The research I did for my historical fiction novel set in 1880 in a lighthouse off the coast of Victoria, involved many trips to various libraries (virtual and physical). Today I want to share a story with you of a special experience I had visiting one of those libraries.
To centre my characters in ‘place’ and ‘time’ I took a trip to the State Library of Victoria where the journals of Henry Bayles Ford are kept. Bayles Ford was a long-time keeper at Cape Otway from 1848 – 1878 (https://www.lightstation.com/explore-cape-otway/tales-of-the-cape/) (which was very close to the time period I was researching) and his journals are available to the general public to view.
I felt privileged and not a little excited as I stepped into the Heritage Reading Collection room where the librarian processed my request to view the journals. They arrived in an indiscriminate beige archival box but, when opened, revealed a set of purple bound books with a wonderful marbling pattern on the inside front cover.
I admit I felt quite overcome. Here were books actually, physically, held by the keeper himself and I felt a link to the past connecting him with me. I had the distinct impression I was not reading about history, this was history.
The handwriting itself was a heady mixture of generous upstrokes and downstrokes and squashed lettering in between. In parts the letters were indistinguishable to a 21st Century eye and I could not make out all the words and sometimes missed even whole phrases. However, I was captivated by the language the keeper used and his turn of phrase as he described his daily routines: ‘Employed in cleaning the gear of the Lantern’ (note the capital ‘L’ for Lantern); details of weather phenomena (‘Strong breeze, heavy squalls from the Southward’); further day-to-day preoccupations (‘Employed in painting the balcony’); and communications between the Harbour Office and the Head Lightkeeper.
This was more than enough to help ‘ground’ my characters in the minutia of lighthouse life but then I espied something even more enthralling. It seems that Bayles Ford had ongoing issues with one of his assistants which started when the assistant refused Bayles Ford’s order to get in some firewood. There began a series of misdemeanours by the assistant – much to Bayles Ford’s chagrin. As I read, I saw how the nub of the conflict I’d imagined for my own story could be framed
When the 3rd assistant embroils himself with the recalcitrant keeper, Bayles Ford ‘endeavour[s] to remain neutral…’. The keepers try the Head Lightkeeper’s patience. They take leave of absences without approval, and when Bayles Ford takes leave he is ‘aghast […] will take charge of the department’ although, when he returns, he finds that ‘all is quite correct’. To his great frustration it seems the keeper is ‘absenting himself continually without leave’. I could not decipher the end to the story of Bayles Ford and his troublesome assistants but, needless to say, this material was more than enough for me to give focus to my own intractable keepers on The Sentinel lighthouse station.