As a born and bred Tasmanian I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of remote Swan Island and its lighthouse. It is located five miles off the north-east coast of Tasmania. The tower was built in 1845 using convict labour, poor souls. An unusual feature is that the staircase is attached to a central column rather than the walls.
The island was infamous for its huge population of deadly tiger snakes….maybe they were responsible for the demise of the swans.😨 In the days before they were protected one keeper reported killing 1,000 snakes in a twelve month period, Mutton birds nested on the island, but it was impossible for keepers and their families to harvest the chicks due to tiger snakes living in virtually every burrow. Imagine how many there must be now!
Inevitably the interface between snakes and humans led to tragedy, compounded by the island’s remoteness. In November 1933 Roy Patterson, 15 year old son of the assistant lighthouse keeper, was accidentally killed when he and his close friend Lawrence Williams (the Head Keeper’s son) were out shooting snakes. At the time the only means of communication was by flagging a passing ship, or by using a heliograph to form morse code symbols via controlled flashes of the sun. It was a heliograph message that alerted the steamer Kowhai, which transported the boy’s body to Bridport. The inquest had to be held on the island, as the light could not be left unattended.
Here is an aerial photo of Swan Island published in the Melbourne Herald seven months prior to the accident. Note the two men standing on the parapet, probably keepers Patterson and Williams.
Two years later there was another awful situation when the next head keeper, Arthur Hickman, fell seriously ill just before Christmas. It was not until December 28 that distress signals were noticed by the steamer Lutana. Hickman and his wife Flo had to be taken down to the jetty on a bullock drawn sled before being transferred to the Lutana in a dinghy.
While her husband was recovering in the Launceston Hospital, Mrs Hickman spoke to the press about the challenges of life on Swan Island. She praised the wonderful beaches, but mentioned how dangerous it was for children with so many tiger snakes, and how the lack of radio communication made life even more difficult. Another issue was that it was impossible to grow vegetables due to the raging winds, and supplies were received only a few times a year.
At the time there were a dozen people living on the island. During the interview Mrs Hickman, who had spent time on many different lighthouses with her husband, mentioned that although she had never been there, the best located light by far was at Low Head. It is on the Tasmanian mainland near George Town.
The strange thing was that her comment about never being stationed there was disputed the following day by the Deputy Director of Navigation.
Dear me, could you really forget a stay of three years? Well, I suppose living in lighthouses so long could make a person a bit crazy. However, I suspect Mrs Hickman had not forgotten at all, and was trying to use the sympathy vote to wrangle a transfer back to Low Head. Honestly, who could blame her?
The next medical emergency was in 1937 and Mrs Hickman herself was the patient. At least there was a radio link by then.
This is one of the few old photographs I could locate of the island. It was published in The Age on May 20 1950. Mind you, it’s a wonderful image with those bullocks and ‘Old Joe.’ He probably deserves a story of his own. By this time Mr and Mrs Hickman had moved on to other lighthouses, but as far as I know they never made it back to Low Head.
The Swan Island light was de-manned in 1986 and the following year the island was sold. It remains in private hands.
For the full history of Swan Island Lighthouse, CLICK HERE.