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.
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.
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.