University of Otago

University of Otago

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University of Otago (1878-1922)

Southern Scots emphasise education

Otago’s Lowland Scots settlers took education seriously, extending its benefits to girls with a thoroughness that distinguished them from other British colonists. The provincial council established New Zealand’s first university in 1869, just 21 years after Dunedin started taking shape on Ōtepoti’s silty shores. When the new institution opened in the Exchange on 5 July 1871, offices and shops shut to let people watch the ceremonies.

The clock tower is best viewed from across the Water of Leith, Dunedin’s concrete-imprisoned stream. Enjoy the handsome little pedestrian bridge at the northern end of the block, for university bureaucrats still dreamt of replacing it with another unwanted conduit for cars embarrassingly recently. Maxwell Bury’s 1879 Clock Tower Block salutes its model, the Glasgow University of 1870, with a vivid contrast of white Ōamaru stone and Leith Valley basalt. The site has a harmony of style that reflects the care that later architect Edmund Anscombe put into the extensions to the southern end in 1912 and 1922. The Geology Block (1878) and the former School of Mines (1909) show how important mining was to the economy of the day. Another adjacent Gothic block, Allen Hall (1914) was the original student centre. The Gothic campus buildings were finally completed in 1923, when builders put the finishing touches on Marama Hall – originally named Maheno and Marama Hall in honour of New Zealand’s two wartime hospital ships.

To the north of the clock tower complex off quiet Saint David Street are two semi-detached Moeraki gravel-plastered brick professorial houses, Sale-Black and Scott-Shand, named after their original inhabitants. It was all too much for the Otago Witness. ‘The Professors’ houses first startled observers by their extraordinary complications and inclinations of window and roof', it croaked on 15 March 1879, ‘and have eventually horrified all moderate tastes by blooming forth in a tint of the darkest and most inflammatory red’. Fear not, they are now a wimpish marmalade.

Most of the buildings and structures mentioned so far are Victorian or early 20th-century, and cluster around the Leith at the heart of the campus, but the university, now serving more than 20,000 ‘scarfies’ (students) is not a museum piece. There are also some fine modern structures, including the 1954 Dental School with its Modernist lines (Historic Place Category I, corner of Frederick and Great King Streets) and the Central Library in Union Street.

Further information

This site is item number 54 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

On the ground

There are plaques and information boards around the university.



  • W.P. Morrell, The University of Otago: a centennial history, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 1969

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Robertina Downes

Posted: 20 May 2018

I am researching a rugby Jersey which has Otago university crest. This is an old jersey modelled on the 1905 All Blacks original but instead of the silver fern it has Otago university emblem. I can provide photo if required. This garment was produced by Roslyn kinitting mills, makers label is Roslyn.