History of New Zealand lighthouses and their keepers

Read about New Zealand’s lighthouse history from 1858, the technological advancements, and the role and life of the keepers who operated and maintained the lights.

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History of lighthouses in New Zealand

New Zealand’s first lighthouse was built in 1858. With technological advancements, the lighthouse keeper has been replaced by fully automated computer-monitored lighthouses.

The oldest lighthouse in New Zealand

Built in 1858, Pencarrow Head lighthouse, near Wellington, is the oldest lighthouse in New Zealand. This was also the only lighthouse in New Zealand to ever have a woman as lighthouse keeper.

Early lighthouse lights and lamps

The first locally-built lighthouses had fixed lights which did not flash. Because of this they were easily confused with other lights along the shoreline, and were eventually phased out.

The first lights were fuelled by colza oil, a derivative of the rape plant. Colza oil was later replaced by cheaper paraffin oil. These early lamps had a long wick which required constant trimming throughout the night, for the light to burn bright and clear.

Lights controlled by clockwork mechanism

Lights which had a lens that revolved round a single lamp by means of a clockwork mechanism replaced the fixed lights. This gave the effect of a flashing light. The mechanism was run by weights that were suspended down the tower shaft. One of the keeper’s most important jobs was to wind up this mechanism. If the light stopped revolving it could cause as much confusion as if the light was out altogether.

Revolving light – forerunner to electronically driven revolving lenses

In 1865 the first revolving light was installed at Dog Island lighthouse. The light used 16 small oil lamps, each with its own lens. It was a forerunner of today’s electronically driven revolving lenses.

The average lens on the early lights weighed several tons, requiring a strong mechanism to keep the system of wheels or ball-bearings moving. This restricted the size of the lantern, reducing the power and speed of the light. In the late 1880s a new type of lantern was invented. The new lights floated on a bed of mercury rather than on metal rollers, allowing easier and faster revolutions.

Kerosene fuelled lamps introduced

In the 1900s, incandescent kerosene burners were introduced. They provided economy with a more brilliant light and with no wick trimming required at all. Most of these kerosene-fuelled lamps lasted until around the 1950s, when the lighthouses were gradually all converted to electricity.

Electrification and the move to automation

In the 1950s, all lighthouses in New Zealand were converted to electricity, accelerating the move to automatic lights.

A typical New Zealand lighthouse has a lens that revolves around a 1000-watt bulb. Most lenses are made up of a number of sections that magnify the bulb light into beams. The lights are automatically switched on by a photoelectric daylight sensor.  This sensor sends 12 volts of power to the lighthouse, either from the mains electricity system, diesel generator or by solar power. Some 70 lights are now generated by solar power.

Remote monitoring of lighthouses and beacons

The main lights and beacons around New Zealand are now monitored remotely in Wellington by Maritime New Zealand. The computerised active control system enables our lighthouse engineers to check any faults via computer, and to troubleshoot most problems remotely. The rotation gear, lamp and power supply all have standby units that are automatically activated if there is a failure. Any faults are automatically relayed by computer to Maritime New Zealand.

Maintenance of lights and lighthouses

All classic lighthouses are now maintained and inspected on a 6-monthly basis. Access to each lighthouse is kept clear, the structure kept sound, weeds are removed and all vegetation that could pose a fire hazard in the summer is cleared away. Some technical maintenance is done on each light, mainly on things such as diesel generators. The lightbulb on the main lights needs to be changed every 6 months.

Lighthouse equipment

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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.

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.

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