Keepers of the Light, 2018 - 2019
The story of a lighthouse which links Portland Bill and Smethwick, told through archive materials and contemporary observations.
Keepers of the Light centres on findings and observations around the iconic lighthouse at Portland Bill in Dorset, Southern England, and the location of its original production – Chance Glassworks in Smethwick in the West Midlands. Using texts from oral histories and archive materials, combining photographic and film fragments, in collaboration Brendan Jackson and Geoff Broadway are making both a book and short film. The work explores, celebrates and shares the connective history and significance of these places, engaging with narratives and themes of place and identity. Both the book and film were launched in October 2019.
The film can be viewed online here:
Keepers of Light is the result of creative explorations with local people and archive research at the two different locations. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Portland Bill light was made by glassmakers at Chances; by then they were the largest glass factory in the country with unique technical expertise. A byword for maritime safety, their lights could be found all around the world. The original glassworks covered some 30 acres – part of which still exists today, a 7-storey building under the care of Chance Glassworks Heritage Trust and Sandwell Council. The works closed in 1981, ending 150 years of glass production in Smethwick. Many of the original buildings were demolished.
Jutting out into the English Channel, at the tip of the Isle, Portland Bill is the southernmost light in the country. As an iconic landmark, for decades it has been a tourist attraction, visited not least by thousands of Black Country folk often not aware of its provenance so far inland. A tablet from an earlier lighthouse was installed inside the 1906 construction.
The inscription on it reads:
‘For The Direction and Comfort of NAVIGATORS; For The Benefit and Security of COMMERCE; And For A Lasting Memorial of BRITISH HOSPITALITY to all Nations’
The project explores these sentiments, in relation to the significance of the light both as a technological marvel and as an observer of changing times. If the light could speak, what stories might it tell of treacherous currents, of safe passage, of trade and travel, of the condition of our island nation, of our industriousness and sense of place?
The Portland light was significant in the development of lighthouse technology, as it was there the first experiments were made with lenses to direct the light beam, leading to the standard technology used throughout the world today. It was finally automated in 1996 and monitored from Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich. Today, the former lighthouse keepers’ dwellings house a visitor centre.
Lighthouses have fascinated people both for their feats of engineering in their construction, and the romance of their associations, those tales of shipwrecks, disasters and heroism. The lights produced in Smethwick, itself so far from the sea, were indispensable in ensuring the transport of goods and people to and from this island nation. As such, there is a great local pride and interest in the glassmakers who made this possible.
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Map of Portland Bill, 1888
The Dorset coast here has been notorious for a huge number of shipwrecked vessels over the centuries, shallow reefs and the Shambles sandbank, terrible hazards for mariners due to the pull and push of the strong Portland tidal race, making it one of the most dangerous stretches of the English Channel.