Oamaru Harbour

Page 2 – Early days

Oamaru, fair Oamaru; the port of Oamaru
     We tell you here there's nought
     to fear
     For the port of Oamaru.

'B.N.K.E.', North Otago Times, 1884

European settlement at Oamaru began in 1853 when Hugh Robison built a musterer’s hut on the foreshore. North Otago was good for sheep-runs, and in the 1860s the town grew rich servicing pastoralists and gold miners.

Oamaru, though, was no port. Cape Wanbrow, a stubby little headland, gave some shelter from southerly winds but none from easterlies. In the absence of breakwaters and wharves, ships anchored in the open sea, loading and discharging cargo into surf boats. It was slow, sweaty work.

It was also dangerous. Cables guided the surf boats through the breakers in a hair-raising surge of foam. Once on the beach, the boat crews sledged them up to a cargo shed. Passengers received similar treatment. As the boats approached the beach, boatmen waded out, took the passengers on their backs and carried them ashore.

This was possible only in fine, calm weather. Ships’ captains kept a weather eye on the horizon. At the first sign of danger or a shift in the wind, work stopped and they fled out to sea.

Oamaru’s exposed beach made it one of New Zealand’s most dangerous anchorages. More than 20 ships were wrecked there between 1860 and 1875, and many more were damaged and recovered. In the worst example, on the night of 3–4 February 1868, a huge storm wrecked a new jetty foolishly built out into the bay from an unprotected site, as well as the ships Star of Tasmania, Water Nymph and Otago. Four people drowned.

How to cite this page

'Early days', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/oamaru-harbour-early-days, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-May-2017