Submitted by Elizabeth Macalaster
Tasman Island Lighthouse, March 1929
Three-year-old Joyce Mitchell lay sick in bed at the lighthouse keeper’s quarters. Her parents, Andy and Myrtle, could hear her raspy breathing even above the winds that battered their brick house. If she didn’t improve, they’d need to transport her to the hospital in Hobart, 50 miles away by boat.
Andy Mitchell was the assistant light keeper on Tasman Island, a precipitous spit of rock off the southeast coast of Tasmania. Though separated from the mainland by less than a mile, the lighthouse island was one of the most isolated in Australia. Directly in the path of the roaring forties, it was constantly battered by wild weather, the frenzied sea around it, and treacherous landings. So steep were the cliffs that walled the island, a flying fox cable system provided the only safe way to carry people and supplies from ships at its base to the light keepers at the top.
Joyce’s condition worsened. Myrtle had given the last of her medicine to a child of one of the other families living on the island. The Mitchells had to get Joyce to a doctor. Although the Bass Strait Light Station, between Australia and Tasmania, had wireless, politicians had baulked at the cost of equipping all Tasmanian lighthouses with radios. None of the other two dozen lighthouses used the new technology.
Without radio, the fastest way for Andy to find help was to attract a passing ship. In a shed, he grabbed several colored flags and hurried to the flagstaff standing at the edge of the island’s cliff. He ran the flags up the staff, hoping a passing ship might see the message: HELP. For hours he stood, the flags signaling mutely. But no ships passed close enough to spot them.
He turned to his only remaining option—the lighthouse flock of homing pigeons. A pigeon post service had started up years earlier at Maatsuyker Island, another remote lighthouse 10 miles off Tasmania’s south coast. It had begun as a trial service, driven by the use of pigeon-grams during the search for the wreck of the barque Brier Holme three years earlier. Pigeons had successfully carried a message to Hobart with news that a search party had found the wreck. This convinced the Hobart Marine Board of the birds’ usefulness at lighthouses. On at least one occasion, the birds saved the life of a Maatsuyker resident who had fallen ill and needed immediate help back to the mainland.
When the Tasman Island lighthouse was completed in 1906, cost-saving measures excluded a pigeon post. In 1912, a severe illness on the island changed that. A pigeon loft was promptly installed. Every three months, newly trained, healthy pigeons were sent from Hobart to Tasman Island. Blue-barred and black checkered, bright-eyed and sleek, the pigeons awaited flight in a loft built near the light keeper’s house.
The service soon proved its worth a few years later when the 1000-ton SS Nord, bound for Hobart with a cargo of benzene, struck a reef not far from Tasman Island. As the ship sank, the crew took to four life boats and rowed for Tasman Island. One boat reached the island during the night where a crew member scaled the cliffs and raised the alarm. At daybreak the keeper released several pigeons carrying reports of the disaster. One of the birds arrived in Hobart with its message, and a steamer left on a rescue mission, recovering all hands.
In other emergencies, the Tasman island pigeons hadn’t fared as well. The birds were left penned up at the lighthouse loft for long periods of time with no exercise, so that even a relatively short flight of 50 miles proved exhausting in bad weather. They were often blown off course or killed by falcons or hawks.
Still, Andy had no choice. Over the next three days, he and the head keeper released 12 birds. In clear, calm weather with fresh birds, the flight might have taken an hour. But with the wind blowing and birds that had been cooped up in the loft for weeks, the trip proved much longer and more difficult. Andy prayed one might survive.
For days Andy and Myrtle watched the sea beyond their island, but no fishing boats or ships appeared to pick up Joyce. In desperation, Andy lit a bonfire at the edge of the cliff. Surely a ship would spot the giant torch blazing in the night. And a ship did. On arriving at Hobart, the ship’s master reported the bonfire to authorities who sent a fishing boat to investigate. Finally, on March 16, Myrtle, Joyce, and her sister Joan were taken in the fishing boat to Port Arthur, and then traveled by road to Hobart.
On March 23, Andy followed, only to find Joyce still very ill. Six days later, she died of complications from pneumonia. The Mitchells returned to Tasman Island to resume their duties.
The pigeons had failed in their mission. Even their strong wings and legendary homing instincts hadn’t been enough to save Joyce. Weakened from weeks in a loft, they might have veered off course in the roaring forties, or been unable to dodge the swift falcons and hawks that hunted along the cliffs and in the forests. Or perhaps their knowledge of the way home had grown too dim.
However, in the pigeons’ failure to save the life of a child, help finally came to all light keepers of Tasmania. While Andy packed his furniture on Tasman Island in the summer of 1930, preparing to move to another station, technicians were installing equipment in the island’s new wireless shed.
By the end of July, 1930, all Tasmanian lighthouse keepers had been instructed in the use of wireless, and lighthouses in Tasmania would never again be so far from help.
NOTE: Before wireless was installed, homing pigeons were used as a means of communication at lighthouses, from California to Maine, Scotland to South Africa and New Zealand. Despite some disappointments, the successful arrival of many birds at their home lofts with news, or requests for supplies or assistance, proved invaluable. Their unwavering instinct to fly home helped light house keepers around the world perform their duties and survive the trials of living in isolation.
Special Thanks: This story was mostly excerpted from “Carrier Pigeon Communication,” a paper by Colin Denny, president of the Maritime Museum of Tasmania, which was presented at the 11th Biennial Tasmanian Local History conference, July, 2011. Mr. Denny was also instrumental in helping secure the photographs that went with the story. Also, special thanks to Denise Shultz, president of Lighthouses of Australia for her assistance with images.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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