Historical Significance or Value
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 ninety 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 Courthouse has architectural significance. The building was designed in 1879, and in its simple, formal design and detailing is a representative example of government architecture associated with the development of administrative infrastructure in gold fields Otago. It sits with other courthouses in nearby Clyde and Cromwell as local examples of architecture associated with the justice system. In addition its construction from local stone is representative of the vernacular materials of the region.
(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 Alexandra. Historically, towns such as Alexandra 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.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place:
The community value the Courthouse for its historical and community associations. This was demonstrated after government restructuring in 1972 when the Courthouse ceased to operate as a court and was under threat of demolition. A number of community groups worked together to prevent the loss of the building. Different community organisations then used the building and, because of its goldfields associations, it became incorporated into the Otago Goldfields Park.
The history of Alexandra is intrinsically linked with the history of gold mining. In 1861 Gabriel Read's discovery of gold in Gabriel's Gully, near present-day Lawrence, started a rush to this area. The following year Hartley and Reilly travelled further into Central Otago. They spent the winter of 1862 prospecting in the now-flooded Clutha Gorge between present day Clyde and Cromwell precipitating a rush to that area. Alexandra, located at the confluence of the Clutha and Manuherikia Rivers about ten kilometres south of Clyde, was also the scene of gold mining activity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Alexandra (first known as Lower Dunstan) was first established at about the same time as Clyde, in 1862. The name Alexandra, after Princess Alexandra of Denmark, was given in 1863. First settlers built a canvas town, with more permanent structures following later. In February 1866 the town and adjacent lands were withdrawn from the goldfields and in 1867 the town was proclaimed a municipality. It became the commercial and administrative centre for a large area of rural Central Otago.
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, Alexandra 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.”
While the first court was established at Clyde, other courts were soon set up throughout the district, most notably at Cromwell, Ophir and Alexandra. At Alexandra, a court was held from the early 1860s, serving both as a Magistrate's and Warden's court. 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.
The Otago Provincial Government received a report on the administration of the Clyde District in 1868, which noted the staff stationed at Alexandra 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.
By 1874 Alexandra's resident magistrate was calling for the construction of a suitable building to serve as a courthouse and office. According to the Lands and Survey interpretation plan for the Courthouse, it was constructed during 1878-1879, and opened on 16 June 1879, and consisted of a single room.
By 1905 the single room was considered inadequate and additions were made, bringing the building to its present form. In 1905-6 additions were made due to the inadequacy of the single courtroom. A judge's room was added at the south corner, and a clerk's office along with a cupboard and strongroom, to the north corner. A witness room was built to the northwest, with access directly to the outside. This was also referred to as the side office.
The building served as a Magistrate's court until 1972, when the Department of Justice no longer required it. The Warden's court system was abolished a year earlier with the introduction of the 1971 Mining Act.
No longer needed as a courthouse, the building came under threat of demolition, with the land it stands on designated for use as a car park. Following pressure from local community groups who wanted to preserve the building, the former Courthouse was gazetted as an historic reserve in 1978.
The building went on to have a number of different uses in the Alexandra community. It housed the Department of Social Welfare and Ministry of Transport for three years from 1973 and for a further two years housed the Alexandra Public Library while a new library was built. It was also a base for the Alexandra Information Centre in the mid 1980s, as well as being used by a number of other community groups such as the Central Otago Art Society. During its period of use by the various government departments many of the fittings were removed and put into storage, partition walls were erected to allow the space to be used as offices.
The Courthouse was formally incorporated into the Otago Goldfields Park in 1983, under the auspices of the Department of Lands and Survey, now the Department of Conservation. It was seen as an ideal place to preserve and interpret the goldfields warden's court system. The building was restored. The partition walls were removed. The linoleum was lifted, revealing large areas of rotten floor boards in the west corner due to lack of ventilation. The boards and joists were replaced, and ventilation improved. Displays interpreting the significance of the Warden's Court system to Central Otago were installed. The building was open to the public.
Around 1985 a review of the Alexandra District Planning Scheme identified the Courthouse site as a proposed carpark as part of a redevelopment of the town centre. A petition in 1984 sought to preserve the building and attracted 300 signatures. As a result of submissions made regarding the building, the Alexandra Borough Council deleted the carparking proposal for the site.
In 2002 the courthouse was converted for use as a café. In 2007 it forms a popular venue for both tourists and the local community.
The Courthouse is located on Centennial Avenue, the main thoroughfare through the town. It sits amidst what is largely a commercial precinct. The building is set back from the street within a small garden with lawns and paths.
The Courthouse is a small classically styled building. The front façade is plastered, and has a formal portico entrance, with double panelled doors. The simple detailing emphasises the formality of its function as a courthouse.
The Courthouse is constructed of shaped stone, brought to course, and is on stone foundations. The roof is of corrugated iron, and is hipped over the main body of the court, and has a single gable over the portico entrance. The joinery is timber, with the majority of the windows being double hung sash.
The original courtroom, constructed in 1879 as a single roomed courthouse, is the largest room in the building, and in 2006 this houses the public area of the cafe. The interior walls are plastered. The ceilings and the floors are timber. Three fireplaces remain in the building.
1905 - 1906
Converted for use as a café.
Stone with corrugated iron roof and brick chimneys.
22nd June 2007
Report Written By
R. Gilkison, Early Days in Central Otago Whitcoulls, Christchurch, 1978
Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)
Land Information New Zealand
Alexandra Courthouse Interpretation Plan Historical Overview; Alexandra Courthouse Historic Reserve Management Plan, 1985
Moore, 1953 (reprint 1978)
C. Moore, The Dunstan, Whitcombe & Tombs, Dunedin, (First published 1953, Capper Press reprint 1978)
James C. Parcell, 'Heart of the Desert: A History of the Cromwell and Bannockburn Districts of Central Otago', Christchurch, 1951
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.