Oamaru Harbour Board offices

Oamaru Harbour Board offices (1876)

Monument to a colonial polymath

The Harbour Boards Act 1870 created a new type of local authority. Until then provincial governments’ harbour departments had struggled to provide basic facilities for a range of disputatious settlements. In time New Zealand would have 60 harbour boards (though many were short-lived and some were merely the local road board or county council doubling as a harbour authority). Ōamaru was one of the more substantial. Nevertheless, it overstretched itself and by defaulting on interest payments in 1891 it ‘made the name of Ōamaru an unpleasant one in the ears of London money-lenders’ and caused the Financial Times to mutter about ‘the recklessness or worse of colonial borrowers’.

All of which makes this building, after the harbour itself, the best memorial to Ōamaru’s famous architect, Thomas Forrester (1838-1907). Forrester never trained as an architect – between 1872 and 1890 he designed part-time while merchant John Lemon managed their business – but this colonial polymath was much more than that. A draughtsman, engineer and self-taught architect, Forrester was also a first-rate administrator and a gifted amateur scholar. From the mid-1870s until his death, Forrester worked for the Oamaru Harbour Board as its secretary, inspector of works and later engineer. His discovery that the sea floor could be dredged kept Ōamaru in the vital ‘Home’ (UK) trade. He supervised the assembly of the board’s dredge, and later designed Holmes Wharf, which kept another generation of the largest ships calling. For decades he sweated blood as the senior officer of a port authority whose finances were every bit as rocky as its seabed.

The building, which now houses the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust’s office, was restored a few years ago. The 2006 date on the parapet was a little optimistic; work actually finished the following year. The ground floor houses information panels about the port’s history.

Further information

This site is item number 49 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

Information displays, former Oamaru Harbour Board Building, 2 Harbour Street. Harbour heritage trail along the waterfront.



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