The life of a lighthouse keeper

Goode Island lighthouse c.1909. Although officially unidentified, this family group is likely the Norgates as they were still the keepers on Goode Island until January 1910. Image: State Library of Queensland.

Goods Island lighthouse c 1909. Image: State Library of Queensland.

The life of a lighthouse keeper is often either romanticised or seen as a desolate life for those who prefer the solitary confines of the role, away from the social rigours of mainland life.

In reality, the life was a mixture of both and so much more. The ANMM has in its collection an extraordinary log book kept by the lighthouse keeper William Norgate from November 1893 to November 1929. The log is dilapidated and fragile but reveals a humble yet extraordinary life.

William was a lighthouse keeper on Goods Island and Booby Island in Torres Strait for nearly 40 years. He seems to have been a methodical man by nature and meticulously recorded the daily running of the islands. He also transcribed many of the letters he both sent and received and it is through these letters that much of the life of William, his wife Lizzie and their family is seen.

William Norgate began his life as a keeper in 1893, after spending some years in the coastal pilot service. However, once he was married he felt it was a better life for himself and Lizzie in the Lighthouse Service. The position offered a house and regular income paid by the government and was seen by many as an opportunity to raise their family in relative security. Despite the hardships of life on a remote outpost, men with a stable family were preferred to single men.

Not surprisingly, it seems that William’s wife Lizzie initially struggled to adjust to island life. She seems to have missed the basics, such as three cups of tea a day rather than the rations now facing her. But Lizzie pushed through and as William wrote in 1894, She is not very frightened of me and doesn’t cry to go home to her mammy yet’. Throughout the log, as the years pass, William mentions Lizzie’s frail health that plagued her all her life.

Goode Island lighthouse c.1909. Although officially unidentified, this family group is likely the Norgates as they were still the keepers on Goode Island until January 1910. Image: State Library of Queensland.

Goods Island lighthouse c 1909. Although officially unidentified, this family group is likely the Norgates as they were still the keepers on Goods Island until January 1910. Image: State Library of Queensland.

William seemed to have settled into lighthouse life readily and in a letter to a friend in that first year he described life on the island as having to do everything that wants doing ourselves. It is surprising what I have had to put my hand to, I had a lot to learn, but it is the variety of work that keeps it from getting monotonous. It is half-sailor, half bushman with all sorts of trades mixed with it.

Daily entries outline the endless tasks William faced: cleaning, repairing, painting, building and of course, above all, keeping the light maintained and burning at night. In such harsh coastal conditions buildings and equipment weathered quickly and everything seemed to need constant tending. Although keepers were on call 24 hours a day, the actual paid work hours per day were only eight, four during the day and four at night, which meant a man has plenty of time for himself.

With perfect penmanship and diligence William recorded daily island and family events. ANMM Collection 00053717.

With perfect penmanship and diligence William recorded daily island and family events. ANMM Collection 00053717.

Supplies and mail were delivered monthly by a passing steamer and William’s log records regular visits to the mainland, where the family enjoyed local concerts and visits to friends.

On the islands there was another family in residence and it is interesting to think about the dynamics of this arrangement. The island might have seemed less lonely and more communal with another family in the same situation, but the close proximity of others presented for William its own problems:

It is very lonely for Lizzie; for although we live close to one another, she scarcely ever sees or speaks to anyone but myself. Of course there is no fear of quarrelling being like this, but I think she carries it too far. The Boss’ people seem very nice but are much like herself, likes to keep at home.

Used daily for nearly 30 years, the log of William Norgate is a testament to his dedication. ANMM Collection 00053717.

Used daily for nearly 30 years, the log of William Norgate is a testament to his dedication. ANMM Collection 00053717.

According to a recent study of life as a keeper, this self-enforced separation was common among lighthouse families sharing an island:

Everyone noted that ‘you didn’t want to be in each other’s pockets’ and that casual visiting among the lighthouse families was strongly discouraged. The men had to work together every day – a situation either companionable or difficult depending on the personalities. Women rarely visited each other casually, and those who did were sometimes remembered as a burden. Such careful social management meant that usually only dogs and children were noted as the triggers for community disharmony. Despite the generally held rule of ‘keeping to yourselves’ the degree to which meetings occurred differed from station to station. Sometimes people never visited the other houses.1

The Norgates spent more than 40 years as a lighthouse keepers, raising four children and moving to Thursday Island in 1930. On William’s retirement the local paper recognised his contribution to life in the area:

Mr William Norgate of the Lighthouse Service, who has been in charge of the Booby Island lighthouse and formerly in charge of Goods Island, has taken up residence on T.I. having purchased a home in Hastings Street. Mr Norgate has nearly 50 years in the Lighthouse Service of the Queensland coast, and over 40 years on the above named lights and is well known and respected by all residents of Torres Straits. Visitors to Booby Island were always sure of a right hearty welcome from Mr and Mrs Norgate, and we all wish them many happy years of well-earned rest after their faithful service. Mr Norgate has reached retiring age and goes out on a pension. 2

After a lifetime of battling the elements and keeping the lights burning, sadly William died only two years later in 1932, at the age of 67. He did not get to enjoy the feeling of finally sleeping through the night or the luxury of staying indoors in foul weather for very long. But countless ships owe their safe passage through the islands to his diligence and Lizzie was finally settled on the mainland.

— Myffanwy Bryant, Curatorial Assistant

Got a craving for more historical tales? Why not check out our collection online (warning: you might lose a few hours doing this).

  1. State of NSW and the Office of Environment and Heritage, Department of Premier and Cabinet, c 2009.
  2. Townsville Daily Bulletin, 20 March 1930.

12 thoughts on “The life of a lighthouse keeper

  1. Not sure what island you are talking about but the photos are of Booby Island which was still manned in the late seventies when I visited there in my patrol boat BARBETTE. It was famous for having a Post Office being a cave where ships would leave their mail incoming & outgoing ships would then pick it up & take to the UK.It would be automated now I guess. Goodes (not Goode) Is is at the entrance to Prince of Wales channel & has long been automated. There were gun emplacements there & the guns were recovered late seventies or thereabouts & sent to the war memorial I believe as they were from WWI Naval guns.

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    • Thank you Commander Storrs, after reading Norgate’s log so much I had ‘Goode’ on the mind it seems! I did also read about the ‘post office’ cave on Booby Island initially being a supply store for early shipwreck survivors and a stopping point for Bligh. So much history on such a small island. Thank you so much for your comments and added information regarding the gun emplacements – its great to get feedback from readers who have first hand experience. Regards, Myf.

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  2. This is wonderful! Cooktown has several links to the Norgates. We had a record that a William Norgate enlisted from here but until the WW1 service records were released we didn’t even know his next of kin. Private William Norgate’s registration number was 5631. He survived the war but was badly gassed and discharged earlier than some. We don’t know what happened to him when he returned home. When he enlisted he was only 20 years old and already married. There is a photo of him in a little book named “The Timeless Isle” by John Foley.
    The other connection is Air Mechanic Roy McGuffie, Rego No 3261. A Cooktown man, he was employed on Bobby Island as Assistant Light House Keeper, which would’ve have been the same time as the Norgates. He took his wife and family with him. Then he decided to enlist and packed the family off back to Cooktown. Roy didn’t survive the war, dying of pneumonia in England in 1919.

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    • Marjorie, that is such a wonderful amount of information! I found out a little about the daughters of the Norgates, but not about their son ‘Will’. Thank you so much for sharing this and continuing to fill out the Norgate story. Myf

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  3. An artist in residence programme at lighthouses would be a good way to commemorate the life and time of light house keepers. Thanks for the post.

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    • So true, I know some other keepers cottages are open to the public to stay in and a few weeks solitude certainly would get the creative juices flowing! Myf

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  4. Lighthouse keepers had to have a “special” character just like every lighthouse has a “character” to identify it from others.
    Lighthouse keepers, especially those located on isolated islands were often required to weather hardships and the elements in order to keep mariners safe at sea.
    The Friends Of South Solitary Island Lighthouse have a Facebook and are working towards creating the Australian National Lighthouse Museum at Coffs Harbour. We welcome everyone interested who can join us to go forth on this venture.
    Currently,the Coffs Harbour Regional Museum is displaying many lighthouse artefacts and items of interest. It is also the custodian of the Chance Brothers First Order Fresnel Lens from South Solitary Island Lighthouse.
    Currently there is no dedicated lighthouse museum in Australia but FOSSIL members would like to invite the Australian National Lighthouse Museum to embrace us in the preservation, restoration and education for all things lighthouse at Coffs Harbour.

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  5. William Benjamin Norgate was my great grandfather. One of his daughters, Florence, was my grandmother. She was born on Thursday Island in 1901. She married and her three sons were also born on TI.
    Are you sure ‘Lizzie’ moved to the mainland? She is buried next to her husband on TI.

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