Many keepers have been on the island since 1880. The minimum appointment was two years but one keeper stayed for eleven years, and each could tell a story of their life on the island. One wife said it meant to her "fresh air, peace and quiet and security".
Two head keepers were awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen on their retirement. One was John Henry Fisher, who married a daughter of George Dammerel, the Signal Master, and the other was Wilfrid Reginald Tulk. Mrs Tulk still living in Coffs Harbour, tells this story: One day, about the year 1937, she and her husband went over the channel (thirty feet wide) on a bosun's chair suspended from the cable and were gladdened by a haul of twelve schnapper, a twelve pound groper and sundry small fish. This was probably a record for the island in that Mrs Tulk hooked and landed the entire catch, except the groper, in which case an extra pound was required on the line from tier husband. Needless to say, fish figured largely on the island's menu for several meals.
Another keeper, John McNally, who was there in the early 1900's experienced great difficulty in getting his pregnant wife, an Irish lass, into the basket and down into the launch for the trip to his mother's home in Bowraville. Imagine his surprise when, a few nights later, the Morse lamp flashed "Twin boys''. One was called Charles Bowraville McNally and his widow and some of his children still reside in Coffs Harbour.
Living conditions had improved by the 1950's when Barry Northam a keeper, his wife Shirley and son Ian lived there. Shirley relates: "Certainly we had a kerosene fridge with no handle on the door, a kerosene stove with the temperament of a "prima donna" Every couple of weeks it would blow up and cover the walls and ceiling with black grease, which had to be cleaned off. Water had to be pumped by hand, and when the wind was strong, which was frequently, the bath heater kept going out. Then the copper had to be boiled up and hot water carried to the bath. But the centipedes were a big problem - ten to twelve inches long. They often dropped from the ceiling or ran around the floor. Their bite wasn't fatal but made one very ill.
Jim Garbutt tells this story while on the island during the 1930's:"One evening about 9 pm when I was in the optic room, I heard the end door at the bottom of the tower bang. A voice came from the base of the tower "Come on down, I'm dying", then the door banged again. It seemed like some big joke until I returned to my quarters at 10 p.m Cyril, the third keeper, was slumped at the kitchen table and his neck and upper half of his body was covered with what I took to be blood. The hurricane lamp was on the kitchen table and a writing pad was open and written on. I thought he must have cut his throat, but when I spoke to him, he raised his head to tell me he had been bitten on the back of the neck by a centipede that had crawled between his pillowslip and pillow. The blood turned out to be the contents of a full bottle of iodine which he had emptied over the back of his neck. South Solitary is over-run with some of the biggest centipedes I've seen. Cyril was in a bad way and became delirious. I raced to the signal box to try to raise the mainland. Finally someone answered my call and I requested help from the local doctor. Half an hour later I got the reply from the doctor, but our medicine chest had nothing suitable for treatment. Two more attempts were made until the doctor asked for a list of things we did have. We had nothing so all we could do was to apply hot salt water foments. It took three days to get Cyril back on his feet again and I'm pleased to say that the will he had written out, wasn't required."
Children of school age received their education through correspondence, although there was a little school house (of one room) near the head keeper's residence on the island. A governess was engaged by many of the keepers.
Mrs Johnson (was George Dammerel's daughter, Matilda Jane Dammerel born in 1876) "I spent nine months on the island as Governess to the principal Lightkeeper's very young children, some at pre-kindergarten age.
Lessons did not occupy all the morning which I filled in by pedalling the sewing machine for their mother, a very lame woman who wore a cork sole several inches thick on the foot. The other keepers each had a daughter of my own age and our afternoons were spent out of doors (in fine weather) doing crewel work which was very popular then."
The gardens had to have a framework over them with a hessian blind that could be let down to cover the plants when sea spray came over the island. Except for a couple of coral trees, nothing else grew there.
Kerosene was used until electricity (generated on the island) lit residences and the base of the lighthouse and provided power for cooking, refrigerators and wireless items.
From Smoky Cape we moved to Solitary Island (her father Jim Duncan - Keeper from 1947 to 1951), off Coffs Harbour, one of the only two island lighthouses in NSW, the other being Montague Island. My mother was in hospital while the packing up was going on and she was horrified to later learn that when Dad had packed her well used treadle sewing machine into it's crate, he had stuffed our eiderdowns all around it. She imagined the eiderdowns would be covered in oil, I think, but in fact, they saved the machine as the crate got dropped into the water on the trip. Because of the eiderdowns, the crate floated and was hauled back into the launch. The sewing machine was never quite the same again but I still have some of the eiderdowns.
The launch trip out to Solitary Island wasn't much fun, as we always got seasick. The trip took about an hour and a half, depending on conditions. I once did a trip that took four and a half hours, punching against what we called a 'black' northeaster wind. We'd watch each other on the trip to see who displayed the first seasick symptoms by going green. Only my youngest brother and I were at home by that time.
On arrival at the island, which is a rocky, windswept lump of rock of about 11 hectares, a crane on the island jetty would lower a basket to the launch and goods and passengers would be loaded and winched far up to the jetty above. If you were lucky, you didn't get wet! Our cat and chooks went with us to the Island - those poor chooks were seasick too and were very staggery after they were released.
Life at Solitary Island was much the same as at other stations - a pedal radio was our link with the mainland, later a radio telephone was installed, that innovation saved a lot of leg power. A wonderful whale watching place, I delighted in seeing those massive creatures come in very close to the rocks on calm evenings.
Calm weather wasn't always our lot, of course, cyclones and adverse winds often delayed the weekly delivery by launch of mail and supplies. One memorable cyclone caused such massive seas that water washed over the middle of the island and the light tower was chipped by rocks thrown up by the waves. On that occasion the supply launch was unable to deliver goods for three weeks. Toward the end of that time, food for the chooks was running rather short and for a few days we fed them with bread. When the sea had calmed a bit, Dad was able to fish on the sheltered side of the island and he caught a lot of big schnapper - up to five pounds in weight - and we boiled these up and fed them to the chooks.
A tall solid wall ran between the houses and the light tower at Solitary and men going to the tower walked on the leeward side so they wouldn't get blown away.
One of the most exciting times at Solitary was the day the launch made a special trip to deliver three kerosene fridges, one for each household on the island. To us, this was really modern living and we were at the ready with beaters and ingredients waiting for the fridge to be cold to freeze our first batch of ice-cream.
Our household lighting on all these stations was by kerosene lamps and it was not until after my father had retired that electricity from generators was in use. The light source in the lighthouses also came from kerosene, vapourised through a system like a big Tilly lamp. Rotation caused by system of weights, lens housing floating in mercury baths.
Jim Duncan was then transferred to Sugarloaf Point in 1951.
Mercedes Sauerstein had an upbringing many of us could only imagine. As the middle child of the Tulk family, "Toni", as she is affectionately known, spent all her early life growing up around lighthouses. Five of those (1930-1935) at South Solitary Island.
As the daughter of the head lighthouse keeper her memories are vivid and cherished, as so few can relate to her magical and isolated stories.
Toni's father, Wilfred Tulk, served as the head lighthouse keeper at every lighthouse in NSW. He was also one of two head keepers awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen for 30 years of service.
He was a signalman in World War I, before returning home and dedicating his life to lighthouse service.
"One of the things you remember, and the memory that sticks with me always, is that of the swinging light."
"It was a comfort thing for me as a child and I am upset that the South SolitaryIsland light was removed in 1975 and replaced with a flashing beacon."
Toni and her two sisters were home-schooled by their mother in the 1930's and also regularly featured on ABC Radio as the "lighthouse children".
"I had a very different upbringing, and many people are amazed to hear about how things were for our family. We were never bored as children, we had wonderful imaginations," she said.
Despite its peaceful façade South Solitary Island has many tragic and sad stories. One which sticks with Toni is the parting from her youngest sister, Fay, who left the island in 1933 for a medical reason.
One afternoon during play Toni and her older sister Norma put Fay in a shoebox and slid her down the island on a bag of wheat.
"She was only about two and we were all having great fun until she fell out of the box, hit her head and fractured her skull."
Unsure of the problem at the time Toni's father desperately signaled the mainland for help in the rough seas, it took two days before a doctor was able to visit South Solitary Island.
After this incident Fay was taken away to live in Coffs Harbour with the children's grandmother, never to return to South Solitary Island.
"We hardly saw our sister during that time. It was two years before the family was reunited.
Great difficulty was encountered in landing the heavy stores. Eventually a wooden crane with a 40ft (12.2m) jib was erected and due to the skill of the boatmen various cargoes were landed safely. About 30 men and three boats were employed landing cargo, the heaviest being sixteen bluestones for the floor of the gallery, weighing thirty hundred weight (1,524kgs) each.
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