Ōamaru Courthouse

Ōamaru Courthouse (1883)

Colonial justice

These days Ōamaru is a retirement and heritage centre, but the youthful, male-dominated colonial town was often a noisy, violent and drunken place, where testosterone and hard liquor mixed messily. The first police arrived in 1861 and six years later the provincial government took over part of the reserve on the west of Thames Street for a new police station and gaol. To local historian K.C. McDonald the outlandish 1869 gaol’s hexagonal tower and crenellated parapets looked ‘like the castle of a minor baron.’ The gaol closed in 1913 and came down a long time ago, but its ruined stables survive behind the Thames Street buildings.

The first courthouse (1863) ended its days as the Pioneer Gallery (on the site of the present public library). Ōamaruvians kept it busy, but caseloads gradually reduced thanks to the combined effects of recession, an aging population and from the 1880s the temperance movement’s often-noisy crusade against the ‘demon drink’. But in the early days the crime rate was high, with the 6000 residents charged with 823 offences in 1880.

This second courthouse, which also housed Supreme Court sittings until 1931, is generally considered Forrester & Lemon’s masterpiece. Unlike many of its earliest ‘clients’, its centrally-placed temple-front portico with Corinthian columns presents a dignified and sober face to Thames Street.

Along with many other New Zealand heritage buildings, the courthouse’s future has been made more uncertain by the 2010-11 Canterbury earthquakes. In December 2011 the Ministry of Justice announced its ‘temporary’ closure while strengthening options are explored. In March 2013 it downgraded the Ōamaru District Court (now operating from the Opera House) to a hearing-only court, transferring its registry office functions to Timaru.   

Further information

This site is item number 62 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • Conal McCarthy, Forrester and Lemon of Oamaru, Architects, North Otago Branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Oamaru, 2002

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