Australia - Colonial: 1855-1900.
The Gabo Island failed telegraph inter-colonial joint venture.

On this page:

1. The nature of Gabo Island.

2. Construction of the lighthouse and early days.

3. Costs contributed by the NSW and Victorian Governments.

4. Construction of the telegraph line to Gabo Island.

5. Operation of the telegraph station.

6. References.


1. The nature of Gabo Island.

Gabo Island is a small 154 hectare island about 500 metres off the Victorian coast between Mallacoota and Cape Howe at the NSW border. The island is about 2 km in length. The present lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1862 using the pink granite of which the island was formed. It is an important bird sanctuary and the home to the world's second largest colony of little penguins.

The main importance of Gabo Island lies in the ability of such an outpost to monitor the large amount of maritime shipping that has always passed by it. This function would also involve being a signalling point for maritime disasters - which were, unfortunately all too frequent in the Colonial days to about 1900. There are other reasons to have outposts to monitor shipping - a principal reason being for defence of the shores. A typical and common concern was expressed in a letter to the Editor of The Argus on 13 July 1859:


As scarcely a week passes that we do not hear of telegraphic communication with Adelaide being stopped at Mount Gambier or that with Sydney at Albury and so on, permit me to suggest the propriety of at once putting those main lines in such order that no such stoppages may take place. Of what infinite importance it may be to us to know beforehand that a hostile force had arrived at Sydney or Adelaide! Again, I see the Omeo has just arrived with the Tasmanian cable on board. Would it not be well to expedite the laying it down as much as possible, and could we not establish some sort of telegraphic communication with our lighthouse-keepers at Cape Otway, Wilson's Promontory, Gabo Island and so on. A few semaphores might be erected over the country to establish some communication between the nearest telegraphic station and these points and much useful information may thus be given.

Hoping these hints may be of service,
I am, yours respectfully,

A transient use of Gabo Island was for extracting the pink granite. The Argus of 20 October 1856 reported that:


Mr. Johnson, architect of the lighthouse on Gabo Island, has left at our office some specimens of porphyritic granite, a material which promises to be of great service to our builders and architects. In colour it closely resembles porphyry; it does not present greater difficulties in working than the ordinary bluestone; is more ornamental in appearance than that, and will cost about the same price as the greystone which we now receive from Van Diemen's Land; and its durability may be termed everlasting. It admits of a very high polish and will no doubt come into very extensive use, ultimately for decorative as well as constructive purposes.

It's value for the latter appears to have been fully recognised by Sir William Denison and the Government authorities of New South Wales as we are informed that the batteries about to be erected at the entrance of Port Jackson will be built of the Gabo Island granite. Mr. Johnson tells us that it exists in practically unlimited quantities and is quarried within fifty feet of the water's edge. Combining, as this porphyritic granite does, beauty of grain and colour with extreme durability, we recommend it to the particular attention of architects and of all who feel interested in the character of the public buildings hereafter to be erected in this city".

The Sydney Morning Herald of 15 May 1857 reported comments of interest to both Colonies:

A negotiation, yet in embryo, is talked of between the members of the Royal Exchange and Government, with respect to a requisition made on the part of the former, that the Royal Exchange be the principal telegraph station for Sydney. Great advantages would be secured to the commercial community by this arrangement and many circumstances point to it as the best that could be adopted ...

THE SYDNEY ROYAL EXCHANGE, built on a well chosen site, is an edifice in an architectural point of view, worthy of a great commercial city. Business to some extent is transacted within its walls at present but the ceremony of its formal dedication to the public will not take place before next July. The great hall, running throughout the entire breadth of the building from Gresham Street to Pitt Street and which is upwards of ninety feet long, will then be completed and no other delay in opening it is anticipated. The general appearance of the structure is elegant and, when completed as proposed to be with the addition of a lofty dome or cupola from the roof and an ornamental balustrade or an elevated coping to be carved round the outer edge, will bear favourable comparison with buildings of a like character in the mother country.

A new material of stone, called feltspar, has been used in the kerbing of the footway round the building which it is said exceeds in hardness and durability all stone hitherto used in the colony. It is quarried on Gabo Island and conveyed to Sydney by vessels touching at the island with orders for supplies. There is no difficulty experienced in loading, there being a safe anchorage close to the shore. A Mr. S. Johnson is working the quarries under agreement with the Government. At present the quality of the stone is but little known".

The quarrying did not last long - the minutes of the Assembly (in Victoria) of 23 September 1857 record:


Mr WILLS rose to ask if it is the intention of the Government to refuse a renewal of his license to Mr. Johnstone (sic) to quarry stone at Gabo Island, if so, why?
He explained the connection of Mr Johnstone with this island since the year 1852, when he was shipwrecked upon that island, and the grounds of his claim upon the Sydney Government for compensation, which that Government had refused to recognise. He had since obtained a license from the Victorian Government, which he had now notice would be withdrawn. He now wished to have a license not only to quarry stone but also to depasture stock upon the island.

Mr MOORE replied that the Government did intend to refuse the re-issue of the license as it was first issued in ignorance of Mr Johnstone's proceedings and the refusal of the Sydney Government to grant his license. In correspondence with that Government, it had also appeared that the presence of Mr. Johnstone on the island was very undesirable and that he interfered very much with the proper management of the lighthouse. On those grounds the license would not be renewed".


2. Construction of the lighthouse and early days.

Discussion about constructing a lighthouse began in 1841 and continued slowly for years. Finally a tender was accepted in 1846 to Mr John Morris to build a wooden lighthouse - but the site selected was impossible for a building to be erected. Finally construction stopped because the two Colonies could not agreed of apportioning costs (see below). After some maritime disasters, building of a temporary structure by the NSW Government recommenced. The wooden tower was pre-assembled in Sydney and then dismantled and re-erected on the island. It began lighthouse operation on 28 November 1853.

By 1859, the original structure had fallen into a state of disrepair. Hence, in February 1860, a sum of £7,500 was placed on the estimates to complete the lighthouse using the pink granite found on the island. The original plans can be seen elsewhere.

About 28 July 1860, a number of NSW newspapers carried the calls for tendering for the construction of the new lighthouse:

"Tenders have been advertised, both here and in the adjoining colony, for the construction of a lighthouse on Gabo Island, the expense of which will be divided between the two colonies. The cost of the works estimated by the Colonial Architect when recently visiting the spot, was about £10,000 but this estimate was made on the basis of Sydney prices which are lower than those at Melbourne, but also on the supposition that the lighthouse would, as he recommended, be erected on an elevation in the middle of the island. A committee of nautical men having, however, advised that the light should be placed upon the shore, that recommendation was overruled. And as the building will thereby be required to be carried to a greater height, the cost of construction will be much greater. The cost of the works, according to the plans prepared in Melbourne, is estimated at upwards of £20,000. As this sum was calculated upon the expense of such works in Melbourne, it is believed that it will be tendered for at a considerably less sum by contractors in this colony".

In September 1860, the Gazette (for Victoria) announced that a tender had been accepted from R. Huckson & Co for the "Lighthouse etc Gabo Island" for £14,950. Presumably this amount covered the contributions from both Governments.

In the NSW Legislative Assembly on 28 September 1860, Mr Moriaty said, during a discussion about several NSW lighthouses, that "on Gabo Island, the light-house ought to have been built long before and unfortunately, when it was built, they selected the very worst spot. After digging a great depth in the sand, they set up a wooden light-house, three-quarters of a mile from the extreme point of the island which was absolutely formed of granite and the natural position of the island for the site from which they cut granite to form the light-house. This resulted from sending men to determine the matter who were utterly incompetent".

In 1860, Gabo Island was added to the list of stations required to collect meteorological data including temperatures and rainfall.

The construction difficulties encountered sent Huckson bankrupt and a partnership of Alexander Cairns and Henry Mills was appointed in February 1862 to finish the task. This they did very quickly. On 20 August 1862, Flinders Light (from the original wooden building) was officially extinguished and the new Gabo Island Lighthouse was lit for the first time..

As some stage, damage was being inflicted on the island by an intruder. For example, in the Legislative Assembly of 16 December 1857, "Mr. Wills asked if the Government were aware of the threatened destruction of property in this territory at Gabo Island by Captain Robert Pockley, styling himself "Superintendent of Lights, Pilots, and Navigation" in the service of New South Wales and, if so, their intention in respect thereof". Nothing more is known of this intrusion.


3. Costs contributed by NSW and Victorian Governments.

There was little love lost between the Governments of New South Wales and Victoria over the costs for operating the Gabo Island lighthouse. Early work had been completed up to 1850 by the NSW Colonial Government. A debate then followed as to the nature of Gabo Island - was it an island or part of the mainland? This discussion continued after the two Colonies separated in 1850.

After some major maritime disasters causing significant loss of life - the wreck of the Monument City in 1853 being the most significant - politicians and public servants realised the situation had to be settled. In 1853, it was agreed that the costs of building and operating the lighthouse would be shared between the two Governments. Operational costs for the lighthouse would be shared equally and the Victorians would pay the salary of the lighthouse keeper. Examples of the deliberations which took place in the two Colonies are:

In the Additional Estimates for Victoria proposed in May 1855, the relevant item notes:

Payments conjointly with other Governments:

One half of the cost of the lighting apparatus and lantern for the lighthouse (Gabo Island) and
one half of the expense of maintaining that light in addition to the sum provided on the Estimates of 1854: £1,660 18s 2d.

In the corresponding session in the Victorian Legislative Council on 27 January 1858:

On the vote that a sum of £2,025 be granted for lighthouses, etc, Dr. GREEVES wished to know whether any arrangements had been made with the Government of New South Wales with reference to the lighthouse on Gabo Island.
Mr. EBDEN stated that there had been and that he believed Capt. Pasley had taken possession of that island.
The vote was then passed.

On 28 May 1858, the NSW Legislative Assembly resolved itself into a Committee of Supply and discussed various budgetary matters including funding for Gabo Island.

Mr. CAMPBELL moved the following estimates for the Lighthouse, Gabo Island:

Superintendent £216 0 0 4
4 light-keepers, at £103 £432 0 0
Oil for the light £500 0 0
Fuel £60 0 0
New boat £40 0 0
Repairs to machinery and incidental expenses £50 0 0
Total £1,298 0 0

Mr. DONALDSON wished to know whether the Victorian Government had taken charge of the island.

Mr. CAMPBELL informed the Hon. gentleman that Victoria had taken possession of Gabo Island.

Mr. DONALDSON: Then why provide for more than half the expenditure consequent on the lighthouse?

Mr. CAMPBELL said the sum was a contingent vote. If the whole of the money could not be demanded in accordance with the terms of the agreement, of course it would not be paid. This Government were, however, bound to provide for the whole of the salaries and contingencies up to the 31st March, because it was not until that date that the island was handed over to Victoria.

Mr. SUTTOR wished to know if Victoria paid half the cost of the erection of the lighthouse?

Mr. CAMPBELL said he was surprised that the Hon. gentleman should ask such a question. This lighthouse was erected on Gabo Island when it was supposed to be an island but it was afterwards found not to be an island but a portion of the mainland of Victoria and it was assigned over by a previous Government. It had, in fact, no claim to the building more than any private individual who might erect a house on another man's property.

Mr. DONALDSON thought the Hon. gentleman did not know what he was talking about. The island was assigned to Victoria by the Act of Separation. It was really of no value and might have been in possession of New South Wales until this moment had it not been for a troublesome individual of the name of Johnson. The Hon. gentleman concluded by moving that the sum be reduced by £498. Mr. COWPER, supported the vote.

Mr. CAMPBELL said he should be happy to accept the reduced vote because he knew he should have to come down again for the sum in the supplementary Estimates and it would be the means of putting on record the objections of the honorable gentlemen opposite.

Mr. JONES suggested that it would be better if the honorable gentleman opposite would amend his motion by proposing that a lump sum of £1000 be voted because, in point of fact, the Government of Victoria would determine what the salaries paid should be and this Government had no alternative but to pay one-half.

Mr. DONALDSON obtained permission to withdraw his amendment and then proposed that the sum be reduced to £1,000 to defray the New South Wales share of the expenses of the Gabo Island lighthouse.
The smaller amount (£1,000) was then put and passed.


4. Construction of the telegraph line to Gabo Island.

The Victorians claimed that, as the telegram line was almost entirely constructed in NSW, then the Victorians should not meet any costs for the telegram service. The first inkling of the NSW initiative to construct the telegraph line came with Mr. Parkes foreshadowing, in May 1855, the introduction of a Bill in the coming session of Council "to provide for the formation of an Electric Telegraph between Sydney and Gabo".

Parliamentary Papers contained the Report by Mr. E. C. Cracknell for the years 1863 and 1864. In relation to constructing lines of telegraph to the various lighthouses along the coast, the Report noted that to connect the Gabo Island light, a line from Cooma to Eden and thence to the island would be required - at a cost of £5,750.

In terms of Victorian telegraph lines, it must be remembered that tenders for the first lines in Gippsland - from Dandenong to Sale - were only called in the second half of 1863 and that line was only completed in September 1864. No consideration could even enter the framework of Victorian telegraphs for a development at the other end of the Colony - 420+ km (260 miles) away in a straight line irrespective of the extremely harsh nature of the terrain.

On 25 March 1869, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Mr. E. C. Cracknell the Superintendent of Telegraphs, returned from a visit to Gabo Island. He went to inspect a shifting sand bank between Gabo Island and the mainland, near Cape Howe, with a view to making the necessary arrangements for carrying the telegraph wire from Twofold Bay to the Gabo Lighthouse. The place where this sandbank usually appears is sometimes covered with water for a mile in extent. Two seas meet and, in rough weather, there is an extraordinary rise of the tide. The bar is ever changing. It is sometimes in one place, sometimes in another and sometimes it is washed away by a storm but it gradually forms again. Hence the difficulty in the way of stretching a telegraphic wire across from the mainland. Mr Cracknell is of opinion that it will be necessary to put screw piles with large flanges through the sand and into the solid rock. When this work is accomplished and the telegraph is in working order, shipping from other ports arriving by way of the Straits may be telegraphed from the most extreme south point of the colony.

The line along the land from Twofold Bay will be about thirty five miles and the distance between Gabo Light and the mainland is given in Reading and Wellbank's Nautical Almanac as five and a half miles. The island itself is about 2 miles long.

Mr Cracknell went in the Thetis, in company with Lieutenant Gowland, of the surveying schooner Edith, who has been commissioned to run a meridian line, take soundings and perform various other scientific services for the Imperial Government. As will be seen above, £1,750 has been voted for this work".

In the Gazette of 22 June 1869, the tender was accepted from Mr. Thomas Fitzpatrick for the construction of the telegraph line from Eden to Gabo Island.

Construction work under the supervision of Mr Fitzpatrick commenced on 20 July 1869. The line traversed very rough and heavily-timbered country.

In November 1869, "the large three masted schooner Prince of Wales, from Sydney, with a cargo of maize ... reported light variable weather to Cape Howe which was made on the 13th. A strong S.W gale was then encountered and was followed by variable and light westerly winds and squally weather. Captain Ruols reported having seen a large number of whales between Gabo Island and Wilson's Promontory".

In March 1870, the line had been completed as far as the Spit but the work was suspended pending the delivery of the iron poles required for its completion. Mr Fitzpatrick was expecting the light house at Gabo Island would be brought into communication by the end of April. The delay continued for longer than had been hoped. Then, as reported in The Age of 24 May 1870:

"P. P. Walker, Esq., Superintendent of Telegraphs for New South Wales, at present encamped near Cape Howe for the purpose of extending the telegraph line on to Gabo Island, had a narrow escape in attempting to cross in a boat on to the island. The boat capsized, one man getting right under it but miraculously escaped. Mr. Walker stuck manfully to the capsized boat and, after struggling with it for more than three hours in the sea, all on board got it safe on shore again".

At about the same time, there was a survey party at Cape Howe defining the actual position of the border between the two Colonies.

On 15 June 1870, The Herald reported that "The attempt to construct a line of telegraph between Gabo and Cape Howe has been unsuccessful. Another plan is likely to be adopted".

After a reporting blackout of seven months, on 7 February 1871, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "Mr Higson, Superintendent of Pilots, and Mr. Cracknell, Superintendent of Telegraphs, proceeded this evening by the Government steamer Thetis to Gabo Island for the purpose of opening a telegraph and storm signal station. This will complete our sea coast line". The opening was scheduled for 9 February. After that date, all vessels passing Gabo Island could be signaled.

BUT WAIT - THERE'S MORE: On 17 February, The Argus published the bad news: "The communication with Gabo Island, contrary to expectation, will not be available for a fortnight yet". No explanation was given.

About 25-27 February, a number of newspapers raised hopes that the telegraph station at Gabo Island "was about to open". There were also a number of reports of more whale sightings off Gabo.

On 27 March, 1871 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "The steamer City of Adelaide, on her passage from Melbourne, stopped off Gabo Island and embarked the surveyor belonging to the Telegraph Department and his boat's crew and brought them on to Sydney".

On 19 April 1872 in the Sydney Morning Herald: "telegraphic communication is now complete to the lighthouse on Gabo Island".

In the Legislative Assembly of 22 May 1871, a further £300 had been allocated for the construction of the line from Eden to Gabo Island.

A Telegraph Office was erected next to the houses assigned to the assistant lighthouse keeper. That Office was built of local timber. In 1887, a mass concrete residence and office replaced the original buildings.


5. Operation of the telegraph station.

There were constant problems with the operation of the telegraph lines from Gabo Island - probably exacerbated by the divison of responsibility between the two Governments. The Argus of 1871 relays just one example of many: "When the Pharos left Gabo, the telegraph had broken down between Gabo Island and the mainland. There would be no difficulty in getting perfect communication if a good, substantial and high post were built on the north end of Gabo Island. With the present post, there will not be communication for a month at a time".

On 28 May 1878, the Melbourne Age carried the following story:

"The telegraph station at Gabo Island, which is connected with the signal-house at that place, has frequently been rendered useless in the most critical seasons, in consequence of the carrying away by storms of the mast to which the telegraph line between the island and the main land has been attached. The officials of the New South Wales Government, by whom the telegraph station is conducted, recommended the removal of the station to Cape Howe, on account of its being a safer place; but the Postmaster-General of that colony (Mr. Burns), taking a wider view of the importance of maintaining the station in close proximity to the signal-house, proposed to the Victorian Government, during the sittings of the late conference, the laying of a stout cable across the channel between Gabo Island and the mainland, at the joint expense of the colonies, for a sum not exceeding £500. The proposal was referred by Mr. Cuthbert to Captain Payne, by whom it was strongly supported, as being called for in the interests of the shipping passing to and fro, and we hear the project is therefore about to be carried into effect".

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 31 October 1881,that

"A curious instance of official neglect was disclosed during the search by the Victorian Government steamer Despatch for the missing vessel Balclutha. When the Despatch arrived at Gabo Island on Thursday morning, Captain Anderson elicited from the lighthouse-keeper (Kermode) and the telegraph operator that they had seen the Balclutha pass on the previous Friday. She was then going very smoothly, but soon afterwards the gale increased tremendously with a heavy sea, raising the spray up to the lighthouse tower 200 feet, and they then lost sight of the vessel.

Information of the Balclutha passing Gabo could not be transmitted to Melbourne because, for over four months, the cable connecting the island with the Victorian land line had been broken and although the New South Wales Government, who are responsible, were aware of the fact, no effort was made to repair the line. The operator is kept on the island, receiving a salary, though for months past he has been unable to do any work on account of the line being disabled. If the line had been in order, information would have been received in Melbourne of the Balclutha passing Gabo and the Government would have been saved the cost and trouble of sending the Despatch in search between Capes Everard and Howe".

After repeating that story, the Wagga Wagga Advertiser of 3 November 1881 added the following:

A telegram from Melbourne, dated Sunday, in reference to the Gabo Island telegraph would make it appear (says The Echo) that there had been some "official neglect" on the part of the Government of this colony. Inquiry into the matter, however, proves that an official in the employment of the Victorian Government - the lighthouse keeper at Gabo Island, has certainly not exhibited that humanity which might have been expected. The facts of the matter are briefly these:

  • The lighthouse at Gabo Island is in Victorian territory; and
  • the lighthouse keeper is a Victorian official.
  • The New South Wales Government some years ago connected Gabo Island by means of an electric telegraph with the mainland in order that intelligence might be obtained as to vessels passing the island; and
  • a telegraph operator was appointed whose salary is paid by the two colonies jointly.

Some difficulty was experienced in constructing the telegraph on account of the shifting sand and the heavy sea. Screw piles were tried first; afterwards bridge cylinders filled with concrete. Both of these plans failed and it was determined to try a submarine cable which was in use for some time but which also failed at last.

It was some four months ago that the communication became interrupted; and Mr. Charles Kebby, Telegraph Station Master and line repairer at Eden, Twofold Bay, was sent to ascertain the cause of the damage and to repair it if possible. Mr Kebby found that the defect was in the cable joining Gabo with the mainland and he was on the island for some time endeavouring to remedy the fault. His provisions ran short, but he was refused assistance by the lighthouse-keeper on the ground that the telegraph was a New South Wales affair and that he and his mates were therefore not bound to assist those who had to repair it. Mr. Kebby was eventually obliged to put out in a boat to a passing steamer to obtain food after which he made his way to the mainland and endeavoured to return home. On the way he became delirious and, though eventually taken to Eden where he arrived on the 11th July, he died on the 14th - his death being caused, according to the medical man of the district, through want of nourishment and exposure.

These facts becoming known to Mr. E. C. Cracknell, Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs here, that gentleman recommended to the Government that the line to Gabo Island should be abandoned as it had ever been a source of endless expense and that a telegraph to Green Cape, some 25 miles distant from Gabo in the New South Wales territory, should be established instead.

There were several reasons which induced Mr. Cracknell to take this course. It appears that more vessels are sighted from Green Cape than from Gabo Island and further, there was not to be obtained in any of the colonies, a sufficient length of cable of the kind required to replace the damaged one from Gabo to the mainland. Taking all these matters into consideration, the Government here adopted Mr. Cracknell's recommendation. The telegraph operator has been allowed to remain at Gabo because it is part of his duty to act as signal man but he will be removed to Green Cape where he will be employed by this colony solely as soon as the new telegraph line is completed. Tenders have already been accepted. The Victorian Government will have it at their own option whether they will maintain a telegraph to Gabo Island or not; but of course if they do so, they will have to do it at their own cost".

On the same date, a report in The Argus gives an insight into the way Gabo Island was viewed by the Victorian and NSW governments: "the rupture of the telegraph cable to Gabo Island has occasioned some doubt as to the responsibility of the Victorian Government in the matter. It appears, however, that this colony has nothing whatever to do with telegraphic communication to that island, the lighthouse and telegraph station being entirely under the control of the New South Wales Government. Victoria simply contributes an annual sum towards the lighthouse maintenance. No correspondence has taken place between the two Governments on the subject of the telegraphic interruption, and if the Government of New South Wales determines upon abandoning the Gabo cable in favour of one to Green Cape, this colony has no power to interfere".

On 16 August 1918, the Snowy River Mail reported that "Last week an enemy mine, supposed to have drifted from the old field at Gabo Island, was picked up by a steamer 50 miles off Green Cape and towed into Twofold Bay, where it was exploded on Sunday. The force of the explosion shook every house in Eden". It is not considered that this story and the previous events are connected!!!!


Further references:

1. Cape Howe and Gabo Island, James Cook Heritage Trail,

2. Great Google Photos collection,

3. General History of Lighthouses in Australia (3.3 Gabo Island), Australian Maritime Safety Authority - excellent documentation and information.