Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Bluff Lighthouse 1867

                                       Opening of the Bluff Lighthouse 22 January 1867    

Details of the new structure were circulated via the press. The lighthouse 'is to consist of a cast iron conoidal tower loaded at the base with concrete, surmounted by a cast iron lighthouse on plinth, and a gunmetal lantern, glazed with plate glass, with a domed roof covered with copper. The lighting apparatus is to be a second class holophotal lenticular apparatus on Fresnel's system with a first class lamp. The light will be revolving with brightest flashes at intervals of sixty seconds. The apparatus is composed of Concentric glass lenses in gunmetal frames forming an eight-sided figure. The light which would otherwise radiate through the portion of the azimuth which is landwards, and therefore does not require illumination, is intercepted by an arrangement of totally refracting lenses, and returned to the focus to strengthen the seaward portion of the light. The revolution of the apparatus is effected by means of clockwork fixed inside the iron pedestal upon which the apparatus is supported.' 

Durban's leading business and professional men were relieved to see the lighthouse finally completed after long years of delay. The imperial authorities had been inundated with requests for a lighthouse worthy of Port Natal's  position as a shipping port and even perhaps as a naval base.

George Cato, Durban's first Mayor and close friend of Captain William Bell, fought persistently for some twenty years for a lighthouse to be  placed on the Bluff. So it must have been a happy day for him to see the beacon opened at last.

At the time it was built, the Bluff lighthouse was the only one on the east coast of Africa, the nearest to the north being Alexandria.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Voice from the Waratah: James Conn

Despite the time which has elapsed since the strange disappearance of the SS Waratah in July 1909, her story continues to reverberate through memories, hearsay and public as well as private written records.

Not many Waratah enthusiasts are privileged to own letters written by someone who actually sailed on the Lund liner on that fateful voyage. One such fortunate person is Marilyn Greaves, whose great uncle James Conn was a greaser and fireman on the Waratah. 

Thanks are due to Marilyn and her family for permitting me to reproduce one of Conn's letters here and to Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson for making this contact possible.

This letter carries an additional importance in that it refers to the incident which occurred off Kangaroo Island, about which there has been much controversy among historians.

James (Jim) Conn's letter to his sister Annie in London.

S.S. Waratah Port Adelaide, South Australia
January 19th 1909 

I waited until today to see if a letter from you would arrive…. So I will drop you a few farewell lines while I am in Australia and hope to hear from you by tomorrow or next day. I am writing this now in case I have not time later on and if a letter from you does turn up I will answer it from Cape Town when we call there.

I must tell you that last Saturday night at 12.20 a.m. the Waratah was as nearly wrecked as ever she will be – the officer on the Bridge mistook his course and was within an ace of piling her up on a reef, it was only the quickness in reversing the engines that saved her. Even as it was, she touched the ground, but not hard enough to do any damage. The night was very dark, but the sea was not rough and I think we could have managed to get ashore is she had broken up. It caused quite a commotion for a time, but the majority of the passengers were asleep and knew nothing about it. When I came up on deck from the engine room after we had her under way again, there was land and rocks all round us, so we were lucky to get off as we did. It was Kangaroo Island where it happened.

Since I started writing this letter I have heard that we are not leaving here before Friday morning, but I can’t say how true it is. You will see however by the paper when we do sail….

We have not many passengers on board and what few there are is mostly for Durban, but we may pick up a few from there and Cape Town for London. 

Signed …. Your sailor brother Jim.

Note: James (Jim) always signed his letter ‘your sailor brother Jim’ but the last letter he ever wrote  he signed, your sailor brother Jim, a few personal lines and then, Goodbye and Good Luck. Spine chilling in the light of what was to befall the ship. ... 

In another letter to Annie dated 16 June 1909 SS Waratah Sydney, Jim says:

We do have some trouble in berthing the Waratah at Port Melbourne and again here and in fact in every port we touched. She is so high that the wind has great power with her. She can snap big hawsers like cotton strands.

Crew of SS Waratah. James (Jim)  Conn -
4th crewman from the RH side of the second back row 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Lightkeeper's View from the Bluff Durban 1870s

The Bay of Natal from the Bluff  ca 1860:
  watercolour by unknown artist, from an Album amicorum

This is the view my light-keeper great grandfather Thomas Gadsden would have looked out upon from the Bluff lighthouse during his tenure there (1867 - 1880s). 

It is taken from the seaward end of the Bluff looking across the Point and Bay towards the heavily wooded Berea, with the buildings of D'Urban clustered onshore, right. A sailing ship negotiates the entrance channel in the foreground, dhows and other small craft are seen in the Bay, and the tug Pioneer, her single stack smoking, is in the centre of the picture, near the Point. At left is the signal station and signalman's house on the Bluff. It is possible that the tall building on the extreme right represents St. Paul's Church.

The painting can be dated as post December 1859 because the steam vessel shown is undoubtedly the Pioneer, Natal's first steam tug. She was 124 tons and was despatched (fitted with masts and sails) from the Thames at the end of July 1859, arriving in Durban 111 days later, having made the journey under sail only, her paddles being fitted in the Bay after her arrival here. On Boxing Day 1859 she was shown, flag-bedecked, to the assembled populace, and crossed the Bar with various dignitaries on board, sailing out into a choppy sea beyond the Bluff - to the discomfort of some of her passengers.

A rare find, this little watercolour in ornate embossed surround, was one of several original drawings in a mid-nineteenth century "Album amicorum", bound in gilt maroon calf. The artist has signed himself (more probably herself) "L.C." and entitled the picture "Bay of Natal  and; Town of D'Urban".

A peaceful and attractive colonial scene, though with hidden dangers lurking - many vessels came to grief on the beach or the Bluff rocks.

The notorious Bar, a sandbank across the entrance to the Bay, was the greatest hazard to shipping at Port Natal, and "should on no account be attempted by a stranger, as the channel frequently shifts in direction and depth". It was this problem, the changing depth of water over the Bar, which frequently necessitated vessels anchoring in the roadstead outside, and, if a gale sprang up, there was a chance of them being driven on-shore or wrecked on the rocks below the Bluff. A case in point was the Byrne settler ship Minerva, 987 tons, which was wrecked on the night of 4 July 1850 when she parted her main anchor in a sudden north-easterly while waiting in the "roads". Though the 2nd mate drowned, all the passengers were saved, but the ship became a total wreck and the immigrants' personal belongings went to the bottom. 

Only three months after Thomas Gadsden's arrival, the Sebastian and the Earl of Hardwicke were beached in a similar gale on 26 September 1863.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bluff Light-keepers 1875: Gadsden and Bell

According to the listing of the Port Office in the Natal Almanac, when my light-keeper great grandfather, Thomas Gadsden, was Head Keeper of the Bluff Light, Durban, he was paid a hundred pounds a year, 'with quarters'. This wasn't an enormous salary but he was doing better than the 'Native Assistant' at twelve pounds. And in comparison with the Port Captain, then Alexander Airth, who received 350 pounds, perhaps Gadsden's salary was fair.

At this date, the Assistant Light-keeper was D W Bell, Gadsden's brother-in-law, the son of the late Captain William Bell who had died in 1869. Gadsden had married Bell's daughter, Eliza Ann, in 1873.

So the lighthouse was very much a family affair. Douglas Bell took over as Head keeper in about 1880. 

This unique photograph, restored from its original damaged condition, shows various members of the Bell family including possibly the only surviving picture of Douglas Bell, left. He could be holding the Dolland telescope which previously belonged to his father, Capt Bell. Unfortunately, it was this portion of the original photo which was water-damaged and the figure may not be an accurate likeness of Douglas Bell - though the telescope was definitely visible in the original.

Capt Bell and his Dolland telescope

The ladies are 'Aunt Ellen' (Ellen Harriet Bell, daughter of Captain Bell, who later married Edward Baxter) and her niece 'Cousin Violet Bell' (Violet Amy, daughter of Sarah Scott Bell and Charles George Pay).  The other little girl may be Natalia Beatrice Pay, sister of Violet. The identity of the bearded man, perhaps Assistant Light-keeper at the time, is not known.

The photograph was taken by W E James who at that date, ca 1880, had a studio at the Point, Durban.

Most interesting of all is the structure in front of which the group is foregathered. This is likely to be the current keeper's quarters near the Bluff Lighthouse. It has a corrugated iron roof over timber walls which are raised above the ground (against white ants). The windows with their top 'awning' detail are typical of the period. Note the plaited fence.

For more about the Gadsden/Bell connection with the Bluff Light see:


Photograph restoration: Hartmut Jager
Photograph from Gordon Brown.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Green Point Lighthouse, Natal, and its keepers

Brought into operation in 1905, Green Point Lighthouse on Natal's South Coast was the second last SA lighthouse to use petroleum vapour burners and the first to be fully automated in November 1961.

Light intensity was approximately  240 000 cd. The lighthouse had an added feature: a subsidiary sector light exhibiting a fixed red light over an arc subtending the extremities of the Aliwal Shoal.

In the days when it was a manned light, Green Point, though not far from Durban, was a comparatively isolated and inaccessible light for lightkeepers and their families.The old South Coast Road to Port Shepstone was seven miles inland and was connected to the lighthouse by a secondary road running through the canefields. The old road was always in poor condition and the staff used the train from Clansthal to visit Umkomaas or Durban. When the new tarred road, running close to the sea, was built, a short access road was cut through the bush to the lighthouse. This enabled those members of the staff who were fortunate enough to own cars to travel to Umkomaas in a few minutes and to Durban in less than an hour. But lightkeepers no longer frequent the road in this area. Another era has gone.

Names of the senior lightkeepers at Green Point before automation:

C G Johnson
E D Bayes
J R Clingen
D Hurley*
C H Cornish
T McInerney
E L Andreasen
J C Addison
H H Hews
W A Hews
F C Miller

* father of Archbishop D Hurley

The last lightkeepers did not benefit from the electricity supply - it resulted in their permanent withdrawal.

Read more in Harold Williams's authoritative volume Southern Lights, Lighthouses of Southern Africa (Published by Wm Waterman 1993)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Waratah 106th anniversary: links

On Monday, 26 July 1909, at 8 pm from ‘C’ Shed, SS Waratah put to sea for the last time. As the ship turned south past Durban Bluff heading for Cape Town none on board would have believed that they would be sailing to their deaths.

As they progressively headed into stronger winds, at around 6.30am on 27 July the following morning, Waratah‘s last communication from Latitude 31.36 degrees South and Longitude 29.58 degrees East, positioned her due East of Cape Hermes near Port St. Johns.

Suzanne-Jo Leff Patterson tells the story:

A must for Waratah enthusiasts, Andrew Van Rensburg's blog:

Buy his book via Amazon now!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Countdown to Waratah Anniversary 2

Waratah officers' signatures

Western Times 19 August 1909

STILL NO NEWS OF THE MISSING LINER: The east coast from Durban southwards is still being vigorously searched for any trace of the missing liner Waratah. One hopeful view is that no signs of wreckage have been seen and it would seem impossible for a ship the size of the Waratah to go to pieces without wreckage being floated ashore.

For much more on Waratah see www.waratahrevisited.blogspot.com

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Countdown to Waratah Anniversary

A very poignant letter written by a crew member on 26 July 1909 from SS Waratah in Durban, was received by his sister in London.

‘Just a line to let you know we arrived here safely after a pretty rough voyage from Adelaide. For 13 days after leaving that place we had heavy seas and weather and a lot of the deck fittings were broken and carried away by heavy seas that swept over the vessel. The last five days however have been fine and we got here yesterday midday (Sunday) and we leave the Cape Saturday next on 31st July for London, where we will arrive on August 21st although we are not due until the 23rd….’

Those words still hang in the air more than a century later. The Waratah was destined not to reach London but to disappear off the southern coast of Africa after her departure from Durban for the Cape.  The story of her mysterious final hours continues to haunt us and even now there are plans to search the coastal waters for her final remains.

Was your ancestor on the Waratah's last fateful voyage. Check the passenger list at 

and Andrew van Rensburg's enthralling book of the same title, now available on Amazon. A must-read for all Waratah enthusiasts.

Thanks to Waratah expert S J L Patterson for her input for this post.

The crew of SS Waratah

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lighthousekeeper: Roman Rock

Not an operation to be carried out in stormy weather.

Roman Rock Lighthouse perches on an isolated rock in the harbour at Simonstown.
It is the only lighthouse on the SA coast erected on a rock that is exposed at low water and awash almost continuously at high water.

Joseph Nourse Commodore of the Royal Navy at Simonstown wrote to the Admiralty in London in January 1823 stressing the importance of the safety of HM ships entering anchorage at Simon's Bay at night. A plan was presented in February of the same year, with an estimated cost of 450 pounds, a low figure for the time.

Nothing happened until 1838 when Rear Admiral Elliott urged the need for a lighthouse at the entrance to Simon's Bay. He repeated his request in 1839. Simon's Bay was still waiting for its lighthouse by 1843. Work finally began on a lighthouse in 1857, but it took four years for the structure to be completed. Delays were very much a part of the history of lighthouse building in South Africa.

Despite adverse comments on the safety and stability of the tower in 1861, the same beacon is still in operation having defied the south-east gales and surging seas which engulf it every summer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Bluff Lighthouse, Signal Station and keepers' quarters

Pre 1930 - as can be seen from the lack of the additional concrete with which the lighthouse was 'restored' by that date. This is one of the best photographs taken of the lighthouse and its environs between 1900 and 1930. (Note that the shape of the Bluff changes from photo to photo over several decades.)

The concrete sheath was added due to concerns that the foundations of the old lighthouse were shaky: an earth tremor had unsettled the foundations and in a strong wind the tower swayed considerably, throwing the lens which floated on the mercury bath out of kilter.

Lighthouse engineer Cooper's scheme encased the original lighthouse in reinforced concrete, which may have assisted its stability but did nothing for the aesthetic appearance of the landmark.

Bluff Lighthouse with its concrete casing, taken ca 1935