The University of Otago had its first home in Dunedin’s first Oamaru-stone building, designed by William Mason in neoclassical style for a post office. As the building neared completion in 1867, Dunedinites began imagining other uses for it; provincial superintendent James Macandrew suggested it ‘might be turned to much better account than that of a Post Office’. He convinced the government to turn the building over to the province in exchange for a more modest post office building. Locals were already using the ‘new post office’ for meetings and balls, but its first long-term tenant was the Otago Museum. It was the obvious accommodation for the university, and in 1871 – the year that classes began – it moved in. The building wasn’t perfect: the University Council reported it spent ‘a large sum in providing a new roof for the hall, in altering the staircase, and in adapting the building generally to the purposes of a University’. That was, however, cheaper and quicker than starting from scratch.
The Princes St location, right in the centre of town, was fitting for a university which modelled itself on urban foundations such as Edinburgh and London rather than ‘the sleepy cloisters’ of Oxbridge, but it did have its problems. The ‘footpath before its door was a favourite resort for loungers’, suggests George Thompson in the jubilee history, and parental concerns about sending their offspring to ‘the temptations and seductions of a town life’ were real. The biggest problem, though, was the lack of space for an expanding institution, which was sharing the building with the museum and art school and wrangled constant requests from citizens for use of the hall. The University Council wanted to develop residential accommodation for students and, though that didn’t happen for several decades, it did prompt the initial plans to move to a new site.
In 1874 the Otago Provincial Council granted the university a new site in part of the ‘old cemetery reserve’ (subsequently used for Arthur Street School and the Otago Boys’ High School). When, a few months later, the museum was allocated a new site in Great King Street, the Arthur Street location seemed less ideal; University Council member Donald Stuart argued ‘it was absolutely necessary that the Museum be situated in close proximity to the University, on account of the zoological, botanical, and medical classes’. In 1875, after the necessary legislation was passed, the cemetery reserve land was swapped for a new site, conveniently close to the museum and hospital, known as the botanical garden reserve. After delay finding a buyer for its original building, the council began construction on its new home beside the Leith in 1878.
The Colonial Bank became the proud owner of the Princes Street building. Unfortunately for the university, it failed to make its intention to transfer the clock to its new building clear in the sale contract and the Colonial Bank insisted on keeping it. The indebted university could not afford to purchase another and its new Clocktower Building had no clock until 1931, when one donated by the chancellor, Thomas Sidey, was installed. It was a fitting gift by ‘Summertime’ Sidey, the politician who succeeded after a long campaign in introducing daylight saving time to New Zealand. The original university building later became the Dunedin Stock Exchange; it was demolished in 1969 and John Wickliffe House now stands on its site.
From beginnings to endings: today is my last official day of work on the 5-year (part-time) project to write a new history of the University of Otago! That project is now in the capable hands of the excellent team at Otago University Press. They will publish the book late in 2018, in time for the 150th celebrations of 2019. This blog has been an important part of the project for me. It began in mid-2013 with weekly posts, but later became fortnightly, then monthly; this year it has been more sporadic as I have been preoccupied with completing the book. It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to share here some of the great stories I’ve encountered. My sincere thanks to everybody who has read the blog, and particularly to those who have responded with extra information, corrections and encouragement, along with those who have spread the word about the blog and the project. Not all of the 130 stories and accompanying images I’ve shared here will appear in the book – there simply isn’t room for all of them – but many will.
This blog will not die. We’re currently finalising arrangements for its new management and some Otago history students have been working on new stories – look out for those next year! I’ll still be at the University of Otago, continuing in my other role, in the archives at the Hocken Collections. You can still contact me there with queries about the fascinating history of New Zealand’s first university.
Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa,
Ali Clarke, December 2017