Shining a light

Kelly Drake
Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Treacherous waters

Ships' masters were complaining in 1849 about the inadequate charts around the reef leading to several shipwrecks. The increasing shipping trade between the eastern colonies and South Australia needed to be both safe and economically viable. A lighthouse on the eastern extremity of Kangaroo Island was needed. It would light the treacherous Backstairs Passage – an 11 km wide stretch of water between Kangaroo Island and the mainland. 

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, also called the Sturt Light, was the first lighthouse built in South Australia.

Weather and oil

Daily routines at lighthouses are recorded in logbooks by lighthouse keepers and assistant keepers. Logbooks are maintained for the life of the lighthouse. Many of these logbooks begin in the mid-nineteenth century and continue into the 1960s.

Logbooks provide an insight into loneliness, remoteness, and routine recording of weather broken by dramatic events. They also show community and the strong presence of families.

The pages of the logbooks have weather recordings in the left-hand columns. The right-hand pages reveal a commentary for the day with weather details and any happenings during the keepers' watch.

Lightkeepers constantly report on weather conditions – from gentle breezes and calm waters to wild, brutal storms. The early logbooks note attendance to the wicks, lanterns and glass cylinders that were part of a working light-station.

The discussion of oil was constant and part of the keepers' lives. They used tea seed oil, coconut oil, seal oil or vegetable oil for the lantern wick burners. The quality and cleanliness of the oil would determine how brilliantly the wicks would burn.


The logbooks give detailed descriptions of lightkeepers continued attempts to warn vessels travelling close to the reef.

On February 3, 1917, Kona was spotted from Cape Willoughby during a passage from San Francisco to Port Adelaide. It ran aground on a reef known as The Scraper in Antechamber Bay, Kangaroo Island. The logbook entry reads:

About 11 am, I noticed a four-mast schooner from cottage just past lighthouse point, close in and running with strong south east gale. I at once rang up keeper Nelsons cottage but Mrs Nelson said he was at the signal box attending to the ship. I told her to tell him to hoist danger signals. I immediately went as fast as possible up the hill when I sighted the flagstaff going up… but just as I reached signal box she struck outer edge of reef.

Earthquakes and electrical storms: select passages from the Cape Willoughby lighthouse logbooks ...

Monday April 27 at 11:50 pm (1857)

The cape was visited by a sharp shock of an earthquake. The oscillating of the earth was from NW to SE. The shock was accompanied by a heavy dull rumbling noise similar to successive heavy discharges of artillery. Keeper W Seymour was in the act of trimming the lights at the time and he describes the shock as lasting about two minutes. The tower and lantern were terribly and violently shaken and he describes the noise inside the tower as if dray loads of stones were rumbling up and down and all the floors in the building.

Tuesday February 23, 1858

Incessant lightening until 1:45 am when the lighthouse was engulfed in a heavy, black electric cloud – at this stage the lights as they revolved presented a most singular appearance. The refraction was so great that the lights appeared as large as the sun and as they receded in the act of revolving and caught the eye obliquely they appeared of a lurid blue. I must observe at the time mentioned that heavy flashes were momentarily emitted from the cloud that enveloped the Cape in a deep blue, colour.

World War II Bomber Crash

A more dramatic story recorded in the logbook tells of a WW2 bomber crashing into the sea. The accident happened in night-time waters near the lighthouse. The keeper reported:

... at 18:15 an aeroplane from the South circled the light. Flashing morse signals not understood. At 19:07 this plane, flying from the east, landed in the sea, close under the cliff south of the light and was lost sight of 20 minutes later.

Both Parafield Aeradio and the ground station reported numerous attempts to establish contact with the Anson aircraft. For reasons unknown, radio communication was not established at any time during the exercise.

The logbook record shows that when the plane hit the water after 7 pm, the lighthouse keeper could see a Morse signal requesting a boat. Unfortunately, the lighthouse had no boat to send, and the keeper lost sight of the drifting aeroplane. The RAAF reported extensive searches by sea, land and air with no trace of the aircraft or occupants found.

Lighthouse logbook entries indicate a continued search for anything that might have come ashore in the days and weeks following the incident. Two weeks later the logbook reads:

Searched coastline for wreckage of lost aeroplane. Repaired window in No.1 cottage that was damaged by a gale.

These events that punctuate the logbooks hint of a break in daily routines. Yet, the constant battle with the elements, and maintaining the lighthouse remained the greatest challenges for keepers at Cape Willoughby.