Saturday, February 10, 2024

The sole keeper at Roches Point


Roches Point 1862

Roches Point sits at the entrance of one of the largest natural harbours in the world - Cork - and, naturally enough was regarded as one of the major Irish lighthouses of the nineteenth century. It was so necessary that, in 1832, the Ballast Board decided that the light built there in 1817 was too small for the job, so they took it down, brick by brick, and shipped it off to Duncannon in county Wexford, and replaced it with a larger lighthouse.
It was, however, not so important as to waste the expense of a second keeper at the light. From 1817 to 1861, Roches Point was a one-keeper station, the sole keeper being expected to stay alert and vigilant during the 14 hours of winter darkness, to attend to all the repairs and painting and cleaning. 

Atkinson painting c. 1848

For nearly twenty of those years, the keeper at Roches Point was a guy called Bradley Sole, who had been born in Deal in Kent in 1812. Eight miles further down the coast he would have been a Dover Sole but you can't have everything. His grandfather had been a boat builder in Deal, so the sea loomed large in his life. 
Somehow, on 12th May 1836, he ended up as a rookie lightkeeper at the newly-erected lighthouses in Sligo harbour and the following year he married Anne Meredith, daughter of the local Sub-Inspector of the Constabulary. After stints in Sligo, St. John's Point (Donegal) and Balbriggan, they rocked up to Roches Point with at least two, and probably more, baby Soles in tow around 1845. They were to remain there until 1864.

A sketch of Roches Point by Ballast Board, later Irish Lights commissioner, Robert Calwell in the 1860s.

For those of you who yearn wistfully for the tranquil and romantic life of a lightkeeper, the following excerpt is taken from an inspection committee report of visiting the station in 1859, when Bradley was still in Sole charge.

The illuminating apparatus is catoptric, fixed; 9 red chimneys to seaward, 8 white towards harbour. There is only one keeper. He has 12 children. Receives £64 a year. He repeatedly asked for an assistant. There are no signals. He breaks a chimney every night. There is no water cistern. The keeper complains of the hardship of having stone floors in his dwelling house. Everything in this lighthouse appears to be in good order, all the reflectors were covered with brown paper. The accommodation is good for a small family. The keeper informed us that on one occasion a duck got into the lantern through the cowl, and , fluttering round, broke nearly all the chimneys and put out the light.
As there are great complaints of this lighthouse not showing well beyond a short distance to seaward, we think it advisable to state that we saw no symptoms of neglect anywhere. If, however, lights require careful and constant attention to prevent them burning dull, we deem it probable that where there is only one keeper, considerable intervals will elapse without any attention being paid to the lights. It is not possible that in a long winter night of fourteen hours, one keeper can keep his attention constantly alive. He will, we believe, inevitably go to sleep.

(The duck story, incidentally, is mentioned here - note the report mentions the keepers (plural) in the lighthouse)

Irish Lights inspection photograph by Sir Robert Ball at Roches Point c. 1905 (Photograph courtesy the National Library of Ireland)

By mid-1862, the family was down to nine children. Three had left, either died or fled the nest for somewhere with nice plush carpets. And there was still no sign of an assistant. The Commissioners probably decided he had enough children to keep the light in order. One child, John Bradley, born in 1851, would indeed later go on to be a keeper in his own right.
Brad was eventually transferred to Valentia in June 1864, another shore station, deemed a one-person station. There was some slight relief in April 1866, when the position of Female Assistant Keeper was created. In this, Bradley was assisted, not by wife, Anne, but by their 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
The Soles finished up the lightkeeping business at Balbriggan in 1872 and, at some stage thereafter, appear to have moved up to Donaghadee in county Down. Bradley died there in 1883 aged 70 of general debility and dropsy.
Roches Point became a two-keeper station a year or two after Brad's departure.

Roches Point, around ten years ago, taken from Weaver's Point, on the western entrance to Cork harbour


  1. Amazing that one man should be left to run such an important station.

  2. I'd tend to agree. They'd spend a fortune building towers and ordering lenses from Birmingham and lanterns from God knows where but baulk at forking out £42 per year on an assistant!