Pencarrow Lighthouse

Page 5 – Daily life and learning

Daily duties

Daily life at Pencarrow Lighthouse has been recorded for posterity in the countless records and forms the Marine Department required keepers to complete ‘daily, weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, six monthly and annually'. For the most part the records show that daily routine at Pencarrow was similar to that at any other lighthouse.

Fire alarms

In March 1928 the keepers' best clothes were ruined when they were forced to put out a fire on the lighthouse reserve on a Sunday. The Principal Keeper reported that the fire had been started by two women cooking breakfast during a fishing expedition with their husbands. Another fire in 1958 destroyed the station's washhouse.

The rules and regulations laid down by the Marine Department ensured a consistency of duties from station to station. As described in Helen Beaglehole's history Lighting the coast, the keeper's duties included lighting, manning and cleaning the light and other equipment, maintaining the station building and reserve, and gathering and hauling stores to the station.

Pencarrow, like many lighthouses, was a two-man station. This meant a ‘gruelling regime of night shifts' with each man serving in the lighthouse alone. Manning the light was not ‘a comfortable job'. According to Maritime New Zealand's information on lighthouse keeping, 'keepers were allowed only hard, straight-backed chairs in the light room, and no radio which would distract them or send them to sleep'. Beaglehole notes that the provision of a chair and desk was actually an ‘improvement' on earlier conditions.

The duties of keepers' wives were not recorded in any detail, but they were no less arduous. Wives cooked, washed and cleaned in difficult circumstances, and after the correspondence school was established in 1922 often supervised their children's education.


During the late 1890s and early 1900s a school operated at Pencarrow. It catered for the lighthouse keepers' children and others living in the surrounding area. But from the outset the school was in a precarious position. The Marine Department erected a small classroom, but they did not contribute towards a salary for a teacher. The local Education Board contributed a certain amount per child, but when there weren't enough children the parents either had to make up the remaining amount or close the school.

The ongoing viability of the school rested on whether the keepers based at Pencarrow had school-age children. More than one Pencarrow keeper asked the Department to consider this when deciding upon a replacement, and there is evidence that it was taken into account. The future of the school also depended on the attendance of children from the surrounding area. After one such family left the school in 1916 Principal Keeper Duthie wrote to the Education Department asking for assistance with meeting the teacher's salary. They referred the matter to the Marine Department who responded that they were already taking reasonable steps ‘to help Keepers to get their children educated'.

Education at other lighthouses

The few books written by New Zealand lighthouse keepers and their families, including Jeanette Aplin’s The lighthouse keeper’s wife, Bill Kemp’s Pass safely sailor and Thomas Smith’s Man the Light, highlight education as a significant concern of any lighthouse parent.

Keepers at Pencarrow also found it difficult to gain a consistent education for their children. The Department's rule of transferring keepers to another station every three years was disruptive. Keepers with school-age children were particularly concerned that they'd be transferred to an isolated station where there was no school or teacher available. In October 1912 Principal Keeper Parks, then a father of three school-aged children, was advised that he was being transferred from Pencarrow to an isolated lighthouse. He questioned the decision, suitably outraged that some of the ‘best school stations' would be occupied by keepers without children. But the Department held fast to the rule. It continued to try to balance the needs of keepers with school-age children, ensuring that they would be stationed near a public school every three years, while being fair on those without children.

Within a few years some of these issues were alleviated. In 1922 the correspondence school was established, and it became a fixture of the lives of many lighthouse families. Children from Pencarrow are also reported to have attended schools in Eastbourne from the 1920s or 30s, although the journey on horseback then took several hours.

How to cite this page

'Daily life and learning', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Apr-2014