Maatsuyker Island lighthouse opened in 1891, back in the days of whaling.
This is Australia’s southernmost light, 10km from the Tasmanian coast. It is surrounded by reefs and is in the direct path of gale force winds dubbed The Roaring Forties.
Elias Dollery was in charge of Hobart gaol, but in his spare time he raced homing pigeons. He suggested that ‘pigeon post’ might be the best way of maintaining some sort of communication with the isolated lighthouse keepers when the seas were too rough for shipping.
In 1908 fourteen birds were sent to the island. During a trial period the head keeper was instructed to liberate three pigeons at regular intervals. Why three? Well, the sad truth is that they faced a lot of challenges, not just weather related, but also from attacks by eagles, hawks and ospreys.
The pigeons took a little while to get the hang of things.
Today, Mr. Dollery informed the Marine Board that the first pigeons had arrived the previous afternoon. The message was as follows: – To the master warden, Marine Board Hobart: ‘Released three birds on the 11th inst. They were flying about all day, in sight most of the time. Towards evening they alighted on the roof of the spare quarters, where they invariably roosted. After several days, I caught them. Will release three others today. It blew a storm here on the 8th inst., completely wrecking my cowshed, and partly blew it over the cliffs. All well.‘ (Sydney Morning Herald Feb. 21 1908)
However, it wasn’t long before the pigeons proved themselves life savers. On November 13 that first year Mr Dollery unfurled a message from an arriving bird which read that one of the assistant keepers was dangerously ill. The S.S. Dover was dispatched, with a doctor on board.
Of course, there were limitations to what the pigeon post could do when the keepers suffered accidents or illness. In May 1921 head keeper Mr J. Lambert was breaking in a horse on Maatsuyker when it bolted, His arm was fractured as he was thrown against rocks;
With a view of getting into communication with Hobart and informing the officials of the Lighthouse Department of his accident, a message was despatched the following day by a pigeon, a number of which birds are kept on the island expressly for this purpose, but the bird did not arrive here until Tuesday evening. (The Mercury, May 13 1921)
By the time the poor pigeon battled its way to Hobart and help arrived at the lighthouse, Mr Lambert had been nursing his broken arm for six days.
The island’s horses were indispensable, used to haul supplies to the ‘light’ from the landing dock. When food rations for them ran low the pigeons saved the day.
Fragile messages from 1922 requesting food for the animals were preserved by the Lighthouse Authority. They are now held in The Maritime Museum of Tasmania.
In 1925 it was not just the horses that were running out of food, but the keepers and their families. There had been a shipping strike, and the lighthouse tender, the Lady Loch, was weeks late.
The assistant keeper on Maatsuyker was interviewed for The News when he finally reached Hobart. Even the pigeon post messages had gone unanswered;
‘For a start’ he said, the Lady Loch was a month late. I had exhausted all my supplies and was living with my mate. We had about a weeks supply left, touching them lightly.’ The weather, he said, had been ‘like hell let loose’, for weeks. ‘For four months we’ve had no news. We sent three carrier pigeons with reports to Hobart. They arrived all right, but we got no word back’….As a last resort to secure provisions the keepers had planned to go mutton- birding. ‘However, the old Lady Loch turned up, and we’re back in circulation. We had a rotten Christmas stuck away there – but I reckon we’ll make up for it now.‘ (The News, February 23 1925).
By 1929, the Tasmanian Government was considering reducing the married keepers’ term of two years on Maatsuyker to one, given the isolation and extreme weather faced by the men and their families. For example, there was very little space for children to play safely. Another issue was that it was impossible to grow vegetables in such an exposed location.
In September one of the attendants took ill and it was necessary to send carrier pigeons conveying messages asking for help. Most of the birds, however, were attacked by hawks before they could reach the mainland, and the sick man had to wait for the usual call of the supply boat which goes there about every tree months if the weather is favourable. (Examiner December 7 1929)
It was time to look to the future. The pigeon post to Maatsuyker ceased in 1930, replaced by wireless.
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