“My grandfather, Julien Caillaud, lighthouse keeper for 27 years”


The Baleines lighthouse is one of the most visited monuments in the Charente-Maritime.

South West Archives/Pascal Couillaud

Built in 1854 to replace the beacon tower, the old tower built in 1682 by order of Colbert and which still stands at its feet, by the sea, this lighthouse, whose last keeper left in 2001, is the main element of a site with a park and other buildings. It is also by far the most visited monument on the Ile de Ré, and one of the very first in Charente-Maritime: every year almost a million people pass through the gates of the park and 180,000 visit the large lighthouse, the museum and the old tower.

A school for lighthouse keepers

What you may not know is that the said museum once housed a school, the School of Whales. A funny name, reminiscent of the…

The Baleines lighthouse is one of the most visited monuments in the Charente-Maritime.


The Baleines lighthouse is one of the most visited monuments in the Charente-Maritime.

South West Archives/Pascal Couillaud

Built in 1854 to replace the beacon tower, the old tower built in 1682 by order of Colbert and which still stands at its feet, by the sea, this lighthouse, whose last keeper left in 2001, is the main element of a site with a park and other buildings. It is also by far the most visited monument on the Ile de Ré, and one of the very first in Charente-Maritime: every year almost a million people pass through the gates of the park and 180,000 visit the large lighthouse, the museum and the old tower.

A school for lighthouse keepers

What you may not know is that the said museum once housed a school, the School of Whales. A funny name, reminiscent of the Azores, Spitsbergen and Moby Dick. However, the institution was not aimed at calves wanting to perfect their training, nor at ecologists eager to learn more about cetaceans. Actually intended for future lighthouse keepers, it gets its name from the fact that it was located exactly at the foot of the lighthouse of the same name that rises on the extreme point of the Ile de Ré, a few meters from the banks where sometimes the whales of disoriented or hunted by orcas in the last century. We are talking to you about a time that those under a hundred cannot know: the last cetacean to date ran aground on the beach of Rétaise in 1922. The school, which is more recent, closed its doors in 1970, after seventy years. -three years of good and loyal service, after training about forty guards, sometimes from Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal or Madagascar.

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Julien Caillaud, guardian of the Baleines lighthouse from 1946 to 1972

From left to right: Julien Caillaud (young guard in an oversized suit), Pierre Renaud (who then left for the Pointe du Roc lighthouse in Granville), Gaston Giraudeau (who became head of the lighthouse in September 1973), Mr.  Lebreton (a supervisor), Gustave Massé (master of the lighthouse until March 1957).


From left to right: Julien Caillaud (young guard in an oversized suit), Pierre Renaud (who then left for the Pointe du Roc lighthouse in Granville), Gaston Giraudeau (who became head of the lighthouse in September 1973), Mr. Lebreton (a supervisor), Gustave Massé (master of the lighthouse until March 1957).

Personal Archives Xavier Caillaud

One of our readers, Xavier Caillaud, born in Ars-en-Ré, knows this page from the rich Rétais past, and more generally from the great maritime history of the French coast. His grandfather, Julien Caillaud, himself was the guardian of the whaling lighthouse from 1946 to 1972. An appointment made at the suggestion of Gustave Massé, the then master of the lighthouse.

“Twenty-seven and a half years in Les Baleines, a single lighthouse to his name, his house, his home! †

“Born in Ars-en-Ré in 1911, he was sent at the age of 9 to the foam school in Brest, an institution for the students of the navy, and was trained as an electrician,” recalls this soldier from La Rochelle, 50 years old. “After the war and five years of captivity in the Fallingsbottel camp (stalag XIIB), he gets the chance to stay on the land of his ancestors to become a lighthouse electrician. In 1949 he saw the school of lighthouse keepers open and ended his career as head of the lighthouse keepers. Twenty-seven and a half years in Les Baleines, a single lighthouse to his name, his house, his home! †

Some interns from Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal or even Madagascar sent him thank you cards like this one, sent from Casablanca and addressed to


Some interns from Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal or even Madagascar sent him thank you cards like this one, sent from Casablanca and addressed to “Mr Caillou”, head of the lighthouse.

Personal Archives Xavier Caillaud

“The media usually only mentions the last lighthouse keeper, Marc Raynaud, who mourns Xavier Caillaud and thereby erases the memory of his predecessors, to whom we must also pay tribute. And to which his grandfather belongs.

For example, in his family archive he keeps a cutting from “Sud Ouest” from the 1960s, of which he sent us a copy. Entitled “At the School of Whales, Students Learn a Trade and a Motto “Make Fire at All Times”,” the article is illustrated with photographs representing Julien Caillaud, along with the school principal, Mr. Passani, principal of the school of whales.

Julien Caillaud, Keeper of the Whale Lighthouse, photo report by photographer Jean Gaillard


Julien Caillaud, Keeper of the Whale Lighthouse, photo report by photographer Jean Gaillard “Sud Ouest” in the 1960s.

South West Archive

The opportunity to delve into the past to discover the difficulties and grandeur of an exciting profession has all but disappeared today: lighthouse keeper.

Lighthouse keeper? What a funny idea!

Postcard of the lighthouse, between August 1958 and October 1961. The blue Simca is that of Julien Caillaud.  You will also notice the gray (not red) color of the lantern.


Postcard of the lighthouse, between August 1958 and October 1961. The blue Simca is that of Julien Caillaud. You will also notice the gray (not red) color of the lantern.

Personal Archives Xavier Caillaud

At the time, the French coast had 180 lighthouses guarded by a team of three who worked in shifts: one resting on land, the other two at sea. Despite this, it is not necessary to establish a numerus clausus: there are not enough candidates to meet the needs.

“Who can spend part of his life on this great candle, struck by the waves, refueled by the seagulls, lifted when the weather permits, for the sole occupation of lighting a lantern in the evening, at the morning blow?” asks the newspaper.

Men who are not afraid of loneliness, certainly. But to become a “hermit of the sea” one must also have solid professional qualifications, it is not just a matter of guarding work. And making a strong enough “fire” on a lighthouse isn’t just about lighting a candle or an Aladdin lamp. Hence the Whale School.

Julien Caillaud, left, in the 1960s. Photo report by photographer Jean Gaillard “Sud Ouest”


Julien Caillaud, left, in the 1960s. Photo report by photographer Jean Gaillard “Sud Ouest”

South West Archive

Besides having a calling, you must have spent twelve months in a lighthouse at sea. It is also better to love the sea, to know it well, with its dangers, and to understand those who sometimes cling desperately to the signals of the lighthouses in the middle of a storm. Also, lighthouse keepers are often recruited from among former sailors, who would like to conquer a home port. The school year lasts seven months, including a stay at a lighthouse at sea and an internship on a fleet of lighthouse and beacon equipment.

And what do we learn in the school of whales?

At Les Baleines, a school described by the newspaper as “old-fashioned” but “charming”, you will be introduced to all the lights in service in the 180 manned lighthouses and the 778 unmanned lighthouses in the country: gas, electric, connected on the mains, with backup battery in case of power failure and finally glowing by oil vapour. We also get acquainted with radiophony and radio electricity.

Julien Caillaud, lighthouse keeper.


Julien Caillaud, lighthouse keeper.

Xavier Caillaud’s personal archives.

At the end of his training, the lighthouse keeper should therefore be familiar with the optical equipment and know how to clean it, establish radio links, maintain and repair the equipment and, if necessary, report a shipwreck and organize rescue . And finally: cooking and, in some lighthouses, making meteorological observations. No time to dream away before the waves or get bored.

Realize the fire at all costs

And then there’s the mental load, as we say today. Every night, the lives of several navigators depend on the light beams of the lighthouse. Also, the fire has to work anyway. At the slightest incident, the lighthouse keeper must react quickly and be within reach with all the means at his disposal to deal with all eventualities, sometimes performing heroic deeds.

And the newspaper cites the example of these two men who were “scarred terribly in the fire that destroyed their lighthouse, fought until dawn”, “turning the optics by hand so that the beam of light continues its round inexorably”, to apply the motto of the school of whales: “Realize fire and its characteristics, at all costs”.

From Hell to Heaven

Baleines lighthouse, aerial view, 2007.


Baleines lighthouse, aerial view, 2007.

Jean Jacques Saubic

When the final exam is passed, the lighthouse keeper’s first assignment is one of the “hardest” lighthouses, such as the terrible lighthouse “Ar-Men”, very isolated at the end of the lane. western tip of Brittany, in a very dangerous reef area. Even the reliefs are dangerous there.

After a few years of hell and then purgatory at a more pleasant lighthouse, he may hope to finish his career at a lighthouse on land, such as that of Les Baleines, living next door, with his family and cycling every morning to go to work or on foot, as one would go to the office. A paradise that Xavier’s grandfather would have had access to without having to pass other lighthouses, due to his dual status as an MP and a prisoner of war.

The interior staircase of the Baleines lighthouse, in 2010.


The interior staircase of the Baleines lighthouse, in 2010.

South West Archives/Xavier Léoty

If he wants and if he has the skills, the lighthouse keeper will prepare Brest school to become a lighthouse electrician. He will then have under his responsibility several unguarded lighthouses working with modern techniques: “transistor fires, with recharges by wind energy, which are currently the solutions of the future”, writes “Sud Ouest”

At the end of increasingly difficult exams, after an internship at the Griz-Nez school, he will finally be able to complete his career as a monitor-checker, traveling hundreds of miles, advising, helping, checking electromechanics and maintaining contact with the Lighthouse and Beacon Engineer.

The lenses of the Baleines lighthouse, February 4, 2010.


The lenses of the Baleines lighthouse, February 4, 2010.

South West Archives/Pascal Couillaud

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