South Solitary Island Lighthouse. Photo J. Winter DECC
Shining across the sea in all weathers, lighthouses protect ships and sailors from dangerous shoals, headlands, bars and reefs. Without them, our early trade and shipping - the backbone of 19th-century Australia - could not have developed.
The coastline of NSW is dotted with these beacons. With shipwreck numbers on the rise, colonial authorities wanted to light the NSW coast 'like a street with lamps'. Between 1858 and 1903, 13 major lighthouses were constructed. Although technological advances in marine navigation mean that we no longer need staffed lighthouses, these romantic icons will always be important reminders of Australia's maritime heritage.
The NPWS manages 10 historic lighthouses along the NSW coastline. Mostly built in the 19th century, they stretch from Cape Byron at the State's northern tip, to Green Cape on the far south coast.
Take a tour of the lighthouses
Click your way up and down the NSW coast, checking out the differences between the lighthouses and finding out which ones you can stay in.
Conservation management and cultural tourism plan for NPWS lighthouses
Download this plan, which explains how the NPWS will protect the cultural heritage values of the historic lighthouses it manages, while still giving people the opportunity to enjoy these powerful monuments.
Aboriginal associations with lighthouse sites
While the European colonisers of Australia found the rocky coastlines remote and dangerous, for Aboriginal people the coastal environment was a provider of important and diverse resources.
Traditional Aboriginal fishing practices, in particular, rely heavily on elevated coastal areas - where lighthouses are frequently built. Fishing from canoes, Aboriginal mariners undoubtedly used headlands as reference points for return trips.
Aboriginal connections to these headlands, often stretching back thousands of years, can be seen in the camping sites, shell middens, stone artefacts, scarred trees, quarries and burial sites that have been found around the NPWS lighthouses.
Aboriginal people continue to use many of the NPWS lightstation sites, and many Dreamtime stories survive explaining the creation of these places.
The history of the lighthouses
The lighthouse buildings - symbols of strength and isolation
For the first century and a half of white settlement, European Australians tended to see themselves as part of a settler society - inhabitants of a colony on the edge of the world. Lighthouses, standing alone in rugged, remote locations, were powerful symbols of this isolation.
However, lighthouses also symbolised the growth of the modern Australian nation and the 'civilisation' of the landscape. On the dangerous and relatively uncharted NSW coastline, European settlers and merchants lived in constant fear of shipwreck. With a chain of beacons lighting the shoreline, they felt better able to survive nature's whims.
The construction of 'coastal highway lights' along the NSW and Queensland shorelines saw the opening of Australia's northern trade routes in the late 19th Century. Settlement and development quickly followed.
Battling a stubborn environment
On one level, lighthouses helped European colonisers to 'conquer' Australia's natural environment. However, for individual lighthouse keepers and their families, nature was all but unconquerable.
The close-knit lightstation communities were separated from many of the necessities and luxuries of civilisation. They had no easy access to schools and emergency medical facilities, and could be cut off from food supplies in bad weather.
Life Under the Light: Lighthouse Families of New South Wales
The lightstations of the NSW coast have a rich and fascinating history. Standing firm against the battering of fierce wind and waves the Lightstations were a beacon of safety for passing ships whilst providing a unique home for lighthouse keepers and their families. Life Under the Light: Lighthouse Families of NSW is a richly illustrated book which provides evocative accounts of families working, raising children and carrying out domestic life within the harsh but beautiful natural environment of the lightstations.
Life Under the Light: Lighthouse Families of New South Wales is the culmination of oral history research conducted between 2008 and 2011. Over 30 former lighthouse keepers and their families were interviewed by oral historians Kijas Histories providing a rich resource through which to enhance understanding of the NPWS Lightstations. Seven of the ten lightstations managed by NPWS were included in the research including Cape Byron, South Solitary Island, Smoky Cape, Sugarloaf Point, Point Stephens, Montague Island and Green Cape Lightstations.
The book is available for purchase online, at select NPWS Visitor Centres, or by phoning 1300 361 967. The book is also available for free download.
Maintaining the lighthouses
Lightstation buildings were continually battered by rain, wind and saltspray and required a constant program of maintenance.
After spending the night working four-hour shifts to operate the lamp, lighthouse keepers had to clean the lantern equipment every day. They also had to regularly polish all of the lightstation's metalwork to stop corrosion. The external surfaces of all buildings needed painting every few years.
In their little spare time, the lighthouse families tried to turn the rugged landscape into something more familiar. They laid paths and planted small gardens and orchards. Many of these patches of exotic plantings survive today, clustered around lightstation buildings.
In general, however, lighthouse keepers made little impact on the hardy coastal areas. Many of these natural environments are now part of national parks and other NPWS protected areas. Some, particularly those on offshore islands, provide great bases for wildlife research.
Page last updated: 04 April 2012