Historical Significance or Value
The Courthouse has historic significance as the centre for both goldfields administration and the administration of justice for this rural community. The building served as both Wardens and Magistrates Court for sixty years, and is therefore a tangible link with the town’s goldfields past. As a Court it was one of the public faces of Government in this rural area. While the first court in Ophir 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.
Aesthetic Significance or Value
Ophir Courthouse (Former), with the former policeman’s residence and the Ophir Post Office, form a cluster of government buildings in this small settlement. They sit together and tell the visual story of the former government presence in the town during the gold rush years. The Courthouse is an integral element within the small scale intact nineteenth century streetscape of Ophir, which is recognised for its aesthetic value.
Architectural Significance or Value
The Courthouse’s simple, formal design and detailing reflects a common theme in historic government buildings in small town Central Otago. Designed in 1884, the Courthouse has architectural significance as a representative example of government architecture associated with the development of administrative infrastructure in goldfields Otago. It sits with other courthouses in nearby Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell as local examples of architecture associated with the justice system.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history
The Courthouse is representative of important aspects of New Zealand’s history, when the courthouse played an important role in small rural communities like Ophir. Historically, towns such as Ophir were geographically isolated, separated from other gold mining settlements by long distances that could only be travelled on foot, on horseback or by coach. In this context the courthouse represents the establishment of law and governance in a previously unsettled terrain. The building’s historical significance is identified in a plaque beside the main doorway.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape
Ophir Courthouse (Former) is an integral part of the Ophir Historic Area, contributing to the streetscape of small scale nineteenth century commercial, residential and government buildings. The Courthouse, former policeman’s residence and Ophir Post Office (Category 1) form a cluster of government buildings within this streetscape, which encompasses numerous buildings along Swindon Street including the nearby Pitches Store (Category 2) at 45 Swindon Street, and Jenkin’s Cottage and Outbuildings at 28 Swindon Street.
The spectacular arid harsh area of Central Otago, blisteringly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter, with its rocky outcrops and tussock covered ranges, was an area of food gathering (including moa processing), and silcrete quarry sites for Maori. The Manuherikia River runs close by Ophir. Its name recalls the catching of birds. It is traditionally known that moa were hunted in the many subsidiary valleys and catchments by Waitaha. The later arrivals Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu are known to have hunted weka and many other waterfowl on the Maniototo and other Central Otago catchments. They also spent much time fishing for tuna (eel).
It was pastoral resources and gold that drew Europeans to this area of Otago. Gold was discovered in the area in 1863 on Charles and William Black’s sheep station. The gold rush town Blacks No.1 sat in the spectacular rocky arid back country close to the Manuherikia River. Provincial superintendent James Macandrew renamed the town in 1875 recalling the biblical Ophir from where gold was brought to the Temple at Jerusalem when it was being built by King Solomon. The settlement had its heyday in the bustling gold mining period in the mid to late nineteenth century. Swindon Street, the main street, was a busy cluster of businesses, government buildings and residences.
One of the significant government buildings in the town was the courthouse. 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 goldfields and heard criminal and civil cases.
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 (small timber) structure built in Clyde in the same year. The 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’. Mining law was central to the life of goldfields communities and the Warden’s Court ‘exercised a pervasive and highly significant influence not only upon mining but also upon the general economic development and life of the goldfields. The wardens themselves were thus central figures in their communities.’
While the first court was established at Clyde, other courts were soon set up throughout the district, most notably at Cromwell, Ophir and Alexandra. Wardens’ Courts were once scattered throughout Central Otago, and not always held in courthouses such as this one. Often temporary buildings had to suffice. Wardens were concerned with the administration of mining law on the goldfields, and business most commonly heard at the court was the registration or enforcement of miners’ rights. Reports often arose over claim jumping, forgeries and impersonations, water races, roading and disputes between partners operating a joint claim. The warden had powers to hear and adjudicate on these complaints. In the Dunstan district, and elsewhere in Central Otago, the warden travelled around many courts presiding at each one in turn, accompanied by a small number of staff.
In 1868 Blacks No 1 was described as the ‘village town of the district’ – containing the post office, courthouse, police station, hotels and store and school. Isolated it was, but its residents were not to be underestimated: ‘the public at Blacks are quiet and respectable, and beneath a digger’s exterior one often finds an amount of intellect which tickles the organ of wonder.’
Though the town’s infrastructure was established, it was the nature of goldfields towns to be transient, shifting with the gold. As mining declined in a goldfield the population declined with it and so the services followed the miners. As gold returns around Blacks dropped off, so the court’s location was under threat. In August 1870 the Otago Witness reported the potential removal of the courthouse from Blacks. The building was to be moved to ‘a site near the Dunstan.’ A deputation of local residents presented Otago’s Deputy Superintendent with a memorial against the move. This move does not seem to have happened, but there was anger about the lack of court services in Ophir: ‘the inhabitants of Blacks, or Ophir as it is now called, are indignant because they have “no court, no clerk, no nothing.’ Locals wanted to know if the Provincial Government was ‘in a state of paralysis or insanity.’
In 1872 residents of the district petitioned for sections in the now surveyed and gazetted township of Ophir to be put up for sale. Residents argued that that the site was conveniently central, and that the ‘cost of moving the Courthouse, camp and Government buildings from their present sites’ would be a serious expense, and an inconvenience for many people who had occupied their building sites for ten years already. From these comments, it would seem that there was already a cluster of government buildings in the town by 1872.
Blacks residents were impatient for access to court services. Warden Carew visited fortnightly, but this was insufficient. One correspondent to the Tuapeka Times in 1872 wrote, ‘it is unreasonable to expect that one pair of hands can do all the work accumulated every fortnight in so large and important a district as this, in a day. This district is as large as any warden can attend to in an efficient manner. It comprises Blacks No.1, St Bathans, Welshmans Gully, Drybread, Tinkers Gully, Devonshire, Ida Valley, Blacks No.3, and covers an area of thirty miles square, in which a large number of miners are settled.’
From contextual information it is assumed that the new courthouse was built in 1883-1884. During this period, £500 was voted for a Courthouse in Blacks (in brackets, Ophir). John Chapple, an Ophir resident, writes that the courthouse was used for the first time on 9 December 1884.
By the close of the nineteenth century the town was in decline. In 1890 it was described as ‘a fairly large township, which in its palmy days did considerable trade with the surrounding diggings and farmers.’ One correspondent wondered ‘whence all the traffic come to support such pretentious establishments, for some of the buildings are stone, and have an enduring and prosperous appearance’ in a ‘prettily situated’ site.
In the early years of the twentieth century the Central Otago railway bypassed Ophir, and in the process created the new town of Omakau built around the railway. Many businesses transferred their premises to the new town two kilometres to the east, but a loyal population remained, though largely residential. The town became a quiet backwater, relatively unchanged throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century.
The Magistrate’s Court was moved from Blacks to Omakau in 1942. After its closure the strong room door was purchased by the Post Office for eventual use in the new Cromwell Post Office.
According to Colin Kerr (then with the Ministry of Works in Alexandra) the Ophir Courthouse was closed when the Arrowtown Courthouse was moved to Omakau, at the time when a new police station was built in that town. The gaol was moved from Ophir to Omakau as well, at that time. The Courthouse was offered for disposal in 1947, and transfer was approved in 1950 at a value of £387.10.0.
The property was leased under a renewable lease to apiarist Daniel Wells in 1948, and then to another apiarist Stanley McAuslan in 1961.
In the 1980s McAuslan was still using the building as a processing plant for honey. This necessitated some modifications for hygiene purposes, including relining of some rooms and plumbing work. On the exterior a loading bay was excavated and a concrete path was laid to allow easier access. A lean-to addition was added at the rear.
Since the 1990s the former Ophir Courthouse has been used as a private residence.
Ophir stands in a nook in a basin at the base of Rough Ridge alongside Manuherikia River. The township is a registered Historic Area (Register No. 7268) and its main street (Swindon Street) is characterised by a loose, scattered mix of nineteenth century commercial, government and residential buildings. The former courthouse, along with the former policeman’s residence and the Ophir Post Office (Register No. 341, Category 1) form a cluster of government buildings. Like the residential and commercial buildings such as Jenkin’s Cottage and Outbuildings, and Pitches Store (Register No. 7282), the government buildings are small in scale and single storeyed. The courthouse is set back from the main street and the land behind the courthouse is farmland.
The Ophir Courthouse is L-shaped in plan. The exterior walls are masonry with a cement render and the roof is corrugated iron. The window joinery is timber. The main elevation, with its formal entrance, faces Swindon Street. The building is set back into the slope at the rear.
The main entrance has double wooden doors with a top light and is flanked by two double hung sash windows. The north-west elevation has two double hung sash windows. The projecting L-shaped wing has a four panelled door.
The interior was not assessed.
First Courthouse established in Ophir
New courthouse built
Modification for honey processing plant
Stone, brick, corrugated iron, timber
29th November 2012
Report Written By
Otago Daily Times
Otago Daily Times
17 Oct 1868, p.4.; 27 Sep 1872, p.2.; 10 May 1882, p.3
14 Sep 1888, p.17
A fully referenced registration report is available from the Otago/Southland Office of the NZHPT.
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.