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Lifesaving lights

The Australian continent has more than 37,600 kilometres of coastline and countless potential hazards for ships approaching landfall. Shipwrecks were common in Australia’s early history, with the loss of hundreds of lives. Lighthouses are a unique symbol of Australia’s maritime history and many date back more than 150 years.

In 2015, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is recognising 100 years of Australian government ownership of aids to navigation in 2015. AMSA now manages some 500 aids to navigation, including 56 heritage-listed lighthouses recognised for their outstanding heritage values to the nation. Lighthouses under current Australian government management include one of Australia’s oldest lighthouses, located on Tasmania’s Swan Island – which will be 170 years old this year.

Tales of shipwrecks abound through Australia’s history, and many lighthouses were built as a result of numerous fatal shipwrecks. Areas such as Bass Strait and the south western point of Western Australia have proved especially treacherous for ships.

Today new aids to navigation continue to be installed in remote locations on the Australian coastline as required, with a new lighted buoy recently being installed at Urchin Shoal in Palm Passage, which is one of the main entrances to the Inner Shipping Route of the Great Barrier Reef.

Evolutions in technology

Macquarie lighthouse

The Macquarie lighthouse, in the Sydney suburb of Vaucluse, was the first in Australia. The locally quarried stone of the original lighthouse tower, built in 1818, was of an inferior quality, and that tower was demolished in 1883 and replaced with the current tower later the same year. For some time, both towers stood together. Courtesy AMSA

The very first beacon to warn mariners was believed to be built at South Head in Sydney in 1793, only five years after the arrival of European colonists. Its beacon was fuelled by wood and kept alight by convicts. Australia’s lighthouse history started with Governor Lachlan Macquarie and the first Macquarie lighthouse, built in 1818 atop the cliffs of Vaucluse in Sydney. In those early years, the Macquarie light was powered by whale oil.

Changes in technology evolved slowly, with kerosene being used at most Australian lighthouses by the late 1800s and the largest lighthouses often using mercury baths to assist in the rotation of their large glass lens assemblies.

In those early days, lighthouses were staffed by light keepers. Each day before dusk, men across Australia left their cottages to ascend a familiar spiral staircase, set the light going by winding it up and pumping the kerosene, maintaining it and watching it throughout their watch. This occurred night after night, in still weather and in the midst of the worst storms that the sea could throw against the nearby shores. The lighthouse prisms also had to be cleaned at least once a fortnight; it took two men the best part of a day to clean and polish both sides.

When the Australian colonies federated in 1901, they decided that the new Commonwealth government would be responsible for coastal lighthouses – major lights used by vessels travelling from port to port, rather than the minor lights used for navigation within harbours and rivers. The transfer of control occurred on 1 July 1915, when the Lighthouses Act 1911 came into effect.

When the Commonwealth of Australia officially accepted responsibility for all landfall and coastal lights around Australia, these included 103 manned lights. The individual states retained responsibility for harbour lights.

Leeuwin-GarrySearle-1200px.jpgThe Commonwealth Lighthouse Service commenced operation on 1 July 1915, assuming responsibility for about 163 lights, buoys and beacons. Pictured: Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, courtesy Garry Searle

The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service commenced operation on 1 July 1915, assuming responsibility for about 163 lights, buoys and beacons from the various state administrations that marked ocean shipping routes. After the Commonwealth was given control of major lights, it was decided that all newly built lights would be unattended. These new lights used acetylene as the illuminant and lighthouse keepers eventually lost their positions to automation.

As technologies used in the maritime industry evolved, so did the needs and man hours required by lighthouses. New navigational, lighting and power technologies, together with environmental considerations, led to changes in the way lighthouses were operated. Light keepers are no longer present to run and maintain the light stations, with the departure of Australia’s last light keeper in 1997.

The responsible government agency changed names over the years and AMSA took on responsibility for aids to navigation in 1991. Today, AMSA maintains a network of some 500 visual and electronic aids to navigation for shipping. The network consists of traditional lighthouses, beacons, buoys, radar transponder beacons (racons), Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) and Automatic Identification System (AIS) stations, plus met-ocean sensors such as broadcasting tide gauges, wave rider buoys, current meters and a weather station.

Swan Island Lighthouse

Swan Island lighthouse, located off the northeast coast of Tasmania, was first lit on 1 November 1845. Courtesy AMSA


The lighthouses in AMSA’s aids to navigation network continue to serve a vital navigational safety role, including those preserved under heritage responsibilities. Many of Australia’s oldest lighthouses are in isolated locations away from public view, like the oldest, located on Tasmania’s Swan Island, which will be 170 years old this year.

Explore more heritage lighthouses on the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s interactive map.


David Payne

David Payne is Curator of Historic Vessels at Australian National Maritime Museum, and through the Australian Register of Historic Vessels he works closely with heritage boat owners throughout Australia researching and advising on their craft and their social connections. David has also been a yacht designer and documented many of the museum’s vessels with extensive drawings. He has had a wide sailing experience, from Lasers and 12-foot skiffs through to long ocean passages. Since 2012 he has been able to work closely with Aboriginal communities on a number of Indigenous canoe building and watercraft projects.