Digest>Archives> May 2006

Women of the Lights

Ethel Langton: St. Helen's Lighthouse Heroine

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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Ethel Langton and her dog, Badger. Courtesy of ...

For 38 years beginning in 1907, Mason Charity Langton served as the caretaker of St. Helen’s Fort, offshore from the Isle of Wight in England.

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Ethel Langton on the ladder leading to the ...

St. Helen’s Fort, built in 1867, was obsolete militarily during Langton’s stay, and his main duty was to keep the light burning in the fort’s skeletal lighthouse. Langton and his wife raised four daughters and a son at the fortified island.

In May 1910, Mason Langton was credited with the rescue of three men from drowning during a squall, after a fishing boat capsized near the fort. Residents of nearby Bembridge presented Langton with a marble clock in recognition of the brave rescue. The Langtons’ youngest daughter, Ethel, was born soon after this episode, and it appears that courage and fortitude were in her blood.

Mason Langton and his wife were in the habit of rowing into Bembridge weekly to pick up supplies. They followed this routine one Saturday in March 1926, unaware that

a fierce storm was bearing down on the area. Ethel, whose 15th birthday was that very day, was left alone at the fort. Waves were soon dashing against the walls of the fort, and it was impossible for Ethel’s parents to return by evening. Three years earlier, in a similar situation, Ethel and her older sister, Lily, had kept the light burning for three stormy nights.

Ethel, described by a newspaper as a “sturdy, vivacious girl,” knew what needed to be done. Despite the punishing winds, she climbed the ladder to the lighthouse lantern, 80 feet above the waters of the English Channel. She lit the lighthouse’s oil lamp for the night and wound the mechanism that rotated the lens. “I was not a bit frightened,” Ethel said later. “I was not even lonely, because I had Badger [her dog] with me.” During the course of the night, Ethel made more trips to the lighthouse lantern to make sure the light was burning properly.

The storm continued through the weekend. Ethel passed the days reading, playing games and doing crossword puzzles. Her food supply was dangerously low. “There was not much to eat,” she said later, “and when the bread was finished, I made a loaf with a little flour I found in the pantry.”

For three stormy nights, with the oil supply nearly gone, Ethel kept

the light burning. On Tuesday morning, the seas were still too rough for her parents to return. Anxious about their daughter’s welfare, the Langtons asked three local fishermen to check on her and bring her some food. Arriving at the fort after much difficulty fighting the strong surf, the fishermen found Ethel asleep. The barking of Badger awakened her. Her first concern was for the safety of her parents, and she was assured that they were fine.

Ethel’s parents still couldn’t take their own boat back to the fort in the heavy seas. Late that Tuesday afternoon, a lifeboat crew moved their monthly practice up by a week. During their exercises, the crew brought the Langtons back to their home and daughter. Mason Langton said simply, “I am very proud of my daughter.”

Lloyds of London awarded Ethel Langton

a bronze medal for meritorious service. The St. George’s Society of London, Ontario, Canada, sent her a gold brooch inscribed, “To Ethel Langton, for courage and endurance.” Other tributes and letters came from far and wide.

On the day after her parents arrived back at the fort, Ethel downplayed her heroism. “It was nothing,” she said, “and if there had

been plenty of oil and the fishermen had

not been able to reach me, I should have continued lighting the lamp as long as possible.” After Ethel Langton died a few years ago, her ashes were scattered around St. Helen’s Fort from the Bembridge Lifeboat.

This story appeared in the May 2006 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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