Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

29 July 2010

Oamaru: The Opera House 1907

They just don’t build stuff like this any more! It’s magnificent and it was built in 1906-7 in the small but prosperous town of Oamaru in North Otago, New Zealand.

As are most of the classic builings of the town’s ‘historic precinct’ its material is Oamaru limestone. Its architect was J. M. Forester, a local identity. Just over a hundred years ago it cost £10 600 (about $NZ22 000); today such a structure would probably cost in the hundreds of thousands – even millions? – rather than thousands; in any case, no modern New Zealand architect or builder would know where to start!

Not just an auditorium for theatre, ballet, concerts and, of course, opera, the Opera House also housed offices both for civic and local body organizations.



25 July 2010

Oamaru: The Courthouse

It’s just past nine o’clock on a weekday morning and those with business at Oamaru’s district court are already gathering to prosecute, defend, plead and receive judgment. For some: good news, for others bad.

Here lives are changed. It has been so since 1882-3 when this magnificently pompous Palladian classic was opened in a small but prosperous and comfortable town.

The courthouse, built of Oamaru stone, was designed by Forrester and Lemon unashamedly derived from ancient Greco-Roman origins. Long may it last.



21 July 2010

Oamaru Railway Station 1900.

Twenty-first century railways in New Zealand are mediocre remnants of a romantic past when triumphs of engineering drove the line north to south, linking the main centres of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. Those early engineers, armed with none of the earth-moving or computerized technology of today, overcame enormous difficulties: bridging raging river gorges, spiralling prodigious heights, and carving slender paths through rough bush and scrub, moorland and desert.

It was a past when glorious steam engines transported both people and goods, when the road system was rudimentary and neither petrol not diesel engines had been invented.

As if in homage to the achievements of the permanent way the terminals and way stations that served goods and people were architectural monuments as much enriched by their handsomeness as their practicality. All of the major cities had railway stations as important to rail as cathedrals are to religion. Those in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin survive, the latter being one of the greatest and entirely home designed of all (the others are based on exotic designs).

The man who designed Dunedin station was George Troup. He was also responsible for many minor stations along the way, all uniquely his and New Zealand’s.

One of the best – a wooden building in a town noted for its limestone structures – is at Oamaru north of Dunedin on the main trunk line. Troup’s Oamaru Station was built in 1900 at a time when the station thrived and trains were heavily patronized. An indication of its substance is that its dining room had seating for over 200 people at a time!

In the twenty-first century nobody would design and build such an architectural beauty as Oamaru Station because there is virtually no architecture in New Zealand that looks to the future, only to commerce, practicality and the need to build to the lowest price.

We should be grateful to Oamaru, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and those who care, that George Troup’s way station lives today.



19 July 2010

Altavady: North Otago

Travelling east on state highway 83 between Duntroon and Oamaru, along the south bank of life-giving Waitaki River (the boundary between North Otago and South Canterbury) we’re suddenly confronted by this piece of topiary on a grand scale.

The sheep farm was named ‘Altavady’ by Samuel Wilson, the second owner of the property; I have not been able to find out its meaning – although ‘alta’ suggests ‘high’.

‘A-L-T-A-V-A-D-Y’ was first laid out in giant pine letters by Ted Aubrey in 1931 when the plantation that surrounds it was first planted.

Farther north, across the river near Waimate, a similar example of man’s desire to build monuments exists as a white horse bas-relief set in a hillside. Unlike similar horses in England that are carved into chalk, the Waimate horse is whitened by concrete slabs. They’ll probably last a lot longer than Altavady but Ted Aubrey’s made his mark.


17 July 2010

Naseby, Central Otago

Gold gave birth to Naseby in 1863; a big rush, a fast-expanding population, the usual belief that gold fields would last for ever spawning substantial buildings forming a town that’s lasted to this day and whose origins are jealously preserved. The charming County Offices (now a museum) are testament to a colonial Victorian pomposity typical of small town New Zealand in 1878, and the earnestness of worthy shopkeepers is characterized in these two shops of much the same vintage whose origins are re-stated with a lick of paint from time to time.

Naseby lies near the Otago Rail Trail which is now a cycle track. Some cycling tourists – who alternate between easy cycling and riding by coach – find accommodation at Naseby.

Cyclists are fine on the rail trail but they are not only highly vulnerable on roads that were never designed for them but are, paradoxically, quite threatening when some of them ride in groups kitted out in space gear that looks as expensive as anything you might find on the ski slopes of St Moritz. This little lot, at the end of a pedaling day, pushed in front of me as if they owned the place while I had my tripod set up to photograph the old Royal Hotel, no permission, no ‘excuse us’, no apology. I swore at them (but not too loudly as there were more of them than of me).


14 July 2010

Hayes Historic Engineering Works, Oturehua, Central Otago

As we drove along the valley of the Ida Burn between Oturehua and Poolburn in Autumn 2010, no doubt the hills looked much the same as they did ten years after the pastoral modifications of the first runholders. This is to our benefit for had Hayes Engineering Works been sited in, say, Dunedin or Auckland, ‘progress’ would have obliterated it by now.

Instead we are treated to a late nineteenth century colonial example of the Victorian succession to Britain’s industrial revolution. It‘s in working order, preserved because of its astute acquisition by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

A corner of the workshop in 2010

Hayes Engineering Limited was established in Central Otago in 1885 by E. Ernest Hayes, recently immigrated from Warwickshire. His first building was a shed of 7.75 square metres; therein he invented and produced tools and implements to aid self-sufficiency in a remote district. As time went by demand for his inventions came from his near neighbours, then from farther afield, and subsequently from around the world.
Among the more notable of his innovations were disc-cutter tools for cutting up pollard, a bran mixture used for poisoning the rabbits who were already a pest on the pasturelands of Central Otago. By 1897 he had built a lathe out of a gate post and chaff cutter wheel and thus was able to increase production of the disc-cutter.
Hayes went into serious engineering production which was enhanced when he built a forge in 1905 to produce his standard lifter, the famous wire strainer branded ‘Monkey’, a cart jack and wire coiler. In 1906 he invented his best known gadget, the parallel wire strainer for farm fences which was patented in 1923.

The old forge in 2010

Other Hayes inventions were water wheels, pulley blocks, cattle stops and the rachet-tightened ‘Triplex’ permanent wire strainers that have been indispensable to all farmers ever since and are still seen all over New Zealand.

Ermest Hayes retired in 1926 after which his sons carried on the business; he died in 1933, aged 82.


12 July 2010

Bank of New South Wales, St. Bathans, Central Otago

This is the well maintained (for historical reasons) Bank of New South Wales in St. Bathans, the old gold town in Central Otago. It was built in 1864. I wonder how much gold was checked in there from the wonderfully rich deposits mined just across the road?

My first bank in New Zealand was the Bank of NSW, I became a customer in 1962. The bank changed its name to Westpac Bank some years later (I think but am not sure that it was a neologism created out of Western Pacific Bank).

I expect all of the customers of the BNSW in St.Bathans were known personally and by name to the manager. I have never met my bank manager in 48 years, none of the faces I see in the bank recognize me, the staff changes with reckless speed. Despite assurances in their advertisements banks no longer offer true, personal service preferring customers to indulge in the faceless practice of going ‘on line’.

Not everything changes for the better.


11 July 2010

Vulcan Hotel, St. Bathans, Central Otago

Autumn 2010; a revisit to St. Bathans and the Vulcan Hotel, a pub that I’ve illustrated twice before in my books. Somebody is looking after it!
St Bathans was born of a gold boom in 1863. A year later it had ten hotels, forty businesses and a population of up to 2000 in the surrounding hills and gullies. Across the road from the pub you can look down into ‘The Glory Hole’, a blue lake that was once a hill 120 metres high! Gold fever hit St Bathans in a big way and, blinded by the urge to win metal above everything else, the early citizens tolerated a mushroom shanty-town of ‘corrugated iron, red iron, tin, gin cases, staves and canvas’. But there seems to have been born into gold miners a need for dignity and a prayer for permanence and so, as the town survived into and beyond the 1870s, more substantial buildings appeared, some of them with sufficient stamina to have lasted into modern times.

St Bathans today is like a time capsule from which it’s possible, in just a couple of hours, to get an appreciation of the composition of a goldfields town: a public hall that was the miners’ billiards saloon, the Bank of New South Wales Gold Office of the late 1860s, the stately old Post Office and postmaster’s residence, the ruins of the 1866 public school, damaged irreparably by earthquake in 1948, the church of St Alban the Martyr given to the town by Captain Dalgety and shipped out, pre-fabricated from England in 1883, and the stone cottage, one of the earliest permanent buildings in the town, first occupied by Sam Hanger who owned the first Vulcan Hotel.

There’s been a Vulcan in St Bathans since 1869. Sam Hanger’s first one was a little farther north than is today’s, an impermanent affair thrown up to cater for thirsts rather than architectural appreciation. Twelve years later, they replaced corrugated iron with a structure of sun-dried bricks that became the new Vulcan: it stood until early 1914 when it was burned down. In its turn it was replaced by red brick which was also destroyed by fire. The Vulcan’s licence was transferred at this time to the Ballarat Hotel, which was not in use. It had been built in 1882 and is the uniquely handsome little Vulcan Hotel in my illustration, below, and the new photograph above.


05 July 2010

Becks, Central Otago: The White Horse Hotel

As it looked in autumn 2010, this is the White Horse Hotel at Becks, on the road between Alexandra and St. Bathans. The townlet of Becks was first named White Horse and was the focus of an agricultural district in Maniototo County in the days when gold winning ruled the land hereabouts. Three times a week, coaches ran through here to connect with the Central Otago Railway; the White Horse Hotel, offered accommodation for travellers in ten bedrooms and two sitting rooms with a restaurant that could seat up to sixteen guests.

Built in 1864, the building is a mixture of timber and stacked stone schist slabs with the ubiquitous New Zealand corrugated iron roof. I first saw it in 1993 when I was writing my book ‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’. At that time the White Horse was on its way to the knacker’s yard being dilapidated apparently beyond repair and uncared for. But thankfully it has been restored and while it doesn’t have the romantic ruin of a watercolour it makes a good photograph.

I still prefer my watercolour!


03 July 2010

‘Distant Ophir’: The Post Office 1886

James Macandrew, superintendent of the Otago Provincial Council in 1872, was surely a classically educated man for when he changed the town’s name from Blacks to Ophir he knew well that gold from ancient Ophir was brought to King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

Ophir, New Zealand, was one of this country’s richest sources of gold.

As evidenced by the Daniel O’Connell bridge (see previous blog), the post office, built in 1886, is another indication that optimistic goldminers thought Ophir would grow and flourish. It didn’t grow, it didn’t flourish, but the bridge, the post office and some of the buildings are sufficiently attractive to ensure that the hamlet survives – even if only to be occupied by weekenders (perhaps from Dunedin) and retired people prepared to take on the savage winters of Central Otago.

Ophir Post Office is active: you may still post letters there through its highly polished box, buy stamps and other NZ Post services. In fact, it’s such a superior building that you’d travel quite a distance just to mail your letters and parcels from ‘distant Ophir’.


01 July 2010

Ophir, Central Otago. The Gold Miners’ Bridge

Gold miners must have been the greatest optimists ever and, I feel, incapable of learning from history. The story of gold through the ages has been of discovery, rush to mine, wealth on a large scale, oodles of individual disappointment and exhaustion of the deposits in a relatively short space of time. Thus with Ophir, the classically named nineteenth century village in Central Otago in one of the richest of auriferous landscapes in New Zealand.

Here, it was said, no gold seeker could help striking the metal if he dug no more than five feet deep. And, of course, so rich was the land, the gold was going to last forever! So they built their permanent homes, churches and public buildings (some of which exist) and they built this wonderful bridge.

When you first come across it on your way to visit Ophir it takes your breath away. It spans the gin-clear Manuherikia River (whose golden gravels could tell a few stories). It is called the Daniel O’Connell bridge, named emotionally by Irish gold seekers in honour of a hero of the fight for freedom from English rule in the old country. Sixty-three metres long and four wide, it was designed by L. MacGeorge, the local county engineer in 1878; it opened in 1880.

It still carries road traffic in and out of Ophir.



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By Don Donovan