Saturday, November 18, 2023

Girls, girls, girls...


Seeing as it's nowhere near International Women's Day, I thought maybe I'd salute some of those pioneer women who first managed to wrestle a few shillings out of the Ballast Board for doing the same job that they'd probably been doing for most of their lives. 
Up until the 1860s, lightkeeping was a very male job, at least officially. The men got paid for keeping the light, whilst the women kept the house, did the cooking, reared the children and, doubtless, kept the light as well, whenever hubby got man flu or there was a match on the telly. Of course, there was a lot of physicality to the work in the old days, so I shouldn't really diss the male keeper. My point is that women did their fair share of lightkeeping too.
(The lighthouses here would not be the rock lighthouses but small stations that two people could manage.)
Up until the 1860s, these stations frequently employed a Principal Keeper and an Assistant Keeper, single men who would share the one house provided for the job. God help one half of a pairing who couldn't abide the other. If you got married, you would probably be moved. The men would be expected to cook and wash and keep the house. Shock, horror. The Ballast Board would have to fork out for two sets of wages - £64 12s 4d  per annum for a PK and £46 3s per annum for an AK.

Our old friend, John Swan Sloane naturally tried to take the credit for alleviating all these issues. He had a history of this but there may be some justification on this occasion. Give these smaller lighthouses to men with wives or daughters and create the role of Female Assistant. No more loneliness. The cooking and the washing is sorted. One house is sufficient accommodation. And, although I haven't been able to discover how much a Female Assistant was paid, one suspects it might not be quite as much as an AK. But sure, the family would be happier as they would have two wages coming in!
Another fact I have been unable to discover is why, on these two-person lighthouses, the male keeper was sometimes a PK and sometimes an AK. If I was to hazard a guess, it would be that a PK would retain his rank if rewarded towards the end of his career with a cushy station. But, 

And so, on the 15th April 1866, twenty-one woman took their rightful place in the pantheon of lightkeepers, all in the new role of Female Assistant. For the record, their names are listed below, together with age and relationship to the male keeper (which, of course, is vital information)

Balbriggan - Sarah Maginn, 58, wife
Broadhaven - Matilda Page, 25, wife
Charlesfort - Margaret Kelly, 39, daughter
Crookhaven - Elizabeth Doyle, 16. daughter
Donaghadee - Margaret Gardiner, 39, wife
Drogheda North - Margaret Redmond, 50, wife
Duncannon North - Anne Jane Lovell, 29, daughter
Dungarvan - Catherine Gillen, 22, sister
Dunmore East - Elizabeth Williams, 48, wife
Fannet Point - Kate M. Callaghan, 28, wife
Ferris Point - Catherine Duffy, 30, wife
Greenore - Anne Lyndon, nr, daughter
Inishgort - Mary Anne McKenna, 44, wife
Inishowen East - Anne Page, 30, daughter
Kilcredaun - Mary Stapleton, 30, wife
Kingstown West - Mary Anne McKenna, 17, niece
Lesser Samphire Island - Ellen Cunningham, 22, wife
Mutton Island - Bridget Carolan, 38, wife
Rotten Island - Margaret Redmond, 25, wife
Tarbert - Mary Anne Corish, 42, wife
Valentia - Elizabeth Sole, 17, daughter

(Just to forestall people pointing it out, yes, Mary Westby does appear to have been the keeper of the Loop Head lighthouse in 1771 but she was very much a one-off.)


  1. Very timely post Pete, I have a related piece for next Friday and will be happy to have this to add more depth and context

  2. hi pete. Brillo. this follows what i thought I could see in the caldwell stuff i sent you. Nice one

    1. That Caldwell stuff has been an absolute godsend!!