The book we have been reading for our book club is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex. It’s based on an actual incident, but only in as far as there was a real case of three lighthouse keepers vanishing from the Flannan Isle lighthouse in 1900; Emma’s story is fictional, set in the years between 1972 and 1992. I suppose because we are a small island, the sea never being further away from us than 70 miles, so I believe, that lighthouses and lightships figure in many films, poems, books and stories. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago about a tragic event one November in 1954:
The owner of this Prayer Book made diary entries of significant events; you may just be able to make out the bottom entry ‘Southerly gale 28:11:54, South Goodwin Lightship lost on Goodwin Sands’.
The Goodwin Sands is a treacherous sandbank off the east coast of Kent, in the Straits of Dover and ever since people first crossed the English Channel in boats, there have been shipwrecks here, including Viking longboats, galleons and liners. However on the night of Saturday, November 27th 1954, gales of 80 mph raged up the Channel and the South Goodwin Lightship, LV 90, broke from her anchors and became stranded on the Goodwin Sands. The lightship, as you can guess was like a floating lighthouse, positioned to warn shipping in the busiest strait in the world, of the very danger that the South Goodwin Lightship met herself.
The captain was Tom Skipp, and no doubt on that dreadful night, he and his crew were doing all they could to keep the lightship steady and themselves safe. At about 1 o’clock in the morning the cable snapped and the ship broke free; nearby was its sister ship the East Goodwin Lightship LV12 and the crew saw LV90 had detached itself from its cable and was being swept away. There was nothing they could do. The LV90 foundered on the sands and fell on its side, trapping the crew beneath decks, all except one man who managed to get out of a skylight and hang on.
Lifeboats from Dover and Ramsgate were launched into the foul night, and a helicopter from Manston tried to find the stricken vessel, and by some miracle it found the capsized lightship as dawn rose. The helicopter crew managed to rescue Ronald Murton, the sole survivor, but sadly the rest of the crew was lost and were never seen again. It must have been traumatic beyond imagining for Ronald as he knew that when he was lifted to safety, the crew were still alive and trapped inside. There are still traces of the lightship on the Goodwin Sands which can be seen when the tide is low enough.
The ghastly news must have been broadcast on the radio and the owner of the Prayer Book, living so close to the sea and knowing what havoc bad weather could cause must have noted down the details.
The diary entry at the bottom of this page just says ‘Flood East Coast 31.1.53’. On January 31st 1953 there was a horrific sea surge which affected the countries along the North Sea causing huge loss of life. 2,551 people are known to have drowned, 1836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium, 19 in Scotland and others at sea. In England 30,000 people had to leave their homes and 24,000 homes were damaged. The owner of this Prayer Book lived in Kingston Seymour on the west coast of England, a little village which had suffered many floods over the hundreds of years of its existence; there is a plaque in the church commemorating the devastating tsunami of 1607 which I am sure the owner of the Prayer Book would have looked at many times, particularly after the events on the last day of January in 1953