The Matiu/Somes Island lighthouse was the first inner harbour lighthouse in New Zealand.
Lighting Wellington harbour
After several safety incidents at the entrance of Wellington harbour, the Wellington provincial council built New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse at Pencarrow in 1859. Before too long it became clear that there was a need for another navigational aid within the harbour itself.
The lighthouse at Somes Island (re-named after Joseph Somes, the Deputy Governor of the New Zealand Company) was erected in 1865 along with a 6-room lighthouse keeper’s house. The lighthouse was a 14-foot cast iron tower that had been imported from England. The light entered service on 17 February 1866, burning colza (rapeseed) oil and shining a white light down the centre of the channel and a red or green light at either side.
A new lighthouse
By 1895, there were calls for a stronger light on Somes Island that could be seen further out to sea. A new lighthouse was built and began operation on 21 February 1900. The old tower was removed and taken to Jack’s Point, Timaru where it can still be seen today. This new light was considered to be a great improvement, visible for 16 miles into the Cook Strait.
The new light initially used paraffin oil. It wasn’t considered to be particularly fuel-efficient and over the years it was replaced by an incandescent burner which vaporised oil under pressure, then improved to use acetone acetylene gas as a fuel. After World War II it was converted to electricity, provided by a generator.
Between 1866 and 1924 lighthouse keepers were employed to watch out for ships in distress. The first keeper, William Lyall, transferred from Pencarrow for the job. He served until his death in 1871. The award for the longest serving lighthouse keeper goes to William Achison who worked on the island from 1871 to 1910 (with a brief three year gap). Supplies for keepers and their families were landed in the bay below the lighthouse and a tramway was used to haul them up to the lighthouse.
The light is still in use today. When the lighthouse became automated in 1924 the buildings of the settlement were removed.