There are 900 lighthouses dotted around the coasts of Britain. Some of them have names that read like a roll-call of fame: Eddystone, a landmark in history: Wolf Rock, once a wreckers’ trap; Flannan Isle, and the unsolved mystery of its vanished crew; and the Longstone, where Grace Darling became a heroine.
Grace Darling’s story is widely known, but another heroine who was also the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper has had little mention. She was Ethel Langton, a girl who became a heroine at the age of 15.
Ethel lived with her parents in St. Helen’s fort, a circular building on the eastern shores of the Isle of Wight.
Ordinarily there was no bar to normal living at St. Helen’s. Unlike Skerryvore or Wolf Rock, for example, the fort was not cut off from the land. It served as a navigation light and beacon, warning ships of the dangerous shoals on which it stood. The only concession to the normal rigours of lighthouse-keeping was the 400-yard stretch of water that separated the fort from the shore.
Ethel’s home overlooked one of the busiest stretches of water in the world. Every day tankers, tugs, merchantmen and liners steamed past her door, bound to or from the great port of Southampton.
All these ships, great and small, depended in foul weather and at night on the beacon Ethel’s father maintained. Without the sure guide of St. Helen’s Fort, no captain, however brilliant a navigator, could be sufficiently sure of his position. That one lamp, if extinguished, would put at risk hundreds of lives and ships worth millions of pounds.
Mr. Langton’s duties were strictly regulated by routine, for in routine lay efficiency. As St. Helen
’s was an oil-burning light, it was necessary to fill the reservoir, trim and light the wick, and wind the mechanism daily. It was also essential to make regular night-time checks to make sure the lamp was still burning brightly.
The lamp itself was on top of a 20-foot tower and was approached by climbing an exposed steel ladder on its outside. It was an awkward climb, particularly in bad weather.
The winter of 1925-6 had been no worse than usual, so when a two-day storm died down on Saturday, 20th March, the weather did not seem to threaten more than a steady on-shore blow.
Mrs. Langton liked to go shopping on Saturdays, in Bembridge, the nearest town. Her husband usually went with her. This morning they got into their boat and crossed the narrow strip of water to the island.
Cold and windy though it was, neither of them expected the weather to deteriorate any further. In fact their last words as they left Ethel and her dog, Badger, behind, were to expect them back by midday.
Within hours of being left alone, Ethel heard the wind increase till it was howling round the fort. Through the window she saw the waves, driven by the rising gale, leaping and tumbling on the shore.
The hours ticked by, and still the young girl waited. All the while the storm increased. Soon a wind of hurricane force was whipping off the tops of the waves. Flying spume filled the air.
To start with, Ethel was not particularly worried. She had known storms before, and expected this one to blow itself out in a matter of hours. Neither she nor anyone else could have forecast that the violent weather heralded a storm of almost unprecedented ferocity for that part of the world, fiercer than any in living memory.
While the elements were gathering fury, Ethel, unaware of the crisis to come, was ruefully searching the larder. All she could find there was a half a loaf of bread and an ounce or two of sugar.
A slice of bread soaked in sugared water served as a meal and, as Badger was hungry too, Ethel shared that with him.
When darkness began to fall, she realised that her parents would not be able to get back that night. She did not even know whether they were safe – or whether they had been caught in their little boat in open water when the storm blew up.
She realised she could do nothing to help them anyway – but that she could try to protect the lives of others. On this night of all nights, the lamp must shine!
In the gathering dusk, watchers on shore could make out no detail of the fort, and, knowing that the lighthouse keeper and his wife were on shore assumed there would be no light that night. They did not know that, even as they watched, Ethel, leaning into the wind, was struggling across to the foot of the ladder.
She climbed the first few rungs in conditions of comparative calm. Then she was above the protection of the fort’s walls, with the wind howling round her.
The gale snatched away her headscarf, and threatened to snatch her away bodily, too. Soaked by the spray and buffeted by the shrieking wind, every rung she climbed was an achievement.
The wind’s force increased, the higher Ethel climbed. Once her foot slipped and for a horrifying moment her weight came full on her arms. The wind wrenched and slammed her, as if trying to shake her loose.
Blinded and deafened by the storm, moving by touch alone, she inched her way to the top of the tower. When she reached the sloping roof, she dared not stand up, but lay on her stomach and crawled towards the hatch in the lantern.
The silence inside the lantern was almost painful. The lamp lit, Ethel made her way back, across the roof and down the ladder. It was as difficult an undertaking as the climb up. Never for a moment did the gale slacken.
For the rest of the night Ethel periodically checked the light, as she had seen her father do. By dawn she was sleeping, exhausted, in an armchair.
She would not have awakened when she did, had not Badger continued to bark till she stirred. It seemed as if the dog was as aware of the emergency as she was.
Shivering, Ethel fought her way up the windswept ladder again. She had had no fire to dry herself by during the night, and she was chilled to the bone.
The gale, blowing as strongly as ever, made the journey over the roof as treacherous as it had been the night before.
This time, despite the cold, Ethel stayed in the lantern housing for over an hour. The wick had to be trimmed, the oil reservoir filled and the mechanism wound.
When she again made the descent, the lamp was ready to be lit that evening.
For the rest of that day, Ethel slept fitfully, dreaming of food, warmth – and, most important of all, her parents.
That evening, the wind moderated slightly, but this change brought with it a heavy downpour. Through torrents of rain, she once more scaled the tower and attended to the light.
When she returned, soaked and numb, she did her best to warm herself by cuddling Badger to her. As night fell again, the gale rose to its now familiar howling moan, making the stone-built fort colder than ever. Food was very short. The last few slices of bread soaked in water sweetened by the last of the sugar was the only supper available.
By the following day, Ethel had been alone and besieged by the storm for three days, on food that would have left her hungry if she had eaten it at a single meal. She was tired because of her broken nights, and listless with cold.
Even Badger was subdued. Ethel held him close, for warmth and companionship, while she waited for her third nightfall and the weary necessity of attending to the light.
In mid-afternoon she glanced out of the window and saw the first sign of life since her parents had left. A small fishing-boat was surging towards the fort through the waves. Even though it was eventually beaten back, the mere sight of it encouraged her. She no longer felt abandoned.
A few hours later, the same boat managed to get close enough to the fort for the two men in it to throw a sack of food for Ethel to collect.
By early evening, the gale was decreasing at last. The narrow strait between the fort and the shore was still dangerous, but a lifeboat succeeded in crossing it, taking an hour-and-a-half for a journey which was normally ten minutes in a rowing boat.
When the lifeboat reached the lighthouse, Ethel’s lonely vigil was at an end. Her parents were on board. They had been waiting to get back ever since the Saturday afternoon, when the sea had besieged their daughter.
Ethel’s ordeal was over, but it did not go unrecognised. She was awarded the Lloyd’s Medal for Meritorious Service. At 15 she was the youngest person ever to receive it.