Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2013

Teenagers Tended the Light

By Timothy Harrison


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Shown in the vintage photograph is Archie Holbrook, who, at the age of 16, was Britain’s youngest lighthouse keeper, climbing to the top of St. Helen’s Fort Lighthouse to light the beacon.

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St. Helen’s Sea Fort, where the lighthouse was ...

The lighthouse sat high atop what was known as St. Helen’s Sea Fort, a military installation that was built between 1867 and 1880, literally in the waters off Bembridge a village on the eastern most point of land on the Isle of Wright in the United Kingdom.

Lighthouse families once lived on the stone fort to maintain the navigational beacon as did the family of famous lighthouse keeper and hero Mason Langton in the early 1900s. More than once the Langton’s 15 year old daughter, Ethel, had kept the light burning during storms after her parents were unable to return from the mainland where they had gone for supplies. In fact, Ethel’s notoriety for bravery became so well known that she could easily be listed in the ranks of other young women lighthouse keepers such as Abbie Burgess at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in Maine, Ida Lewis at Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island and Grace Darling of the Longstone Lighthouse off the northeast coast of England. Unfortunately, Ethel’s heroic deeds seem to have slipped away under the pages of time.

However, at the time, Arthur Holbrook surely would have known about Ethel Langton’s deeds when he originally lived at the fort with his parents. But it was his sense of duty in taking over for his ill father, who was on the mainland and could not return to the fort, that kept Arthur Holbrook dedicated to his sense of duty as he would take small boat out twice a day: every day, from the mainland to the fort and lighthouse to light the light at dusk, and then turn it off in the morning.

Although the fort was armed with large cannons and military personnel through World War II, it was no longer needed after the war and was eventually abandoned. Today the fort is privately owned and is off limits to the general public. Although a small modern optic was installed in later years to serve as a navigational aid, the lantern high atop the steel structure is no longer there. As time moved forward, the history of the fort and the lighthouse are being quickly being forgotten.

The vintage photograph of Archie Holbrook climbing the lighthouse ladder is just one of hundreds of interesting original photographs that we have accumulated during the past 21 years at Lighthouse Digest that are all an important part of lighthouse history, each with their own story. Maintaining and archiving these historic photographs is an expensive and time-consuming process that can only be accomplished with paid subscriptions. If you believe in what we are doing, please help us by telling others about us and encourage them to subscribe to Lighthouse Digest, where we are dedicated to saving and preserving lighthouse history one subscription at a time.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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