Canals through the swamp

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.

Photograph of the Canterbury rowing club on the Avon River in c.909

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.

Aerial image showing the location of Teddington at the head of the bay.

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.

Detail from Captain Thomas’ 1849 Sketch Map of the Country intended for the settlement of Canterbury, showing the proposed location of the city of Christchurch at what is now Teddington.

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.

Lithograph of J. Durey’s 1851 painting of the bricks landing site on the Avon River showing the first settlement within Christchurch 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.

Photograph taken by the Burton Brother’s Studio in c.1880 showing a ship sailing through the waters of the Heathcote River.

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.

Map of the Christchurch and Sumner Survey Districts in 1892, showing the natural waterways (indicated in dark blue) connected by the three proposed canals (indicated in light blue).

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.

Lydia Mearns


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.


Ceiling Roses I Have Seen

One of my favourite features of a pre-1900 building is the beautiful ceiling rose. Ceiling roses are often found in ‘public’ rooms in Victorian homes – usually in the parlour and dining room. But sometimes, if the original owners were that way inclined, they can also be found in the private master bedroom. The material used to create ceiling roses were either plaster, timber or pressed metal and they can be found in a range of different sizes. The primary function of the ceiling rose, other than providing another decorative element to a room, was ventilation. Perforated ceiling roses are commonly found in rooms that had fireplaces to help with ventilation. That’s not to say that the Victorians didn’t also have unperforated ceiling roses for no useful function other than the elegance it displays to guests, because they sure did! Nowadays, when exploring a pre-1900 dwelling, you will likely see the ceiling rose repurposed for modern times – with a light fixture hanging from the centre of the ceiling rose.

The following images include some of the best examples we have come across while recording the built heritage of Christchurch.

This is the first ceiling rose of three found in a building built in 1892. This small ceiling rose was in the front entrance of the dwelling. It is a perforated ceiling rose with moderate decoration. Simple, but catches the eye when you enter. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Next up in the same 1892 dwelling was this beautiful large ceiling rose in what would have been the parlour. The perforated ceiling rose is highly decorative with leaves and flowers. It was one of the largest ceiling roses I have come across, at 1.5 m wide! Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Last, and certainly not least, for the 1892 dwelling is this small plain ceiling rose found in a small back room. It still functioned as ‘ventilation’, being perforated, but does not have the grand look of the previous ceiling roses. The owners clearly were not expecting guests to visit this back room. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This medium sized perforated ceiling rose was the only one found in an 1880s house with a school room attached. While ceiling roses are often removed over time due to modification or updating ceilings, no evidence could be found to suggest there were any other ceiling roses in the building. The interesting thing about this ceiling rose was that it was installed in the school room attached to the main building. So not the typical show-off your fancy plaster features to your guests that you expect from the Victorians. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This has to be one of my favourite ceiling roses that I have come across. This perforated ceiling rose was found in a building built in 1898. It has a beautiful leaf and flower motif with small stars in the middle with a larger star surrounding the inner circle. The 20th century occupants of the site also must have thought it was beautiful, as they haven’t modified it into a lighting feature, leaving it in its spectacular original form. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield

Now for something a little more abstract. This ceiling rose also came from a dwelling built in 1898 (but not the same building as the previous!) This ceiling rose is very different compared to the previous ones I have shown you. It is not perforated in the middle, instead the ventilation comes from between the decoration at the edge of the ceiling rose. It might be hard to see it in the photo, but there are four vases in the centre of the ceiling rose that have bouquets of flowers. Leaves and flowers, as you can see in this blog post, are very common motifs for ceiling roses. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This ceiling rose, and the following two ceiling roses, come from a building built in 1880 that sadly was demolished before my time at the company. However, the photos of them live on! The above ceiling rose has a beautiful leaf design and sneakily hides the ventilation underneath the raised leaves. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

This next ceiling rose is a lot smaller than the previous one but is still highly decorative with a leaf design. The ventilation is also a lot more obvious in this ceiling rose. I appreciate that the owner at the time decided to put the new light fixture next to the ceiling rose instead of through it. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Another smaller ceiling rose from the same 1880 dwelling. This design is a lot simpler than the last two. It has a flower in the middle and what would have been six leaves surrounding the flower. Now only three of the leaves remain, which could be due to the plaster not lasting the test of time or the leaves being damaged while the light fixture was added. The middle of the ceiling rose is perforated underneath the small leaf design. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Jamie-Lee Hearfield