Signalling Ships (with Kevin Mohr) – Part 2

Bishop Island

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.

Kevin Mohr with Aldis Light (photo Peter Ludlow)

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. 

Bishop Island in May 1979

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.

Kevin Mohr


(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Signalling Ships (with Kevin Mohr) – Part 1

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.

Signalmans house and wartime searchlight pillbox Cowan Cowan (Photo courtesy Kevin Mohr)

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.

Modern day map of Moreton Bay

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.

Cowan Cowan

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 ForcefulFearlessCarlock 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.

Kevin Mohr


(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Queenslanders (with Bob and Mardi Spencer)

I had met Bob and his wife, Marjorie (Mardi) Spencer some 20 years previously on the beach at Peel Island’s Horseshoe Bay. Bob is now well into his 80s and Mardi is 90 as I call at their comfortable old Queenslander home on top of the hill at Bulimba. In the early days, when it was first built, it would have commanded expansive views across the river and Brisbane itself. Unfortunately, other houses and trees have now stripped them of this privilege. A massive ship’s anchor greets me at the bottom of the front stairs – a testament to Bob’s lifelong fascination with Moreton Bay and its vessels.

The Spencers’ house ‘Mount Lang’

The original owner of this property was James Johnston who was one of Dr. James Dunmore Lang’s emigrants and came to Moreton Bay in the Lima, the third and last of Dr Lang’s immigrant ships. The ship arrived in Moreton Bay on 1st November 1849. Ships did not come up the river in those days. The passengers were brought to town in the steamer Tamar and landed at the old Queen’s Wharf where the immigration barracks were at that time. A certain Mr. Sutherland took James’ wife and her two children to his place on Windmill Hill, where they were put into a bark humpy which was built to keep out the rain. There was a terrific thunderstorm during the night but no water got in.

James’s first job was with George Raff at New Farm. George and Alexander Raff were merchants in Eagle Street. He then entered the employment of David Cannon McConnell as gardener at Bulimba House. James’ wife, Helen, was also employed there attending to Mary McConnell and looking after their first baby. After James Johnston had been working with McConnell for some time, he purchased 70 acres of land adjoining McConnell’s property in 1851 for £70 ($140). This was the first scrub farm along the riverbank, which he named Mt Lang Farm in respect of Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang who he thought highly of.  

James Johnston went into sugar growing and erected a mill at Tingalpa. In 1874 he had a bad accident in which his foot was caught in the machinery and was so badly crushed that he had to have it amputated. The sugar mill at Tingalpa was afterwards removed to the old home at Bulimba.

            Bob and Mardi’s home is a veritable treasure trove of Moreton Bay history. Bob shows me a roomful of books and photos of early Bulimba and Moreton Bay. He had been polishing a mint condition Primus Stove engraved with the Swedish Royal crest.  ‘Another thing I collect,’ he says with understandable pride.

            Here’s one of the photos Bob has collected:

1934 newspaper article ‘A House Afloat’

            Radio was the name of the passenger-carrying vessel in the photograph. During World War II it was used for towing target practice in Moreton Bay. Bob Dath supplied the timber for this house, which was built for Jim Crouch in McConnell Street, Bulimba. The house and contents were transported to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River on May 1st, 1934. Mr Flynn was the removalist. After approximately five years on Bishop Island, the house was transported back to the same site at Bulimba. In 1952 Ted Millis bought the house and he and his wife lived in it until it was sold in 1978.

            When Ted Millis and George Kretchman founded the boatbuilding firm of Millkraft, Ted’s house was moved further over on the site to make room for Millkraft buildings. The house was purchased by the Ramblers Parachute Club in 1978 and moved to Toogoolawah. It is still used by the club as their clubhouse.

            Another photo catches my eye:

The Crouch property at Bulimba (photo courtesy Bob Spencer)

            It’s the old dance hall from Bishop Island that I had used in a previous book (Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection). The advertisement on the roof is a dead giveaway. So, the dance hall at Bishop Island also was transported down the river from the Crouch property at Bulimba – but unlike the other house, it never came back again.

The Dance hall Bishop Island (photo courtesy Ted Crouch)

There are dozens of other historic photos on the dining room wall, but time does not permit a detailed inspection. Suffice to say that Bob and Mardi’s home ‘Mount Lang’ is a veritable museum of Bulimba and Moreton Bay history, and one which is worthy of preserving for future generations.

Bulimba Point (photo courtesy Bob Spencer)

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

On the Other Side – 1

All things are relative – even where we like to spend our holidays. This has been brought home to us all when, thanks to the Covid 19 virus, we are forced to holiday at home rather than jet off overseas to anywhere in the world that we choose.

I like this observation from Brian McGrath in ‘The Port of Brisbane, Its People and Its Personalities’: ‘During the port development days, we had a series of tide gauges near where we were doing our work, and one of them was on the jetty at Bishop Island. I was down there one day and was putting a new chart on the tide gauge and there was a dear old lady fishing there. I got talking to her and she told me how much she enjoyed coming to Bishop Island every year for her holiday. When I asked her where she came from, I was expecting her to say something like Western Queensland, but she pointed across the river and said, ‘From over there at Cribb Island.’

(Cribb Island, nicknamed ‘Cribbie’, was once an isolated, tight knit community of Aussie battlers who found refuge and cheaper living during The Great Depression. ‘Cribbie’ was demolished to make way for the Brisbane Airport in the early 1980s.)

(Bishop Island, a manmade island formed from spoil after the deepening of the mouth of the Brisbane River, has now been engulfed by the development of the Port of Brisbane and now resides under the area taken up by berth 9.)