BBC Home Service Children’s Hour
Originally broadcast on 15 June 1942, 1730hrs
Opening Announcement: A short time ago, Mr John Griffiths, whom some of you children may remember in the Children’s Hour programmes from Wales before the war, thought that the Children’s Hour listeners might like to hear what life on a Lightship is like, so he decided to spend a few hours in one, and here he is himself to tell you all about it.
John Griffiths: There were three of us set out on what I might call this expedition to a Lightship. There was Gordon — Gordon Williams — to help with the programme and Bert — Bert Walden — who was in charge of the recording gear and the actual task of recording. Oh yes, there was a fourth too, the Rev. R. Dalton of the local Seaman’s Mission, who really was responsible for our going there at all. At least it was he who put the idea into our heads: though we must thank the Brethren of Trinity House, who look after all lightships and lighthouses, etc. for letting us go out there.
It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and calm and not too cold. We were lucky that it was calm, as a matter of fact — no not because we were afraid of being seasick — but because Bert was determined that he wouldn’t in any way risk his valuable recording gear to the danger of salt, spray and heaving slippery decks. Well, it took us nearly an hour to get to the lightship. It was exciting when we got really near, wondering how things were going to turn out. I could see her as a very square looking vessel, obviously built to stand the roughest of weathers and firmly anchored to the sea bed. The thing that caught the eye of course was the kind of very wide mast in the middle, with its lantern on top. But we had no time for much more observation for very soon our tender was alongside and the men were making fast. Then while Bert fitted up his gear ready, the rest of us greeted the crew — and my, weren’t they glad to see visitors!
Before going over to the ship of course, we had to talk things over with the skipper, Mr William Palmer, and so he invited our party down to his cabin. And as I couldn’t help remarking at the time, really it was a most comfortable, most interesting, most snug and well-ordered little place with couches around the wall, a table with a fine red table cloth; and a host of other things, each in its proper place.
Now I expect you noticed the noise of an engine while you listened to that little snatch of a recording — we could hear it chugging away the whole time we were there. […]
John Griffiths: What’s that engine I can hear?
Mr Palmer: The engine you can hear at the moment is the lightship engine. That generates the power for lighting or illuminating the ship.
John Griffiths: Very necessary now because you have the blackout permanently fixed.
Mr Palmer: Yes, we have to a certain extent. But we still show our lights for navigation and that sort of thing. We are here to guide the ships, to guide them in and out all the time.
John Griffiths: And there’s always someone on this ship?
Mr Palmer: Always someone to keep a strict lookout day and night, constantly on the lookout, and every hour of the day there’s two men always on the lookout.
John Griffiths: Now you’ve heard from the skipper himself the importance of the work that this ship and its crew are doing.
But before we go on to look her over and meet the men, I want you to hear just one other snatch of the record we made when we were down in the cabin.
When I was a boy I’d wanted to go to sea, and do you know one of the things that had fascinated me was the prospect of sleeping in a real bunk, not in a bed. Well Mr. Palmer’s bunk was just the kind to take your fancy. Neat and clean with a fine polished wooden side to give its occupant a nice feeling of security. So out I came with a question about this bunk:-
Can you tell me a little about it, Mr. Palmer?
Mr Palmer: Well yes sir, I can. I can tell you quite a bit about the bunk. I’ve spent many a happy hour in the bunk. But on the other hand, of course, there’s many an hour that’s not quite so happy on board a lightship. You must understand that we have bad weather and that sort of thing. We have an absolutely brand new lightship here, a spanking new one, and the last word in lightships and Trinity House have certainly made us very comfortable.
John Griffiths: Do you ever fall out of the bunk?
Mr Palmer: Well yes, I know the time that some of the masters were thrown out of the bunk. We’ve has experiences of that sort of thing on the East Coast when the ship was rolling a beam sea, a gale of heavy wind — I have known the masters to fall out of the bunk.
John Griffiths: That sort of thing only happened to me when I was a little boy!
Now we were all ready to go up on deck and be shown around.
You can imagine where I wanted to go first. And that was to go aloft to see the very thing that makes the ship what it is – the great lantern. We had to climb, of course, climb hand over fist up a narrow iron ladder that runs straight up inside a kind of mast. We had to be extra careful, because Gordon was following with the hand microphone and behind him was trailing the long cable. […]
I’m standing in the round glass chamber that holds the lantern. It’s a grand view, I’m high up. Around me I can see nothing but sea and coast on all sides, and of course there are the ships moving around. There’s a freighter over there and away to the left there’s a corvette. I’ve only just been watching one of those fast speed boats that zip across the water looking like a miniature destroyer. But what’s been interesting to me, particularly here, is the lantern with its great big concave mirror lens which throws the light out, and I’ve been wondering how they manage here in rough weather because at the moment the sea is as calm as can be, and really though we’re so high up I don’t notice any movement at all. Up with me is the ship’s lamplighter — Horace Evans. Horace, how do you manage in bad weather?
Horace: Well indeed, this ship today of course she’s one of the new ships and a lot different to the old ships we used to go. (Later on – I made a mistake then!) Well in those ships we had lanterns, oil lanterns and of course we had to trim them. But now in this ship it’s press the button, because she’s all electric and there’s no trouble at all here.
John Griffiths: Does the spray reach up as high as this?
Horace: Well I haven’t been on this ship very long, but I haven’t seen it that bad up here.
John Griffiths: What about the ship’s movement? How about the lamp - how does it stay steady?
Horace: Well she’s on a gymbal, and when she goes to the left, or port as you call it with the seamen, the lantern goes to the starboard and with the light — the rays of light — go straight out just the same as if the ship was steady.
John Griffiths: I see, it’s balanced down below.
Horace: Balanced, yes.
John Griffiths: On the way down I paused for a second to admire that marvellous bit of machinery, the gymbal, which balances the swaying lamp up above. But I had no time to ask any more questions because we wanted to go down below again to see the engines that worked the fog-signal.
We saw the big diesel engines that do this work and began to think how this would make a record of an actual practice blast. So up on deck again we went to find a spot away from the engines where we could put the microphone. I was just walking aft when —
Yes, the siren went off. Just a practice blast. I don’t know how you felt about that noise!
Yes, there it is again; but hearing it from just below and on deck, I literally jumped. I was so startled too that my hands flew to my ears! Of course it was all part of the fun for the crew and the men on the tender to see their guest so shaken out of his wits!
I wasn’t out for revenge, but I did want to meet the man who’d done this to me, and so when we went along to talk to him, we took the microphone too.
So you’re the man who let rip and gave us that unearthly row just now which nearly split my ear drums.
Ivor: Yes, I’m one of the signal drivers on this ship.
John Griffiths: What is your name, and where do you come from?
Ivor: My name is Ivor Jones; I come from Llandyssul, Cards.
John Griffiths: What were you before you came here?
Ivor: Well, I was at sea before I came to this job. I’ve been here 9 years.
John Griffiths: Well how do you make that row?
Ivor: We have down here and engine, a diesel engine, which pumps air into our receivers and from there it goes to the diaphone — what they call the diaphone. That thing vibrates and causes this row, of course, this blast.
John Griffiths: A very important blast
Ivor: Yes, a very important blast especially in fog here.
John Griffiths: And can be heard a long way away, I imagine.
Ivor: I think you can hear it about 15-20 miles off, I should think.
John Griffiths: Later on I saw a pair of old fashioned cannons-muzzle-loaders from the look of them and I wondered if they were just for ornament. I was curious enough to ask a question:
Mr. Palmer, do you see those two cannons — they look like the sort of cannons we saw in frigates, what are they for?
Mr Palmer: Well actually, they’re warning guns, they’re warning guns. If we see a vessel standing into danger at all, we hoist a signal to tell him he’s standing into danger and fire these guns — they just make a loud report to attract his attention.
John Griffiths: Well children that’s given you a picture of the important work that a lightship does. But there’s another side to life aboard her. The crew do get some time off and since there’s no question of their going ashore, well they have to learn to amuse themselves. Of course there’s the wireless, also there are hobbies. Sailors, if you remember, have always been noted for their skill with their hands. We wanted to know the sort of thing that the crew did, so as there was a group of them by the foc’sle, Gordon went round with a microphone.
Gordon: I’m going around to ask them what they do in their spare time. What do you do?
1st Speaker: Well, I most sit down and read and do a bit of writing, and sometimes I sit down sewing canvas and make some shopping mats and bags.
Gordon: Very useful job too!
2nd Speaker: Well what I do here with my spare time is making fretwork, photo frames and different things. I take them home and then out my wife’s photo in them, and the children’s, of course.
Gordon: Very nice!
3rd Speaker: My pastime is making door mats, or wool mats and rag mats.
Gordon: Got plenty of material?
3rd Speaker: Not now. Very short now at the present time.
4th Speaker: Well, as a matter of fact, there isn’t quite a lot of spare time that we get, but we do manage now and again to spend a little time at our hobbies. Mine is chiefly playing darts or a quiet game of cards and a read.
Gordon: And lucky bulls to you. Are you the champion?
4th Speaker: No, not quite the champion.
5th Speaker: Of course the seamen spend the majority of their time on deck, but we do get time to play cards and darts and things, and we all help with the mats — and little bit of leg pulling as well when it’s going on.
Gordon: Now cook-
Cook: Of course, as being ‘cook to do’ — he hasn’t much time. He’s got to keep things clear. But what chance he has got he plays darts and I’m waiting for the one to beat me yet on it.
Gordon: Good! Now here’s the skipper.
Mr Palmer: Well, of course gentlemen you’ll appreciate when you see this ship that there isn’t a great deal of leisure here for anybody; she’s a big ship and she takes a lot of keeping in order. You can’t let her go to rack and ruin. So there isn’t much time on this class of ship as there was in the old ones, but I have seen some beautiful lightships, stuff made on board — beautiful stuff: my own hobby was — I say — was because I can’t get the stuff to do it with now. I used to make wool rugs and I find that that was a very very interesting hobby. But I’ve seen some very lovely stuff turned out: I’ve seen a whole bedroom suite, a complete bedroom suite brought ashore from a lightship, and of course there is the humorous side to it as well. I saw a lightsman make a lightship man make a meat safe one time, and when the time came for him to go ashore to bring it up from below, the blessed thing wouldn’t come up through the hatch so it had all to come to pieces again to take it all adrift again, to get it — to get it ashore. But the point is of course that it is not all work and no play, definitely not that.
John Griffiths: So far, we’ve heard a lot about what it is like aboard our lightship. I don’t think we’ve said much about the crew and the skipper coming ashore. Well of course there are two crews one to relieve the other, and I rather believe that the crew we met during that visit are now on dry land. I know, the skipper Mr. William Palmer is, because he is here in the studio by my side. Perhaps you’ll tell our listeners some of your experiences Mr Palmer.
Mr Palmer: Good afternoon children. I certainly will. Now first I want to say that in the old days we were two months on board at a stretch, sometimes several days longer than that owing to bad weather, when the relief boat couldn’t get anywhere near the Lightship. It must be remembered that it was not just a matter of getting the relief crew on board, there was coal, water, oil and stores to be ferried from the tender to the Light. Oil and water came in barrels then, now the tender passes two hoses on board and the oil, water, is pumped into the tanks.
It was a common thing to be anything from two or three days overdue, to a dozen or fourteen days, after we had done two full months aboard, due, as I have said, to bad weather. On a dirty winter's night, I've seen lightships buried in heavy seas. On the other hand, I've seen them riding on what looked like a sheet of glass with the Iads over the side for a swim. The swimming was at sIack water, of course, no tide. And fishing, on some stations the fishing is great, and incidentally, help the “grub stakes”. Then there is the bird life, at times we get hundreds of birds of all kinds, flying round the lantern at night, some fly right into the glass and fall to the deck, these are sometimes only stunned, and I have seen great big rough lightshipmen, with hands like a “leg of mutton” pick up a stunned or injured bird just as tenderly as a mother picks up her babe, and absolutely nurse it back to life. Homing or racing pigeons are rested and given water, and usually a message on a cigarette paper tucked into the rubber band on their leg, just stating time and place. We have had many letters of thanks from the various pigeon owners.
When I was in the “Lynn Well” Lightship, (in the Wash) we had a baby seal on board for a long time, it came crying, yes, really crying, making a noise just like a human being, in fact, the watch on deck thought it was someone in the water. Anyhow, it was in the evening time and dusk, we soon discovered it was a small seal and we got him on board. It was evidently very young and had, no doubt, lost its mother. The problem was how to feed it; we gave it Nestle's Milk! (pre war) And somehow or other, it survived, and was with us a long time. We would open the gangway door and he flapped thro' and used to go for a swim around, and back he would come, and almost ask us to get him on board again. We lifted him on board in a hoop net, he would flap and flop around the deck, following us about. I don't know if it was the spring in the air, and he found a mate, but one day, he went for his usual dip and cleared off, we never saw him again.
John Griffiths: And I expect you were all very sorry to lose him.
Mr Palmer: We were, indeed.
John Griffiths: I hope you've had other visitors since.
Mr Palmer: Well yes, including you and your friends who brought a microphone aboard for the first time in my life. But men come aboard with our mails quite frequently, and a regular visitor is the local padre, Mr. R. G. Dalton of the Seamen’s Mission. The crew does really look forward to his visit. I was very glad you made a record of what he was saying.
John Griffiths: So am I, and here it is.
Padre: We come out here once every month. I must say it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. Of course, we get a wonderful welcome from the Captain and crew of the ship, and we bring out with us papers, magazines and always a supply of fresh vegetables, cigarettes etc. We have really a good time out here and we hold a little service in the cabin in which all the men join. In summer time, of course, it’s on the deck and it’s lovely to feel the motion of the ship beneath you as you are holding the service in the open air.
John Griffiths: I am afraid I must finish up now as our ship has come alongside to take us ashore. Here's Lieut. Pierce coming along, I believe, to tell us so.
Lieut. P: Well, I don't want to butt in, but I'm afraid we'll have to push off back to harbour.
John Griffiths: Yes, we had to push off back to harbour. We stowed the gear safely in the tender and then bade everybody good-bye. We left them to carry on with one of the most vital jobs in the whole life of the sea. We could still see and wave to them when our little craft was well on its way to the shore.
It was beginning to get dark and a slight mist was coming up. It wasn’t quite blackout time, however, so we had the old peace time thrill of seeing a few lights winking at us from the distant shore.
In a while the lightship was lost to sight, but we knew that all on board were keeping up their unending vigil.
[DISTANT BLASTS OF FOG-HORN]
Yes, our friend the fog signal driver, ‘foggy’ as they called him, was at his post.