Research ... Beryl Miller estimates it takes five to six hours to research each settler pictured in the Early Settlers Hall. PHOTO: RUBY HEYWARD

In the late 1800s, thousands of settlers left an overcrowded Europe for New Zealand.

Many of them found their way to the Waitaki district to settle.

New Zealand Society of Genealogists Oamaru branch committee member Beryl Miller is getting to know some of those early settlers and their stories.

In 1939, the North Otago Early Settlers Association was founded in Oamaru. Members had to be over 65 and must have lived in the district for at least 30 to 40 years.

But that would not necessarily guarantee them a spot in the group, as too many people were joining and numbers had to be limited.

Mrs Miller said the committee was much less picky now as its numbers dwindled.

After the Centennial Memorial Rest Rooms were built in 1940, the association was given a room, known as the Early Settlers Hall.

Since then, portraits of the members have covered the walls of that space and, for the past five years, the genealogist society has worked to uncover their histories.

Mrs Miller, who is spearheading the research, said the project began when the settlers association discovered that the portraits were deteriorating.

With the help of former Waitaki Museum and Archive curator Christopher Meech, and funded by Tourism Waitaki, the original photos were digitised and touched up by Fotographix, and reframed by Bill Blakey.

There were 200 portraits and although 10 remained unidentified, Mrs Miller was working her way through the collection, researching all she could about the people behind the glass.

“It’s a pretty big job,” she said.

“We felt we really needed to tell the story of these people, especially after they have given us these portraits.

“It’s quite interesting to learn about people’s lives.”

Using Mrs Miller’s research, the Oamaru Mail will run a series detailing the lives of some of the early settlers’ lives.