Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Coal Fired Beacon - Newcastle

A coal fired navigation beacon was established on Beacon Hill at Newcastle in the early days of settlement as a warning and guide to mariners. Historian H.W.H. Huntington records that it was during Commandant William Lawson's twelve months rule that a flagstaff and coal-fired beacon were first established; other sources estimate the first beacon was built during Commandant Skottowe's tenure.

Lieut. Edward Close

A new flagstaff, signal station and coal-fired beacon were constructed in 1821 soon after Lieutenant Edward C. Close was appointed Engineer of Public Works at Newcastle. The beacon probably replaced the earlier construction -

Some of Lieutenant Close's first improvements as Engineer of Public Works were connected with the safety of navigation of the port. He was the first to put down mooring chains in the harbour, and removed some dangerous shoals. Near the signal station that was earlier established he built a fort on which he mounted seven guns. On the top of a mound near the signal station he built a pagoda house for the signalman, and constructed a large iron beacon-stand a few feet above the surface, on which there was a large coal fire lighted every evening at sunset. This beacon light consumed half a ton of coal per night, giving a large and clear light, visible in fine weather about 20 miles at sea. (1)

Difficulties of the Coal Fired Beacon

The beacon light was not without its problems; it was estimated to cost £40 per year to run. Sometimes government funding was hard to come by and there were calls for private subscriptions to be forthcoming; and in wet and windy weather it was difficult to keep alight or control.

Nevertheless the beacon was kept for thirty five years, finally ceasing existence on the night of the 31st December 1857 when Nobbys lighthouse showed its first light for the guidance of mariners. (1)

Nobbys Lighthouse

Extract from the Newcastle Morning Herald in April 1913 -

The lighthouse on Nobbys, at the entrance to Newcastle Harbour, has a history all its own, although one that is intimately bound up in that of the port to which it has rendered such valuable service over a long course of years. Few people now living are able to take their minds back to the time when there was no Nobbys lighthouse.

One who can do so, however, is Mr. Hugh Gilmour, who for many years past lived in a cottage in Reid-street, or Reid's-lane, as it is often called. The old gentleman has now reached the age of 95; but his recollections of the early days of Newcastle are remarkably clear and lucid. He was employed for a number of years in the harbour service, and for that reason is well qualified to speak as to the early development of the port.

Mr. Gilmour says he well remembers the time the present lighthouse was built in the 1850's. But even before that, there was a light to guide the anxious mariner into his desired haven, though it could hardly be termed a lighthouse. It consisted of a huge coal fire, which was located on Signal Hill, and when there was anything like a breeze blowing, the flames reared fiercely up skyward, making a lurid glare visible for many miles across the water.

The signal station then was in charge of James Royle, whose duty it also was to see the coal fire was maintained uninterrupted, night after night, from year's end to year's end. In this he was assisted by a man named Murphy.

The trade of Newcastle, comparatively speaking, was then insignificant. The vessels using the port were mostly ketches and schooners, which regularly made the 60-mile trip between Newcastle and Sydney, and a few brigs and small barques employed in the carrying of coal to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and New Zealand. For such small craft, creeping cautiously along the coast, the blaze of the coal fire so conspicuously placed, served its purpose fairly well-at least, in fine weather. If can readily be imagined however, that the weather conditions frequently were such as to render it almost, if not quite useless, and this at times when an effective guiding light was more than ever necessary.

Lighthouse in 1850's

As the trade of the port developed, and the vessels arriving at and leaving it increased steadily both in number and size, the urgent need of a less primitive mode of lighting the way in at night was realised, and steps were taken to meet it. So it was that the present lighthouse on Nobbys was placed in position, as already mentioned. It was built by Messrs. Wright and Randell, the firm which also carried out the contract for the construction of the railway from Honeysuckle Point to Maitland, at the same time.

When the lighthouse was put into commission, it was placed in charge of Mr. Jesse Hannell, a brother of, Mr. James Hannell, who became the first Mayor of Newcastle on its incorporation in 1850, and who, also was the Parliamentary representative of the city for some years. The duties of the lighthouse keeper included also those of signal master, and in this work Mr. Hannell was assisted by Mr. Isaac Lee. Some nine years later, the latter was succeeded in the position of assistant lighthouse keeper by 'Dunbar' Johnson, the sole survivor from the wreck of the famous clipper ship at The Gap, near South Head, Sydney.

At that time Nobbys was separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of sand, which was sub- merged at high water. Mr. Gilmour played an important part in connection with the building up of the breakwater between the Signal Hill and Nobbys. For the purpose of obtaining the necessary supply of stone for this work, he was entrusted with the task of opening up a quarry at Waratah. Prior to that he had been engaged in running a steam lighter called the Powerful, which had been brought up from Sydney in 1857, for the purpose of taking ballast from the ships' sides, and transporting it to the breakwater to help towards the building up of the isthmus. The construction of the breakwater was carried on by prisoners under the supervision of Captain John Edward Newell Bull, the Commandant, and subsequently under that of Col. Ewen Macpherson.

When first established, the lighthouse had an ordinary oil lantern, and the means of refraction were not utilised in the most scientific way. In course of time, however, various improvements were effected. Some years have elapsed since the necessary apparatus for lighting up the tower by means of incandescent kerosene vapour was installed, and since then a bright, steady light, visible for many miles to seaward, has always been in evidence between, sunset and sunrise to beckon wandering mariners into their desired haven. The illumination of the flames itself was equivalent to 1000 candle- power, but when this had gained added brilliance from the effects of the prisms, the light shining through the lenses represented fully three million candle-power. ........ Newcastle Morning Herald 5 April 1913

Notes and Links

1). Correspondence re Supply of Coals for the Beacon:

To the Editor of the Sydney Herald

For the benefit of the owners of trading vessels to this Port, I would suggest their entering into a subscription to assist the Colonial government to purchase fuel for the Beacon here, rather than endanger their property. The government authorities having neglected to keep a supply of coals, and the person who has lately carted coals for that establishment is in doubt of being paid, and refuses to continue without authority in writing.

The Harbour Master states when asked by a looker on, how he neglects his duty - shrugs his shoulders - declares he is not to blame - he has reported it to the head of his department - more he cannot do.

In fact, Mr. Editor, the mode and manner of payment by the Colonial Government is far from being convenient to the people, and they prefer idleness to a promise to pay.

Pray move, if possible, the great folk, for charity sake, to save life and property,

Your obedient servant, C. Newcastle October. 4, 1837.
(The Sydney Herald 17 October 1837)

2). A cottage was built for the harbour master Mr. Allen in 1869 on the site of the old pagoda that had been constructed during Lieut. Close's time - NMH 13 September 1911

3). Beacon Light, Newcastle........
Keeper of the Light at £8 a month - £96
Coals for the Beacon at £8 a month - £240 -Votes and Proceedings, Volume 2 By New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Council 1857

4). Nobbys Lighthouse from the first was under the control of the Colonial Architect's Department and Mr. Mortimer W. Lewis, the local representative of the department attended to all alterations and repairs. In 1890 the Lighthouse was transferred to the Harbours and Rivers Department. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) Wed 26 Nov 1890


[1]. Newcastle Morning Herald 23 April 1927 p4