Cape Byron Lighthouse

IALA Heritage Lighthouse of the Year 2021

Location: AUSTRALIA - New South Wales. Byron Bay.

Lighthouse Operator: Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)

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Source: (photos as submitted to accompany nomination form by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2021)

Lighthouse Description and History

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2021)
Located 767 kilometres north of Sydney, the township of Byron Bay sits on Australia’s east coast within the State of New South Wales. Established as a first-rate timber port in 1860, Byron Bay was used regularly as a critical point of access to transfer cedar logs cut from the hinterland. Compared to the nearby Tweed and Brunswick rivers, which had small and dangerous entrances, timber could be easily dragged through the shallows at Byron Bay and loaded onto the cargo boats in deeper water.

By the late 19th century the region oversaw a large increase in nautical traffic in its waters, and by 1896, five wrecks had been recorded along the beaches surrounding Byron Bay. Furthermore, the stretch of coast between the north head of the Richmond River and the light at Fingal Point was considered treacherous, and contemporary newspapers declared a light was required within this region. As a result, in 1897 funds totalling £18,000 were allocated to the establishment of a lightstation on Cape Byron.

It was decided that a light would be best placed on a cape located just 1.6 kilometres away from the town centre. This cape was known to be the most easterly point in Australia and understood to stand approximately 113 metres above sea level (1901 data).

The renowned Colonial Architect, James Barnet, produced initial designs. Having joined the Colonial Architect’s Office in 1860, Barnet pioneered lighthouse design in late 19th century New South Wales, and was reportedly responsible for 15 lighthouses around the State. These lighthouses included Macquarie Lighthouse, Barrenjoey Lighthouse, Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse, and South Solitary Island Lighthouse.

Barnet retired from office in 1890 before the design for Cape Byron was finalised, and the work was taken over by Mr Charles Harding of the Harbour and River Navigation Branch. Harding was inspired by Barnet’s design style, and the final Cape Byron designs were reminiscent of Barnet’s earlier work. Tenders for the construction of the lighthouse were called in March 1900, with Mitchell & King successfully chosen as the contractors for the project at a cost of £9,970 (equivalent to around AUS $1.5m today).

Construction started on the lighthouse in July of 1900 when the chosen site was cleared of vegetation and levelled. The main tower was constructed with pre-cast concrete units placed in a cylindrical formation with a workroom and storeroom at its base. During construction, aggregate for the concrete was attained from the headland itself. A tramline was used to draw the rocks to the top of the cliff where machinery would then crush the rocks into a suitable aggregate.

The tower was fitted with a 1st Order revolving bi-valve optical lens manufactured by the French company Societe des Establishment – the first and only one of its kind to be installed in an Australian lighthouse. Comprised of 760 pieces of prismatic glass, the entire lens apparatus rotated on a mercury flotation mechanism designed by lighthouse engineer W.F. Douglass and erected under the supervision of Mr. H.C Cooper (an engineer representative of WF Douglass Victoria Street Firm, London).

Alongside the tower, two keepers’ cottages and a signal station were built. Once completed, the lightstation was highly regarded amongst contemporary engineers for its modern fittings and configuration.

The opening of the Cape Byron Lighthouse was planned for 30th November 1901. This momentous occasion would see the Premier of New South Wales, Sir John See, officially declare the lighthouse open and the lens would be lit for the very first time. Unfortunately, luck was not on their side and bad weather delayed the Premier’s steamer, Victoria, from reaching the bay. Fortunately, the ceremony was able to take place the following day on 1st December 1901.

William Warren was the first Head Lighthouse Keeper for Cape Byron. Accompanied by two assistants, the three men and their families resided at the lightstation within the keepers’ cottages. In addition to their lighting duties, the keepers were required to carry out minor maintenance around the station. Keepers remained at the lighthouse until 1989.

The lighthouse had various significant events over its lifetime, outlined below.

Year – Description

1901 – Lighthouse opened.

1905 – Occulting mechanism removed and light’s character altered.

1914 – 6-wick burner removed, 55mm IOV kerosene-powered light installed bringing the light from 145,000 to 545,000 candle power.

1920 – Lighthouse tower struck for the first time during electrical storm. A total of three strikes occurred on this occasion. The light was extinguished twice during the storm. The assistant keeper was ‘struck senseless’ by the lighting on the first strike. Some damage was observed to the interior and woodwork of the lighthouse, to the wiring, and to the weathervane.

1959 – Converted to mains electric with diesel back up making the role of the second and third assistant keeper redundant. Light upgraded to three million candlepower.

Prior to 1974 – 100V 2250W Tungsten halogen globe installed.

1986 – Light extinguished manually for final time.

1989 – Lighthouse de-manned.

2004 – Lighthouse added to Commonwealth Heritage List.

2015 – Light source changed to Light emitting diode.

2019 – Lighthouse added to New South Wales State Heritage Register.


Reason For Nomination

(Text extracted from nomination form submitted by Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in 2021)
Intrinsic Heritage Interest of the Lighthouse

Cape Byron Lighthouse is listed on the Australian Government’s Commonwealth Heritage List and the New South Wales State Heritage Register. For a lighthouse to be included on this list, it must meet at least one of nine criterion that cover a range of heritage values. This decision is made by the Australian Heritage Council. Cape Byron Lighthouse meets five of the criterion on the Commonwealth Heritage List—processes, rarity, aesthetic characteristics, technical achievement, and social value.

Cape Byron Lighthouse is also listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register, and is recognised for the following values—historical significance, associative significance, social significance, aesthetic significance, research potential, rarity, and representativeness.

The following information is derived from both the Commonwealth Heritage List, the New South Wales’ Heritage listing, as well as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s assessment of the lighthouse.

Processes/Associative (Historical significance):
Cape Byron Lighthouse, which opened in 1901, is significant in the establishment of Aids to Navigation along the New South Wales coast, and is important for its association with east coast shipping since the beginning of the twentieth century. The lighthouse formed part of the state government’s plan to create a `highway of lights’ along the coast of New South Wales. The lighthouse was also built in the first generation of the township’s settlement. The prominence, ornamentation and location of the lighthouse have been key to the identity of the town for almost 120 years.

The lighthouse is also associated with early public infrastructure development in the Byron Bay township, the now defunct local industries of shipping and whaling. The lighthouse also has an ongoing link with the fishing industry, which has been an ongoing part of the Far North Coast economy.

Cape Byron Lighthouse is the only lighthouse is Australia to have housed a Henry-Lepaute optic. It is also the first lighthouse in the country to have a mercury float mechanism pedestal installed. Both the 1st Order Henry-Lepaute optic and mercury float mechanism have been retained within the lighthouse and are still functioning.

Aesthetic Characteristics:
Dramatically located on the top of a windswept cliff and free of modern intrusions, the lighthouse is a striking and familiar building that has stood over Byron Bay for almost 120 years. The tower also forms part of an intact early twentieth century lightstation.

Technical achievement:
The lighthouse is technically important for its early pre-cast concrete block construction. This was a relatively new form of construction for Australian lighthouses and was implemented by New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet. The lighthouse’s construction is considered to be a rich resource for research into the development of precast concrete block. The lantern room is also celebrated for its technical mercury float mechanism pedestal and the Henry-Lepaute optic.

Social value:
Located at the most easterly point of the Australian mainland, the Cape Byron Lighthouse is the most visited lighthouse in Australia with approximately five hundred thousand visits each year. It is a popular whale-watching spot.

The lighthouse was a manned site for 88 years. Families resided at the lightstation and as a result, memories of life at the lighthouse remain active in the community.

The lighthouse was also ‘occupied’ by local and international activists in 2014 in response to the G20 Summit held in the Queensland capital of Brisbane. The activists sought to highlight concerns on climate change and the lighthouse was chosen as an iconic spot from which to broadcast their message.

The lighthouse is typical of the network of coastal maritime Aids to Navigation, which spread throughout coastal Australia in the late 1800s. It stands as a good example of applied physics, refraction of light, friction, and combustion, which were highly efficient early methods of industrial illumination.

Indigenous tradition:
Arakwal National Park (where Cape Byron Lighthouse is located) is the first national park in Australia to be created under an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with traditional owners. Named Walgun (meaning ‘the shoulder’), today the Cape Byron headland is a place where both the traditional and contemporary culture of the Arakwal people is practiced and celebrated. As custodians of their country, the Arakwal people hold an important and active role in the joint care and management of the reserve (which incorporates the lightstation) and undertake educational initiatives at the site to promote and raise awareness of the Aboriginal cultural heritage of the cape.


Conservation of Cape Byron Lighthouse is of utmost importance and efforts are continuous in ensuring the preservation of this site and its heritage fabric.

The lighthouse—including the museum contained within the lighthouse—is regularly maintained and cleaned. Tasks such as corrosion control and paint touch-ups are frequent activities undertaken to maintain condition of its heritage fabric.

Cleaning of the mercury bath is an interesting example of maintaining its heritage fabric, rather than replacing the original fabric with an alternate rotating mechanism, as has been done at numerous other lighthouses in Australia.

Interestingly, the original heritage inbuilt lifting devices are still utilised during maintenance works, as opposed to more modern alternatives such as cranes. Whilst the bath is lifted, the mercury is filtered, and the bath cleaned before refilling with mercury and lowering the bath.

Public Access and Education

Great care has been taken by both AMSA and the New South Wales State Government to ensure continued public access to the lighthouse. An AMSA Tourist Licence, signed by the NSW State Government, permits guided tours through the lighthouse, including access to the lantern room and balcony. These tours provide in-depth information on the history of the lighthouse, life at the station, and Australian lighthouses in general. Each tour guide working inside Cape Byron is required to undertake online training to learn about the Commonwealth heritage significance of the site so they can inform visitors.

The pavilion rooms on the ground floor of the lighthouse have been transformed into a museum. The museum’s rich collection of artefacts offers a glimpse into the history of aids to navigation in Australia and overseas. The collection also includes a book detailing every lightkeeper to have been stationed at Cape Byron and their years of service. It also includes the various light sources housed in Cape Byron over the decades, including the most recent light-emitting diode (LED), which was struck by lightning and decommissioned. AMSA passed the LED to the museum to enrich their collection, which shows how lighthouse technology has changed over the years.

Permanently open to visitors and located along the Cape Byron Walking Track, the Cape Byron Lightstation grounds receive a great deal of foot traffic. The keepers’ cottages have been transformed into a café and visitor information centre, to draw in both local and non-local visitors.

A Heritage Management Plan was created for Cape Byron Lighthouse in 2020, outlining AMSA’s strategy to maintain the heritage lighthouse in accordance with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The plan contains in-depth information on the history of aids to navigation and the heritage significance of Cape Byron itself. The plan is available on Australia’s Federal Register, which can be accessed by the public. The aim of this is to remain transparent, to educate the general public and provide resources on Commonwealth heritage sites.