CAPE OTWAY LIGHTSTATION



THE entire nation of Australia was left reeling after more than 350 lives were lost when the Cataraqui founded on reef off King Island in September 1845. In the face of public outcry, newspaper editorial comments, and widespread condemnation, the New South Wales Government was forced to commission a string of lighthouses in Bass Strait. Cape Otway soon became a favoured site, but decades of logistical challenges lay ahead for the builders, lightkeepers, assistants and their families - not to mention the scores of people who were shipwrecked after the light was operational.

WHILE wintering at Capetown in 1800 Lieutenant James Grant received Admiralty Orders to attempt the west to east passage through the recently discovered Bass Strait.

He named the southernmost point of the Strait's coastline Cape Albany Otway. Grant had named the cape for Vice-Admiral William Albany Otway who began his distinguished seafaring career at the age of nine. Captain Otway was appointed Commander of the Thames in 1809.

As Grant sailed the Lady Nelson along the coast he noted in his diary: "I never saw a finer country, the valleys appeared to have plenty of fresh water meandering through them......The land here is truly picturesque and beautiful resembling very much that amount Mount Edgecumbe near Plymouth, which faces the Sound. It is moderately high but not mountainous."

As a result of Grant's success the Strait was regarded as the main approach to the colony of New South Wales from the early 1800s.

This route shaved off nearly 1200km, or up to a week, from the journey south around Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) en route to Port Jackson (Sydney).

The Eye of the Needle

The narrow gap between Cape Otway and King Island, which is less than 90km, was so hazardous at least 18 ships were wrecked near the western entrance to Bass Strait. It caught out even the most experienced mariners who likened the perilous stretch of water to "threading the eye of the needle".

In 1835 almost 250 lives were lost and there were very few survivors when the convict ship Neva foundered on Harbinger Reefs off King Island. The ship, which was predominantly carrying convict women and their children, was attempting to enter the Strait when it came to grief.

It took another major shipping disaster almost ten years later before action was taken to overcome the deadly entrance to Bass Strait. The Cataraqui was wrecked on the west coast of King Island on August 3, 1845, claiming the lives of more than 350 people. Only nine people survived. It remains as Australia's worst peace-time maritime disaster.

News spread to London and emigrants became reluctant to board Australian-bound ships. They preferred the safer passages to the colonies of America, Canada and Africa. Newspapers and the Legislative Council demanded lighthouses be built at the western approach to Bass Strait.

Even the British Admiralty recommended both migrant and convict ships be prohibited from navigating Bass Strait until lighthouses were built. In response Port Phillip District Superintendent CJ La Trobe, who considered himself an amateur explorer, decided to take on the arduous task of reaching Cape Otway by land.

After two failed attempts to penetrate the forests, rivers and gullies of the Otways, La Trobe, with the help of Henry Allan, Native Police, and a local Aboriginal man Tommy, reached Cape Otway and marked the proposed lighthouse site. It had taken La Trobe a year.

The challenge was then to find a suitable way to transport men and construction materials to the Cape. After several failed attempts to find a route, William Roadknight was able to map a road in the winter of 1846. George Smythe was appointed by La Trobe to survey Cape Otway from the sea and determined a landing place at the mouth of the nearby Parker River for stores and materials.

The Lamp is Lit

The lamp was lit on August 29, 1848, after years of exploration work followed by years of logistical challenges and gruelling physical work in truly tough conditions. The construction of the lighthouse was an amazing feat. Manufactured in London, the lantern was brought ashore through crashing surf in small boats. The light mechanism consisted of 21 polished reflectors and lamps mounted on a frame.

"The flash was of three seconds duration with fifty seconds of darkness. The lantern had three faces, the entire revolving every two minutes and thirty nine seconds. On each was mounted seven Argand Lamps with burned special sperm oil.

"The early instruction books are filled with accounts of how the oil had to be kept up to the wicks, the wicks trimmed and monitored during the night and the individual parabolic reflectors located behind each light, kept as clean and reflective as the best French chamois would allow." (Source: Beacons of Hope)

Shining Brighter

In 1891, the old light was replaced by a Chance Brothers catadioptric light brought from Birmingham.

The large lead crystal Fresnel lenses were extremely heavy and along with the rest of the mechanism weighed more than 2.5 tonnes.

It rotated on a mercury bath and projected a light almost 50km out to sea. In 1905 the wick lamp was replaced by an incandescent mantle lamp and in 1915 the speed of rotation and intensity of the light was increased.

The apparatus was converted to electricity in 1939 and again the speed of rotation and the intensity of the light was increased. Mains electricity was connected in 1967.

In 1994 the lighthouse was replaced with a small light beacon powered by solar electricity.

Rockets & Rescues

During foggy conditions ships were alerted to the proximity of land by rockets which were fired out to sea and exploded in the air with a resounding boom. Rockets were fired at regular intervals to allow captains to orient themselves to the coast.

Another device, involving rockets, was used to rescue shipwreck survivors. A rocket with a rope attached was fired with the intention that it would fall across the deck. The rope would be attached and fed into a block. The rope could be pulled between ship and shore and passengers brought to safety on a bosun's chair.

Life at the Cape

CAPE Otway Lightstation's first keepers and their wives had to be dedicated, hard-working and incredibly resourceful people to cope with the demands of an arduous and isolated lifestyle with supplies delivered just twice a year - by boat. They kept the light lit, rescued and fed shipwreck victims and raised their families in between maintaining the Beacon of Hope for the thousands of ships which traversed Bass Strait.

Head Lightkeepers

Lieutenant Lawrence, the Lightstation's first keeper, was dismissed for mismanagement and "improper and ungentlemanly language".

Henry Bayles Ford won the Superintendent's job - a watch that lasted 30 years (1848 - 1878). Ford was soon joined by his extraordinary wife Mary Anne Ford who gave birth to seven children at the remote outpost, nursed shipwrecked sailors and tended the lighthouse when her husband's assistant keepers disappeared to join the Gold Rush.

The Superintendent's job was demanding and conditions were tough. Within six months of starting at the Lightstation Ford received a letter from the Public Works Department, which read: ".......It is to be expressly understood that although a large quantity (of rations) is now at the Cape, the strictest economy must be observed and that for each adult, the following scale only will be allowed 10½ lbs of flour, 10½ lbs of meat, 1¼ lbs of tea, 2lbs sugar. You will please to state the number of children you have, and what quantity of rations you intend to draw for them as your own; your wife and children's rations are all chargeable against your pay; and as it is presumed that you have retained the cooking utensils for your own use, they will also be surcharged on your Salary......" (Source: Beacons of Hope)

Every 12 months, oil for the lamps, tools, equipment, and foodstuffs were landed through the surf at the Parker River inlet. A tramway, long since gone, was built up the hillside and a windlass used to winch stores up to the main track. A bullock team and wagon then slowly took them on to the lighthouse, three miles away. (Source: Beacons of Hope)

 Assistant Lightkeeper

Assistant Keeper William Evans, his wife Catherine and their children lived at the Cape for more than 22 years. During their time at Cape Otway the Evans lost two children in the space of 18 months from 1867-1868.

Both the children are buried in the Cape Otway cemetery and are the oldest surviving graves. Coping with the isolation the ceaseless routine of attending to the light was at times overwhelming and required enormous dedication and a true love of the area. While many lightkeepers returned to Melbourne for their one-week annual holiday, the Evans family chose to camp at the Aire River, no more than 15km from the Cape.

Stores and mail were supplied to the Lightstation by sea every six to 12 months. From 1877 all stores came ashore at Blanket Bay and were stored in a shed. Only with the establishment of the railway over the Otway Ranges to Lavers Hill did supplies by land become practicable.

Telegraph Station

 PRESSURE to improve communications grew exponentially as the number of ships making landfall at Cape Otway grew. An overland telegraph line had been built between Melbourne and Geelong by 1854, and the Tasmanian Government soon agreed to the commercial advantages of laying a communications submarine cable between the two colonies, via King Island. The Telegraph Station was built in 1859 and housed operators, their families and the telegraph operations rooms. The submarine cable failed within six months of the station opening. Soon the grand Italian villa-style house was turned into a Lloyd's Signal Station - responsible for telegraphing to Melbourne the details of all vessels passing Cape Otway. The Telegraph Station has recently been refurbished and houses the story of the station and its people.

The First Message

The first message between Melbourne and Hobart was transmitted on 29 September 1859. The facility was hailed in the newspapers as ushering in a new age for Bass Strait communication and on the 3rd October 1859, Launceston and Hobart had a public holiday to celebrate its completion. Hobart's Mulgrave battery fired a 21 gun salute in honour of the new link.

Though launched with confidence, the line to King Island failed within weeks and the venture was soon to end in costly anti-climax. After more fruitless attempts to repair it, it was abandoned in the following year (1861). The cable laying had cost £53,000 and would not be attempted again for another 10 years. (Source: Beacons of Hope)

Word Gets Through

Mary Anne Bedford, arriving on the Champion of the Seas, in 1864:

"A most beautiful morning. We were awakened about 4 o'clock by the shouting of land. It was Cape Otway about 100 miles from Melbourne and there is a lighthouse on it. We had a head wind or we should have been there in a few hours. As it is we have been rocking about all day and they have turned the vessel around eight or nine times today to keep us off the land. They have gone very close to it and we could see the lighthouse. Our captain put up many flags. They put up theirs and they let us know that the Anglesea had landed on Sunday the 13th...........They telegraphed from here to Melbourne to let them know of our arrival. They would hear from us in four minutes from the time they telegraphed Melbourne." (Source: Beacons of Hope)

A Fragile Link

Director of Post and Telegraphs for Victoria, M.S. Gowan's report 1864:

The only line showing an excess of interruptions beyond the usual average is that between Geelong and Cape Otway on which section the interruptions during 1863, the damage was occasioned in each instance by falling trees, blown over by the hurricanes which visited the district in the months of January and December of last year.

On the last mentioned occasion upwards of three miles of the line were destroyed, when it was estimated that nearly 200 trees were prostrated by the violence of the gale, a fair idea may be formed as to the difficulty attending the maintenance of this line if it be remembered that its course lies through some of the most rugged and densely timbered portions of Victoria; that it crosses eleven precipitous ranges, varying from 1000 to 1500 feet in height, that the route is in several places during the winter season, quite impassable even for packhorses; and that long fully sixty miles of the route, the wire and other materials used in constructing the line, had to be transported on the backs of the workmen as the only practicable means of performing the service required. (Source: Beacons of Hope)

World War 2

ALTHOUGH Cape Otway Lightstation had an important role to play in terms of World War Two coastal defence, little is known about the history of the radar station. The station, which was manned by Royal Australian Air Force personnel, was one of only four bunkers of this design in Victoria and is the only surviving example of its style. The Telegraph Station and the Lighthouse too, played a role in defending Australia's vast coastline during the War.

 Radar Station

THE secret war history of Cape Otway's radar station is fascinating. The existence of the Radar Station built at Cape Otway is such a well-kept secret there are no known photographs of the bunker, which was manned by Victorian RAAF personnel.

The events that led to the building of the bunker are hugely significant in terms of Australian and American war history. The radar station was built in 1942 after the US steamship SS City of Rayville sank off Cape Otway.

The Rayville was struck by one of 40 mines laid by the Passat off Cape Otway. More than 100 mines were laid in key areas of Bass Strait. As the Rayville began to sink the Lightstation raised the alarm on November 8, 1940, and Apollo Bay fishermen rescued 37 crew members, but one man was lost. He became the first US merchant navy casualty of World War Two.

So the story of the Rayville and the Lightstation's involvement in World War Two sheds light on two little known chapters of American and Australian war history. Contemporary Lightstation manager Paul Thompson said: "Very few people realise the Germans came down this far south, or that they successfully sank three ships in Bass Strait."

"The Germans pirated a Norwegian merchant trading vessel called the Storstad off the coast of north western Australia and turned it into a mine layer and renamed it Passat." The radar station is undergoing a $20,000 restoration and Mr Thompson is desperate to track down as much history and information possible so it can be included in the project.

"Now after almost 60 years the Radar Station at Cape Otway, one of only four built on Victoria's southern coast, is being preserved and we want to interpret its little-known history," he said. "The station is one of the best remaining examples of this secretive war effort." The other radar stations were at Wilsons Promontory, Metung & Gabo Island. The project includes a new disability-friendly access track, plus a new look-out tower. Anyone with information on the station's history can contact the Lightstation Manager.

SS City of Rayville

WITH stars and stripes painted on both sides of its hull the SS City of Rayville entered the waters of Bass Strait on November 8, 1940 and at 7.47pm it hit a German mine. The force of the explosion ripped out the foremast. Water, planks, and hatch cover, and ingots of lead from the vessel's cargo rained down on the Rayville's superstructure.

The Cape Otway Lightkeeper was alerted to Rayville's demise by a brilliant flash of light and a rumbling explosion. The keeper contacted Apollo Bay and three boats were dispatched immediately into rough seas to search for survivors.

It took 35 minutes for the vessel to sink, bow first. The crew of 38 safely abandoned ship in lifeboats, but one went back to rescue personal effects and was drowned. Ultimately, two lifeboats were found in the darkness, lines attached and the boats towed back to Apollo Bay. The cold and worn-out survivors stepped ashore at dawn on November 9, 1940.

SS City of Rayville, the US merchant vessel, became the first casualty of World War II for the US, and resulted in the first death of a US merchant seaman in World War II. The incident preceded the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 by more than a year.

The City of Rayville was the second victim in 24 hours of a German minefield. The British steamer SS Cambridge was lost after hitting a mine off Wilsons Promontory. Both ships were destroyed by the Germans who had laid 100 mines in Bass Strait. They were laid by the German raider Pinguin and the pirated Norwegian freighter Storstad. The auxiliary cruiser Pinguin captured the steamship in the Indian Ocean on October 7, 1940, renamed the vessel Passat and converted it for mine laying.

Rayville Wreck Site Found

IN 2002 the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology reported that after years of frustrated searches, rumours, and aborted dives the City of Rayville (1940) has finally been identified.

The Institute's newsletter reported the first United States casualty of WWII has been dived, videoed and had artefacts raised for identification. It was also reported that a team of technical divers had raised plates and a firebrick without a permit. With the assistance of a US-based china collector, Heritage Victoria identified the plates as being US pottery, made especially for the vessel's owners. The divers have been interviewed and formally warned.

The relics were in the custodianship of the Queenscliff Maritime Centre and Apollo Bay Cable Station Museum.

The 5883-ton City of Rayville bound for New York was sunk with its cargo of Port Pirie lead after hitting a German mine in November 1940 - a year before Pearl Harbor. The site lies 15 km from Apollo Bay in 82 metres in a shipping lane subject to strong tidal currents. It was declared to be an historic shipwreck in September 1998. (Source: Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology Newsletter, June 2002)


THE western coast of Victoria has claimed more shipwrecks than any other stretch of Australian coastline. The treacherous seas, reefs and hostile weather conditions saw hundreds of lives lost. The sea floor is littered with what remains of the wrecks whose cargoes included migrants, hopeful gold miners and convicts. The ships foundered due to human error, bad weather, lack of local knowledge and as shipping lines vied for the lucrative migrant market - lives were undoubtedly lost due to companies taking cost cutting measures.


LOSS of life was heavy on August 24, 1857 when the SS Lady Bird collided with the English 229 ton steamer Champion cutting a gaping hole in the hull above the saloon.

Most of the Champion's passengers were in bed at the time and a total of 32 drowned. After searching for an hour the Lady Bird returned to Geelong; only the forecastle bulkhead saved her from sinking as her bow plates were badly damaged along with her bowsprit and cutwater.

Survivors told many tragic stories, however on a lighter note, the Second Mate of the Lady Bird rescued the stewardess of the Champion and they were later married. A racehorse aboard Champion broke loose, swam seven miles to the shore, and raced again in the Western District.

The Steam Navigation Board held an inquiry a fortnight later and found that the Masters of both vessels were guilty of want of action and non-enforcement of discipline, and that the chief officers of both vessels were guilty of neglect of duty and recklessness. However, they recorded an open finding. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)

Eric the Red

FOUR lives were lost when the three-masted wooden ship Eric the Red was wrecked about two miles out to sea in a south-easterly direction from the Cape Otway Lighthouse on September 3, 1880. The 1580 tonne US ship was built in Bath, Maine, in 1871 and was on an American trade commission when it came to grief.

Eric the Red left New York on 12 June 1880, for the International Exhibition in Melbourne, loaded with exhibits, two passengers and a crew of twenty-five. On the 84th day of the voyage the captain believed the ship to be at least six miles off Cape Otway and steered towards the light, but he had badly misjudged his position. Captain Allen, the second mate and others clung to the mizzen mast which then fell into the sea, taking them with it.

The small coastal steamer Dawn, commanded by Captain Jones, was returning to Warrnambool from Melbourne and was about six miles off Cape Otway. Captain Jones spent several hours searching for survivors without success, and soon after dawn signalled the lighthouse with news of the disaster, which was immediately telegraphed to Melbourne.

All that remained of the ship was a large piece of wreckage awash on the north-east corner of the reef. An immense quantity of wreckage floated on to Point Franklin. More wreckage was picked up at Apollo Bay, Western Port, Port Campbell and Peterborough.

The Government steamers Pharos and Victoria left Melbourne soon after the wreck to clear the sailing lanes and the Pharos discovered the first large piece of wreckage near the Henty Reef south of Apollo Bay. The Victoria and the steamer Otway, bound from Adelaide to Melbourne, also recovered wreckage. Several residents at Apollo Bay rebuilt their homes with timber salvaged from the wreck.

Within a year of her loss, an auxiliary red warning light was shown from Cape Otway lighthouse, screened so as to be visible only to vessels approaching on a dangerous course. The exact location of her final loss is not known but substantial wreckage has been found along the coast. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)


THE three-masted iron barque, Fiji, inward bound from Hamburg to Melbourne with a crew of 20 and a general cargo including 200 cases of dynamite, was nearing Cape Otway when she struck rocks at Moonlight Head about 300 yards from the shore on September 6, 1891.

Within minutes, the 26 crew were driven to the forecastle head, bowsprit and jibboom and there they clung expecting the ship to go to pieces or be washed off into the raging surf. Several men made it to shore whilst others drowned in the surf. Twelve lives were lost. Strong criticism was levelled through the press at the complete failure of the sea rescue attempts, and the comparative failure of those by land.

The Warrnambool lifeboat did not arrive, the steamer, Lady Loch, reached the scene a day too late and the tug, Racer, started for the wreck but also failed to arrive. The continuous heavy seas which roll in onto Wreck Beach largely prevented organised salvage attempts but in 1894 several divers managed to salvage some of the hundreds of tons of coiled wire rope which had formed part of her cargo. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)


THE Joanna, a typical intercolonial trading vessel, was on its way from Launceston to Port Fairy in September 1843 when it was wrecked at the mouth of a small river, now known as Johanna River, 8 miles north west of the unlighted Cape Otway.

One member of the crew was washed overboard and drowned. Soon after the wreck was abandoned, Aborigines forced the hatches and stole most of the cargo which included spirits and wine.

Captain Irving attempted to return in the cutter Barbara, from Launceston, but was unable to reach the wreck-site due to bad weather and instead anchored at Port Phillip. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)

The intrepid CJ La Trobe recorded the survivors' story two years later: "The master, Irvine, made his way in eight days time to the neighbourhood of Geelong, having been in great distress and torn to pieces by the scrub; living upon dead whale and pig's face [a plant] and in great dread of the blacks."

La Trobe reported Captain Irving returned to the wreck attempt a salvage, but two men drowned as they were coming ashore, and another blew his fingers off after igniting a powder flask. (Source: Beacons of Hope)

The Joanna is a very significant wreck. Not only is the vessel well preserved, but to date it is the earliest known example of a Victorian Built sailing ship to be found in Australian waters. (Source: Heritage Victoria)


THE 450 tonne German barque Marie was wrecked near Cape Bridgewater, Victoria, in September 1851. En route from Antwerp to Sydney via Adelaide, she was carrying 25 passengers and crew. None survived.

It was almost a month before reports circulated through the district that a vessel had been lost on a wild section of coastline about 12 miles west of Portland. A search of the coast recovered a large quantity of cargo and wreckage which lay scattered over more than 30 miles.

Six badly mutilated bodies were subsequently washed ashore, followed by three more a few days later, while large sections of the vessel were washed up weeks later at Cape Otway and Apollo Bay. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)


THE 109 ton schooner Martha, built in 1847, was wrecked on the eastern side of Point Franklin, Victoria.

She was unloading timber at the mouth of the Parker River for extensions at the Cape Otway lighthouse when an easterly gale broke without warning. The crew landed safely and made their way overland to Geelong.


THE Norwegian steel steamship Selje was homeward bound from Melbourne with 114,000 bags of wheat on board when it was rammed by SS Kaituna. A huge hole was gouged in the Selje, a few miles south-west of Cape Otway in clear weather on March 30, 1929.

The boat sank 20 minutes after the collision. The Kaituna stood by to assist and the entire crew was saved. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)

Unidentified Wreck

WRECKAGE identified as the side of a ship, about 40 ft, was found off Castle Cove, west of Cape Otway, in October 1877.

Around the same time, part of a deck with deckhouse attached was washed ashore near Apollo Bay, Victoria, and further wreckage was picked up at Mt. St George near Lorne. The vessel has never been identified. (Source: Shipwrecks of Victoria)

Traditional Owners

The Gadabanud, or people of the King Parrot language, belong to the forests and coastline of the Cape Otway peninsula.

The Gadabanud people's traditional country is rich and diverse in plant and animal life, and has been a gathering, ceremonial and feasting place for thousands of years.


*Ghost of  Mrs Riches who lived there with her seven children before being sent to the Sunbury asylum where she eventually died, is said to wander the Otwys as a grey lady.



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