Within 18 months of European settlement in South Australia, several ships had come to grief in their attempt to land passengers or cargo along the coastline. Among some of the most dangerous areas were anywhere around Kangaroo Island and Yorke Peninsula. In April 1838 the brig Dart went aground on the Troubridge Shoal, originally mapped by Matthew Flinders in 1802. The whole ship and what was left of her cargo was sold in June for thirty pounds.
Six months later the Parsee, with 30 passengers and goods, was wrecked on the Troubridge Shoal. It remained on the shoal for nearly three years when it was completely broken up. Several other ships hit the shoal but were able to get off without any major damage. The Sultana was wrecked in 1849 and was sold by auction on 27 October for 375 pounds to R Burfield of the Commercial Hotel in Port Adelaide.
The next victim was the Marion, a large immigrant ship with 350 migrants from Plymouth, on 31 July 1851. This new ship, built in Quebec in 1850 was on her maiden voyage and had left England on 24 March. During the trip there had been six deaths and nine births on board. Another ship to be wrecked was the Tigress followed by the Jane. In May 1852 the Breeze went aground as did the Charles Carter in February 1854.
In February 1851, John Baker, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, together with George Elder and D Melville, informed the Government of the utmost importance of a lighthouse at the Troubridge Shoal. The idea was rejected by the Government except John Morphett who was in favour of a lighthouse.
On 2 August the South Australian Gazette and Mining Journal published the following comment after the Marion disaster. 'Nothing is ever done, either rightly or in time. There has now, from first to last been losses on this shoal of about 150,000 pounds. As wreck after wreck occurs our sleepy government rubs its eyes, holds up its hands, turns over gently and without responsibility, to the other side, and there it goes ....sound asleep again.
The wreck of the Marion, however, may shake its repose to some purpose and effect what neither regard for the safety of vessels approaching our harbour, nor the remonstrances of the mercantile community have been able to accomplish'. No survey had been made as yet even though the features of the shoal had changed dramatically since Flinders' survey. Whereas he had stated 'being dry at low tide', it was now an island with vegetation.
While the government was indecisive, Wyatt & Co constructed a model for an iron lighthouse at its North Terrace foundry. It was to be 60 feet above its foundation and would be completed in six months. During September 'there was some movement at the station' when a Select Committee was appointed to take evidence on the propriety of a temporary light on Troubridge Shoal. Among those appointed were Captain Bagot, Kingston, Elder, Hall, Hart, and Younghusband. They were supposed to report their findings on 25 November.
In October Captain Lipson surveyed the shoal and labelled it 'a dangerous locality', but he agreed that the best place to erect a lighthouse was on Troubridge Island. On 12 December 1851 the Registrar-General moved that 4,000 pounds be placed on the estimates for a lighthouse. But that was all. After the money was placed, there was a lot of talk but very little happened until August 1852 when the Yatala, with members of the Trinity Board left Port Adelaide for the Troubridge Shoal to determine the position of the proposed lighthouse.
A month later, a sum of 4,000 pounds was placed on the estimates again as the original one of December 1851 had been removed. This time it was for the erection of an iron lighthouse on Troubridge Shoal. Not only that, it was to be bought in England! So much for supporting Wyatt or the local industry.
After another year of much talk and inactivity the Colonial Secretary made it known in October 1853 that the 5,000 (?) pounds placed on the estimates had been remitted to England and the lighthouse could be expected very shortly to arrive in the colony. In January 1854 it was reported that a cast-iron tower was to be erected on or before April 1855 by competent English contractors, under arrangement with Alexander Gordon who had undertaken 'that the work shall be executed to the entire satisfaction of the government'.
Finally, on 30 November 1854 the newly-built clipper ship Wynaud arrived at the Port, after a passage of 93 days, with on board the Lighthouse. The Colonial Secretary confirmed the arrival and that the selection of a site was under consideration. Tenders were invited to transport 70 tons of materials to the island. Only one tender was received and accepted. Mr Hays wanted to know if he could go ahead with the foundation work for the lighthouse on the spot he had marked on the map.
On 6 January 1855, Captains Douglas, Tapley and Scott, together with Mr Hyndman left for Troubridge Island in connection with the proposed building of the lighthouse. That same month tenders for the construction of the foundation for the lighthouse were advertised and had to be submitted before 3 February. In March additional tenders were invited for the building of three cottages for the lighthouse keepers, which had to be in by 2 April.
A lot of material had to be moved to the island to keep the work going. In April the schooner Fame delivered 25 tons of clay and iron work. In May the same ship brought more clay, 10 tons of shingles, iron and fittings. In June the barge Sir William Forster took portions of two wooden houses. Even during the winter, the barge Rose made two trips and transferred 130 bushels of lime, ten tons of water and stores for the men. Further stores were delivered during October, including part of the lighthouse.
When the completion of the lighthouse now seemed to be sooner rather than later, applications were received by the Board for Head, Second or Third keeper. A Bruce applied for the position of third keeper and was successful as was William Tapley who was appointed second keeper. Even better news was the announcement by Hyndman that the lighthouse would be completed by the end January 1856 and the light exhibited on 1 February.
Early December members of the government visited the island to check the progress made so far. After their return to Port Adelaide Captain Germain reported as follow; 'As we approached the island it was readily apparent that the gales of the 9th and 10th of November had not harmlessly spent their violence on the shore of Troubridge Inland; and after landing ascertained that the tide had risen so high that the houses were inundated, and the sea washed with great force against the tower of the Lighthouse, and to a height of 5 or 6 feet, but did not in the least shake the structure'.
Two wooden houses, temporarily built, one for the accommodation of the resident engineer, and another for the workmen, were almost filled with water and sand; and finally, one of them was levelled to the ground. The occupants sought shelter in the cottages erected for the keepers of the Lighthouse. Even the area of the island has been lessened by the encroachment of the sea during the late gale.
Captain Germain also reported that 'a portion of the south end had been washed away to a depth of five feet, and to the extent of more than 100 feet inward, making such alteration in that part of the island that, though before the gale the land was five feet above the water-line of an ordinary tide, it is now washed by the sea at high water. The breadth of the island had also been lessened by as much as 15 feet by the encroachment of the sea on the eastern side'.
A sailing-boat which was anchored off the island foundered in the gale, but was afterwards recovered, and found to have sustained but little injury. 'But notwithstanding the injuries to property, which the gale occasioned, and the other effects we have described, it is declared that the site of the present lighthouse is by no means dangerous, but that, on the contrary, it will be found to have been selected with good judgment and a sure prospect of the most satisfactory results'.
During December 1855 it was reported in most newspapers that 'A bright flashing light, 80 feet above high-water mark, visible from the deck of a moderate-sized vessel at a distance of sixteen (16) miles, will be exhibited on and after the evening of the 1st of February, 1856'. In March Captain Keats of the schooner Gem reported that he had seen the light from a distance of 25 miles.
The Lighthouse was composed of iron, painted stone colour, and placed on the centre of Troubridge Island. At the same time it was stated that, 'Vessels from the westward and southward should not approach the Light within a less distance than four miles, where they will find soundings of 14 fathoms'.
In January 1856, the Yatala sailed for the Troubridge Lighthouse with the second and third keeper on board. She also carried a supply of water, fuel and oil, sufficient for the next six months. Captain Tillman was kind enough to make his fire-engine available for transferring the water from his ship to the tanks of the new lighthouse.
Only a month after its light was seen at night, the Board received complaints from several nautical men that in consequence of the lighthouse being painted of a light stone colour, its advantages to the mariner, at least during daylight, are considerably diminished. 'The light colour of the edifice so closely assimilates with the clear background of the sky, that it is not so readily discernible as it ought to be; and another objection to the colour is, that it is the same as that of a ship's sails. Persons accustomed to the locality are frequently in doubt, until they approach pretty near to it, whether it is really the lighthouse or a ship approaching'.
'If the structure were painted light red, or of some colour that would contrast with the sky and be easily distinguishable from a sail in the distance, it would be a great improvement. On all sides we hear that the light at night answers admirably. We were recently informed on good authority, that in a favourable state of the atmosphere, the Troubridge Shoal light may be occasionally discerned from the Glenelg sandhills, and also from West-terrace'.
On 29 May, 1856, members of the Board inspected the Troubridge Lighthouse and cottages once again. The state of the lighthouse was found satisfactory and machinery in good order with the following exceptions: 'That too much oil is used by the keepers in cleaning and oiling the machinery'. The keepers were duly cautioned against this practice for the future. It was also stated that a number of the rivets of the sheet-iron lining of the tower had been omitted by the contractor for building the lighthouse.
'All the windows of the lighthouse fit badly. Some of the bolt-holes for fixing the windows are improperly made. With respect to the cottages the Board are of opinion that the roofs have an insufficiency of pitch, and they consider it will be necessary to raise the floors to keep them above the extreme height of water mark. The Board, on inspection, are of opinion that three rows of stakes driven into the sand at high-water mark, embracing the lighthouse and cottages to seaward, and felted in with seaweed, would in time raise a sandbank in front of the buildings, and tend to restrain the encroachments of the sea'.
Several stores were applied for by the keepers, of which the Master took a list. Mr Taylor and the joiner assisting him in fixing the closets in the keepers' cottages having stated they could not finish their work before the middle of the night, the Board decided on leaving them on the island. The Board regretted to find Mr Jamieson, the Headkeeper, labouring under the effects of severe illness, and suggested a sufficient leave of absence to re-establish his health.
Mr Jamieson, unwisely in the opinion of the Board, declined leaving the island for that purpose. Unfortunately, Jamieson decided to resign in July in consequence of his ill health. He was replaced by W Carter.
Although the light was shining, the project was still some way from completion. Three months after the arrival of the light keepers there were still no stoves or cupboards in their cottages. In July tenders were asked for the supply of 500 gum poles, which were to be used for a breakwater for the lighthouse. They, and other materials were delivered in August and the job carried out by Government shipwrights.
In January 1857 the lighthouse was painted on the outside and the breakwater nearly completed. It turned out to be a major disaster as during some storms in June 1858 the lighthouse foundations and those of other buildings were severely undermined and the cottages damaged. In June 1857 Tapley, the second keeper, applied for the job of Headkeeper at Cape Borda. One can only guess why but that same month there had been a very high tide.
During the heavy swell rolling on the beach and dashing right over the breakwater, it had torn up many of the bushes by the roots and when the water became smooth it was level with the top of the foundation of the lighthouse. In August the Board approved major repairs to and the raising of the cottages. A few years later it was decided that the lighthouse would be repainted and have red and white stripes of 20 feet width starting from the top which would remain white.
At the start of 1865 plans were in hand for the repairs to the lighthouse foundations. By September it was feared that the lighthouse was sinking or even washing away. Some of the piles were decayed and at high tide the cottages were surrounded by water, cutting off the approach to the lighthouse. Engineers recommended that the platform be raised and the cottages removed. The foundations to the lighthouse would also be secured. The total cost would be as much, if not more, as the original cost of buying and building everything.
It almost seemed that whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. In March 1867 the Headkeeper and the second keeper went in their little boat to Salt Creek, about 12 km from the Lighthouse to pick up their wives, family and luggage. They had been visiting family and friends and done some shopping as well. On their way back to the lighthouse the boat got into difficulty and Thomas Osmond and his wife Elizabeth as well as William Tapley drowned in the choppy waters.
Within a few weeks new appointments had to be made to replace the deceased. J Dagwell, Headkeeper at Tipara was transferred to Troubridge, CA Brown became third keeper and JC Bartlett, boatman from Port McDonnell, second keeper. From then on there were no more major disasters. There was the regular stormy weather, an earthquake and a new lighting system but through it all it remained in action until 1981 when it was automated. It was deactivated in 2001.