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Dunedin, New Zealand — History

Olveston House, Dunedin, New Zealand (photo: Tourism Dunedin)
Olveston House, Dunedin, New Zealand (photo: Tourism Dunedin)

History of Dunedin

Auckland is the City of Sails, Wellington has all the energy of a capital city, the beauty of Christchurch is its parks and gardens yet it is Dunedin, New Zealand’s southernmost major city that best reflects the foundations of the contemporary nation.

Dunedin began as an idea in Scotland and has continued to evolve and take shape during the course of three centuries.

The city’s origins lay in controversy, religious division and social content. In May 1845, the Otago Association was established in Glasgow under the auspices of the Free Kirk of Scotland.

After having secured 400, 000 acres, site unseen, from the New Zealand Company, surveyors visited and at the head of Otago Harbour selected 1400 acres for a settlement they intended to name New Edinburgh. On their return to Scotland, the new city was planned and then renamed Dunedin, the Celtic origin of the word Edinburgh.

By 1849, seven ships had safely landed the founding families who set about establishing homes, small farms, business, and of course, churches.

Their Scottish stoicism and resourcefulness served them well. A port, barrow- by barrow had to be reclaimed from the shallow harbour. Stone was quarried for churches and municipal buildings, timber hewn for workers’ cottages and shops.

By the late 1850’s, Dunedin’s position as New Zealand’s main southern city was secure. Thriving businesses served towns and vast sheep runs that had spread into the tussock land of Central Otago.

At the head of the harbour, Port Chalmers became the first deepwater providoring point after the voyage around Cape Horn. From here wool was exported to the looms of Great Britain and in 1861, gold was discovered 120 kms to the south at Gabriel’s Gully.

This bonanza heralded Dunedin’s Golden Age of development and the city became the seat of the colony’s economic power.

Political and merchant dynasties were established during this era. This period of prosperity allowed a Scottish obsession to surface. Education became a by- product of wealth. Otago Boys’ High School was built in 1863 and by 1869, the University of New Zealand had been established.

The next two decades were ones of consolidation. The city prospered. Its construction and architecture lent it an air of Victorian elegance and establishment. Its commercial infrastructure enabled it to ride- out the gold boom that had gone bust.

By 1882 a miracle of technology occurred; refrigeration and the first shipment of frozen meat from New Zealand left Port Chalmers for Britain.

Another boom, one that lasts till this day, had begun. Towards the end of Victoria’s reign, Dunedin had become the country’s commercial and financial capital. It had also become New Zealand’s first university city. By the end of the 19th Century the foundations had also been laid for New Zealand’s richest architectural heritage. Romantic, imposing, functional, and now fiercely protected, these Victorian and Edwardian buildings.

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