Grant Sheehan’s children’s book Ivan and the Lighthouse is one of 700 titles in the museum’s Bill Laxon Library. It’s loosely based on the childhood capers of Ivan Anderson, who served under Captain John Bollons in the government steamer Hinemoa from 1917. The action in Sheehan’s sweet story takes place on Bean Rock lighthouse in Waitematā Harbour, where Ivan’s father was the keeper.

By Frances Walsh | 20 December 2022

In 1909, when a network of 27 lighthouses dotted the coast of Aotearoa, James Anderson moved his family from Kahurangi Point on the West Coast of the South Island to Auckland. It was at the instigation of the Marine Department. Anderson was in the militarily run lighthouse service which usually rotated keepers every two years—this way they all took their turn on the more isolated and bleak stations. The department may have worried that too much time spent at posts like Kahurangi Point might send a person feral; its 1866 publication Instructions to Lighthouse Keepers stated that keepers were expected to be ‘sober and industrious, cleanly in their persons and habits and orderly in their families. Any flagrant immorality will subject them to immediate dismissal.’

James had been transferred to the one-man station at Bean Rock. The cottage-style, wave-swept wooden lighthouse was neither isolated nor bleak, standing as it did and still does at the end of a reef in Waitematā Harbour within cooee of Auckland city at latitude 36°50’S, longitude 174°50’E. But neither was it a desirable posting. Living quarters were in the lighthouse itself, and comprised a snug living room, bedroom, toilet, and kitchen with a coal stove. Floors were covered in brown linoleum but the dwelling was draughty, and the windows were pegged to stop the incessant clatter of the wind howling through the steel rods on the beacon above. Edith Anderson lived in the nearby suburb of Devonport with her children, while James spent every night away on the job. Weather permitting, during weekdays he pulled ashore in the morning to Devonport on the 12-foot clinker-built boat Marjorie, and left for Bean Rock later in the day, at about 2pm. When the weather was bad, he’d have the Harbour Board pilot launch Ferro tow him back to this post. Sometimes, during an equinox gale he was forced to hole up on Bean Rock for a week or so.

Ivan was captivated by his father’s worksite. In 1974 he was interviewed by Paul W. Shirley, for a history of Bean Rock lighthouse. ‘In the case of our family, the youngest was only three and 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,’ Ivan told Shirley. On Fridays, his father would wait till school got out and row Ivan out to the rock. Come Sunday afternoon, remembered Ivan, ‘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 could give a trip home.’

During the long summer holidays Ivan stuck fast to his father. He fished—from Marjorie which his father lowered into the water from davits—or off the station’s lower platform, where his father had built a shelter for a heron called Charlie who regularly visited. His father once shot at a harrier hawk which had gone for Charlie. Pigeons sometimes landed on the lighthouse, after losing their bearings during delivery missions or races. James managed to return them to their owners, if he could read their leg bands. Periodically larks, thrushes, starlings, and kingfishers flew into the windowpanes in the dark, and after rallying flew away at first light. Very few humans came calling; one exception was Sam Paul, tobacconist of Auckland’s Queen Street. He would turn up on the weekends to fish.

Sunrises and sunsets were spectacular. One morning in 1910 James woke Ivan to see Halley’s Comet. At dawn father and son would sometimes watch dolphins cavorting. Some evenings they listened to the band playing on a passing ferry, as it took dancing and laughing passengers on excursions round the harbour.

All manner of things washed up on Bean Rock. A dinghy, a crate of cheese, a box of butter. Ivan was overnighting at the lighthouse when the steamer Kaipara hit uncharted rocks in the harbour in January 1910, with a cargo of frozen mutton. Sharks nosed around the floating carcasses. On another occasion a steer panicked when being loaded onto a scow on Kohimarama Beach, and struck out for Bean Rock. James tried to lasso it but it swam away, and drowned.

Comms on Bean Rock were limited. There was a telescope but no telephone. If James needed a launch urgently he would hoist the New Zealand ensign on a flagpole. He taught Ivan how to signal with a torch in Morse code. On school nights in Devonport Ivan would flash news to his father.

Every four months the government steamers Hinemoa or Stella arrived at Bean Rock with cases of kerosene to fuel the light, coal for the stove, and paint and equipment for maintenance work. The captains of the ships also acted as lighthouse inspectors, and would conduct an official visit once a year. They probably checked the brass door knobs, which the Instructions to Lighthouse Keepers decreed must shine. Other diktats from the Marine Department? ‘Keepers must pay for excessive use of coal. Interior of houses will be painted French Grey. Chair legs must not be cut down. This is an improper practice and must be discontinued.’

Ivan noted that the winter months were rather lonely for his father. James had his diversions. He read many books on flora and fauna. He carved mussel and paua shells, making brooches in the shape of birds and fish. He sold a few, and won prizes for others at local exhibitions. Other keepers in the lighthouse service made model boats, fancy rope-mats, or cabinetry.

Bean Rock lighthouse became the first lighthouse in New Zealand to be demanned and automated in 1912; in 1990 all lighthouses became remotely monitored in Wellington by Maritime New Zealand. But the Andersons had vamoosed before the axe fell on Bean Rock—transferring to the lighthouse at Manukau Heads in 1911. Ivan was to tell Paul Shirley decades later in the 1970s that the family ‘were pleased indeed’ to leave. The difficulties of the living arrangements aside, the family had had a sad two-year stint in Devonport on Bean Rock: 7-year-old Rosslyn Anderson and 16-year-old Dorothy Anderson had both died.

By 1917 the Anderson family had upped sticks again, and were installed in a house overlooking Te Ara a Kiwa Foveaux Strait while James operated the beacon at nearby Waipapa Point. The location may have caused some initial trepidation. A previous keeper, William Nicholson, had taken his own life, the Southern Cross reporting in 1903 that 'The deceased, who was highly esteemed, had been engaged for many years in the service, and the comparative isolation had told on his nervous system, and lately he had suffered severely from sleeplessness.’

It was while living at Waipapa Point that the teenage Ivan had another brush with tragedy, making the Bruce Herald in April 1917. He found a barnacle-encrusted bottle on the beach. Inside was an envelope on which was written: ‘Thrown overboard at 9.30am, Friday, August 25, 1916. Message enclosed. ‘Everybody’s happy.’ On opening the envelope Ivan read the following message: ‘NZ Expeditionary Force, August 25, 1916. At Sea, Troopship 61. To the finder of this message: Please communicate with Australian and NZ [news]papers: All well on board; good weather; plenty of good tucker. Left Wellington, New Zealand on August 20. No sight of land yet . . . Kia ora. H.A. Aldridge, G. Haslett, N. Vercoe, M. Henderson, Harry Hammerill, Geo. Wahlstrom, W. Rankin, T. Ernest, D. Clemo, F. Dotter, H. Aldridge (all Aucklanders).’

Troopship 61 was Aparima. It had left Wellington eight months before Ivan’s lucky find, and was probably in Australian waters when the crew hurled their cheery communique overboard. Only months after the Bruce Herald write up Germans torpedoed the ship in the English Channel killing 54 of the 110-strong crew.

Ivan joined SS Hinemoa and Captain John Bollons in 1917 as a boy seaman, and kick-started a 40-year career with the Marine Department. He subsequently served in another government steamship Tutanekai. For a time he was in charge of the launches servicing staffed and unstaffed lighthouses around the Hauraki Gulf and Te Tai Tokerau—by the late 1950s all the main lights in New Zealand had been electrified; by the 1970s only six lighthouses had full-time residential staff.

When looking back on his life in 1971, then a retired fisheries officer living in Russell, Ivan wrote: ‘For many years now, keepers had no need to keep watches in any of our lighthouse towers, and to go into a tower at night with no noise of machinery, hiss of the incandescent light, and no familiar tea-billy hanging above the table-lamp to keep tea warm. To me, there is a lot missing in the atmosphere, and instead of homeliness, there is a chill of loneliness. Once again the march of progress, but to our family and especially myself, they were happy times, spent in what were once outlandish places and to many, considered very lonely.’ Ivan also noted he had picked up a familial habit: ‘My father was always a keen naturalist in his own way, and also keen on Maori history and a collector of artifacts. I followed in his wake . . . and have a good collection of Maori curios from the full length of New Zealand.’



“A Lighthouse Keeper’s Death”, The Southern Cross, 19 Sept 1903, 5

Anderson, Ivan. “Life in Lighthouses”, Nelson Historical Society Journal, vol 2, issue 6, April 1973

“General News”, The Southern Cross, 12 Sept 1903, 8

“Clutha News Items’, Bruce Herald, 16 April, 4

“History of New Zealand lighthouses and their keepers”, Maritime New Zealand. Retrieved 8 Nov 2022:

“Personal”, Manawatu Standard, 23 June 1928, 9

Shirley, Paul W. “Guardian of the Waitemata Harbour: A History of the Bean Rock Lighthouse”, c. 1977. Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum, MS-991

Sheehan, Grant. Ivan and the Lighthouse. Illustrated by Rosalind Clark. Phantom House Books, 2016

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