About Christchurch
The Town Imagined
1877 - 1902

In this period Christchurch endured a long economic depression which was more severe in Canterbury than in the rest of New Zealand, but it then recovered sooner and more strongly than most other places in the 1890s. Its prosperity was still closely tied to the exports of Canterbury's farmers, and most of the city's major industries either served the farming sector or processed its products. The city matured remarkably in the 1880s and 1890s, with many elegant commercial and public buildings, while spreading suburbs of wooden villas were linked to the central city by a steam - and horse-drawn tramway network. Christchurch led New Zealand in many fields in this period: in its drainage and sanitation reforms, in women's suffrage and the temperance movement, in the growth of trade unions and radical politics, in education and in sport. It was also home to some colourful eccentrics and several small religious sects, which encouraged North Islanders to make jokes about 'Barmy Christchurch' when they weren't calling it the 'City of cycles'. The way most cyclists rode wherever they liked made both nicknames seem perfectly apt.


Victorian Christchurch was like a far-flung fragment of Victorian England. After making allowances for the smaller population (about 44,000 by 1886), and the relative newness of its streets and buildings, a visitor to Christchurch from Norwich or Nottingham in the 1880s would have recognised many familiar institutions. As we have seen, there were plenty of churches. Now there was a cathedral, a fine museum and botanic gardens, a university college, a mechanics' institute and a public library. it was a community suffused with Victorian values of self-reliance and self-improvement. Christchurch was full of voluntary associations, from loges and friendly societies to brass bands and the fire brigade. And just as Victorian England experienced the 'games revolution', so too Christchurch could claim by the 1890s to be New Zealand's sporting capital. Yet the facade of Victorian success and respectability sometimes barely concealed an economic reality of uncertainty, unemployment and hardship for many ordinary people.

Vogel's expansionist policies led to a land boom in Canterbury in 1877. With the demise of the provincial government, more than a million acres of Crown land were released for railway development and farming. Rich individuals and companies burnt land cheaply, subdivided it and sold it on, often at great profit. There was such strong demand from men who wanted to buy smaller farms to share in the what bonanza that speculators could push prices upwards. The bubble burst quite suddenly in November 1878, leaving many with heavy debts and over-valued farms. Worse was to come. Falling wool and what prices worldwide plunged Australia and New Zealand into recession in 1879, which then deepened into the 'Long Depression' of the 1880s.

Manchester Street c. 1950

Christchurch's prosperity was so heavily dependent on Canterbury's farmers that the city could not escape these blows. Assisted immigration continued into the early 1880s, but the exodus was greater: every year between 1883 and 1887 more people left Canterbury than arrived from Britain. Unemployment became a serious social problem well into the 1890s. Yet this remains one of the great wheat-producing periods in Canterbury's history. Demand for wheat enabled small farmers to survive on the land, even when prices were low, because more than half of the crop was consumed within new Zealand (three-quarters in 1884). The value of grain exports was sometimes almost half that of wool, and actually exceeded it in 1880 and 1883.

Wool remained the sheet anchor of Canterbury's overseas trade, but what helped the province to weather the depression most of all was the advent of refrigeration. The Canterbury Frozen Meat company was incorporated in 1882, and the Belfast Freezing works began operation in February 1883. The first shipment of frozen mutton from Lyttelton was arranged by the Christchurch-based New Zealand shipping company on the British King in April 1883. In London it soon became famous as 'Canterbury lamb'. Lyttelton was at last becoming a port rather than just a harbour, with new jetties and cranes and further reclamation. While the main source of Canterbury's prosperity lay in its exports of wool, wheat and meat, Christchurch developed a strong secondary-industries sector in this period. Even during the depths of the 1880s depression, new factories and businesses were still being established and, as economic conditions improved in the late 1890s, some enjoyed spectacular success from exporting their products. The old-established foundries of Anderson's and Scott's were now among New Zealand's largest, making heavy machinery, locomotives and bridges. Most other Christchurch factories used local raw materials. The Kaiapoi Woollen Mills company employed 475 in its Cashel Street clothing factory in the 1880s, and the Taj Tapu Dairy Company moved to Addington in 1892: its Fern leaf butter brand soon became as famous in Britain as Canterbury lamb.  

By 1896 the great majority of Christchurch's factory workers were employed in freezing works, tanneries, footwear, clothing, and printing and publishing. For a few years near the turn of the century, Christchurch may have been the industrial capital of New Zealand, just ahead of Auckland in both numbers of workers (if one includes Belfast and Kaiapoi) and value of production. but it was a brief moment: Auckland then outstripped every other centre and began its twentieth-century rise to dominance in the New Zealand economy. Christchurch had been New Zealand's unhealthiest city in the 1870s, but in the 1880s it became the first New Zealand city to have a proper underground sewerage system. The new Christchurch Drainage board, which first met on 4 January 1876, had relatively wide powers for the time, and covered almost all of what became the metropolitan area.

One of its first act was to commission a system of permanent sewers to drain the central city. Rainwater would be channelled into streams and rivers, while sewage and household waste were kept separate and carried into large b rick underground ewers, which converged at the Tuam street/Fitzgerald Avenue intersection. A pumping station in Linwood then pumped the sewage out to the sandhills of Bromley to New Zealand's first 'sewage farm', where the filtered and treated sewage fertilised the pastures of the board's model farm. Construction began in 1879, and pumping commenced in September 1882. When work stopped in 1884, and pumping commenced in September 1882. When work stopped in 1884, Christchurch had 36 miles of sewers, but only 639 houses were connected.

The Drainage board had also decided to accept responsibility as a local board of health under the 1876 Health Act (it was the only one in New Zealand before 1900). Dr Courtney Nedwill, its second medical officer, was a tireless campaigner for sanitary reform who declared war on cesspits. There were at least a thousand of these in the central city in 1876, but by 1882 they had all been closed and replaced by pan closers. The new sewers helped indirectly, because ground water seeped into the system through the pipe joints and significantly lowered the water table, making the city a drier and healthier place than before. The elimination of cesspits largely solved the typhoid problem, and the effect on the city's death rate was dramatic: from an appalling 30 per thousand in 1875, the rate was almost halved by 1881 (before the sewers came into use), and halved again to 9.5 per thousand in 1889, close to the twentieth-century average. Even so, by modern standards Christchurch in the 1880s was not a very salubrious town.

WAAFs march along Worcester Street on their way to VJ Day celebrations at Hagley Park.

Horse droppings bred clouds of flies in hot weather, and mingled with the dust that plagued Christchurch whenever the nor'westers blew. An Englishwoman, 'Hopeful', disgusted by the flies she saw in butchers' and farmers' shops, returned 'Home' to publish her adverse impressions under the title Taken In (1887). She complained of Christchurch's 'hot, stony, dusty, noisy streets' and its 'filthy degraded-looking back yards'. Most of the houses she thought 'squalid', but conceded that there were some 'pretty little gardens attached to the most humble shanties'. Other visitors were alarmed by the 'typhoid-laden stink' from side channels, and thought there were too many hotels and too much drinking.

In 1878 Christchurch had only five dentists and five chemists' shops, but forty-one hotels and six breweries: drunkenness was still a big social problem, in which women and children were the main losers. Several small, church-based abstinence societies had existed since the 1860s, but Christchurch became the main centre for the temperance movement in New Zealand in the 18809s and 1890s. by 1884 the city had over twenty temperance societies. They saw strength in uni8ty, and formed the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1885. The temperance movement had its headquarters in Sydenham, and two dynamic leaders, the reverend L.M. Isitt and T.E. ('Tommy') Taylor, established the Sydenham Prohibition League in 1889. From 1890 their journal the Prohibitionist circulated widely throughout New Zealand. Another hot issue was women's suffrage, which had close links with the temperance movement. Again, Christchurch led New Zealand in this campaign. Kate Sheppard, a pioneering Christchurch feminist, took charge of the WCTU's suffrage campaign in 1887, and presented the first of five suffrage petitions the following year. The final petition was signed by almost a third of the country's adult females. With support from Sir John Hall, one of Canterbury's veteran politician, New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893, the first to do so in the British empire. Kate Sheppard also edited the WCTU's Christchurch-based journal, The White Ribbon.

Christchurch was the cradle of trade unions and artisan radicalism in New Zealand in this period. More specifically, Sydenham, 'the model borough', led the way. In the early 1880s a Working Men's Political Association was formed, critical of the 'polite' liberalism represented by the Lyttelton Times. Unemployment gave a sharp edge to their ideas and spurred the formation of unions. The Canterbury Labour Union (1887) and the Canterbury trades and Labour council (1890) were the most prominent of these. Unionists in Christchurch largely supported the Maritime Strike of 1890. The general election of 1890 was the first one-man, one-vote election in New Zealand, and was greatly influenced by the recent industrial troubles. The Trades council endorsed the Liberal Party's candidates in Christchurch electorates, all of whom were successful. Thus Christchurch became a Liberal stronghold for the next twenty years, in striking contrast to the conservatism of its social elite. One of these Liberal members, William Pember Reeves (son of the Lyttelton Times editor), became Christchurch's most famous reforming politician as a member of Seddon's government in the 1890s. He devised New Zealand's much-admired Industrial conciliation and Arbitration Act (1894) and is regarded by some as the architect of state socialism in New Zealand. His Ao-tea-Roa: the Long white cloud (1898) was an influential history which portrayed New Zealand ad a 'progressive' society.

Christchurch in the 1890s seems to have been an exciting place, buzzing with new ideas, full of radicals, reformers and eccentrics. The city's most famous eccentric was also one of its most brilliant. Alexander Bickerton was Canterbury college's foundation Professor of Chemistry in 1874, and constantly challenged conventional views. His communitarian ideas led him to set up an experiment in communal living among the Sandhills at Wainoni in 1896, and to criticise the institution of marriage, while his anti-imperialist views led him to oppose the south African war in 1899. Bickerton's most brilliant student became on of New Zealand's world-famous sons.

Christchurch had a number of pie cart over the years;
this is the one in Hereford Street about 1952.

Ernest Rutherford came to Canterbury College from Nelson in 1890, and by 1893 had gained an MA with double first-class honours in mathematics and physics. With Bickerton's help, he also became an accomplished and original researcher. His first published paper, in 1894, was based on high-frequency electrical experiments conducted in a basement beside the Great Hall. Awarded the country's only science scholarship for overseas study, he left in 1895 to work in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Rutherford returned to Christchurch in 1900 to marry May Newton, his landlady's daughter, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1908 for his work on radioactivity. In 1911 he discovered the nuclear model of the atom, thus becoming the father of nuclear science and one of the world's greatest scientists.  

Most of Christchurch's citizens in this period were more interested in sport than science. Canterbury formed New Zealand's first rugby union, in 1879, and took a leading role in the game's administration. Lancaster Park, opened as a private venture in 1881, became the home of Canterbury rugby, and the No. 1 Stand (1882) looked down on many notable matches for the next eighty years. In summer Lancaster Park was also the home of cricket in Canterbury. The New Zealand Cricket Council was formed in Christchurch in December 1894, and Canterbury has ever since dominated the administration of this sport. Christchurch can claim to be the birthplace of several New Zealand sporting codes. Both the New Zealand boxing and Hockey associations were formed in Christchurch in 1902. it was certainly 'the cradle of tennis' in New Zealand. The Christchurch Lawn Tennis Club was founded in 1881, and at least eight clubs were active in the city by 1886. Bowls and croquet were also early starters in Christchurch, with several clubs flourishing in the 1880s, but they were late to organise nationally. Christchurch's flatness made the city ideal for cycling, and the Pioneer Bicycle Club (1870) was probably the first in New Zealand.

By the 1870s Christchurch had become New Zealand's leading centre for horse racing and training. Riccarton Racecourse was known throughout the country as the home of the New Zealand cup and the Grand National Steeplechase. George Gatonby Stead and Sir George Clifford were leading importers and breeders who in 1896 helped to set up the New Zealand racing conference, which was based in Christchurch until 1930. Cup Day was held in early November, to coincide with the A&P show. This combination created one of Christchurch's most distinctive institutions: show Week. After the Showgrounds moved to Addington in 1887, the festival became known as 'Carnival Week', because of all the other events and entertainments it attracted. Hotels and boarding houses were always full in early November, when town and country came together. For over a century, show week at Addington was also a national institution, often attended by the Governor-General and leading politicians.

Christchurch railway station and goods yard about 1952.

Show Week acquired its third big attraction in 1899, when the New Zealand Metropolitan Trotting club opened its new raceway ext to the showgrrounds. Christchurch now became the headquarters of harness racing in New Zealand. An American visitor in 1890 remarked that Christchurch was a city of 'bicycles, bridges and parsons'. By 1881 the city had no fewer than twenty-four different religious denominations meeting regularly. The church of England was still nominally the largest of these, but low church attendances may have given the visitor an impression of more parsons than parishioners. even so, the churches played an important role in charitable aid to the poor in pre-welfare-state days, as did the numerous lodges and friendly societies that appeared in Christchurch in the 1870s and 1880s.

One new religious sect gave Christchurch more than a little excitement in the 1890s, and enhanced its reputation as New Zealand's mecca for cranks and lost causes. Arthur Bentley Worthington (his real name was Oakley Crawford) was an American bigamist and fraudster who arrived in Christchurch in 1890. He and his 'wife' Mary Plunkett founded a new church, the 'Students of Truth', and attracted a huge following with their persuasive preaching and theories of free love. Christchurch clergy made enquiries and uncovered Worthington's murky past (all of which he denied), and finally forced him to flee to Australia.

Ballantyne's Department Store, Corner of Cashel and Colombo Street,
the day after New Zealand's worst fire disaster, in which 41 staff died in 1947.

When he tried to stage a comeback in Christchurch in September 1897, an angry crowd threatened a riot. (This was the only occasion on which the riot Act has ever been read in Christchurch.) Disgraced and often imprisoned, he died in the USA in 1917, described as one of the era's most dangerous imposters'. Christchurch claims the first telephone in New Zealand, opened by a group of businessmen in 1881, and the city's streets began to be festooned with an ever-increasing forest of poles and wires. electric lights made their first appearance on the Lyttelton wharves in 1882, and Ballantyne's became the city's first store illuminated by electricity in 1891. The first importation of a motor-car of Christchurch was in November 1898, an d two years later Nicholas Oates received the city's first traffic-offence notice, for frightening a horse with his new vehicle.

Although many photographs of this period show nearly empty streets (photographers preferred Sundays for street scenes), Christchurch was a busy place during the week, especially in the prosperous years of the late 1890s. Nearly all of the traffic was horse-drawn - drays, carts, hansom cabs, gigs, carriages and the occasional landau of a rich family - or human-powered. Bicycles were ubiquitous and knew no road rules. The American writer Mark Twain visited Christchurch in 1895 and quipped that half the citizens rode cycles, and kept the other half busy dodging them. Extension of the steam-tram network encouraged the growth of several outer suburbs, notably Spreydon and Beckenham, but the most spectacular effect was on the seaside suburbs. Summer was declared a borough in 1891, ahead of Linwood and Woolston (both 1893), while New Brighton's population grew rapidly after the tramline reached the beach 1887. The construction of an ocean pier in 1897, and its boosted weekend excursions. New Brighton became a borough in 1897, and its population reached a thousand in 1901. St Albans achieved borough status in 1881, but Papanui never did, remaining something of a village until orcharding began to increase settlement in the 1890s.

South of the central city, St Martins, Beckenham and Somerfield began to attract more housing in the 1890s, but large open fields persisted in these parts well into the new century. Once the tramline reached the foot of cashmere Hill in 1898, this became Christchurch's first hillside suburb, with a scattering of large houses dotting the slopes by 1903. It soon became a fashionable address for professionals and retired businessmen. The closing years of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth were without doubt the halcyon years of Christchurch's identity as an outpost of the British empire. Queen Victoria's diamond Jubilee (1897) gave the city its biggest public celebrations to date, with military parades, concerts and dinners.

Littleton November 1964. The first container crane started work here in June 1977.

A small military contingent sailed to England on the Ruahine to join the processions in London. To mark the jubilee, a clock tower was erected at the intersection of High and Manchester Streets. Intended for the Provincial council buildings, the clock had arrived from England in 1860 in 147 packages. It lay in storage for many years, and was given to the city council in 1876, which then could not agree on what to do with it, Until 1897. (This was not the last resting place for the clock, however. In 1929 it was moved to its present location, the intersection of Victoria and Salisbury Streets.)

Patriotic sentiment reached new heights in 1899 with the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in south Africa. Canterbury's Volunteer movement was one of the strongest in new Zealand, and the Boer War was its first opportunity to take part in a real war overseas. Britain requested mounted troops from Australia and New Zealand, and Canterbury's prosperous elite soon provided ample funds for horses and equipment to enable volunteers to go to South Africa. The first contingent of 'Rough riders' left Lyttelton in October 1899, to be followed by several more over the next two years. New Zealand's third contingent, of February 1900, was largely made up of Canterbury men. The province celebrated its first jubilee in 1900. An exhibition was held in the newly built Canterbury Hall in Manchester Street in November, and civic celebrations held on 17 December gave rise to much self-congratulation. Even to the objective outsider's eye, there was indeed a great deal to feel pleased about. Survivors of the First Four Ships were now few and elderly, but they gladly reminded anyone who would listen that they had been Cathedral Square when it was just open tussock, and Ferry road when it was a muddy bullock track. The jubilee was promoted as a 'grand event', with processions and speeches and street decorations, and also stimulated the first serious attempt to collect and preserve the earliest records of the Canterbury settlement.

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 intensified the prevailing mood of Imperial loyalty, and added poignancy to the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary) in June. The Duke laid the foundation stone for a statue of queen  Victoria and reviewed a huge military parade in Hagley Park in pouring rain. Contingents representing all the regiments of the British Army visited Christchurch in February 1901 in the course of an Empire tour, and in March a group of turbaned Indian officers played in a polo match in Hagley Park, watched by a huge crowd. More crowds flocked to Lyttelton in November 1901 to meet the discovery and Captain Robert Falcon Scott's first British Antarctic Expedition. This was the start of Christchurch's long involvement with Antarctic exploration, as the preferred city of departure for 'the ice'.

Road tunnel to Littelton nearing completion

Yet more crowds waves Union Jacks in June 1902 to celebrate the end of the war in South Africa, and probably many of the same flags did duty again in August to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. In the last census before amalgamation in 1903, Christchurch city recorded 17,538 inhabitants, with another 28,288 in the boroughs of Sydenham. St Albans, Linwood, Woolston and New Brighton. Those parts of adjacent road boards which came within the Christchurch health district added another 11,215, so that the whole metropolitan area of Christchurch and its suburbs boasted a population of 57,041. (By contrast, Lyttelton had 4,023 and Sumner just 844 residents). Christchurch was thus New Zealand's second-largest city: Auckland had 67,226 citizens, Dunedin 52,390 and Wellington 49,744. But the northern cities were growing faster. Since 1891 Christchurch had increased by 19 per cent, but Wellington had surged by 44 per cent.

'Hopeful' of 1887 might have formed some different conclusions about Christchurch in 1902. The central city was now almost fully built up and there were no 'slums', as that term was understood in London or New York, lined parks and avenues, and the beauty of the Avon winding through the central city. Christchurch had a better drainage system than any other New Zealand city, and typhoid was now virtually a disease of the past. The city was about to welcome electric trams and an abundant supply of electricity to match its abundant artesian water. The flat site meant that there were no natural obstacles to growth, as there were in Wellington: new industries could be set up in the suburbs, close to their labour force. It was claimed that workers in Christchurch were better fed and housed than in any other new Zealand city. A high proportion of its citizens owned their own homes, or were  paying off mortgages rather than paying rent: a clear indication of New Zealand's rend towards a 'propertied democracy'. Edwardian Christchurch was an elegant colonial city, much improved from the dusty, disease-ridden frontier town of the 1870s.

Progressive Christchurch 1903-1918 

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

Rotorua Visit- New Zealand

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

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