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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2009

The Nelson Signal Station

The Nelson Signal Station

The Nelson signal station stood on Britannia Heights. "The signal staff was needed because Nelson Haven had a difficult entrance, which could only be navigated between full and half tide". Its location is marked by a large tree, a sequoidendron giganteum, and a notice board interpreting the history of the site.

Britannia Heights was first used as the location for a signal staff in 1841, following the arrival of the New Zealand Company's Preliminary Expedition to establish the settlement of Nelson. Captain Arthur Wakefield, the expedition leader, selected the site because of its visibility to shipping. Carpenters formed the signal staff from a spar cut in the Wood, and it was raised on December 13, 1841. The Union Jack was hoisted by Wakefield's servant, William Songer, who had looked after it on the voyage out.1

The signal staff was needed because Nelson Haven had a difficult entrance, which could only be safely navigated between full and half tide. A red flag at the top of the staff or at half-mast signalled full or half tide, with the absence of a flag indicating insufficient water. Other communication with shipping was done by means of Marryat's signals, a code devised by the author Frederick Marryat while he was serving in the British navy. Edward Jerningham Wakefield recorded that his uncle's tent had been pitched near the flagstaff so that he was on the spot when signalling needed to be done.2

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A nine-pounder carronade was put beside the flagstaff on January 24, 1842 for use as a signal gun. It was one of four obtained from Bailey Pegg and Company, iron merchants and founders of Gun Wharf, Wapping in London, by the New Zealand Company. On arrival they had been unloaded onto the landing beach, where they lay scattered among ploughs and cart wheels. Jimmy Spain is said to have put one on his shoulder and carried it up Russell Street to the signal staff, which would have been quite a feat, given its weight. The carronade had been developed by the Carron Company of Scotland in the late 18th century and its destructive effect saw it became known as the Smasher.3

When the Fifeshire, the first of the immigrant ships, sailed into the Haven on February 1, 1842, the signal gun was fired in salute. From September that year it was fired at noon every Saturday as a time signal, for people to check the accuracy of their timepieces. The first firing, carried out by Captain Wilson, was noted by John Saxton, and he also recorded an occasion on which Stephen Carkeek, the Customs officer, strained his back trying to lift the 12 o'clock gun.4

The signal staff became the target of vandalism, with a reward of 10 pounds being offered for information in the Nelson Examiner of July 23, 1842:

"Whereas the signal staff on Britannia Heights was maliciously cut down on the night of Monday the 11th of July the above reward will be paid by the undersigned to any person or persons who shall give such information as shall lead to the conviction of the offender or offenders. H Augustus Thompson, Government Representative".

The signalling system became more sophisticated in 1844, taking advantage of the fact that the site was also visible from the town. Under the new system, when a vessel appeared in the bay, a pennant was hoisted to the top of the staff. Once it had been identified, a further signal was raised showing one of a series of shapes representing a number. This identified the vessel type, from a barque, brigantine, schooner, cutter, sloop or lugger to a British man of war, foreign merchant ship, whaler, government colonial vessel or steamer. The ever-vigilant John Saxton noted on October 29, 1844 that he had seen the new signals announcing a vessel in sight, for the first time, while standing at Mr Butt's gate. The arrival of ships was of intense interest to the townspeople, who might be waiting for cargo, passengers, or just news from the outside world.5

The custom of firing the time gun lapsed after a while, but it was revived in September 1858. Alfred Domett, the Provincial Secretary, published an advisory notice: "His Honour the Superintendent directs it to be notified that a gun will be fired every Saturday punctually at twelve o'clock noon on the Flagstaff Hill".

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First signal station, Port Nelson.Watercolour on paper (detail). Collection of The Suter Art Gallery,Te Aratoi o Whakatū.

First signal station, Port Nelson.
Watercolour on paper (detail).
Collection of The Suter Art Gallery,
Te Aratoi o Whakatū.

The Colonist commented that this would be a great boon, as the lack of an authentic source from which to correct timepieces had been felt for a long time. The first firing took place on September 11, 1858, causing "a simultaneous examination of watches and timepieces as had rarely been witnessed in Nelson". The event was reported as follows:

"On Saturday, for the first time, the Time Gun, as advertised by the Government, was fired, and a general expectation seemed to prevail amongst the inhabitants. The watches of some showed noon so far past that they began to think it had been forgotten. At last, however, the sound of the gun was heard, and the white smoke curling along the side page 46of the hill shewed the situation of the cannon. It was amusing to hear the remarks made by owners of various timepieces, each of which, in its owner's opinion, had been the only true timekeeper – some 20 minutes wrong, some more, some less. Amongst some of the new-comers the strange sound induced them to believe that they had at last heard and known what a New Zealand earthquake is".

The signalman at the time was Tom Freeman and the weekly firing must have added an element of excitement to his duties. He had been appointed in 1857 at a salary of 91 pounds 5 shillings.

A new signal staff with two yard-arms was erected in 1860 at a cost of 20 pounds. The new signal code featured a system of flags and balls, with a red flag and a ball at the masthead at low water. The ball was lowered when there was 10 feet of water over the bar and the red flag kept flying until high water. Ebb tide was denoted by a Blue Peter at the masthead. It was about this time that a signal station was built, which included living quarters for the signalman. The type of vessel arriving was signalled by balls at various places on the yard-arms. For example a ball at the south end of the lower arm indicated a barque, while a ball at the north end of the upper yard meant a brig. The code for steamers was a ball with a white flag at the north end of the lower yard for one from the north and at the south end for one from the south.6

A new set of signal balls and a tide flag were purchased in 1861 and an additional smaller staff was erected about 1865, which had a code identifying 11 individual coastal vessels. The larger staff now had individual codes for the steamers Nelson, Lyttelton and Wallabi and the need for the presence of police, Health Officers or Inspectors of sheep and cattle could also be signalled. In a further refinement, the angle of an arm below the lower yard indicated if a steamer was inside or outside the harbour.7

Henry Jacobsen was appointed as signalman in 1876, a position he had previously held in Westport. George Britt, who was interviewed in 1963 at the age of 91, recalled participating in the firing of the time gun as a six-year-old. He helped Jacobsen by collecting the rags that were stuffed in the barrel and was allowed to fire it as a reward. He told of how, on one Saturday, some boys secretly rammed the barrel with rocks. There was an unholy noise when it was fired and many windows in Washington Valley were broken as a result.8

There was great dismay in May 1888, when the tide staff was removed to the Boulder Bank. This increased when it was learned that the main signal staff was also to be relocated. The Nelson Evening Mail stated that, unless the City Council could page 47see their way to make some arrangement for the arrival of vessels to be signalled to the town, considerable inconvenience would be caused by the Marine Department's action. It opined that the public was unlikely to accept the matter quietly.

The Colonist also weighed in to the controversy, hoping that the community's parliamentary representatives would take the first opportunity to make strong representation on the subject. It suggested the City Council organise a petition to revert to the old order of things, as virtually every citizen would sign it. HA Levestam, the local MP, obtained a promise that neither the signal staff, nor the signalman would be interfered with.9

It proved to be only a temporary stay of execution, however, and in April 1890 it was reported that the Marine Department had decided to do away with the signal staff on Britannia Heights. A staff was to be erected at the Post Office, from which the approach of vessels would be signalled on receipt of telephonic messages from the lighthouse keeper. At that time the Post Office was in Upper Trafalgar Street.

The new flagstaff was installed at the beginning of May by the pilot boat crew, under the supervision of the Pilot, Mr Low. The somewhat unsightly staff was fixed to an upright piece of wood in the passageway leading to the mailroom, and to the moulding of the parapet of the building. The top of the staff was only 20 feet above the parapet, which limited its visibility. A wickerwork ball was fixed so that it could be hauled up and, on its own, would indicate the arrival of a sailing vessel. A blue or white flag would signal a steamer from the north or the south, and a white pennant with a red centre would be used for vessels carrying English mail.

The Nelson Evening Mail was scathing of the new set up. It suggested someone in the Marine Department was playing a joke upon the citizens of Nelson, as the new staff was the laughing stock of the town. It needed to be much higher and, if the building couldn't support it, a proper staff should be erected on Church Hill. Had there been the smallest suspicion of what was to happen there would have been an immediate outcry. "The Member for the city, the Mayor and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce should lose no time in representing to the Department the absolute uselessness of the staff as it now stood." The offending flagstaff was replaced by a somewhat longer one a few days later. Henry Jacobsen was transferred to Manukau and sailed with his family on the Wanaka on May 6, 1890. His departure would have put an end to the firing of the time gun if it hadn't already stopped before then.10

In 1900 Nelson City Council decided to do something to commemorate Arthur Wakefield and resolved to plant a tree on the site of the signal staff in his memory.

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John Hale, a nurseryman, donated a Wellingtonia gigantea and William Songer, now in his 85th year, was asked to assist with the planting, in honour of his having raised the original flag.

The planting was set for July 25, 1900, Boys' Arbor Day, after being postponed a week for wet weather. At about 9am a great number of boys armed with spades and like implements were seen going through town en route for Britannia Heights. They were divided into companies under Mr FG Gibbs of Boys' Central School and his assistant teachers. The boys worked splendidly, planting several hundred trees in a workmanlike manner, mainly pinus insignis and macracarpa, plus oak, mimosa and cabbage trees. A good specimen of Wellingtonia gigantea, with a ticket reading "Captain Wakefield's tree", was planted near the site of the old flagstaff by Messrs Quirk and Christian, under the supervision of Councillor Piper.11

William Songer had failed to appear at the Council Chambers at the appointed time and Cr Piper, who was in charge of the expedition, had set off without him. Songer had been delayed and the planting had been completed by the time he arrived. The matter was vigorously discussed at the next Council meeting. Piper reported on what had taken place and moved that the matter be referred to the Finance Committee to arrange the production of a suitable brass inscription. Cr Baigent interjected that William Songer was disappointed and annoyed at being deprived of the pleasure of participating in so interesting an occasion. He proposed that the tree be uprooted, and then replanted with Songer's assistance, which Piper described as nonsense, but the motion was passed.

Nothing had been done by the time of the next meeting, which caused a regular hubbub, and various councillors insisted that the resolution to replant the tree be carried out. Cr Baigent pointed out that the inscription saying Songer had planted the tree would be an untruth. On the other hand, Mr Hale had told Cr Harley that the tree would probably die if uprooted, unless great care was taken. It was eventually agreed that the original resolution should stand.

And so, on August 20, 1900, Crs Baigent, Akersten, Kirkpatrick and Lock, together with William Songer, proceeded to Britannia Heights for the ceremony. The tree was carefully removed by Mr Hale and replanted by Mr Songer who, despite the burden of years, showed that his physical activity had not entirely departed. Having planted the tree in memory of his Captain in a most workmanlike manner, he then gave an account of the doings of the expeditionary party to those assembled. The only others present were a reporter from The Colonist and Mr FN Jones, who may have photographed the occasion.12

A secure fence was put up to save the tree from the depredations of grazing cows page 49and a seat was put in place for those who made the climb. A small yellow notice board explained that the tree commemorated the hoisting of the British flag. It was noted in 1924 that the tree had "not flourished as it should have done, but then it had had a false start in life".13

The brass plate had gone by the time of the centenary of settlement in 1941, when the area around the tree was tidied up, with a lawn being sown. The notice board was repainted and a new seat, donated by BB Jones, was put in place. A ceremony on Britannia Heights followed the unveiling of a memorial stone on Wakefield Quay on November 2, 1941. The Union Jack was broken out from a sapling flagstaff, which had been put on the site of the original, by Mrs Maud Kelly who was a descendant of James Cross. The tree provided the cheering spectators with shelter from the rain.14

At some stage the time gun was moved to Albion Square and from there to the Queen's Gardens. When the Turkish pontoon was installed there at the end of 1915, the time gun was put beside it, together with another of the four original carronades. In 1843, three of them had been used in the fortification of Church Hill and then, in 1851, two had been shipped to Wellington on the Victoria, following an order from the Superintendent of the Southern Division. The one that had remained on Church Hill featured in a report of vandalism in May 1866:

"Public Garden, Trafalgar Square

Complaints are frequently made of the injury done to the trees and shrubs of this garden by persons who frequent there. It is common practice to break the gums, mimosas and other trees, which are so great an ornament in the garden. Names are carved on the seats and the cannon which, if taken care of, might add to the attractiveness of the place is made, by the roughs complained of, to batter down the shrubs. Some authority should interfere to put an end to this gothic amusement of the town urchins who do not seem to have been sufficiently well educated to respect public property".15

The two cannon and the pontoon were mounted outside the RSA premises in Rutherford Street in 1953, but ten years later they were in the way of an extension to the building. The pontoon was consigned to the tip and it was proposed to return the time gun to Britannia Heights and put the other cannon in Isel Park. There was conjecture at the RSA that they were also to be dumped and, in a pre-emptive strike, they were removed to two private addresses late one night.16

A request by the Regional Committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1958 to mark the signal station site was rebuffed. It was deemed that the page 50Wakefields were already well commemorated in a number of places. The committee tried again in 1964, pointing out that a permanent memorial was inevitable, because of local feeling, and the Trust might as well have the honour attached to it, rather than stand condemned for its lack of interest. It was agreed that the history of the site should be recorded on a notice board, research was carried out and the new board was displayed at the 1971 Annual General Meeting to favourable comment.17

The two cannon made an appearance at the opening of the Trafalgar Centre in February 1973, with one of them being fired to mark the occasion. In August 1973 it was reported that the time gun was to return to its original site on Britannia Heights, when road works in the area had been completed. This did not happen, however, and the notice board was put in place in 1974. The cannon were in Nelson City Council custody by 1982 and the NZHPT committee asked that the time gun be put beside its notice board. The Council refused, on the grounds that vandalism would be a problem. The cannon are now on display at Founders Heritage Park. A new NZHPT interpretation board was unveiled in March 2003.18

The last word, of course, has to go the William Songer. The memorable tree has flourished and, by some strange quirk, instead of bearing the name of Arthur Wakefield, in whose memory it was planted, has become known by the name of the man who planted it: the Songer Tree.


1Wakefield, A. (1841–1842). Journal. Dec 6–13, 1841. Unpublished manuscript. Nelson Provincial Museum Research Facility; Col Aug 21, 1900.
2Wakefield, E.J. (1845) Adventure in New Zealand. London: John Murray. p237; NE Jun 11, 1842.
3Wakefield, A, Jan 25, 1842; Wakefield, E.J. p237; Adams, P. (1969) Britannia Heights. NZHPT Newsletter, no 13, Nov 1969, 8–12; Saunders, M. (1980). Report.
4Allan, R.M. (1965). Nelson: A history of early settlement. Wellington: Reed P85; Saxton, J.W. (1843–1853). Diary. Sep 29, 1842, Mar 1, 1845. Unpublished manuscript. Nelson Provincial Museum Research Facility.
5NE Nov 2, 1844; Saxton, J.W. Oct 29, 1844.
6NE Sep 11, 15, 1858; Col Sep 10, 14, 1858; Nelson Provincial Council. Votes and proceedings. 1858, Jul 1860, 1863.
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7Nelson almanac directory and year book for 1865. Nelson: R.Lucas.
8Nelson Provincial Council. Gazette. Nov 22, 1866; Nelson almanac. 1876; Saunders, M.
9Col May 8, 21, Jun 1, 9 1888; NEM May 7, 1888.
10Col May 3, 8, 1890; NEM Apr 26, May 2, 3, 7, 1890.
11Col Jul 26,1900.
12NEM Jul 25, Aug 4, 19 1900; Col Aug 20, 21, 1900.
13Grace, A.A. (1924). The jubilee history of the Nelson City Council, 1874-1924. Nelson: Evening Mail Office.
14NEM Oct 31, Nov 3 1941.
15Allan, R.M. P268; Superintendent of the Southern Division. Inwards correspondence. 1/4, Oct 9, 1851; NEM May 14, 1866.
16Saunders, M.
17NZHPT Newsletter 1969; NZHPT. Nelson Regional Committee. Correspondence. Jan 12, 1970.
18NZHPT. Nelson Regional Committee. Correspondence. Jun 14, Aug 23, 1982; NEM Aug 30, 1973; Leader Mar 20, 2003.