Historic Cape Brett Lighthouse

Lighthouse, cottage, and settlement ruins, 1906

Map of Cape Brett. View a larger version of the Cape Brett map (65K).
Map of Cape Brett. View a larger version of the Cape Brett map (65K)

Cape Brett is a place of outstanding scenic and historic landscape values. The first thing you see is the iconic lighthouse. This is the only historic lighthouse managed by DOC that still has its internal workings.

The 14-metre high Cape Brett Lighthouse stands at the entrance to the Bay of Islands. In 1906, it was thought the long stretch of the coastline between Cape Van Diemen and Mokohinau Islands, which mark the northern approach to the Waitemata Harbour, needed another lighthouse. The Department of Transport chose Cape Brett as the site for this new manned lighthouse.

An isolated settlement was established at Cape Brett in 1908 that included three identical houses for the lighthouse keepers and their families. Their duties included sending daily weather reports to the Meteorological Office.

For 70 years the lighthouse was staffed. In 1978, a smaller automated light was installed and with this automation came the end of the settlement.

Nearby is the lighthouse keepers cottage operating as a DOC hut so visitors can absorb the full context of the remote life of a light house keeper - a rare example of the two surviving together in the landscape.

With its outstanding scenic views to the outer Bay of Islands, from the ‘hole in the rock’ and beyond, plus an extensive historic landscape (including WWII station remains), Cape Brett has high potential to offer visitors an outstanding cultural experience.

Cape Brett is of particular spiritual and traditional importance to local and Northland Maori.


The lighthouse settlement was established in 1908. The light was the first in New Zealand to have a mercury float light installed. This increased the speed of revolution and allowed a more powerful beam to be shown. After 70 years of continuous operation the lighthouse was decommissioned, a smaller automated light installed, and the settlement was closed.

Most of the reserve was transferred to the Department of Lands and Survey in 1984 and to DOC in 1987. This reserve area contains all features associated with the settlement, and the foundation remains of the WWII radar and signal station. The lighthouse and a small area of land in the reserve is currently managed by the Maritime Safety Authority.

Some of the major events in the history of Cape Brett include:

  • 1908 Marine Department votes to construct light at Cape Brett
  • 1909 Station under construction
  • 1910 Light switched on, Connected telegraph for signalling
  • 1940 Signal Station established (manned by 2 Naval Reserves)
  • 1942 (March) Naval radar station established
  • 1955 (May) Converted to diesel electric operation
  • 1967 Connected to power mains
  • 1978 Fully automated beacon replaced the tower and keepers were withdrawn
  • 2005 (October) DOC takes over management from Maritime Safety Association
  • 2007 (May) Lighthouse receives facelift (a fresh coat of paint care of DOC)

Cape Brett Lighthouse

Cape Brett Lighthouse.
Cape Brett Lighthouse

The Cape Brett Lighthouse was first lit on the 21st of February 1910 under the watchful eyes of Robert McIver (Principal Keeper) and Frances Earnest Lee (Assistant Keeper). The light then proceeded to act as a guide to vessels for the next 68 years until the tower was decommissioned in 1978.

Constructed at an approximate cost of £11,237 3s 5d (approximately $1.77million today) this light was unique in that it was the first light of three in New Zealand to utilize mercury bath technology. This allowed the light to revolve with less resistance at a rate of two flashes every 30 seconds with a visibility of up to 30miles (48km) away.

The more than 100 keepers who looked after the station over its lifetime not only acted as lighthouse keepers but also as postmasters, weathermen, butchers, gardeners, carpenters, painters and as the general fix-it men the majority were also family men. 

Cape Brett Lighthouse Keepers Cottage

Cape Brett Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage.
Cape Brett Lighthouse keeper's cottage

The only remaining house of three identical buildings that formed part of the lighthouse settlement at Cape Brett. It was a simple weather board building of three bedrooms, sitting room, kitchen/living room, etc.

Glazed ceramic chimney pots are an interesting feature, designed to modify the power of prevailing winds. Pieces of these have been retrieved. Internal modification to the house over the last 88 years has included removal of walls, doors and modification of the kitchen.

In 1996 the building was converted into a hut with bunkrooms and a composting toilet. There have been few alterations to the exterior. It is now used by trampers on Cape Brett Walkway.

The house is in a magnificent setting, on the tip of Cape Brett Peninsula at the end of a scenic walkway, and is still associated with the Cape Brett Light.

Fabric significance: A typical lighthouse keepers dwelling of the early 20th century. The only one of its type remaining in Northland. Its ceramic chimney pots are of particular interest.

Historic significance: It’s association with the first lighthouse in New Zealand to install a light revolving in a bath of mercury.

Future management: Remedial work has been completed on this hut and it will be maintained to protect its fabric and minimise deterioration. It has continued use as a trampers hut. An interpretation is being developed to outline the maritime history of the area, and the significance of the lighthouse.


The number of different people and aspects involved in both the construction and day to day running of the station make the history of Cape Brett quite complex. The Department of Conservation is currently in the process of conducting a more indepth investigation into the settlement’s history.

The current focus of the research is in gathering together as many different photos taken at or of the station while it was in operation in order to provide an insight into the changes that occurred at the station. We are also aiming to create a chronology of keepers and buildings and a list of the families, contractors and visitors who were at the station.

Information gathering has so far led us to the National Archives in Wellington and to the many books published on the history of lighthouses in New Zealand. Our aims for the future involve another trip to Wellington for visits to the archives, the Alexander Turnbull library, the City and Sea Museum, the Film Archive and Maritime NZ. An Auckland trip is also planned for the maritime museum and the Auckland branch of the National archives.

Other work DOC is planning in relation to the lighthouse settlement is the clearing of the tramway, some of the structures and other tracks. There are also plans for the clean up of the internal of the lighthouse and the establishment of a community group to aid in the maintenance of the station. A quarterly newsletter and website are hoped for and we would welcome any articles and/or other input from the public.

All archaeological sites are protected under the Historic Places Act 1993. It is an offense to destroy, damage or modify sites without an Authority from the Historic Places Trust. 

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