The First and Last Letter
from Thomas Griffiths to his Wife
Picture of Old Smalls' Lighthouse by Suki Humphreys
In May 2017, Francis Lynch completed an opera in May 2017. Its title was FOR THOSE IN PERIL. The first American performance was held in February, 2018.The opera was inspired by this story. For this reason, Francis has been kind enough to name me as his co-librettist. Scene 11 of the opera, one of several that uses verbatim extracts from the story, can be heard in rehearsal, featuring baritone Zachary Angus, can be heard by clicking HERE. You can also read the full score of this scene. This is the story:
In early 1800, one of the two keepers of the Smalls Lighthouse, twenty miles west of the Pembrokeshire coast, Thomas Howell, died. Fearing that he would be blamed for the death if he buried him at sea, his fellow-keeper, Thomas Griffith, put the cadaver in a box and suspended it from the lantern-rail of the lighthouse so it could be seen by passing shipping. The result was as described in the letter below. Thomas Griffith was white-haired and insane when he was finally relieved. The incident directly gave rise to the Trinity House policy of manning all lighthouses with three rather than two men. This policy was maintained until remote control was installed in the last lighthouse early in the present century.
15 February, 1800
My Beloved Wife,
Strange it may be to relate that this is the first letter I have penned to you in all the years of our marriage. Some might call it strange for me to be writing this at all, when there can be no hope of you reading the letter until I am relieved from my duty one month from today. But it gives me a few crumbs of comfort to know you will eventually see my words. I will surely need anything falling from the Good Lord's table before this month has passed.
Last night my friend - I do call him my friend before the Lord - Thomas Howell, died. His passing was rapid, and I have not the medical knowledge to say what ailed him. Now I fear to be left alone without Thomas on the Smalls Lighthouse for so long. The thing that claimed poor Thomas, be it sickness or Demon, may seek me out next.
Now I must be about my duties in the lighthouse. There are all the more tasks to perform with myself alone to turn my hand to them. But I shall return to this letter before me on the table as soon as I may.
18 February, 1800
Three days and nights have passed since I last put pen to paper. As well as maintaining the light for shipping, I have engaged myself on the most gruesome of tasks. Fearing others may read too much into our past quarrels and say that Thomas Howell's death was by my own hand, I have constructed a box from old timbers and placed his corpse inside it. This I have hung from the lantern-beam of the lighthouse so it may be seen by any vessel that passes. All my prayers would be answered if one sails near enough to come to my aid.
I would to God Thomas and I had kept to honest labour on our farms in Mathry Parish. Work on the lighthouse may have brought for us more reward in silver coin but here, twenty miles out to sea from St David's Head; I fear my sole companion is the very Devil who surely lurks in the shadows of this tower.
19 February, 1800
No passing vessel has set down a lighter to row nearby and investigate the reason why a timber construction should be hung from the lantern-beam. None has approached the lighthouse by so much as half-a-league. Worse, the winds have buffeted the wooden box in such a way to loosen its lid. My relief from the Smalls Lighthouse is still more than three weeks away. I do not see how I can retain my sanity for such a length of time. All that is left to me is to pray to The Good Lord for my soul. And I hope that, safely abed in Mathry Parish, my beloved wife prays to the Lord, too.
21 February, 1800
Now I know this place is wicked beyond the power of the darkest dream. The lid of the wooden box has quite fallen away and Thomas Howell's dead right arm now hangs within inches of the lighthouse window.
And I swear it is beckoning me outside to face the harshness of the waves and the evil spirits that manifest themselves on the surface of the sea. Back and forth the arm swings like a dread pendulum. The forefinger of Thomas is extended as a pointer to the spirit-world only his dead eyes can see.
23 February, 1800
I have taken to sleeping with The Good Book as my pillow, in the hope it will protect me from the darkness of the otherworld. Even so, I close my eyes in rest for scarcely an hour through the hours of night.
As I lay in my bunk last night, scarce after one o'clock, the Demon's knock interrupted my fearful dreams. Then I saw it was the sound of the dead hand of Thomas Howell tap-tapping against my night-window that I heard.
It was then I knew, as surely as I know the grass and flowers may grow on a land I fear I will never be mine to see again, that the dead finger of Thomas was pointing out for the sea-goblins and wraiths on the water the way in to the lighthouse. There they will find the wretch shivering within. My very soul is imperilled.
24 February, 1800
This is something I can no longer endure... O, Beloved wife! ... O, My Dearest Lord! ... All ... Save...
[The rest of the letter is indecipherable]