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Taiaroa Head (1865)


Photo (2007)


Photo (2008)


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Marking the entrance to Otago Harbour (Port Chalmers), is Taiaroa Head lighthouse.

Taiaroa Head is named after the leader of the Ngai Tahu Maori tribe, Te Matenga Taiaroa. Taiaroa fought along with his warriors to prevent Te Rauparaha and Ngati Toa from conquering the South Island in the 1830's. In 1844, Taiaroa with other Ngai Tahu leaders sold the Otago land block to the New Zealand Company. 10 

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 10. Balfour arrived from Scotland late in 1863 10  with both the lantern for Taiaroa Head and Cape Saunders. 17

The light apparatus was shipped from Glasgow, Scotland aboard the Resolute leaving December 17, 1863 and arriving in Port Chalmers, Dunedin March 17, 1864. Also aboard this ship was the light apparatus for Dog Island  154

James Balfour immediately set to work designing his first lighthouse for the council at Taiaroa Head. In 1864 a contract was let to Dunedin builder Hugh Calder at a cost of 3150. 2  over 4900 10  /  4923  91 , including houses. 10  The foundation stone was laid June 29, 1864, and Calder was to complete the tower and nearby keepers house in only six months. Built from stone quarried locally and lined with kauri timber the light was ready to be lit on 2 January, 1865. 2   The original light used a red pane over the light to distinguish itself from the proposed light at Cape Saunders. 10

The stone lighthouse tower was 12 m high and stood 60 m above sea level. The tower had iron girders for support and a balcony surrounded the 3rd floor. The light apparatus was new at the time, a 3rd order fixed dioptric light. This type of light invented in 1823 by French Physicist Augustin Fresnel used a combination of parabolic lenses and prisms arranged in a circle around the light source to refract light. This ensured that 80% of the light source was concentrated in a beam. The dioptric light was further improved by Thomas Stevenson of Stevenson's Engineers, who developed a dioptric holophotal light enclosing the light in a prismatic glass casing, eliminating the need for reflectors. 10

According to Balfour's 1865 report to the Government, the Taiaroa light was the first lighthouse in the world to be enhanced further by using inclined frames which improved the distribution of the light, invented by Alan Stevenson, of Stevenson's Engineers and the inclusion of a 'dioptric spherical mirror' which reflected back the light on the landward side of the lens through a series of prisms, invented by Thomas Stevenson of Stevenson's Engineers. 10

The newly formed Marine Board took control of the lighthouse. The Marine Board 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

Due to the Russian invasion scare of 1885, Armstrong retractable guns were proposed for the site. Initially the lighthouse was to be moved further up the hill to accommodate the gun sites but as this was deemed to costly the guns were placed nearby. But by this time the tensions between the British and Russians had eased and the scare was over. The guns were only ever test fired and on these occasions they cracked the lantern room windows. The guns were again manned during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. 10  2 

By the 1890's quite a settlement had arisen near the lighthouse. The harbour board had a manned signal station and the captain and crew of the pilot boats lived nearby. The Justice Department built a small prison at the heads in the 1870's  and the guns had been manned since the 1880's. An estimate of the population at the time was over one hundred and a resident school teacher was appointed for the area. 10  2 

As Port Chalmers is the port for Dunedin, which is the headquarters of the Union Steamship Company, a constant stream of traffic passes through the heads.  91

Due to fog, a fog horn was installed, Date Unknown originally a explosive device, in 1929 it was changed to a diaphone type. Similar fog horns were also installed at Godley Head and Tiritiri Matangi4 

In 1921 the light was changed to an automatic acetone flashing light, the Marine Department withdrew the keepers and the light was operated by signalmen employed by the Otago Harbour Board. 4  10

With the passing of the Animals Protection and Game Act (1921-22) the surrounding area was declared a sanctuary for the Royal Albatross around 1938. 10 

The light was converted to electricity in 1955 4

The lighthouse was officially transferred to the harbour board on 1 December 1976, then to Port Otago Ltd in 1989. The light is now automated and monitored by signalmen from the signal station nearby. 10 

Both the lighthouse and fog station are now listed with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. 10 



Registered with the New Zealand Historical Trust

Register Number: 2220
Date Registered: 14 February, 1991

Historic Place  - Category 1



The Taiaroa Head lighthouse has along with others been featured on New Zealand postal stamps issued by the Government Life Insurance Office. 

The lighthouse featured on the 1947 issue with a value of 1d. 

The stamps in the series were, Castlepoint  1/2d, Taiaroa Head  1d , Cape Palliser  2d, Cape Campbell  2 1/2d, Eddystone 3d, Stephens Island  4d, The Brothers  6d and Cape Brett  1/-.

On July 10, 1967, the stamps were over printed as New Zealand changed to decimal currency.

The overprinted stamps in the series were,  Taiaroa Head  1 cent , Cape Campbell  2 cents, Eddystone  2 1/2 cents, Stephens Island  3 cents, The Brothers  5 cents and Cape Brett  10 cents.





Issued in 1990 as part of a stamp series on the Otago Peninsula, Taiaroa Lighthouse featured on a 75 cent stamp.


Issued in 2000 as part of the scenic stamp series Taiaroa Head Lighthouse featured on a $1.00 stamp.

Stamp Web Sites




From Dunedin, take Andersons Bay Road, then Portobello Road out to the Otago Peninsula. 

Situated within the Royal Albatross colony, the lighthouse is observable from the car park and Albatross viewing areas.

Island South
Province Otago
Location Otago Peninsula
Number K4364
Date Commissioned January 2, 1865 10 
Date Decommissioned
Automated 1921 10   September 1976 18
Latitude 45 46' South
Longitude 170 42' East
Elevation Above Sea Level 60m 19
Height 12m 19
Character Flashes white twice every 18 seconds. 19
Range 18 N. miles 19
Construction Stone quarried locally. Painted white.
Converted Kerosene To Diesel
Converted Diesel To Mains Electricity 1955 4
Present Tower Original
Authority Port of Otago Ltd
Date Visited 4 January, 2000


Principal Keeper From To
  1st lit, January 2, 1865  10   
James Clark April 14, 1870 June 1, 1875
Robert J Campbell  22 December, 1877  22 June, 1882  22
Alexander McKinlay  80 June 1882  80 Oct 1885  80
Alexander Parks  22 October, 1885  22 June, 1890  22
Robert Leatham McIver  187 July 1, 1890  187 September 1, 1897  187
Mr. Arthur ? Nov 1906
Mr. Burgess Nov 1906 ?
Patrick Henaghan  22   April 26, 1907  22
Robert Henry Leighton  155 1911  155  
Alan Wright ? ?
John Frederick Rayner  80  81 August 31, 1915  80  81 June 12, 1919  80  81 (Retired) 
    1921 10   September 1976 18


Assistant Keeper (1st) From To
  1st lit, January 2, 1865  10   
James Clark May 1, 1867 April 14, 1870 (Promoted to Principal)
James William Johnson  22 April 15, 1870  22  
James Dingwall  285
Charles Edward Johnston  22  December, 1883  22  December 22, 1887  22 
Patrick Quinn  22  (Probationary)  22 May, 1893  22  c  June, 1893  22
Mr. Broughton ? July 1897
Clarke  246   1908  246           (Resigned)  246
Harvey  246 1908  246  
John William Tipene  22   September 28, 1912  22  



Additional Sources:





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

138James Balfour, Engineering Heritage New Zealand Biographies

154Henry Brett, White Wings Volume 1. 1924

155Evening Post, Volume LXXXI, Issue 120, 23 May 1911, Page 6

179.  Evening Post, Volume LIV, Issue 39, 14 August 1897, Page 4

187. Robert Leatham McIver (Melvina Wise, March 23, 2013)

246. Otago Daily Times , Issue 14249, 25 June 1908, Page 8

285. Otago Daily Times , Issue 16029, 23 March 1914, Page 4


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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: February 5, 2011.