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Lighthouse, Bird Island
Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) district, Eastern Cape

B GODFREY: Project Architect
Joseph FLACK: Contractor



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33°50'29" S 26°17'13" E

Work on the lighthouse commenced in March 1872. The trenches for the foundations had to be blasted out of the hard rock base, the foundations were formed of heavy rough stones, built with mortar made from coarse shells, shell lime and driftsand which was grouted between every large stone and at each course. A guard was fitted to the west side window of the tower to protect it from being damaged by low flying gannets (malgas).

(Williams, 1993:27-8)


Article: Godwin, G.. 1873. New Lighthouse, Bird Island, Cape Town. The Builder, Vol. 31. London: Publishing Office No. 1. (p702)

THE Bird Islands are a group of small islets situated in Algoa Bay, about thirty-three miles (53km) E.S.E. of the town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Besides the three largest, which are called the Bird, Seal, and Stag Islands, there are a number of half-sunken rocks around these larger islands, extending about two miles in different directions. The group are about seven miles (11km) from the main land, the nearest point of which is Woody Cape. The farthest rock to seaward is the Dorington Rock, where the ill-fated East Indiaman was wrecked rather more than a century ago; the anchor and gun of which vessel is still to be seen lying between the rocks on Bird Island at low water. I have seen them many times. They must hare been carried by the current from the spot where she struck to the place where they now lie: the distance is about a mile (1,6km).

Bird Island is still the resort of thousands of sea-birds, principally penguins, and what they call here the malgass, but which is very much like the ganat, or sea-goose. These birds make their nests in the guano, and sit together in one large flock, covering the greater part of the island. Any one attempting to go among them stands a chance of having his legs torn and Scratched, for while the female bird is sitting on her one egg, she is very vicious; she sits all the time, which is about five weeks, and her food is brought her by the male bird. When the young ones are old enough to fly, they are taken away by the old ones in large droves, and it is supposed that they go to sea, for they do not return to the island for about three months. The penguins are a curiosity to look at, with their little flappers, with which they are very active in the water. It is astonishing how fast they run. When they are pursued, they always make for the water ; when once they are there they are safe. One would think at night that there were thousands of donkeys let loose upon the island, for the noise which these birds make is very much like the braying of that animal. The eggs of both these birds are eaten by the light keepers and those who visit the island ; they are very wholesome, and not unpalatable.

There is a vegetable grown in the guano, and which covers a part of the island. It is very much like spinach, and it is eaten by those on the island. There is a large quantity of guano, which in some parts is as deep as 14 ft (4,3m). There is an abundance of shells, but not a particle of sand or earth of any kind. There are a large number of seals, on one of the rocks, called the Black Rock: they are seldom disturbed, excepting by parties who go there sometimes for guano.

In 1851 the Cape Governor erected a wooden lighthouse upon Bird Island, for the benefit of vessels going in and out of Algoa Bay. It was a rather curious-shaped-looking building as seen from the sea. There were exhibited from the tower, in different positions, two fixed white lights. The tower was a pyramidal-shaped building, with a projecting landing or platform, upon which each of the lanterns was fixed. It had been noticed for some years past that this building was fast going to decay. It was built of wood, the framing part of which was connected with iron bolts; the iron seemed to be very much affected by the action of two salts, one arising from the water, and the other from the ammonia.

This building has been taken down, and close to where it stood a new and more substantial building has been erected. In 1871 the Colonial Government granted the money for this work. Drawings were at once prepared for the same, and the contract was signed in November of the same year, but the works upon the island did not actually commence until March, 1872 ; and the whole of the work would have been completed by the end of last year had it not been for the delay which took place in getting the lighting apparatus and other ironwork done in England. But it was so far finished by the 1st of May last, that the new light was exhibited for the first time on that day. It is a fixed red light, of the Third Dioptric order, the height of which is about 80 ft. (24,3m) above the level of the sea, seen about twelve miles (19km) off.

The buildings are now entirely finished, and the workmen have all left the island.

The whole of the work has been carried out according to the drawings. The tower is 60 ft. (18,2m) high from the level of the rock to the focal plane, or centre of light. It is a square building, quite perpendicular, showing on its north and south sides four circular apertures, which are connected with each other by a recess formed in the work, and a large moulding forming the whole into a cross, which is intended as a day mark; on the east and west side there is only one aperture.

The parapet is finished in the form of battlements, with small coved recesses under the cornices. The outside of the tower is coloured gray or light stone colour. The inside of the watch-room and cleaning-room is fitted with cupboards and other fittings to hold the different articles required for the establishment. The whole of the inside fittings are of teak and mahogany, and varnished.

All the lighting apparatus, as also the iron watchroom, lanterns, iron floors, girders, and stairs, wore supplied by Messrs. Chance Bros., of Birmingham. Besides the tower, there are two cottages (which are connected on each side with the lighthouse) for the use of the light-keeper and his assistant.

The greater part of the buildings have been constructed with the stone found upon the island, and pointed outside and plastered inside. The arches are of brick and cement, which had to be taken to the island.

The roofs of the cottages are covered with slate, and provision has been made for preserving the water, which is a very scarce commodity at times. To each keeper's quarters an under-ground tank, holding about 2,000 gallons (9,092l), has been constructed, and a 400-gallon (2268l) iron tank has also been supplied to each house.

In connexion with the establishment a flag staff and signal-house have been erected, so that the light-keeper can communicate with vessels passing.

The works have been carried out under the superintendence of Mr. Joseph FLACK, of the Colonial Engineer Department.

The cost of the work is understood to be about 7,000l. Mr. B. GODFREY, of Cape Town, was the contractor for the whole of the work, excepting the part supplied by Messrs. Chance Bros.

Writings about this entry

Hoberman, Gerald. 2011. Lighthouses of South Africa : pocket edition. Cape Town - London - New York: The Gerald & Marc Hoberman Collection. pg 89-91
Williams, Harold. 1993. Southern Lights : Lighthouses of Southern Africa. Cape Town: William Waterman Publications. pg 25-31