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Lighting the Coast
A history of New Zealand's coastal lighthouse system

Reviewed by Dorothy - 02/02/07

Helen Beaglehole's Lighting the Coast: A history of New Zealand's coastal lighthouse systemis yet another impressive volume from Canterbury University Press.

An impressive depth of research was done to produce such a detailed historical survey of the development and function of New Zealand's lighthouses‚ and the factual material is presented so clearly that it makes for gripping reading. Years of research were spent by the author not only sifting through a vast amount of documentary evidence‚ but also sailing with her husband around the coasts of New Zealand‚ and visiting lighthouse sites by yacht‚ on foot or on her bike. Though she wrote only factual material and did not dramatise it‚ I felt that I was reading maritime history written by someone who felt great respect for the power of the sea – someone who as a sailor had experienced the need to respect the treacherous New Zealand coasts.

This hard-covered volume is also visually impressive. From the front cover with a reproduction of the painting “Lighthouse: Cape Egmont 2002” to the back cover with the photographs of Kaipara North Head Lighthouse and of the author‚ the text and the wide variety of relevant black and white photographs and colour reproductions of paintings are clearly and artistically presented‚ as readers have come to expect of Richard King's work.

Helen Beaglehole's Lighting the Coast: A history of New Zealand's coastal lighthouse system</em>
Helen Beaglehole's Lighting the Coast: A history of New Zealand's coastal lighthouse system

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The Preface makes very interesting reading and gets the reader focussed on the author's view of the topic and its importance in the history and development of New Zealand.

“… If we now tend to imbue lighthouses with romantic notions‚ it is important to remember that the challenge of building and maintaining the isolated stations around the coast was simply one of many urgent pioneering activities as the new colony sought to promote safe maritime navigation.”

Research into keepers' memoirs and early Marine Department annual reports opened up a largely untold story of the siting‚ building and maintaining of up to thirty three coastal manned lighthouse stations and six manned harbour lights. This was the beginning of the in-depth research that led to the publication of this volume. Two fires in buildings in Wellington – in the Parliament Buildings in 2007 and in the Hope Gibbons building in 1952 – resulted in the destruction of valuable records of the history of some lighthouses‚ but others are intact.

The opening chapter “Shipping and the hazards of navigation” emphasises for the reader the dependence of the new colony on shipping when roads were few‚ and small ports‚ some of them very hazardous‚ were opened at almost every harbour and river mouth around the coast. Particularly on the west coasts of both islands the harbour bars were notorious for the dangers experienced in crossing them. From 1867 onwards the Marine Department introduced regulations governing the training of pilots and harbourmasters‚ the surveying and inspection of steamships‚ and the qualifications of masters and engineers. A survey of the coast‚ an updating of the New Zealand Pilot‚ the publication of Notices to Mariners and weather reporting meant the mariners were better informed about the conditions around the coast.

The second chapter‚ “From pyres to Pencarrow” traces the use of lights for navigation from some three thousand years ago to 1859 – during the Egyptian‚ Greek and Roman civilisations and later in Europe as navigation and trade became more important. It puts into chronological perspective famous stories of beacons and lighthouses through that period. There is also a description of the technical developments made by early builders of lighthouses.

Chapter three‚ “‘Let there be light': provincial requests‚ government responses” as the title suggests describes the aims‚ negotiations‚ and frustrations of those who sought to light the coast. These accounts have a strong similarity to the prolonged procedures that delay new developments in New Zealand today. Chapter four‚ “Vested interest to principled argument: locating the lights”‚ tells of the differences in viewpoint between those planning the overall lighting of the New Zealand coast and those looking at the local demands for safer trade in their areas. The location of both lighthouses where the light is manned and of unmanned lights is covered in this chapter.

Chapter five‚ “Securing the land‚ designing and building the lighthouse stations”‚ again covers negotiations‚ this time for the use of the land‚ and the problems involved in building in some incredibly difficult locations – material clarified by clear photos and charts. Chapter six‚ “Technology‚ maintenance and financing the lighthouse system”‚ deals with lighting‚ fog signals‚ radio beacons‚ improvements in design and equipment‚ maintenance and repeated repair work following severe storms – all of which demanded funding obtained from dues paid by shipping companies. These taxes were charged according to the ton register. One factor in deciding the rate was weighing the income from these taxes against the possible discouragement to trading in the area.

”The government steamers‚ their men and their work”‚ is the theme of chapter seven which highlights the essential work in conveying supplies necessary for the functioning of the lighthouses and the survival of the keepers and their families. Extracts from reports and correspondence‚ biographical details and photographs bring alive the people involved in this service‚ men like Captain Fairchild‚ Captain Bollons and Captain Post. Accounts of the work and commissions undertaken by the long serving vessels like Hinemoa and Tutanekai show the wide scope of their work and the unremitting toil of their crews.

'A steady and reliable body of men' was how George Allman‚ as inspector of lighthouses in 1896‚ described the keepers. The material in chapter eight focussing on these men and their families brings to mind many other phrases‚ like courageous‚ inventive‚ enterprising‚ multi-talented‚ self-sufficient‚ resilient‚ involved in unremitting toil. This chapter will be valuable reading for anyone interested in the lives of people living in isolated areas‚ not only men but also women and children.

The closing chapter describes the stages in the gradual process of automating and demanning the lights finally completed in 1991.

In the last paragraph Helen Beaglehole writes:
“Our lighthouses are monuments to New Zealanders' ingenuity and skill‚ to doggedness and determination‚ and to invention and adaptation. Concepts borrowed from one world were developed into unique structures here. They are objects of considerable community pride and national consciousness‚ expressions of our maritime being and our pioneer past; they are tools in our reinvention of our past and in our construction of our present and future. As a country we shall ultimately be the poorer if we do not conserve them.”

Appendix 1 gives a brief history of New Zealand's maritime administration.
Appendix 2‚ A table of lights‚ gives a potted history of each station‚ listing the original light description‚ tower and apparatus‚ houses‚ date first lit‚ cost‚ and subsequent major modifications and history.
Very full notes support the text‚ the bibliography is extensive and is followed by a detailed index.

This book was published with the assistance of the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atiwhai.

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