Lighthouses stand on the land’s edge, but they belong to the sea. They are part of a ship’s journey.
We look up at them
but their eye is on the ocean, waiting for the dark to signal the passing ships.
The lights say ... This is where you are ... You are here ... Goose Island ...
... Smoky Cape ...
The lights warn ... Look out!
Danger! ... South Head rocks!
All around the coast of the island nation of Australia the line of lights signal safety and location.
Within the vast collection of the National Archives of Australia, you can find out about the story of those lights
and the lives of the people who kept watch with the lighthouses, minding the lights – the lighthouse keepers and their families.
‘At night my father would sit at the top of the tower to make quite sure that the light would never stop shining because people’s lives depended on that light always being there … Out in the darkness and storms, many mariners and their passengers looked to this light for guidance and safety.’ Sheila Burn, daughter of Lightkeeper Martin, of the Currie Light, King Island, Bass Strait
The lighthouse was often the first Australian landfall sighted by new settlers. For these people, lighthouses were not just navigational aids, but the first sight of a new life. For others, it was the first sight of home.
Smoky Cape Lighthouse (1888) by James Barnet, Colonial ArchitectNational Archives of Australia
Currie Harbour Lighthouse (1987)National Archives of Australia
Who's watching the light?
The light is still on …
but the keepers are gone. There are no lightkeepers living
at Australian lighthouses now.
The lights are all automatic.
The lightstations themselves
are now owned by the states,
often under the control of the State
The Australian Maritime Safety
Authority leases back the lights
and maintains them. Some of
the historic lighthouses have
been decommissioned and
replaced by modern acrylic
cabinet ‘lighthouses’. Lighthouses send messages to ships.
But ships now have other messengers – global positioning systems, differential global positioning systems and computerised charts.
Lighthouses, once the prime
messengers, are often the back-up
This exhibit draws from ‘Beacons by the Sea', a larger exhibition developed by the National Archives of Australia in 2002, drawing on the wealth of lighthouse material held in the Archives. Keepers’ diaries, log books and exquisite architectural drawings of lighthouses from every state and territory in Australia are just a small sample of this vast collection. The exhibition toured Australia until 2006.