Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Iron Pot Lighthouse

For nearly two hundred years the Iron Pot Lighthouse at South Arm has welcomed sailors to the mouth of the Derwent River. The Iron Pot lighthouse is the oldest tower still in existence. Although the Macquarie light in NSW was built earlier in 1818, that tower was rebuilt in 1883. The tower on Iron Pot Island was first lit on September 16 1833. The structure was built following a request by Governor Arthur who, in 1830, suggested to the Hobart Port Control that a lighthouse be established due to the wreck of the colonial trading ship 'Hope' in 1827. The Hope was wrecked opposite Bruny Island on the beach which now bears its name and soon became legendary as stories of the lost treasure onboard spread far and wide. Although the truth about the treasure has been lost in time it was believed the ship contained the quarterly pay for the Hobart garrison estimated to be between 5000 and 30,000 pounds.

The first beacon and signal station was manned by convicts and is believed to be on the nearby Betsy Island before being relocated to Iron Pot Island. Within five years of the wreck the Iron Pot Lighthouse was in operation which, considering the isolation of the area was a remarkable feat even by 20th century standards. The lighthouse itself was built on a solid rock foundation and is unique as it features a square base unlike most other designs from the period. In 1832, a temporary wooden light was built. It was designed by Lieutenant Samuel Hill and consisting of 2 perpendicular spars 10 feet apart, with a horizontal headpiece with an elevation of about 50 feet above the highest point of the rock. The lantern, manufactured in Hobart, was raised and held by halyards. It was first lit on 12 Nov 1832. Three convicts, John Booth, William Spendelon and John Knox tendered to the light. John Booth was placed in charge and received a shilling a day with a promise of conditional pardon after 2 yrs service; he stayed for 9. The island was visited weekly, but rations were supplied monthly. The keepers lived in tents until construction of a stone hut began in late November 1832.

Renowned colonial architect, John Lee Archer inspected the light and was dissatisfied with arrangement of light and recommended it be upgraded. His rubble tower was built within the timber framework of the existing tower and was completed and operating in 1833. Despite these improvements, the light apparatus still failed to meet up with expectation and in 1835 a new lamp was fitted. From 1832 until the early 1880s the lighthouse was the main feature of the site, warning ships of the treacherous waters through which they were navigating. In 1884, the Marine Board renamed Iron Pot Lighthouse, the 'Derwent Lighthouse'. The name never really took, and even today on some official documents the lighthouse is still referred to as 'The Iron Pot'.

Then, in 1884, it was decided to build a home next to the lighthouse for its keeper James Parkinson and his ever growing family. In 1885 tenders were called for the construction of a 2 storey house and the keeper's conditions were markedly improved when the new head keeper’s cottage was constructed. It was unusual to have two storey cottages on light stations but on the 0.4 hectare island, space was a premium. This resulted in one of the most unusual sights ever witnessed in Tasmania.  Whilst the gothic style house would not have been out of place in central Hobart, to passing sailors it must have looked totally at odds within such dramatic wilderness.

The home itself featured lead-light windows and a cast iron laced veranda. Dormer windows on the second level gave a bird's eye view of the restless sea and a regular looking front door welcomed passing travelers. The home was built only 20 feet above sea level and made the most of a minimal amount of land. The first and only person born on the island was baby Essie (or Elsie) Margaret Roberts, born to the head keeper’s wife in 1895.

In the same year, 1895, a huge storm arose, driving waves right over the island. The assistant keeper's quarters were abandoned for the safety of the head keeper’s cottage as they flooded. Full water tanks, sheds and a stone retaining wall were washed away. It is believed that the keeper and families then retreated to the lighthouse. In the morning, there was devastation everywhere. There was even kelp clinging to the uppermost rails of the lighthouse, over 20 metres above sea level. There had been no loss of life and the keepers had worked all night and kept the light going. For nearly 50 years the house stood as a testament to human endeavor until technology made the job of lighthouse keeper obsolete.

The de-manning of the lighthouse was announced in a notice to mariners in 1920 - that the fixed white light on Iron Pot Island, Derwent River, will be replaced by a group flashing white light in July 1920. The lighthouse became automated and the house was demolished in 1921. Although no-one is certain of its fate, it is believed the home was transported back to Hobart by ship where it was sold off at auction piece by piece. In January 1977 the lighthouse was converted to solar power. This was the first time solar power was used in an Australian Lighthouse.

The Iron Pot Lighthouse is significant for several reasons. It was the first lighthouse to be built in Tasmania and is the second oldest lighthouse ever built in Australia. It is also the oldest original tower in Australia and the first lighthouse in Australia to utilize a locally manufactured optical apparatus. It is also believed to be the first lighthouse to be converted to solar power in Australia. Today only the lighthouse, the derrick crane once used to get supplies on and off the island and a sandstone wall which marked the boundary of the head lighthouse and assistant keepers’ yards still stand. Amazingly the Iron Pot once had the buildings and infrastructure to support three lighthouse keepers, and their families, as well as the light.

Origin of the name Iron Pot continues to be a mystery. Theories include that whalers' pots used to boil whale blubber were left on the island in the early eighteenth century when the whalers returned home to make more room for whale oil. Another is that it takes its name from the curiously formed pot like holes on the island. And a third theory is that there was originally a whale oil fired beacon in an old whaler's tri-pot. Access is difficult as the island is about 2 kms off Cape Direction. Even by boat the landing can be very difficult. The tower and island are not open to the public and none of the cruise boat operators run specific tours to the lighthouse at the moment.

Huge thank you to our pilot, Jethro, and Jenny & the crew at Tasmanian Air Adventures who went out of their way to arrange the flight for me to enable me to take the aerial photographs out at the Iron Pot. The TAA gang has been awesome! Thanks heaps guys!
You can check out the fantastic tours Tasmanian Air Adventures have to offer by checking out their website