Milton, New Zealand

Milton, formerly known as Tokomairiro or Tokomairaro, is a town of 2,000 people, located on State Highway 1, 50 kilometres to the south of Dunedin in Otago, New Zealand. It lies on the floodplain of the Tokomairaro River, one branch of which loops past the north and south ends of the town. This river gives its name to many local features, notably the town's main school, Tokomairiro High School.

Milton Union Street in 2012
Coordinates: 46°07′S 169°58′E
Country New Zealand
Territorial authorityClutha District
15 m (49 ft)
Time zoneUTC+12 (NZST)
  Summer (DST)UTC+13 (NZDT)
Area code(s)03
Local iwiNgāi Tahu

Founded as a milling town in the 1850s, there has long been dispute as to the naming of the settlement. The town's streets are named for prominent British poets, and it is possible that the town's original intended name of Milltown became shortened by association with the poet of the same name. It is equally possible, however, that the name Milton inspired the choice of poets' names for the streets.


Milton's early history was strongly affected by the discovery of gold by Gabriel Read at Gabriel's Gully close to the nearby township of Lawrence. As Milton stood close to one of the most easily accessible routes to the interior, it grew greatly during the goldrush years of the 1860s and was a major staging post for prospectors heading for the goldfields.

Lawson's impressive church dominates the old road to Fairfax (Tokoiti).

The town was originally established at Fairfax, a settlement nestling at the foot of the hills which lie to the southeast of the town. As communication with the goldfields in the interior became more important, and the desirability of the town becoming a staging post increased, it spread down onto the plains around the river. A Gothic church, Tokomairiro Presbyterian Church, was built at this time by the architect R A Lawson. At the time of its construction, this church was the tallest building at such a southern latitude in the world. The church is still the town's most obvious landmark, and is visible across the Tokomairiro Plains from several kilometres away. It was located as a terminating vista at the end of the main road connecting Fairfax with the main route south from Dunedin to the goldfields, and as such is an imposing structure dominating this road. Milton was an important town in early Otago – much more so than it is today – mainly due to its location on the route to the goldfields, and also for the Bruce Woollen Mills, which were among the province's largest factories. Other prominent industries included the Kiwi Bacon Factory, which had a branch in Milton until the early 1980s. The town's importance in communication in the early years of New Zealand settlement is emphasised by it being one of the two centres first linked by long-distance telephony, with a pioneering line set up between Milton and Dunedin in February 1878. It was not until the early twentieth century that it was superseded in size by the now considerably larger local town of Balclutha. The town was also important in education in early Otago – the Tokomairiro School – now split into Milton Primary School and Tokomairiro High School – was founded in 1856, only eight years after the founding of the province itself, and was one of the province's leading schools for many years thereafter.

Milton railway station in 1926


Milton was connected to the national railway network in the early 1870s when the Main South Line was built through the town and goods were first carried in October 1874.[1] The official opening from Green Island to Balclutha was on 1 September 1875.[2] Milton station was 3.13 km (1.94 mi) east of Clarksville, 5.87 km (3.65 mi) south of Milburn, 434.37 km (269.91 mi) from Christchurch[3] and 35 mi 30 ch (56.9 km) from Dunedin.[4]

In 1907, the town became a railway junction when an extension of the Roxburgh Branch was constructed alongside the Main South Line from its original junction at nearby Clarksville into Milton to facilitate better operations. In 1960, Milton lost this status when the extension was removed and the Roxburgh Branch's junction reverted to being in Clarksville. The Main South Line still runs through the town, though the station closed to passengers on 1 December 1970, when the South Island Limited was replaced by the Southerner, which didn't stop at Milton.[5]

Milton had an engine shed for two engines, a 161 ft (49 m) passenger platform[6] (later extended to 485 ft (148 m)), a 3rd class station, cart approach to the platform, 100 ft (30 m) by 30 ft (9.1 m) goods shed, loading bank, cattle yards, stationmaster's house, a refreshment room from 1895 to 1957 and a bookstall from 1897.[7]

A 70 ft (21 m) turntable was added in 1927. There were fires at the engine shed in 1938 and in 1959, when both A Class locomotives in the shed were undamaged. There was also a fire at the station in 1942 in a large shed in 1944.[7]

The stockyards closed in 1971. In December 1988 there was still a station building, verandah, platforms and goods sheds,[7] as can be seen in a 1986 aerial photo,[8] but by 1995 they had gone.[9]

1908 railway bridge over the Tokomairaro River at Waronui ca. 1926
Fortification and Waronui coal mines and railway line

Coal was dug in the lower Tokomairaro valley from 1855.[10] A railway was considered as early as 1875.[11] Mining near Fortification Hill started in 1882.[12] Poor roads and difficult navigation of the river limited production.[13] The Fortification Railway and Coal Company started building a railway in 1900[14] and opened it on 3 April 1901,[15] but went into liquidation in 1903.[16] In 1906 the Bruce Coal Company Ltd opened a new mine across the river, calling it Waronui.[17] A temporary bridge was built over the river,[18] until the railway was extended about 12 mi (0.80 km)[19] to the new mine when Glendining and Co took over in 1908.[20] The line ran south west, crossing the Tokomairaro River a few times, from Milton,[21] for about 6 mi (9.7 km) to mines at Fortification and Waronui. The line was little used after two miners were killed in 1930 and it was sold for scrap in 1932.[22]

Milton pottery

An early claim to fame for Milton was its pottery, often regarded as some of the country's finest. Clay is a plentiful natural resource in South Otago, and potteries were a major employer in the late 19th century throughout South Otago and Southland. Between 1873 and 1915 numerous pottery works operated from the Milton area, starting with William White's short-lived Tokomairiro Steam Pottery Works, reputedly the first industrial kilns in the Southern Hemisphere.[23]

The Milton Pottery works was rescued in 1880 by former Mayor of Dunedin (1876) Charles Stephen Reeves.[24] The industry reached its height in the 1880s, at which time five kilns were operating and over 40 staff were employed, producing building materials such as bricks and tiles, sanitary ceramics such as washbasins, and domestic and decorative dinner sets, vases, and jars.

The industry in Milton did not survive the loss of manpower during World War I, though pottery as an industry continued in South Otago at Benhar near Balclutha, which was a major producer of toilet bowls and other domestic ceramics until the 1990s.


The population fell 13.6% from 1976 to 2013,[25] but is now rising slowly. It is older than the 37.4 years of the national average. Milton had a population of 2,157 in 2018 in 861 households.

Year Population Median age Households Median income National median income
2006 2,046 $24,100
2013 2,070 41.7 $27,900
2018 2,157 42.9 861 $26,800 $31,800

Few were born overseas; 8.4%, compared to a national level of 27.1%. In 2018 the main ethnic groups were -

European Māori Asian Pacific
87.8% 17.8% 1.9% 1.7%

8.1% objected to giving their religion, 56.1% had no religion (up from 34.9% in 2006), 33.4% were Christian and 2.7% had other religions.

4.9% had a bachelor or higher degree, and 35.9% had no formal qualifications. 47.2% were employed full-time, 14.6% were part-time and 3.1% were unemployed.[26] About 5% commute to Dunedin.[27]

Modern Milton

Today, Milton is, after Balclutha, the second largest town in South Otago. Its form is largely a ribbon development along the main highway (State Highway 1), with an extension north of the northern branch of the river (the suburb of Helensbrook). The old town of Fairfax is now a village with the Māori name of Tokoiti (meaning "small poles").[28] SH1, as Union Street, is the town's main road. Five main residential streets run parallel with Union Street (Elderlee, Ajax, Spenser, Johnson, and Chaucer Streets), with these streets being connected by other roads together forming a mostly regular grid pattern. Tokoiti lies one kilometre to the southeast.

Milton's main economic livelihood is as a service town for the surrounding farming community, although forestry is also becoming of increasing importance. It is also home to Calder Stewart, one of New Zealand's largest construction firms.

The farming settlement of Milburn two kilometres north of Milton, was controversially chosen as the site of a new prison, opened in 2007 with a capacity of 485 prisoners.[29] Officially referred to simply as the Otago Corrections Facility, it quickly picked up the nickname of "The Milton Hilton".

"The Kink"

Cars navigate the infamous kink in Union Street, Milton

In Milton there is an unusual planning anomaly – the main street (Union Street) is straight for several kilometres as it runs across the Tokomairaro Plain and through the town, yet in the northern part of Milton it has a kink in it at 46°06′59.5″S 169°57′50.5″E. Heading north on the main street the road moves a whole road-width to the west.

The reason for the anomaly is disputed. A widely accepted view, but not the official view, states that the road was set out by two surveyors, one moving north and the other moving south, each of whom set out the road to the right of their survey line. Another widely held belief is that the change of course was designed to protect a large tree which formerly stood at the site where the kink is. However, why during the development of a milling area a single tree would be protected, and why the road would not return to its original line after passing the tree are both unexplained by this theory.

A story on the Kink was run by Stuff on 6 May 2021.

In Popular Culture

Michael Palin describes Milton in his 1997 book Full Circle as a "small inconspicuous town". He goes on to say "Yet nowhere has looked more like Britain. A gothic spire rises from a red brick parish church. There is a Salvation Army hostel, A Cosy Dell rest home and an advert for 'Frosty Boy' lollipops - 'Often Licked, Never Beaten'. The gardens, and fields beyond could be straight from my Yorkshire birthplace. At around the time of my birth."[30]


Primary schools

Milton School is a co-educational state primary school for Year 1 to 6 students,[31] with a roll of 118 as of March 2021.[32]

Tokoiti School is a co-educational state primary school for Year 1 to 6 students,[33][34] with a roll of 32.[35]

St Mary's School is a co-educational state-integrated Catholic primary school for Year 1 to 6 students,[36] with a roll of 65.[37]

Secondary schools

Tokomairiro High School is a co-educational state secondary school for Year 7 to 13 students,[38][39] with a roll of 241.[40]

Notable people


  1. Names & Opening & Closing Dates of Railway Stations in New Zealand by Juliet Scoble (2012)
  2. "OPENING OF THE DUNEDIN AND CLUTHA RAILWAY. OTAGO DAILY TIMES". 2 September 1875. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  3. New Zealand Railway and Tramway Atlas (First ed.). Quail Map Co. 1965. pp. 3 & 4.
  4. "Stations" (PDF). NZR Rolling Stock Lists. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  5. Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 46.
  6. "AROUND MILTON. BRUCE HERALD". 5 September 1879. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  7. "Stations" (PDF). NZR Rolling Stock Lists. Retrieved 10 August 2020.
  8. "Retrolens Survey SN8671 photo 2". 7 October 1986.
  9. "Retrolens Survey SN9457 photo 7". 10 December 1995.
  10. "TO OUR SUBSCRIBERS. OTAGO WITNESS". 28 July 1855. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  11. "The Tokomairiro Valley Railway. CLUTHA LEADER". 23 September 1875. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  12. "BRUCE HERALD". 10 March 1882. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  13. "Local and General Intelligence. TUAPEKA TIMES". 28 June 1884. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  14. "BRUCE HERALD". 13 February 1900. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  15. "The Fortification Railway and Coal Company BRUCE HERALD". 5 April 1901. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  16. "TOKOMAIRIRO. BRUCE HERALD". 28 April 1903. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  17. "BRUCE HERALD". 9 August 1906. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  18. "A Bruce Coal Industry. BRUCE HERALD". 25 July 1905. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  19. "WARONUI MINE. OTAGO DAILY TIMES". 11 January 1924. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  20. "Sale of Waronui Coalmine. BRUCE HERALD". 30 April 1908. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  21. "1:63360 map Sheet: OT139-148". 1924. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  22. "WARONUI COAL MINE. OTAGO DAILY TIMES". 18 March 1932. Retrieved 2 March 2021.
  23. Sumpter, D.J. & Lewis, J.J. (1949) Faith and toil – The story of Tokomairiro. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs., p.101
  24. "TOKOMAIRIRO". The Bruce Herald. 7 September 1880. p. 2.
  25. Natalie Jackson, Lars Brabyn and Dave Maré (November 2016). "New Zealand's towns and rural centres 1976-2013 – experimental components of growth" (PDF). University of Waikato.
  26. "2018 Census place summaries | Stats NZ". Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  27. "Waka Commuter". Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  28. Reed, A. W. (1975). Place names of New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed. ISBN 0-589-00933-8., p.426.
  29. "Otago Corrections Facility", Stephenson & Turner Architects. Retrieved 11 September 2019.
  30. Palin, Michael (1997). Full Circle. Great Britain: BBC. p. 211.
  31. "Milton School Ministry of Education School Profile". Ministry of Education.
  32. "Milton School Education Review Office Report". Education Review Office.
  33. "Tokoiti School Official School Website".
  34. "Tokoiti School Ministry of Education School Profile". Ministry of Education.
  35. "Tokoiti School Education Review Office Report". Education Review Office.
  36. "St Mary's School Ministry of Education School Profile". Ministry of Education.
  37. "St Mary's School Education Review Office Report". Education Review Office.
  38. "Tokomairiro High School Official School Website".
  39. "Tokomairiro High School Ministry of Education School Profile". Ministry of Education.
  40. "Tokomairiro High School Education Review Office Report". Education Review Office.
  • Gunn, Alan (1977). Milton, Otago. Dunedin: John McIndoe Ltd.

Further reading