4. An incident at Smalls Lighthouse changed the way British lighthouses were manned
The original Smalls Lighthouse was erected in 1775-76, designed by a Liverpool manufacturer of musical instruments. The lighthouse stood (an 1861 replacement still stands) on an islet near the tip of a remote peninsula in Pembrokeshire, Wales. In 1801, the already aging lighthouse was manned by two keepers, Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell. The keepers were well-known to have difficulties with one another, frequently bickering and threatening each other with bodily harm. While the two were alone at the lighthouse in 1801 Griffith was killed in an accident, and Howell was at a loss of what to do with his partner’s body. Disposing of the body by consigning it to the sea was ruled out because Howell feared he would be suspected of murdering his partner, given the well-known volatility of their relationship. He constructed a makeshift coffin, placed the body in it, and tied it to a rock outside the keeper’s house.
For the rest of the winter, Howell maintained the beacon himself. Meanwhile, wind and wave dashed the coffin to pieces, exposing the body so that it was visible from the keeper’s house window. As the surf rocked the remnants of the coffin, the body rocked with it, an arm appearing to wave back and forth as if calling for someone to come over, a sight which Howell was greeted with whenever he glanced out the window. Howell remained in isolation on the bleak isle, his only accompaniment the waving arm of his dead partner. By the time he was relieved at the lighthouse he was near gibbering, and his friends ashore were unable to recognize him, a man of completely broken mind. But he had managed to keep the beacon lighted throughout his period manning the lighthouse alone. The British authorities mandated that all lighthouse teams henceforth were to be of three men rather than two, which remained in effect until the 1980s, when automation took over the operation of lighthouses in the United Kingdom.