Cliffy Island

Cliffy Island is a small island off the coast of Victoria near Wilson’s Promontory, essentially the tip of a submerged mountain.  I flew over in a helicopter on the morning of 21 July 1987 on the way to Deal Island (in the Kent Group).

Cliffy Is from air-Edit

Cliffy Island from the Air
About 10:30am 21 July 1987
Nikon FE
85mm Nikkor f1.8 AI (at a guess)
Fujichrome 50

Cliffy Island lighthouse came into operation in 1884.  The lighthouse is 12 metres high and it sits 52 metres above the sea.  It was converted to automatic in 1971, the keepers transferred out and the cottages demolished.  Today the island’s only occupants are seals.

In the days before helicopters, the logistical difficulties of supply and of getting people on and off the island must have been considerable.  … Not to mention the difficulties of building there in the first place.  The lighthouse is built of granite sourced on the island.

There was originally a stone cottage for the head keeper and a wooden duplex building for the assistant keepers and their families.  The stone cottage burnt down in 1919 and all cottages were later replaced.  This island is not the most convenient place to be burned out of your home.

The sides of the island are so steep that they used a landing 25 metres above the sea.  Supplies were lifted up vertically and then swivelled across to the landing.  Getting people on and off the island involved raising or lowering a boat with them in it 25 metres between the landing and the sea.  Then they used a 350-metre cable railway to ferry people and supplies between the landing and the lighthouse.  You can see the landing above in the near corner of the island and also the railway behind it.  If you click on the image you will get a better, larger view.

Until there was a radio telephone in 1926, communications with the mainland must have been intermittent.  I think it was too far to flash signals to Wilson’s Promontory, the next lighthouse.  I would guess they used carrier pigeons but don’t actually know.

I thought I had a second image of Cliffy Island but I found that it was mislabelled and is of Deal Island, taken later that same morning.  I have added this to the post for Deal Island as the last image, though I have usually kept the images in chronological order and it would have been the first taken.

13 comments on “Cliffy Island

  1. […] Cliffy Island (Tas) […]

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  2. Ellen Lyall says:

    My maternal Grandfather James Stewart was an assistant lighthouse keeper at Cliffy, Wilson’s Prom and Gabbo. My grandmother Ethel Gunston Stewart died in Pambula after becoming seriously ill whilst on Gabbo Island.

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    • Murray Foote says:

      Cliffy Island would have been a very remote place before the advent of helicopters, even though quite close to Melbourne; accessible by sea only in favourable weather. Gabo Island, which had a jetty, would have been much more accessible from Mallacouta. Wilson’s Prom not so remote at all in comparison. All of them remarkable places to live.

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      • Ellen Beatty says:

        Murray, Gabo and Cliify whilst close to the mainland were both islands that were regularly inaccessible. My family history will attest to that being so.
        My grandmother died whilst in her late 20s in tragic circumstances. The boat attempting to reach her on Gabo was unsuccessful due to the storms surrounding the island. When she finally arrived on the mainland, Pambula her health had deteriorated to such an extent that she died shortly after.
        Both these islands were rugged and isolated, the keepers cottages on Cliffy being built of timber. It would be impossible to imagine the isolation and difficulties the woman and children experienced. My late mother Stella developed severe hearing impairment and was profoundly deaf in her left ear. My mother recalls experiencing severe ear ache and no medication was available. Her young mother made poltises to alleviate the pain. This all happened during the late 1920’s.
        As I grow in years I reflect often on their many challenges and yes Murray the islands may have been close to the mainland but they were absolutely isolateed especially when illness was experienced. Morse code and letters being the main source of communication.WELL BEFORE HELICOPTERS. My Mother’s story featured on Australian story some 12 years ago with my sister Alexandra Lyall
        Whilst there is a romantic notion surrounding the light house life style, the reality for families living the dream was a little more reality based,
        Kind regards,
        Ellen Beatty

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      • Murray Foote says:

        What a remarkable family history though! And thank you for your stories.

        I have sea captains on both sides of the family in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Living on a lighthouse may have been a little like that. While they may have loved the sea, life would have been hard for everyone. Many years ago, I glimpsed and read an old diary from my mother’s side of the family with multiple stories of people who went down with their ships.

        In Van Dieman’s Land (as it was then), for the earliest lighthouses, convicts were offered to serve out their sentences as lighthouse keepers. In one case, they dropped someone on an island with six months of supplies and I think building materials to build a home. It was in Bass Strait if I remember correctly. Shortly after the boat left, a big storm came up and washed most of those supplies away. When the boat returned six months later, he was still alive but reportedly quite mad.

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      • Ellen Lyall says:

        Interesting Murray, I think the isolation for many would have been enough to unhinge the mind, I think the isolation suited my grandfather who was highly decorated whilst fighting in the western front. He received military cross and bar.
        He would without any doubt have suffered sever shell shock, now known as PTSD.
        So the LH experience would possibly have proved to have had a cathartic affect upon his emotional state. My grandmother who was a Brunswick lass was not cut out for the isolation.
        Hard to imagine!
        Kind regards,
        Ellen Lyall

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      • Murray Foote says:

        I think you never accurately know how you are going to handle significant trauma, even if you have handled something like it before.

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  3. HELEN DAVIES says:

    Good Evening,
    My name is Helen Davies (nee Avery),
    My father Adrian Bernard Avery grew up in Yarram in South Gippsland,
    His father was John Avery and his Grandfather was also John Avery a builder from Port Albert.
    Members of my family have researched the family history through Trove and the Port Albert Maritime Museum archives. They have discovered that John Avery senior was part of a group of men who sailed presumably from Port Albert to Cliffy Island with supplies to build the Cliffy Island lighthouse and we presume the lighthouse keepers cottages and other buildings. The Lighthouses of Australia Book by John Ibbotson record that the lighthouse was built in 1884. John Avery senior was born in Glasgow, in 1825 and died in 1903 in Port Albert. There is a gravestone in Alberton Cemetry but also to other Avery family members,

    Regards
    Helen Davies

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    • Murray Foote says:

      Sorry. Just back from travelling. I forgot to reply.

      Building a lighthouse on a place like that would have been a remarkable experience. No access to boats when it was rough and probably living in tents with little cover when the weather turned bad.

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  4. HELEN DAVIES says:

    This is an extract from History of the Shire of Alberton by John Adams. “In 1883 contractors from Port Albert were engaged in building a lighthouse on Cliffy Island, an island just over two acres (.8 ha) in extent, in the Seal Islands some 29 km south of the Port. The lighthouse was of importance for shipping to help navigators recognise their position in relation to Wilsons Promontory. Some 43 workmen from Port Albert area were taken on a 19 tonne cutter with Captain Legget. Rough weather made it difficult to land but eventually John Avery got on to the island and secured the boat. Captain Leggett had to take his cutter back to Port Albert for repair leaving the ketch “Emily” to bring more men to the island.
    Rocks were used to secure the tents but a gale blew them all away leaving the men defenceless. Eventually some buildings were erected but the blacksmith’s shop was also blown away. Setting up a 2.74 m jib crane was immensely difficult. One of the men’s companions on the island was a huge octopus in a rock pool. Port Albert was the base for the workmen and on one occasion they played cricket with a Port team.”

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    • Murray Foote says:

      That’s extraordinary. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like.

      If I remember correctly, the first lighthouse in England was destroyed in a storm and all there perished, including the architect. Later, in a lighthouse in Northern England or Scotland, a storm destroyed the uncompleted lighthouse and those on the rock (rather than island) perished.

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    • Ellen Lyall says:

      Thanks Helen,
      I describe Cliffy as a rock rather than an island. My grandfather was stationed there with his family, I cannot imagine the life they endured.
      Kind regards,
      Ellen Lyall née Stewart

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