wife, Annie, 37, and children John, 23; William, 11; Mary, 9 and George, 3 were guarding the light in the company of second keeper, Jasper Williams, 36 and his wife, Mary, 34.  In the Barracks were Thomas Hawkes, 45 Sgt. Royal Artillery, his wife, Bertha 26, her sister, Caroline Watson, and Gunner George Rolfe, 35 from London.—this time,  twelve people living on that tiny island!  On 21 April 1896, Annie Ace fell ill with smallpox. Mr. Bevan, the Medical Officer re-vaccinated the other six people living there, but could not give an explanation as to the source of the outbreak and they were all cautioned against going into Mumbles. Happily Annie recovered but it would be July 1902, before the M.O. declared ‘Mumbles free of smallpox.’ In 1901, Abraham and Annie were still in residence with just two children George and Ernest at home. Jasper and Pollie Williams and her niece, Pollie Holborrow made up the other ‘keeper’ household. Gunner George Rolfe continued to live in the barracks and Richard Hopson, a Lloyd’s Signal Master was at the telegraph station.
 

    Jasper Williams became head-keeper in 1902 on the retirement of the third Abraham Ace, assisted by his nephew, John Thomas, who in turn became the final resident head-keeper when his uncle passed away in 1914 and Charlie Cottle joined the team.  John Thomas and his wife were sometimes to be seen on their way to the Methodist Church—‘. .   they cannot come to class or chapel except at rare intervals, but it would do you good to see the class Leader picking his way across the sound when the tide is out in order to take the class ticket to his member.’ On 16 October 1903, the Mumbles Press announced that ‘Abraham Ace has died and left no male heir to carry on the family tradition.’

 

 

 

Mumbles lighthouse, Barracks and Telegraph Station

 

On New Year’s Day 1905, a new occulting mechanism was introduced, where the light was made to flash and it was this which was partially automated in 1934. From 1908, a newly installed mechanical fog horn became known as ‘Jasper’s Baby.’

The Keepers were not now required to live on the island and so they lived on the mainland—their island accommodation together with a small chapel gradually falling into disrepair. These were demolished in the 1960s.
 
    The final keeper was Charlie Cottle, who with his mate, J. Hunt and Charlie’s black cat, Mackie looked after the light, their journey to work from the shore, sometimes involving wading through water at low tide, followed by a scramble over the rocks. If the weather was bad, they could be marooned there for a week! Apart from tending the light and seeing to the foghorn in thick weather, they had to look after the power supply, keep the small motor in order which powered the foghorn, make sure the stores were in order and keep a note of every ship which passed up and down the channel. Charlie’s twenty-two year stay came to an end in May 1936.
 

    These ‘Keepers of the Light’ had warned sailors of the perils of the Cherrystone Rock and the Mixon Shoals for over 140 years, but now their jobs had become redundant, as much-improved equipment obviated the need for keepers. Henceforth, the lighthouse would be powered automatically, become electrically powered in 1969, converting to solar power in 1995—but ‘Jasper’s Baby’ continues to cry out in foggy weather!

 

Acknowledgments

All Saints’ Church Parish Records

Censuses, 1841-1901

Oystermouth National School Log Book, 1867

Medical Officer’s Report, February 1897, WG Archive

The Cambrian News, 7 October 1843, 9 January 1849, 7 February 1851,

30 December 1859, 20 December 1878, 2 February 1883, 6 November 1885

The Mumbles Press, 16 October 1903

Western Mail, 22 July 1902

 Gabb, Gerald, The Story of the village of Mumbles, Cowbridge, 1986

Jones, W.H., The History of the Port of Swansea, 1922

Powell, Carol, Inklemakers, Swansea, 1993

Powell, Carol, Once upon a Village, Swansea, 1996

Powell, Carol, Days before Yesterday, Swansea, 2000

Roberts, M. and R.O., Two centuries of Mumbles Methodism, 1994

Scott, Clement, The Women of the Mumbles Head, 1883

Slater, C.W., The Corner Pew, 1919

Thomas, Norman, The Mumbles: Past and Present, Llandyssul, 1978

‘Veteran’s twenty-two years in Lighthouse’, Mumbles News, January 1981

www.nightbeacon.com/dutiesofalighthousekeeper

www.thechestnut.com/phantom

www.trinityhouse.co.uk

Other details from John ‘Puss’ Thomas, George Phillips, great-nephew of Jasper Williams and Michael Llewellyn, great-great-grandson of Benjamin Llewellyn.

 

Illustrations
The Mumbles, 2007, photo by John Powell

Mumbles  lighthouse, 1841, engraved by W. Mossman and drawn by W.H.  Bartlett   (WGA)

Margaret Wright and Jessie Ace, daughters of Abraham Ace (OHA archive)

Mumbles Lighthouse, Barracks and Telegraph Station, (OHA archive)