Passion for heritage still burns

Still going strong . . . Helen Stead has been leading walking tours of historic Oamaru this week. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

‘‘Celebrating where you live in your own time — everyone should do that,’’ Helen Stead says.

The woman who started the Oamaru Victorian Heritage Celebrations 35 years ago lives by those words. She is still heavily involved in promoting and enjoying the town’s Victorian heyday.

During this week’s celebrations, Mrs Stead conducted walking tours to show visitors notable sights and enliven them with stories of their early occupants. Dressed in Victorian costume, she is a familiar sight as she shares her knowledge of, and passion for, local history.

Back in 1987, she masterminded memorable events that would evolve into the celebrations as we know them.

‘‘The North Otago Branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust was just three years old,’’ Mrs Stead recalled.

‘‘I was secretary and promoted the idea, thought crazy by some, that we should have a three-day celebration with a parade, bands and a public keen to see what’s behind closed and empty historic buildings here in Oamaru.’’

Most of those buildings in Harbour and Tyne Sts are now owned today by the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust, which was formed to protect them and find new tenants.

‘‘We collected nearly $4000 with gold coin entry to previously locked buildings, many used/owned by Gillies,’’ Mrs Stead said.

‘‘It was an eye-opener for us all.’’

The second celebrations were held two years later, then annually until Covid-19 forced last year’s cancellation.

‘‘The heritage celebrations have grown into a regular national event bringing talent, visitors and locals alike together, as well as dollars for keeping the built and cultural life of our town and district alive; often reflecting upon the efforts of earlier citizens and displaying new by present-day folk,’’ Mrs Stead said.

Some of her favourite events in the early years were ‘‘taking Moonlight Promenades dancing in the dark, singing in the streets, Opera in the Open, exploring places not normally open to the public during the day’’.

‘‘Another event stands out. Dubbed ‘Fireworks at the Forrester’, with a spotlight on the gallery with Jennifer Ward-Lealand shadow-dancing to Lady in Red traced over the facade.

‘‘Another involved walking under the Thames Street bridge and singing the New Zealand national anthem, or to Colin Willetts’ furniture factory where dancing doors opened and closed in time with the music; or joining a crowd singing Jerusalem at St Luke’s was fun, very different as it promoted the place creating memories.’’

When Oamaru was about to commemorate the centenary of its role in relaying information to the world about Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1915 South Pole expedition, Mrs Stead phoned the Spirit of New Zealand to ask if any sailing ships would be in the vicinity.

‘‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get,’’ she said of an action that was second nature to her but would not have occurred to most people.

Mrs Stead has begun two university degrees but did not finish either.

‘‘Miss Pollard, my history teacher at Waitaki, commented that I was just not an academic, but I ended up being offered a guest lecturer job in heritage management, teaching students at 300 level for a business degree at Massey in 1994.

‘‘I used Oamaru for tutoring as well as knowledge of what else was happening throughout New Zealand.

‘‘I have thoroughly enjoyed contact through education, giving papers or talks at seminars and conferences in Holland and in the Azores, as well as throughout New Zealand.

‘‘I love where I live,’’ Mrs Stead said.

‘‘For the buildings, old age improves them.

‘‘For me, I’m so fortunate to be living in a place like this.

‘‘You have to love what you do and love where you live. It’s like a marriage; you will have your rows.’’