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Lighthouse keepers – their work and family life

Before electricity, most lighthouse stations had two or three lighthouse keepers. They worked in shifts to keep the light going all day and night. The lighthouse keepers were essentially on call at all times, and could not leave the lighthouse for more than a few hours at a time.

The lighthouse keeper’s work

The lighthouse keepers’ duties, before electricity was installed, included trimming the wick of the oil lamp, polishing the lenses and winding up the revolving mechanisms every hour or two to keep the light turning.

After electrification in the 1950s, winding and trimming the light were no longer required, and night watches ended. The lighthouse keepers still had other responsibilities such as sending weather reports by radio.

Every 2 years lighthouse keepers were rotated around the lighthouse stations. This way the keepers all had their turn on the more isolated and bleak stations as well as on the more popular ones. It also allowed them to progress from assistant keeper to principal keeper, and helped prevent friction between lighthouse station families building up.

Strict requirements to become a lighthouse keeper
Keepers entering the lighthouse service had strict requirements to meet. They needed to:

  • be men
  • be aged between 21 and 31
  • have a good character
  • hold a certificate from school stating their ability to read, write and have a “fair” knowledge of arithmetic.

While single men could apply for positions as relieving keepers, they needed to be married before being appointed to a permanent station.

There was only ever one woman lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, at Pencarrow Head lighthouse station, near Wellington.

Lighthouse keepers were expected to be "sober and industrious, cleanly in their persons and habits and orderly in their families. Any flagrant immorality will subject them to immediate dismissal."

Over the years these requirements changed little. The final edition of the lighthouse keepers’ handbook stated that keepers were to be men aged between 24 and 40 years, with at least 2 years secondary education and above-average handyman abilities.

An 1886 publication called Instructions to Lighthouse Keepers outlined what was expected of lighthouse keepers at work and in the running of their homes on the lighthouse stations.
"Keepers must pay for excessive use of coal. Interior of houses will be painted French Grey. Chair legs must not be cut down. This is an improper practice and must be discontinued."

The keeper's job was not a comfortable one. They were expected to remain awake on duty with only a hard, straight-backed chair to sit on in the light room. Peculiarly, the light that could be seen for miles by seafarers was only just bright enough to read a book by inside the light room.

Learn more about the life of lighthouse keepers and their families [PDF: 445Kb, 2 pages]

Hard life for the wives who lived at lighthouse stations
Wives of lighthouse keepers paid a hard price on the isolated lighthouse stations. They worked just as hard as their husbands. Often they had to endure difficult living conditions, harsh weather and poor health with no accessible medical help. In many instances they also had to cope with the loss of a child or children following illness or accident.

Accidents were common due to the dangerous terrain surrounding the light stations. Many lighthouses were perched on top of cliffs. Most keepers had small children and it could take weeks for help to arrive, often too late.