Dominated by inland ranges and basins, Otago also includes the southernmost peaks of the Southern Alps, coastal lowlands, and the Catlins hill country. It is more geographically diverse than the neighbouring regions of Canterbury and Southland, which are both centred on large plains. When the settlement of Dunedin was founded on Otago Harbour in 1848, it became a centre for both the interior and coastal regions. Otago’s landscapes have a wild and dramatic beauty that can sometimes also be bleak.
Large numbers of moa (large flightless birds) attracted Māori to the lower South Island, which they called Murihiku. However, by the time of European settlement moa were extinct and Māori were clustered on the coast. They identified themselves as Ngāi Tahu, and also with that tribe’s predecessors, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha. European sealers began arriving in the 1790s, and whalers in the 1800s; both intermarried with local Māori. They created a mixed-ancestry population which was later much outnumbered by European settlers.
Otago is the product of its Scottish origins and its gold rushes. The solidity of the former and the wealth of the latter combined to create New Zealand’s most populous and wealthy city by the 1880s.
In the late 19th century Dunedin spawned vigorous businesses and a strong labour movement. The city’s public spirit saw education, medicine, and causes such as missionary activity, temperance and women’s suffrage campaigns thrive. English, Irish Catholic, Jewish, Lebanese and Chinese immigrants added to the cultural mix.
In the 20th century Dunedin’s hinterland did not have the same scope for growth as North Island areas. The city ceded its primacy to northern cities. It remained regionally significant, and nationally prominent as a centre for higher education and medicine.
The region is commonly divided into North, South and Central Otago, and Dunedin. North Otago is centred on Ōamaru, South Otago on Balclutha, and Central Otago on Alexandra, Queenstown and Wānaka. West and East Otago designate smaller areas around Tapanui and Palmerston.
The local government districts are Queenstown Lakes, Central Otago, Clutha (South and West Otago), Waitaki (North and East Otago) and Dunedin City. The region is covered by Otago Regional Council, except for part of Waitaki district, which is affiliated with Canterbury Regional Council.
With an area of 36,000 square kilometres, Otago is a bit larger than the Netherlands, Taiwan, or the US state of Maryland. But it has far fewer people – 202,000, compared with Maryland’s 6 million, 17 million Dutch and 24 million Taiwanese.
Otago’s 2013 census population of just over 202,000 was 4.8% of the New Zealand total.
With 112,000 people in 2013, the Dunedin urban area accounted for 55% of the region’s population. The next largest urban centres were Queenstown and Ōamaru (both over 10,000), then Wānaka (6,481), Alexandra (4,800) and Balclutha (3,918).
The Queenstown Lakes district population almost doubled between 1996 and 2013, making it one of the fastest growing districts in New Zealand.
Over 14,000 Otago residents identified themselves as Māori in the 2013 census. Over two-thirds had ancestral links to Ngāi Tahu, the South Island’s main tribe.
Otago is dominated by ranges and basins that stretch east from the Southern Alps across Central Otago, reaching the ocean near Palmerston and Waikouaiti. The Taieri River, the Shag River (Waihemo) and the Clutha and its tributaries drain most of this block of land.
Central Otago is a massive block of schist (metamorphosed greywacke), part of the 85-million-year-old Zealandia continent, the surface of which was eroded over 60 million years and then uplifted in the last 2 million years. The uplift in Central Otago was not as dramatic as that which produced the Southern Alps, but it reactivated faults, producing the alternating ranges and basins found across the region.
The rivers were established before the land was uplifted, and in places – notably between Queenstown and Cromwell, Cromwell and Clyde, and Alexandra and Millers Flat – they have cut gorges into the uplifted rock.
Huge castle-like columns of rock up to 20 metres high, tors are schist outcrops on the summits of the Central Otago ranges. They have weathered less rapidly than the surrounding, less resistant schist, which is the basement rock of Central Otago.
To the north-west, the Central Otago block abuts the Southern Alps, where glaciers have gouged the deep valleys that now contain Lakes Wakatipu, Wānaka and Hāwea. Mt Aspiring/Tititea (3,027 metres) is the highest peak in New Zealand outside the Aoraki/Mt Cook area.
Central Otago is flanked to its north-east and south by the alluvial plains of the Waitaki and Clutha rivers, which are at the centre of North and South Otago respectively.
There are three other sub-regions.
Otago’s geology and landforms have shaped it in a variety of ways. Gold in the Central Otago rivers brought population and wealth, but later growth – especially in farming – was limited by elevation and by poorer soils than Southland and Canterbury.
Artists, many from Dunedin, have responded powerfully to the Central Otago landscape. Tourists have favoured Central Otago and the lakes district for their dramatic landscapes and unrivalled combination of winter and summer pastimes. In the 2000s Queenstown and Wānaka were among New Zealand’s fastest-growing towns.
Otago, in particular Central Otago, has some of New Zealand’s highest and lowest temperatures, and its lowest rainfall. As an elevated region, relatively distant from the ocean, Central Otago has a more continental climate than any other area of the country.
In July, the coldest month, the average maximum temperature in Alexandra is only 8.1ºC – one of the lowest in New Zealand. Ranfurly, north-east of Alexandra, has registered the country’s lowest recorded temperature of -25.6ºC.
Alexandra's average maximum temperature in January, the hottest month, is 25.1ºC – much hotter than Otago’s coastal districts. Alexandra’s highest temperatures in summer can exceed 37ºC – equal to Timaru, and lower than only Gisborne and Christchurch. Alexandra also has a much higher proportion of days over 30ºC than Auckland, which is 1,000 kilometres further north.
The City of Dunedin website claims that Dunedin is known for its ‘ideal winter weather and warm summer months … a subtropical marine climate’. 1 Sadly, it’s not Dunedin, New Zealand, but Dunedin, Florida. The American city was founded by two Scots in 1899, and – like its chillier New Zealand namesake – acknowledges its origins with Highland games, bagpipes and marching bands.
Coastal Otago’s climate is moderated by the ocean, but is significantly cooler than coastal regions further north. Dunedin’s mean January temperature is 15.3ºC, compared with 17.5ºC in Christchurch and 19.1ºC in Auckland. Its July mean of 6.6ºC is the same as Christchurch but is well below Auckland’s 10.9ºC.
Dunedin averages 1,682 sunshine hours annually – far lower than Alexandra, which has 2,005.
Parts of Central Otago have New Zealand’s lowest rainfall by far. Alexandra’s 359 millimetres is well below the country’s next lowest centre (Timaru, with 548 millimetres). Queenstown, closer to the west coast, and Dunedin, on the east coast, receive 749 and 738 millimetres of rain respectively – still dry compared with the western South Island and the North Island.
When humans first arrived in Central Otago, it was probably covered in forests of mataī and tōtara. However, Māori burnt much of the forest, which was unable to regenerate in the dry climate, and tussock took its place. Today tussock is most common on the heights. The lower-lying parts of Central Otago are planted in pasture with stands of orchard and shelter trees. These, particularly poplars, display dramatic colour changes in late autumn.
Introduced grasses are also characteristic in coastal North and South Otago, although there are significant stands of native forest in the Catlins district, and plantation forests around Tapanui and in other districts closer to Dunedin. Some pasture in the Catlins has reverted to mānuka and eventually to forest.
Beech forest grows on the Otago section of the Southern Alps, between 800 and 1,200 metres. Higher up this gives way to tussock, then subalpine plants, and then bare rock and snow.
Erosion, triggered by rabbits and the replacement of tussock by pasture, has limited livestock-carrying capacity in many areas. Stock have subsequently been concentrated in areas favourable to pasture growth. Cultivating lucerne (alfalfa) for winter fodder has boosted carrying capacity. Irrigation has helped develop orchards in the Clutha valley, and has also been used for some pastures, especially in the Ida valley.
Central Otago was once an important habitat for moa. Today it is home to smaller animals, notably skinks. The rare Cromwell chafer beetle is found only in a small area near Cromwell. Coastal Otago is home to seal and penguin colonies – including the rare yellow-eyed penguin – and to the royal albatross breeding grounds at Taiaroa Head.
Traditionally, the Waitaha people had authority over Murihiku, the southern part of the South Island, and their traditions are included in those of more recent arrivals. Around 250 years ago Ngāti Māmoe, originally from the North Island’s east coast, became established in Murihiku. They in turn fell under the sway of another tribe from the North Island’s East Coast, Ngāi Tahu.
Traces of human occupation in Murihiku can be dated back to before 1300. The first Polynesian arrivals in New Zealand soon made their way to the plains and basins of the eastern and southern South Island, where the flightless moa were found in large numbers.
In the course of hunting, much of inland Otago was burnt, and the forest was replaced by tussock.
Dating of mounds of moa bones reveals none after about 1500 AD, suggesting moa became extinct around then. Murihiku’s ability to sustain a population was much reduced. The climate was too cold to grow kūmara (sweet potato), so there was no horticulture.
Settlement was focused on the coast, where ocean fish, seabirds and seals were plentiful. People journeyed inland to harvest eels, forest birds such as weka and kererū (New Zealand pigeons), and tī kouka (cabbage trees).
They also travelled to sources of highly-valued pounamu (greenstone) in the headwaters of rivers draining into Lakes Wakatipu and Wānaka, and on the South Island’s west coast.
European sealers first arrived in Murihiku in the 1790s. They set up camps at various places around the coast, mostly in Fiordland, and introduced the potato. A decade or so later whalers also appeared in southern waters. In the 1830s they established shore stations in sheltered waters from Moeraki to Tautuku and further south.
Leaders such as Tūhawaiki and Taiaroa were adept at warding off incursions by northern Māori and at managing relationships with Pākehā, many of whom became bound to Māori families through marriage.
With the establishment of the shore stations, some Europeans sought to buy Murihiku land, but these dealings were voided by the colonial government which was set up after the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in February 1840. In June 1840 Major Thomas Bunbury gained the signatures of Ngāi Tahu leaders to the treaty. In 1844 the Ngāi Tahu chiefs Taiaroa and Karetai agreed to the sale of the Otago block, opening the way for Pākehā settlement.
In the late 1840s the shore whaling stations ran out of whales. The Māori population with whom the whalers had intermarried was much depleted by disease, and within a few years of settlers arriving from Scotland in the late 1840s, whaling was finished and Māori were a small minority of the population. According to one writer, ‘in the new play about to start, the Ngaitahu and the whalers soon found themselves dismissed from centre stage’. 1
However some individuals straddled both worlds. Notably, whaler Johnny Jones moved from Waikouaiti to Dunedin, and was active in commerce and shipping in the new town until his death in 1869.
The planned settlement on the shores of Otago Harbour was to be called New Edinburgh, reflecting its Scottish origins. But instead the name Otago was adopted, a version of Ōtākou, the name of the Māori pā near the entrance to the harbour.
‘Otago’ is a version of Ōtākou, the name of a village on Otago Harbour. There is no ‘g’ in written Māori, so people have often assumed that ‘Otago’ is a corruption. However, the Ngāi Tahu dialect uses a hard ‘g’ sound in Ōtākou, while ‘ou’ becomes a long ‘o’ – so the variation in spelling is actually an accurate representation of local pronunciation.
Two Scots, George Rennie and William Cargill, were early promoters of settlement. They allied themselves with members of the Free Church of Scotland, a movement of ministers and their congregations who had left the established church in 1843 in a move towards lay control.
The plan eventually took off in 1847 when the New Zealand Company gained legal title to the Otago block, which it had bought in 1844 for £2,400. Though the name New Edinburgh was foregone in favour of Otago, the new town was called Dunedin – a Gaelic version of Edinburgh.
After a voyage of 100 days, the first emigrant ship, the John Wickliffe, arrived off Otago Peninsula on 21 March 1848, under a ‘sultry ethereal sky, quite of the Italian character’. 1 It entered Otago Harbour in calm, sunny autumn weather two days later.
While only about half of households were Free Church adherents, and there was a significant number of English, the 12,000 immigrants who arrived in the 1850s strengthened the Scots–Presbyterian character of Otago. In 1856 the Reverend Thomas Burns counted 1,000 Presbyterians, 250 Anglicans, 61 independents and 11 Catholics in Dunedin.
Burns and the layman William Cargill were the leaders of the settlement. Burns was the principal minister. Cargill was the agent for the New Zealand Company, and the first superintendent when the settlement elected a provincial council in 1853, an office he held until his death in 1860. But a number of those in positions of authority – such as justices of the peace – were of English origin. Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson was among them. Through the 1850s he ranged over much of the province, exploring, surveying and naming.
The settlement had a distinctive social and cultural composition. A Sabbath ordinance outlawed games, manual labour, shooting and shop sales on Sunday. Free public primary education, as in Scotland, was also introduced. Prohibitionists wanted to stop the trading and consumption of liquor but they were not successful; hotels did vigorous business, as in other early settlements.
Although socially and culturally distinctive, Otago resembled the settlements established in central New Zealand earlier in the 1840s. Crops were sold to Victoria and Sydney during the Australian gold rushes, and some half a million sheep were profitably pastured by 1861. Successful pastoralists preferred to lease land, and invested in stock, not land or labour. Rural districts closer to Dunedin were more intensively farmed. The town’s residents pursued occupations familiar from Scotland such as shopkeeping, skilled trades and labouring – but on higher wages.
Following closely behind explorers and surveyors, graziers penetrated both coastal and Central Otago in the 1850s. Some of the biggest runs were far into the interior, around Lake Wakatipu, where William Rees was the first to pasture sheep. Brothers James and William Murison ran flocks on the Maniototo Plain, William Fraser at Earnscleugh, and brothers Alexander and Watson Shennan in the Manuherikia valley. They leased pasture land – ‘runs’ – from the provincial government for their stock. Runholders also took up land in North Otago. Both districts saw an influx of shepherds, drovers and station hands.
From 1861 gold mining overshadowed all other economic activity, but wool retained the second ranking. Crops, including wheat and oats, thrived due to local markets in the goldfields and in the fast-growing town of Dunedin.
The scale of Central Otago’s rabbit plague – and the ensuing business in carcasses – prompted the Mount Ida Chronicle to report in 1898 that ‘the rabbit industry is in full swing, huge piles of departed bunny being taken daily by train down to the coast’. 1
Returns from wool dipped in 1868 but rose through most of the 1870s. But from the 1880s the industry was hit by problems. The disease of scab infected and killed sheep. Many formerly productive pastures were subject to erosion, and rabbit infestations affected Central Otago severely, probably on account of its dryness. Rabbit carcasses themselves became an export. In 1920 sheep numbers in Otago were the same as in 1880.
In 1882 the first shipment of refrigerated meat left Port Chalmers, destined for the United Kingdom. The second shipment from Otago failed, but problems were overcome and a new market opened up for sheep meat as well as wool.
Farmers and companies invested in meat-freezing works, which were established near Dunedin (Burnside), Ōamaru (Pukeuri) and Balclutha (Finegand). All were on railway lines that linked them to Port Chalmers and Ōamaru Harbour.
During the severe drought of 1906–7 North Otago farmers lobbied for explosives to be fired into the sky to prompt rain. Three trial shots were fired on 16 August, and although no rain was noted at the site, it was reported 28 kilometres away, encouraging the believers. Unfortunately for the experiment – but fortunately for the farmers – the drought broke on the night of the 18th.
Opportunities opened up by refrigeration encouraged people to become farmers. Closer settlement was Liberal government policy, and landowners could be forced to subdivide. But many owners in coastal Otago, who had bought when wool returns were buoyant, were happy to subdivide. They included the Teschemakers at Taipō and the Holmeses at Awamoa. Across North Otago 15 estates were divided into 540 holdings between 1895 and 1909.
Most of the successful applicants for sections were farm labourers, or farmers and their sons. An initial enthusiasm for dairying gave way to raising sheep for wool and meat after the droughts of 1906–7 and 1910.
Cropping, which had thrived on the estates, declined, partly because of the unreliable climate. But it was still significant, especially in North Otago, which had many flour mills. Wheat regained appeal after a tariff was imposed on Australian wheat in 1927, but it did not recover its formerly dominant position.
Orcharding developed in Central Otago from the late 19th century, partly a consequence of irrigation using old goldfield water races, but also of the climate with its extremes of heat and cold. Campaigners for the Central Otago railway, which reached Clyde in 1907, saw it as a way to promote development, including the marketing of orchard fruit outside the region.
West and South Otago both had substantial tracts of forest. Sawmilling, rail-track laying and road-making employed settlers as they broke in farmland. In the Catlins many of the small farms proved uneconomic, and the land reverted to forest during the 20th century.
Gold was identified in a number of Otago waterways in the 1850s, but the leaders of the Otago settlement were ambivalent – a gold rush might bring riches, but also disorder and a labour shortage. However, rewards for finding gold were offered from 1860, suggesting official opinion was shifting.
The first rush came after gold was discovered in payable quantities near the Tuapeka River, a tributary of the Clutha, in 1861. It drew miners from Australia’s Victorian goldfields, which had been thriving for a decade. A slice of the goldfields population of Victoria moved across the Tasman – not just diggers, but businesspeople, entertainers and others who saw prospects in the new fields.
From Gabriels Gully at Tuapeka, named after discoverer Gabriel Read, diggers fanned out across Central Otago. The cold winter of 1862, when river levels were low, was the making of the Dunstan (Cromwell) rush, after diggers found gold at the junction of the Clutha and Kawarau rivers.
The summer of 1862–63 saw finds in the Arrow and Shotover rivers – Thomas Arthur found 200 ounces (nearly 6 kilograms) of gold in eight days on the Shotover, at the place still named Arthurs Point. Nearby, Queenstown ‘erupted into existence’ 1 on Lake Wakatipu.
Closer to Dunedin, new finds were made in the Manuherikia and Taieri Rivers and their tributaries in late 1863.
James Beattie was shepherding at Galloway on the Manuherikia River in 1862 when payable gold was discovered in the nearby Clutha River. 55 years later Beattie reminisced about the rush that followed:
On Saturday we enjoyed our usual sylvan quietness on that remote sheep-run. On the Sabbath morning, a clear frosty morning in August, we could see the diggers coming … in one long continuous stream, all heading for the Clutha River … they reminded me of the gipsies in the Old Land. Some came with packhorses, some with bullocks, some even utilised dogs as carriers, while many carried all their belongings on their shoulders in ‘swags’. 2
The 1860s as a whole saw Otago earn £10 million from gold exports, compared with £3.57 million from wool.
Alluvial gold lent itself to individual mining endeavour, but the finds were often quickly exhausted. The peak annual production of 17,400 kilograms was reached in 1863, as was the peak goldfields population of 22,000.
From 1866 the arrival of Chinese miners (brought in initially by Otago businessmen) prolonged the life of the diggings, as did the use of elaborate water sluicing races (first introduced in 1862), but there were no ‘rushes’ after 1864.
The goldfields population was mostly male – about three-quarters so in 1874 – and adult, without the prolific families of the more settled districts. The influx of Irish alongside Scots and English made the goldfields districts more Catholic and less Presbyterian than the rest of Otago.
Premier Julius Vogel’s colony-wide immigration and public works scheme was a gold rush by another name. Otago received 27,000 assisted immigrants in the 1870s – more than any other province. Ōamaru and Dunedin invested in ports, and in railways linked with Christchurch (1878) and Invercargill (1879). Dunedin’s population increased nearly tenfold between 1858 and 1871 (from 1,700 to 14,800), and nearly tripled again in the 1870s, to just over 39,000 by 1881. In that year, it was New Zealand’s largest urban centre, and Otago had a fifth of the country’s population. Neither ranking was ever attained again.
From the 1880s quartz mining – where quartz rock was crushed mechanically to extract the gold in it – was tried in the Shotover and at Bendigo, east of the Clutha River upstream of Cromwell. Quartz-mining enterprises were eager for electric power, and New Zealand’s first industrial hydroelectric plant was set up at the Bullendale mine near Queenstown in 1886.
Gold booms around 1890 and later in the decade thrived on the basis of massive dredges – Otago’s contribution to mining technology – which could extract river gold out of reach of individual miners.
At the peak of dredging, around 1900, about 100 dredges operated on the Clutha River, 15 on the Manuherikia, and 33 on the Kawarau and Nevis. The last dredge stopped working at Alexandra in 1963.
The very efficiency of the dredges exhausted the new finds, but they also triggered one of New Zealand’s first stock-market booms. Engineering firms in Dunedin such as A. & T. Burt also benefited.
Gold gave Otago the wherewithal to celebrate both faith and origins. In 1861 a design competition was held for the first permanent Presbyterian Church in the province. The First Church was to be built on the newly flattened Bell Hill in Dunedin. Winner Robert Lawson came to Dunedin from Melbourne in 1862 and was to practise architecture in the city until 1890. The church was built between 1868 and 1873.
The statue in the Octagon of renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns (uncle of First Church minister Thomas Burns, who died in 1871) was unveiled in 1887 before a crowd of over 8,000.
As in Scotland, education was valued. A high school for both boys and girls was established by 1863. Seven years later, one was set up for girls, the first girls’ public school in the Australasian colonies. The University of Otago enrolled its first students in 1871. It was provided with an endowment of 100,000 acres (40,468 hectares) of pastoral land and authority to grant degrees in arts, medicine, law and music. Degrees in mining, dentistry, commerce and physical education were added later. Knox College, established to train Presbyterian ministers (men only until 1983), opened in 1909.
The Caledonian Society of Otago, established in 1862, was still thriving in 2009. The society organises annual Highland games in Dunedin, with the traditional entertainments of caber tossing, pipe bands and Scottish dancing – as well as the more New Zealand-flavoured event of gumboot tossing.
In 1921, three generations after Otago was founded, most of coastal Otago was more than 55% Presbyterian (compared with 20% in Canterbury and the North Island). In 1956 the region as a whole was still 44% Presbyterian.
The church influenced a variety of social causes. Presbyterianism sustained movements for temperance, prohibition, women’s suffrage, and the rights of workers, women and children. All of these causes had other influences, but drew inspiration from the vigorous social and moral conscience of Presbyterianism. Rutherford Waddell, minister at St Andrew’s in Dunedin from 1879, was a strong liberalising influence on the Presbyterian church of the time; he was also instrumental in exposing sweated labour in Dunedin.
Otago Presbyterians were strong supporters of the church’s missions in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), China, India, and the Urewera country of the North Island. Its work drew in individuals as diverse as Annie James, Jean Begg, Alexander Don and George McNeur.
More districts in Otago and Southland than in any other part of New Zealand voted themselves ‘dry’ (prohibiting the sale of alcohol) under local option votes from 1894. They remained dry until the 1940s and 1950s.
Gold made Otago New Zealand’s wealthiest and most populous province. By 1870, one-third of exports came from Otago, and one-quarter of the country’s population lived there.
Dunedin’s entrepreneurs were influential in shaping the city’s economy. Some came from Scotland, some from England, and some from Victoria, Australia. They usually had some business or craft experience, and knew there was more, or at least steadier, money selling to miners than being a miner.
The typical 19th-century Dunedin entrepreneur was born in the 1830s or 1840s and came to Otago in the early to mid-1860s. By the mid-1870s his business was well-established in Dunedin and nearby parts of Otago. By the 1890s the company had a national distribution network. Some Otago businesses went international.
Commerce proved a field in which ethnic minorities could make headway. Bendix Hallenstein, who was Jewish, came from Victoria in the 1860s and started a retail business in Queenstown. He was based in Dunedin from the early 1880s, running both the family business and the Drapery Importing Company (DIC). His companies traded New Zealand-wide by the early 20th century. Other Jewish business families included the Felses and the Theomins. The Farrys, who worked in the clothing business, were from Lebanon. Chinese in Otago moved from being gold seekers to market gardeners around Dunedin. The Chinese Sew Hoy family went into the clothing business.
The most successful and adventurous entrepreneur was James Mills. He worked briefly for the businessman Johnny Jones, and by the mid-1870s, with Scottish backing, had established the Union Steam Ship Company. By 1900 it was the dominant maritime company in Australasia and the Pacific, and was known as the ‘southern octopus’. Coal fuelled the steamers, and the Union Company was a principal investor in the Westport Coal Company, another Dunedin-based business.
Dunedin hosted the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in 1889–90. It received 600,000 visits, at a time when the total population of the colony was not much more than that. Otago’s centenary historian noted in the 1940s that ‘future generations would regard the Exhibition as marking the climax of Dunedin’s role as the commercial centre of the colony’. 1
Dunedin firms such as National Mortgage and National Bank Agency, National Insurance and Standard Insurance drew capital from Scottish, London and Victorian sources and then developed their own investing activities. Stock and station agents such as Donald Reid and Wright Stephenson, stockbrokers such as Frater Bros, and families and private individuals all invested locally, but increasingly in the booming North Island too. Other companies moved their head offices north – notably the Union Steam Ship Company in 1921.
Not all financial activity was successful. Politician William Larnach embarked on many abortive commercial ventures, and Robert Wilson, despite his success with National Insurance, also had major failures.
From the first years of European settlement in the 1840s, workers who had arrived as assisted immigrants sought decent working conditions. And while many of those who flooded Otago during the 1860s gold rushes moved on, others found work in the thriving businesses established in and around Dunedin in the late 1860s, 1870s and 1880s.
Hillside railway workshops, established in Caversham in 1874, was the city’s biggest employer in 1901, with 425 men. The working class congregated in Caversham and neighbouring areas – on the ‘Flat’, as South Dunedin was called.
Otago’s 19th-century working class was dominated by skilled workers who distrusted rather than embraced the state. In 1890, journalist Samuel Lister thought that government activity should be limited to (reduced) borrowing, exclusion of 'undesirable’ immigrants, a democratic education system and protection for local industries.
In the late 1880s worker activists and middle-class reformers combined to investigate poor working conditions in Dunedin and around the colony. Lister’s Otago Workman, published from premises in South Dunedin in 1887, attacked all authority, including the clergy and royalty.
Chinese workers grew vegetables in parts of South Dunedin. Workers of European origin were suspicious of Chinese immigration, which they saw as a wage-cutting strategy by employers. Every labour manifesto in the 1880s demanded the exclusion of Chinese.
Other worker concerns intensified with the downturn in economic activity in the later 1880s. Trades and labour councils focused on the interests of labour rather than the common ground between workers and employers. New Zealand’s first women’s trade union – the Tailoresses – was formed in Dunedin in 1889. A few weeks later, the Maritime Council, an association of seamen, watersiders, miners and others, was set up.
In August 1890 the Maritime Council went on strike in sympathy with Australian maritime unionists. On 28 October there was a big demonstration through Dunedin’s streets. The strike was defeated in November. The unions put up candidates in Dunedin electorates in the December 1890 general election, but they were not successful.
Dunedin grew slowly, providing stability for its workforce. Engineering – the railway workshops and a number of other firms – accounted for almost 30% of the city’s workforce, and the clothing industry (with 80% female staff) nearly as many again. Shoe- and boot-making, printing, joinery and furniture-making accounted for almost another 30%, most in very small businesses. Most other workers were labourers.
The early-20th-century labour movement was stronger on the West Coast, in Christchurch and in North Island centres than in Dunedin.
The ‘red’ Federation of Labour, which organised workers nationally between 1908 and 1913, had little impact in Otago outside Port Chalmers. J. T. Paul, who had a background in Methodism and temperance activism, was the dominant figure in Dunedin labour politics. He was elected president of the two-year-old Labour Party in 1918.
In the interwar years, population and settlement did not expand in Otago as they did in the North Island dairying regions. While industrial employment grew in North Island centres, in Otago there was a slight decline.
Both city and region were hard hit by the depression of the early 1930s. Dunedin’s population fell by 3,000 between 1926 and 1936, to 82,000.
Between the late 1940s and early 1960s rural prosperity, due to higher prices and improved farming practices, led to urban growth. Smaller centres had stopped growing, but Ōamaru’s population increased by 75%, Balclutha’s more than doubled, and Alexandra’s and Mosgiel’s tripled. Mosgiel’s population increase was partly due to overspill from Dunedin. Dunedin itself grew by more than a quarter, to 105,000.
The fastest post-war growth occurred in ‘hydro towns’ – towns developed especially for the construction of dams and hydroelectric power stations. These were Kurow in the 1920s and Ōtemātātā in the 1950s and 1960s, both on the Waitaki River, and Roxburgh on the Clutha in the 1950s. Cromwell was a long-established town, but grew rapidly in the 1980s as the base for the Clyde dam project, which flooded part of the town.
The boom towns since the 1990s have been the tourist and holiday centres of Queenstown, Arrowtown and Wānaka.
In November 2008, Statistics New Zealand figures showed that Tauranga had overtaken Dunedin as New Zealand’s fifth largest city. The announcement prompted an outburst of rivalry between the two centres, including a Tauranga-inspired billboard in Dunedin advertising the northern city, video clips on YouTube, and a Facebook group called ‘Tauranga – just better’. Dunedin mayor Peter Chin claimed that the figures were misleading because they excluded some Dunedin communities.
In 1966 it was remarked that ‘in relation to the population of the hinterland a further concentration of population in the Dunedin region seems unlikely’ 1 .
Dunedin’s urban population in 2013 was 112,000, the same as in 1976. The city’s population had not fallen thanks to its university and medical school – institutions that are funded from a national, not a regional or city, budget.
In 2013 agriculture, forestry and fishing were major employers in the Central Otago and Clutha districts. They accounted for a third of the labour force in these regions, and 15% in Waitaki, compared with a national figure of 5.7%.
Almost 30% of the Queenstown Lakes labour force worked in the hospitality industry in 2013, compared with 6.9% nationally, and 6.4% in arts and recreation, compared with 1.9% nationally.
In Dunedin, dominated by the university with its medical school, the education and health sectors accounted for almost 30% of the labour force, compared with 20% nationally.
Otago developed rapidly in the 19th century, so when the province lost its importance relative to the rest of New Zealand in the 20th century, local business and city interests saw this as decline.
The Otago Expansion League (set up as the Dunedin Expansion League in 1911, it changed its name in 1915) was active through the 1920s. It drew attention to the tourist potential of the province, and of Fiordland and Milford Sound, which they saw as part of Dunedin's hinterland.
A Fairydown sleeping bag made by Dunedin company Arthur Ellis Ltd accompanied Edmund Hillary on his ascent of Mt Everest in 1953.
While the pastoral economy prospered after the Second World War, manufacturers were handicapped by distance from the larger North Island markets, and called for lower freight rates. Other events – notably the collapse of Standard Insurance in 1961 – cast a pall over Dunedin’s commercial future.
New businesses were in the service sector rather than manufacturing. Begg’s pianos and publisher A. H. Reed became national companies in the mid-20th century. John McIndoe expanded from printing to publishing in the 1970s and Arthur Barnett’s department store, opened in 1903, was still running more than a century later. Joe Brown established a nationwide entertainment business after the Second World War.
In the 2010s New Zealand's largest gold-mining enterprise was the opencast Macraes mine near Palmerston. Between 2009 and 2013, 939,000 ounces of gold was mined there – by comparison, the peak annual volume in 1863, at the height of the gold rush, was 601,000 ounces. Production in 2013 was 198,000 ounces (around 5,600 kilograms). Macraes is owned by OceanaGold, a Melbourne-based company that also owns mines at Waihī, and in the Philippines and the United States.
After the Second World War the province was shaped by big projects – electric power stations on the Waitaki and Clutha rivers, and a container terminal at Port Chalmers. More recent projects faced opponents concerned about harm to the environment.
The Clyde dam and power station proceeded – but the proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana near Dunedin, to use electricity from the Clyde station, did not. Nor did further schemes for the Clutha and Waitaki rivers in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the 2000s Meridian Energy’s proposal for a 176 wind-turbine ‘farm’ on the Lammermoor Range met with bitter opposition. It was shelved in 2012.
Many traditional businesses collapsed in the later 20th century and early 2000s, as the business environment and customer demand changed. Woollen mills in Kaikorai Valley, and at Milton and Mosgiel, all established in the late 19th century, closed in 1957, 1999 and 2000 respectively. The Sew Hoy family’s many clothing plants closed after the removal of import protection in the 1990s.
The Fortex freezing works in Mosgiel closed in 1994, and the Fisher and Paykel (formerly Shacklock) dishwasher assembly plant in 2008.
Dunedin is home to a network of businessmen popularly known as the ‘tartan mafia’. Members see themselves as a ‘supportive group of like-minded, generally like-schooled individuals who … work in the best interests of Dunedin and Otago’ – but critics claim it is a ‘closed, secret club that encourages cronyism, exerts undue influence around the region, provides jobs for the boys and makes it difficult for business newcomers to get established’. 1
In the early 2000s some businesses were growing. Skeggs Group, founded in 1952, had expanded from seafood into tourism, transport and property. Ngai Tahu Seafood has two plants in Dunedin. Mainland Poultry Ltd is New Zealand’s largest egg producer. McKinlay’s footwear sells throughout New Zealand and Australia.
Stockbrokers Forsyth Barr, established in 1936, took innovative national directions in the financial service industry from the 1970s. Creative-industry companies like Animation Research and Natural History New Zealand were thriving in the 2000s.
Rural economies have been reinvigorated in the 1990s and 2000s: in Clutha district, farms have been converted from sheep to more lucrative dairying, and vineyards and wineries have been developed in parts of Central Otago.
In 1853 Otago province, with a council and superintendent, took over most roles from the Otago Association. It covered all of the South Island south of the Waitaki River. James Macandrew, a keen booster of the province, was elected superintendent in 1860, but was dismissed for bankruptcy a year later.
Southland, between the Mataura and Waiau rivers, seceded from Otago province in 1861 and returned in 1870, but its rapid development set it on a separate course.
With the returns from gold falling, Otago electors turned to Macandrew again in 1867, and he remained superintendent until the abolition of the provinces in 1876.
Dunedin people were angry at the loss of provincial government, but people in the outlying districts were not – they expected at least as good a deal from the central (colonial) government.
From the 1870s Dunedin and Otago produced a stream of politicians who achieved national prominence, notably Julius Vogel and Robert Stout, as well as the lesser-known James Allen and William Downie Stewart. A range of labour leaders had their roots in the city’s vigorous working-class life, including John Millar, leader of the 1890 national maritime strike.
In 1981 Michael Cullen was elected as Labour MP for St Kilda; he went on to be deputy prime minister in the fifth Labour government from 2002 to 2008.
Between 1904 and 1916, Dunedin city incorporated many suburbs and embarked on a number of infrastructure initiatives, notably the Waipori hydroelectric scheme.
From the 1960s to the 1980s Dunedin’s mayors were well-established civic or business figures like Jim Barnes and Cliff Skeggs, a leader of the ‘tartan mafia’ business network. Sukhi Turner and Peter Chin, Dunedin mayors in the 1990s and early 2000s, were distinctive for their ethnicity – Turner is an Indian Sikh, and Chin is Chinese. Warren Cooper, Queenstown mayor in both the 1970s and 1990s (and a member of Parliament from 1975 to 1996), was another promoter and developer, often in the face of vigorous opposition.
In the 2010s Dunedin had two parliamentary electorates, both usually held by the Labour Party. The rest of Otago was covered by two electorates, Clutha–Southland and Waitaki, usually National Party strongholds. The whole of Otago lay within the Māori electorate of Te Tai Tonga.
The Otago regional council took over the responsibilities of a number of catchment (river) boards in 1989. Within the region Queenstown Lakes district council took in most of the former Lake County, Central Otago district most of the former Vincent and Maniototo counties, and Clutha district the former Clutha, Bruce and Tuapeka counties. Ōamaru, Waitaki and Waihemo counties became Waitaki district. The areas around Dunedin were incorporated in Dunedin city. It is the nation’s largest city in terms of area, stretching as far as the Rock and Pillar Range, some 60 kilometres from central Dunedin as the crow flies.
Scottish-born poet and historian John Barr was enormously popular in early Otago. The gold rushes produced a lot of ephemeral writing and the occasional longer work, such as Vincent Pyke’s novel Wild Will Enderby (1873).
Charles Baeyertz came to Dunedin as a musical entrepreneur from Melbourne in the 1890s. His monthly journal Triad became a landmark in New Zealand life within a short time before he moved north. Italian artist Girolamo Nerli, another 1890s arrival, fostered the talent of artists Frances Hodgkins and Grace Joel before returning to Europe.
Dunedin journalist and poet Thomas Bracken (1843–1898) is best remembered as the author of the words to the national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’ (1876). The music was composed by John Joseph Woods, a teacher from Lawrence.
A later generation of artists featured the landforms and landscape of Central Otago. Many studied with R. N. Field, who came to Dunedin in 1925. Colin McCahon was distinctive among them in being Dunedin-raised. He was influenced by nearby coastal landscapes as well as those of Central Otago.
Painter and sculptor Ralph Hōtere lived and worked in Port Chalmers for many years. Grahame Sydney has spent most of his life in Otago, painting many Central Otago landscapes.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery, set up in 1884, has a fine collection of European art.
Charles Brasch, from a bourgeois Dunedin Jewish family, was a poet who founded the literary journal Landfall in 1947. Brasch edited Landfall (which is still published) from Dunedin for its first 20 years.
Poet James K. Baxter grew up partly in Otago and attended the University of Otago, where he wrote his first published poems. Fellow poet Ruth Dallas was a close associate of Brasch, especially during the years she lived in Dunedin.
Hone Tuwhare, a Māori poet from the northern North Island, was associated with Otago from the 1960s until his death in 2008. Poet and essayist Brian Turner lives in Ōtūrehua, in Central Otago.
Writer Janet Frame explored a different Otago in her work, notably Owls do cry, which drew on her childhood in a working-class family in Ōamaru.
The Robert Burns Fellowship, established at the University of Otago in 1958, was New Zealand’s first literary award. It has supported many of New Zealand’s most important authors.
The Hocken Library, based on the collections of local coroner T. M. Hocken, is a major research institution. It was founded in 1910 and later became part of the University of Otago.
From 1851 to 1932 the weekly Otago Witness newspaper recorded the life of the province and kept it informed about the wider world. The Otago Daily Times, still thriving in the 2010s, first appeared on 15 November 1861. It was New Zealand's earliest fully-fledged daily paper. The Oamaru Mail first appeared in 1876; Queenstown’s Mountain Scene, published from 1972, is the liveliest of a number of local papers.
The Otago Museum was established in 1868 and moved into a purpose-built building in 1877.
Otago is the beneficiary of two substantial provincial histories, by A. H. McLintock (1949) and Erik Olssen (1984), as well as a host of local histories. The centennial history project in the 1940s and 1950s saw no fewer than 18 such histories produced, and under the Otago Heritage Books imprint, George Griffiths published many more between 1978 and 2006. In the 1990s Dunedin City Council sponsored four histories: Bill Dacker's The pain and the love - te mamae me te aroha, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the purchase of the Otago block; Atholl Anderson's The welcome of strangers, on the ethnography of southern Māori; The cyclopedia of Otago and Southland; and Southern people: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography.
Dunedin, like the rest of the province, has a vigorous tradition of choirs, and brass and pipe bands.
It also enjoys a reputation for contemporary music. Christchurch-based Flying Nun records, formed in 1981, produced recordings from Dunedin bands such as The Clean, the Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, the Stones and the Chills. The distinctive ‘Dunedin sound’ was ‘typically marked by the use of droning or jangling guitars, indistinct vocals and often copious quantities of reverberation’. 1 Dunedin songwriters and bands continued to contribute to the national and international music scene in the 2010s.
The revival of the fortunes of Ngāi Tahu since the 1990s has led to a variety of publications about New Zealand’s southernmost Māori population. Scholars such as Atholl Anderson have analysed the demography and anthropology of Ngāi Tahu through time.
Rugby was first played in Otago in the early 1870s. Its heyday was the late 1930s and 1940s, when the Ranfurly Shield was held by either Otago or Southland for 15 years. Otago’s triumphs were strongly associated with the innovative coaching of ‘Young Vic’ Cavanagh.
The high point of the southern rugby year was the annual Southland–Otago match, which attracted tens of thousands of supporters to Carisbrook in Caversham to cheer for either the blue and gold (Otago) or maroon (Southland).
North Otago’s rugby union became a separate entity in 1927. In the 2010s its team played in the Heartland championship, and was part of the catchment for the lower South Island Highlanders franchise in the Super 15 international competition.
Prominent Otago cricketers have included the batsmen Bert Sutcliffe and Glenn Turner, fast bowler Frank Cameron, all-rounder Lance Cairns and wicketkeeper/batsmen Warren Lees and Brendon McCullum. Otago women have excelled at hockey; the Maniototo team were national champions four times between 1957 and 1964, despite the area’s small population. The Southern Steel netball team, combining Southland and Otago, won the ANZ Premiership netball competition in 2017 and 2018.
Yvette Williams (later Corlett), Olympic champion and world record-holder in the long jump, was the best all-round female athlete in the world in the early 1950s.
The pinnacle of Duncan Laing’s long coaching career at Dunedin’s Moana Pool was Danyon Loader’s two Olympic gold medals at Atlanta in 1996.
Galloping was based at South Dunedin’s Forbury Park in the late 1800s before moving to Wingatui on the Taieri Plain, where Hector Anderton trained many fine jumpers. 1970 Melbourne Cup winner Baghdad Note hailed from Wingatui. From the early 1900s Forbury Park was a venue for trotting and greyhound racing.
The forested areas of the Blue Mountains and the Catlins are popular with pig and deer hunters. The more remote terrain behind Lakes Wakatipu and Wānaka is exploited by hunters of deer, chamois and tahr.
The Clutha and its tributaries, the Manuherikia and Pomahaka, are trout-fishing rivers, and the Clutha, Taieri and Waitaki have salmon. All Otago’s lakes are stocked with brown or rainbow trout.
2007–9 saw much debate over the proposal to build a covered stadium in North Dunedin to replace the Carisbrook rugby ground. Supporters believed it would bring visitors and spending to Dunedin and the wider region; critics said the numbers didn’t stack up. The Forsyth Barr stadium was completed in 2011. It hosts concerts by visiting artists as well as major rugby fixtures.
Summer sees an array of water sports – swimming, waterskiing and boating – on Otago’s lakes. Winter brings curling (a kind of bowling on frozen surfaces), luge and skating at Naseby’s modern facilities, and on smaller lakes, ponds and dams elsewhere in Central Otago when the weather is cold enough.
The opening of Coronet Peak skifield in 1939 launched the Queenstown Lakes district as a skiing area. Since 1977, skifields have also been developed near Wānaka, at Treble Cone, Cardrona and Waiorau Snow Farm and Park. Near Queenstown, Coronet Peak, much expanded from its pre-war beginnings, is complemented by the Remarkables field, which opened in 1985. Skiers from the northern hemisphere train in Otago during the European summer. Wānaka-based 16-year-olds Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and Nico Porteous both won bronze medals on the same day at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In 2022, Sadowski-Synnott won gold and silver medals at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The Otago Central Rail Trail, which opened in 2000, runs along the defunct Central Otago railway line. The 155-kilometre trail attracts thousands of cycle tourists each year, as does the 55-kilometre Lake Dunstan trail between Cromwell and Clyde.
In the 2010s Queenstown and Wānaka were the principal home of adventure sports, notably bungy jumping – the world’s first commercial operation was in the Kawarau gorge. White-water rafting, jet boating and paragliding were also popular.
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe, Waitaha
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
Dacker, Bill. The pain and the love = Te mamae me te aroha: a history of Kāi Tahu Whanui of Otago, 1844–1994. Dunedin: University of Otago Press in association with Dunedin City Council, 1994.
Eldred-Grigg, Stevan. Diggers, hatters, whores: the New Zealand gold rushes. Auckland: Random House, 2008.
McLintock, A. H. The history of Otago: the origins and growth of a Wakefield class settlement. Christchurch: Capper, 1975 (originally published 1949).
Olssen, Erik. A history of Otago. Dunedin: McIndoe, 1984.
Sorrell, Paul, ed. The cyclopedia of Otago and Southland. Dunedin: Dunedin City Council, 1999.
Thomson, Jane, ed. Southern people: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography. Dunedin: Longacre Press in association with the Dunedin City Council, 1998.