Balclutha is situated on alluvial flats on the banks of the Clutha River half a mile upstream from the point where the river divides into the Matau and Koau branches to enclose the 10-milelong island of Inchclutha. The main business area of the town stands on the south bank of the Clutha River and a residential suburb called North Balclutha occupies the northern bank, the two being linked by a fine modern bridge. The surrounding country consists of alluvial flats and terraces which rise to gently undulating downland. The Dunedin-Invercargill highway and the South Island Main Trunk railway pass through Balclutha. A branch railway links Balclutha with Tahakopa in the Catlins district, 43 miles south-west. Dunedin is 51 miles north-east by road (53 miles by rail), Gore is 47 miles north-west by road or rail, and Kaitangata is 8 miles south-east by road.
The main activity of the district is sheep farming but there is some dairying and cash cropping. Cheese is produced at Paretai (10 miles southeast), and at Stirling (3 miles south-east). At Benhar (5 miles north-east) there are large pottery, pipe, and sanitary-ware works, and a lignite mine. At Finegand (2 miles south) there is a meat freezing works. Flaxmilling is carried on at Otanomomo (4 miles south). Balclutha is the servicing and distributing centre for practically the whole of the lower Clutha basin. Town industrial activities include general engineering, the manufacture of concrete products, joinery, and furniture.
The nature of the country along the coast had become fairly well known by 1839 due to visits by sealers and whalers. Port Molyneux, at the original mouth of the river, was at first the main distributing centre and place of entry for the whole of the lower Clutha basin. A small party of speculative land purchasers or their representatives arrived at Port Molyneux by the Portenia from Sydney in 1840. Their land claims were subsequently disallowed, but George Willsher and Thomas Russell held on and became the first agricultural settlers permanently established in South Otago. Frederick Tuckett, with David Monro and Maori guides came overland from Otago Harbour in May 1844. Tuckett made a sketch map indicating land considered suitable for farming and recommended the purchase of what was later called the Otago Block. Charles Henry Kettle arrived in 1847 to arrange the survey of the Otago Block. The portion lying south of the Clutha River, comprising substantially the district now served by Balclutha, was surveyed in detail by Andrew Wylie, Alfred Wills, and Edward Jollie. The first settlers arrived in the district in 1849. James McNeil may be regarded as the founder of Balclutha. His farm included the present town site and he also established a river ferry. The locality was known to the Maoris as Iwikatea but in McNeil's time it became known as Clutha Ferry. The river provided the earliest means of communication and in August 1863 the s.s. Tuapeka began a regular service on the river as far as Tuapeka Mouth. The river service ended in 1939. After the discovery of gold at Tuapeka by Gabriel Read in 1861, the primitive road system was improved. A coach service began to run between Dunedin and Clutha Ferry in January 1861 and between Invercargill and Dunedin via Clutha Ferry in 1864. The township grew steadily and in 1863 town sections were surveyed at what is now North Balclutha.
The first bridge across the Clutha at Balclutha was opened in 1868. In 1875 the Dunedin-Invercargill railway reached the north bank at Balclutha and the rail link with Invercargill was completed in 1879. In 1878 a serious flood occurred, Balclutha was flooded, and the road bridge destroyed. The lower course of the Clutha changed and Port Molyneux was ruined as a port. Soon after, stopbanks were erected to protect the town from further flooding. The names Balclutha and Clutha were chosen by the prospective Scottish settlers in 1846 so that the future principal town of South Otago would have an association with the city of Glasgow. Clutha is the ancient name of the River Clyde, and Balclutha means “town of the Clyde”. Balclutha was constituted a borough on 10 August 1870.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 2,624; 1956 census, 3,323; 1961 census, 3,928.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.