Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 6, April 1973
Nelson Lighthouses — (continued)
Two ex-lighthouse keepers* have been most helpful in supplying information about their experience while manning lights.
Mr. Roland Partridge, St. Vincent Street, Nelson, was first stationed at Farewell Spit but in the summer of 1905–06 transferred to Kahurangi for four years. The supplies for the keepers and their families and for the station were delivered by the "Hinemoa" every six months or so. As well as a large supply of paraffin for the lights there was coal, horse feed and a great range of general requirements. Surf boats from the "Hinemoa" ianded all supplies on the natural wharf by Big River and he could not recall any difficulties.
Meat was rather a problem until the keepers felled an area of bush for running sheep, the Marine Department later supplying fencing wire for a large paddock for horses and a smaller one for sheep.
Once a month Mr. Partridge rode a horse to Paturau for mail along the beach as the country was still in bush. If his visit extended to Collingwood he used to stay at Tom Pearson's boardinghouse at Mangarakau. This was a bachelor's establishment and a traveller had no option but to accept conditions as they were, there being no township and most of the flaxmillers coming from Westport.
Mr. Percy White, Tukuka Street, Nelson, went to Kahurangi lighthouse in 1917 and remained in the lighthouse service for the rest of his working life. At Kahurangi were three keepers, goods and stores coming by the Government ships "Hinemoa" and "Tutanekai" and being landed in surf boats at the small inlet where the keeper's house is now situated, not at Big River. Mail was still fetched on horseback. He left in December 1921 for Stephens Island.
At Stephens island there were three keepers end each had about forty sheep to keep their families in fresh meat.
The duties of the keepers included four hours daily polishing the lenses. This time would be either 8 a.m. to 12 noon, 8.30 to 12 30, or from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and was in addition to the light shift. One men was always on duty during the day to keep a lookout for shipping. The night shifts were from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., 8 p.m. to midnight, midnight to 4 a.m., and from 4 a.m. to lights out'. These shifts changed rotation daily. The man on midnight to 4 a.m. shift had to spend all day watching out for ships which were contacted by flag signal during the daytime and with lights at night. Such particulars as the name of the ship, destination, and other information had to be recorded in a log. Some ships passed close to the island while others further out could only be identified by using a telescope. On occasions a telegram would be received from the Marine Department enquiring about a particular ship. In wartime ships had to answer their signals and the keepers had to advise the Department in Wellington in case of failure to do so
The lighthouse station had telephone communication with the mainland by means of a line through Kapowai which connected with either Blenheim or Nelson. Sometimes a ship passing would ask for a message to be sent to Westport, Lyttelton, or elsewhere so as to give an approximate time of arrival at the particular port. Names of ships could be confusing when such a message as being asked to advise 'Breeze' from the north'. Equally confusing were such names as "Calm" and "Storm." More simple communications would simply be "Tainui" passed going east—or "north" or "south," as the case may be. The light station was on top of the hill and a horse gear and capstan were used to haul the loaded trucks up the tramway when supplies were landed. The old horse used to get cunning and go and hide when it heard the whistle blow, and also, when passing the rails, it would stop to take a look and see if the truck was near. Poor old horse, he must have found it a pretty tiring job walking round in circles!
Polishing the lenses was a job that was always with them Blinds were used round the outside during the daytime as the heat generated by the sun shining through the lenses would set things alight. Even when cleaning the lenses the concentrated light could burn the skin.
The light was incandescent and the mantle burned oil gas at a pressure of 62 1/2 lbs. per sq. inch. When lighting up it was necessary to spend at least ten minutes to do it correctly as all the oil in the tubes had to be burned out otherwise oil would keep coming through the pipe and at about 2 a.m. the light would go out. Spirits were used under the burners to heat the pipes and it was not untii the light was burning gas only that it would operate correctly. When, for some reason, the light did go out, it would probably result in a page 40'Please Explain' from the Marine Department months later. From Stephens Island they could see the Farewell Spit light and on occasions he had seen at dawn all three lights across the Bay go out at the same time.
One of the duties at Stephen's Island was that of Lizard Protection. Mr. White stated that he caught 2,000 hawks in a period between the third week of February and the third week of May in each of two years. The bounty was Is for each set of 1 head and 2 legs. There had been a closed season for the two previous years. In the third year he caught over 1,700. When Captain Bollons called on his regular trips he had the rather unpleasant job of inspecting, counting and destroying the heads and legs. Actually the Government ship was supposed to call every three months but at times visits were delayed by weather.
From Stephen's Island Mr. White moved to many of the light stations round the New Zealand coast serving at Castle Point, Portland Island, Kaipara Heads, Cape Brett, East Cape, Cape Saunders, Farewell Spit, Dog Island and Godley Heads (in that order).
When Mr. White was in charge of Farewell Spit during World War II changes were taking place. Supplies for the station were then landed on the beach from the Government vessel "Matai" and when conditions were not suitable for the use of surf boats she went to Collingwood and unloaded there. Both Ken Solly, and occasionally Bruce McNabb, would then deliver the goods overland by truck. At the station they had a horse and rubber-tyred cart which they used to bring the mail, meat and groceries. Mr. Freeman used to meet the keepers part away along the beach.
Sometimes Claude Wilkins made a trip out to the lighthouse and so Mr. White asked him to put in a price to the Marine Department to make a fortnightly trip from Collingwood to the lighthouse. This was in 1946 when a set price per trip was agreed upon to cart the mail, stores, coal and lighthouse staff. Passengers could be carried on these trips and the contractors could charge whatever fare they liked. This was the start of the regular trips to Farewell Spit by Collingwood Motors.
During his time in the Light Service Mr. White saw many changes. He mentioned the electric lights later used at most lighthouses and stated that it took only fifteen seconds for the relief bulb to take over from a fused one.
What about the unmanned lighthouses today? Who polishes the lenses? Why doesn't the concentrated sunlight through the lenses melt small metal objects, electrical fittings, and similar things? These were questions which puzzled this writer so he enquired from the Marine Department about the matter. The answer is that the unmanned lights are fitted with a drum type of lens and this does not focus the sunlight into a magnified pin point of heat which causes the damage.
* Since deceased.