The Cape Wickham Lighthouse on King Island

Cape Wickham Lighthouse

The impressive Cape Wickham Lighthouse, at 48 metres, is Australia's tallest lighthouse, and is also the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cape Wickham Lighthouse overlooking Bass Strait
Photograph: Robert Cook

LOCATION: Latitude 39° 35.4' S, Longitude 143° 56.5' E [map]
OPERATOR: Australian Maritime Safety Authority
CHARACTER: Flashing 2 in 10 seconds
LIGHT SOURCE: 1000 Watt 120v, Tungsten Halogen Lamp
POWER SOURCE: Mains Electricity
INTENSITY: 550,000 cd
ELEVATION: 85 Metres
RANGE: 24 Nautical Miles
HEIGHT: 48 metres

Cape Wickham Lighthouse overlooking Bass Strait
Photograph: Robert Cook


Established in 1861, the Cape Wickham is Australia's, and the Southern Hemisphere's, tallest lighthouse. The tower is constructed of local stone, with walls 3.4 metres thick at the base. It has eleven flights of stairs each of 20 steps.

The light was automated in 1918 replacing the original single wick oil burner with an acetylene flasher.

This changed the character of the light from being "fixed" to group flashing, showing two flashes in quick succession every 10 seconds, and increased the candlepower from 7,500 to 13,000 candles.

The light was demanned in 1921 after which the Superintendent's house and the three cottages were demolished. The light is now tended by the lightkeeper from Currie.

The original first order catadioptric fixed lens installed in1861 was replaced in 1946 by a modern electric revolving lens and gave an intensity of 170,00 Candelas.

The old fixed lens has since been used for the light at Quobba Point, north of Carnarvon, West Australia.

The Cape Wickham Lighthouse is located at the northern tip of King Island, in Bass Strait. It also marks the southern end of the "Eye of the Needle," the dangerous narrow western entrance, 84 kilometres wide, that ships had to go through to get into Bass Strait and to Melbourne. The northern end of this entrance is Cape Otway, Victoria.

One of these two capes was usually the first landfall for ships coming from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa to Australia. Suddenly from an ocean of thousand of kilometres ship's captains had to find a gap 84 kilometres wide!

This lead to tragedies on both capes and the need for these lights.

It was Australia's largest maritime disaster, the wrecking of the Cataraqui with losses of 402 lives in 1845, that eventually lead to the establishment of Cape Wickham. An earlier loss of the Neva with 225 lives, mainly convict women and children in 1835, had brought no reaction from authorities.

Even after the establishment of the light there were still wrecks as some ship's masters mistook the light for Cape Otway. One such ship was the Netherby, wrecked near the current Currie Lighthouse in 1866, amazingly without loss of life. This was followed by the Lock Leven in 1871, and the Anna in 1873, and lead to the establishment of the Currie Lighthouse.

At these times the Cape Wickham Lighthouse became a refuge to the survivors and a final resting place to the victims.

Near the lighthouse are the unmarked graves of many of the Neva's victims and the marked graves of some later mariners, including the master of the clipper Loch Leven, that attest to these tragedies.

The massive Cape Wickham Tower
Photograph: Robert Cook

The Cape Wickham tower is the tallest in Australia
Photograph: Robert Cook

When the light was first established there seemed to be a certain amount of tension between the lightkeepers and hunters, the other early occupants of the island. This is illustrated in this extract from Katherine Stanley's book Guiding Lights:

"Roving bands of hunters began trespassing on the lighthouse reserve and making free use of the comforts the keepers had painstakingly provided for themselves. Some of them refused to leave when directed to do so and animosity developed between these and the families who lived there. One report in 1873, outlined the difficulties:

'There are certain lawless men who have taken up their residence on the island who make a practice of annoying the Superintendent in every possible way, destroying his cattle, pulling down the fences and taking his hay and in fact they say they are determined to make the place too hot for him, and I much fear it will end in some serious injury to the station or perhaps to the light itself.'"

Further to this food and goods from shipwrecks were stolen sometimes even when they were being salvaged.
There was an occasion where a keeper was dismissed for looking after goods his brother had looted from a wreck. They were both apprehended and convicted. It is said that when his wife left the island, she took off 3 times the possessions that had she had brought on.

The lightkeepers had to be extremely self-sufficient with supply ships only visiting once or twice a year. One early keeper was renown for his gardening and agricultural skills. Mail was sent by signalling passing ships to pick it up.

Aerial view of Cape Wickham Lighthouse
Photograph: Ed Kavaliunas

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