By day as ships drew abreast of the Smalls Lighthouse, plowing their way to or from Liverpool in the Irish Sea, skippers and helmsmen waved cheerfully at the tower, sure of a friendly response from one or both of the men who tended the light.
Even in the terrible winter of 1798 when the biggest ships were tossed like corks by waves of terrific size, sailors spared a moment to greet the watchers whose vigil for the past 25 years had made their journeys safer.
But one day, when both keepers should have been safe and warm inside the tower, one man was out on the gallery. Men from a passing ship waved and wondered idly why the man on the Smalls Lighthouse did not reply. On the return journey a few nights later the light shone brightly and, silhouetted against the beam, was the man, crouching against the rail, motionless.
In port sailors remarked on the unusual behavior. Inevitably a newspaper heard of their story and published the gist of it and the authorities wondered if something strange had happened at the Smalls Lighthouse.
The light, perched on six huge baulks of timber and three iron pillars, was the first to be built on that dangerous coast. Like several other lights of the period it was built for private profit, which came from dues charged on ships that passed to and fro.
Financed by a Liverpool businessman, John Phillips, it was built by a Mr Whitesides who, to demonstrate his faith in its stability, spent the whole of the first winter tending the light in the tiny chamber.
Afterwards two men were appointed to trim the light and for years all went well. Despite its apparent flimsiness the Smalls Lighthouse withstood the fury of sea and storm surprisingly well, although the keepers had other worries.
For weeks, sometimes a month or more, they were cut off from contact with the mainland. Whitesides’ method of sending messages in bottles had already proved useless. Replies came, often from distant places, but weeks too late to be of any use. Food and fresh water supplies were apt to run low. So far the men had never run short of precious fuel for the light, but there were other hazards — those of sickness and death.
Boats tried to reach the Smalls lighthouse with fresh supplies and a relief team, but many times had to return to port when landings proved too dangerous.
In the winter of 1798 the worst weather within living memory now struck the expanse of sea now known as ‘Area Lundy‘. The Smalls lighthouse still burned after dark, no matter how vile the weather, in blinding sleet and snow, and numerous crews saw the figure of the man, always crouching, never moving, on the gallery beneath the light — and above him flew a distress signal.
Local people offered prayers in church for the safety of the Smalls lighthouse keepers and whenever the storm had abated a boat immediately set out for the Smalls. Always they turned back to report that the man on the gallery was still there.
At last the weather changed and at once a crew set out to investigate. They came away with two men, one alive and half mad, the other dead, a three-month old corpse.
They reported what they had learned in the towers. One of the keepers had been taken ill in the early days of the storm and, despite his colleague’s efforts, had died.
The survivor then faced a terrible dilemma. Should he sew up his friend in a tarpaulin and tip him from the Smalls’ lighthouse gallery into a watery, wave-lashed grave? If he did so he might easily be accused of murder and, in the absence of the body, be sentenced to death. There was only one way to avoid suspicion and possibly the gallows; lash the dead man to the gallery so that all passing ships could see him.
That was the macabre asnwer to the mystery. For weeks, the lonely survivor, growing steadily more demented, shared the tower with a corpse.
The corpse that, to passing ships, seemed exactly like a stalwart and conscientious lighthouse keeper, forever crouched by the isolated light he refused to leave.