Pencarrow Lighthouse

Page 2 – Slow beginnings

The leader of the New Zealand Company's first expedition, Colonel William Wakefield, was the first to suggest a beacon or lighthouse would ease entry into Wellington harbour. The expedition's ship, the Tory, had struggled in on its first visit on 20 September 1839 – and ships carrying the Company's settlers were due within months. But Wakefield took no action to remedy the situation; nor did Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson after he proclaimed sovereignty over the country in May 1840.

The first steps were instead taken by Wellington's settlers. In December 1841 a public meeting was held in response to two shipwrecks that had occurred ‘for want of a lighthouse or signal station, and pilots'. Those attending admonished the Company and the colonial government, but also resolved to take action themselves by raising a public subscription for a temporary lighthouse. They raised enough for two beacons, and erected one of these at Pencarrow. Unfortunately, they didn't heed warnings that the beacon would prove too frail for the headland. By April 1842 it had been destroyed in a gale.

The following month Hobson extended an ordinance to Wellington giving its borough council the power to erect beacons and lighthouses. This was an opportunity for local action on a grander scale, but the ‘poorly endowed’ council actually stood little chance of achieving anything. Its elections were only held in October 1842 and by December 1843 the power had returned to the colonial government, the British government having disallowed the ordinance. The colonial government agreed to fund a replacement beacon in 1844. But it proved entirely inadequate – it was only visible from about eight kilometres in good weather. The Pickwick, the Tyne and the Maria were all wrecked before the colonial government was convinced of the need for a lighthouse visible at night and in poor weather.

Following the wreck of the Maria on 23 July 1851, when 26 lives were lost, a public meeting was held and a deputation sent to Governor George Grey. He agreed to advance money for a lighthouse and keeper's accommodation, to be funded by an extra duty on spirits. But while the extra duty was imposed, all the settlers received was a temporary keeper's cottage (and keeper, George Bennett), with a light placed in its window. Plans for the lighthouse, drawn up by Edward Roberts of the Royal Engineers' Department in 1852, were put on hold.

In 1854 the general government's committee on beacons and lighthouses reported that the existing arrangement at Pencarrow was inadequate. But by 1857 it had taken no further action. Wellington's provincial government – by then functioning for four years – grew impatient. It asked Roberts to arrange to have the lighthouse he had designed five years earlier built in England. This was opposed by the general government, which argued that such lighthouses were its responsibility. Wellington's superintendent Isaac Featherston responded that the province was simply improving upon the existing ‘harbour' light that the government had sanctioned funds for in the past. He directed Roberts and Gladstone and Company, the provincial government's agents in London, to continue negotiating a tender for the casting of the lighthouse.

By July 1857 Gladstone and Company had accepted a tender of £2435 from Messrs Cochrane and Company of Woodside Iron Works, Dudley. By the end of the year Roberts advised that Edward Wright had been selected to supervise the erection of the lighthouse. After years of inadequate solutions, a permanent lighthouse – and the man needed to erect it – were finally on their way.