Not just horsing around

Horses were a big part of everyday life in 19th century Christchurch and were integral for transport and farming endeavours. They were present on the Canterbury Plains long before the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived in 1851, with John Deans having imported three mares for his Riccarton farm in 1843 (Orwin, 2015: 52). But horses were not just for transport or farming, they were also a big part of the community’s leisure time, with horse racing becoming a beloved pastime for many Cantabrians. While horses are used a lot less for transport and farming these days, horse racing is still a widespread sporting activity.

Photograph of a boy riding a toy horse and buggy in c.1920-1930s. Image: Roland Searle, 1920-1930s.

The settlement of Canterbury had been underway less than a year before a public meeting of colonists was called to discuss the establishment of a jockey club in the fledging township in September 1851 (Lyttelton Times, 6/9/1851: 1). The results of this first meeting appear to have been promising, with many of the leading names among the colonists pledging support. They were already discussing their intention to select a site for a racecourse in Riccarton and to have the grounds prepared in time for the first Canterbury Anniversary festival races which were to be held in December 1851.

The objectives for forming such an institution went beyond the mere establishment of horse racing for sport, but also for encouraging the breeding of good horses which “has always been considered a truly English object” (Lyttelton Times, 20/9/1851: 5). The Canterbury plains were considered particularly well adapted for the production of superior horses, and it was hoped that such breeding establishments would stimulate economy and cause an increased demand for locally grown oats, hay, and straw.

Despite the promise shown at the first meeting, for reasons not outlined in the contemporary newspapers, the jockey club was not established in 1851. Nevertheless, even without a jockey club, Cantabrians would not be without horse racing. For the first three years of settlement horse races were held for the December anniversary festival in Hagley Park, organised by a committee of volunteer citizens (Lyttelton Times, 20/12/1851: 6, 25/12/1852: 10, 3/12/1853: 12).

Advertisement to form anniversary race committee in November 1853 (Lyttelton Times, 5/11/1853: 1)

A public meeting to discuss the formation of a jockey club in Canterbury was held for a second time in September 1854 (Lyttelton Times, 16/9/1854: 1). Many of the same gentlemen were present at the second meeting as at the first, and the same high objectives were discussed, but this time the meeting proved successful and the Canterbury Jockey Club (C.J.C.) was formed (Lyttelton Times, 8/11/1854: 4). The first general meeting of the C.J.C. was held in early December 1854 to establish the rules of the club and elect its first officers (Lyttelton Times, 29/11/1854: 1). The annual Canterbury Anniversary races were not held in December 1854 in ‘consequence of the general unsuitableness of the season’ and instead they were postponed until the following March (Lyttelton Times, 20/12/1854: 5). As an alternative to the anniversary races, the C.J.C hosted a New Year’s Day race on their ‘new course’ on 1st January 1855 – utilising for the first time the racecourse at Riccarton (Lyttelton Times, 23/12/1854: 4).

Photograph of Phar Lap galloping in c.1920s. Image: Te Papa Tongarewa.

The C.J.C.’s first official race meeting was held at the Riccarton Racecourse in March 1855. The festivities comprised two days of events which included a hurdle race and races over a half mile, one mile, two miles, and three miles (Lyttelton Times, 17/2/1855: 1). The meeting was well patronised with attendance on the course being numerous (Lyttelton Times, 14/3/1855: 4). Since its inaugural race in 1855, the Riccarton Racecourse has continued to be the home of racing in Christchurch and since 1865 it has been the location of the annual New Zealand Cup race.

Map of the facilities at the Riccarton Racecourse in 1939. Image: Evening Post, 5/8/1939: 22

Just as it had been predicted in 1851, the formation of the Canterbury Jockey Club and the establishment of horse racing in Christchurch stimulated the Canterbury economy. The breeding of thoroughbred racehorses was quickly taken up, and numerous advertisements for stud horses of fine racing lineage began to appear in the local newspapers.

Advertisement to stud the well-known thoroughbred horse Joe Miller (Lyttelton Times, 20/10/1855: 2)

Auction houses were also erected for the specific purpose of selling horses. David Barnard had constructed his horse repository on Cashel Street (near the corner of High Street) by the beginning of 1863 (Press, 3/1/1863: 6). Within three years Barnard had erected a specialised area within the auction house specifically for the sale of racehorses which he called “the Christchurch Tattersall’s” (Lyttelton Times, 8/6/1866: 2). The name Tattersall’s persisted, and the Tattersall’s auction houses remained a fixture on Cashel Street until the 1930s. Barnard’s horse repository also became closely linked with the Canterbury Jockey Club, with the club using the premises as its club rooms for a number of years (Lyttelton Times, 17/7/1865: 2). A description printed in the Lyttelton Times in December 1865 indicates just how popular and well patronised the horse bazaar was:

It is well known that at Barnard’s repository thousands almost congregate every Saturday. It is the Christchurch fair, where all classes, high and low, rich and poor, are to be found. Horse dealers, horse buyers, horse sellers, and horse breakers are always to be found here (Press, 14/12/1865: 3).

Photograph of Tattersall’s horse bazaar (originally Barnard’s repository) on Cashel Street in the c.1880s. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.

Back in 2014, we excavated part of the site of Tattersall’s horse bazaar, and while we didn’t find remains associated with the bazaar itself, we did uncover a cellar structure which you can read about here.

With horses playing such a big part of everyday life in 19th century Canterbury, it is no surprise that horses appear in the archaeological record. Horseshoes are ubiquitous on every site, which attests to the ubiquitous nature of horses as the primary source of labour and transport prior to automation [1].  I’m reminded of the ‘Great horse manure crisis of 1894‘, the notion that in the late 19th century the issue of removing horse manure from the street was one of the major issues facing urban transport and development. To remove the manure, you’d need to bring in more horse and carts to remove it, which just produces more manure! It’s horse manure all the way down!

Anyway, we also find the remains of horse bridles, yokes, and other accoutrements, further attesting to the primary role of our equine accomplices in hauling everything (including their own manure) that the fledgling city of Christchurch needed.

Horse workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your yokes!

Toy horses have always been popular, and we find these on sites as well.

Toy horse (left ) and horse shoe (right). Image K. Bone.

The remains of the horses themselves are also relatively common. Less so than sheep, pig, or cattle, but isolated horse bones are often parts of an assemblage, likely the remains of some butchered for dog feed. On occasion we find whole skeletons, not of racehorses, but likely of work horses submitted to the earth for their final rest.

Horse skeletons found associated with a stable at the Isaac Theatre Royal Site (left) and at in a farming context at Redcliffs (right)[2].

A selection of ceramics showing horse imagery.

And in the very end…

Early 20th century Gloy Glue pot. Image: J. Garland. To read more about 19th century glue, see here.

Lydia Mearns


[1] Ed – Unfortunately, by nature of being excavated, any luck contained therein these shoes has already slipped out.

[2] Ed – Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity