When Edward Shortland stood on Cape Wanbrow and looked at the uninhabited wilderness below, he noted a meandering stream. More precisely, he described...

“...a little stream with steep banks that writhed in extraordinary convolutions on the floor of the gully to the left, emerging from which it looped across the toe of the plain to enter a lagoon of black, still water against the shingle of the beach. From the lagoon it ran southward behind a gravel ridge for nearly half a mile before it finally escaped into the sea at the spring of the Cape.” 1

The ready availability of fresh water was one reason why a town was built here. As it turned out, however, Oamaru Creek was temperamental. The flow sometimes slowed almost to a dribble. Those “extraordinary convolutions” were a problem, too, because they cut across the neat straight lines of streets named after British rivers.

The lagoon looked as if it had promise. The bar of gravel which separated it from the sea provided shelter. However, it became the town dump, gradually filling with sewage and all manner of other detritus.

After an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1867, it was clear that something had to be done. The Council appointed a Borough Engineer, Donald McLeod, and paid him £1,000 a year. If you forget the Solicitor General, he had the highest salary of any civil servant in New Zealand. 2

McLeod examined a number of ideas for improving the town's water supply, and rejected the lot of them in favour of his own plan. Water would be extracted from the Waitaki river and carried by a man-made watercourse to a reservoir above the town. From there, it would be piped to homes and businesses. He also proposed that the lagoon should be filled in and used as extra land for industry and commerce. Both plans were approved.

McLeod estimated that building the watercourse – or “borough race”, as it became known – would cost about £60,000. The Council put his plans out to tender and awarded the contract in 1887. They paid for it by raising a bank loan.

The borough race is a marvel of civil engineering. It runs 26 miles (42 km) from the Waitaki to the reservoir. To maintain a steady fall, it wound round some hills, straight through others and crossed numerous valleys and dips. There were 19 aqueducts and 6 tunnels, two of which were over half a mile long.

Remains of an aqueduct which carried the borough race between two tunnels

Remains of an aqueduct which carried the borough race between two tunnels

The Mayor at that time was William Jukes Steward, journalist, editor and newspaper proprietor. He probably enjoyed performing a ceremonial duty in June 1878, when he and his predecessor as Mayor – George Sumpter, no less – each seized a handle and attempted to let water flow into the first five miles of the race. I will let the Oamaru Mail take up the story.

“Manfully did they exercise their strength in raising the mass of timber that had to be up-lifted so the waters could find an ingress. The work was laborious, and a volunteer was called for. It was suggested the Corporation's Banker should assist...Mr Kerr accordingly lent a hand [and] the water at once found its way into the settling ponds.” 3

They all had a jolly good time, except for one tiny matter. His Worship the Mayor let it slip that the race might cost a teensy little bit more than expected. Nothing to worry about, you understand, everything's under control, nothing to see here, oh-dear-is-that-the-time-I-really-must-be-going.

In December, the contractor wasn't paid what he believed he was due. His workers weren't paid. They went on strike. All work stopped.

The Mayor had to come clean. He told a public meeting that McLeod's estimates omitted a few minor details such as survey costs, drawing up plans and interest on the loan. Buying land had been more expensive than expected, too. But that's all fine, said the Mayor, we only need another £30,000. Tell you what, let's call it £40,000, just to be on the safe side. Whoops, my mistake – we need another £10k...and another...

By the time the works were completed, the debt had risen to £134,000 4. In addition, there had been a terrible accident. One of the tunnels collapsed, burying three construction workers: two died and the third was brought out alive after being entombed for ten hours.

The Mayor decided not to seek a further term of office and stood down in 1879. McLean took a cut in salary and eventually resigned his post in July 1880, two months before the official opening of the waterworks.

Members of the borough council managed to look on the bright side, and the official opening was by all accounts a well-attended and good-humoured occasion. The council declared a half-day holiday and three hundred and fifty people turned up at the reservoir to witness the proceedings.

There was some hilarity about the colour of the water, which had picked up a lot of clay on its way down to the reservoir. The Oamaru Mail said it looked as if “Waitaki housewives” had had a field day with soap suds. The acting borough engineer decided he'd better prove it was safe, and quaffed a hearty amount of it.

Miss Gibbs, daughter of the newly-elected mayor, then ceremonially opened the sluice gate screws (“which by the way were very stiff”, said the Mail) and smashed a bottle of champagne on the gate. In the words of the Mail, “Then followed a large amount of speechifying, which was not concluded until 4 o'clock.” 5 Messrs Sumpter and Steward both had something to say, of course.

For his part, the new mayor made it clear that the excess cost was entirely the fault of the former engineer, Mr McLeod. I really like the next bit.

“Matters went very smoothly,” said the mayor, “until the £60,000 loan was about to expire.” The council applied for a new loan. “These overtures to the Bank were met with distrust and suspicion … the Bank apparently conceived that the Council had wilfully and knowingly deceived the Bank. But this was altogether unfair to the Corporation.”

In short, the Bank was being absolutely beastly and it was altogether unfair. And did I mention that it was all the fault of that useless git, McLeod?

As for the race, it provided clean, fresh and bountiful supplies of water to Oamaru. The town was a much healthier place; indeed, there was an almost immediate fall in death rates. The fire brigade also had plenty of water to squirt at the town's many, varied and colourful infernos.

Of course, the race had to be kept in good order. Bruce Comfort says that a team of about seven “racemen” lived with their families in houses along the length of the race. They cleaned and maintained the waterway and the land beside it. The water was turned off every Wednesday so that the racemen could remove stuff that shouldn't be there, including shellfish, grasses and weeds. They also repaired leaks and collapses. 6

The race served the town for the next 103 years before being replaced by underground water pipes. The reservoir is still in use today, though there is a thoroughly modern water treatment works there now.

An air release valve installed in Oamaru's water system in 1880 and replaced in 2012.

An air release valve installed in Oamaru's water system in 1880 and replaced in 2012.

As with everything else the founding fathers did in those early days, there is a kind of glory to to the borough race. Twenty six miles; nineteen aqueducts; six tunnels; a reservoir; a network of cast iron pipes – and it kept going for over a hundred years.

I happened to mention the borough race to Gill Bartrum, who owns Jessie Roberts' Store in Itchen Street. Nice shop: old-fashioned sweets, art and gifts. Gill is also the genius behind Quirky Tours: she keeps a kindly eye on Lord Liniment and such other guides as Miss Cense, Lady Annabell, Willy Haveachatt and the Duchess.

Gill shuddered at the mention of the race. “Oh, those tunnels!” she said. “So tempting when you're young and adventurous. As a dare, I walked through one of the tunnels when I was young. There wasn't any water in it at the time, but it was dark, wet and slimy. I slipped and fell and – ooh, it was so horrible! – I realised I had fallen onto a dead sheep.” I don't quite know how to write the sound Gill made at that point. Something like “Eeuurgggerrerrerr”, I think. When she finished shuddering, she added that dead sheep were something of a regular feature in the race tunnels. Rats, too.

Before we move on, I expect you want to know what happened to Donald McLeod and William Jukes Steward.

McLeod was next heard of in 1882, when he put forward a plan to supply Christchurch with water from artesian wells. His ideas were not adopted. There is also a record of him working on the construction of Inch Valley Lime Kilns railway a few years later. 7 Apart from that, zilch. We don't even know where or when he died. He disappeared into obscurity.

Not so Sir William Jukes Steward. He was elected to the Parliament of New Zealand no fewer than eleven times, serving as Speaker between January 1891 and November 1893. He was knighted in 1901 and died in 1912. His name lives on in Oamaru: the council named a street after him. Quite right too. After all, the miscalculations over the borough race had nothing to do with him.

William Jukes Steward had a beard to die for.

William Jukes Steward had a beard to die for.


1 Quoted in Gavin McLean's book, “Oamaru Harbour: Port in a Storm”, published in 1982 by the Dunmore Press, Palmerston North

2 K C McDonald, “Whitestone Country”, published in Dunedin by the North Otago Centennial Committee (1962)

3 Oamaru Mail, 27th June 1878 - https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OAM18780627.2.10?query=steward%20race

4 These figures are from “Whitestone Country”.

5 Oamaru Mail, 2nd September 1880 - https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OAM18800902.2.13?query=oamaru%20waterworks%20opening and 3rd September 1880 - https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NOT18800903.2.13?query=oamaru%20waterworks%20opening

6 “The Oamaru Borough Water Race”, by Bruce Comfort, 17th November 2009 - http://timespanner.blogspot.co.nz/2010/09/guest-post-oamaru-borough-water-race.html

7 http://www.ipenz.org.nz/heritage/bio-detail.cfm?id=36