Keeping the lights alight - A Christmas special

Low head lighthouse.
Carl Hyland
Lighthouse keeping is now a long forgotten part of Tasmania’s heritage, associated with romance, mystery and forgotten ways and follows the demise of such icons as the Tasmanian Government Railways and other Government Departments that helped shape Tasmania.

Fortunately, Tasmania’s lighthouse heritage lives on; it lives on with past lighthouse keepers and their families, who are keeping the art of lighting the lamp alive today with their anecdotal stories and humorous tales of a past gone by.

The late Cyril Griffiths of Georgetown and John Cook of Hobart are two icons who in themselves who have endeavoured to keep the lighthouse keeper’s tale alive.

Most or nearly all of Tasmania’s lights are now fully automated, something Cyril (82)(at the time of interview) and John (72) regret. Cyril indicated in a recent interview that the lighthouse keepers and their families were an essential Government Department, keeping kerosene lights burning at places such as Matsyker Island, Tasman Island, Swan Island, Bruny Island and Low Head.

Cyril was the Head keeper who for 28 ½ years, travelled around all of the lights of Tasmania keeping order and ensuring that things ran smoothly. It was often not the case as he indicated recently, with one keeper going 'troppo' after a stint on one of the Islands and he had to be removed. Keeping of the lights was a lonely, quiet existence and families of the keepers were also bound to the lights with home schooling, first aid and generally keeping home affairs in order at these remote locations.

The only access to the lights during most of the early times, was by fishing vessel, which also supplied most family’s needs in the form of fuel, (briquettes), food and essential mail plus a chance contact with the outside world. We must remember that just gaining access to places such as Tasman Island, which is today, done by helicopter, was once in itself, fraught with danger as goods, personnel and families all had to be lifted up sheer cliffs in haulage ways and by cable. (I can testify to that fact, as many years ago, I had to travel to Matsyker Island by Helicopter and spend the week teaching medical tips to the keeper and his family). The rest of the journey to lighthouse residences was done on foot until the families were lucky enough to receive an old land rover.

John also tells of having to slaughter their own meat; this in itself was not an easy task as they only had the old 'silent night' fridges to keep meat in. One aspect of the job that was really enjoyable was the fact that on good days, weather wise (there weren’t many) was that families managed to go fishing with nets and Cray pots. Cyril tells of throwing out mutton to restock the larder with fresh crayfish and bustard trumpeter.

Maintenance of the lights was done strictly by hand, this even meant painting the lighthouse by hand inside and out and the lights themselves were operated similar to the old kerosene mantel system. One problem which became a bit of a nuisance was the fact that blowflies were attracted to the mantle which provided the light-they would make their way up the light house via the bottom access door and strike the mantel, putting holes in it. Eventually the mantel would have to be replaced, no easy job even by today’s standards.

Cyril went on to become the keeper at Low Head and claimed he was responsible for a lot of the births that occurred at GeorgeTown during his time in the job he loved. When I asked him how he was solely responsible for all these births, he calmly stated that he was also in charge of the foghorn at Low Head and often during winter morning early hours; he would climb from his bed to sound the horn. Of course, the resulting noise awoke residents all along the Tamar, so I am sure there would be a lot of residents on both sides of the river who fondly remember the horn.

Cyril used to keep stock at Low head, mainly steers and sheep, everyone thought he was well off, but in actual fact the stock was there to keep the grass down, which of course, grew at a fast rate.

Both men have now retired and until his death is 2010 Cyril, used to keep an eye on his light from his residence at South Georgetown, and tells that the Low Head light flashes at five second intervals between two flashes and has a 25 second delay after the group of three flashes. Cyril also said that the Low Head light was built in 1833 and an adjoining lighthouse keeper’s cottage was built at that time also. John tells of a recent trip to Tasman Island and because of his condition (lighthouse knees) he could not climb the steps up to the light, which was a disappointing experience (John has two artificial knees, no doubt required by the continued up and down the vast amounts of steps on the various lights). John is actively involved with tours of the Tasman Light and of course both have amazing memorabilia, of their time spent Lighthouse keeping.

I have personally known Cyril for over 20 years and have been extremely privileged to be welcomed into his home and lucky also to be able to share his and John’s stories. On behalf of all those sailors (and residents) thank you for keeping the lights of Tasmania on and our shipping and fishermen safe!

Map of Tasmanian lighthouses
Carl Hyland

Sadly, Cyril passed away in February 2010. John is alive and well and living in Hobart.

I’d just like to wish everyone a safe, happy and festive Christmas especially also in the New Year. Please stay safe on or near the water.

Learn more about Lighthouse Keepers of Tasmania