Dunedin's history can be seen in its towering church
spires, but also found hidden behind small doors. Chris
A collection of rusted metal doors in Dunedin seem all but
forgotten, except for the padlocks that seal them firmly
But try the doors and the stories eventually come tumbling
out, along with disagreements over the past that continue to
One door, turned red from exposure to the harsh harbour
elements, can be found in the cliff south of the Andersons
Bay inlet, beside Shore St.
Another leads into the cliff beside Portobello Rd, on the
opposite side of the inlet at Vauxhall, near the beginning of
A third enters the cliff below First Church, as cars and
trucks whistle by on the busy one-way Cumberland St in the
Visitors to all three are greeted by locks that refuse to
budge, allowing only stolen glimpses of the black voids
But, according to Dunedin art historian and writer Peter
Entwisle, all three doors should be celebrated for their
links to the past.
He told the Otago Daily Times the doors opened into
caves he believed were built as powder stores for large
public works projects in the 1860s-70s.
The caves either side of the Andersons Bay inlet were said to
store explosives during the construction of the causeway
bridging the inlet in the 1870s, he said.
The central-city cave was used in a similar fashion when Bell
Hill - now home to First Church, but once an early obstacle
restricting access between the Octagon and the Exchange - was
being lowered by "terrific blasting" between 1862 and 1867.
The blasting also removed a section of the hill extending to
Otago Harbour, making room for what is now the city's one-way
Cumberland St, where the cave and its locked door can still
The door remained on First Church land, but nobody from the
church was willing to discuss its history or use with the
A staff member said there were "some great romantic myths
that go round the city" about the door, but it was simply
used for storage and publicity would only encourage
Mr Entwisle said the cave, after being built to store
explosives during the blasting of Bell Hill, was later
converted into an air-raid shelter - one of several in the
central city - during World War 2.
Along the waterfront from the cave-turned-bomb shelter, the
door at Vauxhall opened into a cave also used for storing
explosives during the causeway's construction, he said.
It was ringed by a layer of harder rock added for extra
strength and security at the time, he said.
The cave was now the responsibility of the Dunedin City
Council, which leased it out as a storage site, council
community and recreation services manager Mick Reece said.
Perhaps the best known of the three doors lay on the opposite
side of the inlet, leading into the cliff beside Shore St.
It, too, opened into a cave, but also reopened a simmering
debate between historians - stretching back to the 1980s -
over what really took place inside.
That was because of the area's links to Maori prisoners taken
from Taranaki and forced to labour in Dunedin between 1869
The Maori prisoners came in waves, with the first group of 74
- known as the Pakakohe group - sent to Dunedin in 1869 after
Titokowaru's War, an armed dispute in the mid-to-late 1860s,
sparked by land confiscations in south Taranaki.
Historian Bill Dacker, of Dunedin and Beaumont, said it was
this first group that was put to work helping build the
Andersons Bay causeway and road, with Pakeha convicts also
used on the project.
The Maori prisoners also worked on other city projects,
including the Dunedin Botanic Garden's stone walls and the
city road eventually named after them - Maori Rd.
They were eventually followed by 137 of Te Whiti's
"ploughmen", also from Taranaki, who were detained without
trial after peacefully resisting European occupation of
confiscated land and brought to Dunedin in 1878-79.
The prisoners were held at Dunedin prison and transported to
work sites, but 21 died during their time in Dunedin and were
buried in unmarked paupers' graves in the Northern Cemetery.
The death toll included 18 of the 74 prisoners put to work at
Andersons Bay, which was "a very significant casualty rate in
anyone's army", Mr Dacker said.
Their story has been commemorated, most recently with a
memorial stone unveiled at the cemetery in March.
The Rongo stone memorial to their story was positioned on the
grass reserve next to the cliff beside the Andersons Bay
inlet, and just a few metres from the door into the cliff. It
was unveiled in 1987 following a hikoi to Dunedin by
descendants of the Taranaki prisoners.
However, more than a century on from the prisoners' release,
Mr Dacker and Otakau runanga chairman Edward Ellison remained
at odds with fellow historian Ian Church over the story
behind the cave and its door.
Mr Ellison said oral accounts passed down through his family
told of the prisoners being "housed from time to time inside
"I don't think it was overnight - we don't know - but it was
utilised anyway by those prisoners and the guards.
"We believe they might have been put in there in inclement
weather, or lunchtime, or whatever ... they weren't just
crammed in there and the door shut for two weeks."
However, more extreme stories circulating in Taranaki about
the treatment of the prisoners inside the cave in Dunedin had
grown over the years to be "bigger than Tarzan", he said.
Those stories were "not quite correct", but reflected the
"extreme emotion" surrounding the site for descendants.
"So there's been efforts to try and modify, or help them
understand, what the cave was used for."
It was not clear when the cave fell into disuse, but it had
been overgrown and hidden from sight for many years, he said.
Mr Dacker, who has written extensively about Maori history in
Otago, was among those who helped uncover the cave.
In the 1980s, he was asked by George Ellison - Edward
Ellison's father - to look for the door, but vegetation and a
rockfall covering the entrance prevented him from locating
However, shortly after Mr Dacker happened to drive past as
city workmen were clearing scrub in the area.
"You could see, sticking out of the top of the rubble, a
square of a metal door," he said.
The door was eventually revealed and able to be opened for
the Taranaki descendants travelling to Dunedin, and had "a
huge emotional impact".
No records had been uncovered showing why the cave was built,
but it was believed it had been constructed for storing
explosives, he said.
"But what is clear is it did become a cell."
Mr Dacker was among those to have entered it - one of five
trips he has made inside. He described a small corridor
behind the solid door, leading into the cliff and then
opening into a single chamber.
A bench running along one wall had been carved from the stone
inside the chamber, as had nooks to hold candles around the
A breathing pipe ran under the heavy iron door to the outside
world, and a circular cubicle had also been carved into one
corner of the chamber.
In the centre of the cubicle was a large iron stake "firmly
embedded in the stone". It was, according to Mr Dacker, "like
a prison cell inside".
"You go into that places and it sort of breathes. Everything
about it says that this is a prison cell," he said.
However, Mr Church said his studies showed the stories of the
cave's use by prisoners lacked one thing - evidence.
Historic accounts showed the prisoners were housed at Dunedin
prison and transported to and from the site each day, and
there was no evidence the cave ever housed prisoners.
The Waitangi Tribunal had also addressed the issue in the
past, concluding there was "no evidence either for or
against" the use of the cave as a prison, and Mr Ellison's
oral history accounts were "hearsay" and "pretty vague", he
"Nobody that I know of has got any evidence whatever that the
prisoners were ever in any cave, anywhere, at any time. It's
all pure conjecture."
He doubted the caves were even those built in the 1800s to
store explosives during the causeway's construction.
The area had been blasted away during construction of the
causeway to obtain the rock needed to build it, and quarried
around the time of World War 1, meaning any original caves
would have been lost.
"If there were caves there in 1870, when they did the work,
then those caves are no longer there."
Mr Dacker agreed blasting and quarrying had occurred in the
area, but wasn't convinced blasting would have destroyed the
caves or sure exactly where the later quarrying took place.
"It's entirely possible - I think more than likely - that it
could have all occurred at the same time.One doesn't exclude
The cave's interior was also "absolutely nothing like" that
found on the opposite side of the causeway, at Vauxhall.
He believed the Shore St cave was the original, and had been
used as a temporary "prison facility" to hold the prisoners
for short periods.
No records had been found showing how often, for how long or
for what reason prisoners might have stayed inside - but the
iron stake embedded in the floor of the cubicle inside posed
a question, he said.
"What was it used for? There's not many possibilities
actually for this particular artefact, the way it is, except
for having people chained to it," he said.
He believed the door and the cave behind it were "really
important" to the history of Dunedin, New Zealand and the
story of Maori-Pakeha relations, and deserved greater
"It's a very visible and palpable connection between those
events of that time."