19 July 2009

Saving Australia's Maritime Architecture

The preservation of late 18th and early 19th century lighthouses is urgent for two reasons. Firstly Australia’s maritime history was what connected the New World with the rest of the world. It was the sole source of convicts, free population, finished prod­ucts in one direction and raw materials in the other. Secondly a nation that loses its own architectural past is in danger of losing its way. Australia has already destroyed too many of its precious architectural relics, and needs to protect what is left.

Wilson's Promontory was first sight­ed by Bass and Flinders in 1798, and was named by Gov. Hunter in honour of the trader Thomas Wilson. The promontory marks the southern-most point of mainland Australia, and overlooks the narrow shipping channel in Bass Strait between Tasmania and Victoria. Uniquely, from its 100m cliff on the peninsular, the lighthouse site has almost 360° views of Bass Strait - an ideal location for its task: to protect shipping in Bass Strait.

Wilson's Promontory and Bass Strait

Although Victoria had no convicts, this Victorian lighthouse was built by convict labourers. Thus, we must assume, the convicts were shipped in from NSW or Tasmania, to complete the project. The Wilson's Promontory Lighthouse (19 ms tall) and keep­ers' cottages were built from 1853 to 1859, using granite that was quarried locally. The works were supervised by the Public Works Department, and contracted to a North Melbourne company. The building costs were shared between the Victorian and NSW governments.

English master mariner and adventurer Captain Thomas Musgrave was one of the first head keepers of the Wilson’s Promontory Lighthouse, moving to the site in 1869. He and later keepers kept the oil lamps burning, recorded weather details and signalled ships. The white light, 119 metres above sea level, was visible for 40ks at sea.

Keeper's cottage

granite lighthouse, Wilson's Promontory

There were four keepers' cottages, built out of local granite as the lighthouse was, but with roofs made of corrugated iron. One of the cottages was rebuilt in 1924, and two others rebuilt in 1952 after being destroyed during a bushfire.

The parabolic mirrors were replaced in 1975 by a generator-powered electric lamp array when the light was converted to electricity, which in turn was converted to solar power in 1993. The light-house was then fully automated; staffing & regular maintenance were no longer seen as necessary. Even though the rough sea weather ruins every exposed surface, funding was withdrawn.

2009 is the 150th anniversary of the lighthouse’s opening for business in 1869. The lighthouse and keepers' cottages are located within the Wilson's Promontory National Park, so funding for all repairs and maintenance now comes from a new source. The tower has been completely restored to the original granite finish and the surfaces of the out-buildings are all sparkly white again.

There is no road to the lighthouse. Visitors must hike the 18k walk from the nearest town, Tidal River. The good news is that accommod­ation is now available at a reasonable price, in the buildings clustered around the light-house. Australia was fortunate to protect this amazing part of its maritime history.

I found many excellent blogs on lighthouses (eg The Keeper's Blog, Old Salt Blog, Shed Some Light on Lighthouses Blog, New England Lighthouse Treasures, Montauk Point) but few of them talked about heritage protection, de-manning, funding.


Dorothy said...

The history of our Architecture is amazing and so under known..Thanks for visiting our blog and for sharing your obvious gift with art and buildings.

Dorothy from grammology

Hels said...

September 6, 2009 3:49 AM

Philip Wilkinson said...
Helen: Thanks for the link to the Wilson's Promontory Lighthouse. Fascinating, and I especially like the granite walls.

Burnham seems to have been built as a leading light - to indicate the way along the coast rather than to warn of rocks. There's more to say about this and I plan to do another post, featuring one of the other Burnham lighthouses, shortly.

timing is everything, isn't it? A couple of months after I wrote this post, "Australian Heritage" wrote a short article about Wilson's Promontory lighthouse and included an 1880 image of it.

Hels said...

The Low Head Light Station was established in 1833, and its accompanying buildings were all built from then on. It is located c6 ks north of Georgetown and 59 ks from Launceston. To see how Low Head has played a fundamental role in the navigation of shipping in the Tamar River, go to
On the Convict Trail,