We bring the region’s rich maritime heritage to life with performances of Characters of the Cape. The characters present an early history of Cape Otway – from its discovery in 1800 through to conflicting English and French territorial claims.
They detail some of the tragic shipwrecks that prompted calls for a lighthouse at the western entrance to Bass Strait. The characters give us a glimpse into the lives of the pioneers who lived in this wild and isolated environment.
Join us for some of their great stories.
Characters of the Cape appear most days at the Lightstation, but please contact us for performance schedules.
Liked the views and lighthouse. Enjoyed the stories and history of the keepers.
Lots of things to see, good range of things, and koalas on the way in.
Henry Bayles Ford & Mary Ann Ford
You can eavesdrop on a private conversation between the second lightkeeper at Cape Otway, Henry Bayles Ford, and his wife Mary Ann Ford. Henry is in his shed trying to draft a letter to his employers, calling for better working conditions and pay. At the insistence of Mary Ann, who birthed seven of their nine children at the Lighthouse, he makes a bid for better wages, saying it will help attract and retain better quality assistants.
Mary Ann also urges him to address the limited food provisions they were expected to live on and their infrequent delivery. She wants Henry to request his employers provide two cows, to keep the family in milk and butter.
We also catch a glimpse of the tremendous demands placed upon Mary Ann Ford as she educates her nine children, preparing their meals, growing their food, making their clothes, caring for shipwreck victims, and occasionally filling in as an assistant lightkeeper.
Lieutenant James Lawrence
Cape Otway Lightstation’s first lightkeeper, Lieutenant James Lawrence, was sacked within a few months of starting.
Officially he was dismissed for affecting repairs he was not qualified to perform. Unofficially, he was fired for his foul mouth, penchant for rum, and all-round ungentlemanly conduct – which ensured his tenure at the station was short and dramatic.
Upon his sacking, Lawrence is indignant: “Might I remind you of the credentials that first saw me, Lieutenant James Ross Lawrence, formerly of His Majesty’s Royal Navy fit for this position … The superintendent has in his possession not one, but three most flattering testimonials from three consecutive inspecting commanders for my gallantry and activity.”
Charles La Trobe
The public outrage was deafening when the Cataraqui struck rocks on August 3, 1845, killing 369 emigrants, just ten years after the wrecking of Neva claimed 218 lives. These Bass Strait shipping catastrophes were of great concern to Superintendent Charles La Trobe.
In September 1845 La Trobe presented a summation and final argument to the Select Committee for Lighthouses, established to determine the location of a lighthouse on the entrance to Bass Strait. La Trobe argued passionately for a lighthouse on both Cape Otway and King Island – one flashing and one fixed.
From our meeting with La Trobe we also see the beginnings of the early Victorians’ animosity towards New South Wales as mounting deaths from continual shipwreck tragedies at the entrance to an unlit Bass Strait hinder the young colony’s efforts to attract emigrant families and labour.
Rose Ann Hyland
Rose Ann Hyland was one of only a handful of survivors of the convict ship Neva, wrecked on May 13, 1835.
In all, 135 convict women and 55 children died, including three of Rose’s children. As a Character of the Cape, Rose shows great strength as she gives testimony to a government inquiry into the need for a lighthouse at the entrance to Bass Strait.
She provides a dramatic account of the night the Neva was wrecked, as well as some insight into the perilous conditions faced by single women on the long journey to the new colonies; both at the mercy of the elements and at the hands of the sometimes unscrupulous sailors.
Lieutenant Friend, presiding over the enquiry, recommended a lighthouse at Cape Wickham on King Island, but nothing was done and more shipping tragedies were to follow.
Nicolas Baudin (right of picture) was commander of a scientific expedition to map and explore the ‘unknown’ southern coast of Australia.
Baudin was also engaged in diplomatic tussles with Governor King of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), over competing territorial claims to the region between King George III of England and the new French Republic.
In November 1802 Baudin, with the occasional help of his trusty aide Hugo (left of picture), responds to a letter from Governor King. He taunts King about naming rights to “Terre Napoleon” – as the French then called Australia.
Baudin questions English logistical competence in general; laments the hunting to near extinction of the elephant seals, and hints sadly at the fate that awaits the local Aborigines at the hands of the English.
Kathrine Evans, the wife of long serving assistant keeper William Evans, lost two young children within twelve months whilst at the Cape; a son Cornelius in 1867, and an 11 month old daughter Kathrine in 1868.
There is a headstone at the graves of the children at the nearby Cape Otway cemetery.
Here we see a heartbroken mother lament the lack of medical assistance or medicines in such an unforgiving environment.
William Evans served longer than any other assistant keeper at Cape Otway for well over twenty years (1862-1869 & 1872-1884) and had many more children, many of whom settled in the district.