There are more than 18,600 lighthouses worldwide and Aotearoa New Zealand boasts nearly two dozen. Maritime Museum volunteer, Bob Bicker, also donates his time on Tiritiri Matangi. Below, he dives into the history of this fascinating nautical landmark. The restoration of Tiritiri Matangi’s lighthouse and museum has been driven by Ray Walter, Tiritiri Matangi’s last keeper, together with a few dedicated volunteers without whom the island’s history as an aid to New Zealand mariners could have been lost.

By Bob Bicker, NZMM & Tiritiri Matangi Volunteer | 3 February 2023

Lighthouses are nothing new. The Tower of Hercules in Spain is the oldest operating lighthouse in the world, dating to the late 1st century AD.

Around a 100 years ago, with the increase in ships coming into the Waitematā Harbour, the dangers of the rocky shore were becoming apparent. The government decided that Tiritiri Matangi was the best place to build a lighthouse.

Tiritri Matangi Lighthouse

Tiritiri Matangi was the third lighthouse to be built in New Zealand and is the oldest still in operation. It was also the first lighthouse to be built by the government, and the first in New Zealand to be completely re-painted inside. (All others were touched-up when rusty spots became visible).

Some key stats:

  • Elevation: 91 metres above sea level
  • Construction: cast iron tower
  • Tower height: 21 metres
  • Light configuration: 24 volt flashing LED beacon
  • Light flash character: white light flashing once every 15 seconds
  • Power source: batteries charged by solar panels
  • Range: 18 nautical miles (33 kilometres)
  • Date light first lit: January 1st 1865 when Auckland’s population was only 12,500
  • Automated: 1984


Constructing the lighthouse was difficult, costing £5,747 (about $753,700 in today's currency). It took four back-breaking months to dig down through three metres of thick, boggy, clay-like mud to reach ground that was hard enough to build on. Building materials for the lighthouse were shipped to the island and then carted in sledges by bullocks over the slippery banks to reach the construction site. Despite the challenges of construction, the original tower is still standing. Tiritiri Matangi's tower was eventually painted white in 1950 - many thought the colour choice was to reduce heat. The real reason, however, was that white paint cost less.


Roughly $500,000 is spent annually to maintain the ageing lighthouse structures. Many components hold historic classification but are built from cast iron and subject to rapid rusting in the harsh coastal environment. Ship owners pay for lighthouse upkeep via a maritime safety charge each time they pass. When the lighthouse opened on 1 January 1865, a wick lamp fuelled by whale oil provided power. In 1925, the lighthouse was fitted with an acetylene-burning fixed light. By 1955, the lighthouse was fitted with a bulb powered by a diesel generator and, in 1956, Sir Ernest Davis donated an 11 million-candlepower xenon lamp. The eight beams flashed every 15 seconds, which made the lighthouse the most powerful in the southern hemisphere.

In 1967, an underwater cable was laid, linking Tiritiri Matangi to the national power grid and in April 1984, the Tiritiri Matangi light was replaced by a smaller, less powerful quartz iodine lamp. In 1986, the power cable was broken and now the lighthouse uses solar power to produce a 300,000-candlepower beam.

How did old lighthouses rotate the lens?

Before the introduction of electricity, some lighthouses had a clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens, similar to how an upright grandfather clock is wound (only a much bigger, of course). The mechanism consisted of a large weight attached by a cable through the center of the lighthouse to the top where the cable wrapped around a barrel or drum

In the 1890s, some keepers began floating their lenses in liquid mercury. The metal spun more easily in mercury, helping the light to rotate and keeping it level, requiring less frequent winding.

Lenses were ground by many methods. As automation was in its infancy, one method employed was to attach a grinding wheel to a horse, (sometimes called a ‘gin’), the same method used for griding corn. The gantry on display at Tiritir Matangi was found in Pureora Forest northwest of Lake Taupo!

Signal station

The Tiritiri Matangi signal station is separate separate from the lighthouse. The station communicated with shipping, initially using signal flags and later by radio. Flags were flown from a tall white mast just south of the lighthouse (soon to be re-instated).
To get messages to Auckland, which was not in line of view, large wicker baskets were put up the mast to signal Mt Victoria, which had a line of sight to the port.

The present signal tower was built in 1908 and may have been only one storey initially but was raised up to two storeys around 1913. It has been restored and is often open for visitors. It is still used today for weather service.

Lighthouse Timeline

  • 1841: NZ Government assumes ownership of Tiritiri Matangi as a lighthouse reserve
  • 1864: Lighthouse and two keepers’ cottages built
  • 1865: Lighthouse first illuminated on 1 January 1865, burning colza (canola) oil
  • 1879: Lighthouse converted to paraffin oil
  • 1898: ‘Morse House’ built. Telegraphic line to Waiwera installed.
  • 1912: Signal station built or modified for Auckland Harbour Board (AHB). Two signalmen and two keepers in residence
  • 1912: Chief Signalman’s (Principal Keeper’s) house built and ‘The Fourth House’ brought from Grey’s Ave Auckland.
  • 1916: Light converted to incandescent kerosene burner 
  • 1918: Present two keepers’ houses built and Slaughter’s Gun Cotton Fog Signal installed.
  • 1925: Lighthouse automated with a flashing acetylene light. Island under AHB administration – three signalmen. Keepers withdrawn.
  • 1935: Diaphonic foghorn and radio beacon (navigational aid) installed
  • 1939: Royal NZ Naval Reservists arrive
  • 1940: Port War Signal Station (PWSS) built near lighthouse
  • 1941: Army Fortress Observation Post (FOP) built
  • 1942: PWSS building moved to centre of island
  • 1945: AHB returns after the War (three signalmen)
  • 1947: AHB closes signal station. Lighthouse keepers return. Tower painted white
  • 1950s: Workshop and engine shed built for three 10/2 Lister diesel generators
  • 1955: Diesel generator installed. Electricity powers the light.
  • 1954–c1970: Fred Ladd and Bruce Packer operate Tourist Air Travel Ltd
  • c1955: Principal Keeper’s house demolished
  • 1957: Radio beacon deactivated
  • 1962: Lenses on lighthouse adjusted, making existing light brighter
  • 1963: Relieving keepers’ quarters (‘The Bach’) built.
  • 1965: Davis Marine Light (11 million candlepower (cp) illuminated
  • 1967: Underwater cable from Whangaparaoa to Hobbs Beach installed
  • 1975: Lighthouse staff reduced to one keeper
  • 1984: Light automated with quartz iodine light (1.6 million cp) and electronic foghorn installed
  • 1984: Last keeper (Ray Walter) withdrawn
  • 1989: Mains power lost when cable fails for third time; light reverts to diesel generator
  • 1990: Lighthouse solar-powered, automated and de-manned
  • 1991: New generator installed. Power part solar, part diesel. Light 300,000 cp
  • 1995: Lighthouse closed to public
  • 1998: New wharf built
  • 2002: Lighthouse boosted to 1.2 million

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