What is it about lighthouses that lure and intrigue us?
Is it the romantic idea of occupying one, alone with just the wind and the waves? Author Shona Riddell has dived into this topic and emerged with a beautiful book, Guiding Lights, the extraordinary lives of lighthouse women.
She chats to The Starfish:
Shona, congrats on this beautiful book. When did you decide to write it and what gave you the idea?
Thanks! I decided to write it back in 2018, after my previous book Trial of Strength was published. I’m interested in stories of people who live and work in remote locations, and lighthouse keepers definitely fit that description. I live near the lighthouse of New Zealand’s first and only female keeper, Mary Bennett, who spent 10 years in the 1800s running Pencarrow Lighthouse with her six children, so from there I began to explore stories of other female keepers around the world.
What were some of the key challenges for women living in a lighthouse?
In the 1800s and early 1900s the main challenge was the remoteness. If a lighthouse was offshore and built on a scrap of rock, the keepers depended on supplies (food, firewood, fuel for the light etc.) from the mainland. Those supplies arrived sporadically at best depending on the weather, which was another challenge (and danger). In those days there were no phones or radios to connect them and the light couldn’t simply be switched on, so keepers had to refuel the lamp with oil each night. Everything in the lantern room also had to be kept spotless. Imagine doing all that while raising a family, as was the case for most female keepers.
What kind of personality is required to tolerate the lonely lifestyle?
Keepers had to be self-sufficient and able to handle the workload and the isolation. But many keepers and keepers’ families maintained that they didn’t have time to be lonely – there was simply too much to do. Some thrived on the lifestyle while others struggled. The colder and more remote the lighthouse, the more of a struggle it usually was.
What’s a favourite case study in your book?
I’m most attached to the story of Mary Bennett, who ran my ‘local’ lighthouse at Pencarrow. Her husband George became the first keeper but drowned in a boat accident so she took over the job while raising six children. The stories of Grace Darling in the UK and Ida Lewis in the US are also amazing, as they saved many lives. There are many wonderful Australian stories in the book too – from keeper’s daughter Fay Catherine Howe on Breaksea Island, who signalled with flags to departing ANZAC soldiers in 1914, to Hannah Sutton, who was a caretaker with her partner on Tasmania’s wild Maatsuyker Island in 2019, looking after Australia’s southernmost lighthouse. There are lots of photos in Guiding Lights, including Hannah’s beautiful pictures of the island and the lighthouse.
Where did you go to do all your research? Did you travel to see many of the lighthouses for yourself?
My research came from all sorts of places including old books and newspaper clippings, digital archives, interviews with keepers, families and caretakers… There’s no shortage of information about lighthouses in general, but I had to dig deeper to find women’s stories. I’m interested in the personal stories: how they coped, where they gave birth, and what was inside a lighthouse medical kit! I have visited several lighthouses but would love to see more in the future. For now, we can ‘travel’ to them through Guiding Lights. I also write about the lighthouses we know from movies, paintings and novels… they have inspired a lot of people.
Any key surprises you stumbled upon during your research?
There were lots of surprises! Inspiring stories of heroism and dramatic rescues, as well as some pretty harrowing tales. The best surprise was discovering that we still have lighthouse keepers in the 21st century – and I interviewed one, Karen Zacharuk, who is the head keeper at Cape Beale on Vancouver Island in Canada. As part of her job she has to handle the bears, wolves and cougars from the surrounding reserve that sometimes approach the lighthouse station.
Are you now familiar with many of the world’s lighthouses?
I certainly know a fair number of them – there’s an appendix at the back of the book listing all the lighthouses mentioned, organised by country and state. But many of the world’s lighthouses are now automated or inactive and, sadly, not all of the towers have been preserved.
Do you have a favourite lighthouse in the world?
I can’t pick a favourite. Each one is special and they all have incredible stories.
Have you stayed in any lighthouses?
I’ve stayed in lighthouse-shaped accommodation, but never offshore in an old tower. That would be something!
You cover some Australian lighthouses in the book, and some are a little creepy! Could you tell us in a nutshell about Australia’s lighthouse of Horror?
Yes, Bustard Head Light in Queensland. It was built in 1868 and people connected to it started dying almost immediately, even while it was being constructed. There were suicides, kidnappings, mysterious disappearances, fatal accidents and illnesses. These days I think the old lighthouse is a more peaceful place.
Have you a favourite novel to recommend that gives us an insight into lighthouse living?
Well, a personal favourite novel and film is The Light Between Oceans. It’s a sad, beautifully-written story and the movie version was filmed in NZ and Australia.