Medlicott worked at over 22 lighthouses starting on Longstone lighthouse off the Northumberland coast – made famous by Grace Darling, daughter of a lighthouse keeper, who saved 13 lives when a boat hit the rocks in 1838.
Medlicott, who published a book on his career, Illuminating Experience, tells Humans Invent about the life of a keeper, from using explosives in low visibility weather, lack of home comforts and the rise of technology.
In plain and simple terms it was to maintain the lighthouse and the navigational light. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that, but the basic job of the lighthouse keeper was to keep the navigational light alive from sunset to sunrise.
What equipment were you using?
When I first started the job in the mid-sixties, they were oil lights and we were trained to build, repair and maintain those lamps. Then major diesel generators came in and we were allowed to do a certain amount of maintenance, not a lot because we had our own engineering team, but we did a certain amount to keep those engines running.
In the early days before fog engines, before compressors, it was done by explosives. We had to set off these explosives which was a bit time consuming and dangerous as well
Talk me though your routine?
During the daylight hours there wasn’t much going on because of the very nature of the job: being a lighthouse, it was a night job. There were three men on every lighthouse at the same time so you shared the work between the three. We were off duty at various times and we could do as we wished within the confines of the building. During the day, in addition to any maintenance work we had to start a fog signal if necessary. There was always a man on duty. Part of his role would be to watch the weather and record conditions. If it closed in for any reason whether it was fog, heavy rain, snow or something that was affecting visibility, the big foghorns had to go off. In the early days before fog engines, before compressors, it was done by explosives. We had to set off these explosives which was a bit time consuming and dangerous as well.
Some lighthouses stood ten or twenty miles out to sea. You can’t run diesel generators or compressors there because to be able to do that you would need an exhaust pipe sticking out of the side and once a wave comes along and fills your exhaust with water it’s all going to stop. Some of these really isolated lighthouses didn’t get versions until very late on when technology had moved on.
Where were you based?
I worked for Trinity House which was the general lighthouse authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands and I worked on all the coasts including the Channel Islands. I worked in 22 different lighthouses, starting up in the North East on the Farne Islands which was home to the famous Grace Darling. Then I came down the East Coast, I did several along the bottom and then up onto the coast of Wales.
Do you have a favourite lighthouse?
I’ve got three which I can’t really separate: The Longstone lighthouse, the South Stack at Anglesea and the Needles on the Isle of Wight. It’s due to a mixture of combinations and that extends to the men you work with, the environment you’re in and the environment you create.
It was pretty basic, the decoration was to an absolute minimum. In some places there was lots of condensation, first of all because lots of men living in a confined space, secondly you’re burning oil – for every pint of oil you burn you produce a pint of water. There were no soft furnishings, there were no curtains and bare stone floors. All rooms in the towers were communal to all three men. On an Island it is a bit more comfortable because there were usually cottages so we had a bedroom each but again minimum furniture: you had a bed, a set of drawers and if you were lucky, a wardrobe.
How do lighthouses work today?
Technology. Now a microchip is capable of monitoring all systems and by radio or mobile phone or telephone, information is relayed to a telemetry system to a central base station. The base station is monitoring all the time what is happening out at sea – they know if a light fails. They are always aware of what is happening and that is the technology we’ve got today.
A lot of the lighthouses can also be operated by remote control so if the automatic backup system doesn’t come in, it can actually be overridden by the remote control system. The central base station is at Harwich, the Trinity House depot, and it deals with all the lighthouses. All the lighthouses that are automatic will be monitored from there. They can send an engineer out as appropriate if anything goes wrong. The big offshore lighthouses are accessed by helicopter from the rooftop.
I know the system is working. This is the age we live in, it’s the age of technology, we’ve got to go forward
I was sad at leaving the job at the time because I wasn’t at retirement age. I was actually being made redundant and given an early retirement package. Had I the option I would have stayed on until full retirement age. It’s a job I’d been in for 32 years, it was a way of life and there was no reason why I should have been leaving it apart from this microchip. But now, looking back, the system is working, I’m still working closely with lighthouses in one way or another and so I know what is happening. I know the system is working. This is the age we live in, it’s the age of technology, we’ve got to go forward.