Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the burgeoning colony of New South Wales experienced an influx of convicts as well as an increase in shipping activity. Consequently, work commenced on a series of building projects in Sydney. This included Macquarie Lighthouse.
The Governor and the convict architect
In 1816, Governor of NSW Lachlan Macquarie ordered the construction of Australia’s first lighthouse at the entrance to Port Jackson on South Head, Homeland of the Birrabirragal people.
The lighthouse was designed by Francis Greenway, a British-born architect who had arrived in Sydney two years earlier to serve a sentence for forgery. Although Greenway was a convict, he had proven his worth to the Governor and been appointed the colony’s civil architect and assistant engineer.
The foundation stone for the lighthouse was laid on Friday 11 July 1816 and it became operational on Monday 30 November 1818, when lantern was lit for the first time.
Macquarie was so impressed by the lighthouse, which had been constructed from sandstone quarried on the site, that he named it for himself and gave Greenway a partial pardon.
The lighthouse served a dual purpose. It was a means to communicate to the colony that long-awaited ships had arrived. Crucially, the lantern assisted ships to safely navigate into and around Sydney Harbour.
Indeed, the lantern consisted of whale oil lamps and mirrors, which produced a beam of light that could be seen 35 kilometres out to sea. Nevertheless, the lighthouse faced criticism due to its position two kilometres from the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
The Dunbar shipwreck lent credence to this complaint. On Thursday 20 August 1857, the transport vessel arrived in the colony and attempted to enter the harbour. Tragically, severe weather and squalls obscured light from Macquarie Lighthouse and 121 people drowned when the ship collided against the cliff face at South Head. In response to this incident, Hornby Lighthouse was constructed at South Head.
A tale of two lighthouses
By the early 1870s, Fresnel lens had become the preferred navigational light source. However, the lantern room of the Macquarie Lighthouse was too small to accommodate this technology. Further, the sandstone tower was eroding and becoming compromised.
Due to its crumbling foundations, iron bands were installed to hold Macquarie Lighthouse together. Finally, in 1878, approval was given to replace the Greenway-built tower with a new one at a cost of £26,000.
The replacement lighthouse was designed by James Barnet – the Colonial Architect for NSW from 1862 to 1890 – to closely resemble Greenway’s original.
Completed in 1883, Barnet’s replacement tower – also named Macquarie Lighthouse – was constructed less than four metres from the original structure. The two towers stood side by side until 1887 when the original was demolished.
During this period, housing was also built at the site for the head keeper, engineer, and other staff. Although many of these buildings still exist, the engineer’s and assistant’s quarters were demolished in 1970 and replaced by four townhouses. The tower and its neighbouring buildings are collectively referred to as Macquarie Lightstation.
Standing at 26 metres tall and featuring a gas-generated electric light, the new and improved Macquarie Lighthouse was – for a time – the most powerful navigational beacon in the world. This iteration of Macquarie Lighthouse still stands today.
The age of automation
Advancements in technology throughout the 20th Century led to the transformation of Macquarie Lighthouse into a fully automated maritime safety system.
In 1912, following a call to standardise all lighthouses, the electric light at the Macquarie Lighthouse was replaced with a kerosene system. The new fuel was cheaper to run and required just two men to operate. Three years later, Macquarie Lighthouse – as with all ocean lighthouses– was transferred to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service.
The lighthouse reverted to using an electric light in 1933 and, during World War II, an observation post was constructed east of the lighthouse. This fortification included a shaft and an underground tunnel with an entrance that can be spotted halfway down the cliff face below the lighthouse.
In 1976, the light became fully automated; however, some staff still lived on site to monitor and maintain the lighthouse. As technology advanced, it became evident the staff were obsolete. In 1989, the last lighthouse keeper withdrew from the site. By this stage, continual power was ensured by back-up batteries in the engine room.
Legacy of light
Today, Macquarie Lightstation (including the Barnet tower) is protected by the Harbour Trust. The agency continues to pursue ways to honour the site’s legacy as the nation’s oldest continually operating navigational light source.
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Macquarie Lightstation in 2018, the Harbour Trust partnered with Macquarie University to create bespoke 3D models that capture the grandeur of the iconic Barnet tower.
Macquarie University, whose name and coat of arms pay tribute to the historic landmark, used drone and ground footage together with terrestrial laser scanning and Pedestal 3D’s educational software platform, to construct detailed, interactive models of Macquarie Lightstation.
Online exhibition: Macquarie Lighthouse: Celebrating two centuries of light
View our free online exhibition to learn more about Australia's first lighthouse. Here, we illuminate the nation’s oldest continually operating navigational light source.