Bustard Head Lighthouse.
Bustard Head Lighthouse.

Murder and shark attacks: The Bustard Head lighthouse story

THE HISTORY of Queensland oldest operating coastal lighthouse at Bustard Head reads like a Hollywood script featuring murder, suicide, shark attacks, drownings, and ultimate triumph over adversity.

Stuart Buchanan began his first stint as lighthouse keeper at the 152-year-old structure in 1974, and has written six books during that time about the fascinating tales associated with the historic light.

These include Lighthouse of Tragedy: The story of Bustard Head Lighthouse and Light of their Lives: The fight to save Bustard Head.

 

An aerial photo of the Bustard Head lighthouse and the 1770 LARC, which conducts regular tours to the historic light station.
An aerial photo of the Bustard Head lighthouse and the 1770 LARC, which conducts regular tours to the historic light station.

 

Construction

Bustard Head Lighthouse Association Inc president Stuart Buchanan said the cast iron structure was designed and its heavy panels founded in the United Kingdom, before being shipped to Australia and assembled on site.

Bustard Head was named by Captain James Cook in 1770, after a bustard (bird) that was shot and eaten by his landing party.

"Bustard Head is the first lighthouse built by the Queensland Government in the state in 1868, there was an earlier one in Sandy Straight, but that's not a coastal light," Mr Buchanan said.

"Cape Morton is the oldest light, but that was built when NSW existed as a colony up here.

"As Queensland was declared a colony in 1859, we inherited Cape Morton from the NSW Government."

Bustard Head lighthouse was manufactured by Hennett and Spink in Bridgwater in 1866.

"It was transported to Australia by ship to Brisbane and it was loaded onto a paddle-steamer called the Gneering," Mr Buchanan said.

"Then it was offloaded at high tide inside Jenny Lind Creek (named after a Swedish opera singer) and dragged up a 100 metre headland.

 

Stuart Buchanan and Bustard Head lighthouse volunteer Dudley Fulton at the entrance to the lighthouse. Above the door is the name of the company that manufactured the historic lighthouse, Hennett and Spink, Bridgwater 1866.
Stuart Buchanan and Bustard Head lighthouse volunteer Dudley Fulton at the entrance to the lighthouse. Above the door is the name of the company that manufactured the historic lighthouse, Hennett and Spink, Bridgwater 1866.

 

"Workers built a trolley track and dragged the trolleys up the headland by horse to where the lighthouse stands today.

"Each panel was six feet square and weighed about one tonne, so it was quite an exercise getting them up there.

"The lighthouse panels sit three feet into the ground and they filled it up with 50 tonnes of concrete."

With sand and cement brought to the site, workers had to use their ingenuity to overcome adversity to 'make' the aggregate required to help strengthen the concrete.

"They had the sand and the cement, but to get the aggregate for the concrete, they uplifted the trolley track, rebuilt it down to the tide level, dragged up rocks on the trolley and smashed them up with sledge hammers," Mr Buchanan said.

"They then built three cottages that were pretty basic and they had three families there."

Mr Buchanan said the first light was primitive compared to today's electronic, computerised beacon, with the light keepers tasked to keeping it rotating.

"The first light was an oil lit light, with a wick burner, and a revolving English lens controlled by weights, that ran down the centre of the lighthouse attached to chains," he said.

"The early light keepers used to wind up the chains to let them fall back down with the weights due to gravity."

 

Bustard Head Lighthouse keeper since 1974, Stuart Buchanan with the 1770 LARC, which conducts tours to the lighthouse.
Bustard Head Lighthouse keeper since 1974, Stuart Buchanan with the 1770 LARC, which conducts tours to the lighthouse.

 

Death, murder, suicide, shark attacks, shipwrecks and drownings

After years of research on the history of Bustard Head lighthouse, Mr Buchanan said there were many, many tales to tell about the structure and those involved.

The first recorded death on the site of the lighthouse was during construction.

"When they were building the lighthouse a gentleman was hit in the head and died the following day," Mr Buchanan said.

"He was buried in the vicinity of the lighthouse, but to this day we don't know where."

A small cemetery containing 11 graves still stands on the site of the lighthouse.

"The first grave was dug in 1879, when a seven week-old baby died," Mr Buchanan said.

"Probably one of the biggest tragedies there was in 1887 when a light-keeping family by the name of Gibson was there.

"The light keeper Nils had four daughters and his wife Kate.

"One morning Kate left the cottage and went for a walk and didn't come back.

"Her four daughters started looking for her that afternoon and it wasn't until 24 hours later that they found her in the bush, near the cemetery.

"Her throat was cut from ear to ear.

"Days later her husband's cut-throat razor was found in the nearby bush, covered in blood.

"The inquest that followed said it was self-inflicted, but I know that Kate's family thought that her husband may have killed her himself.

"But I don't believe that, just because of the circumstances and everything else that I know."

After Kate Gibson's death, her distraught daughters wrote a heart-wrenching epitaph.

"We cooeed our best at dead of night

The dread it could not hear us

The children cry 'Oh Mother dear'

What keeps you from us

With weary anxious eyes we search

O'er sand, ridge, scrub and bush

But the warm heart was cold in death

Of her who gave us birth"

 

Stuart Buchanan conducts a tour of the Bustard Head light station for passengers of the 1770 LARC.
Stuart Buchanan conducts a tour of the Bustard Head light station for passengers of the 1770 LARC.

It wasn't long until another tragedy followed for Nils Gibson.

"Two years later, Nils Gibson was taking a telegraph linesman Alfred Power to a crossing about seven or eight kilometres from the lighthouse.

"He had his daughter Mary with him, assistant light keeper John Wilkinson and his wife Elizabeth.

"About 450 metres from shore the boat capsized and Elizabeth Wilkinson drowned, Mary Gibson -Nil's daughter - drowned and Alfred Power drowned.

"Nils, who made it to shore searched for days, but he didn't find anyone so they assumed they were taken by sharks."

In the early 1900s a family by the name of Anderson lived at Bustard Head maintaining the light.

But little did they know they would be embroiled in one of Queensland's biggest and longest-running manhunts.

"In 1912 there was a family called the Andersons; two of their daughters were buried in the cemetery, one daughter had epilepsy and it's not known how the other one died," Mr Buchanan said.

"One of their daughters, Edith went to the Turkey Station cattle property (Turkey Beach area) to work as a maid there.

"She started having a relationship with an 18-year-old man of Chinese-Kanaka parents called George Daniels, and it wasn't accepted in those days for a white woman to have a relationship with a coloured man.

"The owner of Turkey Station suggested she return to the lighthouse, so he arranged for a man on the next property, a fella called Arthur Cozgell, to escort her back to the lighthouse by horseback.

"They left the next morning and George Daniels knew of this.

"Then and a few kilometres from the homestead, beside a creek called Worthington Creek, commonly called The Danube, another chap from another property, Fred Barton, was riding past and he saw Arthur Cozgell laying against a tree holding his stomach and blood was coming out.

"Mr Barton got off his horse and said 'what happened'.

"Mr Cozgell said 'that black bugger shot me'.

"Mr Barton said 'which black bugger' and Mr Cozgell said 'George Daniels, he took Edith'."

 

The 1770 LARC climbs to the top of Bustard Head during one of its tours to the lighthouse.
The 1770 LARC climbs to the top of Bustard Head during one of its tours to the lighthouse.

 

The horses belonging to Mr Daniels and Edith were found still by the creek.

"It was assumed Mr Daniels had shot Edith and then himself," Mr Buchanan said.

"It was a tidal creek and they thought the bodies got washed into Rodds Bay.

"It was the biggest, most expensive police search in Queensland at the time; the case didn't close until 1962.

"There were sightings of a black fella and a white woman up in the mountains near Rockhampton and things like that.

"They searched for years but nothing was ever found."

Nils Gibson died of cirrhosis of the liver six years after his daughter Mary drowned.

Bustard Head lighthouse was built to warn ships' captains of the treacherous four sets of rocks that extend three nautical miles into the ocean from the shoreline.

"There have been a lot of drownings on the rocks when ships hit the rocks off Bustard Head," Mr Buchanan said.

"Dozens of ships have come to grief over the years on the rocks, which are the reason the lighthouse was built in the first place.

"There are ships that just disappeared altogether, like the Agnes, which some believe the town Agnes Water was named after.

"The Agnes was anchored in Pancake Creek in 1873 with a crew and passengers.

"The ship was seen by the lighthouse keepers heading out of Pancake Creek to head south, but nobody ever saw it again.

"It just disappeared, nobody has got a clue where it went.

"There were quite a few crew and people on board that were never seen again."

 

Bustard Head lighthouse volunteer Dudley Fulton and lighthouse keeper Stuart Buchanan with a restored light on display at the lighthouse complex.
Bustard Head lighthouse volunteer Dudley Fulton and lighthouse keeper Stuart Buchanan with a restored light on display at the lighthouse complex.

 

A healthy population of sharks occupied the Pacific Ocean and nearby coastal tributaries, ready to feast on any vulnerable prey, except if they were covered in tar.

"A 12 metre fishing boat from Bundaberg called the Edith carrying six people came up and got to Bustard Head," he said.

"It was 1.30am and four of the crew were in their bunks sleeping, and a new fella who hadn't been up this way before, Ben Betts, looked out of the wheelhouse and saw the red sector light of Bustard Head.

"You can see that light from 15 or 20 nautical miles away, so you know where the rocks are but not how close you are.

"Ben Betts told the skipper Alex Jealous he could see the red sector light and asked whether they were too close to the rocks.

"Alex Jealous replied, 'look I know what I am doing here, I've been up here dozens of times before', and just as he finished speaking they ploughed into the outer rocks."

The crew all managed to get onto the rocks, but waves washed four of them into the ocean.

"The two that were left on the rocks, there was a drum of tar on the boat that smashed on the rocks and those two blokes were covered with tar," Mr Buchanan said.

"They reckon that's why they survived, because the sharks didn't like the tar.

"The two who survived, they got to shore themselves, and the bodies of the other four were never discovered."

The year 1972 was a particularly tragic year, with several lives lost.

"In 1972 the Australia Maid tried to sail into Jenny Lind Creek during the Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race," Mr Buchanan said.

Cyclone Emily had whipped up 10-metre waves and the Piver A-A36 multi-hulled vessel tried to shelter from the treacherous conditions.

Close to shore a huge wave picked up the boat and threw it onto its side.

The boat was blown into Jenny Lind creek and two of the crew still on-board drowned.

"In June 1972 there were two fishing inspectors who had driven from Bundaberg to Pancake Creek by car towing a dinghy," Mr Buchanan said.

"They went up Middle Creek to check out people supposedly doing illegal crabbing.

"The two inspectors, Ron Kelly and Ken Richardson stopped to talk to the crabbers at the mouth of Middle Creek.

"They were seen leaving the creek, but they never arrived back at Pancake Creek or got home to Bundaberg.

"A search was launched and they never found the bodies, but they found clothes, hats and shoes belonging to them washed up on the beach at Middle Island.

"There was a big forensic investigation and things like the shorts that one man was wearing, the fly and the belt was still done up, but there was no body in it."

Again it was determined they had become the victim of sharks.

"Because the crabbers were such a pain, catching illegal undersized crabs and sending them down to NSW, there were rumours going around that the crabbers had murdered them," Mr Buchanan claimed.

"Two years ago, someone came to the police and said they knew where their bodies were buried at Bustard Head.

"Neil Mergard who has the LARCs was commissioned to take authorities up to Bustard Head to dig for the bodies, but they weren't found."

 

A tour group from the 1770 LARC at the viewing platform of the Bustard Head lighthouse.
A tour group from the 1770 LARC at the viewing platform of the Bustard Head lighthouse.

 

'Spiritual Home'

"In the 1970s I was a lighthouse keeper at Bustard Head for five years," Mr Buchanan said.

"Then we left, but for my wife and I, we felt this was our spiritual home, we loved it.

"We bought a yacht and sailed the coast for a few years and we used to come up here to see the vandalism increase and increase.

"So we decided to do something about it.

"We got a lease and got the money and I spent three years at Bustard Head restoring the place."

Following the period appropriate restoration, the fight began to reopen Bustard Head Lighthouse.

"We fought for years to get the lighthouse opened, which we eventually did," Mr Buchanan said.

"It's now a tourist location.

"The lighthouse was de-manned and automated in 1986 and we have taken it back to that era.

"We have got a lot of artefacts that have been donated by light keepers, plus others that we have acquired.

"We have been told by the Australian Maritime Systems people, who maintain all of the lights around Australia, that this is the best example of a lighthouse in Australia.

"Just because of the artefacts and the way we have taken it back to the way it was."

Now the Bustard Head Lighthouse Association, which was founded in 2002, has 30 members, with caretakers who spend a month each on a rotating roster at the lighthouse.

"We don't have to ask for caretakers, people are always approaching us and asking how they can help out," Mr Buchanan said.

"It's not a holiday to come up to the lighthouse, you have to do a bit of work to look after the site and show tourists around and the history.

"Bustard Head is the only operational lighthouse in Queensland still open to the public."

Today the lighthouse is computerised and doesn't require a permanent lighthouse keeper.

 

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