Cape Willoughby Lighthouse

Sturt Lighthouse at Cape Willoughby

Cape Willoughby in 2007

As early as May 1846 JF Duff wrote that a lighthouse was much wanted on Cape Willoughby, named by Matthew Flinders in 1802, and another on the west end of Kangaroo Island for the safety of ships entering the Straits. At the same time several lighthouses were being planned and erected in some of the other colonies during the 1840s.

In May 1847 it was contemplated by the South Australian Government to build a lighthouse in lieu of the present lightship at the Bar. (the entrance to the Port River and Port Adelaide). In July money was placed on the estimates for the project as the light on the ship could not be kept steady. Captain Bagot though wondered if the amount would be enough. According to the government it would be if it was a wooden structure about two kilometres from the shore.

In August it was decided that the amount would be removed. A year later there finally was general agreement that a lighthouse was needed at Cape Willoughby at the entrance of Backstairs Passage as the light could not always be seen making the entrance to the Port very dangerous. In December 1848 it was moved again and accepted that money should be set aside for a lighthouse at the Bar and a few months later tenders were requested for the supply of wood for its construction.

However, Cape Willoughby was not forgotten. In July 1849 Captain Lipson, Harbour Master, set sail for Kangaroo Island for the purpose of surveying the coast south and west of Cape Willoughby for a lighthouse which everyone agreed now was much needed, especially with the increase in shipping. At the same time spots were looked at for signal stations at Cape Jervis.

Within a few weeks there was general agreement on the site of Cape Willoughby, even though there were also discussion about lights at Cape Borda and Troubridge Shoal. More than 3400 pounds was voted for its construction. Tenders were called for its building which should be completed in 18 months.

Shipping of materials was started in January 1850 on the Lady Flora and two months later it was reported that the project was advancing rapidly. By July it had reached a height of 18 feet. More material was shipped in September, including slate from the Willunga Quarries. By early November the building had reached 46 feet above its foundation.

While the lighthouse was close to completion, it was found that the lightship at Point Malcolm should also be replaced by a proper lighthouse. With this and other interruptions, it took a little longer than 18 months to finish the project at Cape Willoughby but in August 1851 Charles Sturt, the Colonial Secretary, after whom it was to be named, promised that it would be completed by October.

The Lighthouse building at Cape Willoughby, South Australia's first, was completed by the end of the year. It had six floors and about 100 stairs of wood and iron to climb to reach the lantern. Captain Cawthorne was appointed Headkeeper but they still had to wait for the light to arrive from England. When it finally did and was installed it was working by the middle of January 1852. Being 241 feet above sea level, it could be seen from a distance of 28 nautical miles. By the end of 1856 Captain Cawthorne was still Headkeeper with N Thomas as Second keeper.

The government must have been pleased with everything as a further one thousand pounds was placed on the estimates for a lighthouse at Troubridge Shoal. The next lighthouse to be completed was on Troubridge Island in 1856. Nearly 30 others have been erected since the completion of the Sturt lighthouse at Cape Willoughby.

Not everyone was pleased though. As early as August 1852 the following letter was addressed to the Register's Editor.
Sir, I beg to draw public attention to the peculiar and neglected situation of the Head and Under keepers of the Lighthouse. It is not known, probably, that up to this moment the people at the Lighthouse do not possess a boat, so that if a wreck were to happen, whether in good or bad weather, though within a stone's throw of the Cape, they would be unable to render the most trifling assistance; they would have to look on and see the people perish.

At a place, in the vicinity of which there are many dangers, a boat is not simply a convenient appendage, but an absolute requirement. The light keepers have had to procure their provisions from the city, at their own expense, subjected to every kind of delay and annoyance, and every now and then to a couple of weeks of starvation, as happened in March last, when they were reduced to flour, and such animals as they could catch, by putting salt on their tails.

I would advise any man who wishes to reduce himself a couple of stone, to go to Cape Willoughby. But to add a climax to their miserable position, the old islander who had hitherto been a friend in need, has gone to the Gold fields four months ago, which is the last date of my intelligence from the Sturt Lighthouse; they are, therefore, entirely abandoned, and unless fishes have jumped out of the sea, and wallabies from the rocks, and the Kangaroo Scrub distilled manna, I cannot imagine how those three souls, with their families, have existed.

It is on account of their being reduced to this pitiable condition, that I take up my pen; common humanity demands it, as well as the public service. The lights may go out for want of oil; one or two of the keepers may be dead and buried, or the whole may be reduced to starvation. If the Government has nothing to do with this, perhaps the public has, and may probably demand that it should. We hope, however, that His Excellency, who has the fame, like another Napoleon, of giving his attention to the smallest details, as well as to the greater affairs, will remember that there are three or four of his loyal subjects who may possibly have neither hot rolls nor sandwiches for breakfast.

In conclusion, I would pray His Excellency to allow the Yatala to pay quarterly visits, which would remedy every evil; and I trust, Mr Editor, that you, though not belonging to the nautical department, will join with me in expressing the same opinion. Yours truly, HUMANITAS.

A year later there was even worse news. The oil ordered from England for the use of the light was so bad 'as to be incapable of being used'. The Board tried to sell the 1000 gallons in December 1853. All very embarrassing. Better news was the trip to Cape Willoughby by members of the Board to select a site for three neat and commodious cottages for the lighthouse keepers and their families. They were finished six months later. In March 1856 the lighthouse needed some major repair work, both inside and out. The roofs from the keepers' cottages also had to be reriveted and all the walls whitened.

Two years later, on 7 June 1858 the Board once again inspected the lighthouse buildings and Headkeeper's journals, expenditure, books, &c. This time the whole establishment was found in excellent order, and 'reflected great credit on the Headkeeper and those under his orders. The Board observed a great improvement in the condition of the Under keeper's cottage and gardens, which evinced much industry and care on the part of that officer'.

In September a store and boatshed were being erected, which would make life a little easier for the light keepers and their families. Even so, life remained isolated, lonely and spartan. As more lighthouses were now under construction or completed in different places around the South Australian coast, experience was gained by all involved which resulted in better conditions all the time.

Unfortunately, medical help was often unavailable, or at best a long time in coming. J Tapley died on 23 January 1869 while at work. Peter Clark, a carpenter, working on the jarrah timber staircase in the lighthouse died in March 1891 and was buried at the Cheltenham Cemetery. When the lease of the grave expired the family declined to renew it and the stone was moved to the lighthouse.

William Heppart Carter 1872

J Barnes of Kilkenny died at the lighthouse from an epileptic fit on 25 March 1925. There was an improvement though in 1880 when the lighthouse was connected to Adelaide by telegraph. Regardless of the often trying conditions, some keepers stayed for lengthy times. WH Carter remained for more than ten years. During that time his daughter Sarah Ann married John Buick of American River on 25 October 1882. George Angas also stayed for many years.

In February 1876 several of the Adelaide papers gave the following account of the Cape Willoughby Lighthouse. 'It occupies a very conspicuous position, the Cape on which it stands being a bold headland, forming the south eastern extremity of the island. The focal plane of the light, which is on the catoptric principle, is 247 feet above high water level.

The tower, composed of masonry, is a very massive concern, the walls being 2 feet in thickness but in spite of this breadth of solid masonry, the water from the rains was found to percolate through, to prevent this, the exterior has had to be coated with cement. Soon after daylight the Treasurer and a party left for Cape Willoughby, and had to walk over three miles over very rough country. They arrived at the lighthouse (which is the oldest in the colony, having been established in 1852) about six o'clock, and found one of the keepers engaged in cleaning the light.

Afterwards they inspected the keepers' cottages, three in number. They are some little distance from the lighthouse, in a sheltered position overlooking Backstairs Passage. Everything seemed to be in a very satisfactory state, the settlement having all the appearance of a well-to-do farmer's homestead. There is about a square mile of land belonging to the station, on which are kept 20 head of cattle and 150 sheep, besides a horse or two and a lot of poultry.

There are connected with the families located here, 17 children, but only 11 attend school, the rest having passed the school going age. Mr Sealy, the schoolmaster at Hog Bay, pays visits at intervals, and gives instruction to the children in a convenient little school room. Mr Sealy was making one of his periodical visits when the Treasurer was there, to whom he explained that during his absence his school at Hog Bay was conducted by Mrs Sealy.

The isolation here is not nearly so great as at Cape Borda, and Mr Carter, the Headkeeper, who is the father of a large and blooming family of girls, seems to enjoy his position, and to know how to make things pleasant for those around him. The cottages are surrounded by cultivated ground, and have gardens which make a fine display of pretty flowers'.

A new lantern was installed in 1912, projecting a beam of 175,000 candle power. The tower has been heightened to 90 feet. This flashing light was replaced in 1925 by a revolving lantern which came from the Tiparra Shoal in Spencer's Gulf, which had been completed in 1877. The mechanism is up to date in every way. The revolving portion is beautifully balanced and may be turned with the slightest touch. The light is now 252 feet above sea level and is visible at a distance of 22 miles, three miles more than the old light.

The revolving light at Cape Willoughby flashed every 20 seconds instead of every 90 seconds. The change in the mechanism was made on the suggestion of the Marine Board's nautical adviser, in order to render the Willoughby light more distinctive and of greater use to mariners. The 90 seconds flash which previously characterized the light was regarded as being too long to enable a proper bearing to be taken from it.

The lighthouse keepers made sure their light kept up its valuable work, no matter what happened. They also provided daily information on climatic conditions such as rain, wind, temperature and any other information. The keepers themselves had to wait until 1939 before the government finally paid a contractor, JN Martin from Port Augusta, to build three cement water tanks, install a modern water system and modernize their cottages.

Cape Willoughby in 2007


Cape Willoughby photographs


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