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by  Helen Beaglehole

New Zealand’s rugged, weather-beaten coastline was perilous to ships arriving in the mid-1800s, and many were wrecked before lighthouses were considered an urgent government concern. The establishment of a national lighthouse system has been a heroic enterprise. Starting out as a lamp tended in a cottage window, lighthouses are now highly technical and wholly automated.


Hazardous shores

New Zealand, wrote the British politician Charles Dilke in 1866, was ‘placed in the very track of storms and open to the sweep of rolling seas’; its shores were ‘famed for swell and surf, and her western rivers for the danger of their bars’. 1 Nevertheless, ships bringing people and goods vital to colonial settlement had to make landfall on that little-charted coast. With few and often impassable roads and no rail, coastal traders were the lifeblood of the tiny communities.

Settlers worried about the ever-present possibility of shipwreck, and the consequent loss of life and increases to insurance and freight rates. There were over 1,500 wrecks in 19th-century New Zealand and over 2,000 deaths. Before today’s sophisticated navigational equipment, lighthouses were vital for identifying harbour entrances, marking changes of sailing direction, warning of submerged reefs and rocks and, as markers by day and beacons by night, enabling mariners to fix their position and calculate distance and speed.

First lights

In the 1850s coastal lights were haphazardly placed and insufficient. The entrance to Wellington Harbour, for example, had only a beacon in the bay window of a cottage at Pencarrow Head. At the very first session of the House of Representatives in 1854 a beacons and lighthouses committee was set up. It recommended lights at Pencarrow, Manukau Harbour and Stephens Island, but advised that the provinces should pay for the first two. As their hopes for a lighthouse at Wellington sank in a morass of constitutional wrangling, the Wellington Provincial Council acted. On 1 January 1859 the settlers celebrated on steamers bedecked with flags as the Wellington superintendent ceremoniously lit the light at New Zealand’s first lighthouse, at Pencarrow Head. It was tended by Mary Jane Bennett, widow of George Bennett (the keeper of the cottage beacon) and New Zealand’s only woman lighthouse keeper.

Provincial lights

In 1862 the Nelson Provincial Council announced that from 4 August and every night thereafter a beam would shine from dusk to dawn from a lighthouse at the Boulder Bank, the natural breakwater at Nelson Haven.

Three other provincial governments were also developing lighthouse projects.

  1. Charles Wentworth Dilke, Greater Britain: a record of travel in English-speaking countries during 1866 and 1867. London: MacMillan and Co, 1869. › Back

A national system

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.

  1. Letter from James Balfour to J. Chance, 7 November 1864, p. 139. Alexander Turnbull Library. › Back


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

Lighthouse keepers

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.

Lights: from oil to electricity


In 1926 New Zealand became the first country in the southern hemisphere to install a radio beacon to assist ships’ navigation. The Marine Department, perhaps to the detriment of maintenance of its existing plant, always sought to improve the lighting and navigational aids associated with lighthouses – foghorns, wireless radios and weather-reporting facilities were installed at some or all of the stations, and upgraded gradually.


Initially lights were fixed, but because they could be mistaken for shore lights, flashing lights were gradually phased in. Each lighthouse could be identified from out at sea, as every light had a characteristic frequency and duration of flashes, usually, but not always, created by a revolving clockwork mechanism activated by weights.

The lanterns, and the lenses with their clear prisms, were imported. In 1865 James Balfour installed the latest apparatus designed by his Scottish relatives, the Stevensons, to refract and project available light. This innovation was followed by an upgrading of equipment and fuel. In 1876, when the United States was still using lard oil, the New Zealand Marine Department began burning kerosene instead of colza oil (a derivative of the rape plant), and in 1903 it began trialling incandescent acetylene burners, developed only three years before. By 1913 it had installed its first automatic acetylene light in a lighthouse at Bean Rock, Auckland Harbour. The light revolved by the pressure it generated as it burned; an automatic sun valve turned the gas flow on and off.

Bright lights

The electrification of lighthouses saw the use of 1,000-watt bulbs which, when magnified, produced light equivalent to 2.5 million candles.

The end of manned lights

Automated technology at Bean Rock lighthouse raised the possibility of saving money by reducing manual light keeping. In 1915 similar installations at Nelson and Ponui Passage lighthouses saw three jobs go. Cheaper automatic lights, often mounted in previously impossible sites, made it possible to mark new shipping routes.

Between 1921 and 1928, acetylene burners were installed in more towers. In 1935 the lighthouse at Baring Head was the first to prove the efficiencies of electrification. Other stations’ conversion to electric lights after the Second World War meant that oil burners no longer had to be watched, and many more keepers’ positions were lost.

In the 1960s, some lights were permanently de-manned. After a process in 1991 that provoked public concern and keepers’ anger, New Zealand became the first country to totally automate its lighthouses.

Light beacons

In 2005 Maritime New Zealand was maintaining 73 low-range light beacons. The remaining 23 lighthouses, routinely visited and checked every six months, were computer-monitored.

New Zealand had a relatively cheap and effective system of lighting the coasts. Yet the cost of maintaining historic lighthouse towers when virtually maintenance-free and cheap lights can be installed raises questions about their long-term future.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Helen Beaglehole, 'Lighthouses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

Story by Helen Beaglehole, published 12 June 2006