Lily Robertson and the Nelson Lighthouse


My Life by Lily Robertson (1878-1956)

Nelson Lighthouse 

Excerpt from the Lighthouse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Lily's diary.
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My birthplace was at the home of my Grandparents, "Britannia Heights'. When some weeks old I went, with my Mother, to my home at the Nelson Lighthouse where I lived till I was fourteen (1892).

It was a happy life for us children, I being one of a family of ten - six sisters and three brothers. We had to go to school in a small boat and missed many days when the weather was rough. If the south west wind was strong and we were not able to get home at night, we were given a signal and we would stay with our Aunty for the night, and that pleased us very much.

We attended the Toi Toi School, so it was a long way to go. Sometimes, if the wind was strong when going home at night, the boat would land us a mile up the Boulder Bank and we had to walk home.

We children used to catch lots of fish with the lines. We also had a net which we set, and one day, when we went out in the boat to take it up, we were excited as there was a five foot thresher shark in it and we had to tow the net to shore to get him out. The net was very much torn, but Father mended it for us.

Lily KidsonLily Kidson, age 17, c. 1895 [family photo]
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In those days there were a good many sailing vessels coming to Nelson.  One night, while a ship was anchored at the back of the Lighthouse, two men deserted ship and came ashore on a raft and walked up the Boulder Bank on to the mainland. They left their swags on the raft as they were soaking wet and too heavy to carry, so Father spread them out to dry, and not being very old then, I was greatly taken with a large tin of all kinds of buttons which one of the men had collected on his travels.

There used to be a waterman at the Port who kept a boat for hire. One day five young lads hired this boat and we saw them going up the harbour with a south-west wind to help them along, but returning was not so easy as they could not get back against the wind, so as night was coming on, my brothers went to their assistance, and we kept them till the Pilot boat came for them. I am sure there were some anxious mothers that night.

At one time there were a lot of goats on the Haulashore Island, and as there was no water there, they used to come up to our house looking for some. One day Mother was baking and put her bread outside to cool; when she looked out, the goats were having a good meal!

The Nelson LighthouseKidson family home - Nelson Lighthouse (family photo)
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We had a small garden which we made from soil carted in the boat from Wakapuaka. This entailed a lot of work, but we were proud of our little garden. We had to depend on rain water and, as we only had two tanks, we were often out of water. In the dry weather we had to cart water from the mainland by boat. We used to fill one boat so that it would just float - that was for washing and household use. We towed that one, and brought a very large cream can of clean water for drinking in the other boat. The roofs of the houses were painted at one time with white lead in the paint, and all the family were very ill indeed from drinking the water - the smallest child of four years passed away.

We children had a tame seagull - it had lost half a wing so we fed him on small fish we speared in the pools at the back of the Lighthouse. This bird was very knowing, and when a hawk came he used to make for the water so that he could fight the hawk off, but sad to say, a sea hawk came one day and settled in the water beside him, and that was the end of our seagull. But, it was also the end of the hawk, as Father went out and after a lot of trouble he shot him.

One thing I remember, though I was very small, was a large whale on the end of the Boulder Bank. (The end of the Boulder Bank in those days was not a great way from the Lighthouse - it is now nearly down to the entrance). Men were trying out the blubber when a ten foot shark came up the harbour. The tail of the whale was at the water's edge, and the shark took it clean off.  The men folk were very excited. They baited a very large iron hook, which we had for years, with a piece of whale and threw it out; the shark came and took bait, hook and all, just bit through the rope. We only had a small boat at the time, so the men waited till the shark got down to the entrance. As it could easily upset a small boat, the men were taking no chances. They hurried across to the store and got another hook, put wire on it instead of rope and caught the brute. It had two rows of the most awful teeth.

Kidson familyKidson family (family photo)
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We were a very healthy family. I don't think we had all the children's complaints. Fruit was a great treat for us, so we were very excited when some kind people brought us a case of apricots.

Father and Mother lived at the Lighthouse for twenty-seven years when, sad to say, Father passed away (31 July 1892). He always used to say he would never leave the lighthouse until he was carried away, and it was a sad day for us when the funeral started in the Pilot boat with the Union Jack draped over the coffin. Father was only 55 years old. Mother was left with five children to provide for, the eldest one a cripple  so with a small amount of money she thought it best to buy a home. She managed to get a suitable place for 250 pounds (Bank House, 8 Russell Street), so we packed our few belongings. We only had a two-roomed house at the Lighthouse and one room was in the basement, so we did not have much furniture. We came away in a small sailing vessel to make a new home and with 50 pounds in the bank, Mother began her task, the age benefit then being 15/- a week and no children's allowance to help one along.

Russell Street to Kaipara Lighthouse

Mother used to take in a boarder when she could and go out nursing to anyone close to home. My sister, younger than I, went to learn dressmaking. She had to go for twelve months without pay, so that was a bit hard. I, being then fifteen years old (1893), went to my sister who lived at the Kaipara Lighthouse. Poor Mother was grieved at my going so far away, but it meant one less to provide for, and it was thought best for me to go.

We had an awful trip. Everyone, even the Stewardess, was sick. The boat went from Nelson to New Plymouth direct, then on to Onehunga where my sister and her two small boys met me. We then went to Auckland by train and then to Helensville. We left Helensville by paddle boat for the Pilot Station at Pouto where we had to land in a small boat, then drive in a spring trap five miles along the beach, the sea washing around the horses feet, and at last climb a steep sandhill. Well, I thought the journey would never end. There was nothing to see but sand and more sand - that was the Kaipara Lighthouse. There was another keeper and his wife living there, as well as my sister and her husband. They had two daughters my age, so that was very nice for me. The Lighthouse and the dwelling houses were built on the only spaces of solid clay formation that was there. The sand formed a bank round the houses four feet high, and the sand round the old stable was nearly on a level with the roof. When it was very windy the Keeper had to do some digging to get the door open for the horse to get out in the morning.

Back to Nelson 

There were a good number of Māori living near the Pilot Station. Once we went to a double Māori wedding; the food, cooked in the usual Māori way was real good - a pig roasted whole and plenty of pudding and cakes. We went to the Māori Church to see them married. We had to keep on our feet as the Church had been varnished with a not too good brand of varnish, and if you sat down, you had trouble to tear yourself away. The Māori had a good time - danced all night, slept all day and danced all the next night. All the little Māori children were very happy running in and out.

I spent two very happy years at the Lighthouse. When I left my sister and the boys came home with me on the Government steamer "Hinemoa". We were taken on board from the beach opposite the Lighthouse over the breakers in one of the steamer's small boats, then we came out over the Kaipara bar. We were a week on board the "Hinemoa" as all the buoys had to be lifted and cleaned all the way down to Wellington. It rained most of the trip down and the food was not of the best, so altogether it was not a very pleasant time. We were very pleased to embark on another boat and arrive home to have a nice cup of tea and a rest. I was then 16 years (1894) and had to start to do a spot of work, so I used to go to anyone who was not well and help with the housework. The wages were small, five shillings a week, sometimes less, though in those days everything was much cheaper.

We lived at the Port and we girls used to attend the services in the Port Mission Hall. It was there I was prepared for confirmation and confirmed at the All Saints Church . We had very good congregations at the Port services. Everyone thought a lot of Rev. Bennett, and he was very good to everyone. He took our choir to Motueka to the opening of the Māori Church. We went over in a small steamer called the "Lily'. Rev. Bennett took his small organ and we sang hymns all the way over. The Māori met us with their conveyances and welcomed us waving green plumes and we proceeded to the new church. We had a beautiful dinner, all cooked according to Māori custom, which we enjoyed very much. Then the Church was opened, a great number attending the service. In the evening the Port choir gave a service of song which raised a good sum toward the Church fund. We arrived home at a late hour having had a very enjoyable day, which I will always remember.

A short time after that I went into dressmaking with my sister. We had to work in town and walk home to lunch every day. A tram bus used to run with one horse, which was put on either end. We went so slowly, we were often home before it, so we only patronised it in wet weather. Sometimes it would run off the lines and the passengers would help lift it on again. My wages for sewing were 1 pound a week, half for my board and the rest to clothe myself. We never spent much on amusements, just made our own fun, went picnicking and had to walk everywhere we went but we enjoyed ourselves.

Frank and Lily RoberstonFrank and Lily Roberston (family photo)
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After I had been sewing some time, my sister Charlotte at the Cape Foulwind Lighthouse took ill and sent for me. I stayed seven weeks. I came home and took up my work again.  I had charge of the skirt room. Sometimes we would have some forty skirts in all stages of the making. I had ten girls in the room with me, so it was a busy time and also a happy time.

After being there for some years, I changed my name and my husband and I went to the country to live, (Brightwater) where we spent a very happy life. We have a family of five Sons and one daughter, all now married and have their families. We have fourteen grandchildren living not far away from us, so we have much to be thankful for.

I must say here, an Uncle used to drive a butcher shop on wheels with one horse. It had two steps into the back with a block in the centre and meat along each side.

I must now close this little story of my life.


A note about Lily Robertson and her family

This story was written by Lily in the early 1950's and was submitted by Robyn Marshall (her great grand-daughter)

Martha Lilian Kidson (27.5.1878 - 30.5.1956) married Francis Graham Robertson (Frank).  

Lily is the grand daughter of Mr John Kidson (married to Amelia Tuck) who escaped from the Wairau Massacre. Her father came to Nelson in the ship Bolton on 15 March 1842 aged 5 and her mother, Martha Newport, came to Nelson the same year in the Sir Charles Forbes aged 1 year.

The Nelson Lighthouse

The Nelson Boulder Bank is a 13km long natural breakwater sheltering Nelson Haven. Its value as a harbour spurred the New Zealand Company in 1842 to select this as a site for the settlement of Nelson.

The lighthouse on the Boulder Bank was cast in England, shipped to Nelson in sections and erected in 1862. Lighthouse keeper John Kidson lived at the lighthouse for thirty years, carried soil to grow a vegetable garden and rowed his twelve children over the Haven to school. The light was extinguished in 1942 when Japanese invasion threatened and was finally replaced by a shore light in 1982.

The lighthouse has an Historic Places Category 1 classification and is maintained by Port Nelson Ltd..

Updated: April 2020

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  • william Cross was the first lighthouse keeper and he is my third great grand father

    Posted by PHILIP HUMPHREYS, 05/04/2023 11:47pm (1 year ago)

  • What a great little story i love reading these snippets of early family life in New Zealand especially when i have some connection with the family be it only through marraige
    Cheers Lew
    Thanks for the comment Lew. Regards, Ed.

    Posted by Lew Redwood, ()

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Further sources - Lily Robertson and the Nelson Lighthouse




Manuscripts held Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Coleman, R. The Nelson lighthouse. UMS 243
  • Kidson, J. (1880) Diary. qMS.
  • Martin-Buss, A. (1986) Lighthouses of the Nelson and Marlborough coasts. UMS 496

Archaeological Report:


Web Resources