Liverpool born Jessie Hill first went to Moreton Island in 1903 at the age of four. As daughter of the assistant lighthouse keeper at Cape Moreton, she recalls the school lessons with a dozen other lighthouse children from four families at Cape Moreton and one at Yellowpatch. On Sundays, the children were taken for a picnic down to the beach. After eating, everyone would collect the week’s firewood in the horse and cart.
Jessie’s father later transferred to the Department of Harbours and Marine for whom he kept the Cowan Cowan light from 1911 until it became automatic in 1927. He then took charge of the Cowan Cowan signal station.
In 1931 Jessie met a young Lancashireman, Harry Wadsworth, who was then holidaying on Moreton Island. The child of a mill weaver, Harry had been raised in the poorer area of the industrial town of Oldham. During World War I he had been a signaller, and later in civilian life became an instrument maker. In 1927, fed up with the tough conditions that existed in England, he migrated to Australia.
With the Great Depression affecting Australia too, jobs were almost impossible to find, and Harry moved north from Melbourne to Sydney, and then to Brisbane. It was then that he discovered Moreton Island and Jessie, and fell in love with both.
Harry’s World War I experience as a signaller was to prove useful at Cowan Cowan, and he would often help out Jessie’s father at the Signal Station. After numerous temporary jobs, Harry landed a full-time job with the Harbours and Marine Department in 1934. As relief lighthouse keeper for the Howard Range and Bulwer lights on Moreton, Harry recalls that he had to walk four miles to work, which included a 400 yard wade through a neck deep swamp while carrying a can of kerosene on his back.
Jessie and Harry were married in 1938 and in the following year Harry was put in charge of the Cowan Cowan Signal Station. The couple’s love affair with Moreton Island was to continue for the rest of their lives. It was an idyllic existence – the stuff of story books. A casual, shoeless lifestyle with seemingly endless beaches stretching away in either direction from the door of their comfortable bungalow.
Although they had Moreton Island almost to themselves, theirs was not a lonely existence, for quite apart from the constant contact with shipping through Harry’s work as a signalman, Moreton Island played host to a large number and variety of people over the ensuing years.
A military fort was built at Cowan Cowan between the wars and strengthened during WWII. A naval station and jetty were also established at Tangalooma then, as well as a road across the island at that point.
After WWII a huge demand for whale oil triggered a world-wide interest in whale hunting. To help satisfy this demand, a whaling station was opened at Tangalooma in 1952. Over the next decade Harry and Jessie Wadsworth would often play host to the families of the whalers, notably for christmas dinner.
The Tangalooma whaling station had an annual quota of 600 Humpback whales. However, when vegetable oils were introduced to replace whale oil in margarine production, the price of the whale oil fell dramatically. Quotas were increased to 660 to offset the price drop but the increased cull served only to deplete the whale numbers to such an extent that in the 1962 season, only 68 whales were taken, and in August of that year Tangalooma closed down due to a lack of whales.
Extract from ‘Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.
(To be continued)