Play depicts building of dam


A Wellington-based theatre company are coming to Oamaru next month to tell the story of the construction of the Waitaki Dam.

The Bacchanals will perform Dean Parker’s Once We Built A Tower: The Construction of the Waitaki Dam and the Welfare State 1928-39 at the Oamaru Scottish Hall on September 1 at 7pm.

The performance, narrated by Ethel McMillan, will tell the story of the people who helped reform New Zealand more than 70 years ago.

The workers constructed the Waitaki Dam in an age when hydroelectric power revolutionised the lives of New Zealanders, and the men who saw in the medical scheme on the Waitaki Dam used a template by which the new Labour government of 1935 could create a welfare state that would benefit the whole country.

Work began on the the first large state hydroelectric scheme in the South Island since Lake Coleridge in mid-1928 – it was completed in 1934.

It was the last major dam built by pick, shovel and wheelbarrow and at its peak, had 1200 men labouring in difficult conditions.

Hundreds of houses and huts were built to protect the workers from dangerous and freezing conditions in North Otago, however the work accident rate was still high.

To counter this, medical and ambulance services, paid for by a monthly wage deduction, were set up in 1928 by the Waitaki Hydro Medical Association and the Waitaki Hospital Board.

This led to the dam’s true significance in New Zealand history by being a template for Labour’s social security scheme.

The social security scheme was based on the Waitaki experiences of Dr David Gervan McMillan and Reverend Arnold Nordmeyer, who entered Parliament in 1935.

The Bacchanals will tell this story through songs, laughs and even a cup of tea.

Director David Lawrence said the company was looking forward to performing for the first time in the South Island.

“We can’t wait to bring Once We Built A Tower to the places where the events of the play actually took place.”

No bookings required – doors will open at 6.30pm. A donation would be appreciated.

Additional information sourced from



TALE OF REFORM: The Bacchanals will be telling the story of the Waitaki Dam in Oamaru next month.

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