In the year 1856 the desirability of erecting a lighthouse on one of the Solitary Islands was discussed by commissioners appointed by the Governments of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, to confer respecting the matter of lighthouses on the Australian coast. No further action was taken until 1863, when a selected committee of the Legislative Council recommended that provision should be made on the estimates for the erection of a lighthouse. Subsequently in 1873, a conference of the following officers of the marine departments of the Australian colonies was held at the Marine Board Office, Sydney, to discuss the question of lighthouses generally. New South Wales, Captain Hixson, Victoria, Captain Payne, Queensland, Captain Heath, Tasmania, Mr. C.M Maxwell South and West Australia, Captain Ferguson. On the motion of Captain Hixson it was resolved to recommend that a revolving first order white light should be erected on the solitary island. In October, 1877, the Marine Board, accompanied by the Colonial Architect, Mr James Barnet proceeded to the Island to select the sites for the buildings, and landed on the 31st.
The original newspaper article - Thursday 29th October 1863 - click here.
The island is situated on the east coast, almost opposite Coffs Harbour, from which it is about nine miles distance and four miles from Signal Station between the Bellinger and Clarence Rivers. It is a precipitous rocky isle, rising at the south end to a height of 136 feet above high watermark. It contains about 13 acres of land, and is one of a group of nine barren rocky islands off the North Coast of New South Wales.
It is shaped like a crouching lion, being high at one end and tapering down to the other end. It is cut in two by a deep passage of water (through which small fishing boats can pass) - 30 feet wide - over which a flying fox is erected.
The island is surrounded by deep water with no beach and the soil, which is only a few inches deep, grows a shrubby grass of stubborn hardness. Owing to the exposed position and very little soil there is not a tree on the island. Plans and specifications were prepared by the Colonial Architect and approved by the Minister and tenders called for on the 17th June, 1878. Before the tenders were sent in, the Government granted the use of the S.S Thetis to the intending competitors to see the site of the lighthouse proposed to be erected.
After the tender was accepted, Mr McLeod and his partners, as on July 9th they despatched their first steamer the James Comrie from the Cosmopolitan wharf with a full load of timber for mens houses, stores etc., also boats and twenty one men. Mr McLeod accompanying them.
They arrived at the island in safety and discharged part of cargo, when they were obliged to run back to Trial Bay and remain there three or four days till the weather moderated. On this, the first trip, water had to be taken to the island, for the use of the men, as there was no fresh water there. A condensing machine was also provided, which was found very useful till the tanks were sunk and a supply of rain had been caught. There are four tanks sunk, each containing about 12,000 gallons and provided with pumps etc.
Great difficulty was encountered in landing the heavy stores, as they had no appliances ready. The captain proposed to float the casks of beef ashore, and would not be dissuaded from the idea till he saw one sink to the bottom.
The contractor's first idea of landing was at the south end by means of a wire rope and windlass but this had to be abandoned and a point on the west side, near that marked by the Colonial Architect selected. A wooden crane with forty feet jib was soon erected and the various cargoes landed with great despatch, owing to the skill of the boatmen.
While discharging, the vessels had to anchor, but great difficulty was experienced in recovering their anchors owing to the rocky bottom, several anchors being lost. To obviate this, a mooring buoy was laid down, to which vessels could be attached. The first buoy and 13 fathoms of chain were blown away and found a fortnight after, 35 miles away. The steamers, on several occasions, had great trouble in landing their cargoes, as they had often to slip their cable and run for shelter. The Eagle, the second vessel sent had to lie for two days behind Coff's Island, and cargoes have been carried back and forwards three times, entailing great expense on the contractors.
The crane at the landing was twice washed away and the cement shed and smithy blown away, and on one occasion, during the easterly hurricane, the water washed clean over the centre of the island which is the lowest and about 90 feet high.
The first Government foreman of works sent down, landed in the night, and in the morning when he saw the place he was startled. He only remained on the island a fortnight.
The contractors provided their men with wooden barracks and had their provisions cooked for them, supplying them from their stores at reasonable rates.
On their return from the island some of the men will be rich as some of the labourer's cheques will amount to 276 pounds and the tradesmen's ditto to 360 pounds.
Sheep were landed on the island by fifty at a time for the use of the men and had to be shot as required, as they got very wild. A number of goats were also imported and have multiplied wonderfully. The contractors have left them to the use of the keepers.
The men, while on the island, made themselves quite comfortable, and amused themselves at night by concerts etc., also fishing was carried on to a great extent and at seasons with great success. One Sunday afternoon seven sharks were caught.
About thirty men and three boats were employed when landing cargo, as well as a steam winch, which hauled the stuff up to the crown of the hill, from thence a tramway was laid to the lighthouse and worked by a horse, which was the pet of the island. The heaviest materials landed were sixteen bluestones for the floor of the gallery, weighing 30 cwt. each. The hardwood used came from the BellingerRiver, and was especially selected by Mr C. J. Ross the Clerk of Works and Mr McMaster.
South Solitary Island is, in fact, four separate islands; Lighthouse or Main Island,Birdie Island, Archie Rock and an unnamed islet to the north east. Archie Rock has the most dramatic geographical structure of all the Solitary Islands, climaxing in a fine natural arch on the south side. Encircled by a rocky, precipitous coastline, the Island is entirely without beaches or natural landing points. The rocky landscape provides a thin covering of soil to support little vegetation beyond harsh scrubby grass and herbaceous communities, some of which is left over from the cultivated landscape that once surrounded the cottages.
The terrestrial environment on the upper reaches of SouthSolitary Island supports fire sensitive and wind and salt-tolerant plant species. Any trees that had been cultivated have died.
The vegetation has been heavily impacted over the past 100 years by the introduction of goats and rabbits to support the lighthouse staff. In addition, the steeply sloping cliffs are subjected to heavy salt spray and wave action, resulting in two distinctive landscape zones; the cliffs or steep slopes and the gentle upper slopes. It is an excessive and harsh environment for the cultivation of landscape.
The South Solitary Islands have long been recognised as important breeding sites for seabirds, particularly the Wedge-tailed Shearwater or Muttonbird. South Solitary itself supports a considerable nesting seabird population, although the vast numbers of Crested Terns and Silver Gulls appear to currently outnumber the Shearwaters.
No rabbits survive, while goats and dogs are no longer on the Island, following the automation of the Lighthouse in 1975. Sightings of a legless lizard, identified asBurton's Snake Lizard, have been made as recently as 1994.
There are no snakes, but the island abounds in centipedes, which were brought there during the building of the lighthouse and cannot be eradicated.
Pieces of fur are tied around the posts of the beds to prevent the centipedes getting to them. Several lightkeepers and members of their families have been bitten, but apart from causing a little discomfort they are not dangerous.
The other islands that make up South Solitary are uninhabited and were never used for the Lighthouse operation.
The free standing, single storey Head Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage comprises the main cottage, the service pavilion and several small outbuildings, all enclosed in a perimeter wall.
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