In the late 18th Century, shipping between Sydney and Newcastle was perilous. Thick fog, fierce gales, jagged rocks and black-out conditions often encountered along the coast, claimed the lives of many seamen.
Edward Hammond Hargraves, a noted Noraville resident (credited with starting the first Australian Gold Rush in 1851) started the impetus for a lighthouse after witnessing a number of shipwrecks along the coast including the coal-carrier Esperanza in 1868. The loss of the steamer Gwydir in 1884 hardened the resolve of maritime officials to construct a light at Norah Head.
The lightstation was officially designed by Charles Assinder Harding but credit for the architectural style was taken by James Barnet, regarded by some as the father of colonial architecture in NSW. Barnet designed the Sydney GPO and more than 1400 other public buildings in the Colony, but Norah Head was the last to be built in his classical style.
The building was the third to be constructed using new standardised building techniques for remote lightstations. Some credit these new practices for paving the way for the construction of other remote lights around Australia.
Barnet modelled the lightstation on the first Macquarie Lighthouse at South Head, Sydney. He designed the building with the idea of using pre-cast concrete blocks made on-site and local aggregate. Hallmarks of his design can also be seen in the tiled floors, bluestone balcony and gunmetal railings.
Construction of the Lighthouse building was started on the 26th February 1901 by day labour and the Public Works Department, under the direction of C.W. Darley and C.A. Harding. The building was completed in 1903 at a cost of about 24,000 pounds (19,000 for all buildings and 5,000 for the optics).
The Lighthouse was opened on 15th November 1903 by the Department of Harbours and Rivers Superintendent. Also in attendance were the Principal Engineer and Branch Officer, the Public Works Department Architect, Photographer and Inspector. The light was first illuminated at 7.10 p.m. pm the 15th November and the first keepers were W.H. Williams (Principal Keeper), H. Hanson (1st Assistant) and Soloman Kells (2nd Assistant).
A vaporised kerosene burner and mantle illuminated the Norah Head beam from a focal plane of 46m above high water. The light emitted 118,000 candlepower and in clear weather it could be seen 18 nautical miles out to sea.
In 1910, the light was upgraded with a new Chance Bros. Mantle increasing it to 438,000 candle-power. The 700 millimetre focal radius floats in a bath of mercury to reduce friction during rotation.
In 1923, modifications were made to the original concentric wick burner and a new Ford-Schmidt kerosene burner increased the light’s brilliance to 700,000 candlepower. Initially, the light revolved every 10 seconds with 2 flashes. However, as can be noted from some of the keeper’s records “when the keepers entered to adjust the burner or pump up the vaporisers, they had to revolve with the light, which was a severe strain even upon those accustomed to it.” So, in 1928 changes were made to slow the light to revolve every 30 seconds with 2 flashes.
In 1961, the kerosene burner was removed in favour of mains electricity. The original lens was retained but the power of the light was increased to 1,000,000 candlepower. The lantern is 369 centimetres in diameter.
In 1995, the lighthouse became fully automated and today’s beam of light is provided by a 1000 watt, 120 volt tungsten halogen white light shining through a Fresnel classic, 2nd Order Di-optic prism with the Chance Bros. Apparatus producing a feu-éclair (lightning flash) of one fifth of a second and an eclipse (dark) of 14.95 seconds which can be seen 28 nautical miles, or 40 kilometres out to sea. A sighting of the light has been recorded from South Head (Macquarie Light), 70 kilometres away. The horizon is about 24 nautical miles.
Since the Lighthouse’s construction, there have been three ships lost along this section of the coastline:
- 1917: the small 219 tonne collier, the Nerong, was wrecked and now lies three nautical miles off Norah Head Lighthouse, 43 metres down resting on sand.
- 1940: a 1052 tonne Dutch built vessel, the Nimbin, struck a German mine 13 k off Norah Head and sank during WWII, Captain and 6 crew were lost.
- 1942: the BHP vessel, the Iron Chieftain, sank after a Japanese submarine torpedoed it. 13 crew lost, the HMAS Bingara picked up 12 survivors from a raft and the following day an additional 25 survivors in the ship’s lifeboat landed at North Entrance Beach. The submarine that sank the Iron Chieftain is believed to be part of the pack that destroyed shipping in Sydney Harbour and shelled Newcastle.