Founding Oamaru

One day in January 1844, Her Majesty's Native Secretary, Dr Edward Shortland, stood on the headland above the future town of Oamaru and wrote a few notes. He saw a wilderness of tussock, flax, toe-toe and cabbage trees; a swamp; a meandering stream; and no sign whatever of human habitation.

Go back far enough, and there had been Maori people here at one time. Archaeologists have found remains of Maori settlements on Beach Road in central Oamaru and on Cape Wanbrow – the very headland visited by Dr Shortland some centuries later. The Maori name for the place, Te Oha-a-Maru, was corrupted by white Europeans and shortened to Oamaru. The exact derivation is debated: one account 1 says the name means “beneficent shelter”, while others think it refers to someone called Maru: it was either his place, or he was someone's ancestor.

Shortland wasn't the first European to set foot in Oamaru. It's reckoned that sealers and whalers came ashore from as early as 1814, but no-one fancied settling down there until 1853, when a certain Hugh Robison applied for the right to graze sheep.

Robison was somewhere between 24 and 28 when he arrived in New Zealand in 1850. He is known to have spent time in Calcutta before that, and before moving to Oamaru he had a 50 acre farm by the Tokomairiro River south of Dunedin.

It's not known how Robison got his sheep to Oamaru, or where he met the three Maoris who helped build his home and tend his flock. What we do know is that his first house was built from cabbage tree stems, flax stalks and a type of reed called raupo, roughly plastered with clay. There was a sod chimney at one end and a calico door at the other. His bed was made of tussock grass. The whole building was about the size and shape of a ridge tent.

He soon built a second house, this time of sods, clay and raupo thatch. His brother and his former housekeeper, Maggie Lindsay, agreed to join him there. He took on an assistant by the name of Andrew McNeil, who went on to marry Maggie. Maggie was more than a housekeeper and wife: she and Andrew tended the land together, jointly ploughing and planting a potato field.

After just three years, Robison sold his rights to a man called Valpy, left for Australia and was never heard of again. But we owe him a big vote of thanks, because he founded modern Oamaru.

Others quickly arrived in the nascent settlement. Valpy, badly injured in a riding accident, had the good fortune to be cared for by one Henry France, who had studied medicine at University College, London. It seems France left UCL without a diploma, but that didn't stop him nurturing Valpy back to health. France also opened a store, acted as the settlement's pharmacist and – in due course – became postmaster and served on the Borough Council. His was the second store in Oamaru, the first having been established by Charles Traill, who had studied law at Edinburgh University before seeking his fortune in New Zealand.

By 1859, things were moving with quite remarkable speed. The colonial authorities adopted a plan for the new town, with streets named after British rivers. The plan paid little heed to the topography of the place, but developers ploughed on regardless of obstacles such as the twists and turns of Oamaru Creek, steep hills, deep gullies and the swampy lagoon at the mouth of the creek.

Cabbage trees and clay don't make for ideal building materials. With no local forests to chop down, settlers brought wood up the coast and unloaded it using small boats chained to the shore at one end and the cargo vessel at the other. This was not an easy operation.

Fortunately, there was an important discovery: local limestone was abundant, easy to work and of very high quality. Freshly dressed stone shone a gleaming white. With an immense effort of the imagination, locals called it whitestone.

Work started on the first whitestone building in 1862, more or less on the site of Robison's original hut. It was a courthouse. The place was already attracting a certain reputation, fuelled mainly by drink.

One reason was the gold rush. In June 1861, it became public knowledge that an Australian called Gabriel Reed had found gold ‘shining like the stars in Orion on a dark, frosty night’ near the Tuapeka River. By the following month, Oamaru was a virtual ghost town, all the floating population having headed straight for Gabriel's Gully in search of wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Bullock drivers left en masse with their wagons. Most tradesmen went, too. When they came back to town, they were ready for a bevy or two.

The Tuapeka find was a bit of a false start, because there wasn't much gold there after all. There were better finds a year later at Cardrona, Kawarau and Shotover, but by then a lot of Oamaruvians had decided there was more money to be had supplying the gold miners with the essentials of life, or simply farming the fertile land behind and along the coast. Ships plied the coast, dropping off stores in Oamaru and picking up shipments of wool and grain.

Thanks to this frenzy of activity, the founding fathers believed Oamaru had unlimited potential, and boy did they put someone else's money where their mouths were. On top of grants from the Provincial Council, the Borough Council raised one loan after another from financiers back in Britain, promising to pay interest at the rate of 7% a year.

During those early years, confidence seemed well-placed. New buildings sprung up for merchants, stores were built with elaborate whitestone facades, and of course the banks moved in, each competing with the other to build the finest, most elaborate palaces in miniature. There were also plenty of grog shops and hotels willing to cater for the young men of the district and mariners on shore leave, who liked nothing better than to get pissed, have a quick shag and top it all off with a brawl in the street.

Palaces in miniature: former banks in Thames Street

Palaces in miniature: former banks in Thames Street

Even the short-lived but increasingly debt-ridden Town Board (1862-66) met in the parlour of the Northern Hotel. One of the members, William Falconer, reported that “The meetings were, on the whole, very enjoyable; a comfortable room, a bright fire and the whisky as a rule fairly good … The meetings at the beginning were usually solemn, then argumentative, then by and by – well, not exactly inarticulate and no, not drunk – but when the meeting broke up, each councillor had a 'wee drappie in his eye'”.

The Board's debts were inherited by the Borough Council, tasked with maintaining the streets, changing the course of the creek, building a wide bridge over it, improving drainage, and promoting the development of the harbour and public water and gas supplies. They paid for this mainly by borrowing more money.

Sure enough, the town blossomed. Architecturally, it was a gem. Thanks to Oamaru whitestone, there was nowhere quite like it in the rest of New Zealand. That said, Oamaru stone was used to build some of the finest buildings in Dunedin and even in Wellington; but Victorian Oamaru developed a unique character all of its own.

Then in 1892, the bubble burst. The Council was unable to pay its debts and had to negotiate a wholesale restructuring of its loans, which were consolidated into one big loan of £175,000 at a reduced interest rate of 5%.

There are several reasons why the bubble burst. For one thing, the Council had expected the population to grow rapidly or at the very least, remain stable. It didn't. When the building boom ended, all the itinerant construction workers packed up and left, much to the apparent surprise of the Council. Meanwhile, a slump in farm prices caused huge harm to the town's prosperity. In 1873, wool had fetched 15 pence a pound; by 1886, it was down to 8d. A drought in the late 80s, combined with an explosion in the rabbit population, proved disastrous for cereal crops and grazing land alike.

As for the harbour, that's a whole story on its own. For now, let's just say it was a bit of a balls-up. Building it in the first place cost a (borrowed) fortune, and in its early days it developed a reputation for wrecking ships. The townsfolk set up a Rocket Brigade, whose job was to rescue mariners from ships wrecked not just on the coast, but within the harbour itself. On top of that, a lot of trade shifted to other, safer ports once railways had been built.

The view along Holmes Wharf. The weather can change very quickly - a real hazard to shipping

The view along Holmes Wharf. The weather can change very quickly - a real hazard to shipping

Oamaru went from boom to bust in around 30 years. It didn't die, after that; but nor did it particularly thrive. It just mooched along, with occasional expressions of new hope such as the opera house, built in 1906. The worst affected part of town was the original Victorian precinct, centred on Harbour Street: as the town's centre of gravity shifted north along Thames Street, there was almost no new investment in the oldest buildings, yet at the same time there was never any incentive to demolish them.

In 1936, the Borough Council published a municipal history of Oamaru. The author concludes that -

“The optimism and ambition of the members of the Borough Council ... was proved to have been excessive. Even admitting this, when looking back on that period half a century later, little but admiration can be felt for the long-sightedness and bold hearts of those men. They left a legacy of debt; they mortgaged the future to such an extent that the borough still feels the burden, but they have also left assets that future generations have admitted to be worth the price.”

In short, the Council screwed up, but it's fine because they built a very nice town.

Oh, and by the way: in 1936 the Council was still in debt, by now to the tune of £285,900. But they promised faithfully to clear all debts by 1960. Based on their track record, I'm sure people believed them, 100%.