Story: Lighthouses

Page 2. A national system

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To be effective, a lighthouse must be part of a system of appropriately sited and well-maintained lighthouses.

Lights and their administration

There were two classes of lighthouses, administered by different authorities:

  • Harbour lights guided ships into port. Initially they were the responsibility of provincial authorities, and later local authorities.
  • Coastal lights were used to confirm a ship’s position along the coastline. They were considered to be the concern of central government.

Marine boards

In 1862, concerned about the provinces’ initiative in setting up lighthouses, the New Zealand government established the Chief Marine Board to superintend their construction and maintenance. In 1864 its successor, the Marine Board of New Zealand, began collecting light duties, and the next year it oversaw a burst of construction that produced the southern provincial lighthouses at Godley Head, Taiaroa Head and Dog Island, as well as its own on Mana and Tiritiri Matangi islands.

In 1866 that board, too, was disestablished and replaced by the Marine Department, where the talented James Balfour – related to the famed Scottish lighthouse engineers, the Stevenson family – was colonial marine engineer and superintendent of lighthouses.

James Balfour

In his previous position as marine engineer for the Otago Provincial Council, Balfour had begun to challenge traditional approaches to lighthouse construction. He believed that the new country needed ‘not one or two magnificent and expensive lights … [but a] number of small inexpensive affairs … [which] would certainly be preferable to absolute darkness.’ 1 In his new position, with little government funding, he implemented his ideas. He used wood for the station buildings at Nugget Point and the two screw-pile towers at Cape Campbell and Farewell Spit, and he argued for an inexpensive light at Manukau Harbour.

An ironic end

James Balfour, enthusiast of lighthouses and harbour safety, was drowned in 1869 while landing at Ōamaru to attend the funeral of a fellow engineer, who himself had drowned in the Kakanui River.

John Blackett’s legacy

From 1874 Finance Minister Julius Vogel’s public works initiatives allowed for an extraordinary programme of lighthouse construction, directed until 1889 by the marine engineer John Blackett. By the end of the 19th century the Marine Department had commissioned and built (often within months of each other) 16 manned coastal lighthouses and six manned harbour lights. Mariners could now sail up the east coast of New Zealand and the glow of one light would barely drop below the horizon before the next rose above it.

The 20th century

Between 1900 and 1941 only another six manned lights were constructed. From 1913, automatic lights – much less expensive to build and maintain – were universally installed. The light dues that ships paid at specified ports largely funded the service, and do so today.

Footnotes:
  1. Letter from James Balfour to J. Chance, 7 November 1864, p. 139. Alexander Turnbull Library. › Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Beaglehole, 'Lighthouses - A national system', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/lighthouses/page-2 (accessed 24 October 2017)

Story by Helen Beaglehole, published 12 Jun 2006