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Ōamaru, whitestone city - roadside stories

The elegant buildings of Ōamaru were constructed from the local limestone, which is creamy in colour and easily carved. The town flourished from the 1880s, when an export trade in frozen meat developed at Totara Estate, 10 km to the south-west.


Narrator: Ōamaru is known as Whitestone City, and anyone who drives up its main street and looks at the magnificent set of gleaming white buildings will understand why.

Stone buildings such as those found in Ōamaru are not as common in New Zealand as in other countries, but Ōamaru is fortunate to be close to a source of very pure limestone. The limestone was made from tiny shells which formed as a shell bank 25 to 40 million years ago when most of New Zealand was beneath the waves. When the limestone is really deeply buried it becomes hard and is transformed into marble; but when it is only shallow the limestone remains soft.  This was the case with the limestone near Ōamaru, so it can easily be carved and cut with a saw. Because of its purity it is also exceptionally white.

Quarrying in the Ōamaru area began in the 1860s, and it became popular throughout New Zealand for decorative work. If you see white corner blocks or window frames or even carved gargoyles, you are most likely seeing Ōamaru stone.

But it took some time before Ōamaru could afford to enjoy its local stone. Although laid out in 1858 with its streets named after British rivers, the town did not immediately flourish. This was partly because its port was a notorious ship cemetery. Vessels that anchored off-shore to load their goods into surfboats were exposed to strong easterlies.

In 1867 at least eight ships were swept ashore. The next year a storm swept two ships onto the beach and five people died. But in 1875 a large breakwater was built, and Ōamaru could safely send its wool and grain to the world.

Seven years later in 1882 came an even more important advance. Until then the farms in the area had grown sheep purely for their wool. Their meat was considered of little value, with carcasses usually boiled down to make tallow which was used for candles or soap. But Australians had begun to export frozen meat. Now Ōamaru led the way in New Zealand.  

From their Tōtara Estate farm, just south of Ōamaru, the New Zealand and Australian Land Company built an export slaughterhouse. From there, carcasses were sent by train to Port Chalmers where they were frozen for sailing on the first shipment of frozen meat to Great Britain.

The ship was not custom-built, which might explain why there were a few problems during the three-month voyage. At one stage the captain nearly froze to death when he had to crawl inside the refrigerator to drill extra holes so the air could circulate properly. However, the crew managed to resuscitate the captain. He, and all but one of the sheep carcasses, eventually made it to Britain unscathed.

Tōtara Estate was the beginning of New Zealand’s billion-dollar export frozen meat industry which established this country as the ‘farmyard of Britain’ for most of the 20th century. The frozen meat trade helped New Zealand out of the economic depression of the 1880s, and brought prosperity to Ōamaru. The result was the construction of the elegant white stone buildings along the main street and in the port area. The classical designs of the banks and the ostentatious town hall speak of a community that believed it was going places, and could proclaim a splendid future through the gleaming white stone.

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Ōamaru, whitestone city - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated