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Cape Saunders (1880)



Photo Date: 2010

The old Cape Saunders lantern room that originated from the Kaipara Head lighthouse is now situated at the Otago Peninsula Museum & Historical Society grounds at Portobello on the Otago Peninsula. 

Photo courtesy of Patrick Miller January 1, 2011.


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Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula, was named by Captain James Cook after Sir Charles Saunders, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the commander of the fleet which captured Quebec in 1759.  4  17

Early shipping into the town of Dunedin via Port Chalmers was hindered because of the lack of lighthouses marking the harbour on the peninsula so often ships arriving from England sailed past the harbour entrance and headed further north. It was not uncommon during the 1840's & 50's for ships to spend days searching for the harbour entrance, so a flagstaff was erected at Taiaroa Head in 1849. In 1850 a light was added to the flagstaff, however it was hardly lit by the chief pilot as the Government refused to pay for the oil to run it.  10 

The Otago Provincial Council recognized the importance of lights so in 1863 appointed James Balfour as Provincial Marine Engineer  10 . It was not before time as in 1860 only 60 vessels had arrived at the port but by 1863 this had increased to 983  10Balfour arrived from Scotland late in 1863  10  with both the lantern for Taiaroa Head and Cape Saunders.  17 (the lantern from Scotland and lens from France respectably).  3  

He immediately set to work designing his first lighthouse for the council at Taiaroa Head  and this light was lit on 2 January, 1865. The original light was red to distinguish itself from the proposed light at Cape Saunders.  18

Meanwhile the Otago Provincial Council had begun planning the lighthouse at Cape Saunders, buying land off the local Maori at a place called Kaimata in 1862 but a lack of funds halted the project.  3

So the Provincial Government erected a 12 foot white stone beacon on the Cape in 1868. But this proved to be totally inadequate for the job as ships often steamed pass the harbour entrance not having seen the beacon.  18

The Otago Daily Times was to report on January 13 1865, that the Cape Saunders Light apparatus was displayed at the first New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin.  18

After the Marine Board was formed in 1862, and was known as the Marine Department from 1866 onwards. 10  James Balfour was appointed Colonial Marine Engineer and Inspector of Steamers, for the new Marine Department on 11th October, 1866.  138

By now the light equipment for Cape Saunders was still idle so it was used at Nugget Point which was lit in 1870.  3

After Balfour drowned in Timaru harbour in 1869, his replacement was John Blackett, who designed fourteen lighthouses in that capacity.

In December of 1874, Mr. Seed, Secretary of Customs, John Blackett, Assistant Engineer in Chief, Captain Johnson, of the Marine Department and Captain Thomson, Provincial Harbour Master, travelled from Portobello to the cape and discovered a ledge about halfway down the cape at 300 feet above sea level.  184

In 1875, the Marine Department led by John Blackett and Captain Johnson, decided to build a new light at nearby Matakitaki Point which had easier access and was not so exposed to fog. The 28 foot wooden tower similar in design to Akaroa was constructed in 1878 and the light was first lit on January 1, 1880.  3  17

Originally a 2 keeper station  91 , the first Head Keeper was James Nelson, who was transferred from The Brothers lighthouse. 2

The light is a second order dioptric revolving light  and cost .6016 to build.  91

Tragedy was to plague the lighthouse in it's first few years. In December 16, 1882 James Nelson's wife died suddenly. As the youngest child of the family was only 20 months old, the Marine Department granted the keepers request to transfer out of the Department into the Customs Department. But before he was transferred on March 19, 1883, the two year old daughter of the Assistant Keeper (Patrick Henaghan) and the youngest child of the James Nelson died when the cow shed they were playing in caught fire. Later another child died of illness and six months later, the son of the new Principal Keeper fell over the cliff and broke his wrist.  2

By 1894, a telephone was connected to the station.  91

The wooden tower was replaced in 1954 by a steel latticework tower and a new mains powered electric beacon. 4   The old tower was offered to the Dunedin City as a historical monument but was refused so it was demolished. 17   The new tower didn't  last due to salt water corrosion and was replaced again in 1966  1 1967  17 with the old Kaipara North Head lantern room, which had been stored in Wellington since 1948. Because Cape Saunders sits on a cliff-top, no tower is necessary, and the former Kaipara North Head lantern simply sits on the ground. 

The light was fully automated in April 1980.

In June of 2006, the lighthouse was again replaced, this time with a modern aluminum tower. The backup diesel generator was removed and new battery pack was installed to supply backup power if the mains power fails. 1

The old Cape Saunders lantern room that originated from the Kaipara North Head lighthouse is now situated at the Otago Peninsula Museum & Historical Society grounds at Portobello on the Otago Peninsula.  186



Situated on the Otago Peninsula. Currently a restricted area on private land.

A modern aluminum tower is now in use.


Island South
Province Otago
Location Otago Peninsula
Number K4376
Date Commissioned January 1, 1880  1
Date Decommissioned
Automated April, 1980  1 19
Latitude 45 53' South  19
Longitude 170 44' East  19
Elevation Above Sea Level 55m  2
Height 4m  2
Character White light every 10 seconds
Range 17 N. miles (31 km)  19
Construction Steel
Converted Kerosene To Diesel
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity 1954  19  4
Present Tower Not original
Authority Owned and operated by Maritime New Zealand
Date Visited


Principal Keeper From To


1st lit, January 1, 1880  1
James Nelson  22  2 December 2, 1879  22  2     April 6, 1883  22  2
James William Johnson  22 December 28, 1888  22     c  Feb 1894  91
Donald McNeil  22 January 20, 1896  22  November 1, 1900  22 
Thomas Joseph Cox  22 October, 1903  22 April, 1907  22
Branagan  185    (c 1939)  185  
Hodge  185    (c 1940)  185  
Bateman  185    (c 1941)  185  
Percy Edwin White  166  185    (c 1942)  185  
Jack Sheppard  185    (c 1943)  185  
William Tait  185    (c 1944)  185  
Arthur Richardson  185    (c 1944)  185  
Lloyd Griffiths  185    (c 1948)  185  
Fleet Tennent  185    (c 1948)  185  
Jim Pullan  185    (c 1949)  185  
John Hayes  185    (c 19??)  185  
Robert Wallace  198 1962/63  198 late 1964  198
Automated and Keeper Withdrawn April, 1980  1 19


Assistant Keeper (1st) From To


  1st lit January 1, 1880  1  
Patrick Henaghan  22 January, 1883  2 June, 1883  2
David Partington  22 1884  22  1890  22 
George Penlington  22  (Probationary)  22  June, 1890  22 December 31, 1890  22
George Penlington  22 January 1, 1891  22 December 15, 1895  22    (Resigned)  22 
Cunningham Hosier Reeves  202 1898  212
Sanders  212 1898  212  
Alfred George Whymark  22 June 1, 1902  22  
Thomas McAlpine  22 June, 1906  22 c  April, 1907  22
George James Simpson  22  (1876-1907) May, 1907  22  September 3, 1907  22    (Died)  22 
Singleton  22  (Probationary)  22  June 6, 1911  22   



Additional Sources:

91Star , Issue 4872, 10 February 1894, Page 6. South Island Lighthouses

138James Balfour, Engineering Heritage New Zealand Biographies

184. Otago Witness , Issue 1204, 26 December 1874, Page 14

185Noel Caton, Nov 2, 2012.

186Patrick Miller, May 26, 2012.

198. Robert Wallace (Tim Wallace, July 7, 2013) 

202. Cunningham Hosier Reeves (Mark Pascoe, August 23, 2013)



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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.

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