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Macquarie Lighthouse

Macquarie Lighthouse is a major landmark above Watsons Bay. Today's lighthouse, operational since 1883, is a close copy of the 1818 lighthouse commissioned by Governor Macquarie.

Governor Lachlan Macquarie initiated a proper lighthouse to replace the warning light at the Lookout. This followed a commission to Francis Greenway to evaluate sites and options. In July 1816 Macquarie with the principal engineer Captain Gill laid the foundation stone for the building intended for the several purposes of a Signal and Lighthouse, and a guardhouse and barrack for a small military detachment. 'The centre of the building ... is to be raised 65 feet above the level ... the wings of the building are to form the Guard House and Barrack.' It was to be named the Macquarie Tower.

Building of the lighthouse, designed by Francis Greenway, took two years, using stone from a quarry still visible just southeast; by November 1818 the lighthouse was operational, and ships entering to the harbour would pay a fee to support this service.

Robert Watson, who gave his name to Watsons Bay, was appointed the first Superintendent and Keeper of the Light of Macquarie Tower, from 1818, at a salary of £50 per annum. He had been harbourmaster and pilot in Port Jackson. H Cole followed him in November 1819 and in March 1822 Thomas Watson was appointed to this role, also acting as pilot from 1825, and Thomas Weeland in February 1826.

Thereafter it became commonplace for scenic illustrations of Sydney to be drawn or painted from the west taking in the view across Circular Quay to include in the far distance on the horizon both the Lighthouse and the signal flagstaff.

A veranda was added around 1830, and new quarters for staff in 1836. From time to time the Lighthouse was repaired and if it did not operate as expected a complaint could be expected. By 1866 structural decay required serious structural repairs including straps to the tower. In 1878 work began on a replacement lighthouse with a larger light, together with new accommodation for the staff. The design was under the control of colonial architect James Barnet. Externally this was broadly a replica of the Greenway building, but with a significantly improved lens system and larger lantern giving a range of 25 miles (40 kilometres). To avoid blocking the light during construction it was erected immediately to the west so that for a while two buildings coexisted. The new light began operation in June 1883, and the buildings for staff completed by 1885, with expansion in 1899. The whole of the Greenway building was demolished by 1887. Most of the late 19th century staff quarters were demolished in 1970; today only two staff buildings remain: the Head Keeper's Quarters (1836) and the Assistant Keepers' Quarters (1881).

The 1883 lighthouse had been lit by gas-generated electricity but in 1912 this was replaced by kerosene, and in 1933 reconverted to electricity. Automation of the light limited the need for staff on site after 1976, and the last employees left in 1989.

Control of the lighthouse passed to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service in 1915. Today the light remains fully operational, the longest continuously operating lighthouse in Australia. It is under the control of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority but the site and land around it are managed by the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust for the benefit of visitors and the community.

Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney

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Macquarie Lighthouse
State Library of NSW