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The shining light of the little iron pot

The shining light of the little iron pot


As Tasmania’s first lighthouse, the Iron Pot Lighthouse at the mouth of Hobart’s Derwent River has shone brightly in fair weather and foul. It has been the destination for a mini Tasmanian gold-rush and survived a violent tempest which threatened to put this enduring light out for good.

ecause of its long history, its role as an early navigation aid in Australia, association with early colonial figures and its place in the hearts and minds of Tasmanians, the Iron Pot Lighthouse was last year added to the Tasmanian Heritage Register.

Chairperson of the Heritage Council Dr Dianne Snowden said that the Iron Pot commenced operation in 1833, the first to do so in Tasmania and only the second in Australia.

“The Iron Pot forms part of a wider network of lighthouses established during the early 19th century, around the coastline of Tasmania and Australia,” Dr Snowden said. “Like many lighthouses it is a dramatic landmark feature, and gives an impressive visual quality as your come up the Derwent River.

“This lighthouse was the design of colonial architect John Lee Archer, an important colonial figure also responsible for buildings like Parliament House and the Ross Bridge.”

iron pot11As one of Australia’s earliest lighthouses the Iron Pot was originally fuelled by sperm whale oil.

iron pot07“In 1850 it was reported that the light used one pint of sperm whale oil per hour and 440 gallons per year, with six months’ supply of oil stored on the island,” Dr Snowden said.

In those days running a lighthouse was a labour intensive business and in the early years there were buildings and infrastructure to support three lighthouse keepers and their families, as well as the light.iron pot12

This solid looking beacon of light has been the subject of a controversy or two throughout its long life. Heritage Tasmania Research Officer Melinda Clarke, who undertook the research supporting the inclusion of the Iron Pot in the Heritage Register, said that in the 1860s Hobart residents had been whipped into a frenzy with reports that gold had been found on the island.

“It was described by The Hobart Mercury as ‘the comedy drama of 1862’ as locals chartered a steamer to take them from Hobart to Iron Pot Lighthouse in search of their fortune,” Ms Clarke said. “During the journey the Iron Pot Auriferous Quartz Mining and Crushing Company was formed: a chairman was elected, directors chosen, banker and solicitor appointed and shares allotted.”

Things seemed to have quickly turned to farce on their arrival as they soon found there was no gold and apparently ‘never would be’.

iron pot08“The previously excited searchers then turned on the ‘discoverer’ who apparently took refuge in the lighthouse to escape a ‘ducking’!” Ms Clarke said.

The origin of the name ‘Iron Pot’ has been a matter of debate over the years. The conjecture goes back at least as far as 1932 when The Mercury newspaper, commemorating the centenary of the lighthouse, commented: “It is not easy to ascertain how the name ‘Iron Pot’ originated. Some say by reason of the curiously-formed pot holes on the rock, and others from the fact that for many years a large boiling-down pot, used in connection with the whaling industry, stood on the islet.”

iron pot03Although the Iron Pot has provided a beacon of safety for vessels travelling to Hobart in stormy seas for nearly two centuries, it has also weathered severe storms coming up from the south which took their toll on the structures on the island.

In September 1895 The Mercury newspaper reported that a fierce storm hit the Iron Pot. The storm caused significant damage including washing away five of the island’s water tanks, and a 90 feet by three and a half foot sandstone wall which protected the lighthouse.

“The seas reportedly flooded the keepers’ houses and moved two of them three feet from their foundations,” Dr Snowden said. “Huge boulders were thrown by the sea onto the island, and a large wooden store shed was completely washed away. Windows were smashed and water poured over the balcony of the lighthouse.

iron pot09“Miraculously, there was no loss of life, but the keepers and their families must have spent a terrifying night keeping out of the way of the stormy seas —the keepers managed to keep the light burning throughout it all.”

The damage was repaired almost immediately. But within 25 years technology replaced the need for lighthouse keepers, with an automated light.

“In 1920, the lighthouse keepers were withdrawn from the Iron Pot, and in 1921 the buildings that housed the head keeper, his assistants and their families were dismantled,” Dr Snowden said.

In 1915 control of Australia’s lighthouses was transferred to the Commonwealth government, and in 1925 the control was transferred back to the Tasmanian Marine Board, although the light continued to be serviced by the Commonwealth Department of Transport Lighthouse Service.

In 1976 the Marine Board took over servicing the light and in 1977 it was converted to electricity with batteries charged by solar power. The Iron Pot Lighthouse is one of the first Australian lighthouse to use solar power.

The site has been managed by the Parks and Wildlife Service since 1997.

Today only the lighthouse, a derrick crane and a sandstone wall which marked the boundary of the head lighthouse and assistant keepers’ yards still stand.iron pot01

Photos by Simon de Salis.

Historic pictures courtesy Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office