Portland Island has a rich and interesting history including early Māori settlement, whaling, shipwrecks, fishing, farming and schooling but known as the former location of the Portland Lighthouse.
It is the District’s most isolated lonely outpost. A barren windswept Island lying 1.4km south of Māhia Peninsula. It is 3.2km in length, 700 metres at its widest point, 100 metres at its high point and the top of the Island is almost flat to the cliff edges. The low northern tip of some 20 hectares is flat and is able to take small aircraft landings. In all, it covers 124 hectares or 306 acres.
Māori lived on Portland Island over 600 years ago. They had easy access to an abundance of fish and shellfish. They kept gardens on the eastern seaboard of the Island. Much of the fish was dried and canoed across the channel and traded with other tribes. The original name of the Island was Waikawa meaning “Sour Water”.
Captain Cook sailed closely around it in October 1769 but large numbers of canoe parties did not welcome him or his ship so he sailed on. Cook gave the Island the name Portland as it was similar to the Island of Portland at Dorsetshire in England.
During Māori settlement a large landslide in 1880 completely buried seven whare. The owners were lucky as they had been on the mainland at the time. Also destroyed were a large whaleboat and the Lighthouse boat.
From the late 1840s onwards many Māori joined forces with Captain WT Mansfield, whom operated a shore whaling station there. By 1900 most had left for residence on mainland Māhia and elsewhere.
The original Portland Island Lighthouse was shifted to its new home nestled on the banks of the Wairoa River 54 years ago. Previous to that it had an 80 year old history on the Island. The first light to flash out to sea was in 1875. Its powerful light shone out over 20 miles into Hawke’s Bay warning shipping of the perils around the area. The parcel of land of some 21 hectares that housed it at the southern end of the Island was purchased in 1875 from its Māori owners.
The building of the lighthouse of solid kauri was carried out by John Blackett and his staff. The lantern for the light, optical apparatus and machinery for driving the revolving light were imported, being made in England and France. The installation of these was carried out, mostly by an expert whom was brought out from England.
In all 16 buildings, including keepers and assistant’s houses, storage sheds and water tanks were built to service the operation.
It would have been a challenging feat over 130 years ago landing building material, including metal and cement, at the flat northern tip of the Island and then using horses and sledges to drag it up a steep incline to the top, and a further near 2kms to the site at the end. At the time there was no jetty or wharf and surfboats would have been used to get material from Government steamers and other crafts to shore. The cost to build and equip the lighthouse was £6,554 pounds or in today’s dollars (2017) in excess of $948,000.
They were hardy individuals whom could put up with extreme loneliness in sometimes very harsh conditions that today probably few of us would even contemplate bearing.
During the first 70 years most of the stores for the Island were delivered in bulk every 2-3 months by the Government steamer “Hinemoa” and other shipping, then taken through a natural narrow channel onto the beach at the flat northern end by surfboards before sledging to the lighthouse settlement.
It was not till the 1950s that Ministry of Works built a solid concrete wharf over the papa rock reef, some 30 metres long and 4 metres wide. A permanent crane was erected at the end of it and a small tractor and trailer purchased. Store deliveries, dependant on weather, were then commenced every fortnight from Waikokopu, firstly by the Raureti Brothers and later by Paul Ramsey with his launch “Daily Bread”.
Power on the Island was provided by 3 x 10hp diesel engines but only one was used at a time to drive the generators. An attempt to electrify the Island was made by Ministry of Works & Marine Department around 1975. This turned out to be a monumental disaster with a cable virtually thrown out of a shift tidal channel between the mainland and the Island. Today parts of the cable are still lying on the shoreline.
It is hard to comprehend that the Island once boasted a school. In 1897 there were 14 pupils in attendance. That particular year a female teacher wrote to the Hawke’s Bay Education Board stating she was tired of the Island as it was “bleak and exposed” and wanted to get back to civilisation. It is noted from records that the Board commented that it was not an idyllic place for a “school Maam” and accepted her resignation. Another teacher there, Hinemoa Bollons, had a great personality and prevailed upon the Lighthouse keepers to build a tennis court, which they did. It is thought that schooling on the Island was abandoned in the early 1900s because of difficulty attracting teachers. Home schooling became the only way to educate the young ones.
Portland Island has had its share of shipwrecks, some with tragic circumstances. First recorded was the “Queen” in 1886, followed by the “Alexander Newton” in 1894. This was a wooden barque of 309 tons. It was wrecked at the northern tip and three people were drowned, including the Master. It was carrying a consignment of hardwood piles. At very low tide some 15 years ago pieces of wood embedded with large cooper nails, believed to be from the barque were jimmied out of the reef. The schooner “Pirate” came to grief and was completely wrecked in 1897 during a heavy easterly gale. She was carrying a consignment of coal. Enterprising people from the mainland came over and bagged the coal. They sold it on for two shillings a sack. The wheelhouse was removed and dragged to the other side of the Island. It was made of large slabs of kauri 14x4 inches. The Lighthouse boat was stored in it for a time.
The first recorded farming activity was in 1887 when Komene Te Ito was reported as running 500 sheep. Bill Nevil and Matthew Gemmell had a partnership from 1921-1945. Nevil and his wife brought their large family up on the Island. Joe Raureti was also a lessee for a period. For about the past 35 years the farming has been in the hands of the Island’s owners.
Many of the Keepers were married and had children. Over its operating time the Lighthouse had 28 principal keepers. The first full time keeper was Peter Cunningham in 1878, spending 2 years there. The longest serving CW Skopes, had an amazing 8 years from 1884 to 1892. Two of the best known keepers in the latter years were Tom Clark and Frank Shepherd. Both were associated later with books written about their working life with the Marine Department and their service manning lighthouses. Shepherd was also a competent water colour painter. He would still be remembered by a number of local elderly people in the District.
Keepers and their assistants had to be jacks of all trades as duties went well beyond the Lighthouse
management. Their wives and children would have had an amazing tolerance to a very lonely life along with the fierce winter storms that would have struck the area often.
One of the most unfortunate incidents on the Island was when a bull gored to death the assistant keeper Nicholas Sciascia in 1898. He fathered 11 children. Today his descendants number over 2000. The late Andy Shaw helicoptered a party of them down some years ago to view the grave site. The memorial is remarkably clean after withstanding harsh elements for 117 years.
Portland Island is now lightly farmed with sheep, as part of Onenui Station, which is a large Māori Incorporation at the southern end of the Māhia Peninsula. Farm workers visit the Island about three times a year to tend to the stock which is now taken on and off by private launch.
The buildings, including the one solitary house, where the old lighthouse was are virtually derelict as no one lives on the Island permanently. The concrete wharf has been badly broken up by high seas over the years and the crane has toppled into the sea.
Cape tulip was introduced to the Island accidently by a former Lighthouse worker but is controlled yearly by aerial spraying. In 1999 The Department of Conservation (DOC) introduced the rare Shore Plover birds (that worldwide are only endemic to the Chatham Islands) to Portland Island. They keep a watchful eye over them throughout the year. There is also a patch of the very rare sand tussock growing there and two types of lizard are common amongst driftwood well above high tide. There were reports of Tuatara back in the 1880s but none exist there now.
A place where few visit, surrounded by sometimes very turbulent seas, its remoteness and difficult access makes it the ideal spot for nesting sea birds and winter seal colonies. At times, the seasonal rare Paper Nautilus shell and occasionally interesting flotsam from shipping and fishermen, washes ashore.
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