Oamaru Courthouse

86-88 Thames Street, Oamaru

  • Oamaru Courthouse. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Shelley Morris. Taken By: Madam48 - Shelley Morris. Date: 14/04/2013.
  • Oamaru Courthouse. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 9/04/2012.
  • Oamaru Courthouse. Image courtesy of www.flickr.com.
    Copyright: Shelley Morris. Taken By: Madam48 - Shelley Morris. Date: 14/04/2013.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 353 Date Entered 2nd July 1987 Date of Effect 2nd July 1987


Extent of List Entry

The extent of registration includes the land in Sec 19 Blk XCV Town of Oamaru (RT OT14C/709), Otago Land District, and the building known as the Oamaru Courthouse thereon and its fixtures and fittings.

City/District Council

Waitaki District


Otago Region

Legal description

Sec 19 Blk XCV Town of Oamaru (RT OT14C/709) (NZ Gazette 1986, p.2830), Otago Land District


The Oamaru Courthouse was built in 1882-1883 to replace the first courthouse (erected 1862). The first courthouse had been built as a result of the growth in population (and crime) in the area that occurred with the discovery of gold in the Lindis in 1861. Both population and crime continued to grow apace and by the late nineteenth-century Oamaru's crime rate was much higher than the national average, and the town was described by the Dunedin paper, the "Age", as being the 'best crime-producing district in Otago', and as that 'drunken metropolis'.

It was decided, because of the high crime rate, to establish a Supreme Court in Oamaru, to open in 1884. This required the erection of a second courthouse, the subject of this registration, capable of housing court recorders, the press, a jury, separate rooms for the judges and resident magistrate, and seating for witnesses, clerks and the public. More space was also needed to house the growing amount of civil and public business the court was responsible for, such as maintaining the register of electors.

The New Zealand legal system was first established by an 1840 Royal Charter that allowed the Legislative Council to make laws for 'peace, order and good government'. In 1841 the first Criminal Courts were established, in Russell, Auckland and Port Nicholson, as well as Civil Courts. By the end of that year the Supreme Court had been established. By the 1860s a three-tiered system of courts existed, which consisted of the Resident Magistrates' Courts (established 1846), the District Courts (1858) and the Supreme Court. A District Court was established for the Oamaru-Timaru area in 1872. By the end of the nineteenth century the court system had become essentially two-tiered, with the Magistrates' Courts (known as the Resident Magistrates' until 1893), acquiring wider and more extensive powers. District Courts did continue until 1909 when those courts were abolished.

The 1882-1883 courthouse for Oamaru was designed by the noted architectural partnership Forrester and Lemon, established in Oamaru in 1872. Thomas Forrester (1838-1907), born in Glasglow, arrived in New Zealand in 1861 and settled in Dunedin, working under some of that town's notable architects. John Lemon (1828-1890) was born in Jamaica and travelled to England before emigrating to New Zealand in 1849. He settled in Oamaru in 1860 and established a timber merchant's business, which dissolved in 1872. Lemon had no architectural experience, but contributed vital contacts and efficient administrative skills to the business. Forrester and Lemon designed numerous buildings around Oamaru including the Harbour Board Offices (1876), Waitaki Boys' High School (1883), and the Post Office (1883-84) and thus contributed greatly to Oamaru's distinctive architectural character.

In plan the courthouse that Forrester and Lemon designed is a rectangular building with a central court, a plan that can be traced back to the Roman basilicas, which were used as places to conduct business and as law courts. Throughout the nineteenth-century law courts were generally designed with a central court flanked by wings on either side, no matter what the external style, and the Oamaru Courthouse is no exception. Classical in style, the street frontage is dominated by the two-storeyed central portico, with its elaborately carved Corinthian columns.

The Oamaru Courthouse has been described as the finest building that Forrester and Lemon designed, and as one of the most impressive courthouses in New Zealand. It has significant streetscape value and exemplifies the classical ornamentation that could be created in Oamaru stone. The building has also been associated with the history of the New Zealand justice system for more than 100 years. One judge said of the courthouse at its centenary celebrations in 1983, that while he saw little 'particular' merit in the age of the building, the fact that the quality of justice handed out over that period of time had improved was extremely satisfying and a significant part of the building's history. As is typical of courthouses, the one in Oamaru is also associated with a number of important local historical events, such as the growth and regulation of the gold mining industry; the division of the large runs during the late 1890s; the temperance movement which led to Oamaru going 'dry' from 1905 to 1962; and hearings associated with conscription issues during the Second World War.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Forrester & Lemon

The architectural partnership of Forrester and Lemon was established in Oamaru in 1872.

Thomas Forrester (1838-1907) was born in Glasgow and educated at the Glasgow School of Art. Emigrating to New Zealand in 1861 he settled in Dunedin and worked under William Mason (1810-97) and William Henry Clayton (1823-77) and later Robert Arthur Lawson (1833-1902). In 1865 he superintended the Dunedin Exhibition and from 1870 he became involved with the supervision of harbour works. Some time after 1885 he became Engineer to the Oamaru Harbour Board and in this capacity designed the repairs to the breakwater following storm damage in 1886 and later the Holmes Wharf. On his death in 1907 he was still in the employ of the Harbour Board.

John Lemon (1828-1890) was born in Jamaica and travelled to England before emigrating to New Zealand in 1849. He settled in Oamaru in 1860 and with his brother Charles established a timber merchant's business. By 1869 he was in partnership with his father-in-law, George Sumpter calling themselves "Timber and General Merchants, Land and Commission Agents". This partnership was dissolved in 1872 and Lemon entered into partnership with Forrester. Lemon had no architectural experience at all, but had a wide circle of business contacts and was an efficient administrator.

Buildings designed by the partnership of Forrester and Lemon include St Paul's Church (1875-76), the Harbour Board Offices (1876), Queen's (later Brydone) Hotel (1881), Waitaki Boys' High School (1883), The Courthouse (1883) and the Post Office (1883-84), all in Oamaru. Forrester and Lemon contributed greatly to Oamaru's nineteenth century character. On Lemon's death in 1890 the practice was taken over by Forrester's son, John Megget Forrester (1865-1965).

Additional informationopen/close

Notable Features

Fence: The fence that runs along the Thames Street frontage is included in the registration and was made of wrought iron set in Oamaru stone. In 1962 the Oamaru stone base was removed and replaced by a concrete one, plastered to look like stone.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1882 - 1883

1981 -
Chimneys removed when building reroofed

Completion Date

22nd January 2002

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Pevsner, 1976

Nikolaus Pevsner, A History of Building Types, London, 1976

Scott, 1983

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

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.