A Lighthouse on Bardsey
A light was needed on Bardsey/Enlli because of the ships that sailed up and down Cardigan Bay in the Irish Sea in the early C19. Ships sailing north would go through the area covered by the Strumble Head lighthouse (in Pembrokeshire) and the lightship in southern Cardigan Bay (which was there until the 1890s). But then there was nothing to guide them towards Liverpool, apart from South Stack in north Anglesey, which was built in 1809. There was also an earlier lighthouse near that one, on the Skerries, built in 1717.
With the prevailing winds from the south west, it was very easy for ships in Cardigan Bay to be blown into the shallow water on St Patrick’s Causeway / Sarn Badrig or into the bay of Hell's Mouth /Porth Neigwl. Once a ship went into that bay, it would be very difficult to keep it from running ashore. Ieuan Llŷn (1770 - 1832) wrote a series of strict verse 'englynion' as a gripping description of the dangers of Porth Neigwl and suggested that a lighthouse should be built on Rhiw or Cilan Head.
A Light in Rhiw or Cilan – would be
A decent, beneficial objective;
A prominent tower, a kindly building
A fair hearth, to display fire.
A number of ships were lost near Bardsey, but the most famous was King Arthur’s ship, 'Gwennan' lost in the currents of Ffrydiau Caswennan many centuries earlier.
In 1801 maps and charts were produced by William Morris (one of the Morrises (Morrisiaid) of Anglesey). They included one of Bardsey. His son William later revised his father’s charts and recommended that a light should be built on Bardsey. There were a number of other requests after that, and one from Lt Thomas Evans R.N. in 1816.
Thomas Evans proposed a plan for a square red and white lighthouse, and gave measurements for it. (Thomas Evans's Plan). At this time, Trinity House was reluctant to spend money on expensive lighthouses, but was very willing to respond to the demands for one on Bardsey because it gave priority to the safety of ships sailing to and from Liverpool.
Land was bought to build the lighthouse on, and it is said that Lord Newborough III used the money paid for that land to pay for the work of adapting and building the farmhouses, buildings and yards on Bardsey in the 1870s.
The lighthouse was built on Trwyn Diben at the southern end of the island, and finished in 1821 at a cost of £5,470 12s 6d. The lantern cost £2,950 16s 7d.
The engineer and builder was Joseph Nelson, a man linked to building a number of lighthouses in the Severn Estuary, but it is said the influence of Daniel Alexander, a Trinity House architect, can be seen on Bardsey lighthouse. This is to be seen on the building work at the base of the tower. The building stone was ashlar limestone from Red Wharf Bay / Traeth Coch quarry, Anglesey, supplied by William Thomas.
There is no more detailed information available about the building stage, but it is said all of it was completed within one year.
A man named James Sansten had promised a picture of the lighthouse to Lord Newborough and on 3 July 1826, a year after promising, he sent a pencil drawing together with a brief letter. In it he also noted that the King of Bardsey, the 'poor old king' had died and been buried on the island.
This is the highest tower of its kind in the British Isles. The light is 30.2m (99 feet) above the ground and 39.3m (129ft) above high tide level. The walls are 1.2m (4 feet) thick but narrower towards the top of the tower. Another special characteristic of the lighthouse on Bardsey is that it is a square building painted in red and white bands. It was
probably all white, as was usual, until 1891. An 'Old Diary from Bardsey' (in Welsh) refers to it in that year.
The lantern cost £2,950 16s 7d and was lit for the first time on Christmas Eve 1821. A new lantern was fitted in 1856 and that is the one used until 2014. It was raised in 1910 so that the light went further, that was done without having to disturb the gallery and railings around it. The lantern was stationary and did not turn. Equipment fitted there in 1873 is still turning, giving regular flashes of light. The pattern for the light is a cluster of five flashes every quarter of a minute, and they reach an effective area of up to 26 nautical miles.
Before the lighthouse was electrified in 1973, the light was produced by an oil burner, but a clockwork mechanism had to be wound to make sure the equipment turned.
It was automated in 1987. That ended the continuous period of over a century and a half when lighthouse keepers had been present on Bardsey, and part of the close community on the island.
When the lighthouse was automated and the keepers left, Neli Williams said it was 'a terrible loss, you could say they were the main spring of the island.' ('O Enlli i Gwenlli' Bessie Williams (Pantycelyn Press 1992)
In 2014 the light was changed to a red LED lantern, which replaced the existing rotating optic. This was part of the drive away from continuous running diesel stations. The light is now controlled from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex. Visit the Trinity House website for more information. It is possible to visit the old Bardsey Lighthouse optic light at the Porth y Swnt exhibition in Aberdaron.
Bardsey Lighthouse Optic in Porth y Swnt, Aberdaron
The Bardsey foghorn or 'Corn Enlli' was used as a warning during fog, and was part of the buildings on the lighthouse site. It was established in 1878, and seven years later John Jones FRGS referred to it:
'there is a strange creature called the Fog Horn its raucous sounds are meant to direct vessels in the fog. When it sounded, people said it could be heard for a distance of ten miles, and that against a moderately strong breeze. It sounds every five minutes, lasting for seven seconds each time. When it first began sounding the animals, especially the horses, could not understand what the matter was, and would raise their heads and listen, and refuse to work. But by now they have become used to it, and everything is as it was before.’
John Jones gives a detailed description of how the fog horn worked.
'Inside are two machines, working together, of six horsepower and operating by heating air, without water – sending it into two large cylinders, until it is compressed to forty pounds of air pressure, then pushed up through a copper pipe three inches in diameter. After making two thousand and four hundred revolutions a minute, it comes out in a kind of frightening sound.’
The foghorn was stopped in May 2010 because it was believed to be no longer needed.
The Lighthouse Keepers
Most of these men probably could not speak Welsh and the Minister on Bardsey,Rev. W T Jones, would arrange services
especially for them some Sundays and would preach in English. In the early years of the lighthouse the residents of the island and the lighthouse keepers tended to live rather independently of each other; particularly because the two communities only spoke one language, different to each other, and the insular residents tended to be suspicious of strangers. Surprisingly, the keepers did not have an official right to go outside the lighthouse grounds until the early years of the C20.
But by the time of the Christmas celebrations in 1882 the community on Bardsey was closer, and it is recorded in the Rev. W T Jones’ diary that 'the Schoolhouse has been excellently made up for the occasion by Miss Mary Bowen and Mr D Briggs Light House.' Mary Bowen continued to be just as active during the celebrations, and her mother was extremely generous ‘the children and young people were given tea and bara brith by Mrs Bowen Lighthouse.' Thomas Bowen, her husband, was originally from Solva (Solfach), Pembrokeshire. He may have been a Welsh speaker himself, and that would have made it easier to get closer.
The child of one keeper had been baptized earlier, in September 1876. The young wife of one of the keepers died in 1891, aged 32, and she was buried on the island. She was Lizzie, wife of Edward Neale, and her gravestone is in the cemetery.
The keepers liked being in the lighthouse on Bardsey; they could bring their families with them, there was a house for each family and enough land for them to move around.
The relationship between the residents and the keepers developed to be a good one generally, and there are interesting recollections from those who wrote down their reminiscences. The chief keeper would be at the lighthouse on Bardsey for up to ten years, spending two months on the island and a month somewhere else – usually in Holyhead. Their families came to visit from time to time, some stayed for a while and sent their children to the school. The keepers on Bardsey had considerably more freedom than those on rock lighthouses, or even on St Tudwal’s Islands where there was no community for them to mix with.
Neli Williams remembers Mr Fenn as head keeper, and his wife, and their ten children in their turn attending the school. The information available about lighthouse keepers in general is rather scarce, because the Trinity House archives were destroyed during the Second World War. We are fortunate in having the ‘Old Diary’, which recorded this for June 1897.
'Mr Jenkins Lightkeeper falls over the cliff in the mountain – a depth of about 40 yards. He died as a result within a fortnight in the Hospital in Holyhead.'
There is information about keepers on Bardsey between 1841 and 1910 – Lighthouse Keepers and Table of Keepers.
The detailed reminiscences of Harold Taylor, a keeper on Bardsey from 1958 on, are on the website here.
Because Bardsey is on one of the main bird migration routes it was very easy for birds to collide with the lighthouse and be killed when the rotating optic was still in place. The birds were attracted by the light and confused by it. It was decided to floodlight it in 1973, to try to reduce the problem, and from
1978 a strip of land beside the lighthouse was floodlit by an imitation lighthouse to attract birds to the ground and get them to rest safely there.
Since the light changed to the red LED there have not been any reported attractions at the lighthouse.
The lighthouse and the keepers had to receive services, from the very beginning. This was done by using a tender boat. In the early days of the lighthouse, Thomas Williams was the captain of this boat, the 'Supply'. On the last day of November 1822 (less than a year after the lighthouse was opened) the 'Supply' left Porth Meudwy by moonlight with twenty people and supplies on board. That voyage turned into a tragedy and is still part of folklore.
Thomas Williams was followed as captain of the Bardsey Light Tender by John Williams. He also was an experienced sailor and particularly skilful. Even though he had no official qualifications as a pilot, he would go out to assist ships in difficulty. He and his fellow islanders did that to steer the 'Lady Douglas' to safety in 1833.
John Williams was the King of Bardsey – Brenin Enlli – and despite being a skilled sailor he lost his life in unusual circumstances.
By now, the lighthouse is maintained and serviced by Trinity House. This was done from Holyhead until 1995, but by now it is managed from Harwich, England. One of Colin Evans’ duties is to maintain the lighthouse from day to day, and the Trinity House ship visits regularly.