Nelson's Signal Station and the Time Gun


Britannia Heights in Nelson was once known as Signal Hill.  The Songer tree, a Sequoiadendron giganteum, now marks the site from which the state of the tide was signalled to incoming vessels and the identity of arriving ships was signalled to the people of the early settlement of Nelson. It was also the location for the weekly firing of a time gun by which people could check the accuracy of their timepieces.1

signal station

The old flagstaff station placed on Britannia Heights, Nelson, T. Blake-Huffam, 1886. Nelson Provincial Museum Art Collection, AC 964 (Retrieved NZETC)

Signal staff

Captain Arthur Wakefield, the leader of the new settlement of Nelson, raised the first signal staff on Signal Hill and hoisted the Union Jack on 13 December 1841.2 He chose this site because it was easily visible to vessels approaching the port. Nelson Haven had a difficult entrance and it was important that it only be approached between half and full tide. A red flag at the top of the staff or at half mast signalled full or half tide.

When the signalling system became more sophisticated in October 1844, the site had the added advantage of being visible to the town. A series of numbered signals, represented by different shapes, for example a circle or a triangle, indicated the approach of a particular type of vessel, such as a barque or schooner. This information was of great interest to people waiting for the arrival of cargo or passengers.

Signalling was further improved in 1860.3 A signal station had been built to accommodate the signalman and a new flag staff with two yard-arms was installed. A second smaller staff, used to signal the arrival of individual coastal vessels was in place by 1865.

The larger staff signalled the tide, the types of ships and individual steamers, such as the Lyttleton. The need for the presence of police, Health Officers or Inspectors of sheep and cattle could also be signalled. The signal station included living quarters for the signalmen.

The signal station was so appreciated by Nelsonians that there was great dismay in May 1888 when the tidal signal staff was removed to the Boulder Bank and it seemed that the other staff was also to go. Nelson City Council asked H.A. Levestam, the local Member of Parliament, to lobby the government, but his successful intervention was only a temporary stay of execution. News came in April 1890 that signalling from the Port Hills was to cease.4 From then on, arrivals at the port were signalled on a new flagstaff at the Post and Telegraph Office in Trafalgar Street. 

signal station 2

First signal station, Port Nelson. Watercolour on paper (detail). Collection of The Suter Art Gallery, Te Aratoi o Whakatū (Retrieved NZETC)

The Time Gun

Arthur Wakefield had a nine pounder cannon placed beside the flagstaff on 24 January 1842 for use as a signal gun. The nine pounder carronade was one of four brought to Nelson by the NZ Company’s prelimary expedition in November 1841, made by Bailey Pegg and Company, for use on warships and in coastal defences. It was a type which became known as the "smasher".

The gun was used to fire a salute when the Fifeshire, the first of the immigrant ships, arrived in 1 February 1842. The use of the gun as a time signal by which the people could check the accuracy of their timepieces began later that year. Nelson resident John Saxton noted in his diary that he had witnessed the first firing of the 12 o’clock gun by Captain Wilson on 29 September 1842. The custom continued at noon every Saturday for some time and then lapsed. It was revived by the Provincial Government in September 1858.  After the first firing, on 11 September, a newspaper reported it causing such a simultaneous examination of watches and timepieces as had rarely been witnessed in Nelson.

The time gun pointed over Washington Valley. George Britt recalled having helped signalman Henry Jacobsen as a 6 yr old by collecting the rags that were stuffed in the barrel. He was allowed to fire it as a reward. One Saturday some boys secretly put rocks in the barrel and many windows were broken as a result.

The time gun firing is thought to have continued until April 1890. It was later moved to Albion Square before its placement in Queens Gardens, in 1919.5  It has since been moved. Council file notes indicate that the cannon was removed  “to be held in trust for the city.”6 Minutes indicate that it was disposed of in 1943,7 however it in 2020 it was located at Founders Park, where it will be displayed.

 2020 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Smith, D. (2009) The Nelson signal station. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(1)
  2. Broad, L. (1842) Jubilee History of Nelson
  3. New signals (1860, July 28) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.4
  4. Shipping signals (1890, May 8) Colonist:
  5. Brinkman, E. (2005) A Study of The Queens Gardens Nelson's Heritage. Nelson, N.Z. :  Ellen Brinkman, p.93
  6. Beaumont, L (2012) Landscape conservation plan. Nelson City Council
  7. Nelson City Council Minutes 1943 no. 36103 & 36495 

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