Story: Lighthouses

Page 3. Building

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Proposing sites

Identifying where coastal lights were needed most was not easy in a rapidly developing colony. Economic growth altered trading patterns, the arrival of steam power changed shipping routes, new navigational dangers were discovered, and local vested interests were always at stake.

Even when sites were identified, the New Zealand government, initially reluctant to fund construction, had to be convinced. James Balfour was the first, but not the last, to resort to dramatic language to spur the government into action: ‘I may now say that nowhere in New Zealand is there such a crying need for a light as on this low-lying and extensive danger’, he wrote in 1867 of Farewell Spit. That light was funded. However, his description of the perils of navigating Tory Channel went unheeded: ‘The height of the land, the narrowness of the entrance, and the strength of the tide [which can run up to seven knots], combine to make the operation a very anxious one even to the most experienced captains on the coast.’ 1

Determining sites

In 1873 captains Robert Johnson and Robert Edwin drew up what would become the blueprint for New Zealand’s lighthouse development. Their proposal was based on clear principles, in marked contrast to the local politics which had often dictated earlier sitings. The next year Johnson and Blackett embarked on a number of trips to identify specific sites at the recommended locations. They looked for positions with good visibility, suitable geology, fresh water, enough land for a small outlying farm, and easy landing places for construction and maintenance.

Their trip was a saga of tenacity and purpose: they coasted close to little-known and sometimes stormy shores; landed at about 30 different locations including the Snares Islands (where no lighthouse was ever built); and lugged heavy surveying equipment up precipitous headlands or islands to take detailed measurements. Their achievement is reflected in the effectiveness of today’s lighthouse sites.


The first lighthouse, at Pencarrow in Wellington Harbour, was ordered from ironworks in England. It came out on the Ambrosire in June 1858 in 480 separate packages.

Building the towers

The lighthouse towers built by the Marine Department between 1871 and 1889 differed dramatically from the first structures made of local stone (at Godley Head, Taiaroa Head and Dog Island) or imported cast iron (Pencarrow and Nelson). The elegant Mokohinau tower, finished in 1883, was made of concrete. Elsewhere, John Blackett, drawing on North American experience, designed wooden towers as a temporary and cheap expedient. Only in 1889 would locally cast iron towers go up. The two last towers to be built in New Zealand, at Baring Head (completed in 1935) and Cape Rēinga (1941), were concrete.

An unruly brother

In 1856 the northernmost of The Brothers islands, off the north-east tip of the South Island, was considered an excellent site for a lighthouse. But Marine Board members visiting on a still, fine day in 1863 nevertheless found that neither island offered easy access. The precipitous coastline and choppy waters were a danger to anyone landing, and building would be expensive. The board opted for Mana Island, off the south-west coast of the North Island, as a site – although that tower would later be moved to Cape Egmont, and a new tower was built on the Brothers.


Building the lighthouse at Tiri, on Tiritiri Matangi Island, north of Auckland, was complicated by the steep terrain. Remoter areas were even more challenging. Tons of construction material, lighting equipment, prefabricated structures, accommodation and food for the building gangs had to be packed into easily handled bundles and shipped to the site. At Farewell Spit, Balfour’s men battled with dense clouds of wind-blown sand. At Centre Island unloading everything took four months, and at The Brothers islands supplies had to be landed on an exposed rock in strong tides and rough seas. The landing place at Cuvier Island was frequently unworkable, and at Kaipara North Head all the materials had to be conveyed up 120-metre sandhills. Steamers bought for lighthouse purposes were frequently being deployed elsewhere. Baring Head was so inaccessible by road, even in 1930, that the Marine Department considered shipping construction materials there. Bad weather added to the delays, and contractors worked overtime. Despite these setbacks, almost all the towers were still standing in the 21st century.

  1. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1867, E-6, p. 4. › Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Beaglehole, 'Lighthouses - Building', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Helen Beaglehole, published 12 Jun 2006