Whekenui Leading Lights


One of the sites recently added to the Marlborough District Council’s Heritage Register is the Tory Channel Leading Lights, plus a former oil store, at Whekenui (part of Okukari Bay).  Heather Heberley and others were instrumental in having these listed as Category I in the Historic Places Register in 2007; they are familiar to Interisland ferry travellers entering Tory Channel.


One of the leading lights under maintenance. Photo supplied by Picton Historical Society

Whekenui was an important Māori pa and the occupants operated in both whaling and missionary activities during early Pakeha times.  From 1865, various land blocks were surveyed and leased from the Māori owners.

One interesting resident was Charles Godfrey, who lived on land leased from the Whitikau family and improved the property by clearing bush and building a house and shearing shed, also a small boathouse.  After the Leading Lights were constructed in 1881, Godfrey became the Keeper of the Lights. When he began to go blind, he took in Joe Timms, a small boy who became his ‘eyes’ and was brought up by Godfrey. The child would go up the stairs ahead of Godfrey and direct him to trim the beacon lights which ran on kerosene.  Charles Godfrey died in 1908, aged 62, and was buried at Okukari.  His 21-year lease on the land expired the following year. 


The leading lights in Whekenui as seen from the ferry today. Image supplied by author

The two lights are in identical pyramidal structures with a window on the front face, 151 metres apart.  One is 7m above and 11m behind high water mark, and the other 27m above and 166m behind high water mark.  When a ship’s master aligns them the ship is able to enter the Channel. 

The Lights were updated over the years – to gas in 1930 (after which manning was no longer required) then to electric batteries in 1945, the method still used today.  Light maintenance and servicing was taken over by Marlborough Harbour Board in 1973.  As part of the coastal safety system installed by the Government 128 years ago, they still provide a vital service allowing the narrow entrance to Tory Channel to be used for shipping.

This story was written for The Seaport News  by Loreen Brehaut in 2009 (Updated May 2020)

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  • I would like to query the age of Charles GODFREY as being 92 years old at is death. From research I am doing he was born in 1845 so would have been more like 62 at his death. Had his father Daniel GODFREY still been alive he would have been aged 90. Ed. We will check that information. Thankyou

    Posted by Monica Stanway, 29/08/2017 5:34pm (6 years ago)

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