If you walk along the Avon River by Cashel Street you might catch a glimpse of the small gondolas taking their fares for a leisurely punt through the city and botanical gardens. Today this attraction is aimed largely at tourists, but during the 19th century Christchurch’s rivers were frequented by many bathers, rowers, and small crafts conveying goods and people. While these activities were mainly confined to the natural channels of the Heathcote and Avon Rivers and their estuary, this blog aims to discuss an early proposal, fashioned during the very foundation of the city, which would have seen Christchurch transformed into a Venice-like city with a thriving water-based system of transportation and communication: the Christchurch canal scheme.
In the later 1840s Captain Joseph Thomas was appointed by the Canterbury Association to prepare a 1,000,000 acre master map of the proposed Canterbury Block. In addition, Captain Thomas was also given a budget of £20,000 to undertake important infrastructure works such as the forming of arterial roads and port facilities, and to construct necessary public buildings such as immigration barracks, warehouses and offices in preparation for the arrival of the Canterbury settlers. Together with his survey team, Captain Thomas travelled to New Zealand on board the new 548-ton barque, Bernicia, between July and October 1848. Following their arrival in Canterbury, the surveyors got to work creating triangulation and topographical maps of the land (Amodeo, 2003).
Initially the site of Canterbury’s capital city was to be located at Te Rapu [Teddington] at the head of the bay. It was thought that this site’s proximity to the harbour would allow port facilities to be located within the capital township. However, the Canterbury Association’s elitist scheme of settlement was based on a rural work force supporting a gentry and small aristocracy, which meant the chief town also needed to be in close proximity to suitable farmland. Teddington may have been close to the harbour, but the clay hillside was found to be a poor foundation for largescale construction and there was insufficient pastural land nearby to support a large rural population.
With the reluctant permission of both Governor Grey and Bishop Selwyn, Captain Thomas was allowed to personally select an alternate site for Canterbury’s capital city. Despite having his choice of any site on the broad open plains, Captain Thomas ultimately selected a site in the swamplands at the base of the Port Hills, at the place formerly designated as “Stratford” adjoining the Avon River. One of the main influences on Captain Thomas’ decision appears to have been the proximity to the Deans family farm at Pūtarikamotu (Riccarton) which they had been farming since December 1842. The Deans’ orchard, vegetable garden, sheep and cattle pastures, and fields of oats, barley, and potatoes had not only provided the survey parties with much of their initial supplies, but also proved to Captain Thomas the viability of agricultural pursuits in the area.
Captain Thomas’ selected site has been a source of contentious debate ever since. Siting Christchurch in the middle of a swamp bisected by meandering rivers and creeks was to have a complicating effect on the drainage and sanitation of the city, and would result in decades of debate, planning, and feats of engineering to overcome. But a more urgent issue plaguing Captain Thomas was the difficult task of establishing ready communication between the port town at Lyttelton and the capital township on the plains.
Captain Thomas considered the proximity of the Ōtākaro/Avon River to the city as not only a natural outfall for drainage, but he purposefully sited Christchurch on it’s banks with the view of utilising the river’s channel as a natural highway for the conveying of goods to the city. It is no coincidence that the site known as “The Bricks” was included within the city’s boundaries. The Bricks was a site on the banks of the Avon (near the intersection of Barbadoes Street and Oxford Terrace) which is believed to have been the highest point upstream for boats to navigate. The name was established in 1843 when the Deans unloaded their cargo of chimney bricks at the site (Kete Christchurch, 2017). Captain Thomas appears to have envisioned The Bricks as the capital’s river port to which goods and people could be conveyed from the estuary to the city.
While the Avon was initially favoured for river transportation, the deeper tidal waters of the Heathcote River eventually attracted more trade (Lyttelton Times, 13/3/1852: 5). Captain Thomas had initially seemed to dismiss the Heathcote River in his original plan as being too swampy, winding, and narrow (in its upper reaches at least), and so its navigability had not been properly established. This was likely on the advice of assistant surveyor Samuel Hewlings, who had been tasked in late September 1849 to conduct a topographical survey of the Heathcote River and had found the experience miserable (Amodeo, 2003). However, it was not long after the arrival of the Canterbury settlers that small European craft began to make their way up the Heathcote’s waters. By December 1851, C. Bishop and G. Gould had formed the Christchurch Conveyance Company and constructed the Heathcote’s first wharf upstream of the Estuary, known as Christchurch Quay, just north of where the Radley Bridge now stands and where the Heathcote runs close to Ferry Road (Penney, 1982: 14). 19th century photographs show a number of small craft making their way through the Heathcote’s waters.
The natural rivers do not appear to have been the only waterways intended to be utilised for communication and conveying merchandise. 19th century plans of the city show three long straight pathways surveyed between the natural waterways and labelled as “Canal Reserves”. Today these three canal reserves are known as Linwood Avenue, Marshlands Road, and Sparks Road. Had these canal reserves been developed into waterways they would have formed an uninterrupted conduit connecting the Halswell River, Heathcote River, Avon-Heathcote Estuary, Avon River, Styx River, and even as far north as the Waimakariri River.
Despite Captain Thomas’ apparent vision for a Capital city bisected by water-highways, during the early years of the settlement there does not appear to have been any serious contemplation of forming the canal reserves into waterways. One major hinderance to developing largescale shipping enterprises within the city was the shoaling, shifting river bar at the Sumner entrance, which was extremely hazardous for coastal vessels attempting to enter or leave the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Within the first two decades of the settlement, over thirty vessels foundered or were completely wrecked on the Sumner Bar (Penney, 1982: 25). When reporting on the state of the Sumner Bar in 1855, Canterbury provincial engineer Edward Dobson concluded that:
The Sumner Bar is not safe for vessels of upwards of fifty tons under canvass alone. With a steam tug vessels drawing nine feet water may be taken with perfect safety to a little above the Shag Rock at Sumner, but no further. The Avon is only fit for a barge navigation. The Heathcote, being a tidal navigation, may be so improved as to allow any vessel that can cross the bar to come up to Christchurch Quay (Lyttelton Times, 7/11/1855: 3-5).
Although Dobson’s report concluded that the Heathcote River had potential for improved river shipping enterprises, the opening of the Christchurch-Lyttelton railway tunnel in 1867 solved much of the port and city’s communication problems, and so the necessity of undertaking largescale estuary works to expand river communication was not deemed essential.
Whilst the works to form the Christchurch canals were not undertaken, the idea persisted through the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the major proponents of the scheme in the 1870s was John Sigismund Jacobsen, a Marine and Civil Engineer, who suggested a plan “to make a canal from the estuary to the Town belt east, 60ft wide at top, 40ft wide at bottom, with a depth of 15ft 6in at the belt, with proper wharves for vessels, silting pits so adjusted that they could receive the whole drainage of the city and suburbs” (Lyttelton Times, 15/10/1872: 3). It was at the turn of the century, however, that the Lyttelton Harbour Board more seriously contemplated the formation of a Christchurch canal from Sumner to Woolston or Linwood (Lyttelton Times, 31/5/1904: 4; 12/8/1904: 2). The engineer to the board, Cyrus J. R. Williams, reported on costs, feasibility and advisability of constructing the two canal options in December 1905 (Lyttelton Times, 14/12/1905: 2). Although there was significant support for the scheme at the time, ultimately it was decided to expend the funds on improvements to the Lyttelton Harbour instead, and the idea never seemed to gain serious consideration again (Lyttelton Times, 22/12/1905: 3). In retrospect this decision was probably for the best, as such a development would have had irrevocable ecological and environmental consequences for the Heathcote-Avon estuary, but it is very interesting to contemplate what Christchurch would be like today if the Canal Reserves been formed into waterways during the 19th century.
Amodeo, C., 2003. Forgotten Forty-niners: Being an account of the Men & Women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: The Caxton Press.
Penney, S.W., 1982. The Estuary of Christchurch: A History of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, its communities, clubs, controversies and contributions. Penney Ash Publications.