Napier Courthouse (Former)

59 Marine Pde, Napier

  • Napier Courthouse.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Helen McCracken. Date: 19/06/2002.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1127 Date Entered 28th June 1990


City/District Council

Napier City


Hawke's Bay Region

Legal description

Sec 1 SO 2726 Government Purpose Reserve


The former Napier Courthouse, built in 1874-1875, is a fine example of the colonial architecture designed by William Henry Clayton (1823-1877), New Zealand's only Colonial Architect. It is also the only significant public building remaining in Hawke's Bay that dates to the era of the Vogel Government.

Courts were established in New Zealand in 1841 following a Royal Charter (1840) which gave the Legislative Council the power to make laws for peace, order and good government in New Zealand. By the 1860s New Zealand had a three tiered system of courts: the Resident Magistrate's Court, District Court, and the Supreme Court. The first recorded Magistrate Court hearing in Napier was in 1853 when Donald (later Sir Donald) McLean (1820-1877), held a court session at the 'Whare Kawana', a building that had been erected by Maori chiefs for McLean while he was the Government's Land Purchase Agent. Later hearings were held at Villers and McKains Hotel, Ahuriri (1855), and Ferrar's Golden Fleece Hotel, Hastings Street. From 1860 hearings were held in the Provincial Council building, Shakespeare Road.

From 1869 the Central government, under Sir Julius Vogel, embarked on an economic development policy, which involved substantial government spending on public works, and increased immigration as a means to solving New Zealand's fiscal problems. As part of this policy, over the following decade a large number of government buildings were built, mostly under the direction of the Colonial Architect, William Henry Clayton. Following a successful period in private practice, Clayton had been appointed Colonial Architect in 1869. Clayton became responsible for the design of Post and Telegraph offices, courthouses, customhouses, Government department offices and ministerial residences throughout the country. In 1873 the Colonial Architect's office became a branch of the new Public Works Department. One of the buildings to be designed by Clayton at this time was the Napier Courthouse.

The tender notice to erect the Napier Courthouse was issued on 27 November 1873. It is thought that Edward Ashton, whose name appears on the plans, was responsible for building the courthouse. The building was constructed between 1874 and 1875 and was officially opened by Chief Justice Prendergast (1826-1921) in about May 1875.

For the next 113 years the Napier Courthouse was the centre of justice in Hawke's Bay. During this time a number of New Zealand's more notable lawyers and judges have passed through its doors including: John Nathaniel Wilson (first Crown Solicitor for Napier); John Sheehan; Charles Dugald Kennedy; Sir Edwin Bate; and Chief Justices Sir Robert Stout and Christopher William Richmond. Although it was built primarily to house the Supreme Court, the building also provided accommodation at various times for the Police, the Registrar of Pensions, the Births Deaths and Marriages office, the Baliffs, Magistrates Court, the Maori Land Court, the Law Library, the Law Society and resident custodian. To house these varied functions there have been a number of additions to the courthouse over the years. During the Hawke's Bay Earthquake of 1931, the building only suffered comparatively minor damage with the loss of its chimneys and all of the plaster shaken from the walls of the building. Following the earthquake the courthouse was used as a temporary morgue, and later provided the setting for the Hawke's Bay Adjustment Court. This court, established by the Hawke's Bay Earthquake Act 1931, was established to determine the rights and liabilities of people effected by the earthquake.

During World War Two maintenance on public buildings was largely deferred in favour of spending money on the war effort. The Napier Courthouse was one such public building. It wasn't until 1955 that the building was renovated. These renovations took into account the changing attitudes with regard to the rights of the accused. Alterations included modifications to the Judge's dais and public seating, and the construction of a new jury box and prisoner's dock. Facilities were also improved for witnesses, solicitors, and judges.

In 1988 District and High Court hearings transferred to new courthouse on corner of Hastings and Vautier Streets. In the following year, the building was sold to the Department of Conservation for their Hawke's Bay Conservancy Office.

The former Napier Courthouse is of outstanding significance as it is the only public building in Hawke's Bay that dates to the Vogel period of government. It was designed by William Henry Clayton, New Zealand's only Colonial Architect. The history of the courthouse illustrates changes and developments in New Zealand's social, judicial and governmental history. Over the years many notable members of New Zealand judiciary and legal fraternity have walked through its doors. Together with the adjacent Hawke's Bay Club (built 1906), they are notable historic grouping on Napier's Marine Parade.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Having served Hawke's Bay for 113 years (1875-1988), the former Napier Courthouse has had a lengthy association with the community of this region and with the developments of New Zealand's judicial system.


The former Napier Courthouse is a fine example of colonial public architecture. A formal, symmetrical design, it displays stability and grandeur, suitable qualities for a courthouse. The building, and in particular the principal facade, with its central pediment and adjoining wings, is a provincial contemporary of W.H. Clayton's timber masterpiece, Government Buildings, Wellington (1877).


While the former Napier Courthouse does not have great landmark quality, it makes an impressive pair with the neighbouring Hawke's Bay Club building (1906) and together these fine wooden buildings make a significant contribution to the Napier streetscape which is dominated by post-earthquake, Art Deco buildings.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Clayton, William Henry

Born in Tasmania, Clayton (1823-1877) travelled to Europe with his family in 1842. He studied architecture in Brussells and was then articled to Sir John Rennie, engineer to the Admiralty, in London. He returned to Tasmania in 1848 and worked in private practice until he was appointed Government Surveyor in 1852.

He resumed private practice in 1855 and was involved with surveying in the Launceston area. In 1857 he was elected an alderman on the Launceston Municipal Council. By the time Clayton immigrated to Dunedin in 1863 he had been responsible for the design of many buildings including churches, banks, a mechanics' institute, a theatre, steam and water mills, breweries, bridges, mansions and villas, in addition to being a land surveyor and road engineer.

In 1864 he entered partnership with William Mason. Mason and Clayton were responsible for some important buildings in Dunedin including All Saints Church (1865) and The Exchange (former Post Office) (1865) as well as the Colonial Museum, Wellington (1865). These were two of the most prominent architects of their day in New Zealand.

In 1869 Clayton became the first and only Colonial Architect and was responsible for the design of Post and Telegraph offices, courthouses, customhouses, Government department offices and ministerial residences. His acknowledged masterpiece is Government Buildings, Wellington (1876) a stone-simulated wooden building and the largest timber framed building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Clayton was a prolific and highly accomplished architect both within the Public Service and in private practice, in New Zealand and Australia.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Courts were established in New Zealand in 1841 following a Royal Charter (1840) which gave the Legislative Council the power to make laws for 'peace, order and good government in New Zealand'. By the 1860s a three tier system of courts had emerged; Resident Magistrates Courts, District Courts and the Supreme Court. District Courts were abolished in 1925 leaving a two tier system of Magistrates Courts (now known as District Courts) and Supreme Courts (now known as High Courts).

The first recorded Magistrate's Court hearing in Napier was held in 1853 by Donald (later Sir Donald) McLean (1820-77) who had been appointed a Resident Magistrate in 1840. Hearings were then held at the Villers and McKains Hotel, Ahuriri (1854), and Ferrar's Golden Fleece Hotel, Hastings Street (1856-60). From 1860 hearings were held in the Provincial Council building, Shakespeare Road.

In 1871-72 the site at the corner of Marine Parade and Browning Street was cleared and the present building constructed in 1873-75. District and High Court hearings were held here from this time until August 1988 when they were transferred to the new Napier Courthouse on the corner of Hastings and Vautier Streets. The Department of Conservation purchased the former Courthouse a year later to house their Hawke's Bay Conservancy office.

Other than the collapse of its four chimneys the former Napier Courthouse survived intact the 1931 earthquake, which destroyed many buildings in the central business district of Napier.

Physical Description


Drawings signed by E. Ashton under the aegis of William Henry Clayton (1823-77), Colonial Architect


This large two storeyed building is characterised by the use of simple classical elements for timber construction.

Sited on a street corner the building has two street facades but only the Marine Parade or front elevation has received decorative treatment. This symmetrical facade consists o a central bay with a flanking wing on either side. A verandah which shades the ground floor of the recessed bay has a projecting section, with balcony above, over the central entry. At first floor level a triangular pediment, framing one of three pairs of windows, gives further definition to the line of symmetry. All first floor windows on the front facade have semi-hectagonal window heads which allude to the round arches of classicism and are complemented by the use of prominent, decorative, paired, eaves brackets. The two wings flanking the central bay project as far as the ground floor verandah and have hipped roofs.

The north and south facades have unadorned square window heads and single, rather than paired, eaves brackets. Both facades have unsympathetic additions although the form of the original building can still be appreciated. The west elevation is composed of a series of additions.

The interior is dominated by a large, double-height, centrally located courtroom. There was originally a bench at the north end and a public gallery at the south. The courtroom retains some of its original character in the wooden coffered ceiling and in the gallery at first floor level to the east. The gallery is open to the courtroom and retains its original wooden balustrading and a pressed metal ceiling. Identical ceilings are also in place elsewhere at first floor level although the building has been relined in parts.

Notable Features

Coffered ceiling of courtroom

Wooden balustrading of gallery

Pressed metal ceilings

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1875 -

Date Unknown - Reinforced concrete strong room added to the west

1915 - 1918
Addition of law library and accommodation for Electoral Department, Labour Department and Registrar of Pensions to the north of the west elevation

1924 -
Addition of new strong to the west of the earlier one

1955 -
Alterations to partitions and services

1965 -
Renovations including the relining of the courtroom

1989 - 1990
Department of Conservation undertook restoration work

Construction Details

Timber pile foundations; timber frame clad with weatherboards; timber roof structure with galvanised corrugated iron.

Completion Date

22nd November 2002

Report Written By

Helen McCracken/NZHPT

Information Sources

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives

Vol. 1 1974; Vol. 1 1975.

Alexander Turnbull Library

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Turnbull Letters 2/1/2, 'William Henry Clayton', 20 January 1981

Campbell, 1975

M. D. N. Campbell, Story of Napier, 1874-1974; Footprints Along the Shore, Napier City Council, Napier 1975

Chrighton, 1985

S. A. Chrighton, William Henry Clayton; Colonial Architect, Thesis, University of Canterbury, 1985

Department of Conservation

Department of Conservation

J W Cheyne, Napier Courthouse (1875-1988) and Future Use of the Courthouse, Napier, June 1988.

McLintock, 1966

An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966

Pischief, 1995

Elizabeth Pischief, The Old Napier Courthouse, working paper, Hawkes Bay Conservancy, Department of Conservation, 1995

Robson, 1954

John L. Robson, (ed), New Zealand: The Developments of it Laws and Constitution, Stevens and Sons Ltd, London, 1954.

Scott, 1983

Anthony Scott (research by Judith Nicol), A History of the Oamaru Courthouse, 1883-1983, Wellington, 1983

Napier Daily Telegraph

Napier Daily Telegraph

'Early Start with 'Facelift' for Napier Courthouse', 12 March 1955.

Ministry of Works and Development

Ministry of Works and Development

Public Works Department Map, PWD 12400

Other Information

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

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.