Pencarrow Lighthouse

Page 3 – The lighthouse and its surroundings

Erecting the lighthouse

Pencarrow Lighthouse arrived in Wellington on 21 June 1858 on board the barque Ambrosine. The 480 packages were initially unloaded at Rhodes and Company's wharf. They remained there for a number of months, the provincial government having unsuccessfully tendered for a vessel to transfer them to Pencarrow Head.

Finally in September 1858 the local brigantine Caroline was used to transfer the packages. This took a number of days, and once ashore the packages still needed to be hauled up the hillside to the lighthouse site. A tramway with a steam-driven winch was reportedly used to haul up the heavier parts.

Despite these delays, Edward Wright, who was supervising the lighthouse's construction, made good progress. By 20 October 1858 the provincial government was able to advise the general government that the lighthouse would be ready by 1 January 1859 and ask that a notice be issued to mariners. The government agreed to publish the notice amid murmurings that this did not indicate support for the province's actions.

On New Year's Day 1859, almost 20 years after Wakefield had first raised the need for a light, Pencarrow Lighthouse was lit for the first time. Wellington's settlers celebrated not only the facility they had long demanded, but also the opening of the first lighthouse in New Zealand.

The surrounding area

Aside from maintenance to the tower and changes to the light mechanism, the lighthouse itself has hardly changed in 150 years. But there were significant additions to the surrounding area, particularly to address the ‘constant problem' of fog.

In 1898 an audible guncotton fog signal was erected beside the lighthouse. Another New Zealand first, it produced explosions of guncotton at 15-minute intervals whenever the light from the lighthouse was obscured by fog. This system was replaced with a compressed-air diaphone signal in 1927; this gave a blast of three seconds every minute.

In 1906 a second lighthouse, which would become known as Lower Pencarrow, was erected at the bottom of the Pencarrow cliffs. It was designed to be used when fog, or cloud, obscured the upper level light, and also to work with the upper light as a day mark.

In latter years the presence of the fog signal would prove more significant to those living at the lighthouse than the light itself. Its presence ensured an ongoing role for a keeper after a new automated lighthouse at Baring Head became operational in 1935 and Pencarrow was used solely as a day mark.

Keepers and their families lived on land at Pencarrow Head from 1852, before the permanent lighthouse had even been erected. Members of the Bennett family, the first lighthouse keepers, had to put up with ‘temporary' accommodation until they left in the 1860s. It wasn't until 1871 that the government erected new residences for the keepers. These remained largely unchanged until the late 1940s, when they were renovated and bath and wash houses were added. Other structures erected at the station over the years included a schoolhouse, cowshed and store.

When the fog signal was automated in 1959 it took away the need to have staff permanently stationed at Pencarrow. In 1960 the last keeper was transferred from the station and three years later the station buildings, including the keepers' residences, were demolished.

Changing role

As the lighthouse's significance as a navigational aid declined, recognition of its importance as a historic place increased. On 20 February 1959 a plaque was unveiled by the Minister of Marine, W. A. Fox, celebrating the lighthouse's centenary. The plaque had been provided by the recently formed National Historic Places Trust, which had recognised Pencarrow Lighthouse as an historic place under the Historic Places Act 1954.

Mr Blobby

Pencarrow Lighthouse painted as Mr Blobby

In 2001, in the midst of regular painting, someone painted Pencarrow to look like Mr Blobby, a character from the popular UK show Noel’s house party. While the stunt was amusing to locals, the Historic Places Trust was less than impressed, calling it ‘mindless vandalism’.

At the time the land and buildings were owned by the Marine Department (the province having sold the lighthouse to the general government in 1865). It transferred the land and station buildings to the Department of Lands and Survey in 1960, but retained ownership of the lighthouse. In 1966 it decided the lighthouse was no longer required as a navigational aid and it was transferred to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT — now Heritage New Zealand). In 1979 the lighthouse was gazetted as part of an historic reserve of 2044 square metres and NZHPT was appointed to control and manage the reserve.

For a number of years after the building stopped being used as a lighthouse repairs and maintenance had been neglected. Between 1974 and 1980 a significant restoration project was completed by the Ministry of Works and Development, at the request of the NZHPT. Maintenance is now a regular feature of the building's life. For example, in 2008 the roof and corroded rafters were replaced, and the ceiling, wall panels and weather vane were repaired.

NZHPT celebrated the lighthouse's sesquicentenary on 1 January 2009 with a tour led by Helen Beaglehole, author of Lighting the coast: a history of New Zealand's coastal lighthouse system.

How to cite this page

'The lighthouse and its surroundings', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 7-Oct-2014