South Solitary Island Lighthouse
This lighthouse was considered the most isolated on the New South Wales coast. It was the first and the last New South Wales lighthouse to use kerosene.
As early as 1856 it had been suggested that a lighthouse be established on either North of South Solitary Islands, near Coffs Harbour. When asked, ships masters favoured South Solitary over North Solitary for the location of a light by 3 to 1.
South Solitary Lighthouse was designed by James Barnet and first exhibited in 1880. The tower was built of mass concrete using cement and sand conveyed to the island and broken stone from the conglomerate rock of the island. Three large stone cottages were erected for the keepers. Owing to the exposed positions they are surrounded by high stone walls. A wall also runs from the cottages to the lighthouse.
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Conditions for the builders of the new light were most unfavourable as stated in From Dusk Till Dawn:
“The weather was often so bad that several times steamers attempting to land materials and supplies had to slip their cables and run for shelter. A small crane erected on the landing was twice washed away during construction; since then three others have been washed away. Once during construction a hurricane drove the sea over the centre of the island (twenty-seven metres elevation but not the highest point of the island).”
It goes on to say:
“A tiny eleven hectares in area, the island supports only harsh, scrubby grass. The first government supervisor arrived at night and when he saw it next morning he was so startled that he remained only a fortnight.”
One construction worker was drowned when fishing off rocks. He could be seen for a long time as the tide carried him out but there was no way to reach and save him.
The South Solitary Lighthouse appears to be the first in New South Wales to use kerosene instead of colza oil. The mechanism was so satisfactory that it was not converted to automatic electric until 1975. Therefore the South Solitary Lighthouse was also the last kerosene operated light in New South Wales. It was then demanned.
Mechanics now fly to the island by helicopter every 3 months to carry out routine maintenance. The lightstation was considered to be the most isolated Station on the New South Wales Coast as borne out by Lippingwell’s report in 1938:
“The isolation of this Station is well borne out by the visitors’ book, which from the date of the opening to the present time has entries on twenty pages only.”
It seems that in the early days of the light stores and domestic supplies arrived by steamer from Sydney every fortnight (weather permitting. Later South Solitary was supplied regularly (weather permitting), usually weekly or fortnightly, by launch from Coffs Harbour. Because of the precipitous slopes of the island, supplies and humans had to be taken off the launch in a basket lowered by a crane from the landing stage. The drums of kerosene had to be unloaded and then hauled up the steep concrete path as with the other stores. Until the 1950’s there was no electricity, the light and the living quarters being lit by kerosene, and coal was used for household cooking and heating. Pedal radio established in 1937 so the the keepers could communicate with Norah Head. This was later replaced by a Bendix radio which relieved the need for pedalling. Previously the only communication with the mainland was by signalling lamp or heliograph.
Beryl Royal, daughter of former headkeeper Jim Duncan tells a story she heard:
“An early keeper at Solitary, Mr. Harry Fisher – he was courting the daughter of the Harbour Pilot at Coffs Harbor and they communicated by morse lamp. They eventually married and many years later presented his morse lamp to the museum at Coffs which also houses the lens removed when the lighthouse was superseded.”
There is a little school house, a room, near the headkeeper’s residence on the island. In the early days a governess was engaged by many of the keepers. Children of school age later received their education through correspondence.
The light has never been extinguished except for a few nights during the Second World War in May 1942, when several vessels were torpedoed with loss of life near the island by enemy submarines. Verdi Schwinghammer, a local historian who wrote for the Grafton Examiner states:
“During the Second World War, an enemy submarine could have blown up the lighthouse and residences with one shell, but it was too valuable to them, to get their bearings and lay wait for vessels.”
We need your help in compiling a list of keepers for this lighthouse. If you have any information then send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include this lighthouse’s name, the keepers full name and what years they were keepers. Also include the same information for any other lights they were on.
|Location||Lat. 30° 12.5' S. Long. 153° 16.1' E.|
|Character||Fl. W. 5s|
|Light Source||12 Volt 3 Amp Lamp|
|Custodian||National Parks & Wildlife service NSW|
NB: Information is historical data and is not for navigational purposes.
Access is only by helicopter with permission from National Parks.
Tours of the lighthouse are conducted by Precision Helicopters on one or two weekends a year. The Friends of South Solitary also conduct working bees on the island.
Friends of South Solitary Island are pushing for a lighthouse museum to be established at Coffs Harbour.
- Beryl Royal for Photographs
- Ian Clifford for Photographs
- Winsome Bonham for Photographs
- Brian Lord