The Smalls

The Smalls may sound like a clothes line full of ladies’ washing, but it is nothing so trivial and innocuous.

In fact it is a lonely rock 12 miles off the mainland of Pembrokeshire west of St Brides Bay, and the site of one of the wealthiest revenue-producing lighthouses in the British Isles.

It has a gruesome true story to tell of an incident in 1800 which changed the rules regarding the manning of lighthouses, when one of the two men at The Smalls died, leaving the other with the corpse for three months before rescue. Three keeper manning was then introduced. The Smalls, which marks the end of a long and treacherous reef of basalt rocks named The Hats and Barrels, no doubt so-called because of their appearance at certain states of the tide, was a deadly trap for mariners passing the Pembrokeshire coast for thousands of years.

Countless ships have been wrecked on this eight mile long stretch of rocks spread like the teeth of a mantrap from the Smalls to Grassholm, and the most recent seven of them are recorded in ”Pembrokeshire Shipwrecks” a fascinating book by local maritime historian Ted Goddard.

The Smalls was unlit until the end of the 18th century, the first white light showing on September 1st 1776. The enterprising founder of the project was John Phillips of Liverpool, who obtained a lease of the rock from the Treasury in 1774 and employed an engineer named Henry Whiteside to start erecting the lighthouse. He embarked for the rock from Liverpool on June 17th 1775 in the ship Unity, taking with him eight miners, two labourers and a blacksmith, but the weather was so fickle that during three-and-a-half months on the rock they only managed to work for nine full days on the main rock. In that time, they bored a hole 18-inches deep for the central pillar, marked the sites for the eight flanking piles, five of wood and three of iron, and built a hut. They had space to work above high tide in all but the worst of the summer gales and they finished the job at the end of August 1776.

Henry Whiteside spent the first winter in the lighthouse, which groaned and shuddered under the blows from the massive waves and gales of the open Atlantic.

By February 1st 1777 Whiteside was forced to write letters seeking help before the next spring tide, the light having been extinguished by a gale on January 13th. Three letters were put in corked bottles and sealed in casks bearing the message: ‘Open this and you will find a letter.’ One took two months to reach Galway Bay, but the others were washed ashore in Pembrokeshire, one, amazingly, a few days after it was ‘sent’ - in the creek beneath the home of the lighthouse agent Thomas Williams of Treleddin! The lighthouse dues were valuable, and Trinity House paid £170,468 for the lease in 1836.

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