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Australian lighthouses

Mr Salchany, lighthouse keeper of Neptune Island signals a passing ship

Mr Salchany, lighthouse keeper of Neptune Islands signals a passing ship, 1963. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia A1200:L43685.

Lighthouses – built as towers with lights – warn sailors, especially at night or in a storm, to straighten their position so they don't hit reefs and rocks on shore.

In Australia, lighthouses are built in harbours, on islands, coral reefs and beaches. In 1983, there were 367 lighthouses and navigational aids and today it is estimated that there over 350 'light houses' – all built in the last 200 years.

In early times, people set fires at the edge of the water to warn boats of dangerous rocks on shore. The Egyptians completed the tallest lighthouse ever built in 283. It stood 122 metres high on the island of Pharos in the harbour of Alexandria. The Pharos Lighthouse used a mirror, whose reflection was seen up to 50 kilometres away.

Australia's first colonial navigation beacon was lit on the South Head of Port Jackson, New South Wales (NSW) in 1793 when a bonfire was lit for the passenger ship Bellona. By 1794, a fire was lit in the metal basket suspended from a tripod each night.

It was at South Head Signal Station that the first lighthouse structure in Australia was started in 1816 and completed in 1818 at the command of Governor Macquarie. The work was undertaken by Francis Greenway, the famous convict architect.

The lighthouse still did not guarantee safe passage and, unfortunately, the Dunbar was tragically wrecked below the Signal Station in 1857. Despite the cries being heard through the night, there was only wreckage and one survivor (out of 121 passengers and crew) the next day.

Lighthouses were built to improve safety at sea, becoming refuges for the survivors of shipwrecks and all too often the final resting place for victims. Lighthouse Keepers and their families experienced a unique lifestyle; small communities living a lonely existence usually in a very remote place. Visitors were few and far between.
Marianne Watson, The last lighthouse keeper - Web quest .


Frederick Grosse. Wreck of the Black Ball Liner Netherby on King Island

Frederick Grosse. Wreck of the Black Ball Liner Netherby on King's Island, 1866. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

Many of the earliest Australian lighthouses were built in direct response to shipwrecks in the treacherous waters in the Southern Ocean and the Tasman Sea – part of which was known as the shipwreck coast. Lighthouses became critical aids in preventing shipwrecks.

King Island waters

The coastline surrounding King Island in the Bass Strait, for example, claimed at least 60 vessels and 800 lives prior to the construction of lighthouses. The great majority of the lives lost were: the 224, mostly convict, women from County Cork, Ireland, who perished in the wreck of the Neva in 1835; and 362 emigrants from Liverpool, England on the Cataraqui in 1845.

Despite this tragic loss of life and property, it was not until 1861 that a warning light was erected on King Island's northern tip at Cape Wickham and it was not until 1883 that the lighthouse was finally built.

In 1875, an Intercolonial Board of Inquiry recommended the construction of a second light, on the west coast at Currie Harbour. Between 1861, when the Cape Wickham Light was erected and 1880, when the Currie Harbour Lighthouse was established, another twenty vessels were wrecked.

The construction of the [Currie Harbour] lighthouse is significant as a reminder of the many shipping disasters in the area, prior to the light being built. The fact that there has been only one minor wreck since its construction is testimony to the safe passage of marine vessels in the area.
Currie Harbour Lighthouse and buildings at Australian Heritage Database.

Design and construction

Lighthouse design and construction had to be adapted to the particular environments in which they were built - some of which are the most rugged and remote coasts of Australia.

Building materials varied from locally quarried granite, sandstone and limestone, as well as concrete. Where local materials were unsuitable, pre-fabricated iron lattice work, timber, concrete materials and galvanised iron were used.

After the new Commonwealth took control of maritime navigation, and eventually the care and control of all Australian lighthouses between 1912 and 1915, lighthouse design became more standardised.

Early New South Wales lighthouses – designed by the Colonial Architect

Lighthouse structures in colonial NSW were unique in that many of them were architect designed, and are easily recognisable as being designed by James Barnet, NSW Colonial Architect from 1865 to 1890. It was part of Barnet's vision to create a highway of lights along the coastline from Melbourne to Sydney.

Montague Island Lighthouse

Montague Island Lighthouse, date unknown. Courtesy of the Australian Heritage Photo Library, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Barnet's designs include the Montague Island tower (opened 1881), constructed from granite, the Green Cape Lighthouse (1883), whose tower has a square base merging into an octagonal form, and the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, also with an unusual octagonal tower. Smoky Cape is regarded as one of the last lighthouses to be designed for architectural excellence.

The absence of suitable building materials meant that lighthouses were often built with other suitable materials that were prefabricated and shipped to the site.

For example, the Chance Brothers of Birmingham designed and prefabricated an iron structure for the Currie Harbour Light, Tasmania (1880), when no local suitable stone could be found.

The tropical heat meant that the Cape Don Lighthouse tower, located in the Coburg Peninsular (Northern Territory) could not use iron for its construction. At the same time, the local ironstone rock was not suitable for the formation of concrete, so the lighthouse was built, in 1915, from reinforced concrete using materials shipped from Melbourne.

Keepers duties: lights, bells, canons, weather and tide records

Lighthouse keeper checks thermometer

Lighthouse keeper checks thermometer, Wilson's Promontory Victoria, 1987. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia A6135:K2/6/87/18.

In the past, the lighthouses were required to be run by keepers. Personal aptitude was important if keepers were to cope with life in isolation. Sometimes keepers had a probationary posting year to find out how they coped with the life and the duties involved. For example, the keepers destined for Cape Jaffa (SA) and other remote outposts were usually posted to Kingston Lightstation for a year.

The main duties of lighthouse keepers included warning ships by lighting the light when fog came up, as well as ringing bells every hour or shooting cannons. Lenses had to be cleaned, gas cylinders changed, clockwork mechanisms wound and later, generators maintained.

At Moreton Bay Pile Light, Queensland, a second function of the keepers was to keep the tide records and signal the state of the tides to the passing ships.

Lighthouse keepers also had to keep watch for any suspicious vessels. At the time of the Crimean War 1853–6 (during the gold rush) when there was a fear of a Russian invasion with her Pacific Fleet, fortifications of several beacons were made to prepare Port Phillip Bay and Sydney Harbour against any invasion from the sea. In 1854, a cannon was placed below the South Head Signal Station to alert the Colony should the Russian Fleet arrive at Sydney Heads. Lighthouse keepers had responsibility for the canon.

Lighthouse keeper's wife leaving the dockNeptune Island Lighthouse keeper's wife, leaving the dock for the boat Cape York (seen in background) for a trip to the mainland, 1963. National Archives of Australia: A1200, L43679.

Keepers' families

In Australia, lighthouse keepers and their families experienced a unique lifestyle; small communities living a lonely existence usually in a very remote place. Visitors were few and far between. Life for keepers' families was often contradictory. Their personal stories and experiences varied from the tragic experiences through humorous to exciting times.

The isolation at times must have been very challenging for lighthouse keepers and their families. Many would grow their own vegies and keep chooks and goats, and of course, fish would have been a ready resource.

Women would play the role of housekeepers, teachers, nurses, and were far away from medical help in often lonely and very windy locations. We have a record of the Hays family on a lighthouse in Bass Strait who had to tether their young son when outside so that he wouldn't be blown off the island. Children would be home schooled or in later times use School of the Air.
Marg Wade, National Archives of Australia, in The Canberra Times, 1 November 2008.

Maatsuyker Island (Tasmania) 1891 – 1960s: wrecks, carrier pigeons and idylls

As with most isolated lighthouses, the keepers at Maat (as it was called) had to assist survivors of wrecks at sea. In 1907 the Alfhild, a Swedish Barque, was wrecked with six survivors, who were cared for by the keepers until the supply ship could pick them up.

Early communication in events such as illness or shipwreck was by carrier pigeon to Hobart. The attrition rate was so high that in a serious emergency at least 3 birds would be dispatched in the hope that at least one of them would make it. The birds would take 3 hours to reach Hobart with their owners receiving a fee for each message received
The Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse .

In contrast, Nan Chauncy's, The lighthouse keeper's son (1969) set on Maatsuyker Island documents an idyllic life for a ten year old boy.

Gabo Island (Victoria), 1920s – rough seas

Gabo Island Lighthouse and artist Alexandra Lyall

Jacky Ghossein, Artist Alexandra Lyall and Gabo Island Lighthouse. Courtesy of Fairfax Photos.

At Gabo Island, off the Gippsland coast, Victoria, conditions for keepers attending the first light were hard with poor shelter and irregular supplies. The current lighthouse was completed in 1862 using red granite quarried on the island. Keepers' quarters were improved at this time and again in 1888.

Alexandra Lyall, a granddaughter of a lighthouse keeper - James Stewart, who manned the lighthouse on Gabo Island in the 1920s – explored what she described as an essential paradox of lighthouses in a series of 'highly regarded' paintings. Lyall's view was that lighthouses saved the lives of mariners while destroying the lives of the people who lived and worked in them.

As a child, I grew up with the story of my grandmother collapsing at Gabo ... All the living children were born whilst she was the wife of a lighthouse keeper ... [and then she was] taken away on a little fishing ketch to Eden, in rough seas ...
ABC, 'Into the light', Australian Story 19 August 2002.

North Reef Lighthouse (Queensland), 1940s – nothing atoll

Because of the harsh conditions of living on the North Reef Lighthouse only men without families were allowed to be keepers there. There was a 'poem' near the entrance to the lighthouse – carved in a whale bone (believed to be the work of Jack Mitchell who was a keeper there around 1949). The words on the whale bone are:


Cape Jaffa, South Australia, 1950s – life in corrugated iron lighthouses

The experience of the keepers and their families has been recounted by Margaret Hill, the wife of one of the keepers:

everything was 'found'; except for our food, which was fresh and cheap ... The weatherboard lighthouse cottage was large and comfortable ... The laundry facilities were primitive, but the wood-fired copper was burnished bright and there was always a good supply of dry wood ... The cottages were built on a rise directly across from the sea ... Beyond the back garden, the ground dropped down into thick scrub. Snakes were a worry ...
Corrugated lighthouses, part 1.


After a Commonwealth Government report in 1983, lighthouses were deactivated. This coincided with the advent of both automatic lights and also satellite navigation systems for large ships. Lighthouse keepers were no longer employed.

As is the case in most countries, the absence of any manned lighthouses in Australia is due to the belief (by the operators of large ships) that ships with radar and other navigational aids were no longer dependent on the lights. The operators of smaller boats have differed from this view.

This was a controversial decision in Australia which was made following a Report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, Lighthouses: do we keep the keepers?, December 1983. The decision was debated widely amongst the lighthouse community as well as the broader maritime and heritage sectors.

Maatsuyker Light House

Jeff Jennings,Maatsuyker Lighthouse.Courtesy of Lighthouses of Australia Inc.

The last officially manually operated lighthouse was Maatsuyker Island in Tasmania, Australia's most southerly light. The historic light was de-activated and replaced with a solar powered light in 1995. It is not for the faint hearted. In April 2008, hurricane force wind gusts of up to 110 kilometres per hour were predicted for Maatsuyker Island.

Management and access

Most lighthouses now belong to the various State Parks and Wildlife Services, but are managed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Some are still operational with a caretaker who makes weather reports and maintain the property. Others are maintained by maritime museums, local shires, and manned by volunteers. Sometimes it takes all of these entities to restore, preserve and maintain the lighthouses.

The Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, now located on shore at Kingston in the South East, is managed by the National Trust, and the former South Neptune Island Lighthouse, now located at Port Adelaide, are lighthouses open for public inspection by the South Australian Maritime Museum.

Smoky Cape, South West Rocks sees a change of 'lighthouse keepers', on a lease arrangement, with the appointment of new lessees to operate the cottages as accommodation at this historic site run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse, Tasmania

Maatsuyker Light House

Sue Lovegrove, Maatsuyker - Island of clouds 367, 2007 Oil on linen. Courtesy of the Bett Gallery, Hobart, Tasmania.

Wildcare members voluntarily staff Maatsuyker Island and Deal Island as island caretakers - working three month shifts. Special training in weather reporting is provided for caretakers on Maatsuyker Island, as the volunteers provide 3-hourly weather reports to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Arts Tasmania and the Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania have come together to offer the Maatsuyker Island wilderness residency for an individual or, preferably, a collaboration of practising artists working in any art form to develop their work in response to the natural environment of Tasmania. (See Sue Lovegrove's Maatsuyker - island of the mind)

Useful links

More information on shipwrecks

Lighthouses – general

Keepers' stories


Sources for researching lighthouses

Listen, look and play

Other resources

Video / DVD

  • The lighthouse keeper, from Sea heritage Tasmania volume one, 2000, Maritime Museum of Tasmania, Winning Post Digital, Hobart.
    The story of Maatsuyker Island's lonely lighthouse keepers who maintained and operated the southernmost lighthouse perched on top of Black Witch Rocks (black and white). Available for purchase (video or DVD) from the Maritime Museum of Tasmania.
  • A big country revisited: keepers of the light - 2003, ABC TV
    Tells the story of John Crook, former lighthouse keeper at Maatsuyker Island. Available for purchase (video) from the ABC.


Leading Lights

Elizabeth Douglas, Leading lights: the story of the Warrnambool lighthouses and lighthouse keepers,1998.

  • Elizabeth Douglas, Leading lights: the story of the Warrnambool lighthouses and lighthouse keepers
    This history is based on archival records and is fascinating and quite comprehensive in dealing with the many issues important in the establishment and maintenance of the lighthouses. A paperback booklet of 112 pages with many black and white photos and images.
  • Paul Jennings, Round the twist, was set at the Split Point light at Airey's Inlet, Victoria.
  • Joanna Murray-Smith's Judgment rock took us to Deal Island in Bass Strait , where the lighthouse, and its keeper, played a central role in her book.
  • Danielle Wood, with her novel The alphabet of light and dark - winner of the prestigious Vogel Literary Award.
    The Cape Bruny Light, at the southern tip of Bruny Island off Tasmania 's south-east coast, is the pivotal setting of this remarkable new book.
    Book review: The alphabet of light and dark - Lighthouses of Australia Inc.
  • Dianne Wolfer, Lighthouse girl, set on Breaksea Island. Based on the true story of Faye Howe

Last updated: 24th November 2008
Creators: Kathryn Wells