Pencarrow Lighthouse

New Zealand’s first lighthouse remains on Pencarrow Head despite not having been illuminated since 1935 when it was replaced by Baring Head Lighthouse. Today it is a popular visitor destination and one of Wellington’s most important historic places.

Pencarrow lighthouse in 1958

Pencarrow lighthouse in 1958. Photo: Archives NZ on Flickr

Location: 41.358845° South, 174.850110° East
Elevation: 108 metres above sea level
Construction: Cast iron tower
Tower height: 11.5 metres
Date first lit: 1 January 1859
Decommissioned: 1935

From Archives NZ:

The Pencarrow lighthouse was the first permanent lighthouse to be built in New Zealand and began its official operations on the 1 January 1859, with Mary Jane Bennett as its lighthouse keeper. It beamed its cautionary message for 76 years until it was replaced by an automated light at Baring Head to the east.

In 1852 George Bennett began what was to become a family tradition of lighthouse-keeping at Pencarrow. His wife, Mary Bennett, took on the role after his death in 1855, while their youngest son, William Bennett, was an assistant keeper during the 1880s.

George was one of Wellington’s first settlers, arriving from England on board the New Zealand Company ship Cuba on 3 January 1840. His future wife, Mary Jane Hebden, arrived just over a month later on board the Duke of Roxburgh. They married in November that year. By the time George became lighthouse keeper at Pencarrow in early 1852, he and Mary had five children. The living conditions they encountered were appalling. In a letter to the Colonial Secretary in August 1852, George complained that the house was ‘neither wind or water proof’. Later that year the Bennetts’ two-and-a-half year old daughter Eliza died. Her death can probably be attributed to their poor living conditions.

The family suffered another blow in June 1855 when George was killed in a boating accident. He and others were thrown out of the pilot’s boat when crossing Barrett Reef in bad weather. While the others swam to safety, George clung to a rock and was washed away.

Mary stayed on at Pencarrow and took over manning the light. She probably had little alternative. At the time of George’s death she had five children and was pregnant with another. It would have been difficult for her to find another position, and widows’ pensions were not introduced until 1911.

Mary Bennett remains the only woman to have been a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. Mary returned to England with her children in 1865.

However in 1871 the Bennetts’ three sons returned to New Zealand. William, the youngest, joined the lighthouse service in 1880 and was appointed an assistant keeper at Pencarrow. He and his family lived there until 1885, when he was transferred to Portland Island, Mahia. He left the service two years later.

Crew from the government ship Tutanekai landing stores at Pencarrow lighthouse, 16 Feb 1923

Crew from the government ship Tutanekai landing stores at Pencarrow lighthouse, 16 Feb 1923. National Library of NZ

Pencarrow lightkeeper's house in 1958

Pencarrow lightkeeper’s house in 1958. Photo: Archives NZ on Flickr

The original 1858 lighthouse on top of Pencarrow Head was sometimes obscured by fog, so a lower light was added in 1908.

The original 1858 lighthouse on top of Pencarrow Head was sometimes obscured by fog, so a lower light was added in 1906. Photo: Chris Wall on Flickr