Cape Borda Lighthouse

Flinders Lighthouse at Cape Borda


Cape Borda Map

Having finished the Sturt Lighthouse at Cape Willoughby and trying to finish the Troubridge Lighthouse, the South Australian Government seemed in no mood or hurry to start a third one. In August 1854 the Colonial Secretary said that the Executive had no intension to build a lighthouse at Cape Borda. Barely three months later they changed their mind and appointed Captain Lipson to visit the site for further investigation.

When word got out it took only a few weeks for applications to be submitted for a position of keeper. The first hopeful was James Lawrence who was followed by Samuel Harvey in January 1855. There were many others who were interested in a position at the proposed lighthouse, regardless of the fact that it was in a windy, cold and very isolated part of Kangaroo Island.

After Lipson's return Captain Douglas, the chairman of the Trinity Board and some of its members set sail for Cape Borda to determine the exact place for the proposed lighthouse. They had great difficulty in finding a suitable landing spot. Having eventually got on land they had even more difficulties hacking their way through the dense scrub and undergrowth. This resulted in Captain AH Freeling and his six workmen to mark out and make a road to the site in February 1855. The spot decided on was about 250 feet above sea level, but very rough, steep and rocky.

Meanwhile more application for the position of lightkeeper kept coming in. One of them was from W Dinham. In May 1856 the sum of 5000 pounds was placed on the estimates but when the lighthouse was eventually finished the cost had blown out to almost double that amount. At first it was recommended that the light should be white and red with intervals of 30 seconds. but this was later changed to four faces showing two lamps, with white lights only, every 20 seconds.

Tenders were called in September 1856 for building the tower and cottages. During 1857 more applications came in from Mr Stokes and Mr Underwood. In July there was even one from Mr Tapley, second keeper of the Troubridge lighthouse for the position of Headkeeper and one from Mr Bruce, third keeper of the same lighthouse, for a promotion to Headkeeper at Cape Borda.


Steel rail tracks to get supplies up the cliff at Harvey's Return. (SLSA)

Work was started in August and by October it was expected to be finished by the end of the year. This turned out a little optimistic as the job was not done until July 1858. Before its completion M Johnson applied for the job of Underkeeper, but when the appointments were made in January 1858 JW Woodward became Headkeeper, Mr Stokes Second keeper and T Fowles Third keeper.

Woodward's time at the lighthouse, which was now named Flinders, was only of a very short duration as he died, due to an accident, caused by inflammation of the brain, on 12 August 1858. He was buried the next day at Harvey's Return. There was no doctor to attend to him during his suffering.

As far as the lighthouse was concerned, a little more planning had gone into it this time. It was decided that the Headkeeper should serve one month's probation at the Troubridge lighthouse, which had been completed already, previous to him taking charge of the new lighthouse. The only problem for Woodward was that it would be on half pay only. In February 1858 the Lantern and other equipment arrived from England and was expected to be in place by May.

The light was first operated on 13 July 1858 but the complete works on the tower and other buildings were not completed until the end of the year. The ten metres high square lighthouse was painted white with a red balcony rail and its light could be seen for nearly 40 kilometres. As late as May 1859 the lower room of the lighthouse had still not been plastered and painted.

As was the case at Cape Willoughby there was no doctor available, and the keepers and their families had to manage as best as they could. They even had to make the coffins when someone had died. Cape Borda proved to be a unhealthy place as can be seen from the nearby cemetery at Harvey's Return.

An example of this was provided in 1899 when this small item appeared in the paper; 'the Marine Department's steamer Governor Musgrave returned to Port Adelaide from her short trip to Cape Borda early on Saturday morning. Dr Toll, who went by the steamer to attend professionally to the wife of the Headkeeper of the Cape Borda lightstation, also came back. Stores for the use of the lightstation were convened by the steamer to Harvey's Return'.

Getting supplies to the lighthouse was, and remained a major problem for a long time. They came only by ship, often at three months interval. When they came, they had to wait for calm weather to unload the supplies into a small boat which was then unloaded by crane. From there it had to be taken up a very steep cliff by means of wooden rails, later replaced by steel ones, and then taken to the lighthouse.

A few years later the Chronicle published this article on 15 February 1862; 'One half of the world does not know how the other half lives. If this is applicable to the old world, it is particularly so to the colonies and, we opine, there are few spots in Australia in general, or South Australia in particular, so thoroughly beyond the pale of intercourse as the station on Cape Borda.

I have had an opportunity of late of having a little yarn with one of the Robinson Crusoes of that distant and storm beaten Cape. It seems that their isolated position is rendered doubly so, from the difficulty of procuring fresh provisions, and from the sterile nature of that part of the island failing to supply them with the most ordinary vegetables.

It is needless to say that the rare and distant visits of the Yatala are not sufficient, besides which it frequently happens that not a moment can be spared beyond the absolute time required to land the oil, &c, as the exposed nature of the place precludes the vessel from lying there a day or so, to afford the necessary interchange of letters between the light keepers and their town agents, so that long periods sometimes elapse before their wants can be made known and supplied.

A man to write in April, 1861 and to be supplied in March, 1862, is rather too bad, or to see a signal at sea informing him that at the landing place, six miles away, letters and goods have been left for him, and that the vessel will call in twelve months for an answer is particularly refreshing. As some people imagine that Kangaroo Island is a place about as large as a pocket handkerchief, and that they can stand on any part of it and see all round it, it may be well to inform them that its area, comprises very little less than 2,200,000 acres.'

Soon after completion of the lighthouse, keepers were given additional tasks. When meteorological instruments were installed, they had to record the daily readings. Keeper A Bruce attended an information session at the Observatory in Adelaide in 1864. In 1865 it was found that there should be a telegraph station as well. In 1866 keepers were instructed in the use of the Rocket apparatus and to shoot a line to ships.

In January 1867 it was advertised that applications would be received from STOUT LADS, not under 16 years of age, desirous of joining the Flinders Lighthouse as Assistant Keeper. Principal duties would be to look after a horse and dray, cart the stores from the landing site to the lighthouse and make himself generally useful. His pay would be fifty pounds a year, but without rations. There were fifteen applicants for the job.


Unloading supplies by crane from boat at Harvey's Return, 1926 (SLSA)

In February 1876, The Advertiser, Express and Telegraph and the Chronicle all published a lengthy, but interesting article about the lighthouse. It stated that it 'was situated on the south west corner of the island, being a square structure, it is a very prominent object, and commands a comprehensive view of the ocean, with land visible at various points on the horizon.

Although the tower itself is only 60 feet in height, the light is 510 feet above high-water level. It is a revolving light, which flashes every half minute, alternately white and red, the bright light being visible 30 miles away, and the red for 15 miles. The principle is what is known as the catoptric, which signifies that the light is intensified by means of reflectors placed behind it; while in the case of a light on the dioptric principle, such as that at the Cape Jaffa Lighthouse, its brilliancy is focalized by the use of lenses arranged in front of it.

The Headkeeper (Mr Main) has a very neat detached cottage, and the other keepers, of whom there are two, have also commodious houses. These, with a schoolroom and a substantial stable and store house under one roof, make up the whole of the buildings in the settlement, which confessedly has a bleak and cold appearance, notwithstanding the air of comfort which prevails in the dwellings and if this was so on a sunshiny day, what must it be in winter, when nature generally must look as dreary as the dark and dismal rocks of the coastline?' ( He should have mentioned that during the bushfires in January 1874 one of the cottages had been destroyed.

'Lighthouse keepers generally, and especially those at Cape Borda, do not occupy an enviable position. Shut up to themselves, they are often only brought into association with the outside world by means of their light. Sometimes it happens that months elapse without Cape Borda being visited. It is not always that a visit is possible. But life is made endurable by leave of absence being frequently granted, and thus the tedium of what must be a very monotonous existence is to some extent relieved.

The three families include nine children, for whose education nothing is now being done but the Cape will soon be connected with the main land by means of the telegraph, and it is likely that the person appointed to represent the Telegraph Department will combine the duties of operator, which will be light, consisting almost exclusively of transmitting to Adelaide the names of passing vessels, with those of school teacher'. (This statement was not entirely correct as a school had been conducted, with some interruptions, since 1872 ).

Communications with the main land, which had been a problem, were vastly improved when a start was made to connect the island with Normanville via submarine cable. The project was started on 25 December 1875 and completed in just six days. Later an overland line was constructed connecting Kingscote with the Cape Borda Lighthouse. The system from Cape Borda to Adelaide was opened on 13 August 1876.

Another way to relieve the boredom and isolation was to swap jobs. In February 1873 C Webling, second keeper, moved to be second keeper at the Cape Jaffa lighthouse. George Fraser was appointed third keeper at Cape Borda Lighthouse when Edmunds resigned. Second keeper E Parker swapped his job at Cape Borda with J Hendry who was Second keeper at Althorpe in June 1890. Four years later Edward Kerr moved from Althorpe to Cape Borda. Isolation and boredom also created some ill feeling at times between the men. In April 1860 the Second Keeper charged the Fourth Keeper with some irregularity, which resulted in his dismissal by the Board.


William Heppart Carter 1872

Transfers were also initiated by the Marine Board, as was the case in February 1894 due to the retirement of W Carter and the death of the late Mr Franks. It recommended the following transfers. FW Frank, Headkeeper at Point Lowly, to be Headkeeper at Cape Willougbby, vice Carter resigned; Thomas Welle, Headkeeper at Althorpe Island, to be Headkeeper at Point Lowly, vice Frank.

There were a few changes at Cape Borda as well where AJ Young, Second Keeper, was transferred to a similar position at Cape Willoughby, vice Taylor; J Hendry, Third Keeper stayed, but was promoted to be Second Keeper at Cape Borda, vice Young; E Kerr, Third Keeper at Althorpe Island, to be Third Keeper at Cape Borda, vice Hendry; and WH Beckett, Assistant Keeper at Cape Northumberland, to be Assistant Keeper at Althorpe Island, vice Kerr.

Regardless of all the problems of the early days, slowly life became easier as time passed. Eventually Cape Borda was automated in 1989, resulting in job losses, but after more than 150 years of service the lighthouse is still active and has even become a tourist attraction.

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Cape Borda photographs


Harvey's Return

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