In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

the lightkeeper's tale, part one

Alexander Hood Cocken was born in Shelburne after his parents came here in 1783 on the Loyalist tide. His father, Alexander Cocken, was one of the Port Roseway Associates, that group of Loyalists who organized themselves in New York, intending to get the best deal they could in Nova Scotia by negotiating as a body. Alas, there turned out to be not that much to negotiate about.

Sometimes we forget how traumatic things must have been for the people who arrived on the shore of Port Roseway in 1783. They had lost whatever it was they had in America, though at first they hoped to somehow get back what they had lost, or be compensated for it. Inconceivably for them, England had lost the war. And now England was cutting them loose. The Crown, reeling from its costly defeat, was not appreciative of their great sacrifices and failed to share their vision of a great city carved out of wilderness. Soon enough it became clear that Shelburne would not after all replace Halifax as the North American center of the English empire. Most of the refugees left this foggy, ice-bound shore as soon as they could manage it.

But some adapted, and stayed, and among them were Alexander Cocken and his wife Catherine. Alexander the father was a Scot, born in Glasgow, a mariner. His wife Catherine was a New Englander, from Massachusetts.

Alexander and Catherine had five children, and the oldest was Alexander the son. He was christened at Christ Church Shelburne in 1787, before the permanent church was even built. Of the five Cocken children christened, it's likely that only he and his two sisters lived to adulthood, and that his two younger brothers died early, since nothing more is known of them except their christenings. Their mother died in 1799, when Alexander was twelve and his sisters were five years old and an infant.

The lighthouse on McNutt's was completed in 1790, and actually lit in 1792. Cocken had already been appointed lightkeeper, and he was responsible for the building materials needed for the light and the various necessary buildings and the house for the keeper's family.

The Cocken family and all their possessions were taken out to the island in late 1789, once they had a place to live. The Archives has a bill for their transport. They moved into the new house out there at the southern end of McNutt's Island. If we remember the letter that the elder Alexander wrote in 1801 about the absence of a road across the island, maybe we can imagine how isolated and difficult life was for a family living in that harsh, exposed place.

The young Alexander was a toddler when the family moved into its new house on the wind-swept cape, surrounded on three sides by ocean waves pounding against rocky cliffs. This was a difficult time for the family. Between 1790 and 1793 his father, the first lightkeeper, wrote a series of petitions to the House of Assembly, pleading that he might be paid the salary owed to him. In a 1790 petition he describes his family as large. But in 1792 he calls his family small. Probably the two younger boys, christened in 1788 and 1789, had died by 1792, when his family has become "small." In an escalating voice of desperation, the elder Cocken writes that he faces financial ruin because his salary has not been paid and his indebtedness for the basic necessities of life so great. In his earliest years, then, young Alexander experienced the death of his brothers and the grief of his parents, as well as financial anxiety and the harsh conditions of the family's isolated and lonely life.

After a few years the elder Cocken's condition of employment changed. He was given an annual contract, out of which he was expected to manage the lighthouse, but he was not expected to actually live there full time. Maybe the Cocken family moved back to Shelburne or to one of the villages along the western shore during the winter months then, leaving an assistant to care for the light. Maybe these years were easier ones for the family. Certainly they were less isolated.

In 1811, the year before his father died, Alexander Hood Cocken became the assistant lighthouse keeper. His father, who was seventy two years old that year, was in a very feeble state of health. The son -- then twenty four years old --would have stayed at the light full time that year. When his father died, Alexander Hood Cocken was appointed in his place. He may have sub-contracted out the lightkeeping duties between 1812 and 1816, not living at the light full time, but always responsible for its daily maintenance and nightly operation.

In 1816 a law was passed that once again required the lightkeeper to actually live at the light and perform the duties himself. So for the next forty-four years he was at the light, on the island, permanently and full time.

From another source entirely, we learn that in 1821 Alexander Hood Cocken underwent an intense religious experience. James Mann, a beloved British Methodist clergyman who served the area for many years, had a great influence on Alexander. Mann's death that year occasioned a soul-searching as Cocken reached what would then have been thought of as middle age. He began to play a significant role in the local circuit of the Methodist Church, which connected villages along the western shore, on nearby Cape Negro Island and at Northeast Harbour. Eventually he became a local preacher, a position of importance at a time when regularly ordained pastors were rare. There was a small Methodist congregation on McNutt's, a part of the local circuit, around now, and the lightkeeper would have led the services there.

In 1822 he married Jannet McKenna of Carleton Village, directly across the harbour from the island. Jannet was part of a large extended family, Scots like the Cockens. Though Alexander and Jannet had no children, they had many nieces and nephews. There would have been much coming and going between the western shore of the harbour and the island, just as there still is, though they rowed and now folks start up a motor.

Here's how Alexander Hood Cocken describes life at the lighthouse: "From the great inconvenience of procuring my supplies on this island -- generally paying double, if not treble freight for almost every necessary of life brought here, and having to pay very extravagant wages to an assistant --men considering it a great privation to live in so secluded a spot and the labour being of a toilsome nature, particularly during the winter months requiring attention at all times of night, obliged me to pay extraordinary wages; and for the last 20 years of it, it has taken full half of my allowance to meet this item alone, including the person's board. Since the prosecution of the fishery on a more regular and extensive scale, it is scarcely possible to procure an assistant that can be relied on at any price."

Although he has economized wherever possible, he goes on to say, he has not been able to save enough money from his salary to support himself and his "aged partner" in their old age, though he has been lightkeeper for forty eight years now, suffers from infirmities, and wants to retire.

He has, he notes, had a school at the lighthouse for the past twenty four years. There he taught boys reading, writing, orthography, arithmetic, English grammar, history and geography. He was, it seems from all the evidence, an educated man. He charged twenty pounds per student, and, he says, this additional income helped to pay for the assistant lightkeeper. And each year at least a few boys -- say five or six -- were also living at the light. They would need to be fed and housed as well as taught. They would need to be kept busy when not at school. So there was more work, probably done by his wife Jannet. The school would have been something they took on together, for added income.

Cocken also reports that he has brought some land under sufficient cultivation to provide winter hay for a handful of cattle; he has "any number" of sheep running wild; and a vegetable garden and potato field. The initial clearing may have been done by his father, but he has continued the work.

Was there help out here, or were Alexander and Jannet doing all this work by themselves? There were other families settling on the island, not far from the lighthouse, in the early 1800s. But those families would have needed to clear their own lands, provide for their own cattle, dig their own vegetable gardens. The 1827 census tells us that Jannet and Alexander's household at the lighthouse included a servant. No doubt the scholars had chores. But it would have been a hands-on enterprise.

An official assessment conducted in 1857 described the lighthouse as barely functioning and the keeper's house as "wretched," owing not to the negligence of the keeper but to the lack of material support by the province. Repairs were recommended, and they must have been made. Cocken refers to this in his 1860 letter: "Through strong representations to the Government for some years, and delayed owing to pressing calls at other stations, the premises not long since were put, and are now, in good substantial order -- as well the Light House, as dwelling house, store & Barn ...." Until the recent repairs, the Cockens had for many years endured life with a drafty house, a leaky roof, and a poorly functioning light.

In his application for a pension Alexander Hood Cocken did not mention that over the years he had bought up a few of the island lots originally granted to Loyalists. He bought the lot we live on for instance, rented it out for a number of years, then sold it. There were at least two others. There could have been a small income stream from his island properties, or more likely maybe the rents were paid in fish and apples. Maybe Alexander Hood Cocken was not as entirely poor as he wished to appear when he crafted his appeal for a pension. Still, he had not become a wealthy man.

Eleanor Robertson Smith and Kim Robertson Walker, Founders of Shelburne, Nova Scotia: Who Came, 1783-1793, and Stayed (Shelburne: Shelburne County Archives & Genealogical Society, 2008), 30-31, 150-151; the series of petitions from Alexander Cocken to the House of Assembly can be read online in the NSARM virtual exhibit Voices of the People; T. Watson Smith, The History of the Methodist Church in Eastern British America (Halifax, Nova Scotia: The Methodist Book Room, 1877), 111; NSARM, RG 7, Vol. 43, Alexander H. Cocken to Joseph Howe, Shelburne, June 1, 1860; 1827 Census of Nova Scotia; Register of Deeds, Shelburne & Shelburne County & Indexes 1784-1880.


Piecefulafternoon said...

Such interesting stories from lighthouses. Have you read the book "The Lighthouse Stevensons"? Quite interesting!!

Janet said...

Thank you Anne for the last two lovely posts. You are doing a wonderful job of showing the world our natural and social history, and as always coupled with the clear, elegant writing style are your great photographs!

Andrea on Third Street said...

What a treat to read! Thanks for sharing this bit of history.

Robert McNutt said...

Great information, I'm looking forward to the rest of the "tale"!