Keepers of the light

Baring Head by night

By Claire O’Loughlin
Photography by Atley Durette

Featured in Capital #74
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A guiding light, a beacon of hope, or a weather-beaten warning sign? Whatever a lighthouse represents to you, there’s something intriguing about them.

Our region’s lighthouses at Pencarrow, Cape Palliser, Somes Island, Castlepoint, and Baring Head are situated at exposed and remote points of our coastline.

Lighthouses come from a time when the world was darker,  when  sailors had to navigate at night by the stars and the shadowy shapes of hills in moonlight. On cloudy nights, the world was black. So fires, and later lamps, were lit along the coast to guide sailors safely by.

Lighthouses are an interesting part of New Zealand’s colonial history. Life as a lighthouse-keeper was gritty. To live in isolation on desolate, windswept shores, you had to be stoical, handy, and dedicated to keeping the light on – sailors lives depended on it. 

Before lighthouses, our dark coast was treacherous. Wellington’s South Coast is littered with shipwrecks, as navigators mistook Owhiro Bay and Lyall Bay for the Wellington Harbour entrance at night. In 1852, New Zealand’s first “lighthouse” was a lamp in the seaside window of a cottage at Pencarrow Head, maintained by George Bennett.

When he drowned in 1855, his widow Mary took over the role, while looking after their five children. In 1859 the first permanent lighthouse was built on the same location, and Mary became the country’s first official “Keeper of the Light”. She held the role for another five years, the first and last woman lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. 

Baring Head

In 1935, Pencarrow was decommissioned and Baring Head lighthouse, further along the coast, took over as the guiding light for Wellington Harbour and Cook Strait. 

As a child who grew up up on a boat, I loved lighthouses. They were the transition points between my life at sea and the land. At night their beams would sweep over the boat like a searchlight, austere and unforgiving. By day they were whimsical, especially the red and white striped ones, like something from a nursery rhyme. And satisfyingly functional. Looking at it from the tumultuous sea, lighthouse-keeping was the kind of steady, responsible job that I wanted. I had no idea what it entailed, but, like those of a firewoman or a zoo keeper, it was all in the name: keep the light on.

In reality people in the New Zealand Lighthouse Service had a hard time, as did their families who lived with them — only married men were allowed permanent keeper positions, possibly because wives were relied on as assistants, and it was thought single men would get lonely, or debaucherous. According to Maritime NZ, keepers were 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.” 

The first lamps were oil-fired, and keepers had to stay up all night trimming the wick and doing other maintenance, like winding the revolving lens mechanisms. A lot of time was spent watching the sea and passing ships, and keepers often took part in ocean rescues.

There was little access to schooling, and medical care was weeks away. In the early days, many children died from illness and from accidents on the dangerous terrain.

Close to Wainuiomata, Baring Head was the least isolated of New Zealand lighthouses, with its children able to go to school. Keepers and their families were living there until the late 1980s. 

Unfortunately for the many of us who dreamt of a lighthouse keeper’s life, the job is no more. By 1990, all lighthouses had been automated. There are 23 that still shine every night, including Wellington’s Somes Island, Baring Head, Cape Palliser, and Castlepoint, but computers have replaced the keepers.

Castle Point lighthouse

However, Wellingtonians will before long be able to get a feel for the lifestyle. The Friends of Baring Head, a group of passionate environmentalists and historians, are working to breathe life back into Baring Head station. It’s an opportunity to preserve a slice of New Zealand history – the complex is the only one in the country still in original condition.

An incredible effort in 2010 saw everyone from trampers and cyclists to environmentalists, botanists, architects, and rock climbers raise $1.2 million in one month to buy the land surrounding Baring Head and make it part of the East Harbour Regional Park. With the region secured, the Friends are now restoring the complex,  turning the two lighthouse keepers’ cottages into overnight accommodation, and the powerhouse into a visitors’ centre.

Colin Ryder, treasurer of the Friends and the man running the lighthouse project, says they expect the upgraded accommodation to appeal to families and small groups,  especially since it will be close to a proposed cycle trail.  “We are also converting the former garage to volunteer accommodation so scientists and us greenies can use them for accommodation.”

They’re also working with NIWA to set up a system to monitor the effects of climate change on the coastline. Anyone, anywhere, will be able to tune in to a live feed and, like the old lighthouse keepers, gaze out across the sea.


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