Cape Bruny Lighthouse, 1912
(Courtesy of Archives Office of Tasmania)
Lighthouses, so often located in wild and spectacular places and redolent of storms, far away places and shipwrecks, evoke strong emotions in most of us. The Cape Bruny light on its rugged cliff top is no different.
Australia’s first lighthouse was erected on Sydney’s South Head in 1818. Although Van Diemen’s Land was first colonised in 1803, no lighthouses were built on the island until 1832. As more and more ships, preferring its storm driven southern coastlines to the more dangerous Bass Strait, sailed to Australia from the 1820s, shipwrecks increased and it became the active colony in lighthouse construction.
The pilot and lighthouse sub-committee . . . have very carefully examined the entrance to the D’Entrecasteaux Channel and parts adjacent and have maturely considered the most eligible site for the proposed lighthouse. The result of their labours is to recommend Cape Brune as the position that will afford the greatest benefit to the Trade frequenting the port of Hobart Town.
The story of lighthouses invariably begins with shipwrecks. The catastrophic wreck of the convict transport, George III, with the loss of 134 lives in April 1835 followed the earlier wreck of the Actaeon south of Bruny Island in 1822. With other mishaps occurring colonial Governor George Arthur agreed to erect a lighthouse to guide vessels past Bruny Island.
When first lit in March 1838 Cape Bruny was Tasmania’s third lighthouse, after the Iron Pot light at the entrance to the River Derwent and the Low Head light at the entrance to the River Tamar, and Australia’s fourth. It is now the country’s second oldest and longest continually staffed extant lighthouse. On commissioning it was immediately ‘most favourably spoken of by the masters of all merchant ships . . . for its brilliance’. A lighthouse reserve of 74.5 hectares (184 acres), provided timber, vegetable gardens and grazing land, all indispensable parts of its operation.
Cape Bruny’s first superintendent, William Baudinet, was assisted by three convicts in operating the station. Convicts staffed most of Tasmania’s lighthouses until 1855. Baudinet himself, as was common on Tasmania’s nineteenth century lights, founded a family of lightkeepers with several descendants serving on various Tasmanian light stations.
After being initially operated by the Hobart Port Officer, Tasmanian lighthouses were administered by the Hobart Marine Board following its establishment in 1858. All Australian lighthouses remained a British Imperial matter until the Commonwealth Navigation Act 1912 placed them under federal jurisdiction. The Commonwealth assumed direct control of Tasmania’s light stations on 1 July 1915.
Life for Cape Bruny’s nineteenth century lightkeepers was sublime in its spectacular isolation, demanding in the physical work required and routine and mundane in its day to day duties. Despite their long hours on duty Tasmanian lightkeepers were poorly paid and many toiled for years without leave. After 1878 staff at Cape Bruny enjoyed 14 days leave per annum with half their passage to and from the island paid. While duties such as chopping firewood, unloading stores or repairing roads might be postponed on special occasions keeping the brasswork and lamps polished, the windows cleaned, spare lamps in order and the light illuminated at night was a daily task.
The nightly task of maintaining the light was unremitting. Each lighthouse had a unique light characteristic which was ensured by a clockwork planetary table requiring rewinding every eight hours. The fifteen lamps of the original 1838 Wilkins lantern each burned 600mls of expensive sperm whale oil per hour and needed frequent refilling. The lamps were extremely fragile, being replaced every three nights in 1839. Light keepers who neglected these primary duties of maintaining the light risked summary dismissal — the Marine Board’s lighthouse inspector, James Meech, boasted that ‘he made [the keepers] tremble’ during inspections.
. . . he swore at me and said we were all bloody thieves and made a great disturbance at the station, I cannot have this man here, it appears to me he has come here on purpose to annoy me it is impossible for me to have any control over such a violent tempered man, therefore I humbly beg you will release me of him.
Superintendent John Scott, 30 November 1871. AOT—MB2/5/13.
John Scott’s (Superintendent, 1863-76) fraught relationships with his staff highlights the difficulties inherent in operating Tasmania’s remote lightstations. Teamwork between superintendents, assistants and their families was essential to ensure a harmonious and efficient station. Extended periods of rigidly hierarchical life in these tiny and remote communities tested the most phlegmatic of souls. Three years after his dispute with assistant keeper Thomas Winter, Scott asked for Isaac Merrick’s dismissal calling him a ‘lazy skulker’. Not only was he also insolent but so were his wife and seventeen year old son who ran ‘about the bush doing mischief’. Merrick disputed Scott’s reports but was eventually removed from Cape Bruny.
Although the strict discipline of the first years (when no familiarity was permitted between the superintendent and the convict assistants) was later moderated somewhat life and work was controlled by standing orders.
Superintendents usually had a seafaring background and needed to be capable and resourceful men experienced in animal husbandry, weather and seamanship. They kept logs, made observations on weather and passing sea traffic and wrote regular detailed reports to the Marine Board. Assistant keepers had more menial tasks to complete as well as attending to night watches at the light.
Life on the Station
Until the late 1870s families were discouraged from joining assistant keepers. Those who brought wives without Marine Board permission could be dismissed as food was often scarce in the more remote island stations, particularly when supply ships were overdue. New employment conditions introduced in 1878 recognised the stabilising influences of families and they were subsequently encouraged to live a the light stations.
Educational opportunities were severely limited on remote stations such as Cape Bruny, perhaps resulting in the several family dynasties which worked Tasmania’s lights. From the 1880s reading material, mostly of an ‘improving nature’ was provided for staff at the stations. In 1885 this list included:
Half yearly volumes of Chambers Journal, Good Words, Cassell’s Family Magazine, Family Herald, Leisure Hour, All the Year Round, British Workman, Family Friend and the balance in cheap editions of suitable books of travel, novels, etc.
Light stations had to be self-sufficient in medical treatment. After its medical officer, Dr Turnley, advised that medical chests could ‘do no harm’ and that ‘the quantities of medicine are not excessive and would not cost much’ in 1871 the Marine Board purchased a dozen medical chests for its lighthouses.
There have been three known deaths at Cape Bruny. A child’s grave found in 1960 was either the final resting place of Christina Merrick, the 2 1/4 year old daughter of assistant keeper, Isaac Merrick, who choked on a piece of turnip in March 1875, or of A. Williams’ child who died of ‘infant diarrhoea in January 1898. Cape Bruny’s third recorded fatality occurred when Rupert Peters fell while descending a cliff to go fishing in 1937.
Initially, contact with Hobart was either by sea or via a long rough track to North Bruny Island. Supplies were shipped to a jetty five kilometres away at Great Taylor Bay from at least the 1850s. The ruins of the 1916 replacement jetty remain at Jetty Beach. Visitors also arrived via this jetty — from the mid-nineteenth century steamers brought day trippers and family and friends of Marine Board officers during ‘official’ visits.
In emergencies lighthouse staff signalled passing ships or made time consuming and hazardous journeys up the island or across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel to obtain assistance. Communications improved when the first telephone line reached the light station in 1902 and three decades later the arrival of the first motorised mail delivery to Cape Bruny provided cause for celebration.
The lighthouse was refurbished in 1901-3 with a powerful new Chance Bros catadioptric lantern replacing the original Wilkins lantern. The cast iron and copper Chances Bros lantern, its cast iron planetary table and clockwork and 700mm six panel glass lens are rare surviving examples of late nineteenth/early twentieth century industrial technology.
Technological advances in the 1980s and 1990s permanently altered the operation of Australia’s lighthouses. Already, the 1959 electrification of the light had ensured the decline of old skills such as mixing oils to obtain the best light. With automatic lights providing cheaper operational costs lighthouses were progressively automated despite arguments that staffed lights ensured better safety for commercial and recreational shipping. When Cape Bruny light was lit for the last time on 6 August 1996 and replaced by a solar powered light nearby one of Australia’s last remaining staffed light towers was decommissioned.
Along with most other Tasmanian light stations Cape Bruny was transferred from the Commonwealth Government to the State Government 1 May 1998. In December 2000 it was added to the South Bruny National Park.