History of Christchurch

Mother Earth Travel > New Zealand > Christchurch > History

Christchurch (Otautahi) is a paradox. Spreading outwards from the brown shoulders of the Port Hills, the sea to one side and the Southern Alps in the distance, it is a typically colonial city of wisteria-decked verandahs and wide streets. Yet its many old stone buildings, tree-filled parks and meandering streams give Christchurch the air of an English town - just as the city's founders had intended. Indeed, the London-based Canterbury Association envisioned Christchurch as an English utopia in the South Pacific. They planned an orderly, tiered society (the first settlers had to brandish a reference from an English vicar attesting to their 'sobriety and respectability'), with an aristocracy and the Church of England as its head and an underclass of artisans and minions to serve them. They named their fledgling city after an Oxford college (Christ Church) and laid it out like an English city, complete with a Cathedral, University and a boy's school, Christ's College, modelled on Eton.

This orderly existence was a far cry from the ravages of the Maori civil war in the early 19th century. Maori people (chiefly the Ngai-tahu tribe) had occupied the Canterbury area for several centuries prior to the European arrival. However, by the time European settlement began in the 1840s, around 500 Maori remained in Canterbury. Their numbers had been decimated first by the tribal wars, and then by raiding parties from the North Island, most notably the army of Te Rauparaha, who ransacked Kaiapohia Pa (village), north of present-day Christchurch, and Onawe Pa, in Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula in 1832.

In Maori legend, Banks Peninsula is a pile of mountains heaped by Maui upon a marauding giant, but when Captain James Cook sighted this curiously-shaped landform from the Endeavour on February 17, 1770, he famously mistook it for an island, which he named after the ship's botanist, Joseph Banks. Sealers and whalers frequented the deep harbours of the peninsula during the following seventy years, but it wasn't until 1839 that the first settlers began hacking a living out of its rough hill country. A French colony was established at Akaroa in 1840 but the British, sensing the impending loss of the South Island to French interests, sent a frigate into Akaroa Harbour to hoist the Union Jack over Banks Peninsula and, by implication, the entire island. When French settlers aboard the Compte-de-Paris arrived at Akaroa on August 19, 1840, they discovered that the British had pre-empted them by seven days. The magnanimous Brits, however, granted them the right to stay in Akaroa where they flourished, creating a community which still retains its French flavour.

By 1848, preparations were underway for the arrival of the first four ships of the Canterbury Association at Lyttelton Harbour. Land in Canterbury had been purchased from local Maori, a site for Christchurch, with quarter-acre sections available at £25 each, was surveyed and a Bridal Path over the Port Hills constructed.

Though the lofty ideals of the Association, and it's talented rather despotic, leader John Robert Godley, foresaw an Anglican promised land peopled by an English elite, they were pragmatic about the need for practical, self-reliant people in the new colony. Presbyterians had already been farming at Riccarton Bush for six years, Scottish shepherds were at work in the hills and many of the settlers arriving from Australia had cast off the class system, and in some cases, their chains!

The first of the Four Ships, the Charlotte Jane, sailed into Lyttelton Harbour on December 16, 1850, followed a few days later by the Sir George Seymour, the Randolph and the Cressy. The scattered buildings, muddy tracks and lone jetty - where Pilgrim's Rock now stands - presented a less than romantic impression to the settlers. Furthermore, having crossed the Bridal Path and descended to Ferrymead, where a ferry crossed the Heathcote River, the first settlers found little in the way of civilization at Christchurch.

But in less than a year, Charlotte Godley was able to write of 'tidy and weather-tight' houses, and 'gardens and cultivation all the way along' Riccarton Road. Christchurch was becoming a town. Long streets intersected with the Avon River which was widened and straightened to enhance its beauty. The first Anglican church, where St Michael's and All Angels stands today, was opened in July 1851; New Zealand's first railway, the Christchurch-Ferrymead line, began operations in 1863.

Settlers flooded into Canterbury and the economy boomed. The Estuary and the Heathcote and Avon rivers provided navigable waterways into the city. Between 1850 and 1867, 240 vessels plied the river trade. In 1860 alone, goods worth £700,000 entered The Estuary. Fueled by produce, especially wool, from the vast farmlands of Canterbury, Christchurch grew into a prosperous commercial city. Municipal architects such as BW Mountfort and FW Petre set about designing a city built to last. Stout stone buildings - the Provincial Council Chambers, Canterbury University (now the Arts Centre), the Canterbury Museum - and churches: Christ Church Cathedral, St Luke the Evangelist, Holy Trinity Avonside - constructed of stone hewn from Hallswell Quarry, began to replace the wooden structures of the early town. Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens were formed. Along the Avon, the Antigua Boatsheds were one of several commercial enterprises catering for the city's leisure time. The Christchurch Tramway Company began operations in 1893, providing public transport to the suburbs, including Sumner.

Throughout the twentieth century Christchurch grew and thrived, contributing men - whose sacrifice is commemorated by the Bridge of Remembrance - to every war fought during the century. Earnest Rutherford, whose laboratory remains at the Arts Centre), went on to split the atom; Kate Shepherd championed the rights of women; and Robert Falcon Scott set off on his disastrous attempt to reach the pole.

The city's founders may have dreamed of a conservative community, but in recent decades, Christchurch has matured into a relaxed, cosmopolitan city. A stroll through Cathedral Square or along Oxford Terrace is confirmation of Christchurch's growing sophistication and diverse population of over 300,000 people (for more information about Christchurch's indigenous people contact the Nga Hau E Wha Marae).

One symbol of our Englishness that will endure is the Avon. Originally christened The Shakespeare but re-named after the Scottish Avon, the river flows through the city, Christchurch's English heart.