In 1852 George Bennett began what was to become a family tradition of lighthouse-keeping at Pencarrow. His wife, Mary Bennett, took on the role after his death in 1855, while their youngest son, William Bennett, was an assistant keeper during the 1880s.
George was one of Wellington's first settlers, arriving from England on board the New Zealand Company ship Cuba on 3 January 1840. His future wife, Mary Jane Hebden, arrived just over a month later on board the Duke of Roxburgh. They married in November that year.
By the time George became lighthouse keeper at Pencarrow in early 1852, he and Mary had five children. The living conditions they encountered were appalling. In a letter to the Colonial Secretary in August 1852, George complained that the house was ‘neither wind or water proof'. The authorities were unsympathetic. The harbour master noted that the house was ‘as proof against the weather as wooden houses usually are in an exposed situation'. George's request for a salary increase was also declined.
Later that year the Bennetts' two-and-a-half year old daughter Eliza died. Her death can probably be attributed to their poor living conditions, which C. R. Carter observed first hand on an 1853 visit:
The interior of this building – a lighthouse and dwelling combined – was accessible to rain on all sides and in heavy gales it rocked and shook so much as to frighten the keeper and his family out of it, who in that case, took refuge in a sort of cave or cabin, which he had scooped out of the side of a hill, over which he had fixed a thatched roof and in which he had built a rude stone chimney. This cabin was his house of refuge and his cooking place. Altogether it was a most wretched place for any civilised human being to live in, even in New Zealand.
The family suffered another blow in June 1855 when George was killed in a boating accident. He and others were thrown out of the pilot's boat when crossing Barrett Reef in bad weather. While the others swam to safety, George clung to a rock and was washed away.
Mary stayed on at Pencarrow and took over manning the light. She probably had little alternative. At the time of George's death she had five children and was pregnant with another. It would have been difficult for her to find another position, and widows' pensions were not introduced until 1911. And despite George's earlier complaint, the position may have been comparatively well paid. Certainly after Mary's official appointment as lighthouse keeper in 1859 her salary of £125 pounds per annum (plus firewood) compared well to the £20 or £30 per annum a domestic servant could expect at the time.
Taking over from an absent or deceased husband was common for daughters and wives in the United States during the 19th century. Mary Clifford's book Women who kept the lights: an illustrated history of female lighthouse keepers describes how ‘members of [keepers'] families, including wives and daughters, learned to keep the lights burning when their men were away. When a male keeper fell ill or died, many of these women simply took over their husband's or father's duties, often receiving official appointments because there was no pension system for them’.
Mary Bennett remains the only woman to have been a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand. In her history Lighting the coast, Helen Beaglehole notes that it was uncommon for wives to even assist their husbands in light-tending duties: ‘mostly the women's lives were separate'.
Mary's assistant keeper, William Lyall, was less impressed with a woman being appointed lighthouse keeper. A year later he complained that he could not ‘undertake another winter with the help of a woman only'. He asked that something be done, but ‘without disadvantage to Mrs Bennett'. His request appears to have been ignored. In 1864 Marine Board officials reported that both Mary and Lyall had held their ‘respective offices' since 1859 and had ‘apparently conducted their duties in an orderly and efficient manner'. According to family sources, Mary returned to England with her children in 1865.
The family's connection to Pencarrow did not end there. In 1871 the Bennetts' three sons returned to New Zealand. William, the youngest, perhaps forgetful of the deprivations of lighthouse life, joined the lighthouse service in 1880 and was appointed an assistant keeper at Pencarrow. He and his family lived there until 1885, when he was transferred to Portland Island, Mahia. He left the service two years later.
Because of a policy that ensured keepers were transferred between lighthouses every three years, no other keeper or family would stay at Pencarrow as long as the Bennetts did. As a result far less has been written about the experiences of the keepers that followed them.
Certainly, their living conditions improved over time, the government finally erecting new residences in 1871. But these could not prevent the loss of another keeper's child during the 1890s: Evelyn, the seven-month old daughter of Sidney and Sarah Woods, died of dysentery and convulsions on 9 March 1896. There is no further record of significant improvements to the residences until they were renovated and repaired during the 1940s.
One aspect that barely improved during the period keepers were stationed at Pencarrow was access. When the wife of principal keeper Parks took ill in 1910 it was quicker for the doctor to sail on a ship the following morning than to come overland on horseback. The situation improved when a road was constructed out to the lighthouse as part of the Hutt Valley Drainage Board's new sewage scheme during the 1950s. Even then, a trip into ‘town' still took a few hours, although keeper R. J. Jones and his wife were reportedly pleased that supplies could be ordered and delivered weekly.