Mary Bennett


Until 1855, and after 1865, Mary Jane Bennett did very much what was expected of a woman in the 19th century – she was a dedicated wife and mother. But following her husband's death in June 1855 she took on his role as lighthouse keeper at Pencarrow.

When the existing light was replaced with New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse in 1859 she was officially appointed as its first keeper. She held the position for five years before returning home to England. She remains the only woman to have been a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand.

Mary Jane Hebden arrived in New Zealand in February 1840, just one month after her future husband, George Bennett. According to a family history, The Bennetts of Pencarrow, the pair emigrated because of ‘parental opposition' to the match. They married on 20 November 1840 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Wellington. In the decade that followed George held a number of jobs, including as licensee for one of the city's first pubs, the Durham Arms.

In early 1852 he took up a position as lighthouse keeper at Pencarrow and moved there with Mary and their five children. The living conditions they encountered were appalling. Yet despite unanswered complaints, and the death of their daughter, Eliza, during their first year, they did not leave. Even after George was killed in a boating accident in June 1855 Mary stayed on at Pencarrow and took over operating the light. But with five children, and another on the way, she probably had little alternative.

Four years later, when the existing light was replaced with New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse, the authorities, apparently pleased with her work, appointed her as its first keeper. Despite the initial protestations of her male assistant, William Lyall, she remained in this position for approximately five years.

In 1865 she returned to England with her children, purportedly for the sake of their education. Her three sons returned to New Zealand in 1871, and the youngest, William, eventually became an assistant keeper at Pencarrow. Mary herself never returned to New Zealand. She died in England on 6 July 1885.

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Posted: 28 Oct 2020

Kia ora NZHistory - could you please update your gendered language as it's deeply ironic considering she was NZ's first female lighthouse keeper: from 'took over manning the light' to 'took over operating the light'. Ngā mihi nui