I started work in Brisbane as day labour in a gang building the river training walls at Gibson and Bishop Islands. One of the people I met on Bishop Island said ‘Why don’t you learn Morse code and put in for a job at the signal station here.’ So, I did. But it was too big a jump job-wise to go straight from day labour to the signal station, so, to get a leg in, I went out to the Sandy Cape lighthouse and the Lady Elliott Lighthouse as a lighthouse keeper. I didn’t need any specialised training to be a lighthouse keeper. As long as I knew Morse code – that was the main requirement. So, I stayed out there for a year then re-applied for a job with the Department of Harbours and Marine. They welcomed me with open arms because then I wasn’t too far down the promotions ladder. I was employed as a signalman at Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River. Then I applied for relief work at the Cowan Signal Station. When its sole signalman, Harry Wadsworth, was going on leave they’d send one of us permanent signalmen from Bishop Island to Cowan and put a temporary signalman at Bishop Island. I relieved at Cowan in 1959,60,61,62.
My duties involved signalling the ships entering port. What happened in those days – and this was 1954 – was that the pilot steamers, the ‘new’ Matthew Flinders and the much older John Oxley (I think she was built about 1926) – were stationed at Point Cartwright near Mooloolaba. They’d be cruising off Point Cartwright and they’d put a pilot on the ship that was bound for the Port of Brisbane. Then Cape Moreton lighthouse would identify the ship as it passed the Fairway Buoy at Caloundra, then Cape Moreton would ring us at Cowan. An hour and a half later we’d get the ship passing Cowan and we’d report its progress across the Bay. It would carry on from there to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River. There were four signalmen at Bishop Island.
I went up to Cape Moreton lighthouse a couple of times. After the American Liberty ship Rufus King mistook Point Lookout for Cape Moreton during the war and went aground, it was decided to paint two red bands on the Cape Moreton lighthouse to prevent any further mistaken repetition. Cape Moreton is the worst lighthouse I’ve ever been on because it has a spiral staircase and when you get to the top, there is no flooring and you have to step out onto a vertical ladder with nothing between you and the ground floor far below. I never liked that – especially in the middle of the night when you’re half asleep.
Although Cowan still had an old ex-army signal station from the war, we never used that. We had to signal from the front veranda of Harry and Jesse Wadsworth’s house next door. The house has been modernised now and is still there today. Harry and Jesse’s ashes are buried at the back of the house. The Wadsworth’s were a remarkable couple: Jesse Wadsworth went to Moreton in 1904. She was a good workhorse, which Harry used to play on. She used to get up at night for the ships while Harry kept sleeping. She even used to roll his cigarettes.
We had no visitors while we were stationed at Cowan, but Jesse and Harry always did. Harry used to take them fishing. These included officials such as Sir Henry Abel Smith, the Governor, and the Treasurer, Tom Hiley. Sometimes when I had finished my relief duties at Cowan, I had to wait for the pilot boat to take me back to Bishop Island so I’d go fishing with Harry. He had a 12-foot wooden dinghy and some of those sharks we caught were longer than the dinghy. Some of the snapper we caught were so large that we could only fit two of them to a corn sack. There were fishing places Harry took me that he wouldn’t take the Governor. ‘They poke and they pry,’ he said, ‘but I don’t tell them.’ Harry had secret fishing spots that were small sandstone reefs. I don’t know how he ever found them himself but he had plenty of time to look, and he must have got some inside information from his father-in-law who was there before him. Vandals burnt down the lighthouse at Cowan. It had been automatic since 1926. I think they only kept the signal station going for Harry and when he retired, they closed it.
The ships entering port had to come within a couple of miles of Cowan and when they came within range of the Aldis Light we’d signal them ‘What name?’ and then we’d ring the launch and the tugs. The tugs then were up in Mary Street at AUSN and Howard Smith’s. They were all coal burners – the Forceful, Fearless, Carlock and Coringa. After the ship crossed the Bay, the next signal station it encountered would be Bishop Island who would also signal them in Morse to identify themselves. When the ships passed Bishop Island, we’d ring the tugs at Mary Street, the ship’s agent, the wharf, the Wright’s launches, and the Water Police with the ship’s ETA (estimated time of arrival). I think Howard Smith’s operate the Wright’s launches now. These vessels are the line launches that run the lines from the ship to the shore.
(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)