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Cape Maria van Diemen (1879-1941)

Located on Motuopao Island 


Cape Maria van Diemen and Motuopao Island 

View from Cape Reinga, Cape Maria van Diemen and Motuopao Island 


 Automatic light, now located on Cape Maria van Diemen                   View from Te Werahi Beach      Photos (2000)

Photo courtesy of MSA.

Landing stores for the Cape Maria Van Diemen lighthouse, 1930s

Reference Number: 1/4-018400-G

Landing stores from the ship "Matai" for the Cape Maria Van Diemen lighthouse. Shows a group on a circular platform with ladders (below the lighthouse?) on the edge of a rocky outcrop. Stores are being winched from a row boat in the water below. The "Matai" is a short distance offshore.


Google has a satellite view.  


Cape Maria van Diemen, facing the Tasman Sea, is the westernmost of the three points of land at the northern end of New Zealand, the other two being Cape Reinga and North Cape. 

The cape was named by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 3  January, 1643 10  15  after the wife of Anthony van Diemen, then Governor General of Batavia, Dutch East Indies, now known as Jakarta, Indonesia. 3  15

Motuopoa Island lies 1/2 mile (200m) off the cape, and consists of 84 acres of mostly sand dudes. 3

Tasman also named The Three Kings group of islands on January 6, 1643. Tasman anchored at the islands when searching for water and as it was the twelfth night feast of the Epiphany, the day the three wise men visited baby Jesus, he named the islands the Three Kings. 15  These are the only two geographic features in New Zealand to retain the names given to them by Abel Tasman. 15

Over 120 wrecks have occurred in the waters of Northland with a fair number of those in the waters surrounding Cape Reinga and Cape Maria van Diemen. In 1854 the Beacons and Lighthouse Committee recommended a lighthouse for either Cape Maria van Diemen or Cape Reinga and again by the Marine Department in 1863-5. An alternative suggestion was also made in 1873 that the lighthouse should be erected at North Cape. 10

In 1874, Nautical Advisor, Captain Johnson, surveyed the North Island for possible lighthouse sites aboard the government ship Luna. He reported back to the commissioner of customs in Auckland the following  "owing to a report that Cape Reinga would offer a good site for a light, the Luna after leaving Cape Maria, proceeded thither; on arrival we found a landing difficult, although the weather was fine. The height of the cape proved to be 456 ft, far too great a height in my opinion for a light ... I therefore came to the conclusion that Cape Reinga was not so suitable a position for a light as the island laying off Cape Maria van Diemen."  4  

So a lighthouse was proposed on Motuopao Island off of Cape Maria van Diemen in preference to Cape Reinga or North Cape, since it had a wider arc of visibility and easier access by water. 10

In 1875, the Government had acquired the land for the lighthouse reserve by extinguishing the title of its Maori owners. 10  56   However it also reported the land was donated by the Yates family who owned over 67,000 acres of the far north.  62

By July, 1875, a sight had been selected and the lighting apparatus had been ordered from the England.  60  117   In 1876,  the apparatus, including an eight-panel Fresnel lens system, made in France, was shipped to New Zealand on board the Arari. 10

A work party began construction in August 1877.  The Government steamer Stella shipped materials that were landed on the beach. Soon a derrick was built for hoisting equipment ashore and a tramway was laid up to the lighthouse work site. 10

The wooden lighthouse was built on a concrete base at the northern end of the island at an elevation of 300 ft  (91m). The lantern room was fitted with a 1st order dioptric  18  revolving white light that flashed every minute with a range of 24.5 miles  18  (40km 10 ). A small separate fixed light displayed a red sector over Columbia Reef, a rocky outcrop from the island. The total cost for the lighthouse and three keepers houses was £7028 14s. 8d. 3

The lighthouse was designed by John Blackett and was identical to the Centre Island Lighthouse in Foveaux Strait that was built and lit in September, 1878. 10  It was a two storied octagonal wooden tower, with an internal staircase connecting the two levels. The upper room housed the clockwork machinery necessary to rotate the lamp, the machinery was connected to weights attached to ropes dropping down through the lower level to a well in the ground floor foundation. The lower level would have been used for storage. The main framing is believed to be Australian ironwood, the exterior was kauri weatherboards. An external iron ladder gave access to a platform around the perimeter of the structure, which would have been used to clean and maintain the glass and the lantern. 10

Three houses were built on the Island for the Principal Keeper and two Assistant Keepers and their families. The houses were set on terraces on the northern face of the hill with the Principal Keepers house near the lighthouse at the top. 10

The light was lit on March 24, 1879 10  16  / 1878. 2  3    The first principal keeper was John Wheeler, with assistants Robert Wilson and Charles Gibbons. 10

The three keepers and their families struggled to live on the island. The 200m stretch of water between the mainland and the island was extremely dangerous with very strong currents and unexpected wave surges. Two people drowned while crossing this passage. 13  Drinking water was scarce, dependant only on rainfall.  For food, fish was plentiful and goats supplied milk and occasionally meat. As the island was mainly sand, westerly winds were dreaded as it would blow the sand against the houses, sometimes as high as the windows. After the storm the keepers had to shovel this away. 3

The island was serviced every three months by the Government steamers, Stella and Tutanekei and later by the Hinemoa. Supplies were landed on the sheltered side of the island and winched off the ships to a landing area. 3  In 1880, heavy sea damaged the landing area and tramway. 10

Samuel Yates from Parengarenga provided a somewhat erratic mail service dependant on fine weather for the keepers to cross the channel in their whaleboat to meet him. 10  Later to aid in the landing of supplies and personnel an aerial cable was installed in 1886 1  between the cape and the island. 2  

Supplies were also hauled by dray overland from Kaitaia then winched across on the cable. 2  One of the early lighthouse keepers was Tom Smith, he and his family arrived in 1918.  On the day they arrived the sea was too rough to land on the island so they were put ashore on the mainland. They then hauled their belongings over the sand hills to the aerial cable. While Mrs. Smith, a daughter and their six week old baby were being winched across on the cable, the wind intensified and the cage they sat in started to swing uncontrollably until it jammed in the middle of the cable.  There they remained suspended in the storm until it subsided two hours later and they could once again operate the winch. 3

In November of 1894, the Government asked the Post Master General to investigate the feasibility of a telephone line linking the island to the mainland.  61

In 1895 the Post and Telegraph Department ran a wire connecting the lighthouse to Awanui. The telephone exchange was attached to the principal keeper's house and included a small post office, one of the smallest in the country. 10

In 1903 due to the constant sand drifts, one of the houses was replaced. After storm damage in 1908, a new landing terminal was blasted out of the rock face and the tramway re-routed along a higher cliffside cutting. 10 

During 1909, the Marine Department who had earlier experimented with incandescent burner systems (Chance Patent) at Pencarrow, Stephens Island and Jack's Point (Timaru) made a decision to install them in other lighthouses. Lighthouse expert, Mr. David Scott installed the new burner at the Cape.  90

The Assistants Keeper's houses at the lower end of the hill were subjected to the worst sand drifts so in 1921-22 two new houses were built across the valley, on the southern hill. 10

In 1922 the Marine Department started to experiment with radio beacons and a beacon was placed at Cape Maria van Diemen Lighthouse to ensure the safety around The Three Kings. The beacon would only transmit to ships that had receivers installed and ship owners at the time were reluctant to install them. However the Marine Department went ahead installed a permanent beacon in 1926. The beacon was used 26 times in the first three months due to fog and was the first radio beacon to operate in the Southern Hemisphere. It was not until 1969 that a unmanned lighthouse was built on The Three Kings. 10

Unfortunately all the early records of the lighthouse were destroyed in a fire at the Hope Gibbons Building in Wellington in October 1922. 3

In 1933 an assistant lighthouse keeper’s wife was swept off the rocks near the lighthouse. 1

By 1937 the Marine Department was concerned with the welfare of the keepers and their families on the island. The boat landing was dangerous and difficult to service, so a decision was made to build a new lighthouse on Cape Reinga on the mainland. 10

On the 6, October 6, 1940 the last mail was stamped at the Cape Maria van Diemen Post Office and on November 2, 1940 lighthouse keeper Bill Tait extinguished the light for the last time. 10

The lantern room and lens were dismantled and shipped to the Bay of Islands. The lens was trucked back to Cape Reinga and installed in the lighthouse. Meantime a small automatic beacon had been operating at Cape Reinga. The new light was exhibited for the first time October 3, 1941. 10

The lantern from Motuopao Island is currently a tourist attraction at Waitaki Landing on State Highway 1 south of Cape Reinga; it has not been registered with the New Zealand Historical Trust. 10

In 1941 19  1943 10   an automatic battery powered beacon was placed on the mainland at Cape Maria van Diemen. 10  Every three months the batteries were changed by the keepers at Cape Reinga, which involved loading the batteries in special frames on four pack horses and leading them over a trail to the automatic lighthouse. The light was visually checked each night every three hours from Cape Reinga.  8

In 1950 the three lighthouse keepers houses and nine other out buildings were sold to a Whangarei buyer who dismantled everything except the wooden lighthouse tower, the principal keepers house and the kerosene store. 10

Today Motuopoa Island is a scenic  reserve, restricted to Department of Conservation staff. The remains of the lighthouse tower are in remarkably good condition.  The wooden tower of kauri and Australian hardwood is still in good condition, but the nails have rusted so parts of the exterior cladding are starting to fall away. The ladder is no longer on the site. With the removal of the lantern room the structure has been open to the elements so rot is forming around the base of the structure.  13

The foundations of the three keepers houses, the aerial cable mechanism, the concrete base for the gantry, and assorted smaller wooden structures are still intact. 13

In 2001 the Department of Conservation repaired the cladding and framework of the tower due to deterioration. In 2002 they installed a temporary roof over the tower to keep it watertight. 13

The Lighthouse tower remains the principal structure on the island, and is clearly visible from the mainland. 



Registered with the New Zealand Historical Trust

Register Number: 3289
Date Registered: 22 June, 2007

Historic Place  - Category 2



From the Cape Reinga car park, take the track down to Te Werahi beach, walk along the beach to the Cape Maria van Diemen turnoff (1 hr 45 min). The walk out to the cape is another 1 hr 30 min return trip.

Motuopao Island is a scientific reserve and only open to DOC staff.

See DOC walking tracks.


Original Tower

Island North
Province Northland
Location North Cape
Number K3686
Date Commissioned March 24, 1879  10  16  / 1878. 2  3 
Date Decommissioned January 2 1941  3      November 2, 1940  10
Elevation Above Sea Level
Character 1st order dioptric revolving white light flashing every one minute, with a fixed red sector over Columbia reef   18      
Range 24.5 miles   18  
Made Local and imported timber 
Construction Original wooden 
Converted Kerosene To Diesel
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity
Present Tower Not original
Authority Owned and operated by Maritime New Zealand  1
Date Visited February 6, 2000


New Tower

Date Commissioned 1941  19    1943  10
Date Decommissioned
Automated 1941  19 1943  10
Latitude 34° 29' South  19
Longitude 172° 39' East  19 
Elevation Above Sea Level 91m  19 
Height 2m  19 
Character Flashes white 3 times every 15 seconds  19 
Range 10 N. miles  19 
Construction White metal with a red lantern  19 
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity Present light is battery powered 
Present Tower Not original
Authority Owned and operated by Maritime New Zealand  1
Date Visited February 6, 2000



Principal Keeper From To
  1st lit, March 24, 1879 10  16    
John Wheeler  10  22 January 1, 1879  10  22 April 29, 1881  22
Norman Simpson  197 May 18, 1887  197  August 8, 1890  197
Alexander McKinlay  80  16 July, 1890  80   September, 1894  80
John Frederick Rayner  80  81  16 September, 1894  80  81   July, 1897  80  81  
Jerome Sinclair  22  July, 1897  18      June 1, 1897  22 March, 1899  22
Edward Morris Parks  22 July 27, 1906  22 November 6, 1909  22
Tom B Smith  3 1918  
  Decommissioned January 2, 1941  3      November 2, 1940  10


Assistant Keeper (1st) From To
  1st lit, March 24, 1879 10  16    
Robert H Wilson  10 1879  10  
James William Nicholson  22 May 1, 1881  22 November, 1882  22
Charles Hepburn Orlando Robson 16 August 22, 1882 16 November 1984 16
David McLeish  dd c 1887  
James Anderson  22 March 3, 1888  22 April 9, 1891  22
Mr. McLean July, 1897  
William Samuel Hill Creamer and Eliza Louisa Creamer (Probationary)   191 1902  191 July 18, 1906  191
William Samuel Hill Creamer and Eliza Louisa Creamer   191 July 18, 1906  191 1908  191
Alfred Andrew Parker  22  April 1, 1907  22   September 7, 1910  22
Robert George Wilkin   22 March 3, 1909  22 c  August, 1912  22
Harold Edwin Conway  22  August 9, 1911  22   
Norman Miller  189 November 7, 1937  189 May 31, 1940  189
Bill Tait  10   November 2, 1940  10
  Decommissioned January 2, 1941  3      November 2, 1940  10



Assistant Keeper (2nd) From To
  1st lit, March 24, 1879 10  16  / 1878. 2  3   
Charles Gibbons 10 1879 10    
James Andrew McDonald  22  October 6, 1910  22 August 9, 1911  22  (Resigned)  22
Edward Mordaunt Murley  22   (Probationary)  22  January, 1885  22  May, 1885  22  Fell asleep on watch (dismissed)
James Waite  250   c  1894  250



Additional Sources:

56Nelson Evening Mail, Volume X, Issue 57, 8 March 1875, Page 2

60. Grey River Argus, Volume XVI, Issue 2177, 31 July 1875, Page 2

61. Star , Issue 5116, 26 November 1894, Page 3

62. Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume LVII, 1 August 1910, Page 5

90Otago Daily Times , Issue 14431, 26 January 1909, Page 2



189. Norman Miller (Jocelyn Groom, July 23, 2011)

191. William Creamer (Noeline Fairchild (daughter of Charlotte May Creamer, eldest daughter of W & E Creamer), April 7, 2013)

197. Norman Simpson (Gayle Dickison, Nov 4 2011)

250. Auckland Star, Volume XXV, Issue 219, 13 September 1894, Page 2


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

If anyone has any information on this light please contact me.

Last Updated: October 16, 2010