Lighthouses and the story of the only female lighthouse keeper

Do you happen to know what Rozewie, Pharos and Pencarrow in New Zealand have in common? Well, in each of these places you will find wonderful lighthouses.

Each lighthouse is a light navigation sign in the form of a characteristic tower located on the seashore or in water. Lighthouses existed even in ancient times. In the past, fire was also lit on rocks or raised on a crane. The first description of columns on which fire was lit comes from the year 400 B.C. The most famous lighthouse was that on Pharos island. It was built about 280-279 B.C. on the basis of the designs made by an architect called Sostratos at the behest of Ptolemy I. It seems possible that the original concept of the lighthouse came from Alexander the Great himself. It has been recognised as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World for greatness and magnificence of its architectural design.

In Poland the use of a lit fire on a seashore to warn ships (The Volcano Pot) was first mentioned about the year 1070. Originally, objects that already existed were often used as lighthouses. In Hel, for example, fire was lit at the top of a church tower. The person responsible for a lighthouse was called the lighthouse keeper.

Our sailor – Zbigniew Gutkowski – is to be met  in Wellington harbour by the first permanent lighthouse in New Zealand – Pencarrow Lighthouse. It was built in 1859, after many years of endeavour by the first European settlers, who wanted to guarantee a safe entrance into the harbour. It was not only the construction of the lighthouse in an isolated place, constantly washed by huge sea waves, that caused difficulties. The life of lighthouse keepers and their families was not an easy one either. The story of the first female lighthouse keeper in New Zealand – Mary Bennet, seems to be particularly interesting in this context.

Mary’s husband – George Bennett was one of the first settlers to arrive in New Zealand on board the ship Cuba. In 1852 he was appointed the first light house fire keeper in Pencarrow. The living conditions of the Bennett family were very harsh. In his letter of complaint to the authorities of the colony of August 1852 George wrote that his lighthouse was in a very bad condition and it was succumbing increasingly to the strong winds and waves.

George Bennett died a tragic death at sea in 1855.

Mary remained in Pencarrow and took over her late husband’s duties. Her situation was not an easy one – she was left alone with five children and a sixth on the way. Despite the difficulties, she endured the hardships of everyday life and took on the responsible job of a lighthouse keeper.
Mary Bennett still remains the only woman to have been a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand.