Thursday, October 24, 2013

Point Stephens - Outer Light

View of Point Stephens Lighthouse from Mt Tomaree at a distance of
4 kilometres - October 2013
View of Fingal Spit from Mt Tomaree - October 2013
Point Stephens Lighthouse (Latitude 32° 44.9'S, Longitude 152° 12.2'E) is located on a rocky headland 4.25 kilometres south east of the entrance to Port Stephens, New South Wales. 

Point Stephens is an island connected by a sand bar (Fingal Spit) to the mainland and encloses the south-facing Fingal Bay. It was first sighted by Captain James Cook on 11 May 1770 on his voyage north.  He named it after Sir Philip Stephens, Secretary of the Admiralty. 

The waterway of Port Stephens (located 190 kilometres north of Sydney and 45 kilometres north-east of Newcastle) was important in the maritime history of the early Colony of New South Wales dating from the visit of the Salamander, a ship from the Third Fleet in 1791. Being a safe anchorage for ships and very navigable, it facilitated the development of a cedar-getting timber industry in the area and the establishment of the Australian Agricultural Company on the northern shore.

However the surrounding coastline was very rocky and the entrance to the port was hazardous. In the period before the lighthouse was built, there were twenty-four shipwrecks in the area with the loss of thirty-seven lives. These included the Dove in 1828 (seven lives) and the Pandora in 1836 (five lives).

The need for a lighthouse was identified in 1850s by local residents and ship owners.

In February 1860, the site on Point Stephens was chosen for a lighthouse as "it will form a good leading mark for ships entering Port Stephens Heads, as it will not be shut in by Tomaree heads.."  [Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4 February 1860]. Also because the nearby Fingal Bay (originally  known as False Bay) was often mistaken as the entrance to Port Stephens.

The Lighthouse

View of Port Stephens Lighthouse looking eastward.
Note solar paneling in the right foreground.
Photo taken in June 2007

The Point Stephens Lighthouse came into operation on 1 May 1862. 

It was designed by the Colonial Architect, Alexander Dawson with a Doric tower and a flared base and external stairwell leading up to the entrance on the first floor. This design was unique at the time and makes it one of two similar lighthouses in NSW designed by Dawson. The other is the Hornby Light at Watsons Bay in Sydney Harbour.

The building contract was awarded to James Elphinstone by the Department of Public Works in 1860. The lighthouse is constructed of Hawkesbury sandstone which was brought to the site by ship. The original lantern was a canotropic design manufactured by the London engineering firm of H Wilkins and Co.

The original light was powered by kerosene. On 1 July 1922 it was converted to a Dalen Acetylene light. In 1960 mains power was connected with a backup diesel generator. The light was fully automated in March 1973. It was converted to solar power with battery storage in 1990.

The light today is under the control of NSW Transport Maritime.

The Cottages

To the north of the lighthouse are the ruins of the light keepers' residences. Completed in 1865, they are unique in that they are the only terraced light keepers cottages in NSW, that is all sharing the same roof. 

There were three one storey cottages in all. The building was constructed of the same imported sandstone as the lighthouse. The roof was originally made of slate and later replaced by terracotta tiles, circa 1901. There were five chimneys and bay windows and gables along the front. 

    Remains of light  keepers quarters, Point Stephens - front view.
     Photo taken in June 2007

    Remains of light  keepers quarters, Point Stephens -rearview.
     Photo taken in June 2007
    Originally there were three lightkeepers in residence. The number was reduced to two from 1 July 1922 with the introduction of the Dalen Acetylene light.  A complete withdrawal of personnel took place on 25 June 1973 following automation of the light. The buildings were marked for demolition but a last minute reprieve saw them leased leased to the National Trust in !974. A caretaker stayed in the premises until March 1991.

    Vandals destroyed the cottages by fire on 5 September 1991. In early 1992, a fence was erected and the chimneys and gables were stabilised by new brickwork.

    The site of the lighthouse and cottages is heritage listed by NSW Environment and Heritage. 
    {2 April 1999).

    Today it is part of the Tomaree National Park under the  management of the NSW National  Parks and Wildlife Service.

    At the time of the construction of the lighthouse, the spit, known as Narrowgut was high and dry and covered in scrub. The telegraph was connected to the lighthouse in the 1880s allowing 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 however this link was wiped out during the Maitland gale in 1891 which also swept away the sand spit.

    Access to the island today is by boat or on foot possible at low tide. We had the experience of walking across the spit in June 2007 to explore the Point Stephens Lighthouse and the ruined cottages. Of late it has not possible been walk across the spit.

    As a footnote, when the light was automated in 1973, the original dome of the lighthouse was replaced and today stands proudly atop the Tourist Information Centre in Nelson Bay.

    Original lighthouse dome on the top of
     Tourist Information Centre, Nelson Bay - October 2013

    History Services NSW in its Government Contract and Contractors Database has records of eighty-six government contract awarded for the construction and repair of lighthouse premises in NSW up to 1900 including seven for the Port Stephens area from, viz: 
    • Erection of a Lighthouse at Port Stephens - 1860 to James B Elphinstone;
    • Repairs to Lighthouse Keepers Quarters, Port Stephens - 1873 to James B Elphinstone;
    • Erection of Lighthouse Keepers Quarters, Port Stephens - 1874 to William McCrea:
    • Erection of Lighthouse Keepers Quarters, Nelson Head Port Stephens -1875 to H McMaster;
    • Additions to Lighthouse, Port Stephens - 1887 to Hudson Brothers;
    • Erection of a retaining wall at Lighthouse, Port Stephens - 1887 to James Fox and Company; and
    • Repairs to Lighthouse, Port Stephens - 1887 to Wilson, Walker and Company.
    If you would like further information, go to our website at:

    Prepared by Mary McGuinness

    All photos taken June 2007 and October 2013.

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