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Strange Lights

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on August 20, 2012

On the 16th of December, 1914, an article appeared in The Argus (Melbourne) about strange lights over the Dandenong Ranges. This was in the early days of the First World War and the world was in turmoil. Odd occurances made the locals jumpy and the threat of invasion was in all the newspapers. The isolated atmosphere of our little hills towns added to the mystery and concern.

The lights continued over a period of days and The Register (Adelaide) reported “Those who saw the shifting shafts of light first told their friends, and in the course of a day or two practically the whole population of Dandenong (Mt.) and Sassafras refrained from going to bed until they watched and wondered what strange signal was being conveyed to an enemy lurking somewhere in the darkness. Insomnia became the prevailing complaint of the district. Some of the more daring spirits organized surprise parties, and excursions were made into the night in order to clear up the mystery, but some unhappy fate always seemed to baulk success.” It was also reported that “One imaginative countryman, with a knowledge of Morse code, explained that he had actually read the German messages that were being signalled.”  The Defence Department was called in and the State Commandant (Colonel Wallace) sent two officers who “motored” out to the area to investigate.  They spent two very uncomfortable nights hiding in the undergrowth and watching with night vision glasses. Despite freezing cold and icy rain they were rewarded with a number of flashes. On the second night they pinpointed the origin of the lights and using their car, they raced to the site. What they found surprised everyone. It was an itinerant picture showman endeavoring to promote his show by projecting an advertisment onto the mountainside. Picture showmen were not unusual in the early 1900’s, similar to a circus or traveling show they showed silent films in country towns all across the Australia.

A report with reference to the matter was submitted to the Defence Minister, Senator Pearce and an announcement was made that no unauthorised use of searchlights was allowed, particularly in time of war.

I found this article gorgeous and wonderful and was so pleased with the answer to the mystery.  Yet when I was researching it, I found a number of other articles about odd lights in the night sky.

About five years earlier on Monday the 9th of August in 1909 there was a report in The Argus about beautiful lights in the sky over the Dandenong Ranges. Reverend B. Cousins, chaplain of the Melbourne Seamen’s Mission stated that he, along with his wife, had witnessed the phenomena from a property in Kangaroo Ground.  He described the sight as “two beautiful revolving lights high up in the air. They whirled like the propellers of ships, slowed down, dipped and rose again, as if they were beating up in a zig-zag course against the wind.” 

Reverend Cousins called out to a neighbour, Mr. J. Swain who along with his two sons also witnessed the sight. The five of them watched the lights from 10 pm until about midnight when they saw one of the lights receding over the dividing range. Reverend Cousins got up at 2 am and and witnessed the second following the path of the first and five more very dim lights in the distance. He stated that the whole impression of the lights was that they were connected to some form of machinery. This is a very unusual statement because it wasn’t until the following year that Australia had the first chance to see a powered controlled flight. (Interestingly enough it was piloted by Harry Houdini at Diggers Rest).

On the following day, Tuesday the 10th of August 1909, The Argus published a letter signed by North Malvern Residents. In it they state “Both on Friday and Saturday evening we saw a strange light in the sky, which at first we thought was a star of unusual magnitude. We, looking from Malvern North at 10 p.m., saw it rise in the direction of Mt. Dandenong. It rose about the same time on both evenings. Sometimes it burned red, then blue. It travelled towards the west, but soon disappeared.”

Also on Tuesday there was another report from Moss Vale, south of Sydney where “quite a number of people” witnessed a large light and above it was a large body or craft on which the light reflected. The passengers on the Melbourne Express train also sighted the phenomena. They crowded around each end of the corridor carriages and caught sight of the “craft” when the train was in the southern highlands and had exited from a deep cutting near the Hilltop station.

I have found that the reports of sightings seem to be in “clusters” In 1909 there were eight other reports of flashing lights in the sky and some of these were reported to be the aurora australis or southern lights. These reports came from all over Australia and although they are attributed to the southern lights or the planet Venus, some of the descriptions don’t fit. On the 14th of August they were reported in Zeehan, Tasmania. On the 16th of August in Adelaide. On the 21st of August at Pingelly W.A. On the 27th of September in both Mudgee NSW and Shepparton, Vic. and on the 28th of September in Southern Cross, W.A., Naas in NSW (or ACT) and in White Cliffs N.S.W.

In 1914 when our first story about the itinerant showman was the cause, I found that on the previous evening there was a report of unexplained lights near Geelong. In October there was another sighting near Zeehan in Tasmania. We have similar clusters of sightings in the mid 1930’s, in 1950 and through most of 1954. So who knows, maybe flying saucers do exist.