Life in the lighthouse: ghosts, murder and heartbreak

Media release: Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Ghosts, murder and heartbreak were just some of the challenges facing Queensland lighthouse keepers and their families as they struggled to survive in isolated areas.

Lighthouses were recognised as lifesavers, especially in the days before ships were fitted with sophisticated technology. Without them, Queensland would have experienced far more than the 1800 shipwrecks that occurred along its coastline.

Mairi Popplewell from the National Archives in Brisbane has been delving into the archival vaults to discover the history of Queensland lighthouses and is sharing her findings in two free public talks on 15 and 20 August.

The state saw its first lighthouse built in 1857 to warn of the notoriously dangerous waters around Moreton Bay. Constructed by stonemasons with convict labour, its original source of light was an oil wick.

South-east of Mackay, a lighthouse at Pine Islet was reputed to be haunted by the wife of one of the keepers who was buried there in 1895. In 1927 her grave site was relocated to make way for a new cottage. Thereafter, mysterious footsteps and knockings created the belief that the ghost was attempting to return to her original grave.

Some lighthouses were imported from England in kit form, with prefabricated segments of cast iron. One of these was at Bustard Head, a lighthouse that had more than its fair share of tragedy.

Deaths included a workman building the lighthouse in 1868, the baby son of a keeper in 1879, the suicide of a keeper's wife in 1887, and the drowning of her daughter at sea two years later, along with the wife of another keeper and a repairman. The keeper Nils who lost his wife and daughter never recovered and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1896. Another keeper's 20-month-old baby Millie was scalded by boiling water and, so far from help, died in agony nine hours later.

The tragedies continued, with a premature baby dying in 1911, the daughter of a keeper disappearing, presumed murdered, at a nearby property, and her sister dying of an epileptic fit only weeks later.

In 1972 two Harbours and Marine inspectors set off in their dinghy from near the lighthouse and disappeared. When badly damaged clothing was discovered, their fate was attributed to a school of more than 30 sharks seen in the area.

The free public talks Lighting the darkness: Lighthouses in Queensland will be held at the National Archives of Australia, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill, Brisbane on 15 and 20 August. Bookings can be made on 07 3249 4200.

Mairi Popplewell is available for interview.

Contact information

  • Elizabeth Masters (Media Officer)
    t (02) 6212 3957 m 0427 853 664 e elizabeth.masters@naa.gov.au
  • Mairi Popplewell (Brisbane Office)
    t (07) 3249 4205 m 0428 724 981
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014