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Lighthouses of Tasmania

State Indexes > TAS > Tasman Island Lighthouse

The Tasman Island Lighthouse

The Tasman Island Lighthouse is one of the highest in Australia. When the light was first established, the winds were so fierce that the steel tower would shudder, fracturing the lamps mantles and putting the light out.

Tasman Island with Cape Pillar in the background [Photograph: Ed Kavaliunas]
Tasman Island with Cape Pillar in the background
Photograph: Ed Kavaliunas


LOCATION: Latitude 43° 14.5' S, Longitude 148° 00.2' E [map]
OPERATOR: Australian Maritime Safety Authority
CONSTRUCTION: Cast Iron Segments
CHARACTER: Flashing 1 in 7.5 seconds
LIGHT SOURCE: 12 v 35 watt Quartz Halogen Lamp
INTENSITY: 63,000 cd
ELEVATION: 276 Metres
RANGE: 39 Nautical Miles
HEIGHT: 29 metres
DEMANNED: May 1977
CUSTODIAN: Parks Tasmania


Tasman Island is one of the two most isolated lightstations in Australia, and for that reason, was extremely unpopular with all keepers.

The light is sited on the highest point of Tasman Island, near Storm Bay, which is close to the Tasman Peninsula. The Tasman Lighthouse is known for the height, 250 metres, and steepness of its cliffs. Once thickly forested, it is now almost bare as the result of the cutting of trees for firewood and of two severe fires.

Between Tasman Island and Cape Pillar, the last point of the mainland in a south-easterly direction, is a narrow passage about 1,234 metres wide

The lighthouse was built in 1906. It is constructed of cast-iron plates, circular in section, bolted together and positioned on a concrete base 26 metres in diameter.

The keepers' cottages also built in 1906 are solid brick. Sheds for wood and coal etc were all joined under the same roof as the cottage for protection from the fierce weather that frequents the island in winter.

At 276 metres above high water it is among the highest of Australian lighthouses.

At Tasman Island in South-eastern Tasmania lightkeepers' stores and other goods have to be transferred from the lighthouse steamer to a launch which conveys them to a flying fox (a conveyor suspended from an overhead wire). The flying fox extends for some hundreds of feet from a rock about twenty-five feet above sea level to a ledge on the island about a hundred feet above the sea. From there the goods are hauled by an engine-driven winch along a steep tramline up a cliff to an elevation of about 700 feet. Thence they are transferred to a horse-drawn tramway which takes them on the final stage to the lighthouse, situated about 700 feet above sea level.

Kathleen Stanley tells in her book, Guiding Lights, of the perilous ride onto the island via a the basket suspended from the flying fox:

The good order of the basket in which passengers were carried ashore was the responsibility of the keepers who were well aware of the need for exemplary work in this regard. On one occasion only has it been reported that the door failed to close - perhaps because of some slight misalignment or perhaps because the operator was over-anxious to begin the transfer. Mrs E Jacobs, the last passenger to embark on one hazardous trip, made the journey half in and half out of the contraption, grimly held by one of the keepers inside.

In her nineties, Mrs Jacobs could smile at the memory but there were some tense moments at the landing-stage until she was delivered safely on to solid earth. More amazing than her perilous journey was the fact that she, with staunch matter-of-factness, was not deterred from further rides in the basket.

Often supply vessels would have to make repeated attempts to land supplies due to inclement weather.

The other point of access to the island was the Zigzag, named for the access path down the cliffs. It was used for by small boats for landing the mail, urgent supplies and medical assistance.

Pigeons were used for the first 20 years for emergency messages.

Fencing surrounded the lighthouse and keepers' complex to protect stock and small children from it's dangerous sheer cliffs.

Stock used to disappear down the various holes and caves that dotted the island, never to be seen again.

The Tasman Island Tower with the original lantern room [Photograph Courtesy: AMSA]
The Tasman Island Tower
with the original lantern room

Photograph: John Cook

A Cape Class supply ship with the tramway and flying fox in background. (Note the small boat just below the flying fox.) [Photograph Hobart Mercury, Courtesy: AMSA]
A Cape Class supply ship with the
tramway and flying fox in background.
(Note the small boat just below the flying fox)
Photograph Hobart Mercury, courtesy: AMSA

Stores, keepers and their familes were all brought on and off Tasman Island via this flying fox. [Photograph Courtesy: AMSA]
Stores, keepers and their families were all brought on and off Tasman Island via this flying fox.
Photograph: AMSA

Construction of the wind generator [Photograph: Pat O'Malley]
Construction of the wind generator
Photograph: Pat O'Malley

The Tasman Island lantern at the National Maritime Museum. [Photograph: Grant Maizels]
The Tasman Island lantern at the National Maritime Museum
Photograph: Grant Maizels

Keepers had to very self-sufficient. They kept good gardens of both vegetables and flowers on island's the soil fertile. They the yarded, shore and slaughtered sheep, cut and sledded of wood. Meat was supplemented at mutton-birding time and goats were kept by some families in addition to their quota of sheep and cattle both to provide an alternative milk supply.

The station suffered severely from storms with on one occasion, in 1919, seeing verandahs and fences being blown away, water tanks blown off their stands, and the shifting of out buildings off their foundations. The winds were so strong that the vibrations in the lantern room destroyed five mantles and two pounds of mercury jumped out of the race and had to be replaced.

Problems were encountered in the early days with the lamp mantle fracturing from the degree of swaying at the top of the tower due to the winds and its high elevation. On the night of 20 March 1907, the log reads: 

The tower vibrated to such an extent that it shook the mantles to pieces; had to substitute the wick-burner at 2a.m.

When first established the windows in the tower were found not to be waterproof and flooded during severe storms. This was rectified by re-puttying the gaps.

Even though coal was supplied to keepers for domestic use the shortfall was made up at first by collecting dead wood, but later cutting down live trees. After 50 years this lead to the denuding of the island with disastrous effects for the complex. Superintendent Kirkwood in 1913 noted: 

In my opinion the cutting of firewood, denuding the station of timber, is detrimental to the quarters and outhouses.

Towards the end of the year he wrote again: 

Blew whole gale last night - fierce squalls, smashed up more fencing Superintendent's quarters. The effects of denuding the island for a fuel supply.

Tasman island was extremely isolated and keepers when vulnerable were dependant on their own resources. Kathleen Stanley gives an example:

Keepers and their families on off-shore stations were always particularly susceptible to colds and influenza since they were so isolated that they had little opportunity of acquiring immunity.

On one occasion a family with several children arrived with severe colds but no medication. Another keeper's wife gave them her own medicine, only to see the newcomers recover and one of her own children die of respiratory failure.

Unlike many other Tasmanian lightstations there are no European graves.

In 1920, the first of the only two babies born on the island was the daughter of the Head Lightkeeper, Leslie Babington Johnston who they called Eileen (now Mrs Thompson).

An Aboriginal midden has been discovered in at least one of the caves and in another an Aboriginal skeleton, complete except for the head.

Kathleen Stanley comments on the arrival in 1924 of the Lighthouse Service version of a fire escape:

a length of 3" circumference Manilla rope fitted with a spring clip hook to be used as a means of escape from the tower in the case of fire. The hook may be clipped to the balcony handrail, or stanchion, in case of need or the rope may be passed around any firm object and the hook clipped on to the rope.

The crane on the landing platform was severely damaged soon after completion and parts of the landing were destroyed in subsequent storms.

A major disaster struck in 1927 when a new crane being installed on the landing collapse without warning, killing one man and seriously injuring another. The dead man, who was thrown into the sea, was never recovered and it took until the next day to summon help and another day to take the injured man to Hobart for further treatment.

In 1930 wireless communication was established to Hobart and the other immediate lightstations of Cape Bruny and Maatsuyker. This enable keepers to summon immediate help in later incidents.

Keepers also assumed responsibility for meteorological information at this point.

The keepers were not the only cultivators of the island. Naval personnel stationed there during the Second World War were instructed to co-operate with the keepers at all times and, in their leisure, to beautify their quarters by planting flowers round them. The naval personnel were there to take charge of radio transmissions and signals. Lightkeepers were forbidden from enlisting in any of the services as there service was already considered vital to the nation's security. They were, however, sworn in as Special Commonwealth Peace Officers and given extra instruction in signals.

The introduction of radio telephone and helicopter supply helped to take the isolation away from Tasman Island.

A stable was lost and parts of the island were burned as ash and smoke was carried onto the island from the Black Tuesday fires that devastated much of Tasmania in 1967.

When established, the original apparatus was vapourised kerosene and with an an 85 mm burner and a six-wick emergency lamp.

In 1976 the light was automated. This saw the replacement of the original dome to accommodate the new apparatus. This new apparatus was experimentally powered with wind generators. This power source proved reliable - although it was backed up by two diesel generators - and the station was de-manned in May 1977.

The wind generation was replaced by solar power in 1991.

Tasman Island after the lantern room was replaced. [Photograph Courtesy: AMSA]
Tasman Island after the lantern room was replaced
Photograph: John Cook

Tasman Island is a very harsh environment [Photograph Courtesy: AMSA]
Tasman Island is a very harsh environment
Photograph: John Cook


The unoccupied cottages are deteriorating fast. They are being weather beaten, vandalised and stripped by visitors looking for wood for fires, despite the island's remoteness.

The original dome has been placed in storage, and with the original Cape Sorell lens, will be placed on a tower as part of the new Tasmanian Maritime Museum to built at the entrance to Hobart's harbour.

The original Chance Bros lens is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

The Tasman light overlooks the rapid deterioration of the abandoned keepers cottages [Photograph Courtesy: AMSA]
The Tasman light overlooks the rapid deterioration of the abandoned keepers cottages
Photograph: AMSA


DISTANCE: <<>> (Port Arthur)
: <<>> (Hobart)
ACCESS: Access to the lighthouse is extremely difficult. Even having reached the island by sea, there is still a 250 metre climb up the side of the island.
TOURS: There are no tours or official access to the island. Scenic flights are available from Hobart and Port Arthur and are highly recommended..

The Surrounding Area


Tasman is Murder Bulletin Oct 03


A Big Country Revisited - Keepers Of The Light Bulletin Oct 03

Tasman Island from the air
Photograph: Ed Kavaliunas

Letters & Notices

List of all Tasmanian Lighthouse-keepers Bulletin Jun 03
Australia From the Sea - Exhibition by Dacre Smyth Bulletin Sep 03

Other Tasman Island Sites

Fortesque Bay to Tasman Island Trip Maat Canoe Club

Aerial view of the Tasman Island Lighthouse and cottages
Photograph: Winsome Bonham

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Special Thanks to:

  • Australian Maritime Safety Authority for Photographs
  • Ed Kavaliunas for Photographs
  • Grant Maizels for Photographs
  • Hobart Mercury for Photographs
  • John Cook for Photographs
  • Pat O'Malley for Photographs
  • Winsome Bonham for Photograph


  • Australian Maritime Safety Authority
  • Brian Lord
  • Guiding Lights by Kathleen Stanley
  • Australian Encyclopaedia

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