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Cape Wanbrow (1874)


Photo Date: 2000


Ships line the horizon in this 1874 photograph of Oamaru, and the breakwater can be seen on the right, extending into the bay.

Credit: North Otago Museum, 216

Oamaru's landing service and surf boats were photographed from Cape Wanbrow about 1875.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: F- 001971-1/2. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

By the late 1880s Oamaru's North Mole (top) and long breakwater enclosed a complex of wharves.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-C-22767-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any reuse of this image.


This image shows Oamaru Harbour around 1900. By this time, fewer ships were calling at the port, but as the overseas freighter at Sumpter Wharf shows, those that did were bigger.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Adam Henry Pearson Maclay, Reference: G-024012-1/1. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any reuse of this image.


This is engineer F.W. Furkert’s 1933 plan for extending Oamaru's breakwater by 268 metres to give the harbour a draft of 6.7 metres at low water. Work began on the Ramsay Extension, but it was capped off unfinished during the Second World War and left to deteriorate.

Credit: Oamaru Mail, 12 September 1933


It is believed that the first trading vessel to visit the North Otago area of Oamaru was in 1854. Cape Wanbrow to the south of the beach provided some protection from a southerly swell, but the area to the north was open and northerly seas could cause havoc. The settlement grew in the early 1860's as a service centre for wool and grain shipments and also to service the goldfields further inland. Construction of the the first jetty begun in 1865 and by 1867 an L-shaped jetty had been built under the protection of Cape Wanbrow. In February 1868 a storm destroyed the jetty along with two overseas wool ships, the Star of Tasmania and Water Nymph and the coaster Otago. 10

In 1869 the Otago Dock Trust was formed to formulate a plan for the port of Oamaru. In 1871, John McGregor a Scottish harbour engineer drew up a plan to construct a breakwater near the site of the original jetty, under Cape Wanbrow and a mole on the northern side to form a smooth water basin. Work on the breakwater begun in 1871, however progress was slow. 10

By 1873, there were calls from the Harbour Master and ship's Masters for a lighthouse to be erected on Cape Wanbrow to light the harbour, with a petition sent to the Colonial Government's House of Representatives.  139


In early October, 1873, the Colonial Government voted 13 to 9 in favour of a lighthouse to erected at Cape Wanbrow.  140

On October 23, 1873, W Thomas, Harbour Master for the Port of Oamaru wrote that he recommended a Cape Wanbrow to be a harbour light not a coastal light as Moeraki would be a more suitable site for a coastal light. He also recommended that the light be a small tower on top of the lighthouse keeper's dwelling and the cost should not exceed £300 and one lighthouse keeper should be employed at £120 p.a. plus another £20 p.a. for fuel and supplies.  141   Others were to argue that a coastal light should be erected at Cape Wanbrow and the light would be seen by vessels traveling north as soon as Taiaroa Head light was lost.  143

The lighthouse steamer Luna arrived on Wednesday February 18, 1874 on a lighthouse survey around the South Island. Work was in progress on a breakwater to form a safe harbour. Captain R. Johnson, of the Marine Department, and Mr. L. W. B. Wilson, of the Survey Department, accompanied by Captain Sewell, examined the sites for the proposed lighthouse on Cape Wanbrow.  142  269

In July, 1874, upon Captain Johnston's recommendation, the Colonial Government elect to build a coastal lighthouse at Moeraki and assist the Provincial Government with funds to build a Harbour Light at Cape Wanbrow.  144

Later in July, Mr. Steward, the House Representative for North Otago asked the Commissioner of Customs, Mr. Reynolds why a lighthouse had not been erected at Cape Wanbrow in accordance to the vote previously passed in October of 1873. The Commissioner advised that per Captain Johnson's recommendation the Colonial Government would only be responsible for a coastal light at Moeraki, therefore the Otago Provincial Government would be responsible to erect any harbour lights in the province.  145   Of course this was all to change with the abolishment of provinces by the Abolition of Provinces Act 1876. The provinces formally ceased to exist on 1 January 1877. 15


In the House of Representatives, Mr. Steward asked the Commissioner of Customs, why a lighthouse has not been erected at Cape Wanbrow, in accordance with a resolution of this House during the last session of Parliament He had put this question on the paper in consequence of a resolution carried on his own motion, last session; on a division. Some days previously to moving that resolution, he had presented a petition praying that a lighthouse should be erected at the place indicated, and he had also laid on the table papers showing the necessity for a lighthouse there. The Commissioner of Customs opposed the 'motion, and stated, If the House adopted the resolution after what he had said, of course the Government would have to erect the lighthouse. He had merely to add that the lighthouse had not been erected, and he therefore wished to know why the resolution had not been given effect to. 

Mr. Reynolds said that when this question came before the House last session, he stated that he did not think that this was at all a colonial light, but was rather a provincial light and he stated also, as correctly reported by the honorable gentleman, that if the House adopted the resolution, the Government would, of course, have to erect the light. He then went on to say, "There was no doubt that a light would have to be erected at Moeraki, which was not a great distance from Oamaru, for the safety of vessels. He would leave the matter entirely in the hands of the House". When the division was taken, there were 13 "Ayes" and 9 "No's," so that there were only twenty-two members in the House. Since then the Marine Department had taken every possible means to acquire the best information as to what lighthouses were required. On the late survey of lighthouses, the person's charged with the duty were instructed to pay particular attention to this question, and to say whether a lighthouse at Oamaru could be at all considered a colonial light. As it appeared that there was a promise on his part, that, if the resolution were carried in the House, the Government would erect the lighthouse, he thought, it would be necessary for him to read a portion of the report of the surveyors, and give the House another opportunity of reconsidering its decision. The report said: 

    "The port of Timaru is a roadstead lying in a deep bight, quite out of the ordinary track of shipping, and never approached by any vessels excepting such as are directly bound there. There is, therefore, no necessity for a coastal light there, for no vessel has any business to be so close in unless bound for the port, when, a mere harbor light would satisfy all requirements. Even should a vessel, when working to windward stand close in before tacking, the soundings are so regular, and the water shoals so gradually, that by a reasonably careful use of the lead there would be no difficulty in ascertaining the distance from shore. I therefore recommend that there should be no light placed here for coastal purposes, but that instead there should be a light of small power erected for a harbor guide. This, of course, is a matter for the provincial authorities." 

He need not read all that was said with regard to Timaru, and he had merely quoted this portion in order to show that Oamaru was in the same position as Timaru. With regard to Oamaru, the report said 

    "My remarks as to the absence of any necessity for a coastal light at Timaru apply with equal if not greater force to Oamaru. The neighboring coast is remarkably free from danger. The soundings are regular, and it is in no sense a landmark or turning point for which any vessels would make. I therefore advise that no coastal light should be placed here, but merely a light similar to that recommended, for Timaru for a harbor guide." 

He need not read any more, as that would show the opinion of the gentleman who had charge of the inspection of lights on the coast. A copy of that report, so far as it concerned Timaru, was sent to the Superintendent of Canterbury, who thereupon asked the Colonial Government whether, if the Provincial Council of Canterbury voted a thousand pounds, the Colonial Government would undertake to carry out the work at Timaru. A reply was sent to His Honor, that the department would be very glad to render any assistance in its power in carrying out the work. If h e the Superintendent of Otago made a similar application the, same answer would be given to him. 

He (Mr. Reynolds) stated last session that it would be necessary to erect a lighthouse at Moeraki, and the officers in charge of the recent expedition reported as follows on this subject " Off Moeraki the soundings are not so regular as off Oamaru, and a dangerous reef; known as the Fish Reef, lies off the coast line, and projects beyond it. Vessels trading between Port Chalmers and the northern ports pass very close to this part of the coast and vessels bound to and from Oamaru and Timaru especially have to go very near the Fish Reef. Here, therefore, a coastal light is seriously needed, and I am of opinion that the light for which a sum was voted by the General Assembly last session should be erected as soon as possible." 

There was a slight mistake in the report, as no sum was voted last session for this work, nothing, more than a promise having been made, as correctly reported by the honorable m ember for Waitaki. He did not think the Government could recommend the erection of a lighthouse at Oamaru, but would be prepared, in any scheme to be proposed this session for lights for the coast, to ask for a vote for the erection of one at Moeraki. He trusted the honorable member would see that he had given a full answer to the question, and that it would not be his duty to recommend the erection of a lighthouse at Cape Wanbrow after the report which he had read. 

In reply to Mr. O'Neill, he stated that the officers in charge of the expedition were Mr. Blackett; the Marine Engineer, Captain Johnston, and Mr. Wilson, who was in charge of the Lighthouse Department. The report was drawn up by Captain Johnston. Mr. Steward said the reply was very satisfactory. There was some difference of opinion, no doubt, as to where the lighthouse should be placed but what was really wanted was a light in the best position along that part of the coast. If the opinion of the officers of the department was that Moeraki was the better site, he was willing to accept it; still he must say that the spirit of the promise made by the Commissioner of Customs last year should have been carried out. Mr. Reynolds - I stated last session that a lighthouse would be required at Moeraki, but a lighthouse cannot be erected in a day.  145


In August of 1874, the tender to construct the lighthouse dwelling and tower at Cape Wanbrow was accepted, having been submitted by Messrs Barnum and Dempster. Construction was predicted to take eight to nine weeks.  146

In 1874 the Oamaru Harbour Board was formed to replace the old Dock Trust. 10

First lit on 1 December, 1874, the Cape Wanbrow lighthouse was a wooden cottage with the beacon in the window and the keepers quarters in the cottage. The lighthouse was classified as a harbour light by the Marine Department and administered by the Oamaru Harbour Board.  19 

As reported in the North Otago Times, October 24, 1874, the lighthouse displayed a fixed white light, with a range of 15 nautical miles.  147 

Cape Wanbrow Lighthouse.— A notice to mariners in the Provincial Government Gazette states that, on and after 1st December next, a fixed white light will be exhibited from a lighthouse on Cape Wanbrow, at the port of Oamaru, and will be seen in clear weather about 15 nautical miles on an arc of 146deg.15sec. between N. N. W. and S. by W. from seaward, the outer anchorage being on the S. by W. bearing. All bearings are magnetic.  147 

Over the next 20 years the Oamaru Harbour Board and the Marine Department were to argue over the merits of Cape Wanbrow becoming a coastal lighthouse. 18

When the lighthouse at Moeraki was lit on March 19, 1878, the light color for Cape Wanbrow was changed to red.  148


Exhibition of Fixed White Light on the Moeraki Peninsula, and alteration of Color of Lights on Cape Wanbrow and Oamaru Breakwater. 

Customs Department (Marine Branch) Wellington, 19th March, 1878. Notice is hereby given that on and after the evening of Monday, the 22nd day of April next, a light will be exhibited from a Lighthouse which has been erected on the southern, point of the Moeraki Peninsula, on the East Coast of the Middle Island, the characteristics of which are as follows: The tower is 28ft in height, built of wood and painted white. The light will be a fixed white light of the third order, visible all round as far as the land will allow. The light will be elevated about 170 ft above the level of the sea, and, allowing 15ft for the height of the eye, will be seen at a distance of 19 nautical miles in clear weather, and at lesser distances according to the state of the atmosphere. On the same night on which the Moeraki Light is exhibited, the fixed white light on Cape Wanbrow, Oamaru, will be altered to Red, and the fixed red light on the end of the breakwater to green. This green light will not, however, be exhibited during bad weather, when the danger lights (two white horizontal with a red light between them) are shown from the flagstaff. J. Ballance.  148

Otago's trade continued to grow through the Port of Oamaru, and with the discovery that the seabed was compacted shell and sand by Board Secretary Thomas Forrester (1838-1907) a decision was made to purchase a steam dredge to dredge the harbour. An export wharf, Sumpter Wharf was constructed and opened in 1883 with a depth of 7 m, and the Elderslie begun regular meat trade between Oamaru and London. By 1884, the breakwater was complete and the rock mole at the north end of the harbour was completed. However the Harbour Board had over committed financially and begun to default on loans.  In 1894 it went into receivership. From the 1890s the port's traffic increased and in 1907 the board, still in receivership, opened its largest wharf, Holmes Wharf, on the mole. This kept Oamaru in the export trade and in 1909 the board's loans were consolidated and the receiver was stood down. 10 

Due to the Harbour Board's financial crisis, in a board meeting in April 1885 it was discussed moving the lighthouse down on to the breakwater. This was dismissed as the board still had a obligation to light the harbour and a light on the breakwater would not be visible from the south. It was however decided to reduce salaries by 10% along with with a reduction in the current staff so the current lighthouse keeper was dismissed and another staff member, Mr. Brady was assigned both signal man and lighthouse keeper duties.  149

In February of 1893 the Department suggested the Harbour Board purchase a occulting light that had been displayed at the Australian Exhibition in Melbourne for the sum of £100 to replace the fixed red light. The Harbour Board once again tried to change the lights status, but with no result, so reluctantly agreed to purchase the light from Melbourne.  18   The light was installed and went into service on 23 May, 1894. It had a range of 15 miles.  150

WELLINGTON. April 5. The following notice to mariners appears in to-night's Gazette Notice is hereby given that the present red light exhibited from the lighthouse on Oamaru Head, a half mile north of Cape Wanbrow, will be discontinued on the 23rd of May, 1894, and that on and after that date a flashing white light showing a flash every 14 seconds will be shown in lieu thereof, and be seen in clear weather seawards between the magnetic bearings N. N. W. and S. by W. at a distance of 15 miles.  150

In May of 1895 the Harbour Board again requested that the Marine Department reclassify the lighthouse as a coastal light. The Marine Department declined as they considered it was not justified. Again in 1906 they requested and again they were declined. 18

In April of 1926, the light was change to an electric light.  151

The Oamaru Harbour Board notifies that Cape Wanbrow light is now lighted by a 100 c.p. electric light, and should be visible at a distance of fifteen miles.  151

During the World War 2 the sight was selected to house gun emplacements. These were installed during 1942.  136

At this time a new concrete tower was constructed and a new automatic acetone-acetylene light went into service on 4 February, 1944. 18

At the same time the old cottage style lighthouse was demolished.  19

On March 5, 1945 the automatic light was converted to electricity at a cost of  £75.  18



For a history of the Oamaru Port visit:


152. 'Oamaru Harbour - Kiwitown's port' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012


Registered with the New Zealand Historical Trust:

Register Number: 7536
Date Registered: April 2, 2004

Registration Type: Historic Area




From the town of Oamaru, drive towards the Penguin Colony where you will find Test Street. Take Test Street till it ends at the Cape Wanbrow Reserve. Walk the dirt track for about 15 minutes until you come across some old gun emplacements. At the second gun emplacement take the track down the hill to the lighthouse.


Island South
Province Otago
Location Oamaru
Number K4344
Date Commissioned December 1, 1874  147 
Date Decommissioned
Automated February 4, 1944  18
Latitude 45º 08'  19
Longitude 170º 59'  19
Elevation Above Sea Level
Height 2 m  19
Character Group flash of three 1.7 second white flashes every 53 seconds  19
Range 17 miles  19
Construction Concrete
Converted Kerosene To Diesel
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity
Connected To Mains Electricity 5 March, 1945  18
Present Tower Not original
Authority Maritime New Zealand
Date Visited January 2, 2000



Principal Keeper From To



Assistant Keeper (1st) From To





Additional Sources:



136. New Zealand Costal Defenses  

139Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1873 Session I, J-05

140Timaru Herald, Volume XIX, Issue 952, 3 October 1873, Page 3

141North Otago Times, Volume XVIII, Issue 881, 31 October 1873, Page 2

142North Otago Times, Volume XIX, Issue 912, 20 February 1874, Page 2

143North Otago Times, Volume XX, Issue 915, 3 March 1874, Page 2

144North Otago Times, Volume XX, Issue 956, 24 July 1874, Page 2

145North Otago Times, Volume XX, Issue 957, 28 July 1874, Page 4

146North Otago Times, Volume XX, Issue 962, 14 August 1874, Page 2

147North Otago Times, Volume XXI, Issue 985, 24 October 1874, Page 2

148. Grey River Argus, Volume XXI, Issue 3001, 28 March 1878, Page 2

149. Oamaru Mail, Volume IX, Issue 2873, 10 April 1885, Page 3

150. Oamaru Mail, Volume XIX, Issue 5912, 6 April 1894, Page 1

151. Auckland Star, Volume LVII, Issue 81, 7 April 1926, Page 6

152. 'Oamaru Harbour - Kiwitown's port' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

269. Wellington Independent, Volume XXIX, Issue 4041, 4 March 1874, Page 2 (Chapter 3)


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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: December 20, 2013