Drama at Victory Beach

026Victory Beach, a 3-km long straight beach at Wickliffe Bay on the Otago Peninsula, is one of my favourite places. It’s never crowded – the 2-km walk from the road no doubt puts some people off – and I’ve never seen anybody swimming there. But for those willing and able to make the effort, it’s a beautiful beach to walk along and offers the opportunity to see some of Dunedin’s intriguing wildlife, including yellow-eyed penguins (hoiho) and New Zealand/Hooker’s sea lions (whakahao). If you look closely, you may also spot some interesting clues to its past, for this apparently peaceful spot has a dramatic history.

The smaller of the Pyramids, Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

The drama started millions of years ago, with the volcanic eruptions which created the landforms of the Otago Peninsula and Dunedin district. The final major eruptive phase of the Dunedin volcano created the lava domes which form many of the prominent peaks around Otago Harbour. The eruptions produced extensive flows of basalt, the most common volcanic rock. As basalt cools and dries out it can crack to form symmetrical patterns, and there is a striking example of this at the mounds known as the Pyramids, adjacent to Victory Beach. On the seawards side of the smaller Pyramid (Te Matai o Okia) you can clearly see the tubes known as columnar jointing. For added intrigue, some of the columns are oriented diagonally from the ground.

Some of the remarkable columnar basalt at Te Matai o Okia, February 2016.

Fortunately, all this volcanic activity took place long before people lived here, but the beach and the swampy flat land adjacent to it, known as Okia, have been walked by Māori for generations. As local kaumātua Edward Ellison explained in the management plan for what is now a reserve, this district was home first to the Waitaha people, later followed by Kāti Māmoe and then Kāi Tahu, who migrated from the north: ‘An old settlement dating back to the earliest times was located at Okia, a place where generations lived, hunted and celebrated life. The hunter gatherer lifestyle was centred around numerous mahika kai resources that were available on the Peninsula and surrounding districts’. Of course, though they later intermarried and made peace, new iwi were not simply welcomed to an already occupied district, and numerous battles were fought. One important tradition concerning Okia, possibly dating from the 18th century, concerned Kāi Tahu warrior Tarewai. Kāi Tahu anthropologist Atholl Anderson details the story in The Welcome of Strangers. Kāti Māmoe lived in some numbers at Papanui Inlet (which drains into the sea at the southern end of Victory Beach), while Kāi Tahu had a pa at Pukekura (at the tip of the Peninsula); some Kāti Māmoe also lived at the pa. A dispute arose between the two groups over the use of Papanui Inlet to launch fishing canoes. Papanui chief Whakatakanewa devised a scheme to extract revenge for the destruction of some canoes. He began constructing a house near the Pyramids, at Kapuketuroto, and asked his Pukekura neighbours for assistance. Several of the Kāi Tahu men who came to assist were killed, and Tarewai only just escaped into the bush. After dark he returned to the Papanui camp and by impersonating a local managed to retrieve his patu (club), then used it to kill two Kāti Māmoe before escaping back into the forest. After hiding out in various places Tarewai returned to Pukekura. Kāti Māmoe were then defeated by Kāi Tahu and fled to Fiordland; Tarewai was among a party that pursued them and he was eventually killed at Matauira Island (Preservation Inlet).

Some sources suggest that a cave at the base of Te Matai o Okia was one of Tarewai’s hiding places. It was certainly a location of some significance to Māori. Another tradition, told to Ellis Sinclair in the 1930s, was that the cave was the site of a massacre of some of the Pukekura Pa residents by Te Wera in the mid-1700s. Sinclair uncovered the cave in 1934 and carried out an archaeological excavation with his brother a few years later. They discovered woven flax matting, the remnants of kaimoana (seafood), and the bones of birds, a pig, and people; Sinclair thought the way the bones were broken and the absence of larger bones suggested cannibalism. John Riddell, a Pākehā farmer whose family had been in the district a long time, informed Sinclair that several human skulls had been found at the cave entrance about 50 years earlier. Sinclair also found in the cave a carved wooden atua (god) figure about 20cm high, which he deposited at the Otago Museum. In 2014 the figure was loaned, together with two Pacific atua from the museum collection, to an acclaimed touring exhibition of the National Gallery of Australia, Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia.

The land at this end of Otago Peninsula was native reserve, retained by Māori at the time of the sale of the Otago block to the New Zealand Company in 1844. Nevertheless, some colonial families settled in the district by leasing land from the Māori owners. They ran stock in the Okia Flat area, as had some of the inhabitants of the earlier Peninsula shore whaling community before them. They named the bay Wickliffe Bay in honour of the migrant vessel John Wickliffe, which brought the first settlers of the official Otago colony from Scotland. The John Wickliffe had anchored in the bay for a couple of days when it first arrived at Otago in March 1848.

Another ship found the bay less welcoming. The SS Victory ran aground here on 3 July 1861 – that’s how the beach got its name. The Victory was a 3-masted single-screw steamship, 145 feet long and 426 tons when first launched at Dumbarton, Scotland, in 1849. In 1860 the ship had a major refit and was lengthened to 215 feet; it was now 501 tons net and had the latest and most luxurious fittings, from rich crimson velvet seats to oil paintings ‘of no mean order’. It was owned by the Inter-colonial Royal Mail Packet Company, which prided itself on punctual mail delivery; it was put on the Melbourne-Canterbury-Otago run, making its first visit to Otago in January 1861. The Victory next arrived at Port Chalmers from Lyttelton on 1 July 1861, bringing a dozen or so passengers. Her mixed cargo included some items clearly destined for the new goldfields (63 camp ovens and covers, 9 bundles shovels), along with tapioca, arrowroot, pimento, glass, cement, fruits, candles, hops, butter, drapery, a horse and ‘sundry pkgs merchandize’. At Otago she loaded up with 4 casks of brandy, 27 bales of wool, a box of stationery and a package of drapery, plus 5 passengers, and departed bound for Melbourne.

The Victory cleared the Otago Heads and set a course designed to take it past Cape Saunders. The captain, James Toogood, headed below for tea, leaving the third mate in charge until George Hand, the chief mate, took over. A few minutes later, at 6pm, in the dark, the ship ran aground at the southern end of Wickliffe Bay, fortunately on the beach rather than the rocks not much further along the coast. Reversing the engines proved no help: the Victory was well and truly stuck and around midnight a boat was lowered and the passengers, baggage and mails safely landed. According to several witnesses, Hand was intoxicated and he had also deserted his post just before the wreck; he was sentenced to 3 months in prison. Though Captain Toogood protested suggestions that he held some responsibility, it seemed unlikely that Hand could have prevented the wreck, for the Victory was clearly on a dangerous course; the compasses were inaccurate and there were also claims of lax discipline on board.

The remaining wreckage of the SS Victory, as seen at low tide, February 2016.

Three weeks later the Victory and her cargo were sold at auction; R.B. Martin bought the vessel, complete with machinery and fuel (300 tons of coal). Though there was no suitable equipment available in New Zealand, there was still confidence that the ship could be salvaged in working order, a company was set up for the purpose and engineer Mr Scott arrived from Sydney the following year to undertake this mission. After months of work, including several almost-successful attempts, he was forced to abandon the task in November 1862 after the re-floated Victory, just preparing to steam away, washed back onto the beach when the anchor broke. This time the vessel was split and filled with water. The wreck was auctioned again – what had sold for £570 a few months earlier was this time knocked down for £200 to Scott. The determined engineer suffered ‘another sad mishap’ the following month when a small schooner taking away some of the Victory‘s parts was also wrecked on the beach. The moveable parts of the vessel and its contents gradually disappeared, but the bones of the ship remained for the surf, the tides and the weather to slowly erode away. Even now, 155 years after the Victory ran aground, her iron flywheel is still visible, coated with barnacles, in the surf at low tide. The boiler ended up at Lower Portobello and some of the timber helped build the byre and stable at John Kerr’s farm, which overlooked the wreck. Kerr, who died in 1930 aged 96, told a story of a lighter broken in two while going to remove cargo from the stranded vessel, leading to the loss of two lives; I haven’t been able to confirm this tale as yet.

The beach remained relatively peaceful in subsequent decades, though there was the odd exception. By the late 1870s the Portobello Rifles, a volunteer company, had a shooting range (‘butts’) at Wickliffe Bay. I can just imagine the conditions in January 1882, when they competed for their district prizes: mist ‘settled down so thickly that the target was scarcely discernible’. I’ve been there when the Otago Peninsula was drenched in bright sunshine, but Victory Beach was covered with a sea mist, creating a distinctly eerie feeling. Some locals later used the beach for exercising racehorses. One of them, James Riddell, who lived nearby, was killed at the beach in 1932 when a stirrup broke and he was thrown from his horse.

Victory Beach entered a new stage of life in 1991, when the Dunedin City Council and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust purchased the adjacent land to create Okia Reserve, which is jointly managed by the council and trust, together with the Department of Conservation and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou. With the removal of grazing stock and a little strategic planting, the reserve is slowly reverting to native bush and should one day be covered in coastal forest. It is home to numerous birds, including little blue penguins and the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. Seals and sea lions also visit, and there was much excitement among conservationists and zoologists when a small breeding colony of the endangered sea lion developed here. ‘Mum’ gave birth at Taieri Mouth in 1993 and then brought her pup to Victory Beach – this was the first recorded sea lion birth on the mainland for many decades. The story of sea lions is a fascinating one, but I’ll save that for a later post …

It’s pretty clear that Victory Beach isn’t just a beautiful location: it is also a place with an intriguing past!

A sea lion on the move at Victory Beach, February 2016.



D.G. Bishop and I.M. Turnbull, Geology of the Dunedin Area (Lower Hutt: Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, 1996).

Okia Reserve Management Plan 2009-2019 (Dunedin City Council, 2009).

Atholl Anderson, The Welcome of Strangers: An ethnohistory of southern Maori A.D.1650-1850 (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1998).

Ellis D. Sinclair, ‘Excavation of cave on Okia Flat, Wickliffe Bay’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, 49, 1 (1940), 137-43. For an edited online version see http://polynesianresourcecenter.com/history/item/excavation-of-cave-on-okia-flat-wickliffe-bay-by-ellis-sinclair-2

John Gibb, ‘Otago Museum artefacts in touring exhibition’, Otago Daily Times, 8 May 2014.

Bruce Collins, Rocks, Reefs and Sandbars: A history of Otago shipwrecks (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1995).

The Inter-colonial R.M. Steam Packet Company’s ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 1 September 1860.

Shipping news’, Otago Witness, 6 July 1861.

The SS Victory’, Otago Witness, 13 July 1861.

Inquiry into the loss of the S.S. Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

Sale of the wreck of the steam-ship Victory’, Otago Witness, 27 July 1861.

‘Shipping news’, Otago Daily Times, 25 to 29 November 1862; ‘Commercial’, Otago Daily Times, 29 November 1862.

Shipping intelligence‘, Otago Daily Times, 25 December 1862.

‘Obituary: the late Mr John Kerr’, Otago Daily Times, 24 October 1930.

District prize firing’, Otago Witness, 21 January 1882.

‘Fall from a horse: elderly man’s death’, Otago Daily Times, 15 November 1932.


A swimmer’s delight

Looking towards the pool in its early years. Image courtesy of Dunedin City Council archives, Ocean Beach Domain Board Series, reference acc1995/16/1.

I thought it would be fun to write an occasional post about the history of some of my favourite places in Dunedin. The St Clair salt water pool is right up there. I head there to swim laps once or twice a week, no matter the weather. In fact I prefer it when it’s raining or cool because there are fewer other people there – twice I’ve had the whole pool to myself! It’s a shame it’s only open for six months of the year, but I guess there isn’t the demand to warrant it in winter. The water is a balmy 28 degrees, though occasionally it drops a little if there’s a big sea and waves have crashed into the pool. There’s something special about swimming outdoors in salt water, but with the benefit of heating. There’s quite a community of regular swimmers of all ages and shapes and sizes. A couple of times I’ve swum my laps alongside the mighty Highlanders rugby team, who occasionally book half the pool for training.

There’s been a swimming pool at this spot for 136 years – since 1884 – but people were, of course, making use of this beautiful location long before that, and perhaps some swam on this spot. Māori developed a walking route around this section of coast, with some of their camping sites identified nearby. They had an urupā (burial ground) somewhere on the cliffs above. Once the Otago colony was established, it wasn’t long before the Ocean Beach, as it was then known, became a popular recreational spot. In 1851 William Valpy, a large landowner who developed a farm he called Forbury, put on a ‘harvest home’ celebration for his workers and friends. The Otago Witness reported that one group of party-goers ‘betook themselves to the Ocean Beach, and amused themselves in the interval betwixt dinner and tea with leaping, racing, and other manly exercises’.

Turkish baths
Advertising for the ‘greatest luxury of the age’, the Turkish baths in Moray Place, Dunedin. From the Otago Daily Times, 30 December 1874, courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

As Pamela Wood explains in her excellent book Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia, some Dunedin entrepreneurs set up ‘bathing establishments’ to provide the 19th century public with facilities for swimming and washing. To start with many residents had no public water supply or drainage, and even once those arrived people often had just wash basins or a tin bath in front of the fire to soak in. Premises such as the ‘Turkish’ baths set up in Moray Place in 1874 offered not just swimming, but a whole range of baths (there’s an intriguing piece about their history in the 1905 Cyclopedia of New Zealand). Local councils, more reluctantly, also provided facilities. In 1867, with the harbour ruled unfit for swimming, provincial government subsidised the building of baths at Pelichet Bay and in 1884, when those became run down, the Dunedin council opened new baths at Logan Point (these areas are now reclaimed land).

Also in 1884, the council contributed to the Caversham Borough Council’s new salt water baths at St Clair. The baths were pretty low-tech to begin with: a natural depression in the rocks at the end of the beach was enlarged to create a pool of nearly a quarter-acre, and each high tide conveniently flushed it out. A shed provided a little privacy for changing. At the official opening on 13 December, the mayor of Caversham surprised the 300 onlookers at the end of his speech when he ‘divested himself of his overcoat, and showed himself to be arrayed in Nature’s garb, with the exception of a pair of bathing-trunks, and without more ado took “a header”, followed by about a dozen similarly-attired persons’. With St Clair on the tram route, the baths quickly proved popular. As one councillor explained as funds were being raised, there had been a ‘number of accidents which had occurred from bathing in the open sea’; these ‘proper baths’ would be ‘universally beneficial to the community’.

ES 30 Jan 1885
An advertisement for ladies’ hours at the pool from the Evening Star, 30 January 1885. Swimming was strictly segregated by gender in the early decades of the baths. Image courtesy of Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

A new concrete retaining wall, added in 1891, was the first significant improvement to the pool, which has been through a seemingly endless cycle of deterioration and renewal in the decades since. Perhaps the most important innovation was heating. In 1910 the Ocean Beach Domain Board, then responsible for the pool, installed three hot water baths, designed and constructed by A & T Burt. For any readers of a technological bent, here’s a description from the paper: ‘Water from the ocean was pumped up to a 600gal elevated reservoir by a Worthington Duplex pump, working with a steam pressure of 25lb. The circulator beneath the reservoir contained 250 gallons, and was filled with internal copper coils for heating by steam’. The plant was capable of heating further baths and later they grew to 18, enclosed in a building adjacent to the main pool. A telephone, installed in the caretaker’s house in 1910, allowed patrons to book a hot water bathe. A massage room was added in the 1920s, and later (perhaps the 1940s), a heated ‘therapeutic’ pool measuring 26 by 12 feet.

St Clair
This photograph of St Clair, taken by Sydney Charles Smith about 1923, shows further developments at the pool, visible in the distance. The buildings housed the caretaker, changing rooms, hot baths and a massage room. Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-047673-G.
Meanwhile, the outdoor pool remained unheated, the only improvement being further additions to the wall which protected it from the sea. Regular work was needed to remove sand and debris from the base of the pool, but by the 1950s it had fallen into serious decline. Finally, in 1968, after years of campaigning and fund-raising, a brand new outdoor pool opened, all lined in concrete, complete with heating and chlorination. A paddling pool for youngsters was also added, but more ambitious plans for a diving pool and hot curative pool never eventuated due to lack of funds. The most recent upgrade, including a new heating system and changing facilities, was completed in 2002 after another long campaign. The improvements cost a cool $2 million, over half of it raised by a special trust and the rest by the council. Through the years the pool has been leased and run by various people and trusts; it is now fully managed by the city council, which employs the lovely lifeguards (one of them, Katherine, recently featured in the ODT’s regular careers series).

St Clair pool
St Clair saltwater pool in January 2016.

A big part of the appeal of the pool is the contrast between this piece of modern civilisation and its wild outdoor setting. The Pacific Ocean is a powerful force and St Clair beach is sometimes hit by big seas; erosion has created challenging problems for the council, and those problems are bound to become worse with rising sea levels. Sinkholes have occasionally appeared on the esplanade, access ramps have been seriously damaged, and there have been recent warnings about the risks of being swept out or thrown against the rocks at high tide or by rogue waves. None of this seems to put the surfers off, though, and it’s a long-time popular location for them, regardless of the cold. It isn’t only people that enjoy the waves – once I had the special treat of seeing a seal surfing in confidently on a St Clair wave as I wandered to the pool. Last year I spied a crested penguin, who sat on the rocks next to the pool for a few days while he or she was moulting. However I missed the famous occasion when a sea lion came in through the automatic doors and actually swam in the pool!

i met this wee creature, who’d come ashore to moult on the rocks right next to the pool, in Feburary 2015.


Barbara Brookes, Erik Olssen and Emma Beer, ‘Spare time? Leisure, gender and modernity’, in Barbara Brookes, Annabel Cooper and Robin Law (eds), Site of gender: women, men and modernity in southern Dunedin, 1890-1939 (Auckland University Press, 2003), 159-189.

Barbara Newton, Our St Clair: a resident’s history (Dunedin: Kenmore Productions, 2003).

St Clair salt water pool 1884-1984 (Dunedin: Queens High School, 1984).

Pamela Wood, Dirt: filth and decay in a new world arcadia (Auckland University Press, 2005).

Old newspapers on Papers Past, with quotes taken from the following –

Otago Witness, 5 April 1851

Evening Star, 21 May 1884

Otago Daily Times, 15 December 1884

Otago Daily Times, 11 August 1910