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Bulletin - Vol 9 No. 2
Cape Rochon - An Island Light
by Erika Johnson, LoA Inc member
Erika and her husband Alan have spent the last few years living & working on some of Tasmania’s most remote offshore islands. These have included lightstations at Maatsuyker Island and Swan Island and, more recently, six months as caretakers on Three Hummock Island. Cape Rochon lighthouse is located on the north-eastern tip of the island - refer to the Tasmanian lighthouse map for location.
Cape Rochon - Admiralty List Identification: K3520, Character: Fl 5 sec, Elevation: 40m, Range: 8M
Lighthouse on the island
With ever shining light …
French names are liberally sprinkled on the charts of the Fleurieu Group of islands, more commonly known as the Hunter Group, off the north-west coast of Tasmania. Most originate from Nicholas Baudin’s 1802 voyage when the expedition’s cartographer, Louis de Freycinet, sailed in these waters. Only a few years earlier, in 1798, English explorers Matthew Flinders & George Bass had discovered “not only of the real existence of a passage betwixt this land and New South Wales, but also that the entrance into the Southern Indian Ocean could not be far distant.” 1 They anchored in a “…small sandy bight…” 2 at one of the larger islands naming it 'Three Hummock' because of its three conspicuous hills.
These explorations were done without the benefit of charts or lighthouses in an area fraught with dangers, both from the extremes of weather in the ‘Roaring Forties’ and the multitude of rocks and reefs, some of which are still uncharted today. Over the years many ships have paid the penalty of venturing into this area. The first recorded shipwreck was in 1821 when the square rigger Phatisalam sought shelter in the lee of Hunter Island. Unfortunately she dragged anchor and was driven onto the beach. Captain Peter Dillon sent off a boat to get help but it capsized and there was only one survivor. Fortunately, a second boat reached the settlement at George Town and was able to send help. The rest of the crew, including Dillon’s wife Mary and their daughter, were finally rescued two months later.
Early settlers on Three Hummock Island were subsistence farmers or fishermen. However, the Burgess family became well known for boat building. They built the 80 foot Mary Burgess from a load of Oregon timber washed ashore on the island and later in 1902 the 70 foot ketch Ada Burgess was built from the island’s eucalypts with spars from shipwrecks washed ashore on King Island. Burgess used to hang a lantern on the chimney of the house at Chimney Corner as a guide for shipping and their home became “a sort of informal sailors’ club and weatherbound seamen put in, sure of a ready welcome. … They smoked strong black tobacco and told tales of wild adventure and shipwreck among the islands, returning to their vessels laden with fresh vegetables from the cottage garden.” 3
It was not until 1923 that plans were put in place for a lighthouse at Cape Rochon on the north eastern tip of Three Hummock Island. The Prime Minister’s Department, then located in Melbourne, wrote to the Tasmanian Premier’s Department that “The area required for the purposes of the Light … is 25 feet square, with right of access thereto.” 4 They identified the leaseholder at the time as Victorian, Mr A.H. Irvine. The land was valued by a Lands Department valuer at £1 and was finally acquired in March 1924.
The Commonwealth Lighthouse Service, part of the Department of Shipping and Transport, commenced construction of the square timber structure with a lantern on top, 10 feet high, completing work in June 1924. Eleanor Alliston in her autobiographical book Escape to an Island quoted her husband, John, as remarking that the lighthouse was not one of “those picture book ones …It’s just one of those square jobs, unattended.” 5
The first recorded bushfire on Three Hummock Island was in 1838 when Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, surveyor on the Beagle noted in his journal that “the fire that had been accidentally kindled on Three Hummock Island when we were last there (3 weeks earlier) was still burning.” 6 As in other areas of Australia, bushfires were a frequently occurring phenomenon and in another instance a prospector camped on the island barely escaped with his life.
In 1963, bushfire completely destroyed the Cape Rochon Light. Exploding acetylene gas cylinders blew the lighthouse apart with one gas cylinder landing 255 feet away while the other blew 450 feet into the surrounding bush! A temporary light, a cylindrical Size 1 GRP cabinet was installed on 19 January 1963. This was subsequently replaced in April 1971 with a Size 3 GRP cabinet and the light electrified, using battery power.
The current hexagonal 5 metre high GRP “Tupperware” cabinet was installed in 1983 and the light converted to solar power. The ML300 lantern, manufactured in the USA by Tideland, is a far cry from the elaborate precision lenses made by Chance Brothers but is just as effective with the light having a range of eight miles. The lantern contains an array of six 12 volt Quartz Halogen 35 watt globes with one in operation and five being held in reserve. Power is produced using six 44 watt solar panels erected at the top of the tower feeding to a bank of six batteries located inside.
Lighthouse maintenance and resupply was originally carried out from the lighthouse supply ship, Cape York, using surf boats. Two white arrows, visible from seaward, marked the landing place below the light. Once ashore, cargo was transferred manually onto a cart and dragged to the light by the crew themselves. In September 1945, an amphibious vehicle known as a DUKW 7, operated by army personnel, was used at Three Hummock Island to test the value of such craft in lighthouse supply. The experiment was so successful that in less than a year six ex-army DUKWs were delivered to the lighthouse service. Since 1965, they have been superseded by the larger amphibious LARC-5 8 vehicles for which provision was made in the design of the second series of Cape ships. These days maintenance is carried by Australian Maritime Systems Limited and the two-man maintenance crew arrives by helicopter, landing right beside the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is isolated from the settlement at Chimney Corner by about 18 kilometres of overgrown bush tracks. The island’s population has waxed and waned. A note, found in a bottle under the floor boards of the homestead listed 12 people living at Chimney Corner after the house was built in 1910. The writer, Winnie Burgess, identifies herself as a milkmaid aged 20, and includes the names of “F. Grevis James Esq, Proprietor (Ha Ha) Also Bill the lamb.” 9
In the years following the Second World War, British Naval Commander John Alliston & his wife Eleanor brought up their family of four children on the island. However, by the 1970s farming was no longer viable but they continued their love affair with the island, leasing a small area around the settlement in their retirement. The island is now State Reserve with native vegetation reclaiming areas once cleared for farming and the Top House, now known as Eagle Hill Lodge, is run as an eco-tourism venture.
The Island’s human population of the island is now only two, the remoteness exacerbated by the fact that there are no mail or grocery deliveries. The lighthouse remains the one consistent feature on the island, still “Guiding ships to safety; In the darkness of the night”. 10
1 & 2 M. Flinders - Observation of the Coasts of Van Diemen’s Land & Bass Strait & its
islands, John Nichols, 1801 in Australia’s Wild Islands, Quentin Chester & Alasdair McGregor, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997
3 Tasmania’s Offshore Islands, Nigel Brothers, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, 2001
4 National Archives of Australia
5 & 9 Escape to an Island, Eleanor Alliston, Angus & Robertson 1975
6 Bass Strait, Australia’s last Frontier edited by Stephen Murray-Smith
7 DUKW - D= first year of production code “D” is for 1942, U=body style “U” utility truck (amphibious), K=front wheel drive, W=two rear driving wheels (tandem axle)
8 LARC - L=lighter, A=amphibious, R=resupply, C=cargo
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