The Signal Station on the road into Watsons Bay occupies a site used since 1790 to observe arriving ships and advise the town of Sydney of their arrival.
From 1790 a permanent guard would watch out for arriving ships, raising a flag both to give them a sign of the new location of the settlement, and to notify the colony of the imminent arrival of the long awaited ships.
The flagstaff was visible from the higher land bordering Sydney Cove and can be seen in many early paintings of Sydney Harbour.
There were up to 11 men stationed there. They took turns in 4 hour shifts throughout all hours of daylight to watch for shipping, living further down the slope at what would later be called Watsons Bay.
By August 1790 Governor Phillip had decided a more substantive marker was needed to guide arriving ships to the new settlement and a brick column on a base of locally quarried stone was erected on the high land adjacent to the flagstaff, and just south of the shelter of the Lookout staff. A plan showed it to be four feet by four feet, on a platform six feet high, and the column, sometimes called the 'obelisk' or 'pyramid', is shown on early illustrations and maps.
From 1832 the staff at the site used a system of signal flags to send messages to Sydney and beyond.
In June 1838 the NSW Government began work on a new Signal House at South Head. The new signal house was a stone building, represented by the two lower floors of the tower that survives today. The two level building was cut 3 metres into the rock from which it rose in an octagonal form to an observation level. Adjacent staff quarters, still occupied, were built from the 1850s.
The system of semaphore flags giving details of arriving ships was replaced in January 1858 using the first electric telegraph line in NSW which connected the Signal Station with the city.
In 1890 building was raised to its present height of four levels and a signal lamp room. The fourth floor provides the Signal Station staff with outlooks on all sides, and door to an outside balcony with balustrade around the building. The floor, set 85 metres about sea level, has visibility for up to 18 nautical miles. From this fourth floor observation room is access to the roof space in which is a large signal lamp.
The primary role of the Signal Station remained to observe and report to the city of Sydney ship arrivals and to record shipping movements. The register began in November 1797 – by 1998 it was recording 2800 shipping movements for the year. A second function was to advise pilots of arriving vessels so they could go out to meet them; in much of the 19th century the flag announcing a ship was the signal for freelance pilots to race and compete for providing pilotage services.
In the Second World the site was part of the military defences and was responsible for monitoring all vessels approaching Sydney Harbour.
Different agencies of the NSW Government had responsibility for the Signal Station. From 1936 the responsible body was the Maritime Services Board. Ship based radio communication reduced the importance of visual observation, but the Signal Station remained to supplement and confirm this, and was especially important for smaller vessels. The MSB finally ceased to operate the Station on 23rd March 1992 relying on their main operation centre at Millers Point together with closed circuit cameras for visual observation.
Since that date it has remained in permanent use by volunteers initially from both the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol and the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association, and now from just the latter. They man radios and maintain visual contact every day, typically for 120 hours a week for the benefit of small and recreational boats. The site has thus maintained its role for over two centuries, and from the same building for most of that time.
Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney