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Shining a light on maritime history

22 November 2006

Shining a light on maritime history

A new book by Canterbury University Press illuminates the fascinating history of New Zealand’s coastal lighthouse system.

Lighting the Coast, by Wellington writer and editor Helen Beaglehole, is the first comprehensive history of New Zealand’s system of lighthouses.

It reveals the captivating story of the siting, design, construction, operation and eventual demanning of those nineteenth-and early twentieth-century monuments of engineering, landmarks which the author says continue to fascinate us.

“I argue against a romantic reading of lighthouses, but there is something about them with their lights beaming out into the unknown dangers and mystery of a dark night which continues to ignite our imagination, interest and sympathy,” says Ms Beaglehole, a long-time coastal sailor.

The book also reveals much of the lives of the lighthouse keepers – the practical, independent men who took their families to live in remote parts of New Zealand – and the lives of many other key figures in our maritime history are brought to vivid life.

“It was the characters involved in this historic endeavour that I absolutely enjoyed reading about and researching,” says Ms Beaglehole. “They really make the history come alive. I loved reading the early accounts that were put through to parliament for the lights as you can sense the huge enthusiasm they had for what they were doing.”

Another highlight of her research for the book was discovering archives of original architectural drawings, a number of which are published for the first time in the highly pictorial book which features more than 280 black-and-white and colour illustrations, including early photographs, paintings, diagrams, maps and charts.

Ms Beaglehole hopes that lighthouse lovers, sailors and those with an interest in our history will enjoy this informative but highly readable tribute to an enthralling aspect of New Zealand’s past and share her sentiments about the future of these historic structures.

“Our lighthouses are monuments to New Zealanders’ ingenuity and skill, to doggedness and determination, and to invention and adaptation. They are objects of considerable community pride and national consciousness, expressions or our maritime being and our pioneer past. As a country we shall ultimately be the poorer if we do not conserve them.”

Helen Beaglehole has woven together years of solid research and informed the narrative by her knowledge of coastal sailing. Since she and husband Tim began decades of sailing in the Cook Strait region with their children, they have completed numerous other coastal traverses and, in their yacht Cape Resolution, have circumnavigated New Zealand. She has visited most of the lighthouse sites by foot, yacht or bike.

Lighting the Coast was launched at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea in Wellington on Wednesday 15 November. The handsome hardcover volume was published with the help of a generous grant from the Department of Conservation.


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