Story: Lighthouses

Page 4. Lighthouse keepers

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Shift work

The principal keeper of a lighthouse sometimes arrived during the final stages of construction to help assemble the lighting equipment. Once the light was working, the strict, inexorable light-watching shifts, four hours long, began. Typically keepers sat alone in a cold room. Every 15 minutes they pumped up the fuel to the light (later, technology also required them to maintain the correct air pressure so the burner had fuel). About every hour they wound up the weights that powered the huge cages of lenses, which moved on rollers around the light. They also kept a lookout for ships, and passed the time carving wood, painting, or playing cards or cribbage – but not, on pain of instant dismissal, going to sleep.

Light of God

In the 1867 instructions to light keepers, the principal keeper was ordered to summon his family and assistant every Sunday to read the Church of England service for the day.

Keepers were relieved of these tasks when the lights became electric, most of them from the 1950s.

Other duties

Keepers’ duties did not end with their shifts. Until electrification, the lighting equipment was painstakingly cleaned each day in the manner stipulated by James Balfour in 1867. The tower also needed regular cleaning, and station buildings needed repair or painting. There was fencing, butchering, dealing with pests and weeds, battling erosion, cleaning and mending coal sacks and folding them in the approved fashion, maintaining the roads and, at some stations, wildlife duties. Keepers carted stores and provisions from landings to the station after the three-monthly drop-off by boat. Orders had to be filled in, as did the vast array of forms required by the Marine Department. The cattle and sheep that were kept for their fresh milk and meat had to be tended, and the vegetable gardens also demanded attention, while fishing supplemented the diet.

In the 1950s electricity made things easier, tractors replaced horses, and tradesmen were employed increasingly for major painting and maintenance of equipment, but to a remarkable extent the work remained the same for the duration of lighthouse services.


Despite (or perhaps because of) their isolation, keepers had to follow precise bureaucratic procedures. A 1929 circular introduced a new form to write-off stores with these instructions: ‘The application is to be prepared in triplicate, the original and duplicate forwarded to Head Office and the triplicate retained at the station and filed in numerical order. The number of the application from each station is to be registered in the space … provided at the top right hand corner of the form.’

Keepers’ wives

Keepers’ wives also worked hard. They used coal ranges in run-down houses, so that caring for children and carrying out domestic duties was backbreaking. Washing was done by hand. Keepers’ houses were not electrified until the 1950s, and then only gradually.

Wives accompanied their husbands to every lighthouse except the exposed Brothers Islands station. It was felt that greater harmony prevailed if stations were kept by family units rather than by single men. Only in the 1980s did the department recognise wives’ contribution to the running of the stations, and paid the wives on four stations allowances of $9,238 per year.

Who were the keepers?

Due to a lack of records, it is difficult to assess what sort of men were recruited as keepers in the 19th-century. Many later 20th-century keepers were ex-sailors, but others wanting a steady income, a challenge, fresh air and independence also joined – and had to deal with a highly-centralised department that had always sought to regulate almost every aspect of their lives. By the 1950s the Marine Department was trying to attract handymen with the skills it had, until then, taken for granted.

Bad and good times

Keepers and their families had to get along. They had to cope with the isolation of remote locations, and the attendant fear of illness and accidents (there were remarkably few).

Although many 20th-century keepers no longer spent as long in the service as their 19th-century counterparts, many enjoyed the lifestyle and a unique job.

How to cite this page:

Helen Beaglehole, 'Lighthouses - Lighthouse keepers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

Story by Helen Beaglehole, published 12 Jun 2006