By Anne E Wilson
The Farne Islands lie from 1.5-4.75 miles off the North Northumberland coast and even without taking into account the dangerous tidal currents, they have always been a major hazard to shipping. Extensive areas of shallows and reefs mean that the appearance of the islands alters dramatically with the state of the tide. This is especially true at spring tides where the tidal range can be over 5m. Around 18 islands are usually seen at high tide, with about 30 visible at low water.
|Map © National Trust|
It is possible that the earliest lights on the Farne Islands were beacons first lit by the hermits and then later, when the monastery was established in 1255, by the monks as a warning to sailors of the dangerous seas round the islands. Then in 1669 Charles II gave a license and the authority to Sir John Clayton and George Blake to erect five lights at four locations on the east coast, including the Farne Islands. While a separate lighthouse may have been built, there is no evidence. It is most likely that a fire basket was put on the top of Prior Castell’s tower on Inner Farne as, in 1675, the Dean and Chapter of Durham, the then owners of the Farne Islands, granted a lease to the Islands for 21 years to Sir Francis Liddell of Ogle Castle. The right, however, ‘to use and enjoy the lighthouse now erected upon said mansion’ (presumably the above tower) was reserved for the owners of the lights. Thomas Castell, a prior of Durham, had built the tower in 1500, as a defence for the monks against the frequent border raids. Interestingly, a map dated to around 1693 appears to show a beacon on its roof.
|Prior Castell’s Tower|
While Clayton and Blake’s lighthouses were finished by 1673, some were not lit because the merchants refused to pay dues; they were voluntary! There is some evidence, however, that prior to Clayton and Blake, there was correspondence from 1654-1660 between Trinity House and a local man, Francis Liddell of Bamburgh, about the necessity of building lighthouses on the Farne Islands and it appears that he had actually been given permission to erect two lights. This may have been one of the reasons why Trinity House did not favour Clayton and Blake and built a rival light of their own at one of the east coast sites for which no dues were charged.
For the next hundred years, though ships were wrecked on the Farne Islands with alarming regularity, nothing seems to have been done. In 1755 a Captain John Blackett requested Trinity House for permission to build a lighthouse on Staple Island in the outer group but was turned down. In July 1769 John Blackett, and eventually his son William, became the lessees of the Farnes for the next 50 years, and, on 6th July 1776, he made an agreement with Trinity House to build two lighthouses at his own expense on the Farne Islands, subject to approval from the Attorney General. This lease was for 60 years for a rent of £60 a year. On the Inner Farne he placed two fire baskets on the top of Prior Castell’s tower. He may have removed part of the fourth storey to improve visibility. He did, however, build a new beacon on Staple Island, in the form of a stone cottage with a roof sloping to a central glazed lantern, which is thought to have burned either whale or seal oil (it was probably seal oil, as the Blacketts were known to have killed a large number of the resident grey seals on the Farne Islands).
|Sketch of lighthouse S H Grimm © British Library|
In the meantime, between 1772-1784 the Lord Crewe Trustees, led by Senior Trustee Rev’d. Dr John Sharp, tried to buy out Blackett’s lease and to erect a lighthouse on Longstone. The Lord Crew Trustees had the responsibility of managing Bamburgh Castle and its extensive estates for the benefit of the local inhabitants and for charity. Not only did the Trustees feel that the light should be as near to the outermost and most dangerous Knivestone as possible, but they also thought that Blackett’s plans were ‘intended for his own private benefit’ and that he would construct them as cheaply as possible. On 8th April 1778, Thomas Adams (the solicitor acting for Sharp) wrote to Sharp’s brother stating that despite not having the Attorney General’s permission, both lighthouses had already been built, and furthermore, in building them Blackett had attended more to the ‘saving of his money than the preservation of ships’. The agreement was presumably obtained by the end of November, as both lights were officially exhibited in early December—the Inner Farne on 1st December and on Staple, 4th December 1778.
It is not surprising, given the above comments, that the lighthouse on Staple was destroyed in the ‘Great Storm’ of 4th December 1783 at the same time the 4th sea stack off Staple Island was snapped, leaving the ‘broken branch’ that is present today.
|Pinnacles showing broken branch|
The following photograph shows the remains of the cottage on Staple today. It is difficult to imagine anyone living there, as there is so little room inside.
|Tower on Staple today|
Despite further representations to Trinity House from the Lord Crewe Trustees, and a survey of Longstone that stated categorically that not only could a lighthouse be built there, but it would have a ‘permanency’; unlike the one on Staple. No light was built on Longstone until well into the 19th century and the Trustees never did get the lease they so much desired.
It is unclear exactly where and when the Staple lighthouse was rebuilt, it might have been on Staple, or on Brownsman, the adjacent island.
Nevertheless by 1791 there was a beacon tower on Brownsman, with living accommodation in the bottom and a ladder to the top with the fire grates. The photographs show both the tower as it is today, and the inside, where it is possible that the remains of the original steps can be seen.
Little is known of the early keepers of these two lights. Those on the Inner Farne were described as an aged couple who lived in St Cuthbert’s chapel (originally built for the Benedictine Monastery established upon the island in 1255, and then deserted after the dissolution of the monasteries). The chapel had been converted into a cottage for the keepers. Robert Darling became the lighthouse keeper on the outer group of the Farne Islands in 1795 and after he died in 1815, his son William (see Part 2), who had been his assistant since 1805, became the keeper.
Around 1800 there had been complaints regarding the visibility of both the lights and Trinity House wanted Blackett to fit reflectors and Argand lamps. When he refused, the lease was examined and found ‘never to have been executed’. Blackett then quickly agreed. No doubt the fact that the local merchants had agreed to pay increased tolls was a further encouragement. In 1807, Trinity House carried out a survey on the towers on Inner Farne and Brownsman that resulted in a decision to build two new lighthouses, one on Inner Farne and the other on Brownsman. That on Inner Farne was constructed in 1809/1810, and on Brownsman in 1810. (See Part 2)
In addition to the lighthouse on Inner Farne (often referred to as the High Light), Trinity House built one referred to as the Low Light that was first exhibited on 1 February 1811. This was situated 152m from the highlight and was a white tower 8.2m high with a fixed white light using Argand lamps and reflectors and fuelled by paraffin oil. It was situated near the Churn blowhole on the north-west corner of the islands so that when the two lights were aligned they gave a leading direction between the Goldstone and the Plough near Holy Island (two dangerous areas of shoals) and warned of the presence of Megstone, the western outlier of the Farne Islands, and an island that had been responsible for many wrecks.
|Map Eyre 1857|
|Photo/etching Low Light from the collections of Newcastle City Library|
Apparently, it was the keeper on watch at the High Light who was to observe the Low Light during darkness. This was done by means of a small mirror that caught some of the light of the latter and reflected it toward the lantern of the High Light through an aperture in the smaller tower. While this may have been satisfactory most of the time, it clearly could cause problems; in both 1885 and 1890 there was a serious fire in the Low Lighthouse. These may have been prevented if a keeper had been on duty there.
The first fire in October 1885 was discovered by assistant lightkeeper William Darling (the great grandson of Robert Darling; see above). William found the Low Light on fire with burning oil running down the tower steps at 05:30. Though another keeper and he were able to extinguish the fire, the lamps had melted, the reflectors were damaged, and the glazing cracked. Nevertheless, the light was relit that evening. The second fire in January 1890 again damaged the lamps and reflectors, but also gutted the tower. Unfortunately, there is no information as to when it was repaired.
An order dated May 1901 specified that two keepers were to light up both lights at sunset, with the keeper at the High Light taking over the Low light after 30 minutes and then keeping it under observation by means of the mirrors provided. He then had to visit it at least once an hour. It is interesting to speculate if a further incident at the Low light had given rise to this.
The Low Light was decommissioned in September 1910 at the time the High Light was automated (see Part 2). The low light was demolished in 1911 after operating for just under a hundred years. Regrettably, of all the lighthouses built on the Farne Islands, this is the only one of which no trace remains.
Gordon Medlicott, ALK
The Association of Lighthouse Keepers (ALK)
The National Trust
British Library Board: Shelfmark: Additional MS 15543
The Newcastle upon Tyne City Library archives.