From about 1853 for nearly a century, piloting and signalling functions at Waitata Little Port Cooper played a vital role in assisting and controlling shipping in Whakaraupō Lyttelton Harbour. Some of the earliest European occupants of the bay, alongside visiting whalers, were a team of tough and skilled Deal boatmen from Kent in England, who operated the first pilot boat. They didn't stay long – when they left the exposed bay for Timaru, a crew of local Māori took their place for a time in crewing the pilot boat.
In 1860 the provincial government formally established a pilot boat service and constructed a beacon and lookout on the crest of Te Piaka Adderley Head, followed by a stone signal station in 1867. A slipway and two houses for pilots and crew were built below the headland at Cabbage Tree Point (or Long Point) – a small area just metres above the high tide mark, backed by precipitous hills and battered by the wind. The dwellings were deconstructed in 1875 and moved to a much more sheltered site above the beach; the little community being added to with a third house and a school building in 1883. The slipway continued to be used for launching until piloting services officially moved to Lyttelton in 1885.
A pack track was cut to the signal station atop the head, and also around the steep coastline to Purau Bay in one direction and Koukourārata Port Levy in the other. Signalmen would walk or ride up to the hilltop for initially four, increased later to six, hour long shifts. Alone, they bore the weighty responsibility of keeping a close watch out to sea for approaching vessels, and of communicating by semaphore (and later Morse code), their sightings of barque, steamer, brig, schooner, tug or warship.
Flag signals identifying individual ships were relayed to Lyttelton Port by fellow signalmen on the Timeball Station flagpole. In return, piloting and berthing information was communicated back via the Adderley Head signal station to an approaching vessel. This messaging enabled stevedores and customs and health officials to prepare for a ship's imminent arrival. No doubt local residents kept a watchful eye on the flagpole too – one story has it that a mirror attached at a strategic angle on an Oxford Hotel window allowed the landlady to see the Timeball Station flagpole, and thus prepare for thirsty arrivals!
During the night when flags were not visible, messages were relayed by Morse code using carbide Aldis lamps. In 1877, a telegraph connection between Lyttelton Port and Little Port Cooper was established, followed in 1880 by a telephone cable laid undersea from Te Awaroa Godley Head to Little Port Cooper, which was the first of its kind in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 1908 a jetty and boatshed with winch were constructed on the western side of the bay to facilitate freight movement and the comings and goings of residents. A second signal station was constructed in 1937; only its foundations now remain as it was destroyed by fire in 1967.
Several Little Port Cooper signalmen went on to serve as signalman and/or keeper at the Timeball Station, among them John Toomey (Timeball Station signalman from 1881-1892), John Porteus (Timeball Station signalman and keeper 1905-1932) and Jack Burns (Timeball Station signalman and keeper 1932-1941).
Three vessels were lost off Little Port Cooper – the 20 tonne schooner Randolph in 1874, the barque May Queen in 1888, and the Port Levy launch Toi Toi in 1924, which sadly resulted in the disappearance of fifteen year old Clarence Barter. Another tragedy in 1899, witnessed by signalman John Toomey, was the dramatic demise of hot air balloonist David Mahoney aka Captaine Lorraine, whose body was seen plummeting into the sea. Despite the efforts of fellow signalmen Tommy Carter and Balfour Toomey, who launched a rescue, his body was never recovered. Jack Burns' five children were themselves involved in a (thankfully successful) sea rescue by the tug Lyttelton after their dinghy ran into difficulties during a sudden storm.
Connections to Little Port Cooper continue in Ōhinehou Lyttelton today – local, Sue Fitzgerald, is, to our knowledge, the last child born in the bay. Her birth in 1948 was attended by her grandmother Elsie Fosbender, and Hilda Williams, registered nurse and wife of signalman Peter Williams. Sue's father, Leslie Fosbender (Fos to all who knew him) was one of the last signalmen to ride his horse up the narrow pack track to the signal station to keep his watch.
Life was still challenging in the isolated bay in the late 1940s – a launch from Lyttelton would bring essential supplies but the families needed to be fairly self-sufficient. Gardens, fruit trees, cows and chickens were tended, cooking was done on coal ranges, butter was churned and lighting came from kerosene lamps. Sue's older sister Elizabeth stayed in Lyttelton during the week to attend school, travelling to and from the bay by launch and on two occasions spent unplanned nights on Ōtamahua Quail Island and Rīpapa Island, sheltering from inclement weather.
All of the signalmen and their families left the bay in 1949 when a distinctive new black and white sixteen metre tall radio signal tower was erected on Gladstone Quay in Lyttelton. The bay houses were removed in the same year, leaving just the sturdy schoolhouse and the original stone signal station to stand sentinel to nigh on a hundred years of signalling history.
Sue went on to spend her primary school years in Lyttelton, attended high school in Christchurch, and raised her family in Lyttelton with husband John. For many years they ran the popular Deluxe Cafe (now Coffee Culture) and J Voyce and Co Ltd, ship provedores. Sue has continued involvement in the latter business with her son Lewis, since John's passing in 2017. Her volunteer work with Lyttelton Community House has won her respect and affection from many. Our thanks to Sue and also to Margaret Ricketts, for her original interview.