We used to communicate with the ships using a four-inch Aldis Light using Morse code. The Light had two triggers – the bottom trigger was to put the power on and the top trigger was to flick the light on and off. It was the same principle that the Navy used to communicate between ships except that the Navy blokes were faster than us. The Aldis Light was battery operated and we had a bank of batteries that we charged with a little diesel generator. It was very noisy and used to rattle the signal box when it was operating, but that’s all we had to communicate with in those days. We were linked up with Brisbane Harbour by radio. I think it was an old Bendix valve radio. There was a repeater station for it at the quarantine station at Lytton. We had set radio times between the pilot boat, Bishop Island, and the Port Office. These were all the people we could talk to – we couldn’t talk to ships. For ships we had to use the Aldis Light and Morse code.
We had tide signals too at Bishop Island. They were done with two red cones and a black ball in various combinations. At night they had coloured lights for the tide lights. When the Pile Light was knocked over in 1949 the signal station was transferred to Bishop Island in about 1952 or 3. It was only a temporary turnout there, but they still called the station at Bishop Island the Pile Light. The signals we used at Bishop Island were the same as the ones they used at the Pile Light. A red flag, for example, meant that the tide was rising. The signal station was at the western end of Bishop Island, and nearby were the three signalmen’s houses – the Ford, Tottenham, and Devonshire families. Tottenham was the third generation to work with Harbours and Marine – just on one hundred years. That was fairly common in those days.
To get our tucker, we had wheelbarrows, which we used to take up to the jetty at the other end of the island. The track was all sand but when the tide was out, we’d go via the mud flats because the mud was a bit harder at low tide. Every Tuesday we’d go up for our provisions. Also at the other end of the island was a kiosk and we had quite a bit to do with the people who ran that for the tourists. Harry Sullivan and his family had it when we were there.
We used to get our meat off Redbank Meatworks in those days and they classed Bishop Island as overseas trade so we got the best quality meat. Water was always a problem and when our tanks would run dry, they’d send a ship tank full from Cairncross Dock for us. The women had it tough. Wood coppers and all. My wife hated every minute of it but she never complained. To pass the time she enrolled in a Correspondence school. It wasn’t a bad sort of life on Bishop Island – except for the mosquitoes. They were pretty savage. It was fairly primitive – all the lights were kerosene, there were wood combustion stoves, and wood coppers for washing. But it was a privilege to work for the old Harbours and Marine. They were good to work for, and there was a lot of loyalty there.
Ships used to go aground fairly regularly in fogs so they’d anchor when they got stuck in the mud. One day I was going back to Bishop Island in a thick fog and there was a coastal freighter stuck straight across the river at the Pelican Banks Cutting. When a ship went aground, they put ten black balls in a vertical line to show that they were not under command. At night they used two red lights. Such occurrences were a major problem for the port because they blocked the main channel. Depending on what the pilot wanted, they would contact us using Morse code by light, and we would then arrange tugs to come and pull them off or they would wait for the ship to float off with the tide.
The signalmen’s houses on Bishop Island came from Bulwer Island just across the river. Our house ended up being burnt down when a cat knocked over a kerosene lantern. The kitchen and bathroom were out the back but they couldn’t get enough water out of the tank. So, someone got a shotgun and blew a hole in it. They got all the water they wanted but it went too quick! The houses were all flyscreened. They had a lot of louvers in those newer keepers’ houses but the noise from them at night with the wind would drive you mad. Also, when the China Navigation ships used to go past the island, the windows in our house used to rattle because the whole island was only built on mud dredged from the river.
The signal station on Bishop Island closed in 1968. They couldn’t sell the Harbours and Marine houses there so they had to bulldoze them. They sent two signalmen to Caloundra and two to Lytton. There was little remaining of the signal station itself after the louts had got to it.
After Bishop Island
I was on Bishop Island for three years, then they sent me to Townsville in charge of the explosives at Brook Hill. I was there for three years and by the time I got back, the Bishop Island Signal Station had closed and they had opened up at Lytton Hill. It was a modern facility for those days, it had radar and VHF radio – there was no Morse code. They opened the same type of set-up at Caloundra. We talked to the ships by radio then. It’s all closed down now.
I had twelve years at Lytton Hill, and I went to Caloundra and had twelve years up there. This was at the lighthouse there. They still called us signalmen but we didn’t do any Morse code or signal with flags. It was all radio. Then in January 1992 they brought us all down to Whyte Island. I retired in 1997.
At Whyte Island we still did pretty much the same thing. We used to report ships in. We had state of the art radar – we could identify a ship and give it a mark and that identification stayed with the ship to show us the course and speed of the ship right across the Bay. Basically, we just tracked ships and spoke to them. And we contacted the agent, tugs and line ships as before. Now Whyte Island has finished and they’re at the Harbours and Marine Depot Pinkenba. It’s just across the river. In the old Bishop Island and Cowan days you had to be within sight of a ship to signal it. I don’t know whether they can even see a ship now. That’s progress.
(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)