FINGAL Bay author John Clarke says his latest local history book resembles a giant jigsaw. Entitled The Outer Light, it probes the hidden story of the keepers and their families who manned the remote lighthouse of Point Stephens, at Fingal Bay – or Fingal Island, depending on the tide – from sunset to sunrise every day for more than 111 years.
Imagine what they witnessed over the decades since 1862 on the exposed rock jutting into the ocean: wild storms, tragic shipwrecks and weird natural phenomena from giant waterspouts to fierce electrical storms blanketing the horizon.
But there was one problem to fully revealing this untold, unknown piece of Port Stephens past. Clarke found tracing lighthouse keepers difficult. Even manning records are incomplete, or inaccurate.
“There are still so many missing pieces to the story of the Outer Light’s keepers. I’m sure though I will find a few of them – but only after people read the book,” Clarke laughed.
Completed after two and half years of researching and writing, the project was hampered by the ocean beacon being automated in June 1973.
“The former keepers then scattered everywhere. That’s understandable, but even their families proved very difficult to locate,” Clarke said.
“Sadly, very few keepers were left to interview, as most have passed on. Luckily enough their descendants could help me gather information, photographs and documents.”
Adding to the challenge of trying to recreate the past was that historic records, along with furniture, stored inside the nearby impressive sandstone keepers’ residence, were burned after the site was vacated. Then, in 1991, vandals were blamed for the complete destruction of this huge sandstone group cottage in a blaze.
“Part of the problem locating descendants was that a lot are grey nomads travelling around Australia,” the fishing guru, better known as ‘Stinker’ Clarke, said.
“One of the most distant descendants came from Noosa. But would you believe she was visiting a Hawks Nest hairdresser, heard about my project and then contacted me. I then took her over to the Outer Light, where she’d lived when she was about six years of age, but she was so sad at what she saw, everything very overgrown and the abandoned cottage ruins, that she cried.”
About 6 kilometres from Nelson Bay, the now solar-powered Fingal Island lighthouse can often still be reached only by sea. Narrowgut, a treacherous tidal sand spit, linking the island and ‘mainland’ is regularly under water. Officially, it has claimed 15 lives over the decades. Sharks used it as a short cut. Before a mighty storm called the Maitland Gale struck in 1891, a grassy land bridge between Fingal Bay settlement and Point Stephens was about 180 metres wide and four metres above the top of high storm water. Overnight it disappeared.
“People also don’t realise why the lighthouse grounds were once always like neat and tidy lawns,” Clarke said.
“That’s because twice a year for about 50 years, an Anna Bay dairy farmer Steve Blanch drove a herd of up to 30 cows across the sand spit by horseback every six months to agist on Fingal Island.”
Before the 21 metre tall Outer Light tower was opened in 1862, there were 24 shipwrecks locally. It was one of 11 lighthouses erected between Sydney and Byron Bay from 1858 to 1880.
Because of rough seas, and despite visits by a regular supply boat, the three families of Fingal Island light keepers had to stock a two-month supply of food.
“For a while, the regular store boat to out there was a unique craft: a low, flat-bottom barge about 25ft (7.6m) in length and known as the Bomb Scow. It was designed and built during World War II from Rathmines RAAF base on Lake Macquarie, to ferry out bombs to load aboard the flying boats,” Clarke said.
“The scow was low in the water to fit under the wings of (Catalina) aircraft.”
Another unknown story Clarke discovered was the existence of a secret radar station atop Fingal Island’s central hill.
“An old-time local identity first told me that. He just turned 90 years. He said it was the real radar station here in WWII and the one on top of Tomaree headland was a fake one.”
Clarke said others had since spoke of a radar unit there, but he hadn’t checked out the site. The claim might seem hard to believe, but few people until recent years had probably known the huge coastal ‘gun’ poking out on top nearby Yaccaba – on the Hawks Nest side – was actually a decoy.
Fingal Island’s most famous resident for 18 years was shell grit miner and later author Arthur Murdoch. It was the wreck of the steamer Pappinbarra on the island in 1929 that lured Murdoch there because the actual site was called Shelley (as in shell grit needed for chickens). Murdoch built a wharf and used salvaged deck timbers and hatch covers from the Pappinbarra to build a hut in 1935.
Clarke said that unlike some other NSW lighthouse postings, life on Fingal Island wasn’t a real hardship post. Instead, it was like living on a farm, on an island.
“I admire the families there being so tough and resourceful. They had vegetable gardens and had an orchard, growing all sort of fruit. There was also fresh fish. They were really self-sustaining,” Clarke said.
“In the old days if you rang Nelson Bay One, the telephone would ring at the lighthouse. That’s how important it was for sea safety. The Inner Light (above today’s Little Beach) was Nelson Bay 2.
“The saddest part, for me, of the island’s story is the loss by fire of the majestic 1865 sandstone residence. I blame NSW bureaucrats for making it ‘surplus to needs’ and allowed to deteriorate so badly after the light was automated.”
Clarke’s insightful 112-page book, packed with photos, is a long-awaited glimpse into a forgotten era and invaluable for Port Stephens local history fans.
The Outer Light ($30) will be launched at Soldiers Point Bowling Club on Thursday, November 8, at 2pm by Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer. A second book by Clarke called Clarabelle ($15), an illustrated children’s book, will be simultaneously launched by novelist Di Morrissey. It tells the extraordinary true tale of a wayward cow carried out to sea by floodwaters in 1955. She survived by swimming almost all the way to Broughton Island. Details: stinker.com.au