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Helensburgh House, from the University of Otago accommodation brochure, c.1989

Helensburgh House, from the University of Otago accommodation brochure, c.1989

Abbey, Aquinas, Arana, Carrington, City, Cumberland, Hayward, Knox, St Margaret’s, Salmond, Selwyn, Studholme, Toroa, University … these days there are 14 residential colleges associated with the University of Otago. The colleges (known as halls of residence until 2006, when the remaining ‘halls’ and ‘houses’ were renamed ‘college’) have played a vital role in a university where the majority of students come from out of town.

Each college has its own distinctive and interesting history, from the first, Selwyn College (established 1893), to the most recent, Abbey College (established 2008). For this historian, though, the most intriguing residential colleges – and also the most difficult to research – are those which no longer exist! One which might easily be forgotten because of its distance from the university campus is Helensburgh House, home to over 100 Otago students each year from 1984 to 1991.

Helensburgh was an ‘instant’ hall of residence, created at short notice in response to a crisis. Student numbers at Otago declined slightly in 1981 and 1982. Some of the colleges reduced their capacity and Aquinas closed. Meanwhile some old privately-owned student flats were demolished. When student numbers grew again, accommodation became very tight and in early 1984 the university accommodation office had 300 prospective students without a place to live. To avoid losing all these potential students, the university arranged to lease the former nurses’ home at Wakari Hospital from the Otago Hospital Board. Within weeks Helensburgh House was a fully functioning hall of residence, though the absence of a large kitchen meant residents’ meals had to be transported from the University Union.

Critic was concerned that Helensburgh House would provide “a bleak introduction to life in Dunedin” for students. The big problem, of course, was that it was so far from campus – several kilometres, up and down hills. Fees were kept lower than in other halls to compensate for residents’ transport costs. There were some advantages – the rooms were large and the grounds attractive – but the distance factor would always keep Helensburgh well down the list of most popular halls of residence.

In 1984 the university accommodation officer reported that demographic statistics suggested the current high level of first year university students was unlikely to persist for more than 5 or 6 years – it seemed unwise for the university to invest major capital into new student accommodation. Instead, the university continued to lease Helensburgh House from the Otago Hospital Board. By the late 1980s it was becoming evident that the demographic predictions of 1984 were inadequate, as an increasing proportion of school leavers wanted to attend university. The number of ‘EFTS’ (equivalent full-time students) at Otago doubled from 7000 to 14,000 between 1983 and 1993. In 1988 the university bought the former Aquinas Hall and re-opened it as Dalmore House (later renamed Aquinas). In 1989 the university also took on the lease of the oldest Dunedin Hospital nurses’ home building, previously earmarked for demolition. Thus Cumberland House came into being – like Helensburgh it opened at very short notice in response to a rapidly rising demand for accommodation.

Helensburgh House ended its life as a student residence at the end of 1991. It would have continued for longer had the Otago Area Health Board not wanted its facility back. In 1992 Cherry Farm Hospital – the board’s major mental health facility – closed and some of its services were shifted to Wakari Hospital. Fortunately for the university, the board had other accommodation available thanks to the move of its maternity services into the main Dunedin Hospital ward block. The former Queen Mary Maternity Hospital was converted into a new student residence, Hayward Hall, which opened in 1992.

It may not have had the bucolic charms of Helensburgh House, but Hayward was much more conveniently located close to the university campus. Glenys Roome (formerly Low), who was warden at Helensburgh throughout its career as a student residence, became warden of the new Hayward Hall, presumably transferring some of the atmosphere of Helensburgh to Hayward. In 1989 she reported that over the years Helensburgh had “maintained a very close-knit community with a friendly family atmosphere which is appreciated by students. Every year we have a problem at the beginning of the year with students wanting to leave because of the distance from campus, but once this is overcome the majority are very happy to be at Helensburgh and are very loyal.”

Are you one of that rare breed, a former resident of Helensburgh House? I’d love to hear more about life at this ‘temporary’ hall of residence!

Helensburgh House, from the University of Otago accommodation brochure, c.1989

Helensburgh House, from the University of Otago accommodation brochure, c.1989