The Smalls lighthouse incident

25 miles off the coat of Pembrokeshire in Wales, on a tiny slither of land called the Smalls stands a lighthouse, steeped in dark history

The lighthouse which is there today was built in 1861 to replace the original building which was erected in 1777.

Designed by Henry Whiteside in 1976, the original structure stood on oak wood struts with a central column added a few years later for stability

Access was gained by a sturdy rope ladder attached to a trap door in the underside of the main room.

The first recorded incident involved a visit Whiteside had made to the site. The weather turned and stranded him for a month. Short on supplies and desperate for help he penned several letters which read as follows ;

“To Mr. Williams.

Smalls, February 1, 1777


Being now in a most dangerous and distressed condition upon the Smalls, do hereby trust Providence will bring to your hand this, which prayeth for your immediate assistance to fetch us off the Smalls before the next spring or we fear we shall all perish; our water near all gone, our fire quite gone, and our house in a most melancholy manner. I doubt not but you will fetch us from here as fast as possible; we can be got off at some part of the tide almost any weather. I need say no more, but remain your distressed

Humble Servant,

Hy. Whiteside,

We were distressed in a gale of wind upon the 13th of January, since which have not been able to keep any light; but we could not have kept any light above sixteen nights longer for want of oil and candles, which makes us murmur and think we are forgotten…


We doubt not but that whoever takes up this will be so merciful as to cause it to be sent to Thos. Williams, Esq., Trelethin, near St. David’s, Wales.”


These notes were sent via bottle and two days later reached their intended recipient, Mr Thomas Williams and Whiteside and crew were rescued.


1861 location
the location of Smalls lighthouse in 1861

In 1801, the now functional  lighthouse was manned by two men;  Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffin. It is said that the two didn’t get on very well and often argued. Imagine being stuck in such a small place, with no respite from someone you just couldn’t stand. Maddening to say the least! The incident that follows is as described by Ivor Emlyn in his 1854 version of events.
Howell and Griffith as depicted in 2016 film The Lighthouse by Chris Crow

At some point Griffith complained of feeling ill and succumbing to his sickness, died leaving Howell alone. Howell knew that with the well known dislike between  he and Griffith he  would most likely be accused of murder and as such didn’t want to throw the body into the sea. As days past and the body began to decay he knew he had to do something the stench of death was heavy in the lighthouse. He set to work building a coffin using wood taken from the ‘dwelling apartments’ and with body inside lashed the makeshift tomb to the outside of the railings around the building.


A storm closed in making it impossible for any passing boats to reach Howell, worse still the strong winds tore at the coffin leaving the corpse exposed and rotting outside the lighthouse window, Griffiths arm waving in the wind seemed to beckon to Howell from beyond the grave.

Weeks passed, with passing boats assuming there was no issue. Howell had raised the distress signal but the light continued to shine and when passing one of the men could be seen at the railings waving to the passers by so there seemed to be no problem…

When Howell was finally relieved he retuned to shore, white haired and a shell of his former self. It is said that even his closest friends couldn’t recognise the man they knew, such were the horrors he had endured at the lighthouse.

From that year on it has been tradition in manned lighthouses for a crew of no less than three to be on duty at any one time.

Smalls Lighthouse today 


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