Vlaming Head Lighthouse History

Vlaming Head Lighthouse History

Vlaming Head Lighthouse History

Vlaming Head Lighthouse, built in 1912 is significant for its aid in the development of marine navigation along the western coastline of Australia. It was built as a direct result of the wrecking of the SS Mildura in 1907 and contributes to the wider historical significance of the region. The lighthouse is significant for demonstrating a way of life in a very isolated area where supplies had to be landed on the beach and transported by tramway to the site. The lighthouse is paramount as a landmark feature in the region, prominent from the sea and the mainland.

The Vlaming Head Lighthouse 17km north of Exmouth is atop the hill with the lighthouse keepers quarters and caravan park situated on a lower level to the north-east. The first known European contact with the site was in 1618 when the cape was sighted by the Zeewolf and later in that same year when Captain L Jacobs of the Mauritius made the first landing. Two hundred years later the French named the peninsula Cape Murat and in 1818 Captain Philip King successfully rounded the cape, naming the associated Exmouth Gulf. The lighthouse was built as a result of the wrecking of the Mildura off North West Cape in 1907. Because of this disaster and the subsequent public outcry, the Harbour and Lights Department was forced to reassess the site and the decision to build a lighthouse at Vlaming Head was made. The state borrowed 10,000 pounds in 1910 for construction to begin. The lighthouse was eventually completed in 1912 and the light was started for the first time on the 10th December of that year.

Vlaming Head is physically very isolated and difficult to reach. At the time of its construction, the nearest port was some 200 miles away and the closest beach for landing supplies was over 3 miles from the proposed site. Provision of fresh water for the labourers and later the lighthouse keepers, was a major obstacle that needed to be overcome and which overshadowed the whole history of the lighthouse. Supplies during construction were shipped from Fremantle to Ashburton Roads (Onslow) by steamer and back to North West Cape by schooner where they were landed on the beach. To solve the problem of getting supplies from the beach to the lighthouse a small horsedrawn tramway was built. Mail and other supplies were brought overland from Onslow by camel — although, during World War 1 at least– the mail was delivered once a month from Carnarvon by an Aboriginal mailman. Water for the labourers was provided by a salt water condenser; but the water quality was not good.

In his report on the state of lighthouses – Commander Brewis was to report that illness due to dysentery had considerably delayed construction. Indeed the only death at the site occurred when F J Reddy died of the condition on 27th May 1912. at the age of 26 after an illness lasting seven days and is buried to the north east of the lighthouse keepers quarters. Large underground tanks were built for the lighthouse keepers and their families, drawing on the artesian water in the area, but the condenser remained in the event of an emergency. When the tank failed water was carted from Yardie Creek Homestead.

The lighthouse is a rendered concrete base structure with a steel domed prefabricated lighthouse lantern on top. The walls were found to be of shuttered stone walling with a mortar infill. This method of construction is fairly common. The walls are shuttered with rough timber. Some mortar was mixed and dropped into the shuttering followed by a layer of capstones up to 300mm square. Rocks and mortar were then placed all the way around and walling built up layer by layer. The sedimentary capstone was used as this is a hard and locally obtained rock. The exterior and interior of the lighthouse were then rendered or plastered. The Vlaming Head Light featured an illuminant 85mm vapourised kerosene, dioptric light (63,000 to 200,000 CP). The light flashed in a group of two at 3/10ths of a second every 7.5 seconds. The light was ordered and made by Chance Brothers and Company of Birmingham on the advice of Mr G A Royce consulting engineer. There were only six in WA using this size burner. When first established the lighthouse was equipped with a small Morse lantern for signaling, but was eventually equipped with a wireless.

An early lighthouse keeper was Sydney Arthur Butler, who was sent to Vlaming Head in 1914 with his wife Mary Jane and their five month old child. The other lighthouse keeper at this time was a single man. The quarters were described as excellent with large rooms and verandahs but in the evening the crabs came up from the beach and swarmed across the verandahs, making them unusable at night.

In 1942 the Exmouth fuelling base for US Submarines was established. An airforce base at Learmonth and a High Frequency Direction Radar station were also developed but these latter two were largely destroyed by a cyclone in 1945. The base of the radar tower has been restored and is still at the lower end of Lighthouse Hill.

In 1963 land at North West Cape was leased to the US Government for the purpose of establishing a communication centre. Initial proposals did not envision the communication base taking over the maintenance and running of navigational lights and beacons, but by 1967 a light had been mounted on Tower 11 at a height of 364.5m and the Vlaming Head Lighthouse was decommissioned on or about 21 April 1967. In 1976, Vlaming Head Lighthouse and quarters were classified by the National Trust and in 1978 the place was entered on the register of the National Estate. In 1987 14.8 hectares incorporating the lighthouse keepers quarters and grave were purchased and developed into a tourist operation with chalets, caravan bays and a store becoming the Lighthouse Caravan Park. In 1995 ownership of the Lighthouse Caravan Park was transferred to its current owners who still operate the site as a tourist park. Due to Cyclone Vance hitting the town of Exmouth in 1999 the lighthouse, quarters and caravan park received a substantial amount of damage. Business partners Ron Campbell and Wayne Britton lovingly restored the lighthouse, stripping off old paint and repainting and putting all the equipment in good working order.