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The Early Days of Althorpe Island Light-station

Althorpe Islands Conservation Park are a group of islands located 4.5 nautical miles from the lower Yorke Peninsula and was first sighted by Captain Matthew Flinders on March 20th, 1802.

Flinders’ being just 27 years old and with a crew of 84, he commanded the ‘HMS Investigator’. He had sailed for six months before arriving at present day Ceduna, eventually reaching the then colonial settlement of Sydney five months later. Considered by many as the nautical grandson of Captain Cook, Matthew Flinders became one of Australia’s most distinguished explorers. Out of the 240 places that he named along the southern coast of Australia, he bestowed none upon himself, but instead upon those who had provided the necessary support during his short lived but successful career.

In the two log books the Captain kept, he recorded his sightings 211 years ago and on Martch 20th, 1802, used a symbol and the words, ‘omicron, the island’.  By the time he published his charts in 1814, he added two other smaller islands, naming the whole group ‘Althorpe Isles’; the name being in honour of the Spencer family and in particular Earl Spencer’s son, Viscount Althorp. The additional ‘e’ is presumed to represent a parish in Lincolnshire.

In 1874 a representative of the Marine Board of South Australia, Commander Goodbrough, recommended a lighthouse be positioned on Althorpe Island rather than Cape Spencer, due to a ‘score of necessity and the excellent position it would afford’. Another two years would pass before the South Australian government accepted the costs and designs for the construction of a jetty, three cottages, a tower and the mechanism and structure needed to haul supplies from the jetty to a height of 91 meters above sea level.

After considerable delays, 13 men including foreman John Anley, began work in December 1877, with their supply vessel, the ‘Young St.George’, anchored in the large bay of the island. However, not long after their arrival, a southeast gale force wind was responsible for the 11.6 meter vessel parting its moorings and ending up on the shore a complete wreck. With great difficulty, the crew reached the shore and salvaged what they could the following day. (This was the first of 7 shipwrecks on the island).

Despite the persistent choppy conditions resulting from long spells of south easterly summer winds, the men constructed a jetty which today extends 72m in length, 3m in width and is supported by 30 cm x 30 cm piles that are sunk into the sea bed to a depth of nearly 2 meters.

During the time when work was so vigorously undertaken in constructing the jetty, the challenge of digging into the highly calcified sandstone cliffs also began. It was during this time when, after living in tents along the narrow beach, the second misfortune occurred. Debris fell some 50 meters from the cliff face and killed the foreman John Anley, aged 39.

Despite the harsh environment and disgruntled working conditions, the work crew continued to cut into the cliff face and they eventually laid down a small tram-rail system. The tram-line was built on a bridge that extended 47 meters from the shore to the cliff face and allowed for a small cart to be hauled up the cliff with essential supplies. Eventually it would extend another 230 meters to the cottages and lighthouse construction site.

Approximately 14 months after work commenced on constructing the lighthouse station, officials from   the Marine Board of South Australia arrived on February 14th, 1879 to declare the island was now to be inhabited by keepers whose duty it was to aid mariners. The visiting party also declared the station to be a ‘model station’. With ‘Lights on’ declared, keepers Webling, Stirling, and Franks, and their families, began occupation. For the next 112 years, more than 150 keepers attended this light, 107 meters above sea level.

On December 19th, 1991, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority installed a solar electrical system and lighthouse keeper duties were no longer required. For 84 years the keepers had maintained the original kerosene operated light and for a further 28 years the subsequent diesel fuelled motors generated electricity for a light that, at its pinnacle, had the strength of one million candelas. With 16 rays produced through a 656 lens system, it was visible for a distance of 28 nautical miles.

After the light became working from a solar array system, a small group of ‘caretakers’ lived on the island maintaining the heritage and conservation work. After five years of caretaker occupancy, the Friends of Althorpe Island Conservation Park were established in 1996 and the volunteer group became involved with ongoing heritage and conservation work.