First Church of Otago (Presbyterian)

410 Moray Place, Dunedin

  • First Church of Otago. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Allison Bennet. Taken By: Allison Bennet. Date: 26/10/2008.
  • First Church of Otago rose window. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Ben Hill. Taken By: Ben Hill.
  • Interior of First Church of Otago. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Antilived. Taken By: Antilived. Date: 16/01/2009.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 60 Date Entered 18th March 1982


City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Pt Res no 4 and Lot 1 DP 10275 Town of Dunedin


The first major wave of settlement of Otago by Pakeha occurred in the nineteenth century under the auspices of the Free Church of Scotland. In 1843 approximately one third of Scottish Presbyterians broke away from the Established Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland. This split occurred over the issue of who had the right to appoint ministers. Those who split from the Established Church believed that the choice of a minister should reside with the congregation, rather than with the wealthy local landowners.

The Free Church became interested in the colonisation scheme of Otago, as promoted by George Reenie in 1842. This scheme was based on Edward Gibbon Wakefield's ideas of systematic colonisation, tempered by the experiences of the earlier colonies in Wellington (1840), Wanganui (1840), New Plymouth (1841), and Nelson (1842). Rennie argued that what was needed to make such a settlement successful was the thorough preparation of the settlement before the settlers arrived. It was also thought that a more 'socially homogeneous' group would have fewer problems. Thus the Otago settlement aimed to have a concentrated group of Scottish farmers, bonded by religious beliefs.

While Dunedin was planned as a Free Church settlement, with both school and community to be controlled by the church, in reality the group of 350 settlers who set sail for Otago in 1847 was more disparate in religion and ethnicity than the organisers had desired. Despite this diversity, subsequent immigration meant that by the late 1850s the Scottish Presbyterians were dominant and the Free Church played a prominent role in the Dunedin settlement.

By 1857 sufficient money had been raised by the Free Church congregation for them to erect a church in permanent materials that would seat 500. However, no tenders were received for a church design proposed by W.H. Monson and the idea of a new church lapsed until 1861. In January 1862 an architectural competition to design a new church for the Otago settlement was announced. The competition was won by R. A. Lawson (1833-1902), a young architect resident in Melbourne, Australia. He sent over six drawings under the pseudonym of 'Presbyter'. Lawson, a Scotsman himself, had trained as an architect in Perth and Edinburgh before immigrating to Australia in 1854. After winning the Otago competition Lawson moved to Dunedin and found the Provincial Council in the process of demolishing the hill which was to be the site of the church, Reserve 4, now known as Bell Hill. Bell Hill had proved to be a major physical obstruction for the Dunedin settlement, cutting the township in two as it was too steep for wheeled vehicles to cross. The Provincial Council had eventually decided to remove it in order to provide further flat land for businesses, the growth in which was directly attributed to the goldrushes of the early 1860s. Lawson suggested that a flat platform be left for the church site, above the level of the planned excavation and this was agreed. (Because the excavation took so long the Provincial Government financed the building of a temporary wooden church in 1864 which served the congregation until 1873.)

Construction of Lawson's church was also delayed because of a dispute between members of the congregation over the erection of the church at all. Some argued that such a church was contradictory to all their beliefs, 'a worldly extravagence'. Others, as historian Erik Olssen points out, found that as they became established and well-off they came to prefer churches that would celebrate their 'wealth, confidence and worldliness', rather than the simplicity they may have earlier espoused. Construction finally began on First Church in 1867 and it was completed in 1875.

The church that Lawson designed was Gothic in style and was constructed in brick and faced with Oamaru stone. From the outside the eye is directed upwards to the spire by the surrounding turrets, pinnacles, and gables. Lawson planned to incorporate a clerestory above the aisle roofs, but this was never built, although the reasons for its ommission are unclear. When the church opened the interior was 'one single open space', with white plastered walls and roof timbers painted pale blue. Four years later a gallery was added, to seat a further 170 people. At least one contemporary felt that the gallery relieved the 'baldness' of the walls and improved the acoustics of the church.

The spire, the dominant feature of First Church, had an interesting construction history. Just before the opening in 1873 Lawson realised that the spire was 15ft (4.5 m) too short, and had a slight lean. The spire had to be dismantled and rebuilt to the correct specifications and was finally completed in 1875. Another significant feature of First Church is the carvings, both inside and out, undertaken by Louis John Godfrey (1834-1919).

John Stacpoole has described First Church as 'the most impressive of all nineteenth century New Zealand churches' and it is regarded as Lawson's masterpiece. It stands as a memorial to the ideals of the Otago settlement and the role that the Free Church of Scotland played in that scheme. Sited on the spacious grounds carved for it from Bell Hill, First Church remains a significant landmark of Dunedin.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Lawson, Robert Arthur

Born in Scotland, Lawson (1833-1902) began his professional career in Perth. At the age of 25 he moved to Melbourne and was engaged in goldmining and journalism before resuming architectural practice. In 1862 Lawson sailed for Dunedin, where his sketch plans had won the competition for the design of First Church. This was built 1867-73. Lawson went on to become one of the most important architects in New Zealand. First Church is regarded as his masterpiece and one of the finest nineteenth century churches in New Zealand.

He was also responsible for the design of the Trinity Church (now Fortune Theatre), Dunedin (1869-70), the East Taieri Presbyterian Church (1870), and Knox Church, Dunedin (1874). He designed Park's School (1864) and the ANZ Bank (originally Union Bank, 1874). In Oamaru he designed the Bank of Otago (later National Bank building, 1870) and the adjoining Bank of New South Wales (now Forrester Gallery, 1881).

See also: Ledgerwood, Norman, 2013. 'R.A. Lawson: Victorian Architect of Dunedin'. Historic Cemeteries Conservation NZ.

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

Notable features of First Church include the carvings by Louis John Godfrey (1834-1919) both inside and outside, which include leaves, flowers, and dragons; the octagonal pulpit, which was extended in c.1908 by Marmaduke Godfrey, and the fence of bluestone with Oamaru stone pinnacles and wrought iron.

The Rose window is also a notable feature, as is the War Memorial window designed in 1923 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne, London, U.K.

A bell was sent from Britain to Thomas Burns, minister of the Otago settlement, in 1851. It was installed on Church Hill (hence the change of name to Bell Hill) and was used in the early days of Pakeha settlement to indicate the hours of work.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1867 - 1875
Foundation stone laid May 1868. Church opened 1873. Spire completed 1875

1862 -

1879 -
Gallery added

Completion Date

5th December 2001

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Binney, 1990

Judith Binney, Judith Bassett and Eric Olssen, 'The People and the Land : Te Tangata me Te Whenua. An Illustrated History of New Zealand 1820 - 1920', Wellington, 1990


Brooking, 1984

Tom Brooking, 'And Captain of Their Souls. Cargill and the Otago Colonists', Dunedin, 1984

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, 'Lawson, Robert Anderson 1833-1902', volume 2, 1870 - 1900, Wellington, 1993, pp.265-266.

McGill, 1997

David McGill and Grant Sheehan, Landmarks: Notable Historic Buildings of New Zealand, Auckland, 1997

Oliver, 1981

William H. Oliver, The Oxford History of New Zealand, Wellington, 1981

W.J. Gardner, 'A Colonial Economy', pp. 57-86

Olssen, 1984

Erik Olssen, A History of Otago, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1984


Salmond, 1983

Arthur L. Salmond, First Church of Otago and How it Got There, Dunedin, 1983

Shaw, 1991

Peter Shaw, New Zealand Architecture: From Polynesian Beginnings to 1990, Auckland, 1991


Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.