Port Chalmers – Kōpūtai Bay

Port Chalmers at the base of George Street, adjacent to Port Otago

Kōpūtai is the original Māori name given to the bay known today as Port Chalmers. Kōpūtai translates as Kōpū meaning high or full and tai; tide. The name Chalmers was chosen in honour of Dr Thomas Chalmers who helped establish the Free Church of Scotland in Otago,1843. The township was established when Kai Tahu, the local iwi (tribe), sold the Otago Block to the New Zealand Company for a Scottish Presbyterian colony. 

Lower Otago Harbour from Port Chalmers.

By March 1848 Port Chalmers was already an established albeit small community when the first settlers arrived onboard the John Wickliffe and Philip Laing. These settlers newly emigrating from the other side of the world had little to see on arrival. At that point, the area was still little more than a small white shingle beach and a few basic structures. There was a New Zealand Company store and a small brick house for surveyors.  A small clay whare with its shingle roof stood beside another toetoe whare. Across the land was a small track that led through a gully to Mussel Bay, upon which a hut stood, later becoming the first butchery.

Lower Harbour from Port Chalmers

By 1866 changes were evident. A traveller to the port that year described what he saw as “that semi-amphibious town whose inhabitants seem to consist chiefly of sailors, ship chandlers, boatmen, barmen and barmaidens.” The most striking change in the port was the increase in businesses, industries which like officialdom had mushroomed to serve the resident and itinerant population (three bakers, three blacksmiths, four boatmen, two butchers, five carpenters, three restaurants, two ship chandlers, three stevedores, four storekeepers, two surgeons and 26 other listed businesses).

Otago Harbour from Port Chalmers Cemetery.

Port Chalmers became the main centre for shipping for the province of Otago, and continues to be. It developed a flourishing trade and saw to the major docking and shipping repairs in the region. Engineering and boat-building flourished alongside the development and establishment of civic, educational, military, social and sporting institutions. Religious institutions and traditions were also established. 

Iona Church – built upon the site of the original wooden church

The Presbyterian settlers had left Scotland with the firm expectation of establishing centres of faith on the other side of the world. The second Presbyterian church in the city was established at Port Chalmers, now the site of Iona Church. Alongside the Presbyterian congregation were Methodists and Congregationalists who worked together in the early days to establish the Christian teachings the settlers brought from England and Scotland. 

First wooden church on the site – later followed by Iona and Johnstone Hall

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