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PRISM Feature Story

Captain Thomas Musgrave, Lighthouse Keeper, Wilsons Promontory 1869

Captain Thomas Musgrave was born on May 10th 1832 in Durham, England. He was the eldest son of Richard Musgrave (1808-1886) and Margaret Bailie (1805-1880). Thomas made his first voyage from Liverpool in the spring of 1848 as a 16 year old. His voyages often took him to a New World where he eventually met his future wife, a dressmaker Catherine Halcrow Sinclair. Catherine was the same age as Thomas (born on July 22nd 1832 in Dunrossness, Shetland Islands, Scotland). The two were married in 1854 in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. During their marriage, which lasted for 37 years, Catherine bore Thomas 16 children, including three sets of twins. Their birth records show how the family moved around the world from Canada back to England and finally Australia, where Catherine and their first two sons, George Richard and John Baillie arrived on the "Herald of the Morning" on 23.6.1858, landing in Sydney.


George Richard b. 1856, New Brunswick, Canada † accidentally drowned, 1867 Bairnsdale, Victoria
John Baillie b. 1858, Gulgate, Lancashire, England †1933 Caloundra, Queensland
Henry David (twin) b.1859, Sydney, NSW, Australia, † 1861 Sydney
Thomas Malcolm (twin) b. 1859 Sydney, NSW † 1946 Caloundra, Queensland
Eliza Ellen b. 1861 Sydney, NSW †1959 Brighton, Victoria
Walter Sinclair b.1863, Jamberoo, NSW †1864, Paddington NSW
Infant Musgrave (twin) b.1866 Sydney NSW † 1866 Sydney, NSW
Infant Musgrave (twin) b.1866 Sydney NSW † 1866 Sydney, NSW
William Richardson b.1867 Lucknow, Victoria, † 1883 drowned at sea aboard Margaret Maine
Phillip Francis b.1869 Williamstown, Victoria † 1903 Melbourne, Victoria
Catherine b.1871 Wilsons Promontory, Victoria †1953 Caloundra, Queensland
Margaret Agnes b.1872, Wilsons Promontory, Victoria † 1872 Wilsons Promontory
Alice (twin) b.1872, Port Albert, Victoria † 1873 Wilsons Promontory
Dora (twin) b.1872, Port Albert, Victoria † 1953 Brighton
Norman b. 1874, Williamstown, Victoria † 1874 Williamstown
Alfred Louden b.1876 Williamstown, † 1950 Charters Towers, Queensland

While his growing family moved around the world, Thomas continued sailing the oceans in charge of vessels of various pursuits, the last one of which was a sealing expedition to Campbell Island. He left Sydney on 12th November 1863 aboard the brigantine Grafton. The sealing voyage to Campbell Island was not a success but before deciding to abort the expedition and return to Sydney, Capt. Musgrave decided to try his luck at nearby Auckland Island. He anchored at Carnley Harbour, one of the island’s fjords on 31st January 1863 but before long, the storm lasting three days struck the area, causing the ship to break its anchor chain and being blown onto the rocks. Luckily all five crewmembers managed to get ashore, saving most of the supplies. Unfortunately, the provisions were only calculated to last for two months and the situation was made worse by the fact that the island where they were shipwrecked was barren, windswept and inhospitable. The five men erected a makeshift tent made out of the sails and spars of the shipwreck and made camp at Epigwaitt, a sheltered deep fjord in the middle of the island. They started to supplement their dwindling provisions with seal meat, but soon, this became their sole diet. Often, they climbed the nearby peaks to look out for a sail in the hope that someone sent a ship to search for them. When no one came to their rescue for more than a year, Captain Musgrave decided to take action. After refashioning the ship’s dinghy and fitting it with sail, Thomas Musgrave together with two crewmembers set out in search of an inhabited island. After six days of constant battle with leaky boat, waves and wind, they arrived to Port Adventure on Stewart Island, 400km away. Captain Cross of the Flying Scud immediately took them to Invercargill where they arrived on July 29th 1865, almost 20 months after they were last seen in Sydney. Another ship was despatched to bring the remaining two men back from Auckland Island. They returned to Invercargill in September 1865.

After this misadventure, Captain Musgrave decided it was time to retire. He promised his wife that he would never go to sea again.

At first, he found a new career as a Harbour Boat Captain at Lakes Entrance in 1867 and finally, in 1869 he started his long association with lighthouses. His first appointment was to Wilsons Promontory, where he was in charge of two subordinates, all of them taking 8 hour watches for passing ships. After the telegraph line to Foster was established during Capt. Musgrave’s reign, the names of passing ships and other information was transmitted by Morse code and an operator had to be appointed for the task. It was a young man called Thomas Nice. He caught the eye of Musgrave’s eldest daughter Eliza. The attraction was mutual and several years later, after the family transferred to Cape Schanck lighthouse, the young couple got married.

Eliza (Helen) Nice nee Musgrave remembers her father and the life at Wilsons Promontory in a letter from 1940.

My father Capt. Thomas Musgrave once remarked when looking up passing the Promontory in his ship “I wouldn’t live there for a thousand a year”. Years later, after his crew had been wrecked on Auckland Island for 20 months, finally making their escape in a boat they had built from the wreckage, Father gladly accepted the position of lightkeeper on the same promontory, at a salary very much less than a thousand a year.

We spent nine happy years there the first four without communication of any kind with the outer world, except for the six-monthly vessel with stores (a gala day for all) and speaking passing ships by flags.

Then the telegraph line was brought through and the first telegram ever sent from the Promontory was from my mother to a Mr. Stirling of Bruthen. My father played a game of chess over the line with Mr. William Millar of Yanakie, who was a keen chess player.

I still remember the thrill of my first ride to the Yanakie Station. Malcolm (Eliza’s older brother Thomas Malcolm) and I set out one lovely morning at 9.00 o’clock on one big horse. He was twelve years old and I was ten. I now marvel at our parents allowing us to go on such a hazardous journey. No road of any kind except blazed tracks over hills, too steep and stony to ride. We led our horse up and down, crossed the Tidal and Darby rivers, then three miles of trackless sands from the beach to the station. We could not find the gate in the horse paddock fence for a long time, wandering up and down, until we left it to the horse that at last, found it. We reached the station at 8.00o’clock that night, two very weary but happy children.

We were a family of six children with very healthy appetites. It was just before Christmas and the schooner that supplied the lighthouse at the time was long overdue. Our parents were getting worried about our dwindling food stores. Mother was reduced to mixing bran with the flour to make bread and grinding maize for porridge. We had no butter and very little goat’s milk. Every day, we watched anxiously for the supply vessel coming round the Glennie Islands, about four miles distant. When we at last sighted the little schooner, our joy was boundless. We children sat on the rock near the lighthouse, planning what good things we will soon have to eat, but when the boat was near enough for us to read the flags, she signalled “running round to Waterloo Bay, stores tomorrow”. We went home to our tea of bread, treacle and water, very disappointed and decided to go to bed early so that tomorrow would come quicker. The next day an easterly gale set in, and it was not for another three weeks before the stores could be landed.

Christmas was only a few days off and our mother, who could prepare a meal from almost nothing was doing her best with a bit of flour and sugar left to make a Christmas cake. She sent my brother Malcolm out to gather wood to fire the coal in the oven. He came back after a long time, his clothes torn, his face and hands scratched, but with a beaming smile on his face and a Cape Barren goose clasped in his hands. He had found it in the low scrub, chased it and fell on it. It was a mystery how he managed to hold on to the great struggling bird without losing it but he did, and we had our Christmas dinner.

After three weeks the supply vessel, which was sheltering in Waterloo Bay finally landed our stores, and in the future the care was taken to lay in a goodly supply.

After Wilsons Promontory, captain Musgrave was transferred to Gabo Island (1878), Cape Schanck (1884), Cape Otway (1887) and finished at Point Lonsdale, where he died at on 7th November 1891 the age of 59. Catherine preceded him by 7 months. She died on 25th April 1891. They are both buried at Queenscliff.



Photo: Courtesy of Lyndon O'Grady AMSA

Wilsons Promontory after the 1951 fire

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