Oamaru – a historical colonial town

Welsh historian – W.H.S Roberts settled in Oamaru in 1878, and contributed largely to recording the history of the Oamaru region, as well as the land owner of Marapua House, today known as Chillawhile Backpackers & Art Gallery, it seems fitting to honour his lifes work, to create a brief online history of Oamaru.

Oamaru in 1860


Before 1860 Oamaru was covered with tussock and flax as far as the eye could see, no streets, only tracks among the flax. The only signs of civilisation being a few mud huts near the creek, and the first accommodation house standing where the present Star and Garter now stands.

In the early days the Oamaru creek flowed in a different direction to which it flows today, in fact try to imagine a lagoon in the main centre.

Prior to the arrival of the colonials to the North Otago region the Whalers settled in the Moeraki Peninsula. Although most of the whaling stations on the New Zealand coast were regarded as sinks of moral depravity, there is reason to believe that Moeraki was conducted on better lines. It was claimed that the men were a steady lot and actually made an agreement that there should be no liquor in the settlement. Most of the whalers took native Maori women as wives. On the extinction of the whaling industry, many of the whalers remained in the district and thus formed a link between the very early days and the era of pastoral settlement. From 1843 it was quite evident that there were no more profits to be made from whaling, an experience common to almost all the New Zealand stations at the time.

Oamaru History

Oamaru harbour was known for shipwrecks and claimed 25 wrecks over a period of 20 years, MacAndrew Wharf opened in 1875 after the breakwater was extended, virtually ending Oamaru shipwrecks. Nine years on Oamaru had the honour of berthing the first steamer (The Elderslie) built especially for the frozen meat trade to Britain.

Oamaru ended the 1870’s as New Zealands 9th largest centre. In 2010 according to New Zealand City & Town Population it is ranked 36th at a population of 12,700.

Architects such as local Forrester & Lemon were turning out classically inspired and Victorian Italianate structures one of which was Marapua House, now standing today as Chillawhile Backpackers & Art Gallery.

These Buildings particularly on Harbour and Tyne Streets are better known today as Oamaru’s Historic Precinct, the buildings have been restored and are protected by the Whitestone Civic Trust.

So what happened to Oamaru?

Oamaru’s population peaked at 5791 in 1881 then fell and would not regain those numbers for at least another 40 years. The harbour board defaulted on a loan in 1891 and went into receivership three years later. The long depression of the 1880’s stopped Oamaru’s remarkable growth spurt and the big UK-trade refrigerated liners never returned to Oamaru after World War II, since the closure to commercial shipping trawlers the port saw it’s last ship in 1974.

Oamaru was Otago’s roughest town, in each year convictions for drunkenness in Oamaru trebled the national figures, Oamaruvian’s kept the first court house busy, however in later years thanks to an ageing population the caseloads gradually reduced. In 1905 Oamaru became a prohibition town, which bought an end to the brewery profession, in the early days Oamaru was a notorious place, and it is little wonder that the pioneers, or at least some of them, set about the establishment of brewing plants. Oamaru had no fewer than four of them.

Prior to 1880, beer was more readily available than drinking water in Oamaru, work began in July 1877 to redirect water from the Waitaki River over 20km away, however it was opted to use gravitational force to bring water to Oamaru which meant the water races would commence upstream 42km. The total cost of the waterworks project up to 134,000 UK pounds, and the entire borough debt, most of which bore interest at seven per cent, to 174,000 UK pounds. It was a colossal burden, but there was at least consolation that the town had now plenty of good quality water.

After more than half a century of being a dry town, sale of public consumption of alcohol became legal again in 1962 in Oamaru.

During the late 1960’s the Oamaru population topped 14,000 – however the growth spurt of Oamaru fizzled out and the trend reversed.

Elective day surgery ceased in the mid 1990’s and the old hospital has converted into a tourism accommodation complex.

As recently as the 1970’s three of the town’s oldest buildings had been demolished. Today the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust has successfully used the theme of a Victorian town at work to promote the restored Historic Precinct, which now attracts International tourist visitors. Every year Oamaru hosts The November Heritage Week celebrations with Penny Farthing races, Living Victorians, and entertainment. During March there is a traditional boat-building day at the Port. The summer wine and food festival highlights the districts efforts to lead NZ organic horticultural industry, and celebrates the success of the new wine vineyards in the Waitaki Valley Region.

As well Oamaru is well known for Little Blue Penguins and Yellow Eyed Penguins.

terra nova arives

In the early hours of 8th February 1913 the ship Terra Nova, the Antarctic explorer, landed in the oamaru harbour to telegraph Britain the dramatic news of Scott’s death. They did infact reach the South Pole 17–18 January 1912, only to discover Amundsen and his four Norwegian companions had already embarked upon the South Pole, Scott and his team died on the return, They were only 11 miles from the next food and fuel depot.

A tree was planted as a monument to the men that died, it is located on Arun street which is now tucked away, due to town restructuring, at the time it was planted on a prominent street overlooking the harbour.

The Opera House opened 7th October 1907, 99 years later in 2008 the Opera House was refurbished with funds mounting up to NZ $13,000.000 Oamaru is striving to gain status as the South Islands Cultural centre point. The Oamaru operatic society has performed famous play writes such as CATS and Les Miserable, once again the Opera House is the pride of Oamaru.

Oamaru’s first permanent railway station of 1873 lurked at the foot of Wansbeck Street, in later years the new station from 1900 was based further North on Harbour Street, it is significant since it signalled the final demise of Tyne Street prosperity, by accelerating the business centres drift north. Oamaru’s 700-seat dining room was the largest in the South Island until it closed in 1967. In 2001 after a decade of shabby neglect by private “enterprise” the Totara Hotels Charitable Foundation bought the old station for the Civic Trust for restoration. Passenger trains stopped calling early 2002, and today the railway station is used as place of creation – an art studio to Donna Demente one of Oamaru’s loved artists, and Ra one of New Zealands Drum and Dance teachers’ creator of Koru Dance Community, along with various small galleries.

Oamaru has evolved, prospered, endured recession, ultimately setting the scene for a wonderful foundation for a creative, cultural arty community.

Today Oamaru is New Zealand’s undiscovered town, due to the structure of the main road through Oamaru, which bypasses the richness of the original main centre today known as the Historic Precinct.

However Oamaru is fast becoming one of New Zealand’s tourist destinations, the penguins bring unsuspecting tourists to Oamaru, to discover for themselves that Oamaru today remains a place of characters, artists, eccentrics, fine dining, entertainment, with it’s own steam punk flair.

Information has been sourced from:

Oamaru 1878 A Colonial Town – First Published 2006 by K.C McDonald and Gavin McLean

Oamaru History & Heritage by Gavin McLean printed 2002

Beginnings – Early History of North Otago published 1934 – In view of the small and rapidly-diminishing number of those among us competent to describe the beginnings of things in North Otago and the paucity of the records of the district, confined almost wholly to the contribution to history by the late Mr W.H.S. Roberts, which admirable as it is, could not cover the whole of the ground, we have encouraged the writing of reminiscence by those of the old residents who were qualified to supply details of the past.