Mary Bennett - NZ's first and only female lighthouse keeper

The Bennett children in 1859 (source: NZHistory, family collection)

The Bennett children in 1859 (source: NZHistory, family collection)

From 1855 - 1865, Mary Bennett was New Zealand's first female lighthouse keeper at the Pencarrow lighthouse, near the entrance to Wellington Harbour. (The lighthouse still stands but is inactive today; it can be reached on foot or by bike from Eastbourne.)

Mary Bennett was born in England in 1816. In 1840, she sailed to New Zealand and married George Bennett. George was appointed Pencarrow's first 'Keeper of the Light' in 1852, and he and Mary moved there with their five children.

Conditions at the remote lighthouse, with its wild weather and poor lodgings, were dire (old letters mention that there was no working stove, the house was not protected from rain or wind, the nearest water source was half a kilometre away, and during strong gales the family sometimes fled in terror to a nearby cabin). One of their children, two-year-old Eliza, died at the lighthouse within their first year.

Just a couple of years later, poor George was killed when he was washed overboard from a boat during a storm. Mary, with five surviving children and another on the way, took over the job – she probably didn't have much choice – and ran the lighthouse.

The existing light, which was just a gas lamp in the window of their two-room cottage and difficult to see in rough conditions, was replaced in 1859 and New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse was finally set up,  after much public demand and loss of life (it was an essential signal point for vessels). Mary was asked to run the new lighthouse, an impressive endorsement particularly in the 1850s, and she accepted, despite having six children to care for in such a wild, remote area. Records show that she was organised and meticulous in her role, although her assistant initially complained about working with a woman.

After five more years Mary passed on the light in 1860 and headed back to England with her children. One of her sons returned to New Zealand in 1880 to work again at the Pencarrow lighthouse. Mary died in 1885 and the lighthouse became inactive in the mid-20th century. To this day, there hasn't been another female lighthouse keeper in New Zealand.

Sources: Ellen Ellis. 'Bennett, Mary Jane', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, NZHistory.net, Maritime Museum