Life as a Keeper
There are no more heroic souls than those keepers who manned this lighthouse for almost one hundred years, who saw to it that their lights safeguarded ships on stormy nights, when communication was not as it is now. As most lights are on land, that of South Solitary was so very important, and how gladly that finger of light was welcomed by passing ships.
To Captain Leddra went the honour of being appointed the first head lightkeeper on March 1 1880 at a salary of £ 180 per annum. His two assistants were Mr. Skelton (£108 p.a.) and Mr. Burgess (£96 p.a.)
Separate homes were provided for the keepers, the larger ones for the men with families, and a smaller one for the bachelor keeper.
Lighthouse keepers in general loved their lights and tended them from sunset to sunrise in three shifts, the head keeper always taking the first shift.
During the shift, the keeper on duty would first of all scan the log of the previous shift, which perhaps would show that two ships had passed northbound, a moth had flown into the optic and shattered the mantle. Then a routine cheek would follow, making sure that the counterweight was wound up, the mantle was burning clearly and the pressure in the kerosene cylinder was correct.
Every hour the keeper would walk around the balcony, watch for any shipping in the area, and if a vessel passed would request, per Morse lamp, its name and destination, which would be entered in the log.
Wind direction would be noted and an estimate of the velocity taken. After the last shift, ending at sunrise, curtains were hung round the lantern windows to protect the lens and prisms from the sun, and the clockwork turning gear for the optic was locked.
At 9 am all hands proceeded with routine work until noon. This included dismantling the burner of the light to remove any soot or carbon from the three strainer gauges, and
re-assembling it, a very delicate operation, and filling of the kerosene cylinder.
Thursday was "glass day", when the optic was cleaned inside and out. The inside of the lantern windows were "Bon Amied" as were the windows of the store room. Jim
Garbutt, a keeper in the Thirties tells this story: "This particular summer morning I was on the 2 am to sun-up watch, so it being "glass day", before coming down from the tower, I thought I would give the rest of the crew a pleasant surprise and Bon Ami the lantern windows. At 9 am all hands assembled outside the quarters and as Jack Aird, head keeper, looked up to the tower, he remarked how white the windows were. When he heard of my little gesture, he thanked me very politely and then suggested that as I had made such a good job on applying the Bon Ami, I could now have the added pleasure of getting it off, all by myself I'd put it on good and thick and the summer sun had baked it like porcelain. I never tried to help again."
Friday was "brass day", which meant cleaning of hand rails, door knobs, ventilators, copper piping, etc. Saturday was "quarters' day" when the residences were spring cleaned and the bachelor quarters were inspected by the head keeper.
Sunday was "restday", but as the provision ship arrived from Sydney every second Sunday, this was usually the most strenuous day of the fortnight. Other days were taken up with various jobs such as painting, crane and landing jetty maintenance and checking of ropes, slings and other equipment.
Principal Keeper South Solitary Island 1.3.1910 to 1912
David, before coming a Light House Keeper was an engineer on the Presbyterian Missionary Vessel "Dayspring III".
A miss adventure for David when the Steamer Dayspring III struck an uncharted reef on the most northern point of New Caledonia on the morning of October 16,1896, Two life boats were set adrift, with the captain in boat no; 1, along with a few crew members, boat no2; with the first mate, Carmichael, in charge, and remaining crew members, David Gow being in boat 2.
The lifeboats were adrift for many weeks at sea. David's wife, Sarah family and friends had given him up for lost, when on November 6, 1896. Great joy when David arrived home after the wreck and the many weeks at sea. (A story on this can be found in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, Monday, November 9, 1896.)
David & Sarah's 2nd child was born the day of David's return, so they named their son Robert Carmichael, Carmichael, after the first mate, head of lifeboat 2.
Married and now with two children he thought life as an engineer and sailing around the Islands would have to change to a more stable job.
David commenced his duties as a Trainee Keeper at:
|"NOBBY'S" Newcastle||Trainee Keeper.
|"SEAL ROCKS"||First assistant||4.1.1903|
|"PORT STEPHENS"||Principal Keeper||1.8.1907|
|"SOUTH SOLITARY"||Principal Keeper||1.3.1910|
|"BYRON BAY"||Principal Keeper||1918|
While on S. S. Island, David I believe had taken rabbits onto the Island, as they were sick of eating mutton-birds when food was unable to be delivered to the Island during rough seas etc.
The Tragic Death on S. S. Island (Lydia Gow) was not the first tragic death of one of David & Sarah's children. Only three years earlier their second child Robert Carmichael Gow died of spinal meningitis while on the S S Hawk, they were taking him from Port Stephens light house (where David was Principal Keeper) to Newcastle for medical treatment, Robert was only 12yrs 8mths old. Their daughter Sarah R E Gow died at Hamilton Newcastle at 18mths of age from Diarrhoea and Convulsions, David was stationed on Seal Rocks at the time. All three children are buried at Sandgate, Church of England, Cemetery. Newcastle.
The wives (with children) of the Keepers must have had a tough life, as living in isolation and on an Island like South Solitary must have put fear into their lives each and every day, not knowing if one of the children would end up over the edge of the island. John S 0 Gow (child no 5) was on the Island between the age of 6 1/2 yrs & 9 1/2yrs and always said he and his siblings hated living on the Island.
David Robert William GOW b.12.3.1875 d.9.6.1959
married 17.4. 1895
Sarah Rose Ellen LOTT b. 9.11.1877 d. 6.1.1917
David & Sarah's Children
|Selina Lydia Violet Lott/Gow||b. 15.3.1895||d.21.11.1912|
|Robert Carmichael Gow||b. 6.11.1896||d.31.7.1909|
|Mary Milne Gow||b.10.3.1899||d.29.4.1978|
|David McAlpin Gow||b.20.2.1901||d. 13.12.1956|
|John Stanhope Ottoway Gow||b.5.8.1903||d.25.9.1964|
|Sarah Rose Ellen Gow||b.10.7.1905||d.26.1.1907|
|Francis Gow||b.7.6.1909||d. ?|
|Bertha Marjorie Gow||b.1.8.1914||d.1.9.1968|
Story goes that the boys were making a boat to get off South Solitary Island
The children of David and Sarah did not like being on South Solitary Island.
The following information was written and supplied by Harold Rudder, son of Hannah (Dammerel) and Leonard Rudder. From "Look-At-Me-Now" book by Benjamin J Holder.
JOHN HENRY FISHER known as "Harry" was born at Two Fold Bay N.S.W.( on 18th September, 1884, the son of John Fisher and Eliza (Day). His father being a pilotboatman. In his youth Harry Fisher was engaged in the whaling industry at Two Fold Bay. At the age of twenty he joined the then Department of Shipping and Transport as an Assistant Lightkeeper on 1st March, 1905, he was promoted to First Assistant Lightkeeper on 1st March, 1923, which position he held until his retirement on 17th September, 1949.
Harry Fisher served on every manually operated lighthouse on the New South Wales coast, with the possible exception of one. The lighthouses were as follows - Cape Byron, Yamba, South Solitary Island (where he was at the time of his marriage), Smoky Cape, Seal Rocks (Sugarloaf Point), Norah Head, Macquarie Light, Sydney, Point Perpendicular and Green Cape, (and the exception is Montague Island). It is possible he served there also. Listed in Geographical order not as he served -dates at each and order not known.
On his retirement on 17th September, 1949 after 44 1/2 years of service he was Headkeeper at Norah Head, newspaper references at the time stated he was then actually the Senior Lightkeeper of the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Following his retirement he lived at Strathfield for a short time, but in 1952 sold their property there, and purchased a home in Toukley where they resided and were highly respected until their deaths.
Prior to his death John Henry Fisher was awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen, "in recognition of his long and faithful service". The investiture took place at Government House, Sydney on 12th December, 1963.
John Henry Fisher died at Canton Beach, Toukley N.S.W. on 22nd March, 1965 aged 80 years. He was cremated on 25th March at Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney.
His widow (Maud) died 3rd January, 1968 aged 87 and 11 months and was cremated 6th January at the same crematorium. They had no children.
My Grandfather, William Henry Williams, was appointed Principal Lighthouse Keeper on South Solitary Island on 15 January 1902 at a salary of 157 pounds/50 pounds for quarters. I was told by my Father that living conditions were harsh and isolated.
Stores came once a month and had to be hauled up the cliff face in a basket. It was a dangerous place to visit and landing was difficult, needing good boat handling skills - hence the Visitors Book had few entries in their time there.
Grandfather and his family (wife and 7 children, aged 2 - 14 yrs) were only there a short time as he was then appointed the first Principal Lighthouse Keeper on 13 October 1903 for the brand new Norah Head Lighthouse at a salary of 177 pounds/50 pounds for quarters. Grandfather's wife, Celia, was a school teacher and taught not only her own children in these isolated places, but also the children of the Assistant Keepers.
Grandfather commenced at Seal Rocks where his Father (William Wallace Williams) was Principal Keeper, and then went to Solitary Island, Norah Head, Montague Island, Smoky Cape and then retired from Macquarie Lighthouse on 29 September 1927 after 42 years in the Lighthouse service.
The photo is of my Grandfather's family who lived on the island. Unfortunately this was taken a few years later, approx 1907, but it will give you an idea of the type of dress in those days.
This photo was produced for Norah Head Lighthouse Centenary.
My Father, Carl, is the young boy on the left. His older brother Roy was killed in Belgium in WW1. His eldest sister Vera, in the back row, married Robert Dickie, the inventor, and lived in NZ.
Robert Dickie invented the stamp vending machines which used to be on the front of Post Offices some years ago where you could drop your coins in a slot and out would come your postage stamps.
Due to the harsh conditions and lack of medical access, 3 sisters (Norrine, Gladys and Jean) died very young.
My Great Grandfather's name was Henry Thomas Parker.
He entered the NSW Public Service as 2nd Assistant Light Keeper at Green Cape on 27/5/1903.
He was at Solitary Island as relieving Head Keeper from 25/5/1930 until 13/5/1932.
Apparently he had to time his run, from the residence to the lighthouse, between waves and he needed to crouch down and use the breakwall for protection from being swept off the Island.
My Great Grandmother used to take tea chests full of books to while away the hours while they were stationed there.
There was also a family story from my grandmother & her siblings, that he received, "secret and stamped orders" bearing a royal seal OHMS during the war years.
They were only to be opened, if Australia was invaded and the family assumed it would be, to destroy the light.
Of course, there was no invasion and he never opened the large brown package, which was returned to the Government, so it remains a mystery, exactly, what the orders were.
It was a family story handed down, and quite exciting to think about, when I was a child.
I was told that my Grandfather, Thomas Edward Shields, got Wilfred Tulk his job. So I am assuming that the Shields family was there for their 4 year stint prior to the Tulk family who were there from 1930-35.
I have a photograph of Tom Shields with three of his sons Roy, Lang & Cyril (Hugh) (with the light house in the back ground). Hughie was born in 1930 and in the photograph he would be around 12-18months old. My father, Noel Samuel Shields, was born in 1932 in Coffs Harbour and so maybe he was a baby.
So possibly the Shields family was on South Solitary from 1929-1933 and then Smoky Cape from 1933-1937, and then Point Perpendicular until Tom died in 1939 at the lighthouse.
1930 South Solitary
1933 Smoky Cape
1936 Point Perpendicular
Which may translate into:
1930-1933 South Solitary
1933-1936 Smoky Cape
1936-1939 Point Perpendicular
This makes sense with regard to the birth of each child. Byron Bay would have been a 6 weeks stint as the permanent Keeper would have taken his holidays at that time.
I have spoken to Lang Shields who was the second son of Thomas and he can remember that he was to get a Winall bike for his second or third birthday and it was arriving at the north side Jetty. When they went down there to wait for it, they could see the boat getting tossed around as the sea was choppy and all of a sudden the bike was knocked overboard and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Lang said that he cried for a while after that.
He can also remember that morse code was the only way to communicate with ships and shore. He said that being on the island they were self sufficient and creative cooks and with the only meat was goat.