The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

Fanny’s life changed completely when she was about five and her father got a job as a lighthouse keeper. Fanny was born in Shoreditch, London, the first child of William and Jane Frost. She spent her early years in Holborn, where her father worked as a porter, possibly living in just two or three rooms. Her brother William was born there in 1857, but by 1859 their life was transformed. William, her father, now a lighthouse keeper, moved his family from the crowded streets of London, to Coquet Island, a mile off the coast of Northumberland.

The island was low-lying and about the size of Folkestone Old Cemetery. Fanny and her brother, William probably had free range to play anywhere, as the whole island was visible from the houses. The Principal Lighthouse Keeper was William Darling, older brother of Grace. He lived on the island with his wife, Jane, four sons and a niece, also called Grace. These would have been Fanny’s only playmates, along with her brother William.

On Coquet Island, Fanny and William would have had house chores to do before they could play. The family would have kept hens and probably goats, for fresh eggs and milk, possibly also rabbits; these all needed feeding, cleaning out and minding. Supplies would have come over from Amble on the mainland, twice a month. The provisions were probably similar to that given to the sailors, salt meat, flour and dry biscuits. If they wanted fresh vegetables, then they had to grow them in the enclosures round the house. In the winter when there were storms, there could be no groceries for weeks at a time.

One of their many jobs might have been to collect shellfish from the seashore to add variety to their meals. They probably had hand lines and fished as well. In season they possibly collected seaweed to put on the bits of garden. The soil would have been very thin and any extra humus would be a bonus. They would have composted all vegetable rubbish too, for the garden.

In 1859 a second brother, Alfred, was born. Jane, her mother, may have gone to Amble for the birth, but very likely she didn’t have time to spend waiting and he was born on the island, with just the help of Jane Darling. Fanny would have helped to look after her two brothers, as her mother would have had her hands full with the housework. Most water would have had to be carried from somewhere and taken out again. They would have used it very sparingly, possibly first to wash in and then to wash clothes, and maybe the floor, before it was finally carried out. Food would have been basic and maybe monotonous, but cooking would still have taken up a lot of her time. It would have been done on a coal fire or possibly a range, and again, all coal would have been carried up from the boats and stored near the house.

William, her father, would have been fully occupied tending the lighthouse. He would have worked shifts with William Darling, through the night and day. They had to keep records of the weather, work done and ships that passed by. They had to keep the lantern clean, which involved regularly washing the salt off the outside, from the lantern gallery. They had to keep up supplies of oil for the light, carrying it from the boat to a store and then to the top of the lighthouse. Every year they were expected to limewash the tower and always to keep it and its surroundings tidy. There were regular inspections to make sure they did.

Fanny and her brothers had an education. Probably first by their mother, and later they might have rowed to Amble every day with the older Darling boys, or possibly stayed in the little town during the week. When the North Sea was too rough, they would have had to stay on the island. If they were lucky, the boatman from Amble would come over on a Sunday, maybe once a month, so that the family could attend church.

Lighthouse keepers were moved around regularly and their next move was to Orford Ness, where the cottages were actually attached to the lighthouse and it could be accessed from the first floor. It also had two voice pipes in the lamp room, with a whistle at each end, marked PK (Principle Keeper) and AK (Assistant Keeper)– each connected to the corresponding cottage. To speak, they took out the whistle at their end and blew down the pipe to work the whistle at the other end. They could then speak down the tube. Fanny and the other children probably went to and fro to each day to Orford school, with a walk and ferry.

The next move was to Lymington, where another daughter, Alice, was born, before they moved to Dungeness. This must have seemed much less isolated after Coquet Island and Orford Ness.

Fanny was now a school mistress. Maybe she was teaching the Coastguard’s children from the cottages, as travelling to a school would have been difficult, but she had been used to long walks each day. She met and married James Sumner, whose family had been living at the coastguard station in Dungeness in 1871. James became a steward on the cross channel boats; they settled in Folkestone and had eight children, only losing one, Milly, in childhood. James, Fanny and Milly are all buried in Cheriton Road.

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