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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 5, November 1971

Nelson Lighthouses

Nelson Lighthouses

page 4


In this Captain Cook Bi-centennial year, 1970, New Zealanders have become more conscious of their history through the ways in which this great seaman's explorations have been drawn to their attention. New Zealand has developed a great deal since the days when Captain Cook sailed round our coasts and already New Zealand has a distinct history of its own.

It was appropriate that the talks given at the annual meeting (1970) of the Nelson Historical Society should deal with lighthouses and, as Cook named many of the features round the coasts where lighthouses have been built these form a definite historical link. His chart made during his 1769–70 visit was the only chart of the New Zealand coast for many years. Cook Strait carries his name and many of the lighthouses which guide ships safely through this passage are situated on prominences named by him. There are the lights at Castle Point, Cape Palliser and Cape Campell on the eastern approaches, while Farewell Spit, Stephens Island, Cape Jackson and The Brothers all carry lights to ensure a safe passage from the west. Other important lights to guide ships approaching our coast are those at Cape Farewell and at Kahurangi Point (north of Rocks Point, so named by Cook). Farewell Spit and Cape Campbell lighthouses were erected just a century ago.

When Cook left New Zealand in 1770 to cross to Australia he named Cape Farewell and he used this landmark as his fixed point as he plotted his course across the Tasman Sea and each day his log showed the ship's position in relation to Cape Farewell. Sailing up the eastern coast of Australia he named many of the geographical features, using, among others, the surnames of notable figures in the British Admiralty, following a pattern already set in New Zealand.

In addition to Admiralty Bay, near D'Urville Island, the coast of New Zealand is studded with the surnames of Secretaries of the Admiralty, Sea-Lords, and Admirals. We have, for example, Stephens Island, Cape Jackson, Cape Saunders, Hawkes Bay, Cape Campbell, Cape Colville, Point Rodney, Cape Brett, and Cape Egmont. Other names were also used—such as Bank's Island (Banks Peninsula), as well as those which recorded some happenings on the voyage round the coast. Hence we have Cape Kidnappers, Cape Turnagain, Cape Foulwind, Cape Runaway, and Doubtful Harbour. This is not a complete list of Cook's names but it is an interesting fact that many of the names that he bestowed have remained and a noticeable number of our New Zealand lighthouses have been erected on points which he named.

The first few lighthouses in the country were erected by the Provincial Councils, the one on the Boulder Bank at Nelson, set up in 1862, being the second lighthouse to be built in this country. From then on the central Government accepted the responsibility of pro-page 5viding lighthouses round the coasts and it was under the administration of the Marine Board, and later the Marine Department, that most of the present lighthouses were erected and maintained.

For our present purposes we will consider the lights at Kahurangi Point, Cape Farewell, Farewell Spit, Nelson Harbour and Stephens Island.

The distances across the Bay are not so great as one imagines. The trees on Farewell Spit are visible from the hills near French Pass while the hills on D'Urville Island are visible from the beach near the Farewell Spit lighthouse. The Stephens Island light, about 600 feet above sea level, with its range of 32 miles, is one of the most powerful of our lighthouses. (I have on a number of occasions seen it from Takaka Hill road).

In April 1859 a Select Committee of the Nelson Provincial Council advocated the provision of a harbour light on the Boulder Bank to lead vessels down the Bay and suggested that the Central Government be asked to consider lights and beacons for Farewell Spit and French Pass.

Kahurangi Lighthouse

The Kahurangi lighthouse was built early in 1903 and one of the first reports concerning the building states that a man engaged in the preliminary work broke a leg. His mates carried him to Parkeston (Mangarakau) a distance of 25 miles, and as quite a number of rivers had to be crossed, some of these only at low tide, this was a considerable undertaking. They arrived at midnight and it was possible to use a conveyance to get him to Collingwood, again across mudflats and streams which were only usable at low tide. Fortunately the S.S. "Lady Barkly" was in port and made an emergency trip to Nelson.

All the heavy ironwork and timber for the project was brought in by scows to the mouth of the Big River about two miles north of the building site. It was necessary to bring the boats in at high tide but there was a good anchorage beside a flat outcrop of rock which provided ideal conditions for unloading. From there everything had to be carted along the beach. The steel framework had a bolt every four inches along the sections of 3/4 inch plate steel with the result that there were tons of bolts, and a heap of these in the bed of a dray probably weighed threequarters of a ton or more, a heavy load to cart along the beach. A light tramway was erected from the beach up the steep slope to the level where the buildings were to be, all the materials being winched up and then sledged to the site.

The completed tower was 59 feet high and the light 155 feet above sea level. Two sectors round the light showed red beams to warn shipping of reefs which extended 7 miles out to sea. Three page 6houses were built for the keepers employed there. The paraffin for the lights came in 4 gallon tins so the periodic loading of 300 gallons represented a considerable operation, especially as stores, coal, and all other necessities were also shipped in.

A former keeper at Kahurangi for a period of three years stated that stores and supplies were brought in from Wellington every six months or so. The surf boats landed everything on the natural wharf in the Big River, and from there they were transported by horse and cart to the lighthouse. He could not recall any difficulties in landing the supplies though some were encountered when the building materials were landed.

The small steamer "Te Kapu" missed the channel and was stranded high and dry between tides, and on another occasion the scow "Ngaru" was holed against the rocks while tied at the landing site. Possibly there were further troubles as the Marine Department's annual report in 1907 stated that owing to "the impossibility of landing at Kahurangi Lighthouse when there was a sea on, the Department had arranged for the lighthouse to be tended by the Karamea-Westport steamer, instead of the "Hinemoa." In the early days of the lighthouse a keeper rode out once a month to collect the mail and this was the only contact that the keepers had with the outside world.

Sheep for mutton were kept at the Lighthouse Reserve. Later packhorses were used to bring in stores and eventually all transport was over land. Even this was not without its difficulties. The tides always had to be studied but an even greater obstacle had to be faced when a property owner closed the road through his property and stopped all transport. The wife of one keeper was in Collingwood and could not return home until the dispute was settled.

In the 1929 earthquake a slip wrecked buildings and smashed the base of the lighthouse itself. Fortunately nobody was injured. The light was out for about two months while repairs were being made. A new four-roomed cottage was built on a flat about half a mile further north but as this site was threatened by sea erosion it had to be moved to a sheltered site on higher ground.

An automatic light was installed in 1926 and this was in turn changed to acetylene gas, and later to electricity.

No keepers live at Kahurangi now and overland parties service the light.

Cape Farewell Light

The Cape Farewell lighthouse is set at an elevation of 546 feet on Pillar Point and has a range of twelve miles. This can be classed as a recent light having been established in 1951, firstly on battery operation.

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Farewell Spit Lighthouse

From the earliest days of European settlement Farewell Spit had been a great danger to shipping and the number of strandings and wrecks was such that the provision of a lighthouse became an important issue. Since similar conditions applied to other parts of the New Zealand coastline (although a light was suggested by the Nelson Provincial Council in 1859) it was some years before action was taken.

In 1865 the Central Government provided lighthouses at several locations in urgent need, and one of the early activities of the Marine Department when established in 1877, was to press on with this work. In 1866, when a number of lights had been erected round New Zealand, Farewell Spit was under consideration. Richard Aylmer, an expert brought to the country to erect lighthouses, did not regard the Spit as a suitable place to erect a light owing to the instability of the sand and the engineering difficulties in providing a firm foundation for a tall tower. His suggestion was for a lightship anchored two miles off the tongue of sand. The controversy ended with the provision of a lighthouse which came into use four years later. This was one of a number designed by J. M. Balfour, Colonial Marine Engineer and Superintendent of Lighthouses.

Farewell Spit lighthouse came into service on June 17, 1870. The tower, a few feet higher than the present one (eighty-eight feet high and 97 feet above sea level), was built of hardwood timber on the open lattice-work principle. As was usual at that time an oil burning light was fitted. The revolving mechanism was operated by the keeper winding up the centre pole from the ground a weight and as this gradually fell it wound the gear round. The light, flashing each sixty seconds, was visible for 17 miles and showed a red sector over the end of the Spit.

It is understood that Samuel Brown of Wellington was the successful contractor for the erection of the buildings for a sum of £2,496. Lacking information about the delivery of the materials and equipment I can only conclude that these were landed on the site from the sea in much the same way as was done for the later lighthouse. After about 25 years' use it became evident that the life of the wooden tower was limited owing to deterioration of the timber caused by the weather and abrasive action of the sand blown against it.

Because of this a new steel tower was built nearby and the light and mechanism was transferred to it in January, 1897, and firsthand accounts of the work involved in the building of the new lighthouse have come to us from two men who were on the spot. The "Hinemoa," Captain Fairchild, stood off the Spit and surf boats, two strapped together, brought building materials ashore including timber for three houses, as well as everything for the lighthouse. The procedure was to stack timber across the two boats and build page 8a level platform, then put two or three of the sections of steelwork for the lighthouse on top of the timber. The loaded boats were then floated in as far as possible and a dray was driven out and backed up to the boats. Men worked in water up to their chests using small pinch bars and rollers to get a section on to the dray. Just one section was a two-horse load, the dray being tipped to unload. The men found it most uncomfortable working in the water and sometimes when the tide was coming in the water rose a foot or so as a wall of water.

One of the difficulties in building both the first and the second lighthouses was the lack of shingle for making concrete foundations, but shells were used and the concrete has lasted well. There were no beds of shells but when found in sufficient quantities they were hand raked into heaps and shovelled into drays. If too much sand was not shovelled up, about 2½ cubic yards made a dray load for a three-horse team, two trips per day being possible if the distance was not too great.

The original houses provided for the keepers were only small cottages but much better ones were erected after the new light came into service. When the building programme was under way the "Hinemoa" came in late one day and proceeded to unload bricks on to the surf boats. Several drays and drivers had been waiting and their job was to drive out into the water to the boats, throw a load of bricks aboard, and then drive up on the beach and tip them in a heap. At night the only directions the drivers had to go by were the light from the lighthouse and the light from the "Hinemoa". During that night a storm blew up and the heaps of bricks were covered by sand. The men went round with crowbars prospecting where they thought that the bricks might be, but they were lost.

During the Russian Invasion scare in the 1880's telegraph lines were erected to the Farewell Spit lighthouse. At Takaka, totara poles sawn square were prepared, and these were shipped into the area round Pakawau and Puponga. The intention was to sail in as far as possible on high tide and unload the ship while the tide was out near where they were required.

One of the great problems for the early keepers was the continual drift of sand and the seemingly never-ending job of shovelling it away from their cottages. Sand was in everything.

First attempts to get trees established at the lighthouse reserve were unsuccessful and it was only by the arduous task of carrying soil back after a trip to Puponga for the mail that trees were given a good start and became established. This largely overcame the nuisance of sand in the homes, and the plantation became a well known landmark, at times being of great assistance to mariners.

Until recent years transport was a real problem but about every three months a ship from Nelson would land goods. At one time there was an anchorage on the inside of the Spit about a mile from the lighthouse and goods were carted from there.

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Nelson Lighthouse

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.

Stephens Island and Its Lighthouse

This article was to be concerned with the Stephens Island lighthouse, but first of all, and especially for any historical journal, much must be said about the island itself.

Stephens Island is not very large, being somewhat over one mile by one half mile. It is high, rising over 900 feet and therefore easily recognised at great distances. It lies about two miles north east of D'Urville Island, between Admiralty Bay and the Tasman Sea, and is generally taken to mark the western end of Cook Strait.

There are steep cliff faces on all sides, but at higher altitudes the bare rock gives way to easier grass, and some patches of scraggy bush.

The Maoris knew it as Takaporewa and knew it clothed in forest and loud with birds.

Tasman recorded his sighting of it. After his sad rencontre in Murderers Bay he sailed well into Cook Strait—his journal for the 20th December, 1642, records—"at noon we tacked to northward page 13and there saw a round high islet, about 8 miles West by South." After sheltering behind the islands here (the Rangitoto Islands) from northwest and westerly gales, he celebrated New Zealand's first Christmas in this vicinity.

Captain Cook entered in his journal for Saturday, 31st March, 1770. "The Bay I have named Admiralty Bay, the N.W. point Cape Stephens, and the S.E. Cape Jackson after the two Secretaries (of the Admiralty). It may always be known by the island which is pretty high and lies N.E. 2 miles from Cape Stephens".

He then refers to Nelson. "Between this island and Cape Farewell the shores form a large deep bay the bottom of which we could hardly see."

As for the lighthouse itself, it was first mooted in 1854. On the grounds that other than New Zealand ships would use its services, the Imperial Government was asked to provide it!

After the bark "Weathersfield" became a total loss in 1888, the matter was again pressed; work was started in 1892 and finished in 1894, by Beabey and Sons of Auckland. The major difficulty in the construction was, of course, the landing of stores and materials at the foot of the cliffs, and getting them to the site of the lighthouse some 600 feet up.

There is here a link with early Nelson, and with Nelson College—one David Scott, born in Tasmania in 1842, one of the first pupils of Nelson College, during 31 years service supervised the construction of many New Zealand lighthouses, including Stephens Island, East Cape, Portland Island, Cuvier Island, Cape Brett, Jacksons Head.

Then in 1892, it was the most powerful New Zealand lighthouse, with five wick paraffin lamps. Today it is still among the most powerful, and because of its great height, visible for 32 miles at sea level, flashing twice every thirty seconds. Today, of course, the original weight operated driving mechanism has been replaced, and both this operation and the lamps themselves are powered electrically (since 1938).

The Stephens Island that the Maori called Takaporewa, that Tasman and Cook sailed by, was noted for many wonders—its forests included the kohekohe or native mahogany tree; its birdlife—tuis, bellbirds, saddle back, native crow, kaka, parakeets, and the very famous semi-nocturnal Stephens Island wren; its sea birds—shearwaters, gulls, shags, the fairy prions or "doveys"; its tuataras; even a rare frog, discovered in 1918; paryphanta or land snails; and a unique weta.

After the lighthouse was established in 1888 much of this passed for ever. The bush was cleared, and sheep and cattle introduced. There are few trees now to attract tuis and kakas. The sea birds, and their friends the tuataras remain, together with some frogs, but the paryphanta are gone.

Finally, the first keeper's cat caught and killed the entire population of Stephens Island wrens, destroying an entire species, and thereby achieving for itself doubtful immortality.