The Signalmen

The Signalmen

The very first signalman, naval officer Lieutenant Robert Snow of the Colonial Stores Department, was officially appointed in February 1842 with the added responsibility of being in charge of the naval stores depot on the waterfront.

He held the position for a short time. By May 1842, boatman Gilbert Adams was acting signalman and he was formally appointed later that month. He remained in the position until November 1843, when he stood down because of poor eyesight. Thomas Duder took over at that point and in due course became one of the longest serving and best-known of the signalmen.

Duder was an Able Seaman from Devon, who served on the HMS Buffalo. While the vessel was in New Zealand loading kauri spars for the Royal Navy, it was wrecked during a storm in Mercury Bay in July 1840 in which two of the crew died. Along with a number of other crewmen, Duder opted to stay in the new colony after the wreck, when he was discharged from the service.

This was not his first time in New Zealand. According to Duder family history he had previously visited and admired the Waitemata Harbour.  After his discharge, soon after the new settlement was proclaimed as the capital ofNew Zealand, he moved to Auckland. He was initially employed as a coxswain in the service of the Harbour Department under the first Harbourmaster, Captain David Rough. Records show that he made several purchases of land and began farming before his appointment as signalman in 1843. While he was the signalman, he held grazing rights on Mt Victoria.

In an odd turn of events, in 1847 Duder was accused of the murder of the first signalman, Robert Snow, and his family – his wife and six-year-old daughter – in their home on the Devonport waterfront. Duder and his wife Margaret lived nearby in a house on the slopes of Mt Victoria. Needless to say, a huge scandal ensued.  Although the murders had happened in October, it was not until two months later that Joseph Burns (a former shipmate of Duder’s from the Buffalo) was arrested and charged with an assault on his common-law wife, Margaret Reardon. At his trial in March the following year, Burns confessed to the murders alleging that Duder and another man had been involved. Margaret Reardon gave evidence to support this claim and Duder was subsequently arrested. However, within a few days both Burns and Reardon confessed that they had lied and the charges against Duder were dropped.

Shortly after the trial, Burns was paraded down Auckland’s Queen St, taken by boat across the harbour – seated on his coffin – and hanged on the Devonport waterfront, close to the site of the murders. He was the first Pakeha to be hanged in New Zealand. Before the execution took place, he asked Duder for forgiveness for the false accusation. Today, a plaque marks the site where the murder and the execution are believed to have taken place (although recollections passed on through local families suggest it may not be in exactly the right place). The plaque can be found on the waterfront opposite Mays Street.

In spite of this brush with scandal, Duder became a highly respected member of the Devonport community as well as a successful businessman. A local street has been named in his honour. He had eight children and his descendants are still prominent in the Devonport community.

By today’s standards, life as the signalman on Mt Victoria was not easy. Accommodation was in the form of a tent or raupo hut and unsurprisingly both Snow and Adams had complained of the cold up on the summit during their respective terms as signalman. Eventually this situation was rectified, but there were other problems. Reports show that in 1856, Duder was working 15 hours a day. Some years later, between 1867and 1868, by which time he was in his early sixties, Duder wrote letters to the Provincial Government requesting that a pension be paid. His petition was refused, thus with no pension he held the position until a few days before his death in 1875, aged 69. A.J. Holland, about whom little information can be found, was then appointed to the position.

In February 1880, John Lander (written in some places as Landers) was appointed signalman. A native of Kent, Lander had led a seafaring life from boyhood arriving in New Zealand in about 1834. For a time he traded between the Bay of Islands and Sydney, and came to the locality that was to become Auckland long before there were any signs of settlement. In its obituary the New Zealand Herald reported that he served during the Waikato war of 1863 as a mail carrier, and ‘had many narrow escapes of being captured by the Maoris off the Miranda’. In 1873, he received a medal from the Humane Society for saving a woman from drowning in the harbour and also for ‘rescuing other persons’. In total, Lander worked for the harbour board for 30 years, initially as assistant wharfinger (wharf keeper or manager) and then as signalman. He died in the 1890s, aged 83, leaving eight children.

The next appointment was Captain John Fisher who came to New Zealand in the 1860s in command of the barque Bella Mary of Hobart. Later he transferred to the command of another vessel, before joining the Auckland Harbour Board. He was Harbourmaster for about 10 years before becoming signalman in 1893, a position he held until his death in 1905 at the age of 76. John Fisher was the first to occupy the new signalman’s house when it was built in 1898.

George Taylor followed. Born in England, Taylor sailed to New Zealand in 1871 and then crewed on coastal ships until he joined the Harbour Board in 1876. He began his 47-year career with the Board as a coxswain on a six-oared whaling boat which carried harbour pilots out to incoming vessels. After service on the whale boat, he was appointed bosun of the pilot cutter Vindex, which would cruise outside the harbour entrance transferring pilots to incoming ships. It would remain outside the harbour for up to two weeks at a time, coming into port to re-provision and re-embark the pilots.

Taylor was reportedly in sole charge of the signal station from 1905. The photo at left shows Taylor with his family on the front steps of the Signalman's House. From the left are Celina Taylor, Helen Louisa Taylor, George Taylor (top) and Alfred Taylor. The photo was brought to the Michael King Writers' Centre by the son of Helen Taylor (Jack Roper), the grandson of the signalman, who remembers visiting the house. *See under Memoires of the House for a story by Jack Roper.

In his first seven years on the job Taylor averaged 82.5 hours a week on duty. In 1912, the harbour master recommended the appointment of an assistant signalman to ease his workload, but the assistant was not appointed until afterTaylor’s retirement at the age of 78.

 After 18 years in the position, and in recognition of his long service, he was given a year’s leave of absence on full pay, a letter of appreciation from the Harbour Board and a marble clock that was presented to him by a number of grateful ship owners.

On his retirement, the Harbour Board appointed three signalmen to work on a roster. One of these was Arthur Young who was a signalman from 1923 to 1931. He had worked for the Harbour Board from 1908 in various jobs starting as a night officer on a salary of £150 per year.  Auckland Harbour Board correspondence suggests he may have had to move out of the Signalman’s House due to his wife’s ill health.

In August 1930, the Signalman’s House was occupied by a member of the Devonport Steam Ferry Company Ltd, who paid the Auckland Harbour Board a rental of 15 shillings per week.

Harry Lappen (sometimes spelled Lappin), was appointed signalman in 1934 when the signal station reopened after the Depression years.

The last signalman to occupy the house was Arthur W. East, who was appointed in 1934. Like most of the others before him, East was born in England. Joining the merchant service at an early age he spent four years mines weeping with the Royal Navy in World War I before serving on New Zealand merchant ships, including the Union Company steamer Hauraki. In 1925 he joined the Harbour Board and served on Queen’s Wharf and Tiri Tiri Island before being stationed on Mt Victoria where he remained until his death in 1943 at the age of 52. East’s widow remained living in the Signalman’s House until 1968, when the Harbour Board’s lease on the property expired. His children attended Devonport Primary School, located just below the Signalman's House on Mt Victoria. Some local people remember being at school with his children.


Signal Station on Mt Victoria overlooking Devonport

The flagstaff formerly on Mt Victoria now stands on Windsor Reserve in Devonport

Hill Standing Above - available from the Michael King Writers' Centre