Cromwell Courthouse (Former)

43 Inniscort Street, Cromwell

  • Cromwell Courthouse (Former)- South elevation.
    Copyright: Linda and Mark Rees. Taken By: Linda and Mark Rees. Date: 1/10/2007.
  • Cromwell Courthouse (Former).
    Copyright: Linda and Mark Rees. Taken By: Linda and Mark Rees. Date: 1/10/2007.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2129 Date Entered 22nd June 2007


Extent of List Entry

Registration includes the land in certificate of title OT14B/539 (Sec 3 Blk VII Town of Cromwell) and the Courthouse building, and its fixtures and fittings thereon. See plan in Appendix 4 of the Registration Report).

City/District Council

Central Otago District


Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 3 Blk VII Town of Cromwell (CT OT14B/539), Otago Land District


The former Cromwell Courthouse completed in 1872, sits on Inniscort Street, overlooking the former business centre of Cromwell on Melmore Terrace. The small but impressive classically detailed building is constructed of stone. It served as the centre for justice and administration in the former gold mining town for over 100 years. For a further ten years it housed the Clutha Valley Development Authority, and since the mid 1980s has been used as a residence or holiday home.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Courthouse has historical significance. Like others in the region, such as nearby Clyde and Alexandra, it represents the history of government enforcement of law, relating to civil and criminal matters as well as regulation of the goldfields. The Courthouse has historic significance as the centre for the administration and justice for this rural community. The building served as both Wardens and Magistrates Court for over one hundred years, and is therefore a tangible link with the town's goldfield's past. As a Court it was one of the public faces of Government in this rural area. While the first court in Alexandra was set up in the 1860s, this later structure, with its formal composition, demonstrates the historic importance of the law in the goldfields, where wardens administered mining law and were concerned with the registration and enforcement of miners' rights. They also had the power to adjudicate on disputes over resources such as water races, claim jumping, and forgeries. The building housed the court for over 100 years, and is a significant surviving element in the history of the district.

The Courthouse has architectural significance as one of the courthouses which represent the government architecture of the gold rush period in Central Otago's history. The formality of the design, as with those courthouses in nearby Alexandra and Lawrence symbolise the authority of the Crown that the Warden's and Magistrate's Courts represented in the goldfields.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

The Courthouse represents the historical importance and presence of law enforcement during the early years of Central Otago gold mining, and also demonstrates historical values as it is one of Cromwell's nineteenth century buildings. The courts were associated with the development of civil infrastructure during the beginnings of gold mining in the area, an important aspect of New Zealand's history. With the development of a more centralised infrastructure and court system, small local buildings such as this one, and the courthouse at neighbouring Clyde, have been closed and sold for private use and development. They do however reflect an historical phase.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Courthouse is associated with the gold rush era of Central Otago's history, a major event in the development of the region and the country as a whole. The association with the Warden's Court system makes the building part of the story of the goldfields, where the Warden played a pivotal role. Its dual role as also providing space for the sitting of the Magistrates Court means that the building has played a central part in the history of the Cromwell community, and has been associated with many significant events.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The Courthouse is one of the few nineteenth century buildings to remain unaffected by the flooding of Melmore Terrace in the 1990s as a result of the construction of the high dam at Clyde. It is part of the surviving nineteenth century townscape of Cromwell.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Grant, William

William Grant is described by local historian James Crombie Parcell as a carpenter, but gives no further biographical information.

Ritchie, James

James Ritchie (1836-1920)

Ritchie was born in Blackford, Perthshire, Scotland and trained as a stonemason. He arrived at Port Chalmers in 1863 and settled at Cromwell where he worked on many public buildings in the district. In 1879 he bought Shannon Farm, and lived there until his death.

Arthur, L.

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The former Cromwell Courthouse, designed by pre-eminent Dunedin architect Robert Arthur Lawson, and completed in 1872, sits on Inniscort Street, overlooking the former business centre of Cromwell on Melmore Terrace. The small but impressive classically detailed building is constructed of stone. It served as the centre for justice and administration in the former gold mining town for over 100 years. For a further ten years it housed the Clutha Valley Development Authority, and since the mid 1980s has been used as a residence or holiday home.

The history of the town of Cromwell is linked with the history of the discovery and mining of gold in Central Otago. Gold mining began in Central Otago with Gabriel Read's discovery of gold in Gabriel's Gully, near present-day Lawrence, in 1861. The following year Hartley and Reilly left this gully and travelled further into Central Otago. They spent the winter prospecting in the now-flooded Cromwell Gorge between present day Clyde and Cromwell. The 1862 discovery precipitated a rush to the area. The town of Cromwell developed at the confluence of the Kawarau and Clutha Rivers, at the head of the Cromwell Gorge. The town was first known as The Junction and was located only a mile or so from Hartley's claim. The town was surveyed in 1863, and given its official name of Cromwell by its Irish surveyor, Connell. Cromwell was declared a municipality in 1866, when it had a population of 470. The area was also well known for its orchards.

The New Zealand legal system was first established by the 1840 Royal Charter which allowed the Legislative Council to make laws, and in 1841 the first Criminal Courts were established. By the end of that year the Supreme Court had also been established. By the 1860s a three tiered system was running: Resident Magistrates' Courts, District Courts and the Supreme Court. The Wardens Courts, set up to manage the administration of the goldfields, were established in the early 1860s. The courts were established by proclamation in October 1862 under the Gold Fields Act 1862. The proclamation established courts within the Gold Fields at Gabriel's District, Waitahuna District; the Dunstan District; the Nokomai District.

The Warden managed gold mining, disputes about mining, allocated residential and business licenses, and water rights. The warden also administered pastoral and agricultural land within the gold field and heard criminal and civil cases. According to Archives New Zealand, Cromwell had wardens court was a sub-office of Clyde c. 1864.

Clyde was initially the administrative centre of the goldfields, with an office based here in 1862 for the first goldfields commissioner and warden, Jackson Keddell. The first courthouse in the goldfields was a calico and scantling structure built in Clyde in the same year. Parcell notes that wardens were powerful figures on the goldfields, who could adjudicate on a wide range of matters covered under the Goldfields Act. They were “literally itinerant law courts. The 1985 interpretation plan for the Alexandra Courthouse notes that 'mining law regulated much of the economic life of the goldfields and thus the Warden's Courts played a central role in the life of goldfields communities', it continues 'the wide responsibilities and jurisdiction of the Warden's Court meant that they exercised a pervasive and highly significant influence not onl upon mining but also upon the general economic development and life of the goldfields. The Wardens themselves were thus central figures in their communities'.

Cromwell agitated for a resident warden in the early 1860s, without success, but a court was opened there and the first sitting took place in November 1864, with the warden presiding. A series of wardens were appointed in the 1860s, with Vincent Pyke, based at Clyde, appointed in 1868.

In Cromwell Court hearings were held in a wood and iron shed 16 feet by 12 feet, on the site of the later Athenaeum building. Local historian Parcell gives a good description of the 'indescribable confusion' in this inadequate structure, where 'the two lawyers, supposed for the occasion to be deadly enemies, argue their cases across a two-foot table, with the unfortunate litigants, the clerk, the Bench and the witnesses not three feet from their noses.' Conditions were so bad that hearings were moved to Kidd's Hotel hall.

The Otago Provincial Government received a report on the administration of the Clyde District in 1868, which noted the increasing importance of Cromwell within that gold fields district:

This District embraces Clyde, Cromwell, Alexandra, and Nevis. At Clyde, which is the headquarters, is stationed the Warden and Resident Magistrate, who holds also the appointments of Coroner, and Registration and Returning Officer for Goldfields, Goldfields Town, and the District of Manuherikia. He is also Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages for Clyde. The Warden holds Courts at Clyde once a week, at Cromwell once a week, and at Nevis once a month....the duties of Receiver stationed at Clyde are, comparatively speaking, small , while the mining Population is almost nil; but, being a mercantile centre and the seat of the District Court, we are of opinion that Clyde ought to remain the head quarters of the District....At Alexandra, there is at present stationed a Receiver, acting as Clerk to the Bench, who holds the appointment of Registrar of Births, Deaths, and Marriages...The necessity for having the Assistant Receiver and Clerk in the Dunstan District residing at Cromwell, arises from the growing importance of that Sub-District,...In reference to the Nevis, which the Warden at present visits once a month, we are of the opinion that its requirements are not such as to necessitate the holding Courts there, occasional visits would be amply sufficient.

Cromwell residents agitated to have a new courthouse constructed. Tenders were advertised in April 1871, but the work delayed until William Grant's tender was accepted in February 1872, and the court opened later that year. James Ritchie, Senior, completed the stonework. The Cromwell Argus described the plans of the courthouse:

The building will be of stone plastered with Roman cement. The main building will be of stone 35ft by 17ft [10.7 by 5.2m] floor to ceiing. At either end will be the Magistrate's and Receiver's rooms each 9ft by 12 ft with outer and inner doors. The building will be lighted in front by four semi circular windows and in the centre by two large roof lights. The iron roof will be borne upon principals, with purloins - a plan calculated to ensure the greatest amount of strength in the upper part of the structure. The interior walls will be wainscoted to the height of 4ft 6 inches throughout. The time specified for completion of the work is four months; and we can safely predict that the new Court House when finished, will be a credit to the builder and an ornament to the town. The plan is exactly similar to that Courthouse at Lawrence, of which Mr R.A. Lawson was the architect.

The plans of the Courthouse as built may have been changed, as the structure as built does not resemble the Lawrence Courthouse. The original plans have not been located.

District Court sittings were held at Cromwell Courthouse from 1876.

Additional offices were built to the side, one a strongroom, constructed in 1898 by William Gair, the other, to the right, the judge's retiring room and records office.

In 1913 the Minister of Justice closed the courthouse. There was an immediate local outcry. The indignation was such that the Minister reversed his decision.

Plans of the courthouse dated 1939 show the building sitting on a large section of land, with some sections subdivided off the original block; further subdivision of the land subsequently took place. Other buildings shown in the plan include a lockup, residence and office.

Court sittings continued at the courthouse until 1974, when the Justice Department declared it redundant. The Clutha Valley Development Authority then used the building during the development of the Clyde hydro-electric dam and Lake Dunstan until 1980, when they no longer required it. Discussions followed about uses for the building, with demolition threatened, because of the costs of earthquake strengthening. After local action the Crown offered it for private sale.

A structural report in 1981 reported the condition of the courthouse at that time. The front walls of the courthouse were plastered, while the majority of the rear walls were unplastered, but the mortar had been repointed. A toilet had been added, with a room adjacent to the courtroom being converted to a kitchen. There was some concern about the structural strength of the building.

The Courthouse was first sold in 1983, on a site of 1695 square metres, with many of the original fixtures and fittings removed. The building has had some modifications to make it more suitable as a residence. The central courtroom was divided into two, providing a living area and a bedroom. The original reception area was converted to a guest room, and the room to the side of this (added to the building in the 1930s) also used as a bedroom. The court vault remains in situ. The magistrates room now houses the kitchen, and the living area still has the judge's platform. The plaster was removed from some of the exterior walls. It was purchased by its current owners in October 2001. In 2004 a bathroom was added to the west elevation with the NZHPT's approval.

In 2006 the building in used principally as a holiday home.

Physical Description

The Courthouse (Former) is a small but impressive structure, sitting a block back from and above Melmore Terrace, the site of Cromwell's former main business street, now largely flooded as a result of the inundation following the building of the Clyde Dam and the associated formation of Lake Dunstan.

The Courthouse is a classically detailed single storey stone building. It has a main central block, which previously housed the courtroom, and two flanking wings on either side of main block. On the south elevation is a further addition.

The main facades facing Inniscort Street are unplastered. The contrasting classical round headed stone facings on the doors and windows are painted. The main double doors to the courtroom are panelled, with an arched fanlight over. The arched windows and main doorway of the façade are large for the small scale of the building itself, and give it an imposing air. The side additions have the same arched windows.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1872 -

1898 -
Strongroom added (built by William Gair and L. Arthur)

1903 -
Further additions made (not specified)

Construction Details

Constructed of stone with timber joinery and a corrugated iron roof.

Completion Date

22nd June 2007

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Gilkison, 1978

R. Gilkison, Early Days in Central Otago Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1978

Parcell, 1951

James C. Parcell, 'Heart of the Desert: A History of the Cromwell and Bannockburn Districts of Central Otago', Christchurch, 1951

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Otago/Southland Area Office

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.