Tasmania: Bruny Lighthouse: for the ones who are curious how is it to live on a lighthouse

I was always surprised by the fascination of Australians about their lighthouses but I think slowly I got the idea why and my visit at the Cape Bruny Lighthouse helped me a lot to understand it. That’s for I like to share what I learn there. I hope it would be as interesting for you as it was for me.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse is located at the bottom south of the Bruny Island- Tasmania. If you like to know more about Tasmania, have a look on my other posts :

Road trip along the east coast of Tassi– in english

Bruny Island– in french

Wwoofing 2 – au milieu des myrtilles – in french

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All the rest of this article (except the photos) belongs to the Parks & Wildlife Service of Tasmania-Australia (they have these information on sign around the Lightstation)

History of the lighthouse

The first lighthouse to be built in Australia was on the entrance to Sydney Harbour, South Head in 1818. The next two lights were at the mouth of the Derwent Estuary (the Iron Pot), and at the Tamor Heads. Cape Bruny was the fourth lighthouse to be built in Australia.

Cape Bruny Lighthouse was designed by Lee Archer and built by convicts with a convict overseer. Men and supplies came by ship into Jetty Bay. Construction was started in 1836 and the first light shone ine 1838. It was owned and operated by the State Government until 1915, when the Commonwealth Government took control of all major light houses around Australia.

Automation of the lights began in the 1980’s, raising the question of « do we keep the keepers ? » In 1991 the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) took responsibility for the Cape Bruny Light Sation. In 1996 the big light was decommissioned and replaced by the small automatic light on the hill to the cast of the lighthouse.

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The original light consisted of 15 whale oil lamps each with their own little glass chimney and reflector. Sperm whale oil was the best fuel, but expensive. Other animal and vegetable oils were trialed. About 1903, there was a major refit of the lighthouse. The whale-oil burners were replaced with a single kerosene light, the mirrors were replaced with an 8-beam Fresnel lens and prism optical system, and the present stair case was installed.

The 1903 lantern turntable was clockwork driven. A similar clockwork mechanism is housed in the museum room. Weights on a chain were wound higt in the tower providing the drive for the turntable as they gradually lowered with gravity. The weights needed periodic rewinding. Looking up from the basement you can see the « U » shaped hole with some weights suspended in the top of the tower.

Around 1960, the light was converted to electricity. The electric light did not need the keepers to maintain night long vigils. It could be run by one man with an alarm to his house to alert him in case of light failure.

AMSA decommissioned this light in 1996, and replaced it with an automatic solar powered with an automatic solar powered light on the hill to the east. The solar light has a range of 19 nautical miles compared with a 26 nautical mile range of the original lighthouse.
At the time of automation, the Commonwealth Government relinquished administration of all Australia’s lightstations including Maatsuyker Island and Cape Bruny. The State Government bought the stations for §1.00 each !!! The sites are now managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service.

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Many of the major lights houses were staffed by three families living at the station. Building foundations are visible around the Cape Bruny site where the original cottages were built. The original head keepers stone cottage was located at the base of the current footpath up to the lighthouse opposite the work sheds.
The current buildings housed two families – the head keeper in the brick house furthest from the tower, the assistant keeper in the fibro house. The third small cottage, now the museum room, housed the relief lights keeper.

Lighthouse keepers were often ex-Navy servicemen. They neede to know Morse code, signaling as well as being competent in animal husbandry and a variety of other skills. Initially men came without their families but authorities realised families were a stabilising influence on light keepers.
Eventually families of the keepers were encouraged to live at the station. Families also provided unpaid service – wives helped with weather reports and radio operations, animal keeping and vegetable growing and ordering provisions. Meanwhile the men worked to standing orders navy style, with duties day and night.

Keepers often stayed in the Service, moving from one lighthouse to another over the years. Imagine living in a remote location, often enduring cold and wet weather, cooped up with two other families and all under the rule of an ex-naval man that one may or may not get along with.

A track negotiable on horseback spanning the length of Bruny Island was replaced by the current road in 1963. Doctors and priests in the early days were few and far away. In the cemetery lies the 6 month old child of assistant keeper Williams who died in 1898 of infantile diarrhoea – there is no first name given as he had probably not been christened. Two year old Christine Merrick died in 1875 from choking on a raw turnip. In 1937 a local farmer and relief keeper fell whilst climbing down the cliff beneath the light tower to go fishing.

John Cook was the last light keeper and first caretaker at Cape Bruny. Commenting on isolation of his family, he says « I didn’t see money for years. I just never used it so I wasn’t used to currency. I didn’t know how much things had gone up and I didn’t know how to drive » (Mercury, 18/10/2003)

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Aboriginal Heritage

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Life at Cape Bruny

In the first 76 years of its operation, Cape Bruny Lighthouse was in the charge of only 7 Superintendents, but had 23 Head keepers in the following 56 years.
The first superintendent on Cape Bruny, William Baudinet, was assisted by 3 convicts in operating the station.

Cape Bruny’s 19th century light keepers chived in a spectacular, isolated location but their work was physically demanding and their day-to-day duties were routine and mundane.

Their daily tasks included keeping the brass work and lamps polished, the windows cleaned, spare lamps in order and the light illuminated at night. Chopping wood, unloading stores and repairing roads were other regular tasks.
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 night.

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 8 hours.
The 15 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 3 nights in 1839. Light keepers who neglected these primary duties of maintaining the light risked dismissal the Marine Board’s lighthouse inspector, James Meech, boasted that « he made (the keepers) tremble » during inspections!
The kerosene lamp used a mantle and might go through 3 mantles a night. The tanks sat in the lantern room. Each keeper maintained his own lamp, keeping it clean with a wire brush. The head keeper would light the lamp each night and work the evening shift. The assistant would do the night shift and his last duty in the morning would be to fill up the tanks.

The time clock in the museum is a Bundy clock for recording work-hours. Each keeper had his own key for clocking on and off; At shift changeover, the out-going keeper turned his key, then the in-coming keeper turned his key, then the out-going keeper turned his key again and he was free to leave.

Light stations had to be self-sufficient in medical treatment. In 1871, 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’, the Marine Board purchased a dozen medical chests for its lighthouses.

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Sadly there have been 3 known human deaths at Cape Bruny.

  • In 1875, Christina, the two-year-old daughter of Isaac Merrick, one of the station staff, choked to death on a piece of raw turnip.
  • On 2nd January 1898 the youngest child of Assistant A. Williams died of infant diarrhoea. Williams had only taken up duty on the station three months earlier.
  • In 1937 Ruper Peters, a local farmer who did relieving work when keepers went on leave, fell whilst relieving work when keepers went on leave, fell whilst fishing off Trumpeters Rock, adjacent to the lighthouse Sister Finn, the bush nurse for the island came out on horse-back and made the difficult descent to the bottom of the cliff only to find that Mr Peters was deceased. The body was secured so it could be retrieved the next day.

As evidenced by the graves on the slope to the beach there have, however been a number of beloved pets buried on side at the station including a goat named Paddy serving light keeper on cape Bruny (1978-1993).

Despite their long hours on duty Tasmanian light keepers 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.
Families were discouraged from joining assistant keepers in early days, primarily due to the scarcity of food in the more remote island stations.

However new employment conditions introduced in the late 1870s resulted in the families of light keepers being encouraged to live at lightstations.
Educational opportunities were severely limited on remote stations such as Cape Bruny and from the 1880s reading material, mostly of an ‘improving nature’, was provided for staff at the stations.

Initially, contact with Hobart was either by sea or via a long, rough track to North Bruny Island. Supplies were shipped to a jetty 5 kms away at Great Taylor Bay from at least the 1850s.

The first telephone line reached the lightstation in 1902and 30 years later the arrival of the first motorised mail delivery to Cape Bruny provided cause for celebration.

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