Point Stephens Lighthouse is a heritage-listed active lighthouse located on Fingal Island, Point Stephens – not to be confused with Fingal Head Lighthouse located near the NSW-Queensland border.
Fingal Island is part of Tomaree National Park and is maintained by NSW National Parks.
Fingal Island sits at the mouth of Fingal Bay and is connected to the mainland at low tide by a sand spit. It was not until 1845 that the name Fingal Bay appeared on a map replacing what had been known as False Bay.
False Bay was proving to be a real trap, particularly for ships sailing north from Sydney and Newcastle. Sailing along Stockton Beach and past the tiny hamlets of Anna Bay and Boat Harbour, the sailors were pleased to finally reach the entry to Port Stephens. Unbeknownst to many, they had in fact entered False Bay, a dangerous dead end through which it was impossible to pass.
Aerial view of the steamship, SS Pappinbarra which ran aground on Fingal Island during a tremendous gale in 1929.
In 1770, Captain James Cook sailed past Port Stephens and had noted “a low rocky point which I named Point Stephens (Latde 32.45) on the north side of this is an inlet which I called Port Stephens (Lat. 32.40, Logde 207.51) The low rocky point we know today as Fingal Island.
Port Stephens was first joined in 1791 by the Salamander, a sailing ship from the Third Fleet which had previously served as a whaler in Greenland.
After that ocean traffic continued to grow due to the expansion of population away from Sydney. An increase in trade meant more ships on the water and more shipwrecks, False Bay became a problem, tempting ships heading for Port Stephens.
To protect the ships, a lighthouse was constructed at Point Stephens, off Fingal Bay, which first shone in 1862. There were 24 shipwrecks in the area before the Outer Light was commissioned.
A fantastic photograph taken in the 1890s shows the three light-keeping families of the day: the Priest, Glover and Lambourne families.
Completed in 1865, the residence for the Point Stephens Lighthouse was a first in architectural design at the time, housing three lighthouse-keeping families under one roof. The structure was magnificent with sandstone blocks, transported from the Hawkesbury region, forming the sturdy walls along with cedar beams, a slate roof and hand-made copper nails. Such was the construction that the internal temperature of the building never varied by more than two degrees.
A horse and cart provided transport to the hamlet of Nelson Bay up until 1891 when the finger of land connecting Point Stephens to the mainland was washed away in the Maitland Gale and formed the treacherous Fingal Spit, which exists today.
Living on an island, the light keepers and their families became increasingly self-sufficient with a milking cow, horse, vegetable gardens, orchard and chickens. Wells kept a constant fresh water supply.
Fresh fish and lobsters were plentiful, making an appointment to Point Stephens lighthouse a high priority among light keepers.
The original kerosene apparatus was set up so that it shone alternatively red (500 cd) and white (200 cd). In 1922, this was upgraded to a revolving Dalen light powered by pressurised acetylene gas through an incandescent. This gave a light of 20,000 cd.
In 1960, the light was upgraded to mains electricity. The current lantern room appears to be from 1973. The final conversion to solar power was made in 1989 which lead to the de-manning of the light.
The preservation of the Point Stephens Lighthouse and cottages has been a battle against bureaucracy, the elements and vandals. Sadly, the beautiful light keepers building was burnt to the ground in 1991.
Ownership of the lighthouse and reserve has passed to the NSW Park and Wildlife Service.
A full account of the history of the Point Stephens Lighthouse can be found in “Outer Light” written by John Clarke. It focuses on the light keepers, their families and their experiences from the 1860s up until 1973 when the light became automatic.