10 Fun [historical] Facts

An important aspect of writing ‘The Sentinel’ was to make sure my characters were located within their time & place, which was on a lighthouse station in 1880 Victoria.

Journals of Henry Bayles Ford

I’ve written about the research I did here, here, here and here. Today I want to share some of the wonderful tidbits of information I came across when doing the research for the my novel.

Here are the 10 fun facts:

  1. I almost called my novel ‘A Man of the First Order’ because The Sentinel light is a First Order Fresnel lens. Lighthouse lenses were divided into ‘orders’, the largest were called ‘First Order’ because of their size and focal length. A First Order lens had a focal length of 920 mm and measured approximately 2 metres wide by 3 metres high. The optics, which allowed for greater illumination over further distances, were invented by French physicist, Augustin Fresnel, and were manufactured by the Chance Brothers company of England. The lenses were exceptionally beautifully – made out of cut glass crystal – and are worth a fortune today.
  2. Being a lighthouse keeper’s wife was often very lonely. It was not the ‘done thing’ for the keepers and the wives, to visit each other as casual visiting was strongly discouraged. On top of that, the men were busy all day caring for the lighthouse and surrounds, leaving the women to keep the home by themselves.
  3. Every light has its own unique pattern of flashes to distinguish it from every other lighthouse.
  4. The light sat in a mercury bath while it span. Mercury has a low co-efficient of friction and even though the lens itself weighed up to 2&1/2 tons, the level of friction was so small, the lens could be turned with just one finger. Mercury’s a very toxic substance however, and many keepers suffered mercury poisoning and went mad.
  5. While the strict hierarchy between the Head Lightkeeper and his 1st and 2nd Assistants usually kept arguments at bay, there were still times when tensions ran high and things got out of control. For instance, on one lighthouse station which was actually a large rock just off the coast, there was so much division between the keeper and his assistant that when things boiled over, the keeper chased his assistant around the island for 7&1/2 hours. All that was left of the assistant at the end of the chase, were his footprints on a large rock near the sea. No one knows what happened to him.
  6. Strict discipline ruled the keepers’ lives. Every keeper was kept busy with a multitude of tasks and, in the language used by keepers of the time, were ’employed in’ the following duties:
    • cutting firewood
    • filling the kerosene tanks and oil drums
    • painting the railings
    • cleaning the face of the lantern
    • scrubbing paintwork on the quarters
    • painting verandah posts and doors and window sashes
    • painting the balcony … and so on …
  7. Weather, weather, weather. There was no hiding from the elements in the places these keepers lived and worked. Journals and logbooks are dominated by reports on the weather; islands lashed by 10 metre waves, supply ships delayed due to bad weather; the howl of the wind; storms so fierce, lightning bolts splinter the air and shoot down fire balls; the hum of the wind; and weather observation upon weather observation.
  8. The clockwork mechanism which span the light had to be wound every hour or hour and a half so the light didn’t run flat. Once keepers were on duty, they had to stay in the light and not leave it because the Captains sailing their ships past the lights relied on it to be true – they set their course by it.
  9. Keepers preferred the Lantern room to the other parts of the lighthouse because it was the warmest part of the whole building. It was also favoured because of the view which, for many, was the best part of being a keeper.
  10. The ligthouse keepers and their families were true survivors. They faced isolation, hard work, injury and death without solace of close neighbours or community. For the women, in particular, life was hard but they were stoic because the greater purpose was evident. They must keep the light burning bright and keep the sea passages safe for the sailors passing by.

From l – r in clockwise direction: the clockwork mechanism which turns the light; the white bath in which the mercury sits; the paneled warmth of the Lantern room; ‘the best part’, the view from the lighthouse balcony; and the beautiful Fresnel lens.

Until next time,


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