Towns and cities of NZ


The principal city of the lower South Island, with an urban population of 111,185 in 2006. Once New Zealand’s largest city, Dunedin remains significant on account of its history, and its status as a centre for university education, and scientific and medical research.

Early years

The town was founded in 1848. Charles Kettle, surveyor for the New Zealand Company, placed the Octagon at its heart, with Moray Place forming an outer octagon of thoroughfares. George and Princes streets – the names of Edinburgh’s principal streets – were the axis, and a town belt reserve separated town and country.

Image taken 1861

After 10 years the settlement’s population was just 1,712. It was the gold rushes from July 1861 that transformed Dunedin – its population increased to nearly 15,000 by the end of the 1860s, and nearly tripled between then and 1881. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881 (but never again), it was New Zealand’s largest urban centre.

The city invested in education, religion and public works. Bell Hill, situated between the Octagon and the harbour, was demolished to allow expansion. Substantial buildings included Otago Museum (1876–77); the main building of the University of Otago with its clock tower (1878); the council chambers (1878–80); and St Joseph’s Catholic cathedral (1886). Architect Robert Lawson was responsible for some of the most distinctive buildings – First and Knox Presbyterian churches (1873 and 1876), Otago Boys’ High School (1884), and Trinity Methodist Church (1870), since 1978 the home of the Fortune Theatre. Dunedin Public Art Gallery was set up in 1884; it moved into a refurbished building in 1996.

Boom times

In 1900 Dunedin’s capitalists thrived on the back of a gold dredging boom. They traded nationally and internationally. The city’s schools and university were New Zealand’s best. Missionaries from Dunedin ranged as far as China and India, and the city’s vigorous working class was the backbone of the nascent national labour movement. Jewish, Lebanese and Chinese communities gave a distinctive cast to the city’s business and public life.

Banks and other financial institutions clustered along Princes Street, south of the Octagon. Nearby Walker (now Carroll) Street was a poor neighbourhood. The city’s bourgeoisie built substantial residences adjacent to the town belt, most notably the Theomin house Olveston (1906). Cable cars ran to hill suburbs, and trams to ‘the Flat’ (South Dunedin).

A wave of public building saw the completion of the law courts (1900–2), the main railway station (1904) and St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral (1915). The city cherished its past, developing the Settlers Museum (1898) adjacent to Queens Gardens, and the Hocken Library (1910), based around the book and manuscript collection of local doctor and coroner Thomas Morland Hocken. Electric power was reticulated from the city’s Waipori Falls power station from 1907.

With the end of the gold dredging boom, Dunedin’s hinterland had a mostly pastoral economy; it was the South Island’s leading wool-selling centre. The city gained new enterprises – cinemas and publishers – and the 1925–26 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition was a powerful vote of confidence. But Dunedin’s 1926 population of 85,000 was not surpassed until the late 1940s (partly because of the 1930s economic depression).

Malcolm McKinnon. 'Otago places - Dunedin', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 17-Dec-12

280 km (175 miles) east of Queenstown, 362 km (226 miles) south of Christchurch.

Clinging to the walls of the natural amphitheater at the west end of Otago Harbour, South Island's second-largest city is blessed with inspiring seascapes and wildlife. Its considerable number of university students give the city a vitality far greater than its population of 120,000 might suggest. And its size makes it easy to explore on foot.

The area has a strong Scottish background and Dunedin was formerly called New Edinburgh. The city's name was later changed to Edinburgh's old Celtic name, Dunedin (Dun Edin, meaning Edin on the Hill).

    After a visit to Dunedin in the mid-1890s, the American writer Mark Twain said: "The people here are Scots. They stopped here on their way to heaven, thinking they had arrived."

It was founded in 1848 by settlers of the Free Church of Scotland, a breakaway group from the Presbyterian Church. Gold was discovered later in central Otago and, with the attendant prosperity, Dunedin became New Zealand's biggest city and the country's industrial and commercial heart. Magnificently-ornate new buildings, many of which still stand today, sprang in the city with kerosene lighting, and freezing and hydroelectric works. In 1879, it was the first city outside the USA to have its own tram system. This was phased out in 1957. With the end of the gold rush, Dunedin was surpassed by other New Zealand cities in importance but remains the South Island's second largest city. Today it has the only kilt shop in the country and the first and only (legal) whiskey distillery - and a stature of Scottish poet Robert Burns. The city prospered mightily during the gold rush of the 1860s. For a while it was the largest city in the country, and the riches of the Otago goldfields are reflected in the bricks and mortar of Dunedin's handsome Victorian townscape, most notably in the Italianate Municipal Chambers building in the Octagon.