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Convict and Colonial History

Harbour Lights - Newcastle

A section of an engraving by Walter Preston showing details of Newcastle in 1812. Hunter Living Histories, Courtesy Newcastle Region Art Gallery
Above: Newcastle, Hunter's River, N.S.W., 1820 Engraved by W. Preston from a Drawing by Capt. Wallis. 46th Regt. The Flagstaff and Coal Fired Beacon can be seen centre right and Nobbys centre left.

A COAL FIRED NAVIGATION BEACON was established on Flagstaff Hill/ Beacon Hill at Newcastle in the early days of settlement as a warning and guide to mariners.

In the 1820's when Edward C. Close was Engineer of Public Works a new beacon was constructed probably near the site of the old one.

Nobbys Light House

As the trade of the port developed, and the vessels arriving and leaving 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 in 1857 a light house at Nobbys was established.

Nobbys 1872
Nobbys in 1872 - Illustrated Sydney News

The lighthouse guided ships to the entrance of the harbour, however negotiating the channel was still a difficult and often dangerous task.

To assist in the navigation of ships into the port, two leading lights were built on the hill above Newcastle city in 1865

Leading Lights

Leading Light Brown St. Newcastle

There were two towers, 225 feet apart. One was at the corner of Tyrrell and Brown Street and the other lower down the hill in Perkins Street near St. Mary's Church. They were identical in dimensions but differed in colour, the Perkins Street tower being white with a red light; the Brown Street tower red with a white light.
Leading Light Brown St. Newcastle
They were supposed to be kept in a visual straight line as the ships came in, however were found to be inaccurate and mariners claimed that ships had to get the lights out of line to get into the harbour safely. Sailing ships that did not know the harbour mouth had trouble negotiating the channel past the Oyster Bank and the breakwater at Nobbys. After the loss of a number of ships on the dangerous Oyster Bank, the lights were sometimes dubbed 'mis-leading lights'.

The Perkins Street Leading Light seen in the image below has disappeared however the Brown Street structure (c. 1877) is preserved providing a reminder and monument to a shipping era long vanished.

Leading Light at Perkins St. Newcastle

Below are extracts from several articles from newspapers, one in 1877 describing the building of the new higher tower on the site of the old one in Brown Street. This had become necessary in consequence of the New Wesleyan parsonage obstructing the old smaller one. The lantern from the old one was placed securely at the top of the new tower.

Site for the Towers - 1863

October 16 - Captain F. Hixson, superintendent of pilots, lights, and harbours, is here on an official visit, inspecting the condition and general working of the departments under his charge. Yesterday Mr. Hixson, accompanied by Captain Allen, harbourmaster, examined the harbour in various parts; also the lighthouse establishment. He approved of the sites for the leading lights for the harbour, as selected by Captain Allen. Last night at 10 o'clock temporary coloured lights were placed in the assigned position; Captain Hixson, with the pilots and harbourmaster, went outside of Nobby's and returned trying the lights at different angles, which were found to answer admirably, and when once established will add very much to the safety of this port. - The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954) Mon 19 Oct 1863

Dimensions of the Leading Lights - 1865

The following are the dimensions of the two light towers now in course of erection at the top of Perkin-street:

Outer diameter, 6 feet, to contain leading lights for vessels entering and leaving the harbour; total height, 22 feet; height to the centre of the light 16 feet. They are strongly built of brick and cement, in the castellated style, with embattled top, from designs by M.W. Lewis Esq., Government Architect. The towers appear far too small for the purpose to which they are to be devoted, but we have been informed by Mr. Lewis that the sum voted for them was much less than it should have been; but, with the limited means at his disposal, he has made use of them to the best advantage. There will be also two wood buildings erected for the leading lights between the main land and Nobby's constructed, one on piles 60 or 80 feet from the breakwater, on the inner side and the other on the edge of the breakwater itself. Each of them will be 10 feet high with square embattled tops 6 feet area. We believe it is intended to surmount the towers on the hill with flag staffs and flags but they form no part of the present contract. - The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 - 1866) Sat 2 Dec 1865

Notice to Mariners

In February 1866 Superintendent of Pilots, Lights and Harbours Francis Hixson issued the following Notice to Mariners:

In order to increase the facilities for navigating Newcastle Harbour, leading lights for entering and also leading lights for taking the north channel will be exhibited on and after Tuesday 1st May 1866.

The two fairway lights for entering (red and bright), will be shown from beacons 228 feet apart, in a S.W. and N.W. direction erected on a clear space of ground on the hill at the back of the town, between the Wesleyan and Catholic churches.

Those for taking the north channel also red and bright, will be shown from beacons erected on the breakwater in the vicinity of the old Bull beacons at a distance of a hundred feet apart.

In both cases when the lights are in a line, the bright will be the uppermost and the red the lowermost one of the two. In the day time however this order of colour will be reversed as it is intended to paint the upper beacons red and the lower ones white.

The lower or north eastern of the two obelisks at present used for the leading mark in, situated on Shepherd's Hill, will be removed so likewise will be the remnant of the Bull beacons on the breakwater.

The exhibition of these leading lights will not necessitate different sailing directions to those already published any more than the lights and new beacons being substituted for the obelisks and beacons which are at present in use. The Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News (NSW : 1859 - 1866) Wed 21 Feb 1866

Towers Illuminated - 1866

The New Light Towers. -On Tuesday evening last the long required leading lights were illuminated for the first time for permanent use. The Superintendent of Pilots, Harbours, and Lights, together with Mr. Lewis (the Colonial Architect), Captain Allan (the Harbour Master), and the pilots and coxswains of the port, proceeded in the Government steamer Cyclops, through the various channels of the harbour, for the purpose of testing the capabilities of the breakwater lights. They then proceeded outside Nobby's about five miles, to test the radius of the upper lights. The party expressed themselves highly satisfied ; and from other sources we learn the general approval of the lights, which will add greatly to the safety of the port, and be most inexpensively maintained. - Newcastle Standard - Sydney Mail (NSW : 1860 - 1871) Sat 12 May 1866

Leading Lights Raised - 1869

The Leading Lights on the Hill.— The two leading lights, situated, respectively, near the Roman Catholic and Wesleyan churches, are to be elevated about six feet, so that they may be better seen by vessels entering the harbour. This alteration has been determined upon in consequence of its being ascertained that a building that is in course of erection in Church-street would, when completed, totally obscure from view of the shipping, one of the lights, unless the latter was raised to a higher altitude than the building. The work is being done under the direction of the Harbour Department. The Newcastle Chronicle (NSW : 1866 - 1876) Sat 25 Dec 1869

A New Tower - 1877

The new leading light tower which stands at the corner of Brown and Sydney streets, has lately been finished by the contractor, Mr. William Dart, builder, of this city under the supervision of M.W. Lewis Esq, Clerk of Works. This work was found necessary in consequence of the New Wesleyan parsonage obstructing the old leading light. The new tower has been carried so high that it is extremely improbable that any building will obstruct the light in the future. However, if found necessary, the building could be carried at least fifty feet higher with safety as the foundations are composed of seven courses of solid masonry, about three feet wide; and the brickwork which is built with the best Portland cement and averages eighteen inches wide, cemented three fourths of an inch thick, inside and out, makes the whole superstructure as strong as if built with solid masonry. The lantern from the old tower is securely fixed at the top, and, with the pretty embrasure parapet and cornice, forms a nice finish to the whole. A splendid view of the ocean harbour, river, islands and the surrounding district, is obtained from the top and would well repay a visit. The whole of the works inside and out, have been tastefully painted four coats in best oil colours and altogether it forms a pleasing object to the view. The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW : 1843 - 1893) Tue 27 Mar 1877

Leading Lights Explains - 1902

Standing upon an eminence overlooking the harbour, and gazing seaward, there will be seen an expanse of water bounded on the one side by the southern breakwater, and on the north by a similar structure, and the white breakers which leap across the Oyster Bank and play around the wrecks on that dreaded sandbank. Along this waterway there extends a comparatively narrow channel, which must be traversed by deep draught vessels using the port, if safety is to be assured. But the question which arises is how best to indicate the course of safety and afford marks for the mariner by which he can avoid the shallow water or such other risks as may be in the track.

In Newcastle it is necessary to provide marks to lead the shipmaster over the bar, where in bad weather, and particularly at night, a system of buoyage would be impracticable. Recourse therefore, has to be made to what are known as leading marks, a principle common to navigators all over the world. The system is a very simple one. A line is cut over the channel to be navigated, and two objects are then erected ashore on an extension of this line. As the shipmaster navigates his vessel along the channel he watches the position of the leading marks, knowing that so long as they are kept in line the nearest to him obscuring the rear one - his vessel is traversing the line of safety they indicate. When the rear tower shows out from behind the nearest one, it proves that the vessel has deviated from the exact line and the helm is at once shifted until by altering her course the towers are again brought in line.

Much depends upon the character of the marks used, and their location. In all such marks the qualification most desired is sensitiveness or to so place the marking towers that any deviation from the proper track is shown as quickly as possible. This effect is produced by placing the towers as far apart as possible but if on the other hand the marks be placed too close together, the lateral deviation from the true course will be very great before the back tower shows out from behind the nearest one, and so indicates to the navigator his error of position. It is in this latter respect the fair way lights at Newcastle may be written down as failures.

When they were erected, nearly 40 years ago, the conditions were altogether different, and many features characteristic of the port were then non-existent. When the towers were erected, the mistake was made of keeping them too close together, the intervening distance being altogether out of proportion to the length of channel they mark. The towers are 225 feet apart, while the distance from the lower tower to the point where the mast on Nobbys is brought in line (which marks the beginning of the bar) is approximately 7700 ft. The practical result of this short distance between the towers is a degree of sensitiveness so small as to greatly increase the ordinary risks of navigation
. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW (NSW : 1876 - 1954) Sat 16 Aug 1902

Green Mantle for Old Towers

Weatherworn sentinels of a day that is past, the old leading light towers, on The Hill, which have guided many a tall sailing ship into the port of Newcastle, are engaging the attention of the City Council; painting was suggested, but frequent renewals would have been a costly proceeding. Besides, gleaming paint, would have robbed the towers of much of the picturesque and historic, interest which is the sole reason for their retention. The council has at last hit upon a happy idea. Ficus is to be planted and will cover the towers in a mantle of green. The effect when nature's decoration of' the towers has reached an advanced stage should be beautiful. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) Wed 24 Jun 1931

Leading Light Tower to be Demolished

One of Newcastle's most conspicuous landmarks is doomed. The old leading light tower in Perkins Street has been in danger of collapsing for some time, and the order has been given for its demolition.

The tower, with its paint peeling, its top gone, and its windows bare of glass, is not an object of beauty but many people - old mariners especially - will be sorry to see it go. Seventy years ago, with its companion light higher on the hill, it guided ships safely across the Bar at Nobbys; sailing ships mostly, but already steam was beginning its onward march.

Captain E.S. Deed now Deputy Superintendent of Navigation at Newcastle, recalled yesterday how he first watched the two lights 43 years ago, from the deck of the steamer New Guinea as he came into Newcastle harbour. He was not captain then; only a young and enthusiastic able seaman, little dreaming that one day he would have charge of this port of Newcastle - and its guiding lights

The two lights, one in Perkin Street and the other higher up at the corner of Tyrrell and Brown Streets, served their purpose well enough for about 60 years but then pilots and navigators began to ask for something better. For one thing the course of the channel had changed; and a fault with the old lights was that they were close together, leaving too small a margin for error in negotiating the channel. Thus it came about that the steel beacons were brought into use on June 1 1918. They do not look nearly so well, but they are far more effective. Electric light replaced the old kerosene burners; the distance between the new lights is 1042 feet, compared with 220 feet between the old.

Since then the old towers have been entirely neglected. The higher one had its doorway cemented up, and it will probably stand for a long time yet, as it is an important mark for survey purposes. But the Perkins street light fell on evil days. The catapults of small boys took toll of its windows, and the top portion became so unsteady that it was considered a danger to pedestrians and was removed seven months ago. This exposed the masonry to the weather, and it has been deteriorating steadily.

New tenders have been called for its demolition and soon Newcastle will know it no more.
- Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954) Tue 13 Jun 1933

Notes and Links

Robert Lorn Pattison

John Bingle

William Eckford

Arnold Fisk

Alexander Livingstone

Charles Hughes

George Jackson

Richard Beacher

William Cromarty

Signal Staff

Coal Fired Beacon

Newcastle Lifeboats

Port of Newcastle 1856