Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

The history of the lighthouses

Lighthouse staircase. Photo: J.Winter/DECC

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 OEH lighthouses.

Aboriginal people continue to use many of the OEH lightstation sites, and many Dreamtime stories survive explaining the creation of these places.

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.

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: 14 June 2011