Sunday, December 5, 2021

Joseph Kerr at the Holywood Light

Painting of the Holywood Bank lighthouse, artist unknown, currently in the Belfast Harbour Board office. Dated to 1860.

As per the previous post, this is one of over 70 stories of Irish lighthouse fatalities, in my forthcoming book, When the light goes out.

Joseph Kerr and the Holywood Bank light 1855

One of the great names in Irish (and indeed global) lighthouse history is Alexander Mitchell, the blind, Belfast engineer (born in South William Street in Dublin but the family moved to Belfast when young). Inspired by how easily a corkscrew went into a cork but could not be pulled out straight, he transferred the principal to the problem of building edifices on mud. The story goes that, in the 1830s, with his 19-year-old son, John, he rowed out into Belfast Lough with a long pole attached to a metal screw. This he screwed into the mud, leaving the top of the pole exposed. He came back the following day to find the pole still in situ and the screwpile lighthouse was born.

     It was doubtless gratifying to him that his adopted city was one of the first to request one of his pile lights. It was erected in 1844 on the edge of a large and dangerous bank of sand off Holywood, county Down. The lighthouse also doubled as a pilot station and contained fifteen sleeping berths, as well as separate apartments for both the captain of the pilots and his assistant. The captain of the pilots was also in charge of the light.

     We do not know when Joseph Kerr became the lightkeeper of the Holywood Bank light. Newspaper reports in the early 1850s talk generally of regatta races being held “to Kerr’s lighthouse and back,” which suggests he was certainly well-known in the area by this time. A Joseph Kerr, born in Belfast in 1821, received his Master’s Certificate in 1851 for having served seven years in the coasting trade as a boy, mate and master. It was probably the same man.

     Joseph Kerr was married and had two small children. His wife used to mind the red light at the bottom of the Victoria Channel. When morning came, Kerr was in the habit of dowsing his own light and taking the boat to his wife’s lighthouse.

     At 7 o’clock on Monday morning 14th May 1855, he was doing just this when, descending the ladder on the piles, he fell into the water and was carried away. What made this all the worse was that the accident was witnessed by the keeper’s six-year-old daughter. As the strong current took him away, his daughter attempted to push the boat out to him but was unable to do so. Raising the alarm, the pilots immediately set about scouring the area but were unable to find him. At last, around two o’clock in the afternoon, the Harbour Commissioners’ pilot boat succeeded in locating the body not far from the lighthouse.

     The obligatory inquest was held at the General Hospital in Belfast and came to the unsurprising conclusion that Joseph Kerr had been accidentally drowned.

     At the next meeting of the Belfast Harbour Board, it was graciously agreed that they should permit Mrs. Kerr to continue to mind her light as she had done during her husband’s lifetime, as otherwise the family would be unprovided for.

Illustration from "Holywood Then and Now" by Rev, McConnell Auld

      Seven weeks later, the Harbour Board engineer had the sad duty to report that Mrs. Kerr (being a woman, her first name was immaterial) had also died. The Board empowered board members Messrs. Pirrie and Henderson to inquire what could be done for the two orphaned children and to appoint a successor immediately.    

More on the Holywood Bank lighthouse can be found here

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