20 January 2014

To shed a ray of comfort on many a weather beaten crew

Pencarrow Head Lighthouse

The little white lighthouse atop Pencarrow Head was New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse. It was also notable for being the first and only New Zealand lighthouse with a female keeper. On its opening day, 1 January 1859, Pencarrow was managed by Mary Jane Bennett, who was the widow of the keeper of the temporary lighthouse on the same spot. Bennett ran the lighthouse with her six children until 1865 when she returned to England, but interestingly her three sons all returned to New Zealand in 1871.

The lighthouse was paid for by the Wellington provincial government, after a long campaign to secure support and funding from the central government in Auckland proved unsuccessful. (Remember, the capital didn't move from Auckland to Wellington until 1865). In particular, the lighthouse was deemed necessary for navigation following the wreck of the 470-ton barque Maria near Cape Terawhiti on 23 July 1851, with the loss of 26 lives, and only two survivors. Near Pencarrow Head itself there had also been two recent wrecks in the colony's young life, with the Inconstant, bound from Adelaide to Callao in Peru, severely damaging itself on the rocks on 29 September 1849, and the Queen of the Isles, a cargo-carrying schooner, wrecking itself on the rocks with no loss of life at 3am on 5 May 1856. (There was no loss of life in the Inconstant wreck. It was towed into Wellington and after it was condemned, John Plimmer - he of Plimmer Steps fame - bought it to serve as a warehouse and jetty. You can still see fragments of 'Plimmer's Ark' under the Old Bank Arcade).

I went to visit the lighthouse on Saturday with the Historic Places Trust, which had opened the lighthouse up for inspection for the afternoon. It was a perfect day for the excursion, with great sunny weather and not too much wind (click to enlarge photos).

Lighthouse interior, ground level

Lighthouse viewing platform panorama, looking SE to SW
Lake Kohangapiripiri & Bluff Point (L)

Later, trawling through the records on Papers Past, I found a few stories from the Pencarrow Head Lighthouse's inception, the details of its design and a detailed account of the New Year's Day opening ceremony.


A lighthouse of somewhat peculiar construction has recently been made in this country and sent to New Zealand. This forms the first of a series of these useful structures, for the guidance of mariners, that are proposed to be erected on various parts of the coast and harbours of the islands, by the government of that colony.

The one we are briefly about to describe is a harbour light for Port Nicholson, although from the peculiarity of its position, it will answer to a considerable extent as a general light for vessels entering Cook's Strait from the southward and eastward. 

It is to be fixed on Pencarrow Head (which is the eastern headland of the entrance), at an altitude of four hundred feet above the level of the sea, and, as standing boldly out from the dark back-ground of the hills at its rear, will form a conspicuous landmark by day as well as a light at night. 

The new lighthouse is octangular in plan, and tapers upwards from the base, by curved lines, to the lantern at its summit, the faces of which are perpendicular; eleven feet high. The ground floor is fifteen feet in diameter, and the floor of the light room or lantern sixteen feet. There is also an intermediate floor, which adds to the strength of the whole structure, and for a look-out-room during the day. 

The tower is built of cast-iron plates, which average three-quarters of an inch in thickness, laid horizontally. These plates have broad flanges, which are all planed and strongly bolted together. The bottom tier of plates is of the ordinary girder shape, three feet deep, having an unusually broad bottom flange; this is to be sunk into the ground, and built upon all round by solid brick work, to be set in cement, in order to give additional weight and solidity to the superstructure, the whole to rest on a substratum of concrete. The floors are composed of chequered wrought iron plates, and are to rest upon girders bolted to brackets, cast upon the flanges of the sideplates, and also upon a central hollow column, which will contain the weights of the revolving apparatus of the light. The vertical portion of the lantern is composed of wrought iron and gun-metal, its roof being covered with stout copper, and surrounded by a neat gutter, which forms a cornice. Surmounting the whole, is a large ventilating hood, also of copper, that will work upon a gun-metal pivot, and is to be turned by large vane above. Around the lantern there is a gallery, supported by cast iron brackets bolted to the sides of the tower. This gallery has a light wrought iron railing round it, and a floor of perforated cast iron plates. The light is what is called a revolving catadioptric white light of the second order, constructed by Messrs. Chance of Birmingham, and from its great altitude above the level of the sea, will be seen from a distance of nearly twenty miles. The tower was built by Messrs. Cochrane and Co., of Dudley, who had a contract from the Government of the province of Wellington. The design for this peculiar lighthouse, which is forty-five feet in height, was made in 1852, by Edward Roberts, Esq., of the Royal Engineers Department, who was at that time Colonial Engineer in New Zealand, but who is now, we understand, engaged doing duty in London. The lighthouse was shipped from England on the 26th of February last.—Building News.

(Nelson Examiner & New Zealand Chronicle, 7 August 1858)


Notice is hereby given that preparatory to erecting the new Lighthouse, the Beacon hitherto standing on Pencarrow Head has been taken down, and a Flagstaff substituted, the said Flagstaff carrying a white flag with a Red Ball over it.

20th September, 1858

(Wellington Independent, 1 January 1859)

Pleasure Excursion Trip on New Year's Day.

The S. S. WONGA WONGA, Captain Kennedy, will leave Swinbourne's Wharf on SATURDAY, Ist January, 1859, at 9 o'clock in the morning, and will proceed round the Harbour on a Pleasure Trip, returning to the Wharf about Two o'clock. At Four o'clock on the same afternoon, the Steamer will leave the Wharf on an Excursion Trip to view the Light House at Pencarrow Head, and remain there (weather permitting) until after sunset, for the purpose of affording an opportunity of seeing the new Light exhibited for the first time. A limited number of Tickets only will be issued for each trip, and can be had at the Agents office. Fares for each Trip for Adults, 4s. each, for children under 14 years of age, 2s. each. Refreshments can be had on Board at reasonable rates. The Tickets must be presented before going on board.

The Hanoverian Band is engaged.

Agents Wellington Steam Navigation Co. (Limited.)
December 18, 1858.

(Wellington Independent, 1 January 1859)


The New Year has been inaugurated most auspiciously. On the lst January a long cherished idea was realised; one of the great wants of the last eighteen years was satisfied; an arduous struggle was brought to a close, when at sundown on Saturday evening, His Honor lit the new light on Pencarrow Head, and designated to its important uses the first Lighthouse in New Zealand. 

We need not recall the calamities which, years ago, impressed upon this community the necessity of establishing a light at the heads of Wellington harbor [sic.]. More than one or two ill fated vessels have buried their timbers between Capes Terawite [sic.] and Palliser; and we cannot speak of those of our fellow settlers who then perished without awakening the most painful associations. Nor need we do more than allude to the efforts that have been made, year after year, to prevent the recurrence of similar calamities. When in deference to public opinion, Sir George Grey promised to order an efficient light from England and the legislature cheerfully consented to pay for it by an additional Customs duty, it was thought the end was attained but though the extra duty was levied the light house never arrived. It was left for this community to discover that if they wanted the thing done they must do it themselves. They lost no time in doing this when they obtained the power, for on the first House of Representatives assembling in the year 1854, Captain Rhodes moved for a Committee to enquire into the best mode of establishing lights and beacons in various parts of the New Zealand Coast. The sessions of 1854 and 1856 passed away without any steps being.taken by the General Government, to whom alone the Constitution remits action relative to coast lights. At the recommendation of the Superintendent the Provincial Council voted in 1857 the necessary funds, and calling it a harbour light, resolved on its erection forthwith. The General Government considered their prerogative invaded, and disallowed the Act raising a loan for this and other objects. That disallowance came however too late; the Superintendent and his Government went on with the work and the light-house stands at the entrance of our harbour, not only as a friendly beacon to the mariner showing him the right track, but also to stimulate every settler arriving in the Province to avoid the cramping policy of "Centralism," and be ready to assist in the struggle that has yet to take place ere "Provincialism" will enable every portion of the colony to go ahead as fast as the energy of its settlers will allow. 

Now Years day was beautifully fine, and large numbers availed themselves of the excursion trips of the Wonga Wonga to view the lighthouse now happily completed. In the morning, in consequence of many persons mistaking the time of starting, there were fewer passengers than were expected, and the Company had room to dance it merrily to the excellent music of the German Band which, on arriving at Pencarrow, saluted the Lighthouse with the glorious strains of the national anthem. In the evening the little steamer was crowded and anchored off the lighthouse about 7 o'clock. Shortly afterwards the Superintendent, in company with Captain Rhodes who has always been among the chief promoters, the Provincial Treasurer and one or two others visited the light room, and lit for the first time the lamp which is, we trust, destined to shed a ray of comfort on many a weather beaten crew, and inspire with hope many a weary Immigrant. Several settlers who had landed from the Wonga Wonga then inspected the machinery &c., and the party returned to the vessel about 9 o'clock. To the vast majority of those who witnessed the lighting from the deck of the steamer considerable disappointment was at first occasioned, because of the apparent inefficiency of the light, but this disappointment soon gave way to feelings of pleasure when, on steaming back, they got into its focus and saw it in all its brilliancy. The party returned to Swinbourne's Wharf at 11, well pleased with their trip which was not a little enhanced by the unwearied courtesy of Captain Kennedy. 

To the ability of Mr. Wright, the engineer who arrived from England in charge of the structure and under whose solo superintendence it has been erected, too much credit cannot be given. It is a work which he may well be proud of, and in its erection he has required no small amount of perseverance. To bring the materiel from England to Lambton harbour was easy enough, but to get it from thence to the top of Pencarrow cliff has been a work of considerable labor, and to Mr. Wright's practical skill, it is entirely owing that no loss of pieces or damage has been sustained. We ought not to omit mentioning that the plans were those of Mr. Roberts, originally prepared for Sir George Grey.

(Wellington Independent, 8 January 1859)

See also:
Video: Pencarrow Lighthouse view, 18 January 2013
History: Shipping in Wellington 1850-1870, 12 June 2009
HistoryThe wreck of the Penguin (1909), 25 May 2013
History: London's maritime heritage, 1 January 2008
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