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Pencarrow Lighthouse and lighthouse keepers residence 1958
Image by Archives New Zealand
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.
The lighthouse remains on Pencarrow Head despite not having operated as a navigational aid for more than four decades. Today it is a popular visitor destination and one of Wellington’s most important historic places.
‘Pencarrow Lighthouse’, URL: www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/pencarrow-lighthouse, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)
Archives New Zealand Reference: ABPL W5221 PHO2 & ABPL W5221 
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Material from Archives New Zealand