Tiritiri Matangi Island Signal Mast Reconstruction

Author: Carl HaysonDate: Taken from the Dawn Chorus, 135 November 2023Header photo: Geoff Beals

The replica mast has been rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original structure which was erected in the late 19th century. It last existed in the 1940s but, along with all the other signal masts on lighthouse stations around the country, was taken down when manual signalling was no longer required. In the early 2000s, SoTM restored the 1908 watchtower which had fallen into disrepair, and this is now a popular attraction for visitors. The mast was an integral part of the original signal station, and when Ray Walter and Carl Hayson discovered a small section of the old mast in 2003, a plan was conceived to rebuild it.

Its original function was to provide shipping information to the Ports of Auckland in the days before wireless transmitters were available. Signalling was conducted with a combination of flags and woven baskets which were seen by a station on Mt Victoria in Auckland. At 25m tall, the mast is slightly higher than the lighthouse and can easily be seen from the sea. 

The original signal mast; Centre: A Ministry of Transport drawing from 1913; Right: the replica signal mast. Montage compiled by Sheldon Bevan of Forged Fabrications

To work out the original dimensions of the mast, measurements were carefully taken of the surviving piece of the old stay foundations. A Ministry of Transport sketch from 1913 was unearthed, and this assisted with the draft drawings for a new mast by the Flagpole Company, who were engaged to design the new mast to the exact dimension of the original one. John Haycock, the director and planner, spent many hours bringing the drawings up to the required specifications.

However, the biggest hurdle was to raise funds for this special project (cost estimated at $180,000), as most funding organisations do not fund this kind of restoration. Additionally, the original mast was constructed of kauri and jarrah hardwood, weighed 2.5 tons, and would have been very difficult to build and erect.

Left: Ray and Carl with the old section of the mast 2003. Photo: Gaye HaysonRight: The mast is secured to the tabernacle.Photo: Gaye Hayson

The project looked like it would not proceed, until our very capable Fundraising Manager, Juliet Hawkeswood, managed to obtain $40,000 from the Stout Trust and a further $5,000 from the Christopher Mace Trust. Quite a few Supporters had also made donations, but this was still not enough to proceed with the wooden mast. Then Forged Fabrications from East Tamaki, who had recently acquired the Flagpole Company, contacted us about making the structure in aluminium, a much lighter and stronger material. It would look just like the original and the funds that had been raised would be sufficient to cover the cost. This was accepted and, over the next 12 months, the mast took shape in their factory in Auckland. It was the largest mast they had ever constructed, and it took several attempts to get it right, which included bringing in specialist parts from Australia. In the interim, drilling equipment was brought to the Island to install new stays, a plinth was dug out by SoTM, and Coast Concrete were engaged to put in the concrete base for the tabernacle, which holds the mast in position.

When completed, the mast was trucked up to Whangaparāoa Peninsula where Matt Maitland from Auckland Council allowed it to be stored in Shakespear Regional Park. A helicopter from Skyworks was engaged to lift the mast to Tiritiri Matangi, where it was assembled, ready for placement. 

Finally, the Skyworks helicopter lifted the whole mast, an impressive sight, and slotted it into position. The team from Forged Fabrications then set up the rigging and the mast was once again standing near the lighthouse station.

Ray Walter had found a 1931 admiralty book that listed the identification flags specific to Tiritiri and these had been made and were flown on the newly erected replica. Plans for the future include interpretation to show how flags and baskets were used for signalling, and displayed on special occasions.

Many thanks to Sheldon Bevan and Ryan Gouldstone from Forged Fabrications for the construction of the mast, Ian Higgins from SoTM for his organisation skills, Sarah McCready from Clough & Associates for the Heritage and Iwi consultation and planning, The Stout Trust for supplying the bulk of the funding, the Christopher Mace Trust, and John Haycock for the technical drawing work.