Digest>Archives> February 2002

A Light in Sparkling Waters: New Zealand’s Bean Rock Lighthouse

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The Bean Rock Lighthouse is removed from its base ...

With over a million residents (about a third of the population of the whole country) in its metropolitan area, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city. The city grew up on a narrow isthmus between two harbors, the Manukau to the west and the Waitemata to the east. “Waitemata” is the native Mäori word for “sparkling waters.” The Waitemata is the area’s principle deep water harbor.

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The Bean Rock Lighthouse after restoration. ...

The harbor was first surveyed in 1840 by Lt. P. Fisher of the HMS Herald, assisted by the master of the vessel, P. C. D. Bean, after whom Bean Rock is named. The Mäori called the rock “Te Toka a Kapetawa,” and legend tells us that a chief named Tara marooned his brother-in-law there.

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Workers prepare for the removal of the Bean Rock ...

A day beacon was placed on the rocks by sometime in the 1840s. In 1867 gold rush fever struck the region and better navigational aids were needed for the approach to the Port of Auckland. Colonial Marine Engineer James Melville Balfour was the Marine Engineer for the Colony of New Zealand, which also made him Superintendent of Lighthouses. Balfour had spent years working with the famous Scottish family of lighthouse builders and engineers, the Stevensons of Edinburgh.

Balfour recommended a principal harbor light to be built on the northern end of Bean Rock, along with a screwpile light on a sandspit in Ponui Passage. In December 1869, three months after making this recommendation, Balfour drowned in a boating accident in Timaru at the age of 38. He had designed a number of lighthouses that were constructed after his death. Balfour is buried at the Dunedin South Cemetery, his grave marked by two stone lighthouses.

The lighthouse at Bean Rock was built by Auckland City Builder William Cameron under the direction of engineer James Stewart. The work at the exposed site was dangerous for the builders, but fortunately there were no mishaps.

Bean Rock Lighthouse is an open framework cottage-style lighthouse built of mostly native timbers. The iron foundation piles, ten inches in diameter, were driven deep into the rock. Wooden posts, radiating in a hexagonal pattern around a central column, rose 30 feet to the base of the cottage. The hexagonal cottage is surrounded by a verandah and has a corrugated iron roof.

A fifth order lens from London and lighting apparatus were installed 50 feet above the water, flashing white, red and green to indicate safe channels. The lighthouse was completed in July 1871 after eight months of work.

The light’s first keeper was Hugh Brown, a former crew member of a harbor pilot boat. Keeper Brown spent 19 years at the lighthouse, retiring in 1890 due to ill health. He had to invent creative ways to survive the isolation and tight living space. For exercise, Brown walked — or jogged — a circular circuit of 35 paces around the verandah.

In 1876 the provincial government was abolished and the Marine Department of New Zealand took over the operation of the lighthouse.

Extensive repairs were made to the structure in 1898-99.

James Anderson served as keeper between 1909 and 1911. It is largely through the memories of his son that we have a vivid picture of life at this unique station. His son, Ivan Anderson, who had a long career for the Marine Department in Auckland, was interviewed by P. W. Shirley in 1974 about the days when his father served at Bean Rock. Following are some of his memories as recorded in a paper by P. W. Shirley, courtesy of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library.

“My father, James Anderson, was stationed at Bean Rock Lighthouse from 1909 to 1911, having been transferred there from Kahurangi Point on the West Coast of the South Island... Then in case of families with children, school age, they had to live ashore, and the men did not take kindly to having to spend every night away out on the beacon. In the case of our family, we were pleased indeed when we got notice of transfer to Manukau South Heads.

“My mother seldom went out to the beacon, but to me it was another world, and I was out with Dad at every possible chance... I used to like to see it come up rough, so I would miss a couple of days school, but Dad would ask some small boat passing if they would give me a trip home.

“Fishing was a special attraction... On calm days Dad would lower the boat, and I was allowed to fish from it while it would be tied on the north side in the deeper water where some good snapper lived.

“A blue heron often came and sat on the lower platform, so Dad put a little shelter shed for it to sleep in, and he called it Charlie... Dad fired a shot at a harrier hawk one day when it tried to attack his blue heron on the lower platform, and it did not come back again.

“There was no telephone and the only signal was the New Zealand ensign hoisted on the flagpole if a launch was urgently needed... Morse code was fairly new, and Dad taught me to signal with the torch. We could see the beacon from our home in Devonport, and I would relay bits of news to him most evenings.

“One afternoon, while in school at Devonport, there was a loud explosion, and when I heard that the powder-hulk had been on fire off Karaka Bay, I wondered how Bean Rock fared. It smashed quite a few panes of glass on the place.

“I was out at the beacon shortly after the steamer Kaipara hit a rock off Narrow Neck, and her cargo of frozen mutton had to be dumped... There were carcasses floating around and sharks nosing at them around the tide mark... Often a lot of flotsam would come out with the tide. Sometimes a dinghy, a crate of cheese, or a box of butter, and a good supply of firewood to take home to Devonport.

“The scows used to unload cattle on Kohimarama Beach to drive to Westfield. One day a young steer panicked and swam out to Bean Rock. Dad tried to lasso it but it took off for North Head, but the poor animal could not make it when the tide turned...

“Father got me out of bed early one morning to see a wonderful sight, Halley’s Comet... There was a good telescope at the Rock and with all the coastal shipping there was usually plenty to see, and a look at Mt. Victoria [signal station] would tell you if any ship was coming in.

“There were very few visitors to the Rock. On one occasion a small boat would come out from Parnell and perhaps have a little party and sing-song, and they were always most welcome...

“In the winter months things were rather lonely. My father’s hobby for such times was shell carving from pearl shell, mussel and Parnell, mostly birds and fish in the form of brooches, and he won a lot of prizes at exhibitions, besides selling a few.

“During gales the wind would howl through the steel rods on the beacon, and the structure would vibrate a bit in extra big gusts, but it would never actually shake. A person had to be most careful using the outside stairway at such times... The dwelling was very drafty in windy weather and windows had to be pegged to stop the clatter.

“Regarding the living quarters on Bean Rock, they could not compare in any respect to the houses provided for lightkeepers on other stations. The accommodation consisted of a fair-sized living room with a table and four chairs, a sofa, and adjoining was a small kitchen, with a coal stove, and pantry shelves, and a small bench with a sink. The toilet was off one corner, but there was no bathroom. The rest of the house was the bedroom off the opposite end of the living room.

“Beside the bed on the wall was a small glass window about two inches square and with a small reflector above. It acted like a periscope, enabling a person to see from his bed if the light was burning all right. I can remember my Dad setting the alarm clock for about three hours each night. Sometimes he would just look in the periscope, but on stormy or foggy nights he would go up the ladder a few times to make doubly sure that all was burning brightly.

“On fine Sundays, the steamer Minerva was usually on a fishing excursion to the crater hole close to the west side of the beacon, and some summer evenings you would hear the band on a ferry moonlight excursion close at hand. In early morning, we would often be treated to a show of dolphins playing around.

“There was quite a lot of maintenance work to be done, everlasting chipping off rust and painting... The keeper did all this work in his own time, according to the weather... A lot of the awkward places, including the house roof, were painted with the paint brush on what was known as a man-help, which was a stick with a hold in the end to put the paint brush handle through. No handy rollers in those days.

“Most times the keeper would go ashore early in the morning, often avoiding the wind. If you were lucky, you would be able to sail home.”

According to interviewer P. W. Shirley, in later years Ivan Anderson “seldom passed old Bean Rock without thinking something about it, happy or otherwise.”

In 1912, not long after James Anderson left Bean Rock, the government converted the light to unattended acetylene gas operation. It was the first lighthouse in New Zealand to be automated, mercifully ending the days of keepers living at the Rock. Administration of the lighthouse was transferred to the Auckland Harbour Board around the same time.

By 1970 there was talk of replacing the lighthouse with a more modern structure. Preservationists objected, but an engineering study showed that the old structure was in poor shape and there were fears that it could collapse in a storm. Some consideration was given to the idea of rebuilding an exact replica of the lighthouse.

In 1985 an extensive renovation took place, thanks to the Auckland Harbour Board and Historic Places Trust. First the cottage was removed by crane, an operation that resulted in some tense moments. A mooring pole snapped when the floating crane strained against it, and one of the crossbeams on which the house was being lifted buckled on the first attempt. When the house was successfully lifted, spectators cheered and boat horns sounded in appreciation.

The house was renovated for five months onshore, while the base’s rotten wooden legs were replaced by Australian hardwood and sunk in new concrete foundations on the rock. Workers found up to 20 coats of paint on a section of the dwelling, illustrating just how well the keepers had done their job. As part of the renovation the dwelling was again painted white, its original color. It had been painted yellow since 1956.

Finally, the cottage was lowered back into place and bolted onto its new legs. The light was converted to solar power, and it continues to operate as an aid to navigation and a very visible link to Auckland’s past.

NOTE (added by the author, Dec. 5, 2006): Research by Anne Stewart Ball, great granddaughter of engineer James Stewart, shows that he was the primary designer of the Bean Rock Lighthouse. Mr. Stewart had been a civil engineer in Scotland and he went to New Zealand in 1859. His title was Inspector of Steamers at the time Bean Rock Lighthouse was built. He also designed Ponui Passage Lighthouse and oversaw the building of the Manukau Heads Lighthouse.

This story appeared in the February 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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