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Image credit: Macquarie Lighthouse, 1909 (Hurley Negative Collection) Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia

History of Macquarie Lightstation

Macquarie Lightstation is a majestic landmark overlooking the Pacific Ocean from Sydney Harbour’s southern headland.

It comprises Macquarie Lighthouse and surrounding buildings, and can be seen from several vantage points across the harbour. This is most notable at night, when the lighthouse continues to shine a navigational beam for sailors approaching the harbour entrance.

Lachlan Macquarie And Francis Greenway

Macquarie Lighthouse provides historical evidence of the colony’s reliance on shipping. It was commissioned by Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of NSW, and designed by Francis Greenway, an English-born architect and convict serving a sentence for forgery. It was constructed entirely of sandstone quarried from the site itself.

Work on Macquarie Lighthouse commenced in 1816, and the structure was completed in 1818. The light that emanated from the tower was powered by a number of revolving oil lamps set in reflectors. Governor Macquarie was so pleased with ‘his’ lighthouse that he gave a partial pardon to Greenway.

It was clear how important lighthouses were in ensuring the safety of arriving ships after the Dunbar shipwreck in 1857. The Dunbar arrived at Sydney Heads after 81 days at sea, and was welcomed by severe weather and squalls that obscured light from Macquarie Lighthouse. As a consequence of the ensuing shipwreck, 121 people drowned. In response to this tragedy, Hornby Lighthouse was constructed at South Head.

Additionally, the Dunbar Memorial was established on the cliffs above Watsons Bay to commemorate the victims.

A Tale Of Two Lighthouses

Over time, the sandstone foundations of Macquarie Lighthouse began to erode, resulting in the installation of iron bands to hold the tower together. Finally, in 1883, a replacement lighthouse was constructed less than four metres from the original structure. Although the two towers stood side by side for a time, the original was eventually demolished.

Featuring a gas-generated electric light, the replacement lighthouse was designed by James Barnet to closely resemble the original. For a time, it was the most powerful navigational beacon in the world.

In the 1880s, housing was built around the lighthouse for the head keeper, engineer, and other lightstation staff. Many of these buildings still exist, but the engineer’s and assistant’s quarters were demolished in 1970 and replaced by the four new townhouses that still stand today.

In 1912, the electric light was converted to kerosene, and in 1915, control of the light source was transferred to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. Reconversion to electricity took place in 1933.

By 1976, the light at the tower was fully automated. As technology grew even more advanced, it was evident there was no need for lightstation staff after 1989.

Homeland of the Birrabirragal People

The Macquarie Lightstation is built in the Watson’s Bay area, which is the homeland of the Birrabirragal People of the coastal Dharug language group. The land around Watson’s Bay provided the Birrabirragal with shelter, food, and abundant fish. They established shell middens, held ceremonies, and created rock engravings that depict a range of creatures, including whales and fish. There is also a rock shelter at the northern end of the Camp Cove Beach, which offers insights into the Birrabirragal People’s way of life.

In 2006, the Harbour Trust commissioned an archaeological survey of the Macquarie Lightstation. The survey, undertaken with the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council, found no Aboriginal sites or objects on the site of Macquarie Lightstation. These findings were likely due to land disturbance during construction of the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. However, the Francis Greenway wall (the original retaining wall for the lighthouse) was likely to have come from an Aboriginal midden, and appears to contain at least one possible artefact within it.

The Macquarie Lightstation today

The Macquarie Lightstation is part of the Sydney’s massive 100km Great Coastal Walk, and the doors to this landmark are open to visitors year round. People can climb 100 steps to access the balcony of the lantern room, and experience incredible panoramic views across the harbour.

This towering white structure continues to guide vessels to shore today, and is the oldest continually operating light in Australia.

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