Australian Sea Heritage online

ASHonline – published by the Sydney Maritime Museum; home of Sydney Heritage Fleet

Pilot Vessel John Oxley and her other role

William Bourke, Curator, Maritime Records and Research Centre, Sydney Heritage Fleet


John Oxley in the Brisbane River c1950s            Photograph: Graeme Andrews Collection

The Sydney Maritime Museum, home of Sydney Heritage Fleet, acquired John Oxley in 1970 after the ship was decommissioned by the Queensland Government in 1968. The vessel was launched in 1927 at the shipyards of Bow McLachlan in Paisley, Scotland, to the order of the Queensland Harbours and Rivers Board for service as a pilot vessel in Moreton Bay and as a buoy and lighthouse tender along the Queensland coast. 

In 1997 John Oxley was placed on the Museum’s Sea Heritage Dock where she has since been undergoing restoration. The long project is in its final stages.

The Museum’s Maritime Records and Research Centre (MRRC) holds considerable historical information on John Oxley’s more than 40 years’ service, including correspondence, crew lists, diaries and ships logs. 

John Oxley’s coastal role

Recent correspondence between the MRRC and a Queensland resident who has a particular interest in the history of Queensland coastal lighthouses has unearthed an interesting article on John Oxley’s coastal role. It was published in the 21 July 1932 issue of the Queenslander. 

The article gives an account of John Oxley’s visit to the port for Rockhampton and the work she did there. (A digitised version of the article can be viewed on the National Library of Australia’s website TROVE.)

Chart 345_002 - Highlights Cropped

A section of navigational chart AUS 345 illustrating locations referred to in this article


Extract from the Queenslander, Thursday 21 July 1932, page 7.

“THE Government steamer John Oxley returned recently from her Northern cruise, during which maintenance and inspection work was carried out.

“The John Oxley left Brisbane with the port master (Mr. T. P. H. Roberts) in charge. Mr. E. A. Cullen (engineer for Harbours and Rivers Department), Mr. Stanley (Under Secretary, Treasury), Mr. Kyle (engineer mechanic), Captain and Mrs. Fawcett, and their son, and Captain and Mrs. Smibert also were on board. Captain Fawcett was en route to Gladstone to take over duties of pilot for that port, and Captain Smibert was going as pilot for Rockhampton.

“The first place of call was Gatcombe Head, where Captain Fawcett and family were landed, as also was their furniture. At this place Captain Payne’s furniture was loaded to be taken to Brisbane, Captain Payne having been transferred to Brisbane as master of the Government steamer Champion. After a stay of 24 hours the voyage was resumed, and the next stop was Sea Hill, Keppel Bay, where Captain Smibert was landed.

“Proceeding up the bay the anchor was dropped at Balaclava Island, where the real work of the cruise was to be carried out. Balaclava Island, situated at the mouth of the Fitzroy River, is an island in name only; it would be more correct to call it a huge mud flat. For the last 50 years two lofty, wooden beacons have been kept in order and maintained by the Harbours and Marine Department. The island has been the home of many light keepers and their families during that time. It is not a place in which one would wish to spend a holiday, as, apart from the monotonous surroundings, sand flies and mosquitoes are a constant pest.

“The old light structures had outlived their usefulness, and, together with their old-fashioned kerosene lamps, had been condemned, to be replaced by new towers and the latest in automatic gas lamps.

JO 1 Queenslander - 21 July 1932 - p21 (2)

John Oxley at anchor and the whale boat with a full load of equipment being towed ashore

“These lights will be unattended, lighting themselves and putting themselves out by means of a sun valve. They will burn acetylene gas supplied from cylinders, which will be replaced every 12 months. All the material for the new lights, together with numerous gas cylinders, had to be dragged through the mud on a two-wheeled contraption called a ‘jinker’ by the combined efforts of the John Oxley’s crew and the light keepers, and the pilot boat staff, with the light keepers’ two boys as water carriers. All material had to be dragged in this fashion for nearly two miles through the sticky mud, and the boys never let the team go ‘dry’ once. The work at the towers was easy after the drag through the mud, and under the supervision of Captain Roberts and Mr. Cullen, with the engineer mechanic hard at work assembling the new lights, it was not long before both lights and towers were ready for inspection and a try-out.

Demolishing the Old Towers

“These new towers are built of hardwood, and stand 80ft. and 100ft. high respectively, and are a credit to the contractor and his men from Rockhampton who built them. The towers are more than a mile apart, and when brought into line form the leading beacons to guide the shipping into Keppel Bay.

“The work of demolition was facilitated by the use of the firestick. After all fittings had been removed a fire was made at the base, and the old towers soon dropped into the mud.

“After the return of the working party to the John Oxley a trial run was made at night to see how the new lights were working, and they proved to be far superior to the old ones both in brilliance and the distance at which they were visible, and should be a boon to shipping using the port of Rockhampton.

Changing a Gas Buoy

“One other job had to be done before the John Oxley turned round for Brisbane, and that was to change the Timandra Bank gas buoy. This buoy is anchored at the entrance to Keppel Bay, and is changed annually by the John Oxley.

JO 2 Queenslander - 21 July 1932 - p21 (2)

The barnacle and weed encrusted Timandra Bank gas buoy, at the entrance to Keppel Bay, being lifted on board John Oxley

“It is supplied with gas stored in cylinders inside the buoy, and the light will burn for 12 months without attention.

JO 3 Queenslander - 21 July 1932 - p21 (2)

A clean gas buoy being lowered to replace the dirty one for 12 months – the term for which the gas will burn without attention. Each buoy weighs 5 tons

“This work being finished, the ship was turned south for Brisbane, and en route called at Woody Island, in Hervey Bay, and picked up a number of surplus buoys to go into the boilermakers’ hands to Brisbane for overhaul and repairs. After a fine weather run down the coast the John Oxley was back in plenty of time to take up her pilot and other duties at Cape Moreton.

 “Captain Roberts was well pleased with the work done, and Captain Markusen, of the John Oxley, was complimented on the ability of his crew.” 

Memories of Sea Hill Pilot Station, Curtis Island

The MRRC’s Queensland correspondent also included a copy of an extract from a publication Harbours & Marine which referred to the pilot station for all vessels proceeding to Rockhampton which was located at Sea Hill on Curtis Island. 

The extract describes the reminiscences of the son of a pilot stationed at Sea Hill in 1936.

“When I was nine years of age my father was appointed to the Queensland Pilot Service. His first port was Rockhampton/Port Alma. At that time the pilot was stationed at Sea Hill, on the norther end of Curtis Island.

Pilots House - Sea Hill

Pilots House, Sea Hill

“My father went to Sea Hill a month before the rest of the family, then one evening with my mother, two sisters, six and three year olds, together with our housemaid and our furniture we left the Port Office wharf in the Pilot Vessel John Oxley on our way to Sea Hill. This was one of the vessel’s annual trips north to Rockhampton. I recall sitting on the deck aft watching the long south-easterly swells overtaking us, and John Oxley (from where I was sitting) disappearing into the troughs then rising on the crests. We stopped at the Gardner Banks to catch a few fish I remember, each of the several people fishing having a pile of a dozen or so large fish, predominantly snapper and red emperor. Captain Roberts, then Port Master, was one of those fishing. We arrived at Sea Hill at 9 o’clock in the morning and were taken ashore by pilot launch Keppel which made a few more trips with our furniture.”


This entry was posted on 23/05/2019 by in Sydney Heritage Fleet.
Follow Australian Sea Heritage online on
%d bloggers like this: