Cargill monument not set in stone

The Cargill monument competing with the modern world in the Exchange. Photo courtesy University of Otago Hocken Collections, ref.
The Cargill monument competing with the modern world in the Exchange. Photo courtesy University of Otago Hocken Collections, ref.
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 sober leader of the Dunedin settlement, William Cargill, suffered insult upon indignity following his death almost 150 years ago.

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 underground urinal.

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 memorial.

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 Edinburgh.

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 Edinburgh.

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, they said.

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 gardens.

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 a stroke.

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.