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Former Union Steam Ship Company Headquarters


USSC headquaters

Former Union Steam Ship Company Headquarters (1883)

New Zealand’s first multinational

Certain streets earn themselves international reputations. Wall Street, New York, is an international financial magnet and for nearly two centuries Leadenhall Street, London, was the centre of international shipping. Let us take a stroll down to Water Street, a Dunedin street whose occupants once reached across the globe. These days it is a backwater, beggared by Dunedin’s dreary enthusiasm for one-way streets. In late Victorian days, though, it lay at the heart of New Zealand’s business community, which was centred on the city’s [stock] Exchange area.

Water Street, built on reclaimed land, soon housed the headquarters of some of Australasia’s most important companies. Like the other New Zealand colossus headquartered here, the Westport Coal Company (which Union strongly influenced), the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd and the National Mortgage and Agency Company shared common directorates, with Union men, notably members of the Ritchie family, collecting meeting fees from all three.

James Mills (1847-1936) founded the Union Company in 1875. Backed by British and colonial investors, he quickly made it the southern hemisphere’s biggest shipping line. By 1883, when this building took shape across the railway tracks from the Steamer Basin, Union dominated the coastal and trans-Tasman routes and was tying up the coal industry.

Architect David Ross gave Mills an impressive Italian-style building. The roofline was a riot of minarets, ironwork and flagpoles, dominated by the observatory dome, from which company managers could watch ships come up the harbour. Is it too fanciful to suggest that the centre of the facade, surmounted by ‘a pyrament with an emblematic design (globe, anchor, cable etc) enclosing a clock’, symbolised Mills’s ambition and reach? The lower part of the building was built of Port Chalmers stone, the remainder of brick cemented over. There were open fireplaces in the boardroom and key offices, but the entire building was heated by Ashbury’s process.

Union jumped ship for Wellington in 1921 and eight years later it swapped its Water Street premises with the National Mortgage and Agency Company. NMA, a colossal farm servicing and investment company, had spent its whole life in Water Street, and Union’s was its third and last head office, serving it until the 1960s. NMA modernised the building, toppling the minarets, flagpoles and other finery and slighting it so convincingly that a 1988 book on Dunedin architecture declared that it had been demolished.

It was down at heel but not down! In 2010 the city council granted the owners $20,000 to help refurbish and strengthen the building. Three years later it was the overall winner in the city’s heritage re-use awards. The building still reflects the NMA heritage rather than the more important Union Company one, but it is now tenanted and the DCC is considering revitalising the surrounding warehouse and office district. Maybe one day Heritage New Zealand will finally register New Zealand’s most important historic office building?

Further information

This site is item number 61 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

Diagonally opposite this building, the one that NMA swapped for it still bears the Union Steam Ship Company name. The Maritime Hall of the Otago Museum and the Port Chalmers Regional Maritime Museum display many ship models and other material from the Union Company’s fleet.



  • Gavin McLean, The southern octopus: the rise of a shipping empire, New Zealand Ship & Marine Society/Wellington Maritime Museum, Wellington, 1990

Text: Gavin McLean, 2013

Colour images: Gavin McLean

Black and white image: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Reference: C.012197
Permission of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa must be obtained before any reuse of this image.

How to cite this page

Former Union Steam Ship Company Headquarters, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated