To the lighthouse we go

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Each time I drive by McCrae Lighthouse, I’m reminded of a world where past generations braved the elements and realise that the romantic notion of writing a novel in isolation may not have anything to do with the day-to-day toil of lighthouse living. 

Lifelong Mornington Peninsula resident Catherine O’Byrne’s great-great-grandfather Wemyss Thomson was one of those people who tended to the bright light in the late 1800s in a quest to welcome home weary sailors and their battered vessels. Born in the Scottish fishing village of Wick and migrating to Australia aboard the clipper ship The Lightning in 1854, this was a man of seafaring measure.  

Catherine explains: “Wemyss was a fisherman and made model ships as a hobby. He came second place at the 1866 Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition with a ship he built. Melbourne Museum still has the ship and certificate awarded to him, as stated in Janine Jackson’s book The Lighthouse Keepers of Gabo Island. He married Isabella Smith in 1874 in Williamstown and they had nine children: Mary, Isabella, Wemyss Jr and John, born in Williamstown, then Alfred, Charles, George, Ernest and Adam. Mary died when she was four, John at one year old, Charles at birth and Ernest when he was two. Wemyss was originally a gate keeper and dock labourer before joining the Victorian Lighthouse Service in 1880. Wemyss, Isabella and their children Isabella (Belle), Wemyss Jr and Alf were first stationed at Port Fairy where George was born. The water quality was pretty bad and that’s where they lost baby Charles. Ernest died at Queenscliff and they lost Adam, born at Queenscliff Lighthouse, years later. He was one of the first men off the boats at Gallipoli and died later on the Western Front in France.”

Life in the late 1800s was fraught with hardship, and living and working as a lighthouse keeper in Victoria must have been hard yakka with bells on. Although early lighthouse keepers were self-sufficient and grew fruit and vegies and looked after sheep and cattle, the lighthouse tender vessel only visited a handful of times throughout the year, so life could get pretty lonely and dangerous if things turned pear-shaped. Catherine continues: “Most stations had two to three keepers who were on a call roster of four hours on duty then eight hours off, and the lighthouse mechanism needed to be rewound every 30 to 90 minutes. There was food to grow and treacherous weather to contend with.”

Wemyss and his family moved from Port Fairy/Belfast Lighthouse to Cape Nelson, Gabo Island, then to Queenscliff, and eventually landed at McCrae Lighthouse in the late 1890s. With the family settling on the Mornington Peninsula, the sea has continued to flow through the generations that have followed. Catherine’s grandmother, Avis, took her grandchildren beachcombing along the back beaches and on night-time coastal bushwalking adventures. As a teenager growing up in Sorrento, Catherine explored the back beaches and the bush with her brother and sister, and upon returning from overseas she continued the tradition with her own two daughters. She now lives and runs her own business in Dromana.    

Writers have been fascinated with the iconic and metaphorical magic of the lighthouse. A wandering ship’s only guiding light. A cold-faced monolith growing from an island battling the elements high above the ocean’s fury. A perfect space for creation. What tough stuff Wemyss Thomson and his family must have been made of to finally land at the McCrae Lighthouse.

Romantic? Maybe not. But a heck of a story anyway. 

LIZ ROGERS

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