About Christchurch
The Town Imagined

Origins to 1852

The earliest human inhabitants of the area now covered by the city of Christchurch - Moa-hunters, or Archaic Phase Eastern Polynesians - probably arrived as early as AD 1000. At that time the coastal wetland was a thick forest of matai and totara, and parts of the Canterbury Plains may also have been forested. As well as killing off the moa (by about 1450), these earliest inhabitants also burned down forest. Any descendants of the Moa-hunters would have been killed or absorbed by migrating classical Phase Maori from the North Island, most notably Ngati Mamoe and Ngai Tahu during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


By the early nineteenth century the Ngai Turahuriri sub-tribe of Ngai Tahu controlled the coastal area between Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and the Hurunui River. Their largest fortified pa, at Kaiapoi, may have held as many as a thousand people at its peak and was a major centre for trade in pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast. Several smaller unfortified kainga, or seasonal settlements, were located within the present city boundaries, most notably at Putaringamotu (Riccarton) and Papanui, where isolated islands of tall forest had survived in a sea of tussock grassland and swamp. 

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Possibly as many as five thousand Maori lived in central Canterbury by 1800, mostly at Kaiapoi and on Banks Peninsula, where the main settlements were at Akaroa, Puari (Port Levy), Purau and Rapaki. The main track between Kaipoi and Rapaki passed through the heart of the present city, following sandy ridges through the swamps which then lay between the two main rivers, Otakaro (Avon) and Opawaho (Heathcote). Putaringamotu in particular was a valuable mahinga kai, or food-gathering place, with an abundance of birds, eels, fish and freshwater crayfish. The Maori name for Christchurch is Otautahi, 'the place of Tautahi', a Ngai Tahu chief who was buried near the present St Luke's Church vicarage around the 1750s. The first Europeans known to set foot in Canterbury were from the sealing ship Governor Bligh, which spent a fortnight in one of the bays of Banks Peninsula about 1815. But the first to visit the site of what is now Christchurch stayed only long enough to bury one of their shipmates.

High Street, Christchurch, New Zealand before the 2011 earthquake. 

In 1851 a wooden marker was found beside the remains of a skeleton in the New Brighton sandhills. It bore the initials H.L. and the date 1822, and was probably the grave of one of the flax-traders who visited banks Peninsula from Australia in the 1820s. Another flax-trader, Captain William Wiseman, in 1827 gave the name Port Cooper to what is now Lyttelton Harbour. Whaling ships of various nationalities followed in the 1830s, and one of the earliest descriptions of the site of Christchurch is that of Captain W.B. (Barney) Rhodes, whose barque Australian visited Port Cooper in September 1836. He climbed to the nearest saddle of the Port Hills and saw a vast grassy plain with two small patches of forest (Riccarton and Papanui): 'All the land that I saw was swamp and mostly covered with water.'

Little wonder that the earliest European  settlements in Canterbury were on Banks Peninsula rather than on the plains. Captain George Hempelman set up a permanent shore whaling station at Peraki in March 1837; his wife was the first white woman to live in Canterbury. Enthusiastic reports by French whalers aroused their government's interest in 'Nouvelle Zelande' as a possible site for colonisation, and a French warship, the Heroine, visited Akaroa Harbour in June 1838. The enterprising Captain Rhodes returned in November 1839 to land a herd of fifty cattle near Akaroa. There were about eighty Europeans settled on Banks Peninsula by 1840.

By contrast, the Maori population of Canterbury had fallen dramatically to only about five hundred, as a result of a devastating civil war in the 1820s, destructive raids by Te Rauparaha in 1830 and 1832 (which destroyed Kaiapok), and the deadly effects of new diseases, especially measles and influenza. Christchurch was to be a British settlement, and what made New Zealand a British colony was the Treaty of Waitangi, first signed at the Bay of Islands on 6 February 1840. A few months later, Major Thomas Bunbury arrived at Akaroa on HMS Herald to gather signatures to the Treaty from Ngai Tahu. Then, in August 1840, Captain Owen Stanley came on HMS Britomart to raise the Union Jack at Akaroa, barely a week before sixty-three French colonists arrived on the Comte de Paris. European settlement continued to be concentrated on the peninsula rather than the plains.

Christchurch, Avon River

The first European settlers within the present boundaries of Christchurch were two small groups of farmers who arrived from Sydney in April 1840, led by James Herriot, whose backers had bought over 7,000 acres from one George Weller, believing that he had bought the land from Ngai Tahu. Their first crop was successful, but they were so discouraged by a plague of rats that they gave up after a single season. The second attempt at European settlement on the plains was much more successful. William and John Deans were well-educated Scottish farmers who decided to settle in Canterbury in 1843 after being disappointed with the land allotted to them by the New Zealand company in wellington and Nelson. William arrived at Port cooper in February, with the Gebbie and Manson families, who were to be their farm workers. from Lyttelton they came round to the Estuary and took a whaleboat up the river Avon to a point near the present Barbadoes Street bridge, where they unloaded some bricks they had brought to build a chimney.

High Street, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1840

(For many years this place was known as 'the Bricks', where early settlers off-loaded their heavy luggage.) the river then became so shallow and overgrown that the party had to change to a canoe. Finally they reached a pool near the present site of Christchurch Girls' High School, where they unloaded the rest of their timber and supplies. These were carried through fern and raupo to the patch of forest known as Puta-ringmotu, where they discovered the remains of the barley stacks abandoned by Herriot. Here the Deans brothers built the first European house on the plains, in three compartments for the three families in their party. (It was held to get her with wooden pegs, as the nails had been left behind in Wellington.) they named their farm Riccarton, after their home parish near Kilmarnock, in Ayrshire, and the river the Avon, after a stream on their grandfather's farm.

The success of the Deans brothers' farm at Riccarton greatly influenced the siting of the principal town of the Canterbury settlement. The farm was still not fully established when Frederick Tuckett visited in April 1844, in search of a suitable site for a Scottish settlement in New Zealand; dismayed by the swamps, he opted for Otago instead. But the Deans brothers' laden fruit trees and enormous carrots reassured later surveyors that the settlers would not starve. On 7 January 1844 the first European child born within the present area of Christchurch (Jeannie Manson) made her appearance at Riccarton, but in the following year her parents left with the Gebbies to establish their own farm at the head of Luttelton Harbour.

Also settled on the harbour were the greenwood brothers at Purau, where were the victims of Canterbury's first armed robbery in 1846. Little wonder that they moved on, after selling Purau to the Rhodes brothers. In November 1847, far away on England, an idealistic young Anglo-Irish lawyer, John Robert Godley, met the famous theorist of colonisation Edward Gibbon Wakefield to plan another settlement in New Zealand. The result was the formation of the Canterbury Association early in 1848, supported by an illustrious body of peers, members of Parliament and clergy of the Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Godley and the Association's chairman, Lord Lyttelton, were the key members of a small committee which organised the new colony. Its capital city was to be named Christ church, after Godley's Oxford College.

Canterbury was the most successful of Wakefiled's colonisation schemes, and the one that came closest to his ideal of transplanting a cross-section of English society to the other side of the world. Wakefield's concept of colonisation was strongly urban. He deplored the disorder and uncivilised behaviour of frontier colonies and insisted that his settlements were to have a well-established town, with all the amenities of civilised society, as the hub of a farming community. He and Godley envisaged a compact agricultural settlement of carefully selected Anglican families, with a cathedral and college at the heart of its future capital city. Land would be sold at a 'sufficient price' to provide endowments for public works and a lavish provision of schools, churches and clergy.

Christchurch cathedral under construction, 1878. View north towards
Colombo Street. The Cathedral was consecrated on 1 November 1881,
with tower and spire but only half the nave. It was finally completed in 1904.

But first the land had to be bought from its Maori owners. Governor Grey sent commissioner Henry Kemp to the south Island in 1848 to purchase land for settlement. Despite much disagreement and misunderstanding, sixteen Ngai Tahu chiefs agreed to sign 'Kemp's Deed' at Akaroa in 12 June, selling the greater part of their land for 2,000 pounds (to be paid installments) but reserving their settlements and food-gathering places and claiming larger reserves of land once the surveying was done. Unfortunately, the deed did not correspond to Charles Kettle's attached sketch map, and this caused yet more confusion and friction. Tikao (John Love) had suggested 5 million pounds as a more realistic value for Ngai Tahu's lands, but Kemp had only been authorised to offer 2,000 pounds. Later in 1848 Walter Mantell came to conduct the survey, but he largely ignored Ngai Tuahuriri requests for large blocks of land as reserves; instead he marked out a mere 1,068 hectares at Tuahiwi before travelling south to Otago. Antell deliberately reduced the reserves, allowing less than four acres per head instead of the promised ten. He even denied Ngai Tahu some of their cultivated land and most of their mahinga kai. The promised reserves never materialised, and Ngai Tahu rightly concluded that they had been cheated by the Crown. although they were soon to be marginalised by the arrival of thousands of British settlers, they never gave up their claim for compensation. 

Captain Joseph Thomas, a pioneer of Wellington in 1840 and an experienced surveyor who had travelled the entire length of New Zealand, was sent to choose a site for the Canterbury Association's settlement. He had 20,000 pounds to complete a survey and make preparations for the arrival of the first migrants. Thomas arrived at Lyttelton Harbour in December 1848 with William Fox and surveyors Thomas Cass and Charles Torlesse. They were later joined by Edward Jollie. Thomas had previously selected the head of Port Cooper as the obvious site for a town, but when he realised how much reclamation would be needed to provide the 4,000 hectares required by the Association, he switched to a second site, marked at 'Stratford' on his original sketch map. This was to become Christchurch, and thought the Pilgrims of 1850 grumbled about is swampiness, the site was an obvious compromise between the limits of boat navigation on the Avon, the nearest elevated dry land to the coast, and the nearest sources of timber at Riccarton and Papanui. Thomas had hoped to locate the port for the new colony at Rapaki, but its Maori inhabitants were reluctant to part with their recently allotted reserve, so he chose a bay nearer the sea. (Erskine, or Cavendish bay) and began to build a jetty and a custom house. So was founded the port of Lyttelton. About eighty labourers and carpenters were brought down from Wellington, and Thomas hired another hundred (at least half were Maori) from Banks Peninsula. during 1849 and 1850 these men built houses and barracks for the settlers, and started to form a road to Sumner via Evans Pass, until funds ran out and work stopped. an alternative track, desperately steep in places, went up the hill behind the town and over the saddle to Heathcote Valley. This 'Bridle Path' was to be the Pilgrims' main route to their promised land.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

The appointed leader of the Canterbury settlement, John Robert Godley, arrived at Lyttelton on the Lady Nugent on 12 April 1850. At first he was delighted by what he saw; roads being formed, two dozen houses finished, the Immigration barracks almost ready. But once ashore he quarrelled with Captain Thomas over the cost of it all, and confirmed the stoppage of work on the Sumner Road. After only two days, Godley departed for Wellington, where he also quarrelled with Governor Grey. The two men took an instant dislike to each other, and disagreed sharply over land policy. Godley had been dismayed to find 'Scotch Presbyterians' already settled on the best land adjacent to his proposed Anglican capital, and had refused to grant the Deans brothers the pastoral land they needed on the plains. Although Godley is generally regarded as 'the Founder of Canterbury', Christchurch owes a great deal to Captain Thomas. He surveyed the site and laid out the streets.

View south from the Cathedral tower, 1882, looking down Colombo
Street towards Cashmere Hill. Bank of New Zealand in centre foreground.

His assistant, Jollie, left a delightful description of this process: 'Thomas with his gold spectacles on and a Peerage in his hand read out a name he fancied and if he throughout it sounded well and I also thought so, it was written on the map.' Jollie had proposed several crescents which Thomas had rejected as 'ginerbread', so the city was laid out as a simple grid, broken only by the diagonals formed by High Street and Victoria Street, linking the town respectively to Ferry road and Papanui bush. Ironically, what was to become the most English of colonial cities was laid out like any new town of North America. The best-known names of English dioceses had already been used on the map of Lyttelton, leaving a mixture of lesser English, Irish, Welsh and colonial dioceses for Christchurch. One striking feature of the plan, for which succeeding generations would be eternally grateful, was the provision of a large open space, named Hagley Park, after one of Lord Lyttelton's estates.


The Canterbury Association had bought the land for its settlement from the New Zealand company and, in accordance with Wakefield's theory of the sufficient price', offered intending colonists rural sections in lots of not less than 50 acres (20 hectares) at 3 pounds per acre. Purchasers had to be members of the church of England and 'of character'. The capital city of 1,000 acres was to be divided into quarter-acre sections, which would be drawn in a ballot by their purchasers on arrival in the new land. Purchasers would also have rights of pasturage over unoccupied land. The Association hoped to sell 100,000 acres to cover its expenses and establish a colony of fifteen thousand people, with a bishop, twenty-one clergy and twenty schoolmasters. By 1 July 1850 only about 9,000 acres had been sold, and Godley's friends had to raise substantial sums of money to save the project. However, the Association succeeded in attracting colonists with a good range of useful occupations.

Christchurch Cathedral Square.

Twelve shiploads were planned, and the first four of these were ready to sail from Gravesend in September 1850. A farewell banquet impressed one newspaper reporter, who later wrote: 'A slice of England, cut from top to bottom, was despatched to the Antipodes ...' The First four ships' have become part of Canterbury's foundation myth. To be descended from one of these first 'Pilgrims' still carries a certain social cachet in some Christchurch circles, but there were many more such ships and, as we have seen, their passengers were far from being the first Europeans to settle in Canterbury. One thing that may have helped create the myth of the First Four Ships is the remarkable fact that they all arrived at Lyttelton so close together after three months of solitary voyaging around the globe. The Charlotte Jane arrived on the morning of 16 December 1850, and the Randolph at mid-afternoon that same day; the Sir George Seymour arrived next day, and the Cressy ten days later. Godley was there to meet them, with Sir George and Lady Grey.

The first Pilgrim ashore was James Edward FitzGerald. Dr Alfred Barker (future photographer of the new settlement) was determined to be the 'first-footer' and had commandeered the prow of the rowing boat, but the ebullient FitzGerald simply leapfrogged over him. Behind FitzGerald, impatient to set their feet on dry land, were altogether 773 colonists. More than two hundred of these were single men and women: the agricultural labourers, shepherds and domestic servants of Wakefield's plan. There were also carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, plumbers, gardeners, bricklayers, printers, stonemasons, and one butcher. Visiting Australian pastoralists, looking for cheap land, were amused by the number of pianos brought with them by the Canterbury Pilgrims. After months at sea, the Pilgrims yearned for fresh meat and vegetables. The Deans brothers could supply both, but from a distance.

Christchurch Cathedral Square

For the summer months of 1850-51, Lyttelton was mainly provisioned by the Rhodes brothers from Purau. Every week they rowed a whaleboat across the harbour, laden with fresh mutton and vegetables. Local Maori soon found that the settlers would pay 6 pounds a ton for potatoes, and they did a roaring trade. The Pilgrims' first impressions of Lyttelton were doubtless coloured by their relief at having arrived safely; many were surprised to see so many buildings and a large 'Yankee' jetty. The ships stayed in port for several weeks while luggage was unloaded. Apart from the Immigration Barracks, many Pilgrims lived in tents or V-huts. Fortunately the fine summer weather held until everyone was ashore. Some had brought prefabricated frames for their houses as cargo on the ships. These could not be dragged over the steep Bridle Path and, like all heavy luggage, had to be sailed round to the Estuary, to be taken up the Avon to Christchurch.

Christchurch, New Zealand, Armagh Street Bridge c1910 Postcard

Although Thomas and Jollie had marked out the ground plan of the future city, most of the streets were no more than ploughed furrows through the tussock and toetoe when the first Pilgrims arrived. The first 'selection days' were held in February 1851 at the Land Office (on the banks of the Avon, where S. Hurst Seager's 1887 Municipal chambers building now stands). Each purchase of 20 hectares of rural land gave the purchaser a free grant of a town section. Not surprisingly, most of the first town sections chosen were in Lyttelton rather than in Christchurch, as it was already a real and prosperous town, unlike the imagined town over the hill. Not all of the colonists liked the name 'Christ Church', which sounded 'too churchy': most preferred the 'good English name' Lyttelton, and at first the land sales documents used the name Lyttelton for both the port and the town on the plains. confusion persisted until 10 June 1851, when the Colonists' Council resolved to call the town on the plains 'Christchurch', as fixed by Captain Thomas and his surveyors. What was it like to be one of the first residents of Christchurch in 1851? conscious that they were making history, many of the Pilgrims wrote about their experiences are understandably selective or romanticised.

 Christchurch Cathedral, November 1918; a St John ambulance is passing in front
of the Cathedral. Note the position of the Godley statue, where the Citizens' War memorial now stands.

(Everyone remembered the spectacular sunsets in the clear air of that first year in Canterbury.) A more realistic description, based on his diary, was published in 1893 by John Buchanan, a Scot who was sixteen years old when he arrived in February 1851. His first nights in the immigration barracks in Lyttelton were not very pleasant: 'the fleas were numerous and lively'. His shipboard friends confided their feelings of loneliness in the vast open spaces of the new land. One was so homesick that he soon returned to England. The nights were very dark, with unfamiliar bird calls. Until wooden houses could be built, many of the Pilgrims lived in primitive shelters made from thatched raup or toetoe, daubed with mud. There was no shortage of mud, or of rain in the winter of 1851. These shelters soon became infested with rats. On rainy days, when no work could be done, rat hunts were a favourite pastime, as was taking pot shots with a rifle at ducks on the Avon. Laundry was a terrible chore for the women. boots and trousers could be quickly reduced to ribbons by the abrasive toetoe. Horses were scarce in the new settlement, so everyone had to walk, often carrying bags or boxes, or dragging the timber for houses and fences.

Christchurch, Street Scene (1910s).

The Pilgrims had brought with them seeds of all kinds and, like the deans brothers, found the soil exceptionally fertile, at least for the first crop. rather than scatter precious seed for the birds to eat, the new settlers planted whet and barley crops by 'dibbling', one grain per hole. Many counted their tree seedlings as they appeared - hawthorn, oak, plane, laburnum - only to find them trampled next morning by wandering cattle. Keeping warm and dry were not easy tasks in the winter of 1851. In the absence of bridges, crossing the Avon without a boat was always hazardous. but nobody stayed wet for long. The 'dazzling sunlight' soon dried things out, and gradually a town began to take shape where wilderness had previously prevailed. Inevitably, 1851 was a year of firsts in the Canterbury settlement. On 6 January the province's first school opened in Lyttelton, under the Reverend Henry Jacobs, and the collegiate Grammar School (later Christ's College) followed in April, both in the Immigration Barracks.

Christchurch, Cathedral Square, Tram, 1930s

On 11 January the first copy of the Lyttelton Times was printed, having been edited and largely written by J. E. FitzGerald. A week later the Union Bank of Australasia opened at Lyttelton. In February Christchurch's first footbridge was built across the Avon at Worcester. February Christchurch's first footbridge was built across the Avon at Worcester Street, beside the Land Office, where the first sale of town sections was held on 16 April. George Gould opened his general store on Colombo Street, facing Market Square, on 3 May, and later that month the Ferrymead ferry service commenced operations. A cricket club was formed on 21 June, and a month later the first church service was held in a small wooden chapel later consecrated as St Michael and All Angels'. In September the first drowning in the Avon was recorded (the victim was drunk), and in November the first hotel - the white Hart in High Street - opened, to replace the canvas grog-shops. 

Even so, to most of its residents Christchurch was still a 'howling wilderness', especially when the hot nor'westers blew. Dr Barker recalled meeting a man near his house, struggling through the tall flax and scrub of Cathedral Square, who demanded to be shown the way to Christchurch! By the time Canterbury's first anniversary was celebrated, on 16 December 1851, with athletics and a cricket match, the First Four Ships had been followed by eight chartered Canterbury Association ships and seven private ventures, bringing the population of the settlement to three thousand. Many of these new arrivals did not stay long in Lyttelton or Christchurch, however, but dispersed over the plains.

Christchurch War Memorial.

Godley had soon realised that the plains were ideal for pastoral farming, and that the original plan for a close-knit agricultural settlement was unworkable. He lobbied successfully to ease the restrictions placed on pastoral leases by the Canterbury Association, and in August 1851 an Act was passed enabling the Association to make its own regulations. Early in 1852 more favourable leases were issued, with a sliding scale for rent which rose as the flocks increased. Godley's alteration saved the Canterbury settlement from economic suicide and attracted experienced pastoralists from Australia who brought both sheep and capital to transform the settlement's economic prospects and shape the early growth of Christchurch. The runholders gave Canterbury its first and major export: wool. Christchurch first grew as the market town for a pastoral economy.    

Christchurch Roman Catholic Cathedral.

The Victorian gold rush in Australia suddenly drained the Canterbury settlement of its young single men early in 1852. The resulting labour shortage had a serious effect on public works, slowing development for the next three years. On 30 June 1852 the New Zealand Constitution Act was passed by the Westminster Parliament, dividing new Zealand into six provinces each with its own administration. The Canterbury Association cased to exist as from 30 September. Godley was invited to become the province's first superintendent, but he declined, having decided to return to England. His departure in December 1852 marked the end of Christchurch's pioneering phase. In two years the Pilgrims and their fellow migrants had established a town (admittedly somewhat resembling a shanty town) and had founded a province soon to become one of the wealthiest in colonial New Zealand. Godley's achievement was remarkable, considering all the problems he faced, while the Canterbury Association's legacy to the city of Christchurch was fundamental. It is thanks to them that the city has its present physical plan, of a grid pattern of streets and the great open space of Hagley Park. But it is also thanks to the Canterbury Association that Christchurch was to be a cathedral city, with many churches and a grammar school. Their most influential legacy was a set of values and ideals that gave Christchurch a distinctive character and opinion of itself, which endured for a full century after the pioneering phase. 

Frontier Town 1853 - 1876
In part, extracted from:
Christchurch Changing - An Illustrated History by Geoffrey W. Rice, published by Canterbury University Press, New Zealand, 1999

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An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908. 

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