The Dunedin City Council has embarked on a modest
restoration of the Cargill monument, adding another chapter to
the colourful life it has had since the death of the city
founder it commemorates. Rodney Hamel looks back.
The Cargill monument competing with the modern world in the
Exchange. Photo courtesy University of Otago Hocken
The sober leader of the Dunedin settlement, William Cargill,
suffered insult upon indignity following his death almost 150
Once destined to sit forever in a verdant Octagon setting,
the monument to his leadership was later shuffled sideways
into the Exchange, where it was marooned in the middle of an
intersection and made the lighthouse for an infamous
It is a less than respectable legacy for such an upright
citizen, but then it could have been worse.
At the time of his death, there were some who would have been
quite happy to forgo any monument whatsoever.
Later, others wanted to take his monument to the tip.
When Cargill died in 1860, aged 75, the former provincial
superintendent had long since ceased to be a major political
figure in the fledgling Otago settlement.
Yet he had been so important in the years prior to 1848 that
a memorial of some kind was thought necessary.
Just what kind of monument raised something of a problem.
The installation of public statues was about to enter a more
prolific phase worldwide but in Cargill's case there might
have been some ambivalence on the question of a likeness.
Among those who are likely to have harboured doubts were the
English settler minority - referred to by Cargill during his
lifetime as "the little enemy".
A statue might also have been ruled out for reasons of
expense in those less expansive pre-gold days.
There was in the end a certain modesty about the memorial
designed for Cargill, as the only reference to the man is in
the text of one of the bronze plates at the base of the
This may explain why some people remain confused about its
purpose and location to this day.
Having settled on a monument, the Provincial Council would
have turned its attention to the question of location.
The city's main street at the time of Cargill's death
traversed the formidable obstacle of Bell Hill.
A walk north along Princes St from the Exchange involved a
muddy climb to the height of Tennyson St.
The removal of Bell Hill to the shape we are familiar with
today did not begin until 1862 and before this the Octagon
must have seemed almost on the way out of town.
Nevertheless, the presence of a designated garden reserve
made it an appropriate site - possibly the only one suitable.
If statuary were to be ruled out, a different kind of
monument was required.
The argument for one that would take the shape of a viewing
platform in the centre of the Octagon - a focal point for the
proposed public gardens - and a gas-lamped island of light in
the evening darkness must have been very persuasive.
A further function was the provision of a drinking fountain -
an important consideration for temperance-minded citizens
wishing to avoid the temptations of the many drinking
establishments between the Octagon and Moray Pl.
Charles Swyer - the provincial engineer - provided a design
that fulfilled all these functions and at the same time gave
more than a wink in the direction of the Scott Memorial in
This flamboyant Gothic Revival masterpiece by George Kemp was
under construction when the Otago settlement was being
planned in the Scots capital.
Mr Swyer's proposal was appropriately far less grandiose than
the Scottish original but far more heavily ornamented, taking
Gothic Revival a stage further than had been done in
Why he chose such a style is difficult to understand but he
was eclectic by nature: his proposal for an Otago provincial
chamber was described as being in the Italianate style, with
no reference to Gothic Revival, while some East Taieri school
buildings he designed - since demolished - were described as
having "graceful finials, carefully detailed gothic windows
and a whimsical gabled porch".
Opinion about the monument was predictably strongly divided
from the start.
Its detractors complained that the gargoyles bore a striking
resemblance to surviving members of the Cargill family and
referred disparagingly to its "barley sugar ornament".
It was a monument of ill taste and unacceptably frivolous,
A simple obelisk would have been more appropriate. Others
responded more positively, describing it as "a splendid
erection, florid but chaste", while Mayor Henry Fish went
further, characteristically enthusing over it as "the most
beautiful piece of Gothic sculpture it was in the power of
man to devise!"Its time in the Octagon was relatively short -
barely eight years.
The genteel respectability the Swyer drawings proposed for
the structure was undone by the locals.
There were problems with graffiti, layabouts, and loitering.
Photographs show little evidence of the proposed surrounding
A surprisingly high fence had to be built around it in 1865.
But these were minor issues compared with the expansion of
the gold-rich city and the decision to push an extension of
Princes St through the centre of the Octagon to George St.
In 1873, the monument was moved to the Exchange, or
Customhouse Square, opposite the Bank of New Zealand - a site
that negated the garden pavilion function of the monument at
However, there were strong historical reasons for the move.
It was very little distance from the Water St site where
today a plaque commemorates the arrival of the John Wickliffe
and the Philip Laing and near where Cargill gave his inspired
address to the newly arrived settlers.
It was also on the site of the original Mechanics Institute
used as the early provincial chambers, where Cargill must
have spent many hours when superintendent.