Home Melbourne Stories The Life of a Signal Master at Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse in 1876

The Life of a Signal Master at Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse in 1876

Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Even today, it requires a tough hike to reach the Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse. Imagine the life of a Signal Master at the Light house in 1876, when apart from the crew, no one else lived anywhere near Wilsons Promontory. It will be interesting to know how they travelled to Wilsons Prom and how they transported their supplies. How was their life at the lighthouse with no human inhabitation anywhere near it? How they killed their time?  This is part of a memoir published in ‘Geelong Advertiser’ in 1924. The experiences of an old man who lived there for six weeks fifty years ago when he was a young lad. We realised that, if we don’t publish it, it will be lost in the columns of an old newspaper. We invite our readers to relive those not so golden years. The name of the author is only given as ‘DOD’ in the newspaper.

Wilsons Promontory Light House. Courtesy: Wikipedia

The first thirty years of my life having been spent at the Port Phillip Heads, and fifteen of that in and about the signal station at Queenscliff, I may fairly claim to have been an expert in matters connected with shipping and signalling. The entrance to the Heads being so narrow, all vessels coming through were compelled to pass so close to our signal house that we were able, with the aid of a splendid telescope, especially constructed by Dollud, the great London maker, to note the most minute particulars in their build and rigging.

 In the early ‘seventies, of which I write, coal was brought from Newcastle to Melbourne in sailing vessels of all descriptions — barques, brigs, brigantines, and three-masted schooners—and when a protracted spell of westerly weather had kept the fleet back on the New South Wales coast for some weeks, coal would run short in Melbourne, and there would be some anxiety as to the probability of a change of wind. On several occasions the shortage became so acute that tugs had to be sent round to Wilson’s Promontory to tow a coal vessel back to Melbourne to keep the gasworks going. When the wind did change there would very often be as many as twenty vessels’ under the lee of the promontory, and with the first puff of wind from the eastward they would be racing for the Heads, anxious to be the first into Hobson’s Bay with their ‘black diamonds.

Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

It was in June. 1876, that I received orders to proceed to ‘Wilson’s Promontory to relieve the signal master there for five or six weeks. To those who have not travelled to Sydney by sea, I may explain that the Promontory is the most southern point of Victoria on the east coast — a barren precipitous cliff of granite rising over 300 feet above the sea. A narrow neck of land connects it with Mount Southern, over the western wing of which you have to climb to get on to the road to ‘Yanakie’ Station. 25 miles distant. The only inhabitants were the signal master, the lighthouse keeper and two assistants, with their families. Their supplies were provided by a half-yearly visit from the Government steamer Victoria, when stores of coal, flour, potatoes. etc. were taken down. Meat was obtained from the Yanakie Station, the lighthouse men taking alternate fortnightly trips to ride over, leading a packhorse which they brought back loaded up with two dressed sheep and some joints of beef.

Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

In exceptionally fine weather a small boat, which was ‘kept on davits on the east side of the Promontory, would be hoisted out with the aid of a crane which was bolted into the granite rock. This would be used to intercept the steamer Murray, which traded from Melbourne to’ Port Albert, — but the occasions on which this could be done were few and far between, as the sea round the base of the Promontory is very treacherous. My first impulse on being ordered to this lively locality was to find out -what prospects there was of obtaining board and lodging.

On inquiry by telegraph I was informed by the signal master who I was to relieve, that I could have the use of his quarters. This consisted of one room. 30ft square, forming one wing of the lighthouse keeper’s house, and this room comprised bedroom, dining room and telegraph office in one. Arrangements could be made to obtain meals at one of the assistant’s houses, the charge for which would be 30/ per week. Pretty stiff that charge seamed, but there, were no hotels or coffee palaces to choose from, so I gladly closed with the offer.

Imagine my dismay then, when, on going to Melbourne to join the steamer Murray (by which I was to be taken to the Promontory). I was handed a telegram from my friend there, informing me that the lighthouse assistant had backed out of his agreement, which he had made without his wife’s knowledge.

In this case the lady said ‘nay’ most decidedly, and ‘the grey mare’ in that family being ‘the better horse” the normal ‘boss’ of the house had to back down and leave me to my own resources.

The telegraph further advised me to bring the stores that I should require, and gave a formidable list of tea, coffee, butter, sugar, tinned meats, biscuits and many other requisites.

Courtesy: State Library of Victoria

Having been brought up, in a house with a mother and six sisters, I must confess that my culinary education had been sadly neglected, and a more helpless creature, when it came to a question of house-keeping and cooking, it would have been hard to find. Well, there being no help for it, and as the Murray was to sail in a couple of hours. I sallied off down Flinders Street and enlisted the assistance of a friendly ship chandler. By the time we had got to an end of my list there was a good load on the hand truck which had been provided. This was soon run down to Queen’s Wharf, transferred to the deck of the steamer and covered with a tarpaulin. We sailed at 2 p.m, a jolly lot of commercial travellers being fellow passengers.

In those days the railway to Gippsland only ran as far as Sale, and the ‘commercials used to go to Port Albert by the steamer and then work back to Melbourne by the road.

We had a pleasant passage down the bay and through the Heads. At 10 p.m. I turned in, having arranged with the skipper to be called when the Promontory was reached. The Murray was the last of the paddle steamers trading outside the Heads, and I soon went to sleep to the music of the paddles as they splashed through the waves. Six o’clock next morning, cold and grey, day just breaking, I wake to find the steamer stopping within half a mile of the Promontory, and hastily scrambling into my clothes I get on deck and find the boat lowered and my stores being thrown into her. The wind is from the eastward, consequently we must land on the west side. Here the water is thirty fathoms deep, close up to the landing place, and it consists of rough granite boulders, and great care has to be taken that the boat does not get crushed against them. Two men hang on to their oars and keep the boat clear while the others fling the stores out on to the rocks. I find my friend the signal master waiting for us, and when I jump out of the boat he shakes hands hurriedly, says ‘I have left a note at the house with all the information you will want,’ throws his valise and rugs into the boat, wishes me farewell, and away goes the boat to the steamer.

Imagine my position. Landed on the rocks at the foot of this granite cliff, with a winding path leading up to its summit at 300 feet. All my stores for my sojourn to be carried up there, by hook or by crook — a complete stranger to the lighthouse men, the only occupants of the Promontory.

However, in those days I was young and active, and I set- to work to arrange the stores in the most convenient manner for their transport to the top. While so engaged I was accosted by one of the lighthouse men named Shapcott. He was the man who had disappointed me in the matter of board and lodging, and I suppose he felt that it was up to him to give me a helping hand. We became very good friends during my stay and he gave me some very useful lessons in cooking and housekeeping. As the first shipping report for the day had to be wired to Melbourne at 8 a.m, we shouldered just a few of the lightest packages and made for the telegraph office. There is only about an acre of level ground on the top of the Promontory, and this is occupied by the lighthouse, the men’s quarters and the flagstaff from which passing vessels are signalled.

When the station was first established a paling fence was erected around but nature, in one of her sportive moods, soon blew this over the edge into the tea. Then a wall of granite stone, about 3 feet high, was built, and I expect it is there still there. That is 50 years ago, and I am one of the few survivors of that generation, while the granite that has formed Wilson’s Promontory for ages and ages past is good for centuries to come, alas for the evanescence of we poor mortals. On arriving at my new quarters, I lost no time in reading the instructions which Mr. T. G. Brent, the departing signal master had left.

These were very clear, and I quickly grasped the situation and got to work. All the buildings on the hill were built of granite— the lighthouse seeming a short squat edifice after the graceful outline of the Queenscliff light. Captain Musgravo was at this time in charge of the station. He was a ‘man with a history,’ had while a sea captain gone to the Auckland Islands with a party to try to recover some large quantity of specie which had been lost in a ‘wrecked vessel there. The schooner which Musgrave was sailing was also blown ashore at the Islands, and it was two years before the survivors were rescued after some very severe experiences.

Musgrave’s wife and family had been left at New Zealand. As no tidings to his party had been received for two years, his return was something like that of Enoch Arden, of the well-known old romance, but in this case, he found his wife wearing ‘widow’s weeds. Musgrave eventually joined the Victorian Lighthouse Service and had been in charge at the Promontory for two or three years. When I went there in 1874. His wife and five children were also living there, the eldest son— a youth of 17 — acting as a line repairer for the telegraph line to Stockyard Creek (now known as Foster.) Six year after I met Musgrave at Cape Schanck while on a visit there of which I will tell you later on. He was then in charge of the lighthouse there. Finally, he was transferred to Point Lonsdale, where he remained until he retired from the service. He had had some startling experiences in his earlier career like a sea captain, and the weary hours at the Promontory were much relieved by listening to his stories of them. Like most sailors he was a man of impulse and quick action. One morning, after heavy rain through the night. I came out and found that the yard-arm halyards of the flagstaff had broken away through having contracted with the wet. The rope had pulled through the block at the end of the arm, and I was wondering how I was going to replace it up there, about 30 feet above the ground. Musgrave arrived as I was looking at it and said, ‘Hello, so your halyards are gone. We will lash the masthead rope around Willie and pull him up to the ‘yard.’ then he can haul himself upto the arm and run the halyards through the block.” Willie was one of his boys aged about 12, and like most small boys was quite ready for the venture. ‘Winding the new halyards (which for the benefit of my readers who are not ‘up’ in nautical terms, I may explain is the name given to ropes running through blocks used for signalling purposes) around his shoulders. Musgrave took a turn with one of the mast-head ropes round his body under the arms and hauled him up to the yard 30 feet above. The child’s life now depending upon the strength of that rope, for if it had given away, he would have been dashed to pieces on the granite stones beneath. I was feeling very much like that Waterloo veteran who accounted for the fact that he had not been killed when a bulled went through his left breast by the explanation that at the time they were in a dangerous position and his heart was in his mouth ! Certainly, mine was feeling very quiet while that youngster calmly pulled himself along that yard out to the block on the end, put the rope through, and ran the loose end down to us on the ground, then returning to mast in the centre. When we lowered him safely to terra firma. To Mugrave it was all in the day’s work, and I don’t suppose he gave it another thought, but to me — even after 50 years’ interval — it brings back shuddering memories of the agony of suspense I went through while that boy was in the air.

The strip of land which connects the Promontory with Mount Southern is a granite ridge half a mile long, and not more than twenty yards wide. The winding road from the rocks below run up to it at about 100 feet from sea level, and the remaining 200 feet to the summit is a zig-zag track through dwarf scrub and granite stones. As the prevailing winds are from the west the lauding place for stores is on the east side, that being most protected. There is also a large flat rock there which provides a good platform for the half-yearly supply of heavy stores, such as coal, potatoes, flour, and other necessaries of life. Musgrave actually had a piano in his quarters. How on earth they ever raised it to ‘that bad eminence’ beats me. There were four sturdy ponies belonging to the Light house Department kept at the Promontory — they grazed on the rough country on the wing of Mount Southern, and were used to bring fresh meat from the Yanakie station — 20 miles away — every fortnight; also to bring the  stores up the hill on pack saddles. There were some startling traditions afloat as to the fate of two or three of them which had tried to buck their loads off and had only succeeded in throwing themselves over the side of the ‘Cliff with disastrous results. The immense wall of granite which forms the Promontory provides such a break against gales from the west and south-west that vessels can shelter under the east side in almost smooth water. I remember seeing the ‘Rebecca Jane,” a smart brig laden with coal,’ venturing out on the port tack one morning when her skipper thought the westerly gale had subsided. But it was waiting for him, and the brig had hardly got her bow round the point when the wind caught her head sails and almost capsized her. They were glad to turn tail and run back to the shelter of Waterloo Bay — a very welcome haven to the eastward.

There are several ugly groups of rocky islands outside the’ Promontory, which are always a source of danger to shipping. On one of these, named Cliffy Island, about a mile from the mainland, a lighthouse has been built for some years. Only a few months ago we heard the sad story of one of the men who had ventured ‘out fishing in a small boat being blown away into the Southern Ocean by a gale which sprang up suddenly. ‘The poor fellow has never been heard of since. His wife and children were out on that desolate rock, and vividly imagine with what horror they must have watched it gradually receding from sight as his frail boat was driven before the storm.

Life on the most comfortable and gettable lighthouse stations is a monotonous and poorly paid business, but what it must be to live for three years at such places as the Promontory and Cliffy Island is a puzzle. I have often wondered that the Government has been able to find men willing to fill the positions. The only official work for the signal-master at the Promontory was the signalling of vessels passing during daylight and telegraphing the movements of these and the state- of the wind and weather three times a day to Melbourne. There was absolutely nothing to do but read and smoke.

Musgrove gave me some lessons in chess and that helped to pass the time, but before the-six weeks were up I could thoroughly sympathise with the poet who wrote these lines: —

 ‘Oh. solitude, where are the charms

That sages have seen in thy face.

Better dwell in the midst of alarms

Than reign in this horrible place.’

I took no chances when the signal master returned to duty after his holidays. I was on the rocks waiting for the boat from the steamer Murray when he came ‘ashore, and was very thankful when we were on our way to Port Albert, where I spent two days very pleasantly before returning to Queenscliff home and duty.’




Geelong Advertiser, “ Visits to Coast Signal Stations” Published on 24th JUNE 1924, 28TH JUNE 1924 and 22nd JULY 1924. Accessed through Trove on 29th December 2019

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