Maritime History

At a time when steam was replacing sail power, the Tiritiri Matangi lighthouse was erected to help boats navigate into the bustling port town of Auckland, whose population had swelled to 12,500 residents.

Early Occupation

At the time, the Tiritiri Matangi light was the brightest light in the southern hemisphere, visible 80 kilometres out to sea, and mariners in the Hauraki Gulf complained of its effect on night vision. In 1984, with the advent of improved shipboard navigational aids, the light was reduced to 1.6 million candlepower, automated and de-manned.

The last lighthouse keeper, Ray Walter, remained on the island as a Department of Conservation ranger from 1984 until he retired in 2006. Today solar panels and batteries supply electricity to a 1.2 million candlepower LED light, with a diesel generator backup.

To help guide ships into the harbour, the Government ordered a prefabricated lighthouse from England in 1863. The 75-tonne lighthouse came in 279 packages and 3 cases, that were hauled up the hill with the help of twelve bullocks. 

The third lighthouse of its kind in New Zealand, and painted dark red, it was fitted with a million candlepower oil lamp that was first lit in 1865. Powered by colza oil, paraffin, acetylene, electricity from diesel generation, a cable link to the national grid and now solar power, the lighthouse has been exposed to a number of shifting technologies throughout its 140 year old history. 

In 1965 an 11 million candlepower bulb was installed, much to the disgruntlement of North Shore residents who were kept awake by its powerful beam.

The lighthouse has changed radically since 1965 - it no longer contains the mechanisms that turned the small electric lights, and the eight beams of light no longer rotate. Tiritiri is currently the oldest operating lighthouse in New Zealand.

Sound-alarms - foghorns

The lighthouse was part of a suite of maritime apparatus used to communicate with ships coming into the harbour. Following the installation of the lighthouse, a foghorn had been used to warn ships that they were approaching land.

The first foghorn on Tiritiri Matangi was brought from Jack’s Point in Timaru. Erected in 1918, the foghorn set off percussive cartridges. It was later replaced by a diaphonic foghorn, that according to an occupant on the island in the 1960s complained that it resembled the moan of a ‘sick cow’. 

The last of the foghorns was an electronic device that was installed in 1983, however this ear-splitting warning device was eventually switched off due to malfunctioning equipment. The lighthouse keeper at the time, Ray Walter, complained that the foghorn would randomly turn itself off and on – disrupting sleep and sanity – so the Ministry of Works gave him permission to silence it. 

Signal Mast

Signal flags were used internationally by ships at sea to relay short messages to those onshore. 

Typically the ships would indicate via a series of flags whether a pilot ship was required, though sometimes they would contain a plea for help or assistance entering the harbour if the boat had been in a collision. 

The signal mast was another piece of maritime apparatus to be placed on the island. Prior to the installation of phone lines in 1928 large signal baskets were used to relay messages to the mainland.

From 1912 until 1947, it was compulsory for all vessels arriving into Auckland to take on a pilot to guide them into port. In 1947 the signal tower was closed, after this technology was replaced by radio.  

Lighthouse families and signalmen

In the 1860s, a new breed of lighthouse keepers were required to man the lighthouses that were being erected throughout the country. 

Those entering the lighthouse service had strict requirements to meet. They needed to:

  • be men
  • be aged between 21 and 31
  • have a good character
  • hold a certificate from school stating their ability to read, write and have a “fair” knowledge of arithmetic.

There was only ever one woman lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, at Pencarrow Head lighthouse station, near Wellington. Although single men could apply for positions as relieving keepers, they needed to be married before being appointed to a permanent station.

The lighthouse keepers’ duties included trimming the wick of the oil lamp, polishing the lenses, and winding up the revolving mechanisms on rotating lighthouses every hour or two, to keep the light turning.

Every two years lighthouse keepers were rotated around the lighthouse stations. This way the keepers all had their turn on the more isolated stations as well as on the more popular ones.

Lighthouse keeper families were typically ex-Navy, and this strict hierarchy was carried through into island life. The families of the signalmen and lighthouse keepers met on special occasions and formal attire was required. 

On the island, self-sufficiency was paramount. Typically families would keep a small menagerie of sheep, pigs, ducks, hens and cows. To supplement the families’ supplies of tinned and salted meats, the families would venture out onto the Hauraki Gulf to fish. 

Trips to the mainland were rare. It was only after 360 consecutive days of working that keepers were allowed 32 days respite, during which time, a reliever keeper replaced them. 

Unfortunately, often the family would wind up contracting the flu while on the mainland, as they had a weak immunity to the common flu strains circulating in the community.