Life’s a beach

It’s that time of year again, the summer season is upon us, and this year has really has brought the heat! With much of the country sweltering in the late 20s and early 30s lately, it’s made us appreciate the modern conveniences of air conditioning and short sleeves. As discussed in the blog post we did about winter earlier this year, there was a time when the people of Christchurch had to brave the seasonal extremes of climate without our handy newfangled innovations. But it wasn’t all about sunburn, droughts and overheating, the people of historic Canterbury managed to find plenty of ways to enjoy themselves in the warmer months, so grab yourselves a chilled beverage and let’s explore the recreational history of Canterbury’s summers together.

As ever, the beach was a popular holiday choice for many sun lovers. Christchurch has a few great ones to choose from, and below is a picture of a scene that might be familiar to some of you. It’s the Sumner settlement in 1900, where you can see many visitors enjoying the sunshine and crowding in the streets. It looks like it would be hot work in all those layers of clothing!

Sumner in 1900: already a favourite holiday resort. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0096.

The children of the province were particularly taken with the summer months. The generally accepted Victorian ideal of childhood was that good children were well presented, “should be seen and not heard”, and self-discipline was encouraged in all things. But as a reprieve, the beach provided the perfect location for a children’s play area, where they had the opportunity to be as noisy as they wished within the expansive outdoors on offer. The images below depict children enjoying the beaches around the turn of the 20th century, but we know that these same localities had been used for similar recreation during the 19th century. Local newspapers report on annual Sunday school beachside picnics and donkey rides for both children and the unfortunate inmates of the Sunnyside Asylum (Star 21/2/1898: 2).

Some more Sumner land marks that might be recognisable. Children padding near the pier at Cave Rock, Sumner beach, decorated for a summer carnival, Christchurch [1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0053.

Swimmers in the surf, possibly at a Wellington beach [ca. 1900] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0010.

Very adorable! Children taking donkey rides on Sumner beach, Christchurch [ca. 1905] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0019.

With the increase in seaside visitors, the safety of those enjoying the water eventually came to be monitored. 1911 saw the establishment of the Sumner Royal Surf and Lifesaving Club, and the organisation constructed their first pavilion on Sumner Beach in 1913. Before this time, a lifeboat had been formally purchased for local aquatic emergencies in 1894, but it was deemed inadequate and was updated in 1898. However, this new boat still proved still insufficient to save the life of aeronaut, Captain Lorraine, who drowned the following summer, during a tragically failed hot air balloon display for the people of Sumner (Boyd 2009-2010: 16-17; Marlborough Express 3/11/1899: 3).

A demonstration of artificial respiration at the opening of the lifesaving season: team lined up behind the reel. [4 Dec. 1926] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0056.

For many Cantabrians, winter is to snow, what snow is to skiing, and similarly, the raising of temperatures in the region spelled the perfect chance to get involved with some extra-curricular sporting activities. It’s generally accepted that surfing first originated in Hawaii, and was recorded by Joseph Banks during Captain Cook’s first visit to Tahiti. But we all know that the sport (or “art form” as the Hawaiians viewed it), didn’t stay isolated in the Polynesian Islands. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate any historic images of locals riding the waves at Sumner and Taylor’s Mistake as they do now, but the photo below suggests that people were taking part in New Zealand by at least around 1910.

A man surfing, possibly at a Wellington beach [ca. 1910] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0011.

The value that the European settlers placed on team sports was much greater than their regard for individual ones, due to their associations with the Victorian ideals of self-discipline and conformity over individualism (Boyd 2009-2010: 13). This made summertime team sports like rowing and sailing coveted pastimes. Between 1860 and 1866, the first Christchurch and interprovincial rowing regattas took place in the McCormack’s Bay estuary and the Union and Avon clubs had sheds built in the area. However, due to the problems caused by the sandbars in the estuary, these regattas were moved to Lake Forsyth by 1888 (Boyd 2009-2010: 13-14).

The Christchurch Sailing Club was formally established in the mid-19th century and such sporting ventures also proved to be an enjoyable summer pastime for those more affluent and outdoorsy residents of Christchurch. The tramway from Christchurch to Sumner (constructed in 1888), provided convenient transport from the sweltering city to the Sumner beachside and the McCormack’s Bay Estuary – despite sewage disposal issues in the area (which sometimes saw the overflow of septic tanks resulting in raw sewage visibly floating in the estuary), this area was described as an “ideal playground for aquatic sportsmen” (Boyd 2009-2010: 13; Lyttelton Times 16/8/1888: 3).  New Brighton also formally established their own sailing club in 1890 – their opening day entailed a festive and exotic celebration of a boat procession covered in Chinese lanterns, complete with fireworks and general revelry and merriment (Boyd 2009-2010: 13-14).

Yachts of the Christchurch Sailing Club fleet under sail near the pier at Cave Rock, Sumner [1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0054.

Summer sailing wasn’t only reserved for the wealthy. If one replaced a yacht with a steamer they could take a holiday excursion to beautiful destinations on the Christchurch Peninsula. Jaunts like these were available to the masses for the Canterbury Anniversary of European settlement (December 16). This day was a holiday for many and the tickets for this expedition were “moderately priced” – this made the excursions accessible to many citizens and the newspapers correctly predicted that “a large number of people will avail themselves of the opportunity for a day of recreation on the peninsula” (Lyttelton Times 11/12/1861: 4). These steamers annually carried with them picnic lunches, bands and shooting parties to act as entertainment in the day’s celebrations.

An advertisement for the excursion. Image: Lyttelton Times 12/12/1860: 5.

One didn’t need to leave the city to take part in summer recreational activities. For those who stayed on shore in Christchurch City for anniversary day, there was always a game of cricket or other outdoor sports to be had, including trotting and rifle matches (Lyttelton Times 17/12/1862: 4; 27/12/1864: 4). We kiwis love our sports after all! Additionally, the annual horticultural show was not to be missed, and “The Garden City” had its fair share of outdoor spaces to enjoy. Business ventures like Mr. Kohler’s Hotel and Pleasure Gardens offered a variety of outdoor pursuits, including swimming baths, a maze and displays of “ancient armour and weapons of warfare” I wish they were still open!

Is cricket your whole world? A very interestingly decorated cricket bat and ball that we found on an archaeological site in the Christchurch Central City. The ball has clearly been well worn around the Northern Hemisphere… Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Summertime recreation presented in a tidy package at Kohler’s Garden’s (formerly Taylor’s Gardens and was located near the intersection of what is now Hagley Avenue and Waller terrace). Image: Press 9/11/1865: 1).

We’ve talked about annual Christmas dos before on the blog, and just like now, summertime brought a welcome reprieve for some lucky workers in the form of an annual staff function – this often took the form of a company picnic. But these weren’t limited to workplace festivities, the ‘picnic season’ was utilised by many for fundraising events and it spanned the entire summer season and then some (from November through to May). This also included a several public or holidays like The Prince of Wales’s birthday (November 9), Canterbury Anniversary, Christmas and New Year. Public holidays were exceptionally popular for community picnics, with most people having a break from work without the conflict of Sabbaths schedules, and the city even put on extra trains at such times to transport revel makers to more exotic locations (Clayworth 2013).

A garden party held to aid the Christchurch Hospital Lady Visitors’ funds [17 Nov. 1910]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0053.

For those who wanted to escape the city for more than just the day, there were some other options. Holidaying in the “great kiwi batch” among beautiful New Zealand localities was an idea that reached peak popularity in the 1940s to 1960. These structures were inexpensive to erect, as they were often constructed with salvaged materials (Bennett 2014). However, baches first started popping up during the late 19th century, and they were simple structures, like the one shown below. (Swarbrick 2013). Similarly, camping became widely popular in the 20th century, but was first introduced during the 19th century. At this time, hunters, shepherds and very early settlers camped in the open air, under the stars for lack of better accommodation options, but recreational camping by New Zealand’s wealthy classes is recorded near the turn of the century. In 1907, one of our most famous authors, Katherine Mansfield, embarked on a six-week long summer camping trip in the central North Island. She and her group of friends explored the area in horse-drawn wagons and they slept in tents (Derby 2013).

Chopping wood for the fire at a holiday bach [ca. 1900]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0063.

Putting the billy on at a holiday bach [ca. 1900]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0065.

As much as playing at the beach and hanging at the family batch is a great way to spend warm leisurely days, we should also touch on the discomfort that was sometimes felt by those who couldn’t escape the hot dusty streets of the city, or by local farmers for whom the lack of rain brought crippling droughts. We all know Canterbury to be a relatively dry region, but sometimes the high temperatures brought with it real hardships. Admittedly, the drought of 1878 was felt worse in Australia, but the lowland areas of Canterbury received half their normal rainfall that year and, as a result, grain yields were so low that it was not economic to reap the crop (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 16/4/1878: 2; Burton and Peoples 2008: 6).

During the early years of European settlement, the annual elevated temperatures also brought with them the ravages of fever and disease, including malaria (Press 16/11/1864: 2). 1875 saw a typhoid fever epidemic in New Zealand, and 323 town and city dwellers perished (Rice 2011). Christchurch citizens were some of the worst sufferers, the death rate being 2.27 per 1000 people, the next highest being Auckland at 1.79 per 1000 (Globe 21/12/1876: 2). Newspaper reports indicate that people were aware of the heat being a factor in the spreading of disease, along with defective sewerage systems (of course! Lyttelton Times 22/5/1875: 3; Globe 4/12/1876: 3). This was also during the era that people began to voice their ideas about germ theory, although at this time, the Christchurch District Health Board maintained that the typhoid outbreak arose from miasma, and “would soon go away” (Globe 16/1/1865: 3; 4/12/1876: 3). The “south drain” of Christchurch took the blame for the spreading of the disease by miasma, and residents of the day believed that “every hot day of hot summer weather adds to the number of victims and helps swell the death rate” (Globe 21/12/1876: 2).

She’s thinking about it in 1916! Auckland Star 5/2/1816: 2.

To leave you on a sunnier note – the lighter side of deadly epidemics… Observer 23/5/1914: 11.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Chelsea Dickson


Bennett, K. 2014. Rich Pickings: Abandoned vessel material reuse on Rangitoto Island, New Zealand. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Maritime Archaeology. Department of Archaeology. Flinders University of South Australia.

Boyd. F. 2009-2010. A Recreational and Social History of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary. A report prepared for Lincoln University (Faculty of Environment, Society and Design. Summer Scholarship, 2009/2010, Environment Canterbury, the Avon-Heathcote Estuary. Ihutai Trust and the Tertiary Commission. [online] Available at:

Burton, R. and Peoples, S. 2008. Learning from past adaptations to extreme climatic events: A case study of drought Part B: Literature Review MAF Policy – Climate Change CC MAF- POL 2008 – 17 (124-3) Climate Change ‘Plan of Action’ Research Programme 2007/2008. AgResearch Ltd for The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Clayworth, P.  ‘Picnics and barbecues – Family and community picnics, 1800s to 1920s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [Online] Available at: (accessed 14 December 2017).

Derby, M. 2013., ‘Camping’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: (accessed 14 December 2017).

Rice, G. 2011. ‘Epidemics – Epidemics, pandemics and disease control’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: (accessed 15 December 2017).

Swarbrick, N, 2013. ‘Holidays – Holiday accommodation’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: (accessed 14 December 2017).




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