Archive feature: Final Farewell for the Lady of the Lamp

Final Farewell for the Lady of the Lamp

First published: April 1994, by Linda Viney
The exterior of The Thornhill Arms, located in Yorkshire's Calverley

Peg Braithwaite the lady of the lamp at Walney Island

PEG Braithwaite, the only principal woman lighthouse keeper in England, is finally packing away her yellow dusters and retiring from her post on Walney Island, Cumbria.

The 75ft lighthouse dates back to 1790 when it was built to guide the ships in­volved in the Jamaica sugar trade between Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea. It remains one of the few manned lighthouses in the country.

Peg has known no other life. Her first memories are of arriving by boat with her family from Piel Island and running up the sane hills like a greyhound. Her father, Fred Swarbrick, worked in a succession of jobs all involved with the sea, before taking up the post on Walney as principal keeper. Peg followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the payroll in 1948. For the past 19 years she has been principal keeper and was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1975 for her efforts. 

Climbing the 91 steps to the top of the lighthouse has kept her fit and once there the views are breathtaking. It has been her job to make sure everything is kept in working order. Her first task each morn­ing is to switch off the beam which gives off the equivalent of 450,000 candles of light from 17 lightbulbs and can be seen 20 miles away.

Modern technology has made life eas­ier. In the past she had to climb to the top three times a day to wind up the Z00cwt of machinery by hand. Now there is an electric motor and two standby generators but they have to be cleaned and the bear­ings greased. She has been known to stay up all night manually operating the lights when the mechanics failed.


Peg tends the lighthouse garden

It takes a full two hours to polish the reflectors, inside and out. Removing the salt spray from the windows is an arduous job, not made any easier by the birds which also leave their mark. Plastic tape is tied to the rails in the hope of discour­aging starlings from roosting. At nesting time the gulls descend on intruders, pulling out of their dive within inches of their heads so visitors can actually hear the displacement of air. Peg sticks a feather in her hat as they only dive to the highest point. After the nesting season everything seems quiet, then numerous other birds can be spotted. 


Peg has experienced fierce winds that rampage down the Cumbrian coast, cold enough to freeze the blood. During one horrific storm in 1990 she was unable to battle against the wind and the road got washed away in several places. In condi­tions like these she can feel the vibration on the window sills at the top of the light­house. By contrast in the summer the heat behind the glass makes it almost unbearable.

Her only regular daily visitor is the postman but other visitors often call in and ask to be shown the lighthouse. In her spare time Peg knits woolly hats which she sells for the Lifeboat funds.

Walney a botanist’s paradise, is now partly a nature reserve. In 1973 Peg was in­volved in a survey of all the plants, which she found absorbing. Around the light­house the only dis­turbance to the vege­tation is from nesting gulls and the grazing livestock and among the wild flowers, grape hyacinth, rest harrow and the spiked star of Bethle­hem are all found. Sea holly grows in the marram grass and the ground leading out to the spit is cov­ered in wild thyme.

Over the years Peg has battled against the elements of wind, sand and sea to become totally self-sufficient in vegeta­bles, growing them all from seed which she buys each year. Rhubarb, raspber­ries, blackcurrants and strawberries also do well, while flowers are mainly grown for cutting. She uses a green­house for propagating and protects the plants when required with Victorian cloches.


Inside the lighthouse


Well-rotted cow manure is used each year, building up to create a fertile soil despite the sand which blows over the walls. Against recommendations she uses sea water for watering in drought condi­tions but making sure it does not land on the leaves.

Retirement has not been an easy deci­sion to make as most of her life has been spent on the island. Her husband Ken, a retired garage mechanic, has suffered ill health over the past year and the remoteness of Walney has been too great to cope with. Town life in a bungalow in Barrow will be a new challenge.

Her two springer spaniels, Minnie and Pooch have loved their runs over the sand dunes, even they will miss the freedom. “I don’t suppose they will take to their new life any more than me,” says Peg “I’ll have to make sure the new garden is well fenced.”

Peg, who keeps her age a secret, is busy clearing and sorting. Although she has not been a hoarder, having lived on Wal­ney for nearly half a century there is an enormous accumulation of memories, hundreds of old photographs and orna­ments, newspaper cuttings.

Peg finds it hard to believe why everyone is so interested in her, but has decided to write her memoirs which will help her to while away her time. Whatever happens Peg will certainly go down in history. 


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