Criterion Hotel

Criterion Hotel, Ōamaru (1877)

For long the pub with no beer

From 1874 businessmen began building on the ‘Harbour Board block’ on the newly reclaimed and subdivided western side of Tyne Street. First up were grain stores and the harbour board’s offices, then in 1877 hotelier William Gillespie built the Criterion on this key corner site. In the same year that it was reported that no Ōamaru hotel possessed a bath, architects Forrester and Lemon gave Gillespie an urn- and pinnacle-encrusted, balustraded limestone hotel that knocked the socks off the opposition. The ground floor of the adjoining building served as a wool store and offices for Connell and Clowes, while its upper floor was an extension of the Criterion.

So much for the architecture. Booze was a hot political issue from the 1880s. In 1878, when Ōamaru's population was less than 5000, there were 210 arrests for drunkenness. Teenage larrikins, often drunk, jostled people into the gutters, interrupted concerts and disturbed church services by banging on windows, shouting and throwing stones. Many thought the supposed ‘cure’ worse than the disease, as Salvation Army zealots preached, sang and played musical instruments in the streets and even took to invading the bars.

But the righteous had their revenge. The no-licence poll of 1905 killed the pubs by banning the sale of alcohol from 1906. After limping along as a private boarding house until about 1940, the Criterion passed into the hands of the local foundry, with the southern extension forming part of the premises of Jock Doherty, a local wool and skin buyer.

By the time the Historic Places Trust registered it in 1987, however, things were looking up. The Criterion and its neighbours became film stars by masquerading as colonial Dunedin in Pictures, a film about the Burton Brothers. Then the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust bought and renovated it. The urns, pinnacles and tympana (recesses) reappeared on the balustrade in 1998. These days, ‘The Cri’ and the other buildings in the restored precinct often appear in TV advertisements and movies. Once again the old Criterion’s walls echo to the sound of convivial drinkers supping hand-pumped ales. Emerson’s quaffable ‘Bookbinder’ doffs its foamy cap in the direction of the heritage bookbinder just a few doors down from the pub.

Further information

This site is item number 52 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

There are information displays at the former Oamaru Harbour Board Building, 2 Harbour Street.



  • K.C. McDonald, White stone country, North Otago Centennial Committee, Oamaru, 1962

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