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Early New Zealand Lighthouses

The history of lit navigational aids in New Zealand began in the early 1830s, when a beacon was erected at Maketu in the Bay of Plenty. In the early years of the colony, inbound vessels frequently had difficulty in identifying ports due to a lack of navigational aids, and shipwrecks were common. During the 1850s and early 1860s, permanent lighthouses were erected by the Wellington and Nelson Provincial Councils, including an imported cast iron structure at Pencarrow in 1858-59 - the earliest permanent lighthouse in New Zealand. In 1861, a countrywide approach was outlined to provide the coast with thirteen structures, together with five lights at other harbour entrances. This plan was adopted after responsibility for navigational aids was given to a national body, the newly-appointed Chief Marine Board (later the Marine Board of New Zealand), in 1862. The Board completed the construction of several new lighthouses, including the earliest stone examples, before becoming the Marine Department in 1866.

James Balfour, who had designed the stone lighthouse at Dog Island, was appointed Marine Engineer for the new department. He set about reforming the lighthouse service following the Scottish model with which he was familiar. In the interests of speed and efficiency, Balfour adopted a policy of erecting lighthouses in timber wherever possible. After his death in 1869, this policy was continued through the 1870s and into the early 1880s by John Blackett and Captain Robert Johnson. Blackett was responsible for engineering and technical duties, while Johnson - who had instigated the 1861 plan to provide national lighthouse coverage - was head of the department. Under their stewardship, the 1870s proved to be the peak decade of lighthouse construction in New Zealand, and by 1879 there were some 25 lighthouses guiding vessels around the waters surrounding New Zealand. A further six were erected in the early 1880s before economic depression contributed to a decline in construction activity. The last of the lighthouses completed during this period was the Kaipara North Head light. 10



Unlike other similar towers, prefabricated and imported from Britain, the structure was constructed of local materials. Most notably, the walls of the tower were designed with an external and internal skin of local kauri, while the core was erected of basalt rubble from Mt Eden, Auckland. This has enabled the building to withstand extreme winds. The structure was designed by John Blackett (1818-1893), an important individual in New Zealand's nineteenth-century engineering history, possibly assisted by Captain Robert Johnson. Johnson had put forward the earliest scheme for national lighthouse coverage of New Zealand's shores in the 1860s, stimulating a major programme of lighthouse construction by the colonial government that lasted into the 1880s. Timber structures allowed such work to be carried out at a lesser cost, and the Kaipara light proved to be the last of the coastal lighthouses erected during this period. 10

The Kaipara North Head Lighthouse was one of a number of timber lighthouses constructed during the mid to late nineteenth century, the design of which was not always successful. The lighthouse on Portland Island in Hawke's Bay, for example, was severely affected by winds shortly after its construction in 1878. Improvements in design, however, were made with experience and it may be significant that most of the surviving examples date from the late 1870s and early 1880s.

It is believed that nine or ten land-based timber lighthouses of nineteenth-century date currently survive. Of these, seven - including Kaipara North Head Lighthouse - are considered to exist on their original sites.

The design of the Kaipara North Head Lighthouse is superficially similar to four other survivors in its tapering, hexagonal, three-storey design. On closer inspection, however, these can be divided into three separate sub-groups. The earliest consists of the lighthouses at Brothers Island (1877) and Moeraki (1878), which have less-tapered walls requiring external bracing for additional support. They also contain horizontal timber cladding on the exterior. The second sub-group consists of the single lighthouse from Akaroa Heads (1880), now in Akaroa township, which retains horizontal cladding but has walls with a greater taper. This can be seen as an intermediate form. The last sub-group includes the later Waipapa Point and Kaipara North Head lighthouses (both 1884), which retain the greater taper but have smooth external walls made up of vertical timber boards. As with the hexagonal groundplan and tapering walls, the vertical cladding presumably offered less resistance to the wind.

The Akaroa and Waipapa lighthouses, like that at Kaipara North Head, have double-skinned walls enclosing a rubble core. Unlike the Kaipara lighthouse, however, both are considered to have been substantially pre-fabricated in Britain. The Kaipara structure evidently reverted to the more standard practice of lighthouses being fabricated in New Zealand, perhaps for reasons of cost at a time of looming economic depression in the early-mid 1880s. Although largely identical to the Waipapa Lighthouse, its potentially different origins may be revealed through differences in its details. For example, its internal lining is made up of diagonal rather than horizontal planking, and its ladder also has a different form.

Unlike the Kaipara light, the Brothers, Moeraki, Akaroa and Waipapa lighthouses appear to retain their original lanterns, although in 1980 the Akaroa Head structure was dismantled and moved into Akaroa township. Both the Waipapa and Akaroa lighthouses are registered with the NZHPT as Category II historic places (#2561 and #3343 respectively). The original lantern from the Kaipara lighthouse survives at Cape Saunders. This has not yet been registered.

Other timber lighthouses surviving in New Zealand include:

Centre Island (1878)

Portland Island I (1878 - since relocated to Wairoa)

Timaru (1878 - since relocated to Timaru town)

Motuopao Island (1879)

While Timaru is a three-storey square lighthouse, at least two of the others appear to be similar in design to the Waipapa/Akaroa group but are two storeys in height. Those at Timaru, Motuopao, Wairoa (formerly the Portland light) are registered as Category II historic places with the NZHPT (#2044, #3289 and #4582 respectively). Other lighthouses constructed largely of timber, such as the wave-washed Bean Rock (1874; #3295), are built on tall frames.

Up to 15 lighthouses or lighthouse-related components have been registered, of which six have Category I status. None of the timber lighthouses has yet been registered as Category I. 10







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

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