Macquarie’s old and new lighthouse. Barnet’s copy sits next to Greenway’s original in 1884

Sydney today has four lighthouses spread along its coastline acting now as nostalgic guides to ships and sailors.  With GPS, radio, radar and other locating technologies, the lighthouses are now less important to safe maritime travel then in times past. 

However they remain an important part of the maritime history of Sydney (and Australia more broadly) and serve as a significant physical link to the times when Sydney was a marine city and all people came and went by the sea.

The first beacons were simple signal fires, lit on South Head if a ship had been seen off of the coast during the day.  Wood and coal were burnt in an iron basket to show ships the entrance to the harbour.  

Incredibly for a town wholly dependent on the sea, this primitive system remained in place until 1818 when the Macquarie Lighthouse, commissioned by Governor Macquarie and designed by convict architect Francis Greenway was completed.  Standing high on the cliffs at South Head, the light could be seen 22 miles to sea, revolving once every minute and a half. 

The design of the building, with a central tower flanked by two low wings, acting as lighthouse keepers cottage and a barracks for soldiers stationed there.  This design became the basis for most of the lighthouses built in NSW over the next 100 years.  With a road built from Sydney out to the lighthouse by 1819, the Macquarie light became one of Sydney’s first domestic tourist attractions.

Emigrants and ships captains alike looked eagerly into the darkness as they approached Sydney for the light.  One such person, artist Joseph Fowles, wrote in his diary about approaching Sydney on a dark night in 1838:

A man was ordered up to the fore top gallant mast head to look out for the light on Sydney heads-as it can be seen 30 miles in calm weather.  I was upon deck nearly all night looking out very anxiously for the light and at about 2 in the morning it was first seen…the morning was dark & the light shone very brilliant-I continued looking at it till day light by which we were in near land opposite Botany Bay.

Seeing the light meant you were almost there.

Of the four, Macquarie Lighthouse was and remains the main light for ships coming to Sydney.  At the northern point of Barrenjoey another lighthouse was built to guide the coastal ships in 1881.  Built with three cottages for the keepers and their families, Barrenjoey was a lonely isolated station until the early years of the 20th century. 

State Library NSW PXE 711/418
Barrenjoey lighthouse with keepers and their families, 1910.

Designed by James Barnet from locally cut sandstone the lighthouse is a local landmark for the Pittwater area and still acts as a navigation beacon for shipping.  As Colonial Architect from 1862-1890 Barnet was responsible for many of NSW’s 19th century lighthouses, including the 1883 rebuild of the Macquarie Lighthouse (a direct copy of the Greenway original).

The other two lights are smaller, with the Hornby Lighthouse inside South Head was built in 1858 after the tragic losses of the Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson around South Head.  The fourth is the newest, being the Cape Bailey lighthouse guiding ships at Botany Bay and built in 1950.

The lights are now automated (from the 1930s) and the lighthouse keepers and their families have gone.  But the lights still shine, cutting through the inky blackness of the night at sea, and guiding ships home.