Oamaru streamers and ribbons Victorian area
Oamaru garlands of flags

On the edge of the town of Oamaru, by the waters of the Pacific Ocean, there exists a small slice of Victorian paradise. The streets are lined with tall limestone structures, their pillars and parapets gleaming in the midday sun, shop signs swinging in a sea breeze. A bookbinder, a hat maker, an old hotel.

I have often visited this area of Oamaru, its being so close to home and all. As I walk the dusty streets, there are memories: of markets, ice creams, of dressing as a Victorian school-girl for the annual Fete. The area has a story to tell, and many local people are dedicated to the recreation and preservation of that story.



Around the time of the late 1860s, the port of Oamaru was booming, and the area beside the ocean was fast becoming the commercial centre of town. A call went out for an expansion – new warehouses to house grain and seed. The answer came in the form of Thomas Forrester, a recent graduate from a Glasgow design school, and a lover of the popular Neoclassical style. Forrester quickly went to work, creating some of the most elegant and elaborate grain warehouses in the country, using the local white limestone. The results were grand, and what remains today is New Zealands most complete street-scape of Victorian commercial buildings, or what the locals like to call a Victorian Town at Work.



Today the Victorian precinct is well cared for – with sixteen original buildings owned by a trust, and restored by the skilled stone masons of the area. Moreover, the locals work not only to preserve the buildings, but also the crafts, skills, and lifestyles that were so popular in the late 1800s. It is not unusual to see a penny farthing whizzing down the lane, or a gentleman in a cravat doffing his top hat to passers-by, nor is it odd to see a woman dressed in a full Victorian get up, parasol too, or a little coracle boat bobbing in the bay. These locals are known to be downright friendly, and ever-helpful. Similarly, the businesses that occupy the old warehouses are reminiscent of the late 1800s , among them: a bookbinder, a hat maker, a whisky seller, a working railway, a brewery, a wool store, a soap maker, and a fully refurbished Victorian licensed hotel called The Criterion

The attention to detail in Victorian Oamaru is breathtaking. If one was to enter a bookstore and purchase a book there, they would be greeted by a salesclerk dressed in traditional clothing, who would write up the purchase in a ledger with a fountain pen, ring up the bill on an old cash register, and then wrap the books in brown paper and twine before stamping them and handing them over. It is this kind of care and attention to detail that seems astounding in our age of quick, impersonal transactions and internet shopping. Somehow it makes that book seem more precious, an object to be cherished and kept, not simply consumed and then stuffed to the back of the bookshelf.

And this is where we begin to see that re-enactment can put a person into a wholly different mindset.

On this matter, I am reminded of an article, sent to me by a friend, on the life of a couple who choose to live in a completely Victorian manner. In the article, Sarah explains that she and her husband enjoy using Victorian technologies such as ice-boxes and oil lamps, fountain pens and antique chatelaines. She reports that the everyday use of these objects has equipped her with a different attitude than someone who uses modern technology...

Much of modern technology has become a collection of magic black boxes: Push a button and light happens, push another button and heat happens, and so on. The systems that dominate people’s lives have become so opaque that few people have even the foggiest notion what makes most of the items they touch every day work — and trying to repair them would nullify the warranty. The resources that went into making those items are treated as nothing more than a price tag to grumble about when the bills come due. Very few people actually watch those resources decreasing as they use them. It’s impossible to watch fuel disappearing when it’s burned in a power plant hundreds of miles away, and convenient to forget there’s a connection.

When we use resources through technology that has to be tended, we’re far more careful about how we use them. To use our antique space heater in the winter, I have to fill its reservoir with kerosene and keep its wick and flame spreader clean; when we want to use it, I have to open and light it. It’s not a burdensome process, but it’s certainly a more mindful one than flicking a switch.

Not everyone necessarily wants to live the same lifestyle we have chosen, of course. But anyone can benefit from choices that increase their awareness of their surroundings and the way things they use every day affect them. Watching the level of kerosene diminish in the reservoir heightens our awareness of how much we’re using, and makes us ask ourselves what we truly need. Learning to use all these technologies gives us confidence to exist in the world on our own terms.
— Sarah A. Chrisman

This article puts into perspective the real benefits of preserving old-fashioned methods of living, and makes me truly appreciate what the locals are doing in the old town of Victorian Oamaru, down by the waters, where the sea breeze makes the shop signs swing.

Hat Makers, Victorian precinct Oamaru
Old whisky building Oamaru Victorian area
Oamaru victorian area - flowerpot and stone steps
Old staircase in Victorian precinct, Oamaru
Church steeple and old buildings in Victorian precinct, Oamaru
Oamaru Victorian district historic buildings, NZ