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New Zealand relied on shipping in the early years for trade and immigration. Lighthouses were desperately needed as the hazardous coast claimed over 1,000 ships in the first 50 years of colonization. Three of those shipwrecks claimed the lives of over 450 people.

New Zealand's first lighthouse was erected on Pencarrow Head in 1858 at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The first keeper was a woman named Mary Jane Bennett who also was the only woman keeper in the New Zealand Lighthouse Service. 

The first towers were manufactured in England of cast iron and were shipped in sections to the site and assembled by bolting them together. By the 1880's the towers were able to be manufactured locally. Other towers were constructed of local hard wood but very few of these towers have lasted due to weather- induced decay.

The early lighthouses and their locations were decided by the Provincial Governments of the time. In 1862 the Marine Board of New Zealand was formed and the vessels paid monetary dues to support lighthouse construction. In 1866 the Board was changed to the Marine Department and they formed the Lighthouse Service within that department. The rules and regulations for the service was based on the Scottish Lighthouse Service. Some of the harbour lighthouses came under control of their local Harbour Boards and remain that way to this day.

Colonial Treasurer (and later Premier) Julius Vogel launched major public works schemes during 1870s, borrowing the massive sum of 10 million pounds, to develop significant infrastructure of roads, railways, and communications, all administered by the central Colonial Government. This diminished the power of the provinces and they were abolished by the Abolition of Provinces Act 1876, during the Premiership of Harry Atkinson. The provinces formally ceased to exist on 1 January 1877. 15

Most of the lighthouses were built during the 1870/1880 period with over twenty being erected by the end of the century. The first lighthouses were designed by James Balfour, Marine Engineer. After he drowned in Timaru harbour in 1869, his replacement was John Blackett, who designed fourteen lighthouses in that capacity.

Initially the lights did not flash but this caused confusion with other lights in the area so flashing lights were introduced. These first lights burned colza oil then later paraffin oil. A constant job for the keepers was trimming the wick so the lights would burn bright and clear. The glass lanterns were imported from Scotland, England, and France. The lantern was rotated by a clockwise mechanism driven by weights that hung on a cable down the tower. The mechanisms had to be wound every hour to keep the lantern turning. Some lanterns floated on a bed of mercury while others used metal rollers.

In 1903 the New Zealand Marine Department began trialing incandescent acetylene burners, developed only three years before. 18  In 1912 it installed its first automatic acetylene light at Bean Rock and the lighthouse became the first watched light to lose it's resident keeper. 18 

In the 1900's incandescent kerosene burners replaced the oil lamps. The 1930's saw the beginning of lights converted to diesel-generated electricity or if possible mains electricity and by 1957, all the lights had been converted.

During the 1980's the last of the lighthouses were automated with the final one, The Brothers, in July 1990.


Mark Phillips

Text and photographs. Copyright 1999-2013 Mark Phillips. All rights reserved.

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