Table Cape is an extinct volcano that was pushed up through the earth’s crust 12.5-13 million years ago. The extensive basalt lava flows have in time come to form the rich red soils that so define the area today. The original inhabitants of this land were the Tommeginer people, and they knew the area as “Toin-Be-Noke”.
The view across so much coastline means that the country would be well protected from those wishing to encroach upon it. Thousands of years of repetitive activity are inscribed within the coastal and hinterland areas.
Middens, as found on the top of Table Cape, are an important part of the archaeological record and demonstrate some of the activities associated with a coastal life. The people fought for this country and were the last Aboriginal people to mount battles against the European settler.
Towering eucalypt forests grew large here, fed by the rich basaltic soils. Beneath these forest giants, ferns reached up higher than the head of any man, searching for the light that glinted down through the gum leaves. Today, the flora incorporates the stringy bark gum, blackwood, and rambling melaleuca with the rare and endemic banksia serrata hidden deep amongst them.
The landscape around Table Cape has been home to two major species that have become extinct within the last 200 hundred years. The small emu, which provided Burnie with its original name of Emu Bay, has been lost, whilst the Tasmanian tiger is perhaps the greatest known loss to the island of Tasmania.
Table Cape continues to provide a habitat for the Tasmanian Devil, Eastern Barred Bandicoot, wallabies, possums and pademelon.
The stream at Table Cape is the only home for a rare and tiny snail known as Beddomeia capensis, while nearby waters provide home for the giant freshwater crayfish. Birdlife abounds at Table Cape, with many native species adopting the wild cliff face as their home.
Often seen are the Tasmanian wedge tailed eagle, the peregrine falcon, the swamp hawk, and the delightful blue wren.
Table Cape was so named in 1798 by Mathew Flinders and George Bass on their circumnavigation of Tasmania. During this time, the Tommeginer Aboriginal people were still living their traditional lives all along this part of the coast, Table Cape included.
The Tommeginer people were the last people to carry out the war against Europeans, with a spear attack on two Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL) servants at Table Cape in 1842 proving to be the final actions of the Black War.
In 1834, the surrounds of Table Cape was noted from the sea as being ‘dreary and uninviting, and it most certainly will never be inhabited until the most hospitable parts of the island are…overpeopled’. This was probably noted because of its dense covering of forest that prevented easy passage.
By 1856 that opinion had reversed, when the governor of the day visited Table Cape to remark, “Now one sees in every direction the homely cottage, the cultivated garden, and the fields standing so thick with corn, the likes thereof seldom seen. Even those who have been tillers in the mother country assert that the crops in this favoured locality promise to yield beyond what the most sanguine agriculturist could expect in any quarter of the world.”
The first settler at Table Cape was Mr. John King in 1842. He purchased 640 acres of land from the Crown, this same land is now seen as the Wynyard Golf course. A visitor, in 1844, noted in his diary “a couple of miles, or less, along a bullock dray road, overshadowed by dense musk and dogwood scrub brought us to Mr. King’s charming homestead, surrounded by cultivated paddocks and a garden with a crystal spring gushing out of the ground close by. It was a treat to spend an evening with this gentlemen and his family in that lonely wilderness.”
The ‘dreary and uninviting’ landscape was much more favourably viewed by sawmillers Moore and Quiggans, who commenced operation in 1853, and were highly successful businessmen exporting log timber around the globe. The company built its own boats to ship the timber, and with increased port activity, the Marine Board of Table Cape was established in 1868.
Following several shipwrecks in the late 19th century, the need for a lighthouse became apparent. The parliamentarian and local landowner, C.B.M. Fenton had, prior to 1870, kept a light burning in his home window at Freestone Cove to guide mariners during the night, but by 1879 it had been requested that a lighthouse atop Table Cape be commissioned.
The lighthouse building was awarded to contractor Mr. John Luck, and the light itself was supplied by the Chance Bros, a Birmingham based company. It is left to history to wonder what the Marine Board was thinking, leaving such an important building to Luck and Chance. The light was finally lit on August the 1st, 1988, to much celebration and fanfare.
The first keeper was Mr. Robert Jackson, who lived in the lighthouse precinct with his family, and two lighthouse keepers assistants with their wives and families also.
In 1890, the fuel for the light was changed from paraffin to ‘mineral colza’, after trials by Mr Jackson, head lighthouse keeper. Mineral colza is also referred to as ‘long time burning oil’, hence its use in lighthouses.
In 1920, the lighthouse was demanned when the light was converted to automatic acetylene. This was achieved through the operation of a ‘Sun Valve’ which allowed the light to only be flashed at night, further reducing the need for gas, and a “Dalen Flasher” – a device that only took gas during the flash of the light. In 1979 mains electricity was connected and an electric lamp and battery bank were installed.
The current lamp assembly has six lamps of which only one is used at a time, with the other five as spares. The lampchanger can automatically detect when a lamp is blown, upon which the next lamp is rotated into place. The light now flashes in a sequence of two flashes per 10 seconds and can be seen up to 32 nautical miles away.
During the first 32 years of operation the light was manned by 3 lighthouse keepers. The three cottages that were built to house them were demolished in 1926 but the foundations can still be seen today.
The head lighthouse keepers had to be married and often had many children. This created quite a little community on the lighthouse site, where stories of music, dancing and learning abound.
The strict naval code considered that keeping the light burning was of utmost importance. The light was the first on the North West Coast and probably the only visible light at night. It was of such importance that even when an earthquake was felt the keeper didn’t leave his post.
The histories of these keepers are rich and provide us with some of the most interesting parts of the Table Cape Lighthouse Experience.
The farmland surrounding the Table Cape Lighthouse has been with the Roberts-Thomson family since 1910 when Major Alexander Roberts-Thomson and his wife Ivy arrived with their 5 sons after serving in India with the British Cavalry.
The family quickly swelled as Ivy gave birth to a further 5 children throughout their time at the Cape. The main crops of the day were chaff, livestock and potatoes, although life was far from easy with the intervention of war and the challenges of farming on an area so recently heavily wooded. In 1936, Eric and Bill Roberts-Thomson succeeded their parents and under their partnership the farm became a very successful Dorset Horn stud.
Indeed, the farm became the foremost Dorset Horn stud in Australia and collected huge numbers of prizes from shows around the nation. The brothers were quick to build on their success and diversified into the vegetable processing industry, growing peas, corn, broccoli, beans and potatoes. Eric was known for his innovative contributions to the pea growing industry, and served as president of the Australian Pea Growers Association for many years. In 1981, Bill and Eric dissolved their partnership, and farmed with their respective sons, Andrew and Paul.
The Tulip Farm at Table Cape was an innovation started by Paul Roberts-Thomson and his wife, Bronwen after an idea sparked by Paul’s Agricultural Science Professor, George Wade in 1984. The farm now specialises in tulips, liliums, and iris bulb and flower production while still grazing a few Poll Dorset sheep and producing crops such as onions, barley and poppies.
The farm forms the backdrop to Wynyard’s Annual Tulip Festival and is one of the largest bulb producers in Australia. Paul and Bron’s children, Meredith and David, continue to be connected to the farm, with David bringing you the fascinating Table Cape Lighthouse Experience. Table Cape has delighted thousands of visitors each spring with a walk through the spectacular fields of tulips. Fields open late September to mid October.