Beguiled by Jezebel

Maatsuyker’s lighthouse has bewitched many a soul since it was constructed in 1891.

Born from demands for a “good light” to warn mariners of the great risks along Tasmania’s southwest corner, she was built as the most powerful beacon on the Tasmanian coast at the time.

Maatsuyker Island was elected as the site for such a light after some deliberation by the Hobart Marine Board. The Chance Brothers in Birmingham, England were engaged to provide the light apparatus – being a “dioptric group flashing light of the First Order, with its lantern and six-wick burner complete”. As the sole manufacturer of lighthouses in England and the dominant manufacturer world-wide (the French company, Létourneau and Lepaute of Paris being their only rivals), the Chance Brothers were contracted exclusively without any call for competitive tenders. By 1905, nearly all the machinery in all of Tasmania’s lighthouses were of Chance Brothers manufacture.  

The contract for building the lightstation was given to Messrs J and RE Duff of Hobart on 1 January 1890. The contract period was 18 months – to erect the lighthouse including within it the Chance Brothers light apparatus, four lightkeeper cottages and all the supporting infrastructure.

Messrs J and RE Duff of Hobart. Lighthouse construction contractors extraordinaire.

The Messrs Duff fulfilled their contract in very, very, very remarkable time. Despite having to change the construction of the lighthouse to brick after finding that the rock on the island was completely unsuitable, having to clear the land, cut flat areas for all four lightkeeper cottages into the rocky island flanks, and then transport 100,000 bricks and all other building, living and construction supplies to the island by boat and up its cliff by horse powered whim, the official opening of the lightstation was exactly 17 months later on 1 June 1891.

Equally remarkable, the lightkeepers were sufficiently settled on the island by the day of the opening to enable the 30 guests attending to have the pleasure of tasting some of the first butter made on the island by Mrs Garroway, the wife of the first head lightkeeper.

Maatusyker Lightstation Opening Day, 1 June 1891.

The lighthouse is built of red bricks from Oyster Cove, Tasmania with floors of slate from the Mintaro quarries in South Australia. At the base, the brick walls of the tower are 1.5 metres thick. She is not the tallest of Tasmania’s lighthouses, but she towers over the southwestern corner of the island, a proud 110 metres above sea level.

Strong foundations. Walls 1.5 metres thick at her base.

The head lightkeeper’s cottage looks down on Maatsuyker’s lighthouse. Most everywhere else, the lighthouse would dominate a lightkeeper’s sky. But on Maatsuyker, there was no need for the lighthouse to be built any higher. Indeed, if she was, she would have risked being obscured more often by cloud, mist and fog, and so pointless to her occupation.

The head lightkeepers cottage, and where we live. Looking down to the light.

The six-panel lantern sits on a cast iron pedestal on the top floor of the lighthouse tower. Inside the pedestal is the clockwork mechanism driven by a heavy weight on a chain that slowly sinks down the core of the tower, much like a grandfather clock. The mechanism in turn, slowly spins 540 pieces of heavy hand-ground glass in a brass structure three metres tall around the light. Together with the timing of the cogs, the glass lenses and prisms give the flashing light its “character” – Maatsuyker’s light was a double flash every 30 seconds.

The lighthouse lantern and its mechanism.

Just like her namesake, the lighthouse shamelessly demanded the attention of the men (and it was always men) who attended her.

The rude awakening that my adored man had another woman in his life, and that I took second place to her, was something that would take me some time to get used to, although I knew from the start that the competition was too strong. No matter where we went, she was there…controlling our work, sleep and leisure hours.

Day and night she demanded undivided attention. She was tall, white and made of steel, not a lady for a mere wife to argue with. Mostly she slept during the day, unless the keepers were busy fussing around her with cleaning rags, paint or doing general maintenance to keep her happy. If she was unhappy, it only needed a wink of that over-bright eye to have the men running to do her bidding.

Her name was Jezebel”.

(Marlene Levings, 2015, Living with Jezebel: A life on Tasmanian and Bass Strait lightstations)

Originally, lightkeepers were alerted to the start of their watch by a gong. Each house was later connected to the lighthouse by an air pipe through which a wooden mouth whistle was blown to summon the next keeper on watch. Later, an internal phone system was installed. A lightning strike in 2015 blew these phones from the lighthouse walls. While they no longer function, the phones have been replaced and they remain on the walls of all the main buildings.

Call to watch.

Sunset saw the start of the first of Jezebel’s nighshifts. The first shift was always the headkeeper’s responsibility, lighting up on time and making sure she was problem free. The Number Two and Number Three Keepers alternated the middle and last shifts, when Jezebel was put to bed for the day with her heavy canvas curtains up to block out the sun….Those big, heavy curtains were important and had to be hung carefully so that not a peep of sunlight could penetrate through the storm panes into the lantern room. The strength of those prisms, and especially the bullseye that could send the ray of light out more than 43 kilometres could also beam the sun into the lantern room, and the result could be a massive melt down (Marlene Levings, 2015, Living with Jezebel).

Closing the curtains in the lantern room.

A bell struck each hour to warn the keeper when he needed to wind a weight to the top of the tower to power the clockwork mechanism to turn the lantern. The weight of the lantern and its machinery is 26 tonnes – so it is not surprising that the slate that makes up the top floor is 10 centimetres thick.

Winding the mechanism. It takes 80 revolutions to bring the weight to the top of the tower.

The light originally burned whale oil through six hollow wicks, and the tower was built like a chimney to let the smoke of the lamps out. When it is windy, the lighthouse sings a haunting banshee lament, just like blowing across the top of a giant bottle. We hear her forlorn song from our cottage.

With the changing of the light fuel to kerosene in 1894, the number of lightkeepers on the island was reduced from four to three. When feisty Lister diesel generators were installed on the island in 1976, the lantern was electrified. The number of keepers was further reduced to two. This spelled the end of traditional lighthouse keeping in Australia and broke the heart of John Cook, the head lightkeeper at the time.

With kerosene, you were pumping the light all the time, and you had a constant hiss but when you went over to electric, there was no noise….with this bloody electric light, there was nothing. That was the beginning of the end for me

(John Cook, 2020, The Last Lighthouse Keeper – www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-12/lighthouse-keeper-memoirs/12446098).

In 1996, after three years testing, a solar powered automatic beacon was put to full time operation. The old lighthouse was decommissioned. In early 1997, Chris Richter, the last lightkeeper in Australia, left the island.

The “Tupperware Light”. The automatic beacon that has replaced the old lantern. All functionality. No romance.

But Jezebel still beguiles.

“We cannot forget Jezebel – she ruled our lives shamelessly and now has no men to rule.

In many cases Jezebel’s bright eyes have been closed; a small beacon of nondescript size and shape has taken her place. She still stands, overlooking the sea but seeing nothing. The bright work is dull, the sparkling prisms and storm panes showing their neglect. It has been my privilege to have lived and worked in her shadow” (Marlene Levings, 2015, Living with Jezebel)

Today, Maatsuyker Lightstation is listed on the Register of the National Estate, and the lantern and its mechanism are the only remaining examples of their kind left in Australia. The lighthouse apparatus remains almost unchanged since they day it was first lit.

Several factors have contributed to this, including the remoteness of the island: unlike almost everywhere else, the lantern was not removed by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority when it was decommissioned. It is also in no small part due to extensive renovations in 2019 and the ongoing and very considerable efforts of the Friends of Maatsuyker Island and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.

Like all before us, we have fallen for Jezebel.

She proudly offers unsurpassed views for a morning #Oomphcoffee or a new year’s eve HomeBrewHQ brew. We are entranced by the astonishing precision and manual skill that has gone into each exquisite, hand-made part, brick, cog, stair-rise and prism that makes up her whole. She has wooed us in to delight as we wind her, clean, repair, and tend her. We have come to know her songs, her charms and challenges, and we have felt her stubborn strength as screaming winds hurl themselves in vain against her steadfast walls as they have done now for more than 130 years.

While her lantern no longer operates, her presence continues to radiate and captivate all those who meet her.

May your new year be filled with light.

Shine on.

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