LIGHT THE WAY: Fingal Lighthouse and the Arnold family.
LIGHT THE WAY: Fingal Lighthouse and the Arnold family. Tweed Regional Museum

Shining a light on Fingal

TALKING HISTORY with Tweed Regional Museum

THE lighthouse on Fingal Head is a popular spot for whale watching and picnics, however some visitors may not realise the historical importance of the site.

The current lighthouse is the oldest public building in the Tweed Shire, dating from a time when the shipping trade was the lifeblood of the area, and actually replaced an even earlier lighthouse structure. As far back as 1871, a submission was made to the authorities to build a fixed light on Fingal Headland.

This submission was successful and on February 8, 1872 the Bertha arrived from Sydney with a special consignment of materials for the light, and work began on its construction.

The boatmen were kept busy clearing the site at Fingal Head for the light, cutting suitable spars from the forest at Fingal and hauling them to the site by bullock team.

This was in addition to their many other duties: on the lookout at Point Danger watching for ships attempting to cross the bar; taking the pilot in and out across the bar; dragging ships off rocks and sand banks at the mouth of the river; and rowing up river to the Junction (now Tumbulgum) to deliver the mail.

The light was completed on March 20, 1872 - it was a kerosene reflector light erected on four posts, 30 feet high, and enclosed in a six-foot square.

MS000038 William Arnold, Fingal lighthouse keeper
Fingal lighthouse keeper William Arnold. Tweed Regional Museum

William Arnold, who had arrived on the Bertha to take up a position as a boatman at Tweed Heads, was appointed keeper of the light

In an address to the Tweed Heads Historical Society in the 1960s about her father, William Arnold's daughter, Susie Budd, spoke of this light: 'When first erected, the light was shaped like a large meat safe, and mounted on a wooden structure resembling a pigeon loft. It was to warn ships of the existence of Cook Island'.

The light was a fixed bright light, a kerosene reflector lamp with a covering over it and visible from six to eight miles out to sea.

The boatmen worked on a constant roster system, sharing lookout duties at the lighthouse at Fingal Head by night and at the signal station at Point Danger by day. Every evening one of the boatmen rowed across the river and walked three miles to Fingal to attend the light.

Fingal Lighhouse original designs.
Fingal Lighhouse original designs. Tweed Regional Museum

The lamp had to be filled with kerosene, the wick trimmed and lit 10 minutes before sundown.

The watchkeeper was responsible for keeping the light burning steadily throughout the night, and had to check it constantly, as the logbook entry for 3 March 1873 reveals... 'Light was trimmed at 11 o'clock last night and at 3 o'clock this morning a fresh wick was put in the lamp'.

From the night the light was first lit in March 1872 until a more modern lighthouse and cottage was completed at Fingal Head in 1879, it provided a constant beacon for ships at sea. Most entries in the logbook began with the words 'Light burned well all night'.

The new lighthouse at Fingal Head was designed by the colonial architect James Burnett, and was the third of a series of five small lights established along the north coast of NSW in the late nineteenth century. The lighthouse was a circular brick tower of sandstone and brick, 80 feet high, with a bluestone balcony around it, reached by climbing an outside ladder. Buildings of similar simple, sturdy design were erected on headlands at the mouths of the Richmond, Clarence, Hastings and Manning Rivers. These lighthouses played a crucial role in the once vital 'north coast run' of shipping and cargo between Queensland and NSW.

William Arnold was given the keys of the keeper's residence, which was a four-room cottage a short distance from the lighthouse, and officially became the Fingal lighthouse keeper on 31 March 1879.

William Arnold outside keeper's cottage at Fingal Lighthouse
William Arnold outside keeper's cottage at Fingal Lighthouse Tweed Regional Museum

Arnold was associated with the Fingal lighthouse for 27 years of his 35 year naval career and raised his large family there.

Of his 11 children, three were born at the boatmen's cottages on Flagstaff Hill and another five at the lighthouse keeper's cottage at Fingal Head.

The children walked three miles along the beach to the mouth of the river, where they waved a flag to the pilot station so they could be rowed across the river to go to school.

During his time as keeper, not a single ship was wrecked off Fingal Headland. Arnold retired in 1906 and moved his family to a new house on Flagstaff Hill, where he could watch the ships passing through the heads.

The role of keeper was discontinued in 1920 when the light was converted to unmanned automatic acetylene operation. The keeper's cottage was also demolished at this time, but the ruins can still be seen, about 20m northwest of the lighthouse.

  • Talking History is a column supplied by the staff of the Tweed Regional Museum. It features the stories behind their rich collection.

Fingal Lighthouse
The Fingal Lighthouse in its full majesty. Tweed Regional Museum