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An 1801 story of death, paranoia, isolation and Hollywood adaptation and how it changed the rules of lighthouse keeping.

The cluster of rocks known as The Smalls, 20 miles off the coast of south west Wales, was a major shipping hazard, notorious for ferocious rip tides, until 1777 when an unorthodox timber lighthouse structure was erected consisting of nine stout oak pillars embedded in the reef and secured with molten lead. A two-man cabin was perched on top, accessed from below via a rope ladder, and the lantern light was located above. An exterior walkway allowed for maintenance of the lamp and a storeroom for water and fuel was hacked out of the solid rock beneath. The wooden pillars offered less resistance to the wind than a stone column but caused the structure to rock in the almost incessant winds.

In the winter of 1801 two local men, Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell, took up their tour of duty at the lighthouse. Very little information on them exists but they were reputed to have been on bad terms already. This unfortunate pairing took a turn for the worse when Griffith sickened and died after a few days. Living at close quarters with the corpse soon became intolerable but Howell knew that the finger of suspicion would point at him if he disposed of the body into the sea. A cooper by trade, he used his carpentry skills to cobble together a wooden crate from the bulkhead planking and shoved his companion’s body inside. He fastened the makeshift coffin to the external walkway. However, although the wild weather carried away the smell, it also began to break up the box. Before long, the dead man’s arm fell out and started to flap up and down in the wind, tapping on the window as if to draw attention.

Thomas Howell managed to keep the lamp lit from dusk to dawn according to the terms of his duty but the prolonged bad weather meant that he was not relieved for many weeks. Passing ships saw a figure waving frantically but since the lamp went on and off as normal there was no reason to suspect a disaster – or risk one by approaching the rocks in the heavy swell. But by the time he was rescued Thomas Howell was a broken man. Some reports say he was barely recognizable and his hair had turned white.

In consequence of this tragic event the minimum number of lighthouse keepers per shift was thereafter required to be three. The story caught the popular imagination and provided inspiration for stories and drama including in 2016 the British film The Lighthouse directed by Chris Crow: “Based on real events… the film tells a tale of death, madness and isolation, a desolate trip into the heart of human darkness.”

In 2019 the much-lauded American film The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, also revolved around the tense relationship between two men confined to a lighthouse in bad weather. Although the original inspiration came from a story by Edgar Allen Poe, Eggers acknowledged a debt to the Smalls episode and explained he had been struck by the fact that both men were called Thomas: “I was like, “Okay, this is a movie about identity, and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.” he said in an interview.

The original wooden lighthouse, dismissed at the time as ‘a raft of timber rudely put together’, survived for almost 80 years. It was replaced by a stone one in 1861 but not before a second tragedy in 1831 when a gigantic wave slammed the floor of the keepers’ cabin up against the roof killing one man and injuring the other two. Today the Smalls Lighthouse is operated automatically by Trinity House. It was the first in the UK to be powered by wind and solar energy. With aid of lenses its 35 watt bulb can be seen 34 km away. Serviced by helicopter, it remains the remotest of all the lighthouses around the coast of Britain.

- The Smalls Lighthouse tragedy partially inspired both the 2016 British film starring Mark Lewis Jones and Michael Jibson and the 2019 American film starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, both entitled The Lighthouse.

- It is possible to take a boat trip to the waters surrounding The Smalls.

- It is also possible to get close to another lighthouse at Strumble Head near Fishguard, which is set in dramatic coastal surroundings with an observation shelter close by for watching sea birds, seals and cetaceans. It's also the starting point for some of the finest coast path walking in North Pembrokeshire.

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