About Waglan Lighthouse
By Mr. Deacon, ex-Superintendent of the Navigational Aids
Waglan Island Lighthouse is one of the famous lighthouse in Asia or even in the world. It performs a prominent role as a guidance to mariners approaching Hong Kong via sea routes. The lighthouse stands on the summit of a small island, approximately 29 acres, in position latitude 22° 11.10' North, longitude 114° 18.1'East. The island is the smallest island of the Po Toi Islet Groups at the extreme southeast corner of the colony waters. Since it was built by the Chinese Customs Light Department of the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs in 1893, it has never stopped serving to guide and to protect mariners' lives in the vicinity.
The lighthouse, inaugurated on 9th May, 1893, was initially run by the Chinese Maritime Customs based at Shanghai, China. Its 16-metre high structure, constructed of cast iron, round and painted white with red top is still in good condition. Although Waglan Lighthouse was constructed as early as 1893, it was not the first lighthouse in the colony. The first lighthouse was constructed at Cape D'Aguilar and put into service on 16th April, 1875, closely followed by Green Island on 1 July 1875 and subsequently by Cape Collinson on 1st March 1876. These lighthouses are now all automated.
Sir Robert Hart, Bart., G.C.M.G., Grand Guardian of the Heir Apparent of China, Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs 1863-1911, had organised the National Postal Service and built up the Lighthouse Service of China was originally appointed by the Chinese Government to supervise the collection of Customs duties on the growing foreign trade in China. He had performed his task in organising the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, which for two generations was the only approximation to civil service on modern lines in China. He, from the very beginning, took a broad and imaginative view both of this duties and responsibilities to the Chinese people and Government and of his opportunities for rendering them service and assistance in any practical way.
His earlier circular instructions to the Commissioners of Customs and the whole staff under him were full of repeated suggestions of broad view of work and duty to foster commerce, industry and local prosperity.
Besides carrying out ordinary Customs work of revenue collection, Sir Robert Hart, in pursuance of his general policy, had persuaded the Government to entrust him with the addition task of providing aids to navigation on the coast and rivers and of organising some of harbour control over such matters as berthing, pilotage, and conservancy. The Customs Marine Department, at first under a "Marine Commissioner", was organized in 1868 to take charge, under the Inspector General, of harbour control and provision of all "works intended to be utility to shipping".
7 ½ years later, following the New Territories Lease, it was then transferred to the administration and control of the Hong Kong Harbour Office (now named Marine Department) on 1st January, 1901.
When it was firstly constructed, the lighthouse was installed with an up-to-date light, burning mineral oil with rotating apparatus floating on mercury which was one of the only two modern equipment introduced and installed in the Far Eastern waters at that date. The other one was installed at Lao-tieh-shan, on the extremity of the Liaotung Peninsula.
Until 1956, a few years after the Second World War, the lighthouse was manned by non-Chinese lighthouse keepers. In November 1956, three Chinese joined the lighthouse service as lighthouse keepers at Waglan. All of them worked until their retirements. For years, we had difficulties in recruiting new lighthouse keepers, especially in the earlier days because the crews worked in the lighthouse had to be away from home for 4 weeks on each duty cycles. Little communication was possible for the staff to contact with their families from the lighthouse. Live was simple and hard for the crews at those days. Their only amusement after work was fishing, swimming, reading books and minor farming or gardening. As late as the late 60, coal and firewood were the only fuel for cooking purpose. Two kerosene refrigerators were the only means to preserve the meat edible for a fortnight. Of course any fish caught and vegetables grown were delicious comparing with the salt-preserved food. Electricity was sparingly available. One of the two small DC generations only operated from dusk to dawn when the beacon light had to be switched on. Nevertheless, staff there had got used to the simple and hard life on those days. Relief days in every other Tuesdays were big days to them but not everyone of them (only half of them) could go home because each person had to work on the station for 4 weeks in each duty cycle. In the relief day, all hands, except the one keeping watch in the signal tower, were at the landing to welcome their returning colleagues and visitors. All of them were very busy in transporting food provisions, stores, fuels and etc. from a small boat which served as the bridge between the landing and the mother ship anchored a few hundred yards off. Manual operated derrick on the landing was in busy operation as well. Large drums of dieseline, bags of coal, loads of firewood and other heavy gears were carried on shoulders. Anyhow, the days' hardwork could not cover their happiness because it was the time that they could obtain first-hand news, information and rumour of the outside world through chitchats among themselves.
On the early 70, improvements were gradually brought to the station such as the installation of the two powerful 200v AC generators, the building of a standard pier and winched trolley from pier uphill. Since then, the mother ship (the relief launch) can berth alongside right on the pier. Loading and unloading of people and gears becomes convenient and safe. Life becomes more interesting on the island.
Water shortage was a problem not only in the town of Hong Kong but also on the island as well because collection of rainwater was only the only supply of drinking water for the lighthouse. Luckily the staff on the island kept a good record and plan in water consumption. Water rationing was not unusual on the island.
Dwellers of non-government staff including the crew's family members were not allowed on the island because transportation of sick or injured persons ashore was extremely difficult. Besides that, education for children was impossible on the island too.
Coming to the years of late 70 onward, life on the island was highly advanced. Air conditioners were installed in the water tower and recreation room. Radio-cassette set, television set and other recreational means were provided. DEL telephones were installed for work-communication and family-talks.
From the operation of a mineral oil burning light in the early days to the complete electronic controlled beacon light now, it functions uninterruptedly and with the adding of a racon beacon and the introduction of Vessel Traffic Control System, the service keeps on upgrading and expects will not be ended.
Before Waglan automation, the lighting apparatus was housed within the structure at an elevation of 69 meters, consisted of a 4th order, 375mm focal length catadioptric lens mounted on a 12V battery driven gearless pedestal. The light source was a 110V d.c. 1500W pre-focus bulb. The optic revolved at 1 rpm & produced a character of 2 flashes every 30 seconds. (It is now 2 flashes every 20 seconds.) The intensity of the light was over 1,000,000 candelas & could be seen at night in clear weather at a distance of more the 26 nautical miles. Two 50kVA (one standby) "Brush" alternators coupled to 90 b.h.p. "Gardner" diesel engine provided the lighthouse with 200/345 volt power supply for cooking, operation of light, radio and radar transponder and other miscellaneous machinery. The sound for the fog signal was provided by two "ATLAS COPCO" (one standby) air cooled reciprocating compressors coupled to 100 b.h.p. "Gardner" diesel engine. Two radio beacons (one standby) which emitted a coded "WL" signal to assist vessels in fixing their positions and a radar transponder also known as 'racon' gave coded and amplified signal for ships to positively identify Waglan on their radar screen were installed on the island.
Although Waglan Island Lighthouse is now automated and unmanned, it had once been highly crowded with important operational section of various departments in mid 50. Except the lighthouse keepers, there was the HMS Tamar who operated a radar station. The Civil Aviation Department also operated an aviation traffic control station, the Royal Observatory staff there collected weather information of the area and the Cable & Wireless Co. maintained and serviced all radio equipment on the station.