Sunday, October 10, 2021

South Rock lightkeepers

The South Rock lighthouse three miles off the coast of county Down is, as we all know, the oldest wave-washed lighthouse in the world, still standing and is therefore criminally overlooked by our maritime historians, possibly because it is difficult to get up close to. The only surviving Thomas Rogers lighthouse, I'd better do a decent post about it soon, but for now, this post is about the keepers.

Built in 1797, the first keepers and their families lived in the tower itself. It was a single family operation, no relief keepers, and a boat came once a week from Newcastle pier, the nearest place on the shore. The pier had been constructed specifically to aid the construction of the lighthouse and lay in the townland of Newcastle, on the southern shore of Millin Bay. (This should not be confused with the town of Newcastle further down the county Down coast, though I confuse the two frequently)

It is said that the first keeper was a man named McCullough and there is a possibly apocryphal tale of him bringing his twelve year old son to the fair in Portaferry. It was the son's first time off the rock and he was naturally dumbfounded by the sights and sounds around him. Eventually, the father told the boy that he'd buy him one thing that he wanted. Earlier, the father had referred to some girls as goats. "Sure I'd like you to buy me one of them goats," the son replied.

The above notice was circulated in many newspapers. One might think that Captains Firebrand and Lasher were extremely stupid to sign their names, as a quick look through the local phone book could easily identify their location but phones had not been invented by this time. They were actually names in general use to indicate membership of a sectarian, agrarian secret society such as the Whiteboys, which operated in both creeds and eventually got used by the landlord classes to victimise unwanted tenants. George Carr, being the Superintendent of the Lighthouse, may have been the keeper at the time, possibly appointed at the expense of somebody on the opposite side of the religious divide.

Around about 1814, Michael Wishart was the keeper. Lighthouse people know him as one of the two keepers who aided a smuggler on the Tuskar Rock in 1821, helped themselves liberally to his brandy and got caught. Poor Michael eventually died falling off a cliff while cutting grass for his cow on Skellig Michael. It was quite a fall from grace (and from the cliff). In 1815, George Halpin had specifically plucked him off the South Rock to train up all the old keepers who were having trouble with the new Ballast Board regime.

Incidentally, I've never seen anybody make the link but this is surely the same Michael Wishart who was the master mason of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse in Scotland until a nasty accident cut short his career. Robert Stevenson made him one of the first lightkeepers there when he had recovered from his injuries and, with the great rapport between Stevenson and Halpin, it seems logical for Stevenson to recommend him to Halpin.

After 23 years of being a one keeper, live-in station, the South Rock was turned into a three-keeper operation in 1820 with three keepers' cottages constructed by the Newcastle pier to accommodate them. The photos above and below are from the north side of Millin Bay and my thanks to Nick from Holywood for going to the bother of taking them for me. The rutted lane down to the coast is now in a pretty bad state and is frequently waterlogged. The cottages, when built, were single storey dwellings though they are now two-storey.

One of the first men to avail of these cottages was a keeper called Walter Adamson. Like Michael Wishart, he hailed from Fife in Scotland and may have been another Stevenson recommendee. He must have been the Principal Keeper for his annual pay in 1821 (when he was 51 years old) was £66 15s. By 1844, he had retired on a pension of roughly half that amount. He died in 1856 and his wife Jane in 1864, both being buried at nearby Slanes graveyard.

Eventually in 1863, the station became a four-keeper posting with an extra two-storey dwelling house erected for the new assistant, which seems a bit unfair on the other three!
Records for lightkeepers are very hit and miss in the 1800s but thanks to the efforts of Jim Blaney in wading through what records exist and recording them in Beam 26, 1997, we at least have some names. These are: -

Daniel Whelan and Peter Corish, c.1850 - 51
Naphtali Hackney 1854
Mr. Butler (and possibly Mr. Stapleton) 1857
Nicholas O'Donnell 1858
Mr. Carlin 1858
John Whelan 1868
Andrew Goodwin 1868
James McCabe (PK) and AKs Sampson McCabe, George Brownell and John O'Donnell 1871
William Maginn and John Kennedy 1872
James Maginn 1874
John Whelan 1875-77
Michael Barry 1876
M. O'Donnell 1877

Michael O'Donnell was the final PK at South Rock, as the lighthouse was, after eighty years, deemed to be located too far from the very rock it was supposed to be marking. Sadly, for Michael, he was demoted to AK two weeks before the closure, for not forwarding his oil journals to Head Office.
As the lighthouse was replaced by the South Rock lightship, some lightshipmen continued to be housed at the shore station at Newcastle until they were sold off around 1905.

The Rocket House at Newcastle, as used by the coastguards.

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