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Australian lighthouses - design, construction, preservation and restoration

Construction of the lighthouse at Point Lookout, Queensland

Construction of the lighthouse at Point Lookout, Queensland, 1932. Courtesy of the State Library of Queensland.

Lighthouse buildings illustrate various designs adapted to the particular environments in which they were built - some of are the most rugged and remote coasts of Australia.

Lighthouses and their associated quarters and landings are a reminder of the difficulties faced by both the builders and the lighthouse keepers and their families.

Lighthouse structures in colonial Australia were unique in that many of them were architect designed until engineers took over the design.

Building materials varied from locally quarried stone, as well as concrete, in addition to pre-fabricated iron and timber structures where local materials were unsuitable.

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

The management, preservation and restoration of lighthouses is now shared variously between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, State Parks and Wildlife Services, maritime museums, local shires, and volunteers.

Early New South Wales lighthouses designed by the Colonial Architect

Cape Byron Lighthouse and Residences

Cape Byron Lighthouse and Residences, designed by NSW Colonial Architect Charles Harding. Courtesy of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Many of the early New South Wales (NSW) lighthouses have a common appearance, and are easily recognisable as being designed by James Barnet, NSW Colonial Architect from 1865 to 1890, or his successor, Charles Harding. Barnet was renowned for his towers having large ornate crowns. These towers are regarded as easily distinguished.

The Montague Island tower, constructed from granite, with tapering walls, an outward curving platform and a curved balustrade is considered a well proportioned structure. It is one of only two offshore island lighthouses along the NSW coast.

Green Cape lighthouse, built in 1883 was the largest mass concrete structure in NSW and it is the tallest of the three concrete lighthouses designed by Barnet. It is a break from the traditional circular towers; as it has a square base merging into an octagonal form. It was part of Barnet's vision was to create a highway of lights along the coastline from Melbourne to Sydney.

The Smoky Cape Lighthouse has an unusual octagonal tower, and was one of the last lighthouses to be designed for architectural excellence, by Barnet. Smoky Cape was named on 13 May 1770 by Captain Cook: the name arising from the great amount of smoke from Aboriginal burn-off fires on the headland.

Charles Harding designed lights such as: Cape Byron Lighthouse.

Pre-fabricated structures

Aerial view of the Currie Harbour Lighthouse

Winsome Bonham, Aerial view of the Currie Harbour Lighthouse. Courtesy of Lighthouses of Australia Inc.

Pre-fabricated iron lattice work, timber, concrete materials and galvanised iron were used in the construction of lighthouses where local materials were found to be unsuitable.

Iron lattice towers at Currie Harbour, King Island, Tasmania and Macrae, Port Philip Bay, Victoria

The construction and technology of the iron lattice towers at King Island and Port Phillip Bay show the absence of suitable building materials. The Currie Harbour (1880), comprises a circular wrought iron lantern supported by six tubular stays set on screw pile foundations. The Currie Harbour and the Macrae lighthouses are rare examples of screw pile prefabricated iron lattice' towers.

It was originally intended to construct the tower from stone. When no suitable local material could be found, the Public Works Department engaged British manufacturers. The Chance Brothers of Birmingham designed and prefabricated an iron lattice structure. Construction was completed between 1877-79 and the light was first exhibited in March 1880.

The Currie Harbour and Macrae, Port Phillip Bay, Victoria lighthouses are regarded as rare surviving examples of 'screw pile prefabricated iron lattice' towers.

Gabo Island wood lighthouse, 1853

The excavation on Gabo Island, Cape Howe, to find solid ground for the foundation of a light house

Owen Stanley (comp), The excavation on Gabo Island, Cape Howe, to find solid ground for the foundation of a light house, 1848. Watercolour. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: a487048

The earliest attempt to erect a lighthouse on Gabo Island (Victoria) was abandoned in 1846 after excavations to the depth of 66 feet (20 metres) to find bedrock upon which foundations could be laid had used all the allocated funding. It was not until 1853 that a lighthouse was eventually established. It was a wooden tower pre-assembled in Sydney, then dismantled and re-erected on Gabo Island.

Cape Don's reinforced concrete tower

When work began on the Cape Don (Coburg Peninsular, Northern Territory) lighthouse tower in May 1915, the tropical heat of the north was considered too excessive to use iron for the construction. However, the local ironstone rock was not suitable for the formation of concrete. Consequently, the lighthouse was built from reinforced concrete using materials shipped from Melbourne.

Due to outlying reefs and mangroves, materials could not be landed directly at the site, so a jetty was constructed three miles to the east, a tramway was laid, and materials were transported on trucks drawn by horses. Due to the climate and the grade, only two round trips could be made each day, and construction could only be carried out during the dry season, taking three years.
The Cape Don Lighthouse , Lighthouses of Australia Inc

Point Cloates, Fraser Island - steel lattice tower

A replacement light, a 22 metre steel lattice tower, was built on Fraser Island, a sandy islet just offshore from Point Cloates, in 1936 to replace a sandstone tower. However, in 1966, a storm blew away the islet and the tower collapsed. A replacement GRP cabinet was built about one kilometre south of the original sandstone tower, and its name reverted back to Point Cloates.

Lighthouses built from locally quarried materials

Gabo Island Lighthouse

David Armstrong, Gabo Island Lighthouse. Courtesy of Lighthouses of Australia Inc.

Local building materials included locally quarried stone: granite, sandstone and limestone; as well as concrete.

Gabo Island's red granite tower, 1862

At Gabo Island, off the Gippsland coast, Victoria, conditions for keepers attending the first light were hard with poor shelter (built around a wooden tower) 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.

The Wadjemup lighthouse of limestone

Wadjemup Lighthouse was Western Australia's first lighthouse.

The first lighthouse tower on the island was completed in 1849 using Aboriginal convict labour. Though it was 20 metres tall, it was still 3 metres shorter than originally planned and had taken 9 years to build due to poor skills and the penal environment.
The Wadjemup Lighthouse on Rottnest Island , Lighthouses of Australia Inc .

The new tower, also built of limestone, completed in 1896, was designed by W T Douglass, in London, who was also responsible for the Cape Leeuwin light. Construction was under the supervision of the colony's Engineer-in-Chief, C Y O'Connor.

Althorpe Island Lighthouse Station limestone, sandstone and slate

Althorpe Island Lighthouse Station, South Australia was constructed between 1877 and 1879. The lighthouse was designed by R P Hickson, Engineer-in-Chief for South Australian harbours and jetties.

The materials were a combination of limestone and hard sandstone. The spiral staircase is made of solid blocks of sandstone, treads faced with Mintaro slate. The sandstone, for hard wearing areas, was quarried and cut on the island. The three Keepers' Cottages were constructed with rendered limestone rubble and hard sandstone.

Construction was not without incident, including the loss of the attendant cutter, 'Young St George', industrial disputation and the strange death of the foreman, killed by a falling rock while sleeping.
The Althorpe Island Lighthouse , Lighthouses of Australia Inc .

Lighthouses built in harbours and on sandbanks

Moreton Bay Pile Light

Moreton Bay Pile Light, 1949. Courtesy of the University of Queensland.

Lighthouses built in harbours were often subject to competing demands from harbour shipping and activities.

Nobbys Head Lighthouse, Newcastle, NSW

Nobbys Head light, Newcastle, NSW, was built originally on an isolated coastal islet just off Signal Head to guide vessels into the Hunter River. 'In 1854 it was intended to blow the island away to improve the harbour but strong public protests forced cessation of the work of destruction.'

The Moreton Bay Pile Light, Queensland

The Moreton Pile light at the mouth of Brisbane River was built in 1882 out of wrought and cast iron.

The lighthouse marked the seaward entrance to the port of Brisbane through the newly dredged Francis Channel. It also kept a record of the tides and signalled this information to passing ships.

On 3 March 1945, the pile light was severely damaged by a US refrigerated barge in tow of a tug when it collided heavily with the pile. The lighthouse was repaired and returned to service, but it was collided with again only four years later.

On 17 October 1949, the 15,000 ton British tanker Wave Protector failed to stop and crashed through the lighthouse. The three inhabitants of the lighthouse were thrown into the sea but were saved by the tanker's crew.

The damaged structure remained at its place until 1966-67, when it was removed by the barge Hammerhead.

The North Reef Lighthouse, Queensland

The North Reef Lighthouse, Queensland was completed in 1878. The structure sits on a small sandbank on a coral reef which can form into an island, disappear and reappear. The reef is only accessible by boat and the building of the lighthouse was a challenge. The tower, 15 metres high and 12 metres across, was constructed of timber sheathed in galvanised iron.

It was anchored to solid coral reef bed with a hollow base of cast concrete thus giving it resistance to the shifting nature of the sand bar The sandbar came and went around the North Reef Lighthouse. Over the years the reef has stabilised into an island ...
The North Reef Lighthouse at Lighthouses of Australia Inc .


Mr John Cook checks the electric bulb inside the Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse, 1977. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, pic-vn3513220.

In Australia, the first lights were oil lamps, which were only visible for a few miles. In I797, coal from Newcastle, NSW replaced wood as the fuel source for the beacon which continued to guide vessels to Sydney Heads until Macquarie Light was built in 1818.

The technology of the lights themselves was generally based on lamps and mechanisms imported from England. In 1841, a new lens using prisms, invented by a Frenchman, Augustin Fesnel in 1822, was installed for the first time in Australian lighthouse.

An exception to this was the Wadjemup Lighthouse on Rottnest Island, Western Australia which was lit in 1851:

The machinery for the revolving catoptric light was designed and made in Fremantle. This enabled the light to be opened a year earlier than waiting for a apparatus to arrive from England The first light flashed for 5 seconds in the minute and was visible for 18 nautical miles. The light consumed some 3 gallons of coconut oil per week, although later kerosene was used as a fuel.
The Wadjemup Lighthouse on Rottnest Island , Lighthouses of Australia Inc .

The second, and current, Wadjemup Lighthouse is Australia's first ever rotating beam lighthouse. Lighthouses now tend to use automatic lights.

Charles Harding's Cape Byron lighthouse lens and burner were of a high order:

The first-order optical lens, which weighs 8 tons, was made by the French company, Societe des Establishment, Henry Lepante, Paris. It contains 760 pieces of highly polished prismatic glass.

The original concentric six wick burner was 145,000 cd. This was replaced in 1922 by a vapourised kerosene mantle burner which gave an illumination of 500,000 cd.

In 1956, the light became Australia's most powerful, at 2,200,00 cd when it was converted to mains electricity. At the same time the clock mechanism was replaced by an electric motor.
Lighthouses of Australia Inc

The ownership of the Cape Byron lighthouse reserve was handed over to the Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW in 1998. The reserve was already under a lease to the Cape Byron Headland Reserve Trust who maintain and secure the site and buildings. It is currently used as a base for whale watching.

Management, preservation and restoration

Nobbys head

John Houldsworth, Nobby's Head and Lighthouse. Courtesy of the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

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.

Nobbys Head lighthouse, Newcastle, NSW

One of the oldest surviving lighthouses in NSW is Nobbys Head lighthouse (built 1854), Newcastle. A proposed development was not approved by The Hon Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts (19 May 2008), under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The reason stated was because of the impact it would have on the heritage values of the lighthouse. 450 written submissions were made by the Newcastle community as well as developers, business groups, heritage experts and the community during the public consultation period.

Currie Harbour lighthouse and buildings, King Island, Tasmania

The Currie Harbour light tower (1880), registered on the National Estate, is one of two rare examples of screw pile prefabricated iron lattice' towers (the other being Macrae, Port Phillip Bay, Victoria). Only the lighthouse, the original Head Keeper's quarters, stores building and remnants of the Jetty survive and are among the oldest remaining structures on King Island.

The Currie Harbour Lighthouse was completely recoated in 1983 with a zinc silicate chlorinated paint system replacing the old lead-based oleo-resinous system that had built up over the lighthouse`s 100 year history.

In 1992 both the steel and paintwork were reported to be in predominantly good condition although in need of maintenance painting. The store, original keeper's quarters and the modern assistant keeper's quarters were said to be in good condition in 1993.

By August 2000 the general condition was said to be poor and rundown.
February 2002, Currie Harbour Lighthouse and Buildings, Aussie Heritage.

The South Channel Pile Light, Victoria

South Pile Light Ruin

Rick Lloyd, South Pile Light Ruin. Courtesy of ParksVictoria.

After 125 years, the South Channel Pile Light has been restored and relocated to a safer location to assure its preservation as a piece of Australian maritime history.

Jarman Island lighthouse, Western Australia

The lighthouse is a heritage listed structure and is built from cast iron. In 1999, a Conservation Plan, undertaken to be administered by The National Trust of Australia (WA) for the Shire of Roebourne, deemed Jarman Island lighthouse to be an element of 'exceptional' significance because of its importance as a landmark, architectural and technological importance, historical associations, and its relative intactness.

The Shire of Roebourne was awarded a $75,000 grant under the Australian Government's Regional Tourism Program to conserve and restore the 19th century Jarman Island Lighthouse.

Smoky Cape, South West Rocks, New South Wales

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).

Wollongong lighthouse

The restored lantern room is lifted towards the top of the Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse Tower

Kim Stephenson, The restored lantern room is lifted towards the top of the Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse Tower, 2001. Courtesy of Lighthouses of Australia Inc.

Wollongong lighthouse, the 7th oldest in NSW, was constructed in 1872 and classified by the National Trust in 1977, after it was closed in 1974. The lighthouse was opened as a tourist attraction but fell into disrepair making it unsafe for public access in the mid 1980's.

There was a public outcry at calls for its demolition. In 1999-2000 funding of $300,000 was approved for restoration of the lighthouse under the project management of the NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation.

Breaksea Island lighthouse, Albany/Hopetoun/Ravensthorpe, Western Australia

In 2009, the Breaksea Island Heritage Restoration project will receive over $1.3 million for restoration of the 1858 lighthouse and jetty, the 1889 extensions to the lighthouse, and the two lighthouse keeper's cottages. The multi-staged project aims to fully restore the Breaksea Island lighthouse and heritage precinct and develop it as a conservation, community education and eco-tourism asset.

The Breaksea Island lighthouse and associated buildings appear on both the State and National Registers of Heritage Places and are considered 'rare' as a complex of structures.

Useful links

More information on shipwrecks

Lighthouses - general

Keepers stories

Sources for Researching Lighthouses

Listen, look and play

  • Watch clips from Round the twist , an Australian children's series set in a lighthouse.


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: 14th October 2009
Creators: Kathryn Wells