Lighthouses illuminated, J H Sutherland

Leading Lights: Lighthouses of New Zealand
Anna Gibbons, photographs by Grant Sheehan,
Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1991, $44.95

Just after Easter 1990, the keepers were withdrawn from The Brothers Lighthouse in Cook Strait, the last New Zealand light to be de-manned and the New Zealand Light Service was turned over to the computers and the maintenance gang. Until then, from the early 1850s when Mr and Mrs Bennett maintained a light shining from a bay window at Pencarrow Head, some hundreds of keepers kept vigil from lighthouses around the New Zealand coastline. This has not been well documented in published works – perhaps fifteen, if you scrape the bottom of the barrel. All have some limitations.

This delightful book is therefore welcomed. It does not attempt to be comprehensive or overly technical. Anna Gibbons, the author, aims to show what it was really like to live and work on lighthouse stations, and Grant Sheehan, the photographer, focuses on the environment of the lighthouses. Author and photographer have concentrated on thirty of the forty-two which have had resident keepers at some stage in their history.

To explore the lives of the men, women and children who made lighthouses their home, Anna Gibbons has used archival material quite extensively, but with discretion and tact. She dips into logs, Principal Keepers’ monthly reports, Marine Department annual reports, and the private papers of several families. The careful listing of these sources in the bibliography will be appreciated by others working in the field and using her work to gain an overview of the task. The index is simple and straightforward.

The author lays to rest many misconceptions on the nature of lighthouse life. It is not often a wave-battered existence of high drama, but typically one of rigidly structured routine. Inevitably, perhaps, she gives some emphasis to the exceptions – the day, when the ship was wrecked, the children fell over the cliff, or a crazy prospector burned the tower down. She does, however, make it clear that these events are rare.

The preface states that Grant Sheehan spent over seven years on the colour photography. He has succeeded in capturing the changing moods of sea and sky, and the individuality of the towers and other buildings in their own settings, so that text and photographs combine harmoniously to achieve the aim ‘to open windows onto the lighthouse service’. This is the best book yet produced on New Zealand lighthouses.


J H Sutherland is a retired librarian, ex-lightkeeper and co-author of a short lighthouse biography ‘Green and Golden Island’, which he is now expanding to a life and times of its subject, E D N Miller. He lives in Waihou.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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