Point Stephens Lighthouse Group | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Point Stephens Lighthouse Group

Item details

Name of item: Point Stephens Lighthouse Group
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Transport - Water
Category: Lighthouse Tower
Location: Lat: -32.7441617510 Long: 152.1998317430
Primary address: Shark Island, Port Stephens, NSW 2315
Local govt. area: Port Stephens
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Worimi
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT177 DP753204
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
Shark IslandPort StephensPort Stephens  Primary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Office of Environment and HeritageState Government26 Nov 98

Statement of significance:

Point Stephens Lightstation and its setting are significant as one of a collection of lighhouses which combine the natural values of a coastal environment with the cultural values of a prominent landmark and isolated settlement. One of a small number of Victorian lighthouses designed by Colonial Architect Alexander Dawson, this example employs sandstone for the tower in a flared design incorporating an external stair to the first floor entrance. The semi-detached terrace, now in ruinous state, are among the most architecturally accomplished of the early detached residential housing type.The light station retains a rare remnant of the original Wilkins & Co lantern and has potential for archeological study at both the lightstation and wharf precincts.
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Alexander Dawson, NSW Colonial Architect
Builder/Maker: James Elphingstone builderLantern: Orig Wilkins & Co.
Physical description: Port Stephens is a coastal recreation and holiday centre 190 kilometres north of Sydney and 45 kilometres north east of Newcastle. Point Stephens is located on the southern headland of Port Stephens, south east of Tomaree Head. It is an island connected by a sand bar to the headland and encloses the south-facing Fingal Bay.Tomaree National Park occupies most of the headland and part of Point Stephens. The Park contains several rare species including Melaleuca Graviana.The waterways are popular for sailing and whale and dolphin. Both inside and outside Port Stephens are regarded as safe and easily navigable waterway but the entrance is hazardous. The natural features, character of the port, proximity to Myall Lakes and the Hunter Valley combine to make it a tourism and retirement destination.Islands off the coast and visible from the lighthouse include Cabbage Tree Island, an important and rare nesting habitat for the Gould's Petral.Before the light was exhibited a number of vessels misread the island and Fingal bay on its southern shore for the entrance to Port Stephens. Shipwrecks in the vicinity including the Florence Irving wrecked in the southern bay of Point Stephens in 1877. SettingPoint Stephens is an island connected to the mainland by a sand spit that is below water at high tide and has been totally submerged for periods in the past. The headland peak at Tomaree attracts many visitors with spectacular views to Port Stephens, the harbour entrance and coastal islands. Point Stephens lighthouse is visible from here, at a distance of about 4 kilometres. Natural Attributes There is considerable bushland on the island, which is generally in good condition. Weed and Bitau Bush are mostly close to the walking trails and progressively responding to long term weed control measures. There area wallabies and quoll on the island as well as feral foxes, possums and a great deal of bird life. The lighthouse keepers originally ran cattle for food and grass control. However only two remained when the NPWS took control of the island and the last of these died in May 1998.The island itself features a number of rocky bays and islets. The lighthouse is located near the south eastern point of the island. To its north is Shark Bay and a small island called Shark Island.There is no fresh water or sewerage treatment functioning at present.

Cultural Landscape
There was an old wharf on the northern side of the island. Only several brackets and stumps remain, but the concrete path near the wharf is still in reasonable condition. Sea conditions are not conducive to the landing of small boats and the wharf site is not suitable for a future wharf.Evidence of old gardens remains around the lighthouse precinct and in citrus and other trees along the track from the sand spit.A swimming beach on the northern side of the island is easily accessible from the main track. The swimming hole may have been an Aboriginal fish trap. The southern end of the island is generally less accessible than the northern and therefore less disturbed.The track across the island from the sand spit is in reasonable condition although the scrub vegetation tends to encroach on the path.Port Stephens was used as military training centre Australian and US troops during the early 1940s. The mental hospital was originally part of the WW2 facilities. Gun emplacements; torpedo launching ramps and an early radar station were constructed around the Tomaree headland to protect the harbour entrance. "Fort Tomaree" is now included in the National Park area and provides another cultural dimension to the area.The Tomaree headland also features a number of walking tracks but the coast itself is too rugged to walk. The tracks are wide and were used to resupply the lighthouse and to transport shell grit. There is a dramatic transition of topography along the coast, with tall headlands and steep cliffs.Site DescriptionThe Lightstation Reserve is an uninhibited island connected to the mainland by sand spit and is predominantly covered by bushland except for a cleared grassed area around the lighthouse, helipad and associated buildings. Several unsealed paths exist on the property.Lighthouse precinctThe lighthouse was constructed in 1862. Designed by Colonial Architect Alexander Dawson with sandstone brought from Maitland. At the time of the construction of the lightstation the spit was well above water and covered in bushes. A storm in 1891 washed the spit away, so access today requires walking across the spit at low tide or travelling by boat if calm seas prevail. The residence was vandalised and burnt ten years and remains in ruinous condition. A wire fence, set several hundred metres away from the cottages defines the lighthouse precinct. Photographs from the 1940s indicate that the landscape was fairly open grassland around the immediate precinct. There was also a swamp behind the houses.Buildings and StructuresThe Lighthouse complex consists of:The Lighthouse.Combined accommodation, keeper's residence buildingand several other smaller stores and associated structures including fuel shed, helipad, solar panels, stone walls and remains of garden, telegraph pole, tank stand, septic tank and remains of wharf.

The tower is circular in plan with an internal diameter of 10 feet. The interior is divided into four storeys and all of the floors and stairs are made of iron. The tower features a generator room with separate entry located in its basement with the main entrance to the upper levels of the tower occurring at the first floor level. A flight of external stone steps lead to the landing and entry. The basement area was originally used as an oil store for the light and had most recently been used as a generator room.The elevation of the tower is unusual featuring a bell curve elevation with a concave batter. The gallery and the lantern is of stone and originally featured an iron railing. The tower walls are carried up above the lantern floor to support the metal framework for the glass optic. EquipmentThe original lantern was a canotropic design manufactured by H Wilkins & Co., Lighthouse Engineers, London, with 12 metallic parabolic reflectors at the back of each lamp on a revolving iron frame. The lamps were arranged into four groups of three lamps each. Two groups were white and two groups with red globes.

Quarters for the accommodation of the keepers was originally provided in a terrace of three one storeyed cottages. The head keeper's cottage had six rooms and the assistant each had three. All were provided with kitchens, storerooms and privies.The completion date for the cottages may have been slightly later than the lighthouse as building supplies were still being sent from Sydney after the official opening of the light. The supplies included paint in the colours of dark green, black, yellow and burnt umbra.The cottages feature stone walls and chimneys (the same imported stone as the Lighthouse), double skin and rubble infill for the external walls and single skin internally. Although the internal walls were rendered and painted the quality of the stone cutting and laying is excellent. Externally the stone was probably originally dressed and later some were either rendered and painted or simply painted. In 1901 major repairs were carried out to the roof and may have included the replacement of the original roof slates to terracotta tiles.In 1912 a report on the condition and efficiency of the lightstation noted that the building was in good condition and recommended that two lightkeepers be withdrawn, retaining one lightkeeper and his family. This was not acted upon until 1922 when the light was upgraded and the number of lightkeepers was reduced to two.A number of photographs taken in the 1950s show a rear addition to the building with a skillion roof and part of the verandah infilled providing additional spaces.Following automation in 1973 the two remaining keepers were withdrawn and the building was declared surplus to the need of the Department. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) was given the lease of the building after some debate and became responsible for its conservation. A caretaker in turn leased the building and was in residence when the mains power was converted to solar power.However the caretakers lease expired in early 1991. Shortly after the triplex building was vanadalised and burnt out. The building has been partially destroyed with only some of the walls and some verandah slabs remaining. The remaining structure also includes some badly deteriorated chimneys and some timber beams that may be part of the original structure. Some small elements of wall finishes also remain.In 1992 security fences were installed after some clearing of the site and Australian Construction Services stabilised some of the building elements. Remnants of the internal render and external paint finishes remain as does some the collapsed carved stonework from the main gable and chimneys. The Structural Report of 1997 by Hughes Trueman Reinhold, outlined a number of deficiencies in the building. It noted some weathering of the sandstone, particularly at the south eastern corner. Also cracking in several of the lintels which are potentially dangerous and should be repaired. There are some minor examples of mechanical damage and is considerable evidence of rising damp.The Report outlines that at minimum the roof should be constructed in order to stabilise the walls and chimneys and would provide some rainwater drainage and therefore prevent further water damage and deterioration. Other essential structural elements were listed and included door and window joinery new floor and work to lintels and rising damp problems in the building.The Report also discussed temporary stabilisation methods using scaffolding. It appears from the purely indicative costings provided such temporary measures would prove equally costly to the more permanent measures.

A number of outbuildings occupied the area behind the cottage building. These were essentially service structures, kitchen, privies and stores and mostly destroyed in the 1991 fire, only parts of the timber walls remain.There are two large underground water tanks however these have not been tested for pollution and there has been no water collection at the place given the ruinous condition of the buildings. There is currently no regular source of power other than solar panels for the lighthouse and a backup generator in the lighthouse tower.Another privy located to the north of the cottage building was possibly constructed c.1930s when the size of the compound was increased. The fabric of the brick privy remains in good condition and features a gabled roof clad in corrugated asbestos sheeting.Further north of the cottage building is the workshop building. Possibly constructed mid 20th Century it is assumed it replaced earlier workshop structures in this area. The structures have flat and skillion roof and also housed the electricity generators at one stage. The former generator/workshop room is an isolated structure located at the northern end of the property away from the residences. Although none of the machinery is present concrete mounting blocks remain. The structures has been vandalised and its most recent use has been as an overnight cabin by fishermen. There are a series of drystone walls in the vicinity of the lighthouse which apparently date from 1865.The flagstaff has been removed but the footings and stay rings survive. Part of the original establishment it was situated south of the lighthouse adjacent to stone retaining wall which is original.Two other timber framed structures also remain including a former fuel shed assumed to be constructed c.1970s and located south of Lighthouse on the point.A single above ground fuel bunker is located on the southern side of the property, approximately 40 metres away from the lighthouse. The bunker is of brick construction with a concrete roof and floor and has been directly constructed on a rock outcrop.The former residences was served by a single septic system which appears to have discharged via an infiltration bed towards the north east of the property.
Modifications and dates: Alterations to Buildings: It appears that the cottage building also suffered some damage as a result of the gale of 1891. It is likely that the original slate roof was changed to tiles, a drawing dated 1901 depicts a tiled roof as existing at this time. It appears that major repairs were undertaken to the triplex residential complex at this time. A report on the condition and efficiency of the lightstation dated 1912 noted that the tower was in good condition. A new handrail had been installed to the tower steps in 1903. There was however some criticism of the apparatus, noting that while it possessed a fairly distinctive character it was obsolete and of low power. The alternate red flash was visible only half the distance of the white, given false impression to the navigators. In 1932 the original Wilkins handrails and stanchions of the tower gallery were replaced by gas steel pipe and mild steel rods. In 1991 the cottage building was ravaged by fires lit by vandals and substantially damaged. The lighthouse is currently unmanned and annual maintenance activities were conducted by AMSA until the handover to the State and NPWS in 1997.
Alterations to Equipment: Responding to the criticisms of 1903, a recommendation was subsequently submitted outlining that the red shade be removed converting the light to white flashing every minute and at a later stage replacing the light with a modern automatic quick flashing dioptric light showing three flashes in quick succession. Conversion of the light was finally made in 1922, In 1922 when the original kerosene lamp in the light was replaced by a Dalene acetylene lamp which increased the intensity of the light. Staffing was reduced to two keepers at that time. Mains power was supplied to the site in 1960 with the laying of a submarine cable and was backed up by a diesel generator in a generator room in the basement of the lighthouse tower. In 1973 a new lantern and dome were installed and the light became fully automatic and as a result all of the staff were removed. Mains power has since been disconnected and replaced with a solar powered system with battery storage.The Department of Transport at the time of demanning the station decided that maintaining the lighthouse keepers cottages would be too costly and that their removal would be more practical. As surplus all of the original logs and drawings and original furniture were burned at this time by the Department’s employees. Prior to the proposed demolition of the building one of the last relieving keepers and a local businessman mounted a successful campaign to save the residential building. In 1974 the National Trust (NSW) were given the lease to the building and assumed responsibility for its conservation.Electricity was supplied to the station in 1963. In March 1973 the station was automated with the installation of a fibreglass lantern, hexagonal lamp array and rotating pedestal. This effectively reduced the height of the tower to 65 feet. The 1932 gallery rail was retained together with the lower part of the Wilkins lantern house.In 1990 the light was converted to solar power due to faults in the power supply and problems with the diesel alternator.
Alterations to Cultural Landscape:The concrete helipad west of the lighthouse was constructed c.1970s.
Current use: Lighthouse tower operates to serve local Waterways, supervised access permitted
Former use: Lightstation


Historical notes: Aboriginal Heritage
Aborigines of the Worimi tribe inhabited the Port Stephens area. The Worimi tribe consisted of the Grewerigal, Gamipingal and Maiangal clans who lived on the waterfronts around the Port. Another two clans apparently lived further inland. Numerous midden and camp sites are located on the island and the adjacent coast. Local information suggest the presence of a large midden on the island and the possible remains of a bora ring or ceremonial area which are not recorded or registered with NPWS Aboriginal Sites Register. The island itself was possibly used as a fish spotting site and place for lobster collection.

European History
In 1770 Captain James Cook sailed past the Yacaaba and Tomaree headland when he travelled north to chart the NSW coast. Cook noted in his journal that he had seen an inlet on the north side of a rocky point, which he named Point Stephens. Cook also noted headlands and bays through the inlet, but did not enter the port he named Port Stephens after Sir Philip Stephens, secretary to the Admiralty.It was not until 1791 that the first Europeans entered the port when a ship called the Salamander entered the port seeking shelter from bad weather. In 1795 the HMS Providence also sailed into Port Stephens seeking shelter from bad weather. Its Captain, Captain Broughton was surprised to find four white men, escapees and survivors of Parramatta Gaol and the first Europeans to actually live in Port Stephens, living with the Worimi aborigines.In February 1795, Charles Grimes, Deputy Surveyor of the Colony, was sent to Port Stephens in the ship the Francis to survey the Port and surrounds. Grimes called Point Stephens Mistaken Island as mariners mistook the entrance to Fingal Bay for that of Port Stephens.In 1811 Governor Macquarie extensively explored the port. While the port at this time was considered large and safe, the land was thought to be barren and settlement was therefore not recommended. However, like other places on the NSW coast, cedar cutters stimulated early commercial activities. From about 1816 onward Port Stephens was a centre of activity, through the activities of the timber getters. By 1823 the industry was well established in the district and vessels were visiting the port to load the cedar for direct shipment to England.In the 1820s the Australian Agricultural Company established cultivation on the northern side of the harbour at Carrington while Captain William Cromarty began cultivation on the southern side in the area known as Soldier's Point and Salamander Bay. By the 1830s sheep farming has also been unsuccessfully attempted.The fishing industry also began in the early 1800s, brought on by the arrival of groups of Chinese fishermen in Nelson Bay. Six to eight boats worked the local waters using both nets and lines to catch the fish. The fish and lobsters taken were salted or dried. In the 1880s Europeans took up the trade to supply fresh fish. This posed difficulties problems and fishing declined.As usage of the port increased a succession of surveyors and hydrographers were sent to the place. In 1826 Henry Dangar and John Armstrong for the AA Company, 1828 William Johns on HMS Rainbow, 1845 Phillip Parker King, 1866 Frederick Sidney, the list continues. As the port was mapped and increasingly used, it soon became clear that mariners required the services of lights to direct them to safety. Before the opening of the Point Stephens lighthouse, twenty four vessels are known to have been wrecked in the area. The most serious of these was the wreck of the Dove in 1828 with the loss of seven lives, and the Pandora in 1836 with five lives. Other shipwreck occurring in the time before the construction of the light resulted in the loss of over thirty seven lives.The lightstation was designed by Alexander DAwson, NSW Colonial Architect. The contract for the construction of the Point Stephens Lightstation was initiated in 1861. The successful tendered for the construction being Mr James Elphingstone. Point Stephens, a rocky promontory southward of the entrance to Port Stephens was chosen as the site of the light. Appropriate as a number of ships mistook the entrance to Fingal Bay (or False Bay as it was known then) for the main entrance to Port Stephens, then a busy timber port. Connected to the mainland by a sand bar, once named Narrowgut, the Point Stephens lighthouse would occupy the eastern rise of 75m high Mt Stephens. By the end of 1861 the lighthouse lantern and apparatus been had transported from Sydney aboard the Ketch. The works were completed for the lightstation's commissioning in 1862. The 22-metre tower and the cottages were constructed for less than eight thousand pounds. Both the tower and the cottages were built of Hawkesbury River sandstone brought to the site by ship. The walls at the base of the tower are two metres thick and the external walls of the cottages are half a metre thick.While the Port Stephens light was exhibited in the 1860s another light was established on Nelson Head in the inner harbour in the 1870s. By the 1880s a more sturdy second light was operational and associated complex developed. This has now also ceased formal operation and the old cottage is now a museum and teahouse. The Volunteer Coastal Patrol has a lookout facility behind the cottage.The cottages had slate roofing, which extended over the building and provided wide verandahs around it perimeter. The head keeper had four rooms and each of the assistant keepers had three. Each apartment had its own kitchen and storeroom. The building has five chimneys with a total of ten fireplaces. The ceilings were 3.8 metres high with cedar linings in many of the rooms.On the northern, sheltered side of the point a small crane was erected to take supplies from ships.Two spherical underground water tanks provided the water supply to the complex. The residents had no regular supply of food, as they were dependent on what was brought by sea. This was later supplemented by growing of fruit and vegetables on a small farm they set up in a sheltered section of the island. Livestock were brought over and kept in a paddock around the lighthouse cottages.With three keepers and their families living on the island, there were sufficient children for the employment of a full time teacher. Classes were held in the lighthouse tower at the ground level.The connection of the telegraph link to the lighthouse in the 1880s provided the complex with immediate communication with the outside world. This also provided the only link for the Nelson Bay Post Office. Wires on poles came across the sand spit joining the island to the mainland, however this link was wiped out during the Maitland gale in 1891 which also swept away the sand spit.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
Point Stephens is the largest and most accomplished of the lightstations designed by Alexander Dawson. The battered base and external stair of the lighthouse tower are a sophisticated and unusual feature associated with English lighthouses of the 18th century. It contains a rare example in Australia of a terrace of three keepers' quarters.The lighthouse is one of the largest of four extant lighthouses built prior to 1862 in NSW, included in the approximately 70 Australian Lightstations of recognised heritage significance.The cottages remains are of high cultural and comparative significance. They are the oldest NSW lightstation cottages (1865) and the only set where all three dwellings are within the one building.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Point Stephens Lightstation is unique in NSW in its location and assemblage of buildings in a spectacular coastal setting. It contains the only lighthouse in Australia with a swept tower base and first floor entrance and contains a rare example in Australia of a terrace of lighthouse keepers quarters, although in ruinous condition.The Point Stephens Lightstation occupies a headland which has landmark qualities and is highly visible along the adjacent coastal area.The landscape of the Point has romantic quality derived from its rugged terrain and distinct geology. The lightstation is a focal point of that terrain, the only European artefact in the visible surrounds, demonstrating a Victorian response to the landscape in its elevated siting and cleared compound. The headland differs greatly to the interior landscape of the bay. The lighthouse tower is elevated on the most eastern point of the headland. The point is made more prominent at high tide and during storms when the sand spit disappears from view and adds to the romantic impression of the island.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The lightstation was in occupation for over 100 years and contains sites of potential archaeological significance. The lighthouse is constructed on Hawkesbury sandstone and rises 19m above its base. The internal iron staircase is finely made and is the earliest extant example of an iron staircase in a NSW lighthouse, there are remants of the original Wilkins & Co lantern.
SHR Criteria f)
Rare for exposed sandstone as a finish to the tower and planning of Lighthouse Keepers residences as terrace under a single roof.
SHR Criteria g)
Representative of the work of A;lexander Dawson and mid-Victorian colonial design.
Integrity/Intactness: Tower intact, modified lantern. Interiors of cottages destroyed by fire. Walls remain unroofed. Place retains significance, with potential for re-use & interpretation.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

In accordance with National Parks and Wildlife Service Act and relevant Plan of Mangement, and management recommendations of the NPWS Lighthouses: Conservation Mangement Plan & Cultural Tourism Plan.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementNPWS Lighthouses Conservation Management and Cultural Tourism Plan Considered by SHR Committee June 1999, who gave conditional endorsement. Amended version received and reviewed May 2002. Endorsement activated 30/05/2002. May 30 2002
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0100502 Apr 99 271546
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage register     

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
National Parks & Wildlife Service Section 170 Register  National Parks & Wildlife Service  No

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Tourism 2007Point Stephens Lighthouse Group View detail
TourismAttraction Homepage2007Point Stephens Lighthouse Group View detail

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5045303

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