Saturday, 8 October 2016

70 Mumbles lighthouse

70 Mumbles Lighthouse – 8 October 2016 (photos: 3 of Mumbles lighthouse)

On the outer of the two small tidal islands off Mumbles Head stands peninsular Gower’s only functioning lighthouse, as Whiteford Point’s cast-iron lighthouse has been disused since 1933.  The 1791 Harbour Act empowered Swansea’s Harbour Trustees to construct a building to hold coal for lights to warn ships of the headland, with its reefs and shoals, and allowed dues to be levied on shipping to regroup the cost.  Since 1739 there had been a coal-burning light on Flatholm, so it was decided to have two coal braziers at Mumbles, to avoid any confusion with Flatholm, though using an oil-lamp was also considered. 

Plans were prepared for a 50ft-high tower, and building began in 1792, but the badly built tower collapsed that October.  The trustees then engaged Swansea architect William Jernegan, designer of Stouthall and Burrows Chapel (near the Museum), and later of Sketty Park House and the Assembly Rooms, and a fresh start was made.  He designed a 56ft-high octagonal stone tower 23ft wide, containing an inner octagonal tower 12ft wide, with an internal staircase occupying the space between.  Two coal-fired lights were sited one above the other.  Over the doorway a plaque has the year 1793 inscribed in Roman numerals, with “W. Jernegan Arch” (architect), though the lighthouse actually came into use on 1st May 1794.  A handrail, essential to modern ‘health and safety’ thinking, was later added alongside the internal staircase, which made hoisting up the coal difficult.  Mumbles was the last British coal-fired lighthouse to be built, for they were difficult to maintain in windy and rainy conditions, and columns of smoke could be confused with smoke from limekilns.  Britain’s last coal-fired lighthouse was replaced in 1823. 

The trustees in 1798 replaced the two coal braziers with a single oil-lit lantern on the upper floor, installing a cast-iron balcony made at Neath Abbey Foundry. 

A house was built for the lighthouse keeper to live with his family on the island, rather than in the village.  For three generations the keepers were Abraham Ace – grand-father, father and grandson all shared the same name and served for over seventy years.  The second Abraham Ace was keeper in 1883 when his daughters Miss Jessie Ace and Mrs Margaret Wright rescued a crew member of the lifeboat Wolverhampton and assisted survivors of a wrecked German ship.  The bravery of “The Women of Mumbles Head” is commemorated on a blue plaque by the entrance to Mumbles Pier.  When the third Abraham Ace retired in 1902 the post was taken over by Jasper Williams, after whom the mechanical foghorn which was installed on the lighthouse in 1908 was dubbed ‘Jasper’s baby’.  Many Mumbles residents remember in January 1994 when a freak flash of lightning had damaged the automatic warning system, causing the foghorn to boom out continuously until it could be repaired!  The last keeper was Charlie Cottle, who retired after the Mumbles light was automated in 1934. 

The lighthouse battery, a fortified position for heavy guns, was erected in 1860 to combat a French invasion, maintained by a sergeant and two Royal Artillery gunners.  Like others around the coast, this was dubbed one of ‘Palmerston’s follies’ since the invasion that the Prime Minister feared never materialised.  The houses for the lighthouse keeper and for soldiers guarding the battery were demolished in the 1960s.

An occulting mechanism, where the light was made to flash on and off, was fitted in 1905, and twenty years ago Mumbles Lighthouse was converted to solar powered operation.  Following a Royal Commission report, an Act of 1836 had empowered the Corporation of Trinity House, which had built its first lighthouse at Lowestoft in 1609, to buy out the remaining private lighthouses.  So today Mumbles Lighthouse is managed by Trinity House, which maintains both on the mainland and on rock sixty-five lighthouses, all of which have now been automated.         

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