Mary Jane Bennett remains the only woman to ever become a lighthouse keeper in New Zealand, which she did in 1855 on the death of her husband George.
For 10 years she kept safe ships coming along the rugged coastline near Pencarrow Head.
But it is only part of her story and her extraordinary family.
Her husband George White Bennett was born March 2, 1814 at Whickham, County Durham, England, one of six children of George Bennett and Ann White.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane Hebden - likely born in 1816 since she was baptised at Pateley Bridge in Yorkshire, on December 11 that year - was the oldest child of Mary and William Hebden.
The pair met and fell in love, but when their parents did not agree on the match, they opted to come to New Zealand. George on the Cuba, landing in Wellington in January 1840, and Mary, then a governess, a month later aboard the Duke of Roxburgh.
They married at St Paul’s Cathedral in Thorndon and George went from job to job for a while, farming and clerking including being the publican at one of the city’s first pubs, the Durham Arms.
Initially there was just a beacon at Pencarrow (one of the first was blown over in the wind) but after the ship Maria went down off Cape Terawhiti with the loss of 30 people, calls for a lighthouse became loud.
In 1852 George became the lighthouse keeper and he, Mary and their then five children moved out to the remote location. They had a small two room cottage, and operated a light from one of the windows to warn ships.
It was hard, with little in the way of amenities. The cottage was not wind or waterproof and fresh water was a quarter of a mile away. It was sometimes so bad the family lived in a dugout, which had a stove in it.
Their daughter Eliza died in the first year, then George was killed in a boating accident in 1855. The location of his burial is unclear.
Mary, who was pregnant at the time, stayed on and in 1859 was appointed the official lighthouse keeper (with payment of £125 a year including firewood) when the light was changed to the permanent lighthouse there now. She was there when it was lit for the first time on New Year’s Day 1859.
She had a male assistant, which would have been a real turnaround in those days.
In 1865 she opted to take her children and return to England. Her three sons returned to New Zealand in 1871 and her youngest, William, returned to the lighthouse where he became assistant keeper.
William is buried at St Albans Burial Ground in Pauatahanui.
Mary never returned to New Zealand and died aged July 6, 1885 in Darce Banks, England where she had been born.
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