Ōamaru - How one town moved forwards by going backwards


Could Ōamaru be the steampunk capital of the world? Frank Film investigates.

Out of adversity comes… goggles, airships, watches and waistcoats, brocade and boots.

Every June visitors head down to north Otago for a long weekend of dressing up, striding out and posing for the cameras. The result is a little bit Jules Verne, a little bit HG Wells, shot through with the Victorian gloom and retro-futuristic gadgets of Sherlock Holmes, The Wild Wild West and 2003 dieselpunk film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Ōamaru is recognised as steampunk capital of Aotearoa New Zealand. Or, as one local says, “Steampunk capital of the world.”

“The byline Ōamaru came up with is ‘Tomorrow as it used to be’,” Donna Demente of the Grainstore Gallery tells Frank Film. “It’s looking at the future from the Victorian era.”

How Ōamaru came to be the national hub for this highly speculative vision lies in the looming walls of the town’s Victorian precinct, almost all of which were built from stone from one of the local quarries, and an economic crisis.
“The industrial town originally grew up around the port,” explains local historian Heather Machin. “It was a prosperous region, growing grain, exporting it from our harbour, then exporting frozen meat.”
Then came the slump. Ōamaru went broke.

“Timaru got the edge on us – they had a better port. All the plough boys left, all the builders left. All the beer and barmaids and ladies of the night – all went somewhere else.”

Ōamaru, she says, became a very sleepy hollow – but one with a huge debt. By then the town had mortgaged itself to the hilt to pipe water 50km down from the Waitaki River.

“The only reason these buildings still stand is because Ōamaru was too poor to develop.”

A hundred years later, in the 1980s, a group of locals formed the Ōamaru Whitestone Civic Trust with a vision of a living, working Victorian town

“They recognised that we had these buildings and they needed to be rescued,” says Machin. “They worked like mad, raised money – now they own about 20 buildings.”

The Steampunk NZ Festival started in 2009, when the League of Victorian Imagineers Steampunk exhibition Tomorrow As It Used To Be was held at the Forrester Gallery.

By then the town’s energy was lifting, says Helen Jansen, aka La Falconesse. “Then Steampunk came along and the Alps 2 Ocean (cycle trail) – it's just really booming now.”

Since then it has evolved into an annual festival of events and workshops, processions and parties.

“It's that expression of creativity,” says Iain Clark, aka Agent Darling, widely credited with launching steampunk in Ōamaru. “And the opportunity to step outside your normal existence – to dress up and be the person lurking in there somewhere.”

Ōamaru has stepped up, boots and all. Any day of the year you will see people on the street wearing strangely eccentricised Victorian garb.

Dressed in waistcoat and tweed cap, bookbinder and brewer Michael O’Brien would not have it any other way. “I'm not wearing a costume – I've worn this sort of stuff every day for the last 30 years or so.”

Others are not so keen.

It's good for the town, says one Oamaruvian, “but it’s not my scene.”

Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth.
Editor: Gaylene Barnes.
Research: Jessy Rolleston Palmer.
Written Word: Sally Blundell.
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch.
Sound Design and Mix: Chris Sinclair.
Sound Editor: Amanda Reid.
Colour Grade: Mike Kelland.
Production Assistant: Liam Craig.

Thanks to the Waitaki Museum and Archive
Thanks to the National Library

Penny farthing bicycle and carriages in Thames St, Oamaru. Webster, Kenneth Athol, 1906-1967 : The Webster Collection. Ref: PA1-q-262-43-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22743172

Bank of New South Wales at Oamaru. Ref: 1/2-055305-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22709102

Overlooking Oamaru. Vance, William, 1899-1981 :Photographs. Ref: 1/2-001974-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22741291

Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). View of the breakwater extending into the Oamaru harbour. Ref: 1/2-C-22767-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23010554

Burton Brothers (Dunedin, N.Z.). Burton Brothers, 1868-1898 (Firm, Dunedin) : Photograph of a naval attack on Oamaru. Ref: 1/2-060840. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22399870

Thames Street, Oamaru. Vance, William, 1899-1981 :Photographs. Ref: 1/2-001993-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23052534