Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 5, November 1971
Before 1906 the entrance to Nelson Haven lay between the Arrow Rock and the southern tip of the Boulder Bank or Haulashore Island as it was called. It was always a difficult entrance—the narrow curving approach bordered by rocks and sandbanks was further aggravated by a rise and fall in tide of about twelve feet and the furious outflow of water from the Haven as the tide ebbed. The current racing through the entrance is said to have reached a speed of seven knots.
No wonder Captain Wakefield recognised the difficulties of the entrance from the very first and his guiding buoys and beacons show us that he had made an early appraisal of the steps necessary to make it safe. Even then the danger remained, as many shipwrecks here show us, and it was a melancholy fact that one of the earliest emigrant ships, the Fifeshire, failed to navigate the outward passage and lay a total wreck on the Arrow Rock before the startled gaze of the passengers on the newly-arrived Bolton.
If the entrance was a trap to unwary ships by day, how much more so was it at night when ships arrived at the harbour entrance in the dark. The best advice which was followed by most captains, was to anchor well away from the shore and wait for daylight.
This was not always possible or convenient and some provision had to be made to show the entrance channel at night time. In 1848, when Major Richmond was the Superintendent of Nelson, a large beacon with a powerful reflector was erected on the Boulder Bank near the Harbour entrance. The Major probably gazed down on it from the Cliffs with a feeling of satisfaction as it was visible for twelve miles and cost a mere £3/6/- — quite a bargain.
After the Acheron's visit in 1849 Captain Stokes suggestion that a red light be added was carried out—as the harbour light of 1851 is described as an "oil and wick lantern, coloured red and placed 160 feet above sea level"—presumably on the Cliffs.
The first idea of a real lighthouse came from the Nelson Provincial Council which appointed a select committee to go into the question in the session of 1859. The Committee suggested the building of a lighthouse on the Boulder Bank "to lead vessels down the Bay" as well as the provision of other lighthouses on Farewell Spit and at French Pass.
The Council opened negotiations with Mr. Tytler of Edinburgh, a former Nelson resident, who made arrangements in England whereby Messrs. Stothert and Pitt, Engineers, of Bath, were to build a suitable lighthouse. This lighthouse of cast iron plates, octagonal in shape and painted white, was completed and placed on the "Glenshee" for carriage to Nelson, where it arrived on August 2nd, 1861, after a journey of 151 days. The various parts of the lighthouse and its 'appurtances' were ferried across to the Boulder Bank and by July page 101862 the lighthouse had been erected and was ready to function. It was 60 feet above the water at high water springs and apparently another 30–40 feet of the lighthouse lay hidden in the Boulder Bank to keep it stable. It had a fixed white light visible up to 15 miles in good weather and covered an arc of 120 degrees up the Bay. As the ship approached the mouth of the harbour the light changed to red indicating that the ship should be anchored until daylight or until a pilot came on board. Masters of vessels were warned not to shut the light in nor to approach within one mile of the bank where the lighthouse was standing. This meant that ships coming down the bay must be able to see the light at all times. If they found that the light had disappeared they were off course and too near the shore. The light was screened by ear-shaped shutters so that the beam could not be seen unless that ship was a mile off shore. Needless to say the light always shone over the sea and could not be seen on land except, of course, from the other side of the bay. The only time that an exception was made to this rule was when His Honour the Superintendent directed that on two Saturdays in July 1862, the light should be reflected towards the town in order that the inhabitants might have an opportunity of witnessing it. The courting couples on the Port Hills must have been startled by the sudden illumination, no doubt thinking that they had been overtaken by dawn or by the sudden rise of a full moon! I have never heard of this event being repeated, so for over one hundred years the light has been shining out to sea, night after night
Before the lighthouse came into operation the public of Nelson were given another opportunity to become familiar with its working and build. The Superintendent invited all those interested to inspect the lighthouse from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. any day, tickets to the Boulder Bank being available from Mr. T. Allan, the Government Wharf, or from the driver of the railway omnibus to the Port.
After all the novelty and excitement had died down the Superintendent notified the people of Nelson that "on the night of Monday, 4th August, (1862) inst and every night thereafter from the going away of daylight in the evening to the return of daylight in the morning a light will be exhibited from the undermentioned light-house." It sounds rather like the writing of Alfred Domett. Then followed the details of the lighthouse—as set out in the Gazette by John Blackett Esq., Engineer, and John Smith Cross, Harbour Master of the Province of Nelson. The light was set on the South West end of the Boulder Bank ten miles SSW of Pepin Island and half a mile N & by East of the Powder Magazine. It was a catadioptric light of the fourth order and was visible in clear weather at a distance of about 12 nautical miles. The name catadioptric seems rather a mouthful, but a perusal of the Encyclopedia gives the impression that it means the light had a mirror of glass prisms behind it, which both reflected and refracted the light so that the total light emitted from the burner was directed out the front window—which was also of glass prisms. The effect of all this was that all the light emerged from the front page 11window of the lighthouse in a horizontal beam and very little was lost. The lighthouse was built by the Provincial Council at a cost of £2,824 and was controlled by them until 1864 when the Marine Board, in charge of all harbours and lighthouses in New Zealand, decided to levy light dues on all ships entering or leaving harbours. The Superintendent of Nelson Province, Alfred Saunders, was so annoyed with this innovation which he regarded as a threat to Nelson's trade that he suggested the Marine Board take over the lighthouse itself.
In 1876, when Provincial Councils were abolished, a scheme of local government consisting of Borough Councils, County Councils, Town Boards and so on was set up and Nelson City Council was entitled to become the harbour authority of the district. However, the lighthouse remained under the control of the Crown until 1924 when it was handed over to the control of Nelson Harbour Board formed in 1901. Presumably this was mainly due to the fact that the Marine Board now regarded the light as a harbour light only and not part of the national system of lighthouses.
Although the lighthouse stands out alone on the Boulder Bank today, it was not always so. At first it was a manned light with one or two keepers and early photographs show their houses as well as other buildings grouped round the base of the lighthouse. It was not until 1915 that the light was superseded by a new unwatched acetone acetylene flashing beam and keepers were dispensed with. But for fifty years this little settlement was a part of Nelson and the names of several keepers are still known. The first keeper was W. E. Cross the brother of John Cross, the Harbour Master, but in 1862 came the keeper whom most Nelsonians identify with the lighthouse, John Kidson, who was the keeper for 30 years, probably from 1862–1892. We know quite a lot about the Kidsons as one of the daughters (who became Mrs. Coleman of Richmond) gave a vivid account of their early life there. John Kidson, a boatman before he became the lighthouse keeper, was a strong robust man and Mrs. Coleman recalls how his uniforms were always too small and had to be remade by his wife. Their house was separate from the tower on the north side and a smaller house on the other side of the lighthouse was for the assistant keeper. The houses were repaired in 1875 and 1895 and after being dismantled in 1915 one of them was carried to Tahuna where it is still in good order today.
Mrs. Coleman was the youngest of twelve children of whom ten lived. One of the events of their lives was being rowed across the harbour to school each schoolday with the possibility of being unable to return if the weather deteriorated in the afternoon. Sometimes it was pleasant as when the tide allowed the boat to reach Saltwater Bridge but at other times according to one of the children, Russell Kidson, it was an awful way to travel. Russell remembered his first visit to Haven Road School—it was a big room and very cold| At times the children were allowed to ask a friend to visit them at the lighthouse where they found conditions very different from the homepage 12 neighbourhood. All the cooking was done in a colonial oven set in the chimney. The children even made themselves a garden, removing stones to a depth of six feet by hand and then filling the hole with seaweed, and soil brought in a boat from Haulashore Island. There they grew cabbages and carrots inside the five foot board fence which they placed round the garden to keep out the animals. It is surprising to hear of animals on such an inhospitable environment but apart from the birds, there were the rabbits, an odd horse which evidently walked all the way down the Boulder Bank and a family of goats that lived on Haulashore.
After John Kidson's death at the age of 55 the family moved from the lighthouse and other keepers followed. A report on the lighthouse by an Evening Mail representative in 1902 mentions the good work being done by Keepers Arnold and Champion but apart from these names I do not know any others.
In 1915 the new unwatched flashing light was installed and the keepers were not required. The houses and other features of the lighthouse were dismantled and removed. All the houses and buildings were shipped across to the shore. The flagstaff which appears in early photographs of the lighthouse which was used to signal the state of the tides was not needed any longer. The telephone and telegraphic connections with the shore was also outdated now as there were no keepers to use them.
In 1924 the Harbour Board took over the light from the Marine Department and eventually had to find the cost of running it entirely as the contributions from the Department were stopped.
The characteristics of the light were again altered on the 18th August, 1950, when it changed to group flashing every ten seconds—a flash of 3/4 second, then an eclipse for 2 seconds, another flash for 3/4 second and an eclipse of 6½ seconds.
The light still stands there—well into its second hundred years.