Faith and Kevin Wilson, even in their 80s, have lighthouse keeping habits imprinted in them.

Their retirement unit is shipshape and neat as a pin, the jug beginning to boil as soon as I walk through the door.

“We were lighthouse keepers for 16 years – right up to the end,” Kevin says quietly, “bloody great job.”

Faith’s father was principal keeper at Puysegur Point, the remote southwestern-most land in the country, when she was born.

“It was now or never,” she smiled, “my mother was very pregnant when the supply ship, either Wairua or Matai, came in and it was decided that she would sail to Wellington to have me. I was born in Wellington but returned on the next ship and lived at Puysegur until I was two years old.


“In those days, lighthouses were a community – there was a principal keeper and his family, an assistant keeper and his family and a probationary keeper or reliever in another house.”

A handbook: Instructions for Lighthouse Keepers, was first published in 1886 by the Marine Department and was the go-to bible for daily work and interaction.

The first lighthouses were bonfires built on headlands in the UK around 2,000 years ago to guide mariners.

But in Aotearoa New Zealand, well over 1,000 vessels and many lives were lost on the rugged and unlit coastline by 1845. By 1859 the country had its first lighthouse at Pencarrow Head on the approaches to Wellington Harbour.

Living conditions were appalling for the lighthouse keeper George Bennett, his wife Mary and their five children. But after George was drowned in a boating mishap, Mary stayed on for five years before heading home to England. She was Aotearoa New Zealand’s first (and last) female lighthouse keeper.

Lighthouses at the time were lit by colza oil, a derivative of rape, Kevin explained, “the long wicks had to be continually trimmed to burn bright and clear. The lenses, which weighed tons, were turned by clockwork – which had to be wound up regularly.

The lighthouse at North Cape, now automated like all the others.

“They turned in a bath of mercury – the light room at Centre Island used to be awash with it.


“It ran on a brass track and we had jacks to lift it back into place.” By then most lights were using vaporised kerosene – like giant Tilley lamps.

According to the book, keepers were expected to stay up all night to keep a watch on the light and were only allowed hard, straight-backed chairs and no radios which might distract them or send them to sleep.

“Ironically enough, the lights which beam miles across the ocean give barely enough light to read a book by in the light room,” he added.

Signal flags or morse code were used to make contact with ships and, when radio was introduced in the 20th Century, regular weather reports were dispatched to the Meteorological Service.

A painting and pencil drawing by the Wilsons of the lighthouse at Centre Island. Centre Island lies in Foveaux Strait between Stewart Island and Riverton.

Kevin started as a keeper of the light at Centre Island in Foveaux Strait in 1959. Lighthouse families were rotated every two years so they got to experience life on remote and bleak stations, as well as the more popular mainland postings. Kevin and Faith did a three-week stint training at Castlepoint and three months at Cape Egmont.

Their first two-year engagement was at Stephens Island in Cook Strait. “It was great,” Faith recalled. “We all got on very well. We’d get together on Saturday evenings – the wives would cook and bake all day and we’d have more food than we could eat.


“At certain times of the year, thousands of fairy prions nested on the island to mate, the noise was deafening and any washing you put on the line got speckled with prion poo.”

On one occasion a tuatara was put in a workmate’s bed. “He yelled like hell when he leaped into bed and found a bloody great lizard there…”

While at Stephens Island, Faith travelled by boat to Nelson to give birth to their son Brian. “It was pretty rough when I came to go home – I was on the Belfast with skipper Terry Elkington. I managed to scramble ashore but left Brian on board in his carry-cot. Terry yelled, “Bugger this, it’s too rough – I’m going back to town.” I said, “You can’t – you’ve got my baby aboard and I’m feeding him.” Terry brought the boat back into the landing rock one more time, ran out of the wheelhouse with the carrycot and threw it to Kevin. Superb seaman.

“Then I had to walk 200m straight uphill to the house – boy, was I glad to get home.”

Next the couple moved to Centre Island for two years. “We were unpacking our gear and I looked around and thought, ‘What the hell are we doing here,’” Kevin said. “We could hear the trains at Riverton – it used to make us homesick.”

The posting entailed new responsibilities; two Lister 51 generators to tend and maintain. “It was a busy place – we didn’t have to stay up all night but there were alarms in all the houses that went off if the light stopped or there was anything was wrong with the Listers.”

The generators had 20-litre day-tanks which had to be pumped full of fuel on a regular basis.

It also had about 200 head of wild free-range sheep, but it was obvious that they needed a good clipping. “I’d never shorn a sheep in my life,” Kevin smiled, “so I wrote to the Wool Board and got a Godfrey Bowen poster: How to Shear a Sheep, stuck it on the wall and taught myself.”

Bean Rock lighthouse was the first to be de-manned. Photo: Lesley Stone

Also grazing on the island’s meagre tussock cover were 10 steers and ‘Thousands of Hamburgers’, the bull. A horse called Dolly was employed to pull sleds of supplies up from the landing. “I didn’t really need her – we had the tractor – but I just liked working with her.”

The Fordson tractor was part of the Centre Island equipment, so what did the former Taranaki farm boy do? “Thought I’d have a go at building a landing strip.”

Supplies were often a problem for months on end when inclement weather prevented supply boats from landing at the island. “They’d get halfway from Bluff then call to say it was too rough and they were turning back.”

“But the landing strip was the worst thing I could have done,” he shook his head ruefully. “All the office wallahs who didn’t like surfboat landings suddenly started flying in to see what we were up to. Then they got a bigger plane and wanted the runway extended.”

The lighthouse at Puysegur Point today.

Kevin also built a landing shed, but it was blown away in a Foveaux Strait storm. “It could blow down there,” he recalled. The supply ship, Matai, called every three months or so and often brought a district nurse to check on how the lighthouse keepers and their families were faring, but when Faith was eight-and-ahalf months pregnant with their daughter Kathleen, Kevin rowed her out and she clambered up the ship’s side on a rope ladder.

The family’s next posting was Godley Head, at the entrance of Lyttelton Harbour. A mainland light where Faith learned to drive, the older children could attend school and a Hoover twintub washing machine became her first laundry machine.

“But they didn’t like us using the generators for domestic jobs,” she said.

But the writing was on the wall for the lighthouse keepers. The first lights had been automated – Bean Rock in the Hauraki Gulf was first to lose its keeper in 1912.

In 1965 Tiritiri Matangi light was fitted with a xenon lamp. It shone at 11 million candlepower, making it one of the world’s most powerful lights with a range of up to 58nm.

Technology was on its way to threaten the lighthouse keeping lifestyle. One by one, lighthouses were de-manned. Lighthouse keepers pointed out the folly of not having anyone ashore to succour distressed seafarers or provide regular weather reports.

“We were like one big family – sharing the same experiences,” Faith said.

Lighthouses around the coast are now fully automated.

But ships at sea were also equipped with radar and safety gear, then later with Satnav and GPS receivers and weren’t so reliant on the reliability of lighthouses.

The last lighthouse keeper was withdrawn from the Brothers Islands in 1999 – making Aotearoa New Zealand the first country in the world to have a fully automated light network around its coast.

Maritime New Zealand owns all the lighthouses outside harbour limits (others are the responsibility of local body organisations).

They’re switched on and off by photovoltaic sensors and electronically-monitored from MNZ headquarters in Wellington.

Kevin and Faith Wilson went on to own several small businesses but recall their lighthouse years and colleagues with fondness: “Great people – special – we’ve stayed friends with a lot of them. Just one big family.” BNZ