A lighthouse keeper or lightkeeper is a person responsible for tending and caring for a lighthouse, particularly the light and lens in the days when oil lamps and clockwork mechanisms were used. Lighthouse keepers were sometimes referred to as "wickies" because of their job trimming the wicks.
Duties and functions
Historically, lighthouse keepers were needed to trim the wicks, replenish fuel, wind clockworks and perform maintenance tasks such as cleaning lenses and windows. They were also responsible for the fog signal and the weather station, and played a major role in search and rescue at sea.
Because most lighthouses are located in remote, isolated or inaccessible areas on islands and coastlines, it was typical for the work of lighthouse keeper to remain within a family, passing from parents to child, all of whom lived in or near the lighthouse itself. "Stag light" was an unofficial term given to some isolated lighthouses in the United States Lighthouse Service. It meant stations that were operated solely by men, rather than accommodating keepers and their families.
Electrification and other technological advancements such as remote monitoring and automatic bulb changing began to appear in the 1960s and over the course of the late 20th century made paid resident keepers at the lights unnecessary in certain areas, while simply altering their responsibilities elsewhere. Those who continue to work as lighthouse keepers today perform building maintenance, repair work to broken and blind buoys, geographic realignment of wayward navigational aids off the coast, and technical maintenance on automated systems. In most countries, the training of lighthouse keepers falls within the jurisdiction of the Navy or Coast guard. In the US, periodic maintenance of the lights is now performed by visiting Coast Guard Aids to Navigation teams.
The earliest record of a named individual in a formal capacity as a lighthouse keeper was William, a member of the now famous Knott family, who was appointed to the South Foreland lighthouse near Dover, England, in 1730.
George Worthylake served as the first lighthouse keeper in the United States. He served at Boston Harbor Lighthouse from 1716 until his death in 1718. In 1776, Hannah Thomas became the first female lighthouse keeper in the United States when she became keeper of Plymouth (Gurnet) Lighthouse in Massachusetts following the death of her husband, John Thomas. Both Hannah and her husband received $200 per year for their service.
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, there are 51 staffed lighthouses left in Canada, as of October 2017: one in New Brunswick, 23 in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 27 in British Columbia. All of these lighthouses are staffed for operational reasons, except for the light on Machias Seal Island. This lighthouse, manned by the Canadian Coast Guard, is kept occupied for sovereignty purposes due to the disputed status of the island with the US. The Coast Guard further clarified in 2022 that there are 90 people employed as lighthouse keepers across the country, all of whom are considered to be employees of the federal government, and 54 of whom operate out of British Columbia.
The last civilian keeper in the United States, Frank Schubert, died in 2003. The last officially manned lighthouse, Boston Light, was manned by the Coast Guard until 1998. It now has volunteer Coast Guard Auxiliary "keepers" whose primary role is to serve as interpretive tour guides for visitors.
The lighthouses of Mexico are managed by the General Directorate for Ports and Merchant Marine, a government agency within the larger Secretariat of Communications and Transportation. Automation is not as common in Mexico as in other countries and many of the larger lights are therefore still staffed by resident civilian keepers.
The first lighthouse in Brazil is recorded to have been lit in 1698 in Santo Antonio, Bahia province, and they maintain a rich lighthouse keeping tradition. Of the 200 active lighthouses still maintained by the Navigational Aid Center, 33 are staffed, as of March 2020.
As of 2013, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) listed 650 lighthouses in Chile and approximately 20 of those were inhabited as of 2003. The southernmost lighthouse in the world, located on the northeast coast of Isla Gonzalo, in the Diego Ramirez Islands, remains a continuously staffed lighthouse and meteorological station administered by the Chilean Navy. In October 2017, the lighthouse keeper Marcelo Escobar had to be airlifted to Punta Arenas after he suffered a broken arm.
Sweden began systematically automating their lighthouses as early as the 1930s. Their transformation was so efficient that of the over 100 inhabited lighthouses operating at the start of the 20th century, only nine remained by the year 1980, and only three remained staffed into the 21st century: Kullen Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Scandinavia, was automated in 2003, having been only inhabited periodically since 1996, and then with the retirement of Lighthouse Master Per-Erik Broström on February 25, 2003, Holmögadd lighthouse on the southern end of Holmöarna, became Sweden's final inhabited lighthouse. Holmögadd lighthouse was decommissioned five years later.
Most French lighthouses are automated, though approximately a dozen were still staffed as of 2011. The French Department of Lighthouses and Beacons recommends that at least two isolated lighthouses at sea remain staffed regularly, if not constantly, for the benefit of training personnel in the work of maritime signal maintenance and safety. This highlights the ongoing role that lighthouse-keeping can play in modern society.
The United Kingdom and Ireland
Automation of lighthouses in the Britain and Ireland began in the late 1960s, but the majority of lighthouses remained staffed by resident keepers until the 1980s and 1990s. On the Isle of Man, the final lighthouses to become automated and therefore lose their keepers were the Calf of Man and Langness lighthouses, which were converted in 1995 and 1996 respectively. The Langness Lighthouse was purchased in 2008 by British television personality Jeremy Clarkson, and his ex-wife currently operates the property as tourist accommodations.
The Hook Head Lighthouse, at the eastern entrance to Ireland's Waterford Harbour, is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the world. It was manned continuously from at least 1207 until 1996, when it was finally automated. From the time of its construction in the 13th century, until the mid-17th century, the lighthouse was even home to an early Christian monastery.
Following the automation of Hook Head Lighthouse, Baily Lighthouse became the last Irish lighthouse to have a resident keeper, but it too was automated in 1997, and the lighthouse keeper was no longer needed.
The last manned lighthouse in England, and the United Kingdom, was the North Foreland Lighthouse in Kent. The last six keepers Dave Appleby, Colin Bale, Dermot Cronin, Tony Homewood, Barry Simmons and Tristan Sturley completed their service in a ceremony attended by the Prince Philip, on 26 November 1998. In an interview with the BBC, Dermot Cronin remarked, "I had no idea I would be closing the door of the last manned lighthouse in the British Isles."
Under pressure from British minister Sir Harry Parkes to fulfil its obligations under the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce to make the waters and harbors of Japan safe for shipping, the Tokugawa shogunate hired the Edinburgh-based firm of D. and T. Stevenson to chart coastal waters and to build lighthouses where appropriate. Richard Henry Brunton was sent from Edinburgh in August 1868 to head the project after being recommended to the Japanese government by the Stevensons, Over the next seven and a half years he designed and supervised the building of 26 Japanese lighthouses in the Western style, along with two lightvessels. Brunton also established a system of lighthouse keepers, modeled on the Northern Lighthouse Board in Scotland. Initially under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Japanese Navy, the responsibility for maintaining lighthouses came under the Maritime Safety Agency following World War 2. In 2006 Meshima Lighthouse became the last of Japan's 3,337 lighthouses to become automated.
There are five lighthouses along the coasts of the Malay Peninsula, all managed by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. Of those five, two were still regularly staffed by lighthouse keepers as of the end of 2015. Raffles Lighthouse, on Singapore's southernmost island, and Pulau Pisang Lighthouse, which is technically located within the neighbouring country of Malaysia, are both crewed by a rotating staff of eight lighthouse keepers who work 10-day shifts in pairs.
The last staffed lighthouse in Australia was the Sugarloaf Point Light, otherwise known as Seal Rocks Lighthouse. Although the lighthouse was electrified in 1966, and automated in 1987, a caretaker and lighthouse keeper remained on site until 2007, when the lighthouse keeper's cottages were renovated into tourist accommodations. The Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse off the southern coast of Tasmania, although fully automated in 1996, still employs volunteer caretakers on six-month assignments; the duties include weather observations and land management as well as building maintenance.
In popular culture
The character of the lighthouse keeper has been popular throughout history for their associated air of adventure, mystery, isolation and their rugged lifestyle. The heroic role that lighthouse keepers can sometimes play when shipwrecks occur also feeds into their popularity.
The following books, films, TV shows and songs draw heavily upon the life of the lighthouse keeper:
- The Adventures of Portland Bill (1983 TV Series by FilmFair)
- Ahab's Wife (1999 novel by Sena Jeter Naslund)
- Aquaman (2018 film by James Wan)
- Big Joys, Small Sorrows (1986 film by Keisuke Kinoshita)
- Cape Forlorn (1931 film)/Le cap perdu (1931 film)/Menschen im Käfig (1930 film) – (Multiple-language production by Ewald André Dupont)
- Cold Skin (2017 film)
- Doctor Who – The Horror of Fang Rock (1977)
- The Fog (1980 film by John Carpenter)
- In Fraggle Rock, the Outer Space segments were changed to fit international audiences; in the UK version, the character of Doc was changed to the Captain, a retired sailor living a lighthouse.
- Hello Lighthouse (2018 book)
- Ladies of the Lights (2010 book)
- Latarnik (The Lighthouse keeper) (1881, one of the most famous short stories by Henryk Sienkiewicz)
- The Lamplighters (2021 book by Emma Stonex)
- The Light at the Edge of the World (film adaptation of the above, 1971)
- The Light Between Oceans (2016 film by Derek Cianfrance based on the 2012 novel of the same name by M. L. Stedman)
- The Light-House (1849 unfinished novel by Edgar Allan Poe)
- The Lighthouse (1980 opera by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies)
- The Lighthouse (2016 film)
- The Lighthouse (2019 film by Robert Eggers)
- The Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905 novel by Jules Verne)
- "The Lighthouse Keeper" (2020 song by Sam Smith)
- The Lighthouse Keepers (Three novels, 2006–2008)
- The Lighthouse Keepers (1929 film)
- The Lightkeepers (2009 film by Daniel Adams)
- Lighthouse Keeping Loonies (1975 TV series episode)
- The Lighthouse-Keeper's Daughter a.k.a. Manina, the Girl in the Bikini (1952 film)
- Pete's Dragon (1977 film by Don Chaffey)
- "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers" (1971 song by Van der Graaf Generator)
- Salty's Lighthouse (1997–1998 TV series by Sunbow Entertainment and TLC)
- The Seventh Survivor (1941 film by Leslie S. Hiscott)
- Times of Joy and Sorrow (1957 film by Keisuke Kinoshita)
- The Vanishing (2018 film by Kristoffer Nyholm)
- "The White Ship" (1919 short story by H.P. Lovecraft)
In Marine Safety and National Coast Guards
To recognize the role of lighthouse keepers in the nation's maritime safety, the US Coast Guard named a class of 175-foot (53 m) USCG Coastal Buoy Tenders after famous US Lighthouse Keepers. Fourteen ships in the "Keeper" class were built between 1996 and 2000 and are used to maintain aids to navigation, including lighthouses:
- USCGC Ida Lewis (WLM-551); Newport, Rhode Island
- USCGC Katherine Walker (WLM-552); Bayonne, New Jersey
- USCGC Abbie Burgess (WLM-553); Rockland, Maine
- USCGC Marcus Hanna (WLM-554); South Portland, Maine
- USCGC James Rankin (WLM-555); Baltimore, Maryland
- USCGC Joshua Appleby (WLM-556); St. Petersburg, Florida
- USCGC Frank Drew (WLM-557); Portsmouth, Virginia
- USCGC Anthony Petit (WLM-558);Ketchikan, Alaska
- USCGC Barbara Mabrity (WLM-559); Mobile, Alabama
- USCGC William Tate (WLM-560); Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- USCGC Harry Claiborne (WLM-561); Galveston, Texas
- USCGC Maria Bray (WLM-562); Atlantic Beach, Florida
- USCGC Henry Blake (WLM-563); Everett, Washington
- USCGC George Cobb (WLM-564); San Pedro, California
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- Caldwell, Bill (2002-01-01). Lighthouses of Maine. Down East Books. p. 205. ISBN 9781461744702.
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- David Alan Stevenson, The World's Lighthouses before 1820, Oxford University Press, 1959, p. 103. Genealogical research has now shown the keeper's name as William – not Henry – Knott, as stated in the reference.
- U.S. Coast Guard, "Light Station Boston," Last modified on January 12, 2016, http://www.uscg.mil/history/stations/Lights/Boston/BostonLHindex.asp.
- Clifford, Mary Louise and J. Candace Clifford, "Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers," Williamsburg: Cypress Communications, 2013; U.S. Coast Guard, "Historic Light Station Information and Photography, Massachusetts," Last modified on January 12, 2016, http://www.uscg.mil/history/weblighthouses/LHMA.asp;
- "Lighthouses in Canada". Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Government of Canada. 8 September 2017. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
- Schmidt, Paul B. (1991). Machias Seal Island: A Geopolitical Anomaly (MA). University of Vermont, Department of Geography.
- McArthur, Liz (October 22, 2022). "B.C. lighthouse keeper forced to take 500-km trip for heart surgery after evacuation in heavy fog". CBC News. Retrieved October 22, 2022.
- The Lighthouse Encyclopedia, The Definitive Reference, Jones, Ray; 2003. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot. ISBN 0-7627-2735-7
- Rowlett, Russ (September 21, 2018). "Lighthouses of Mexico: Southern Gulf Coast". The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- "O Centro de Auxílios à Navegação Almirante Moraes Rego". Marinha do Brasil. March 12, 2020. Retrieved March 12, 2020.
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- "Fyrkarta". Swedish Lighthouse Society. Retrieved March 15, 2020.
- "Lighthouse Keepers' Registry: Broström, Per Erik Gusten". Swedish Lighthouse Society. March 15, 2020. Retrieved March 15, 2020.
- "Lighthouse Registry: Holmögadd". Swedish Lighthouse Society. March 15, 2020. Retrieved March 15, 2020.
- A world of your own on a lighthouse island Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
- French Department of Public Works Archived 2011-07-20 at the Wayback Machine
- "Lighthouse memories". Archived from the original on 2012-07-24. Retrieved 2012-02-14.
- "Seaonscreen | marine encyclopedia". 2011-09-16. Archived from the original on 2011-09-16. Retrieved 2020-03-15.
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- "Last lighthouse keeper in Iceland evicted". Archived from the original on 2012-07-08. Retrieved 2012-02-13.
- "Calf of Man Lighthouse". Lighthouse Library. Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on January 9, 2019. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- "Langness Lighthouse". Lighthouse Library. Northern Lighthouse Board. Archived from the original on June 24, 2016. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- Darbyshire, Adrian (May 25, 2018). "Militant dog-walkers' 'targeted campaign'". Isle of Man Today. Tindle Newspapers Ltd. Retrieved January 8, 2019.[permanent dead link]
- "Our History". Commissioners of Irish Lights. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- Murphy, Ciaran (June 21, 2011). "Lighthouse tops guide book list as world's flashiest". The Irish Examiner Online. Irish Examiner Incorporated. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- "Hook Head Light". Lighthouse Explorer. Lighthouse Digest Magazine. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- Commissioners of Irish Lights Archived 2010-04-14 at the Wayback Machine
- "Fair Isle South Lighthouse". Lighthouse Library. Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- "Index of /keepers". Archived from the original on 2019-01-20.
- Hughes, Dominic (November 26, 1998). "UK Lights out for the last time". BBC News. BBC. BBC Online Network. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- "Obituary – Richard Henry Brunton". Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Vol. 145, no. 1901. 1901. pp. 340–341. doi:10.1680/imotp.1901.18577. Retrieved 20 April 2018.
- "Japan's last manned lighthouse becomes automated". The Japan Times. 13 November 2006. Retrieved 6 June 2021.
- Ong, Wee Jin (December 3, 2015). "Keepers of the Lighthouse". The Straits Times. Asia One. Retrieved January 8, 2019.
- Rowlett, Russ (June 4, 2016). "Lighthouses of Australia: Northern New South Wales". The Lighthouse Directory. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
- "Volunteering with the Parks and Wildlife Service". Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
- "Maatsuyker Island Volunteer Caretaker and Weather Observer Program Information Package" (PDF). Wildcare Tasmania. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 December 2017. Retrieved 1 March 2021. Alt URL[permanent dead link]
- Maritime New Zealand Archived 2011-12-19 at the Wayback Machine
- USCG: About Us – Aircraft & Cutters
- Crompton, Samuel Willard & Michael J. Rhein, The Ultimate Book of Lighthouses (2002) ISBN 1-59223-102-0.
- Hyde, Charles K., and Ann and John Mahan. The Northern Lights: Lighthouses of the Upper Great Lakes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8143-2554-8
- Jones, Ray & Bruce Roberts, American Lighthouses (Globe Pequot, September 1, 1998, 1st Ed.) ISBN 0-7627-0324-5.
- Jones, Ray, The Lighthouse Encyclopedia, The Definitive Reference (Globe Pequot, January 1, 2004, 1st ed.) ISBN 0-7627-2735-7.
- Noble, Dennis, Lighthouses & Keepers: U. S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy (Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1-55750-638-8.
- Oleszewski, Wes, Great Lakes Lighthouses, American and Canadian: A Comprehensive Directory/Guide to Great Lakes Lighthouses. Gwinn, Michigan: Avery Color Studios, Inc., 1998. ISBN 0-932212-98-0.
- Penrod, John, Lighthouses of Michigan (Berrien Center, Michigan: Penrod/Hiawatha, 1998) ISBN 0-942618-78-5.
- Penrose, Laurie and Bill, A Traveler's Guide to 116 Michigan Lighthouses. Petoskey, Michigan: Friede Publications, 1999. ISBN 0-923756-03-5.
- Putnam, George R., Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933).
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- Wagner, John L., Michigan Lighthouses: An Aerial Photographic Perspective. East Lansing, Michigan: John L. Wagner, 1998. ISBN 1-880311-01-1.
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- Wright, Larry; Wright, Patricia, Great Lakes Lighthouses Encyclopedia. Erin: Boston Mills Press, 2006. ISBN 1-55046-399-3.
- Association of Lighthouse Keepers
- Bibliography on lighthouse keepers.
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