“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words” -Alfred Charles Barker and his photography

When it comes to researching properties and places around Christchurch, we historians review and compare a wide range of resources in order to figure out exactly what was happening there during the 19th century. By far one of the most valuable resources we have are photographs – as the saying goes: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to early photographs of Christchurch, there is one man to whom we are forever indebted: Dr Alfred Charles Barker (1819-1873). So, this week on the blog we thought we would give a wee overview of Dr Barker’s life in Christchurch and some of the amazing photographs that make up his legacy.

Photograph of Alfred Charles Barker with his camera in 1864. Image:Canterbury Museum, 1864.

The Barker family arrived in Canterbury on board the Charlotte Jane in December 1850, and Dr Barker was among the first colonists to come ashore. Barker selected Town Sections 717 and 718 (located on the northeast corner of Worcester Street and Oxford Terrace) as the site for his family home. In preparation for the family’s departure to New Zealand, Barker had purchased a consignment of timber with which to build a dwelling. But upon his arrival in the colony, he found that his timber had been sold. As an alternative, Barker purchased the studding sail from the Charlotte Jane and used it to construct a dwelling for his family on Town Sections 717 and 718. This early dwelling was affectionately known as Studdingsail Hall. Barker did a good deal of sketching during his first years of settlement in Canterbury, and some of his earliest sketches provide views of the exterior and interior of Studdingsail Hall. The outdoor stove being tended by the women on the righthand side of the sketch is also believed to a cooking stove taken from the Charlotte Jane (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124).

Sketch by Dr Barker in January 1851, showing the Barker family’s first dwelling ‘Studdingsail Hall’. Image: Alfred Barker, 1851.

The Barker family’s residence was in close proximity to Christchurch’s earliest public building, the Land Office, which was located on the opposite side of Oxford Terrace, where the Municipal Chambers building currently stands. As such, the Barker’s home witnessed a number of important public events in the history of the fledgling township. For example, when rural land was first made available for selection by the Canterbury pilgrims in February 1851, large crowds gathered around the Land Office building and the Barker family provided hospitality to those who gathered. The Lyttelton Times records:

Dr Barker’s tent, which stands immediately opposite the land office, and is constructed of an immense studding-sail, formerly belonging to the “Charlotte Jane,” was remarkable for its seasonable hospitality (Lyttelton Times, 22/2/1851: 5).

Dr Barker was Christchurch’s first doctor, making Studdingsail Hall Christchurch’s earliest medical surgery. His practice is known to have been innovative, with Dr Barker being an early adopter of chloroform as an anaesthetic during surgery, as well as designing and building his own steam bath (Turner, 1990). Barker’s tent does not appear to have remained long on the property before he replaced or converted it into a more substantial timber dwelling. A sketch drawn by Barker in December 1852, shows the Barker family’s timber dwelling standing on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Worcester Street.

Detail from a photograph of Alfred Barker’s 1852 sketch of Christchurch, showing the Barker family’s timber dwelling (red arrow). Image: New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, 1897.

Dr Barker’s early sketches of Christchurch show his artistic side, but it was not until 1856-1857 that he discovered what would be his lifelong artistic passion: photography. It is not clear exactly when Barker was first introduced to photography, but he is believed to have been taught the art by his friend Benjamin Mountfort, who was himself advertising as a portraiture photographer from April 1857 (Lyttelton Times, 7/3/1857: 9; MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124). Photography itself appears to have begun to take off in Christchurch in 1857, with the Lyttelton Times proclaiming in May 1857:

Photography has broken out like an epidemic among us. Quite unknown in the place a year ago, we have now a professional artist well known in the northern provinces, and another on the point of coming; two students practising the art, and, we believe, one amateur. Canterbury will now be able to look itself straight in the face (Lyttelton Times, 9/5/1857: 7).

It is possible that Dr Barker was the ‘amateur’ mentioned by the Lyttelton Times, but despite his amateur status, Barker appears to have been infatuated with the artform and began dedicating much of his time to his new hobby. It did not take long for Dr Barker to start losing interest in his medical practice, and by the end of 1858 he had given it up entirely (Turner, 1990). As photography had only just reached Christchurch in 1857, he had to get creative to obtain the equipment he needed. He is said to have built a camera from a tea chest lined with paper and with a lens barrel made from a large empty pill box whose lid was used as a combined lens hood and shutter (Early Canterbury Photography, 2008). When he couldn’t get his hands on the glass he required, he was known to cut panes of glass from his windows to make wet plates, and when he couldn’t get hold of the necessary gold and silver salts used in the photographic process, he use to melt down sovereigns, silverware, and cutlery to make his own (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124). He even cut his own paper and treated it with egg white (Early Canterbury Photography, 2008). Many of Barker’s early photographs are domestic images – portraiture of his family and friends around his home and garden – and so he constructed a dark room in his home on Worcester Street in which to develop these domestic images (Turner, 1990).

Photograph of the Barker family playing croquet at their home in Worcester Street in the 1860s. Image: Alfred Barker, 1860s.

Photograph looking west along Worcester Street in 1872, showing Dr Alfred Barker’s house. Image: Alfred Barker, 1872.

It was not long before Dr Barker began to adventure out to take photographs around the Christchurch township and further afield. As the wet plate process required the images to be developed almost immediately after taking the photograph, he constructed a four wheeled buggy with a dark room on the back so that he could develop his plates wherever he might be. One story told is that when Barker was processing photographs in his mobile dark room in Sumner, the horse was startled and took off with him trapped inside. When the horse was finally recovered, he emerged looking like a Dalmatian dog covered with blotches of nitrate of silver (MacDonald, 1952-1964: B124).

Photograph of Dr Alfred Charles Barker and his homemade photographic trap in April 1869. Image: Alfred Barker, 1869.

Photograph of Dr Alfred Charles Baker at Cave Rock in Sumner with his photographic trap in 1867. Image: Alfred Baker, 1867.

Dr Barker’s extensive portfolio of photographs taken throughout his life has become a significant source of information for researching early Canterbury. Some of his most valuable images are the early photographs of Christchurch, which show how much the settlement has grown from a small timber township to a thriving city.

Photograph looking northeast towards the Victoria Street bridge in 1860. Image: Alfred Barker, 1860.

Photograph looking south over Cathedral Square on Market Day in 1871. Image: Alfred Barker, 1871.

Photograph looking along High Street in 1872, Image: Alfred Barker, 1872.

Dr Barker died at his Worcester Street residence in March 1873 (Lyttelton Times, 21/3/1873: 3). Shortly after his death, the Barker family moved away from the property, and the family’s household furniture and goods were sold off (Lyttleton Times, 16/4/1873: 4). Dr George Lilly Mellish temporarily took up occupation in Barker’s former premises, but in July 1878 the trustees of Barker’s estate decided to remove the house from the property (Press, 2/7/1878: 4). Dr Barker’s house was purchased for removal by Mr. Furhmann in July 1878, and was finally removed from the section in February 1879 (Lyttelton Times, 20/2/1879: 4; Press, 19/7/1878: 2). A photograph taken from the spire of the Cathedral in early 1881, shows Dr Barker’s former property after the removal of his house and garden.

Photograph looking west from the Cathedral’s spire in 1881 showing no buildings present on Dr Barker’s former property. Image: Wheeler and Son, 1881.

While Dr Barker’s photographs are an amazing resource for researchers today, they are not the only material left behind by photographers for us to view. The photographic process requires all manner of equipment, chemicals, and other sundries in order to produce an image, and these items also come to form part of the material culture of early Christchurch. Unfortunately to date, we have not encountered any of Dr Barker’s photographic equipment, but our archaeologists have encountered other examples of photograph material from time to time.

When excavating a site occupied by Mr Samuel Charles Louis Lawrence, photographer, in Oxford Terrace in 2013, out team encountered the usual material culture relating to Lawrence’s occupation of the property in the 1860s and 1870s: tea and table wares, food containers, alcohol bottles, personal hygiene items, pharmaceutical bottles, smoking pipes and shoes. But among these typical items, our team also found evidence of Lawrence’s photographic pursuits – a bottle made by R. W. Thomas who made all manner of chemicals and other sundries used in the practice of photography  – Check out the full blog on Lawrence’s site here.

R. W. Thomas bottle from the site on Oxford Terrace. R. W. Thomas operated as a photographic merchant from 1851 until 1894, becoming R. W. Thomas & Co. and then R. W. Thomas & Co. Ltd in the 1880s. Thomas sold all manner of photographic equipment, from dry plates, dark tents and cameras to the chemicals and products necessary for the development of the photographs. Image: J. Garland.

When excavating a well in Invercargill’s CBD a few years ago, our New Zealand Heritage Properties partners encountered a wide range of photographic equipment relating to a photographic studio which occupied the site during the early 20th century. The material includes parts of a wooden camera, bottles which held ink, glue, lubricating oil (possibly for the camera parts), and mascara (theorised to have been used for editing photographs as Victorian and Edwardian formulas generally consisted of coal and petroleum jelly, providing a thicker consistency than many inks), and glass plates (Check out the excavation here).

Timber camera components. (A) front and back of handmade camera component. (B) shutter mechanism closed (left) and open (right). (C) part of shutter mechanism. (D) front standard. (F) bone page turner/spatula. Image: N. Woods.

Selection of photography related glass vessels and blank plates in two sizes and materials (glass and porcelain). Bottles clockwise from top left: oval cross section bottle, ink, square cross section bottle, perfume/mascara bottle, cobalt blue chemical bottle top and small phial. Image: N. Woods.

Photography came early to Christchurch, with a number of studios being established from 1857. But one of the earliest and most dedicated amateur photographers was Dr Alfred Charles Barker, who took numerous shots around Canterbury between 1857 and 1873. His legacy of photographs is one of the most valuable resources we have to view early Christchurch, and we researchers are forever indebted to him. Thousands of his photographs are available to view on the Canterbury Museum website and we encourage you to check them out! But it is not just the photographs themselves which our early photographers have left behind, but also a unique material culture of photographic equipment that we are looking forward to uncovering more of in the future.

Lydia Mearns

The Christchurch Public Library

When you take a walk or drive around a city, certain buildings often stand out as recognisable landmarks. Sometimes it’s because of their distinctive architecture, their height or size, or their location, and sometimes it is because of nostalgic memories you associated with it. As a result of the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes, Christchurch lost a number of its recognisable building landmarks around the city. While many of these buildings were readily identifiable to Cantabrians who frequented the city prior to the quakes, not all of us know the story of how they came to be. Today on the blog we are outlining the process by which one of the Christchurch’s most recognisable former public buildings – the Christchurch Public Library – came to be constructed during the 19th century and early 20th centuries.

Photograph looking west towards the former Christchurch City Library building located on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, 2023.

When the city of Christchurch was surveyed into town sections and reserves by the Canterbury Association’s surveyor, Edward Jollie, in 1850, the land that would later become the site of the Public Library was surveyed as Town Sections 405 and 406.

Detail from Jollie’s 1850 map of Christchurch showing future Public Library property surveyed as Town Sections 405 and 406. Image: Jollie, 1850.

Charles Thomas Maunsell, one of the original subscribers of the Canterbury Association, owned Town Sections 405 and 406 between 1851 and 1863 but did not develop the sections during his ownership. Fooks’ 1862 map of Christchurch shows no buildings present on Town Sections 405 or 406.

Detail from Fooks’ 1862 map of Christchurch showing no buildings present within Town Sections 405 and 406. Image: Fooks, 1862.

The Christchurch Mechanics’ Institute purchased Town Sections 405 and 406 in July 1863. Mechanics’ Institutes were educational organisations established for the purpose of disseminating knowledge on a wide variety of topics through lectures and libraries. The Christchurch Mechanics’ Institute had been established in 1859. They initially utilised premises within the Town Hall, but they always intended to obtain premises of their own (Lyttelton Times, 21/5/1859: 4, 1/6/1859: 4, 15/6/1859: 4, 9/11/1859: 3). When the Provincial Council granted the Mechanics’ Institute £250 in 1862, they were able to purchase Town Sections 405 and 406 for the sum of £262 10s (Lyttelton Times, 7/12/1861: 4, 9/7/1862: 4).

Having secured a building site, the Mechanics’ Institute utilised the common practice of holding an architectural competition to find a suitable design for a building. From December 1862 to January 1863, they advertised for competitive designs for a building to be erected on their recently acquired site, with £20 to be the prize for the winning entry and £10 for second place (Press, 13/12/1862: 10). The competition was won by Christchurch architect, Samuel Charles Farr, whose offices were located in Lichfield Street (Lyttelton Times, 5/8/1863: 3). Farr had spent the previous twelve years in Akaroa, before coming to Christchurch in 1862. The Mechanics’ Institute is believed to be the first building Farr designed when he moved to Christchurch.

Farr advertised for tenders to construct the Mechanics’ Institute building according to his designs in February 1863 (Press, 14/2/1863: 7). The tender for the construction of the building was won by local builders, Augustus Balcke and Daniel Brouard, for the sum of £1169 (Lyttelton Times, 5/8/1863: 3). Balcke and Brouard worked on a number of prominent construction jobs in Christchurch during the 1860s, including Matson and Torlesses stone buildings in Cathedral Square, Kiver’s stone buildings in Cashel Street, and Church of St John the Baptist in Latimer Square (Lyttelton Times, 12/11/1864: 11, 13/4/1865: 5, 14/7/1865: 7).

At the fourth annual meeting of the Mechanics’ Institute in early August 1863, it was reported that the new building was rapidly advanced toward completion, with the hope that by 1st of September it would be ready for occupation (Lyttelton Times, 5/8/1863: 3). By the following month the building was completed, and the Mechanics’ Institute held their first meeting in their new building to consider a general statement of the affairs of the Institute (Lyttelton Times, 9/9/1863: 3). The requisite books and papers were then placed on the shelves in the new premises, and finally, in October 1863, the Mechanics’ Institute’s new reading room was opened to its various members (Lyttelton Times, 31/10/1863: 5). A photograph taken from late 1863 shows the Mechanics’ Institute building present on Town Section 406 fronting on Hereford Street. The building was somewhat plain in design, resembling a dwelling house more than a public institution, but the link dormer and rounded hood windows add a touch of elegance to the otherwise plain building.

Photograph looking north to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street in c.1863, showing the Hereford Street frontage of the original Mechanics’ Institute building on Town Section 406. Image:Hocken Collections, c.1863.

The ‘Christchurch Mechanics’ Institute’ changed their name to the ‘Christchurch Literary Institute’ in January 1868 (Press, 9/1/1868: 2). Dartnell’s 1868 map of Christchurch shows the ‘L’ shaped footprint of the newly renamed Literary Institute’s building present on Town Section 406. A photograph taken some time after January 1868, shows a sign displaying the new ‘Literary Institute’ name on the side of the 1863 building.

Detail from Dartnell’s 1868 map of Christchurch showing the footprint of the Literary Institute building present on Town Sections 405 and 406. Image: Dartnell, 1868.

Photograph looking north to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street after 1868, showing a sign baring the building’s new name ‘Literary Institute’. Image: Wilson, 1982.

The Canterbury Provincial Council were seriously discussing the need to establish a free public library in Christchurch in 1873 (Lyttelton Times, 3/5/1873: 3). The public were quick to support the idea, and by May of that year private promotors had already raised more than £600 in subscriptions for the purchase of books for the proposed project. The Literary Institute were also in favour of the proposal, and they entered into negotiations with the Council to hand over ownership of the Literary Institute building and premises for the purpose (Press, 29/5/1873: 2). The Council placed the sum of £5,000 in their budget and drafted the Canterbury Public Library Act, 1873 for the purpose of purchasing the Literary Institute’s premises (Press, 14/11/1873: 2). By the end of 1873, the Council had successfully negotiated the purchase of Town Sections 405 and 406 and the associated literary buildings (Lyttelton Times, 24/12/1873: 3). The Canterbury Provincial Council placed the management of the newly acquired Public Library premises under the authority of the newly established Canterbury College Board of Governors at the beginning of 1874. The Canterbury College Board of Governors would continue to manage the public library premises and facilities for the next seventy years.

The reading room in the new Public Library was opened to the public in January 1874 (Press, 13/1/1874: 2). The library’s lending services took a further month to prepare before they were ready for the public, as the Board of Governors needed to take stock of and catalogue their new inventory (Press, 30/1/1874: 2). Finally, on 7th February 1874, the Board of Governors published their rules for lending books and the full functionality of the Public Library was made available to the public.

The Canterbury Public Library’s rules first printed in the Press in February 1874.

It was not long after the Board of Governors took over management of the Public Library in January 1874, that they began discussing the need to provide additional facilities on the premises (Press, 30/1/1874: 2). The Board requested four well-known local architects (William Armson, Samuel Farr, Benjamin Mountfort and Frederick Strouts) to submit designs for a new building in April 1874, with the sum of £15 to be paid to each of the architects for the designs they furnished (Lyttelton Times, 1/5/1874: 3). The Board accepted William Armson’s design on the condition that a few modifications were made in July 1874 (Press, 10/7/1874: 2). Armson’s appointment was not without its controversy. Firstly, because he had handed in his initial design after the specified deadline, and secondly, because it was over a year before the Board and architect could finalise the design and associated building costs (Lyttelton Times, 19/7/1875: 3, 15/9/1875: 2; Press, 10/7/1874: 2). But, in September 1875, the Board finally approved Armson’s design for a simple brick and stone building that was to be connected to the extant 1863 library building by a wooden corridor. A detailed description of the building was provided in the Star later that month:


The new building is to be erected thirty-four feet North of the present one, the two being connected by a covered corridor built of wood and 7ft 6in wide. In the centre of the corridor and fronting on Cambridge Terrace, there will be an ornamental porch to serve as the entrance to both the new and old buildings. The visitor, on entering the porch, by turning to the left, will gain admission to the old building through the present doorway, or by turning to the right will gain admission to the new building. The latter, it may be said, is to be 60ft x 40ft in the clear, with a space of 20 ft from floor to ceiling. The front elevation looks on to Cambridge Terrace, and has a triple light window in the centre, with a single one on each side. The windows have stone sills, arches, and mullions, the latter having carved capitals and bases of the same material. These with a stone cornice, on which the words “Public Library” are to be carved, will form a pleasant contrast with the brickwork of the walls (Star, 16/9/1875: 2).

Architectural plan showing the proposed extension to the Public Library premises in 1875. Image: Armson, 1875.

Architectural plan showing the proposed extension to the Public Library premises (right) in relation to the existing 1863 building (left). Image:Armson, 1875.

Tenders were called for the construction of the new Public Library building designed by Armson in September 1875, and the tender of Joseph Wood for just under £4000 was accepted by the following month (Press, 17/9/1875: 4). Wood lost no time in making a start on the construction of the building, and by June 1876 it was noted to be ‘fast approaching a state of completion’ (Lyttelton Times, 14/6/1876: 2). In December 1876 that the Board finally took possession of the premises and began moving the designated books and periodicals from the old library premises into the new building Press, 15/12/1876: 2).

The new Public Library premises was opened to the public on 28th December 1876 (Press, 28/12/1876: 2). Strouts’ 1877 map of Christchurch shows the footprint of the original 1863 portion of the library and the 1876 extension present on the property. A photograph said to have been taken in 1897 (but likely taken prior to 1893) shows the 1863 timber portion of the library and the 1876 brick extension present on the property at this time, connected by the timber corridor and porch fronting Cambridge Terrace. Armson’s design was in the Venetian Gothic style, with red brick walls set with bands of contrasting glazed brick and decorative roundels. The French pavilion roof was capped by a ventilator turret and wrought-iron cresting. Although the red brick was somewhat austere in its appearance the decorative roundels, the pointed sash windows with stripped voussoirs, and the detailed turret, gave the building an inviting and unique appearance which would be easily recognised by visitors for generations to come.

Detail from Strouts’ 1877 map of Christchurch showing the footprint of the two phases of the Public Library building (indicated with dashed lines) present on Town Sections 405 and 406. The third building on the property is the Librarian’s House. Image:Strouts, 1877.

Photograph looking northwest to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street in c.1897, showing the original 1863 Literary Institute building fronting Hereford Street and the 1876 brick addition on the right. Image:Christchurch City Libraries, 1897.

The building premises constructed in 1863 and 1876 continued to provide ample space for housing the Public Library until the early 1890s, by which time the accommodation was beginning to be inadequate for the growing collection of books (Lyttelton Times, 11/7/1893: 2; Star, 9/12/1893: 6). In 1892 alone the library reported adding over 1087 books to their collection (Lyttelton Times, 30/1/1893: 4). The need for additional space was apparent, and the Board of Governors approved a design by the architectural firm of Collins and Harman for an additional building to be added to the premises in March 1893 (Lyttelton Times, 28/3/1893: 2). Collins and Harman, being the architects for the new addition, appears to have been an organic choice for the Board, as the firm had originally been started by the Boards’ former architect of choice, William Armson, who had employed John James Collins in 1871. Following Armson’s death in 1883, Collins took over the firm and brought Richard Harman into partnership in 1885. Collins and Harman continued to be the Board of Governors choice of architectural firm for several decades into the 20th century (University of Canterbury, 2023). Collins and Harman designed a rectangular brick building with concrete foundation that connected into the southwest corner of Armson’s 1876 building. The building was in the Neo-Gothic style, which reiterated some of the materials and motifs of Armson’s 1876 building.

Architectural plan showing the addition of a reference library in the southwest corner of the library complex in 1893. Image:Collins and Harman, 1893.

Tenders were called for the construction of Collins and Harman’s additional wing in April 1893, and a tender for £684 was accepted the following month (Lyttelton Times, 14/4/1893: 8, 30/5/1893: 2). The new building was to function as the library’s ‘Reference Library’. Formerly, Armson’s 1876 building had functioned as both the library’s ‘Reference Library’ and its ‘Circulating Library’, with the building being divided in the middle to create two separate areas. The addition of a separate building to house the library’s reference collection, meant that Armson’s 1876 building could be altered to allow for the circulating collection to utilise the full space of the older building with the room divider removed and the building redecorated (Lyttelton Times, 11/7/1893: 2). The additional building was completed in December 1893, at which time a description of the building was provided in the Star:


The reference library […] is newly erected. It is 49ft x 31ft, the walls 25ft high, with an open roof with varnished beams and timbers and lit by six large skylights. It has 1500ft of shelving, with accommodation for about 10,000 volumes. These shelves are in cases about 8ft high, so made that at some future time a gallery may be built round the room. They are arranged in the alcove system, and the necessity for the old objectionable, noisy ladder-steps exists no more. The room is warmed by an extension of the hot air pipe system by which the other room is heated. Gas is laid on and fourteen burners give ample light during the evening. In the centre of the room large tables are arranged, on which magazines, art journals, musical periodicals, &c, are laid. It will be seen that in both rooms there is ample space for the number of books which are being constantly added to the libraries (Star, 9/12/1893: 6).


As the new building was located at the rear of the two early buildings, very few contemporary photographs could be found showing the 1893 addition. However, a photograph taken from the Hereford Street bridge in c.1895 shows the corner of the new brick building peeking out from behind the 1863 timber building and connecting into the 1876 building. The three connected buildings which made up the Public Library premises (constructed in 1863, 1876, and 1893 respectively) continued to be utilised for the remainder of the 19th century.

Photograph looking northwest to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street in c.1895, showing a small portion of the brick addition constructed at the rear of the Public Library premises in 1893 (red arrow). Image: Hocken Collections, c.1895.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Board of Governors were already discussing the need to make considerable additions and alterations to the Public Library premises (Press, 14/6/1900: 4, 25/9/1900: 2). Collins and Harman were again called upon to design additional building premises for the library. They designed a new reading room along with additional librarian’s office and rooms which were to replace the older 1863 portion of the extant buildings as well as the wooden corridor and porch that had been constructed to connect the older building to the 1876 Armson building. It is interesting to note that the Collins and Harman’s plan included the option to extend the building along the full Hereford Street frontage at a later date.

Architectural plan showing the proposed new Reading Room in the southeast corner of the library complex in 1901. Image:Collins and Harman, 1901.

Tenders were called for the construction of the new building designed by Collins and Harman in April 1901, and the tender of Andrew Swanston for £4307 was accepted the following month (Lyttelton Times, 26/3/1902: 3; Press, 23/4/1901: 2). As the new building was to replace the old 1863 building and adjoining porch, the wooden buildings and their stone foundations were sold at auction in June 1901 and they realised the sum of £80 3s 5d (Lyttelton Times, 14/6/1901: 8; Press, 28/5/1901: 2). Although the old building had been simple in its design and had by no means been considered an imposing structure, it had stood on the property for thirty-eight years (a long time in a young colonial town) and was already considered by many of the public as an “old land-mark” (Lyttelton Times, 18/6/1901: 3). However, the public do not appear to have been particularly upset about the loss of the old building (especially after significant rot was found during its demolition) and instead appear to have been eagerly anticipating the new structure (Star, 25/6/1901: 3). The wooden buildings were required to be removed from the premises by the 1st July 1901, by which time the library was renting a room across the road to act as a reading room until the new building was completed (Lyttelton Times, 26/3/1902: 3).

Once the old buildings were removed, Swanston quickly got underway with the construction of the new building and by March 1902 the Board of Governors were indicating the building was approaching completion (Lyttelton Times, 26/3/1902: 3). The building was officially opened on 1st May 1902 (Star, 2/5/1902: 1). A photograph taken in 1904, shows the new brick building standing on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace. Part of the 1876 Armson building is visible on the right-had-side of the photo, and part of the 1893 building on the left-hand-side. The new building was designed in the Neo-Gothic style and reiterated some of the materials and motifs of Armson’s earlier 1876 building. Unlike the old wooden building, the new building was visually striking and ornate. The contrast of the red brick and white Oamaru stone gave the building a bright and distinctive pattern, and the conical pinnacles and pyramidal turrets added an imposing height. The new Public Library was a building Cantabrians could be proud of, and it appears that the premises were well patronised with the Christchurch Library estimated to have had about 800 more subscribers than any other similar institution in the country (Lyttelton Times, 14/4/1902: 3).

Photograph looking northwest to the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street in 1904, showing the newly constructed reading room building at the Public Library premises. Image:Kinnear, 1904.

When Collins and Harman had designed the new reading room building in 1901, they had included on their architectural plans the option to extend the new building into the southwest corner of the property along the Hereford Street frontage. By 1922 the Board of Governors were ready to construct a new building in this location, and called upon Collins and Harman to design it (Press, 27/6/1922: 11, 26/9/1922: 4, 20/10/1922: 10, 28/11/1922: 5). The plans they produced in January 1923 allowed for the construction of a new juvenile library department and an extension of the reference library wing.

Architectural plan showing the proposed new children’s library and reference library extension in the southwest corner of the library complex in 1923. Image: Collins and Harman, 1923.

Tenders were called for the construction of the new children wing of the library in February 1923, and the tender of Mr H. Hinkey was accepted by the following October (Press, 24/2/1923: 18, 18/10/1923: 4). Hinkey made good progress with the construction of the building, and by March 1924 it was reported that the roof was being added to the new building and the floors constructed (Press, 20/3/1924: 4). The building was far enough advanced by October for the children’s books and the reference collection to begin their migration into the new premises (Press, 1/10/1924: 5, 29/10/1924: 12). The building was complete by November 1924, at which time a description of the premises was provided in the Press:


The new juvenile library, which is divided from the old portion of the building by means of a leadlight screen, is 42ft by 32ft. Directly above it is a lecture hall of the same size. At the rear of these rooms a reference library extends 31ft on either floor […] Like the old, the new portion has been erected of brick, with Oamaru stone facings, a bluestone base, and slate roof (Press, 25/11/1924: 8).


The new children’s wing and reference Library was officially opened on 3rd December 1924 (Star, 4/12/1924: 7). In contrast to their usual neo-Gothic architectural design, Collins and Harman had instead designed what would become known as an “interwar commercial classical building” with the only hint of Gothic being the use of the vestigial flattened Tudor arch. However, the use of the same brick and limestone palate as the 1901 building ensured a continuity with the older sections of the premises.

Photograph looking north, showing the Hereford Street frontage of the 1924 children’s wing of the Public Library. Image:Cafe Cecil, 2005.

Aerial imagery from 1973 shows the building complex present on the premises at this time, with the four phases of construction dating from 1876 to 1924. These buildings continued to function as Christchurch’s Public Library until the early 1980s, by which time the requirements of the library had exhausted the available space within the old buildings (Press, 2/1/1981: 10). When the decision was made to construct new buildings in Gloucester Street, there were many in Christchurch who were outraged at the thought of the old buildings being demolished and they began campaigning to have the landmark buildings preserved (Press, 18/7/1980: 10, 25/7/1980: 12). When the City Council opened new library facilities in Gloucester Street in 1982, the library facilities were removed from the Cambridge Terrace premises.

Aerial imagery from 1973, showing the Public Library premises on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street. The construction dates of the extant phases of the building complex are indicated in red. Image: LINZ, 1973.

Following the removal of the library facilities from the premises, the construction firm Paynter and Hamilton Ltd purchased Town Sections 405 and 406 in 1982 and made alterations to the former library buildings to allow for the use of the buildings as separate offices. The actions of Paynter and Hamilton were praised by public who were keen to have the buildings preserved and the “site’s interesting links with the literary and architectural tastes – and politics – of colonial Christchurch maintained” (Press, 2/1/1981: 10, 5/3/1981: 30, 1/8/1981: 16). The architectural and historical value of the buildings was also recognised by Heritage New Zealand and the Christchurch District Council who both recorded the buildings as sites of significance. Although no longer used as public library premises, the buildings continued to be a landmark for those in the city, not only for their distinctive architectural design but also for the nostalgic reminiscences which the buildings evoked – with one visitor to the buildings noting they were “haunted by the ghosts of thousands of overdue library books” (Press, 8/12/1982: 38).

The buildings continued to be utilised as offices until they were irrevocably damaged during the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes. After standing on the site for 135 years, the former Christchurch Public Library buildings were required to be removed and Christchurch lost one of its recognisable landmarks. Prior to their demolition the damaged buildings were recorded by Underground Overground Archaeology and hopefully the information gained about the old historic buildings during this process will be the topic of a future blog.

Photograph looking northwest towards the former Public Library buildings in March 2011, showing some of the damage sustained during the 2010/2011 Canterbury earthquakes. Image: Kenney, 2011.

The former Public Library buildings on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace were a recognisable landmark within Christchurch for 148 years. The distinctive red and white patterns and the ornate decoration of the blended design styles made the buildings stand out from their surroundings. But these distinctive buildings did not just appear overnight, they were constructed over time to meet the literary needs of the colonial township. They made an important contribution to the identity and sense of place and history for those Cantabrians who frequented the premises, while the blended architectural designs show the changes in tastes and available funding for public institutions during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the demolition of the buildings after the 2010-2011 earthquakes resulted in the loss of one of the city’s landmarks, the currently empty site offers an opportunity to develop new and distinctive buildings which may become future landmarks for the city, and we look forward to seeing what comes next.

Lydia Mearns


Wilson, P. R., 1982. The architecture of Samuel Charles Farr, 1827-1918. [Thesis] University of Canterbury: Master of Arts in Art History.


Theo Schoon- the matter of interpretation

Oh hi – if you are an avid reader of our blog a couple (ok a few) years ago one of our historians (me) went rogue writing about the artistic life of Tony Fomison – who was known as an archaeologist amongst the said historian’s archaeology peers. Amongst the tangent of found art and ramblings of an avid fan, mention was made of a very polarizing individual, Theo Schoon, who crossed paths and opinions with Fomison and pretty much everyone else. Such was the topic of Schoon that it was worthy of its own blog post, and a promise was wildly made to said colleagues. Well folks, here is the promise fulfilled; another art/archaeology crossover special – this time a controversial tale of a colonial childhood, a misaligned love of art form that resulted in cultural appropriation, and a white saviour mentality only to be topped off by a perceived bitter rejection. I know it sounds grim, but read on, these topics are relevant in our current climate and form a delicate balancing act, reflecting on our past to improve our future. For this blog post, we will be focusing on the archaeology lens of Schoon the polymath.

But before we ‘dig’ into the archaeology, here is a quick summary of the life and times of Theodorus Johannes Schoon (1915-1985) #youalwaysneedcontext. Schoon was of Dutch heritage and was born in Kebumen, Java, Dutch East Indies (which would become known as Indonesia). Schoon grew up as the child of a Dutch civil servant and, as a result, was educated alongside the children of Javanese nobility. It was within this environment that Schoon learnt classical Javanese dance. The Javanese way of life would permeate into many aspects of Schoon’s life as an adult. Schoon’s education continued in the Netherlands where he attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts during the 1930s (Skinner, 2000). Schoon returned to Java in 1936, establishing a studio creating photographic folios of the local environment, people and their lifestyles. In 1939 Schoon’s family immigrated to New Zealand, and Theo, aged 23, followed his family to New Zealand where they settled in Christchurch. Schoon ensconced himself into the New Zealand art world, briefly attending Canterbury University College School of Art, before a move to Wellington in 1941. If you imagine the art world that Schoon entered, you would have seen Schoon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rita Angus, what we know as ‘The Group’ or ‘Bloomsbury South’, Gordon Walters, and Dennis Knight Turner (Skinner, 2000).

Portrait of Theo Schoon posed and wearing a Balinese costume. Image: Spencer Digby Studios, 1943.

The year 1946 brings us to our lens, a time and place of discovery for Schoon, and it is here where Schoon’s upbringing within the Javanese culture (albeit with a colonial perspective) and art education would colour his approach to and interpretation of his exposure to Māori rock shelter drawings. The Māori rock art would leave a permanent impression on Schoon, who recognised the significance of the work much earlier than many Pākehā, and for that we should acknowledge Schoon, but that of course comes with a caveat.

Cue Damien Skinner, biographer of Schoon. It is a role that Skinner is especially well equipped for; as a researcher and writer Skinner is acutely aware of the responsibility of reformatting Pākehā thinking. To quote: “I would call it decolonisation. Schoon is my problem” (Lopesi, 2019).

In Skinner’s biography, Schoon’s first encounter with Māori rock shelter art was reading an article in the Journal of Polynesian Society by historian G. B. Stevenson from 1943, which noted rock drawings observed in the Waitaki Valley, Te Waipounamu (Skinner, 2018: 94). To preface this interest, you must note Schoon’s art education in Europe, which had included the African and Pacific art that inspired the development of art movements such as Cubism. Schoon, cognisant of this link, also knew that Māori rock drawings were somewhat underrepresented (at the time) in anthropology and archaeology. New Zealand artists were preoccupied with establishing a New Zealand style of art based on regionalism and a sense of local identity that still had roots in Europe’s art movements (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2012).

Schoon travelled to South Canterbury to see the drawings for himself. As luck would have it, earlier in 1945 Roger Duff, the ethnologist at Canterbury Museum, had very recently surveyed the rock drawings in the area and concluded that the drawings he had observed required accurate protection and recording in the form of site photos, drawings, and tracings (Skinner, 2018: 94-98). Enter the ubiquitous Theo Schoon with his uncanny knack (here I quote Anthony Bryt from 2019, call him a ‘Zelig’ if you like) to suddenly appear at the scene of an opportunity (Byrt, 2019).  As a result, Schoon was employed on a project where he travelled to Gordon’s Valley, South Canterbury, with Duff and recorded the drawings. The resulting copies were in oil on canvas boards. Duff was impressed with the faithfulness and accuracy of the works. This initial work acted as a segue to recording rock art in the South Canterbury region. Funding for eight weeks was provided by the Department of Internal Affairs and was endorsed by no other than William Vance, the local department officer and author of High Endeavour (ok I sense another blog post), and the works were to be supervised by the Canterbury Museum.

What could go wrong? Māori rock art around Aotearoa was being accurately recorded and catalogued, and the project was fine until some of the rock drawings got “schooned”… WTF? Schooned (McCulloch, 1985)? Yeah, that was me too… read on dear reader for the term “schooned” exists within a context… although I could coin the phrase “schooned” for use in many a situation. So, to provide you with the said “context” I will cast you back to Duff from the Canterbury Museum mentioning in his initial survey that the drawings required protection measures…

Imagine heraldic triumphant noises and in rides from stage left, Theo Schoon and his trusty box of crayons, ooh and some red raddle, why not…to retouch the rock drawings complete with a flourish of his signature… you may now facepalm. It is here that we can concede that the state of the drawings was subject to agricultural and environmental conditions (Skinner, 2018: 130). You could argue that retouching the work was an act of ‘preservation’, not unlike the processes in place by museums and art galleries maintaining the condition of their artefacts. The difference was a lone restorer (yes, I know you are thinking of the Ecce Homo fresco), not aware of his material impacts on the original drawing, and not to mention the most important factor, lack of consultation with local iwi and professionals. By 1946, Duff was overseeing Schoon’s work in South Canterbury and Duff’s field books record accounts of Schoon’s retouching. This was referred to in Fomison’s report to the New Zealand Archaeological Association regarding the topic of ‘Theo Schoon and the Retouching of Rock Art’ (Fomison, 1987). To be honest, the retouching was something that Duff also struggled with if his field books are anything to go by. In October 1946 Duff notes that in a ‘judicious restoration’ Schoon had brought to light a ‘previously scarcely recognisable figure’ of Gould’s Taniwha cave. By March 1947, Duff had not been in the field with Schoon for four months, and his take on Schoon’s flagrant ‘schooning’ had time for reflection. Fomision’s report recounts Duff asking Schoon not to restore any figures in the future. Fomison went on to say that the retouching of the work in ‘grease crayon’ had so far proved ‘irremovable’. The crayons used were black and a red raddle (for marking sheep) – despite the fact the rock art varied from a ‘near-purple’ through to the ochre ‘yellow-orange’ (Fomison, 1987; Skinner, 2018: 102). Schoon also did not attempt to cover mark for mark (well here you could argue ICOMOS principles that you can delineate between the original work and the assumed restoration…? No, Nah, didn’t think so). Fomison’s report recounted that the retouching work was done prior to the photography that was also used to record the drawings (Fomison, 1987).

“Birdmen,” a recreation of Maori rock drawings in Frenchman’s Gully, Pareora, by Theo Schoon, at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. Image: Press, 25/9/1985: 26.

It’s very conflicting stuff, right? Probably why it’s taken so long to write this blog (and my tendency to overthink things). Fomison’s report culminated in a description of a recorded interview of Schoon before he returned to Sydney for his final year . Fomison quipped:

‘In a matter of days, film footage and sound tapes had been used up; and Theo had picked enough fights to confirm his decision to return to Sydney, which he did.’

Schoon’s approach to recording and restoration was forthright, much like his approach to life in general. Schoon, I guess, held at one point a great certainty in himself and not much self-awareness, which I think enabled a type of clarity in his observations, especially that of Māori archaeology and art and its much-needed inclusion in the New Zealand narrative.’ (Skinner, 2018: 297).

By the 1960s, Fomison had become part of the emergence of recorded archaeology in New Zealand, surpassing Schoon’s efforts on a far more scientific level, with one very pointed observation that most of the Māori rock art was found not in caves but in undercuts/ledges in the bases of limestone bluffs (Skinner, 2018: 297). Schoon was given the chance to respond to Fomison’s findings and opinions on his preservation work, which was published in the New Zealand Archaeological Association Newsletter (it was edited as I guess you could imagine). Schoon acknowledged that the retouching was undesirable, but wetting the works did nothing to bring out the deteriorated drawings for the photography. Thus, Schoon stated that he resorted to retouching. Schoon was taking on a task that no one else was prepared to do, and he was willing to stand accused of vandalism if it meant some sort of record was preserved… #rescuearchaeology anyone (Skinner, 2018: 300)? It’s here I defer to one of my colleagues, the superstar archaeologist and inadvertent ‘found art’ artist T. Wadsworth, to explain that Schoon’s vandalism was also scientific:

“So we now have methods of analysing pigments and dating rock art based on charcoal content, but a recent study (O’Regan et al. 2019. Dating South Island Māori rock art: Pigment and pitfalls) found that Schoon’s retouching has resulted in false results and compromised such analysis. We also have new digital technology and better methods to record and identify faded rock art, which has also been complicated by Schoon’s retouching (pers comm. Wadsworth, 2023).”

Wadsworth’s morning teas have been exclusively photographed by A.E. Gibson as found art and have featured for the past three years on Instagram. Image: Gibson, 2021.

I guess the report and his rebuttal cemented Schoon’s malaise (well bitterness as the story goes) of New Zealand entirely, one of the final nails if you will (Skinner, 2018: 297). This negative perception of New Zealand blindsided his insight into Māori art. Schoon thought it should be preserved in time, and as such, his aggrieved conclusion of New Zealand did not account (or did he just not live long enough?) for Māori art to evolve into the current narrative, now firmly translated into New Zealand modernism. Sydney, Australia, was his next and final stop with his 34 boxes of possessions (Skinner, 2018: 300). It has to be noted that while Fomison’s account of Schoon’s interview in his report was articulate and focused on Schoon there was a typical artistic melee around the production of the audio and film. An ad hoc team assembled for the event at Fomison’s house, as Schoon’s accommodation was too small, but still, it was not a comfortable environment for the now-infirmed Schoon. In attendance were art historian Michael Dunn, John Edgar (stone carver) and David Simmons (anthropologist), all friends of Schoon and who managed to steer the conversation to bring out an informed and approachable flow. By Skinner’s account, this was interjected by a drunk foetal positioned Fomison and fellow (likely intoxicated) artist Allen Maddox playing stuck riffs of Jimi Hendrix records (Skinner, 2018: 300).

In Anthony Byrt’s review “Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon” of Skinner’s book as ‘a tortured biography’, Bryt’s opinion of Schoon is described as being ‘hinged on whether he’s master or mulch’ (Bryt, 2019).  I mentioned this in my last blog post in a more measured account… In Skinner’s biography, Schoon’s achievements in championing others are highlighted as are his drawing attention to traditional Māori art forms (rock drawing and gourd carving) for a ‘new New Zealand art’. Byrt sees Skinner’s struggle to navigate all the positives that Schoon’s perceptive eye was capable of uncovering only for Schoon to obfuscate it all with his infuriating personality. Ok yes, as Bryt says, he could be a right dick sometimes. Can I say that? Too late.

All this confusion around Schoon, and his misaligned, but nonetheless important contribution to archaeology, does raise questions about our own approach. Schoon is the unravelling thread. We too will no doubt in the future will be called to account around best practices in archaeology. It is that evaluation of our past to improve our future. It is part of being a historian, to be the recall in the current realm – reminding us we need balanced research so that we don’t repeat ourselves but also admit to our own ‘schooning’. Simply put, try not to make dick moves; you’ve got the benefit of hindsight.

The Artistic Historian


Byrt, Anthony, 2019. Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon. The Spinoff [online] Available at: <https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/28-02-2019/book-of-the-week-that-total-asshole-theo-schoon> Accessed June 2023.

Fomison, Tony, 1987. Theo Schoon and the retouching of rock art. Archaeology in New Zealand 30: 158-160. [online] Available at:  https://nzarchaeology.org/download/theo-schoon-and-the-retouching-of-rock-art. Accessed February 2023.

ICOMOS New Zealand Te Mana o Nga Pouwhenua o Te Ao, 2010. The ICOMOS New Zealand Charter, Te Pumanawa o ICOMOS o Aotearoa Hei Tiaki I Nga Taonga Whenua Heke Iho o Nehe. [online] <https://icomos.org.nz/charters/> Accessed June 2023.

Jones, Sam, 2018. How ‘Monkey Christ’ brought new life to a quiet Spanish town. The Guardian [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/28/how-monkey-christ-brought-new-life-to-a-quiet-spanish-town> Accessed June 2023.

Lopesi, Lana, 2019. The debate over Theo Schoon, who built his career on the backs of Māori artists. The Spinoff [online] Available at: <https://thespinoff.co.nz/art/08-08-2019/the-debate-over-theo-schoon-who-built-his-career-on-the-backs-of-maori-artists> Accessed June 2023.

McCulloch, Beverley, 1985. Maori Rock Drawings: A Matter of Interpretation. Robert McDougall Art Gallery and Canterbury Museum. [online] Available at: < https://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/media/uploads/2010_08/TheoSchoon.pdf> Accessed June 2023.

Ministry of Culture and Heritage, 2012. A new New Zealand art. [online] Available at: <https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/nz-painting-history/a-new-new-zealand-art> Accessed February 2023.

Press, 1861-1979. [online] Available at: <https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/> Accessed June 2023.

Skinner, Damian, 2000. ‘Schoon, Theodorus Johannes’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at:  <https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5s4/schoon-theodorus-johannes> Accessed February 2023.

Skinner, Damian, 2018. Theo Schoon. A Biography. Auckland: Massey University Press.

Spencer Digby Studios, 1943. Portrait of Theo Schoon posed and wearing a Balinese costume. [online] Available at:  Te Papa Collections Online < https://digitalnz.org/records/176921/tn-theo-schoon> Accessed June 2023.




Up in the Clouds: Aerial Archaeology

Today on the blog we are taking to the skies to talk about aerial archaeology; the investigation of archaeological sites and landscapes from a higher altitude. There is nothing quite like having a bird’s eye view, and, when investigating archaeological sites or considering the archaeological potential of an area, one of the first things we look at is aerial imagery. For much of the 20th century aerial imagery was recorded via a plane, but in our modern era we have access to high quality satellite imagery and drone footage. Aerial archaeology is just another everyday tool in the archaeologist’s belt, and today we are going to go through a bit of background before diving into some local examples.

If we go back to the very beginning, on a small farm outside of Temuka, a humble Kiwi farmer was one of the first people to fly and land a powered heavier-than-air machine (Figure 1). I’m talking of course about Richard Pearse, who flew in 1902, nine months before the Wright Brothers – not that I am keeping score. While our friend ‘Bamboo Dick’ (yes that’s what they called him) didn’t take any photographs from his ‘monoplane’, his inventions and trials mark the beginning of flight in New Zealand – it would be rude not to give him a shout out.

Figure 1: Richard Pearse and his ‘monoplane’ forever remembered on a limited edition stamp and in our hearts (New Zealand Post, 1990).

Once people were up the air, it didn’t take long before the first aerial photographs were taken, including those of archaeological sites. To begin with this largely took place in Europe and America with iconic sites such as Stonehenge being among the first to be photographed from the air (Figure 2). In New Zealand things were a little bit slower, but by the 1920s aerial surveys were being completed in specific areas throughout the country. Within Christchurch, the 1920s aerials are pretty much limited to the coastline and the Port Hills. Unfortunately, we don’t have coverage of the CBD at this stage, but we do have a great view of Lyttelton. The quality is actually really good, and you can easily see the contours of the topography and individual buildings. But one of the most striking things we can see, is the development of the Lyttelton Port over the past 100 years (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Stone Henge from a hot air balloon 1906 (Renfrew and Bahn, 2012:78).

Figure 3: Above: Lyttelton Port late 1920s. Below: Modern aerial imagery (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

The 1940s, and the advent of World War Two, resulted in widespread systematic aerial surveys of Canterbury and wider New Zealand, including Christchurch’s CBD (Figure 4). Photos from this era and much of the 20th century are black and white, which is preferential for us as archaeologists. Black and white photos clearly show contours, shadows, and topography, especially if they are oblique (at an angle to the landscape). In contrast vertical photos are much better for understanding spatial layout and are handy for mapmaking (Figure 5).

Figure 4: Christchurch within the four avenues, early 1940s (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 5: The two types of aerial image – yes, I took this from my first-year textbook (Renfrew and Bahn, 2012: 79).

Further aerial surveys were completed throughout the 20th century, with all of New Zealand photographed by the 1950s (Jones 1996: 25). By the 1990s we even had colour! But don’t get too excited as the quality is terrible, I tend to avoid the photos from 1995-2004 altogether (Figure 6).

Figure 6: A very blurry, but coloured, Christchurch Cathedral (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

By the 1950s and 1960s, the systematic use of aerial photographs for archaeological purposes had commenced and there are a few early reports and articles that talk about this ‘new’ technology (Gorbey, 1967). However, in the world of aerial archaeology in New Zealand, one person in particular comes to mind – the late great Kevin Jones. Kevin made both nationally and internationally significant contributions to aerial archaeology. I even learnt about him and his contributions while studying at university (and was just a tad starstruck when I met him). His book Ngā Tohuwhenua Mai Te Rangi: A New Zealand Archaeology in Aerial Photography is nothing short of quality research and sheer beauty. It showcases New Zealand’s archaeology much more eloquently than I could ever dream to discuss in a blog. For anyone who wants to check it out, his book is available digitally here (https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-JonTohu.html). Thank you for all of your mahi Kevin <3

Figure 7: A key text typically found on most archaeologist’s bookshelf.

Let’s look at some archaeology!

Perhaps the most iconic archaeological site type we have in New Zealand is the pā. Many pā, particularly in the North Island, have been photographed and surveyed from the air, as their earthwork features are stunning from this viewpoint (Figure 8). Cascading pits, tumbling terraces, and extensive earthworks really shine in oblique black and white photographs. While pā are more common up north, we do have some spectacular pā here in Canterbury, including those accessible to the public. One example is Ngā Niho Pā on the Kaikoura Peninsula (Figure 9). Its location against the Peninsula’s rocky edge provides both a natural defence and clear viewpoint along the coastline. Another example a little closer to Christchurch is Ōnawe Pā, located at the head of Akaroa Harbour (Figure 10). Its long thin neck provides a natural defensive feature, and from black and white aerials we can clearly see further defensive earthworks on the interior of the pā (Figure 11). Make sure you stop in to visit these sites on your next road trip, just remember to be respectful and follow any outlined tikanaga. And, of course, if you want to learn more about these places, check out some indigenous resources like the Kā Huru Manu: the Ngāi Tahu Cultural Atlas.

Figure 8: Cascading pits at Kohukete, one of the largest pā in the Hawkes Bay (Jones, 1996: 27).

Ngā Niho Pā on Kaikōura Peninsula. Strategically located against the steep hillslope. This pā is open to public access (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Ōnawe Pā – using the environment to its advantage (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Close up of Ōnawe Pā – can you see the defensive ditches? (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Within the Christchurch CBD, most of what we see in aerial photography is buildings – no surprises there. But through aerial photographs we can see changes, additions, and demolitions, which is all useful information we need to understand the history of a site. Sometimes all we need to see is the roofline of a house to better understand how it has been added to over time (Figure 12). Sometimes all we have left to physically indicate a building ever existed is the footprint or the foundations (Figure 13, Figure 14, Figure 15). And sometimes you are just being nosey and stumble upon something a bit more interesting and uncommon than usual (Figure 16).

Figure 12: A cluster of late 19th century houses in Christchurch that were demolished after the Canterbury earthquakes. Can you see all those lean-tos? (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 13: At first glance you may think this was another pā but no! This is the site of Christchurch’s first (of three) quarantine Stations. It’s located over in Camp Bay and those are the former building platforms. The cemetery is located on the headland (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 14: The concrete foundations of ‘Mansion House’ in Cheviot (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 15: A photo of ‘Manion House’ in Cheviot c. 1890 (unknown, 1890).

Figure 16: Ripapa Island – former pā, former quarantine station (the second one), Russian Scare fort, WW1 and WW2 defence. What an over achiever (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

From the air we also see scars of the former landscape and environment. A good Christchurch example is Horseshoe Lake over in Shirley. The lake is a redundant and cut off loop of the adjacent Avon River (Figure 17). It would have likely been cut off following a flood event where the Avon changed course, leaving the lake behind. Other former or remnant river channels are visible in aerial imagery throughout Canterbury, and they attest to the dynamic nature of our braided river systems.

Another major scar we see is the impact of the Canterbury Earthquakes. A review of aerial imagery from after 2010 is a particularly sobering experience. Collapsed buildings, liquefaction, spilling bricks, and sheer chaos can be taken in from above. Many of the gaps left behind in the city still lay vacant today and if we move outward into suburbia the rise of the Red Zone resulted in the death of many neighbourhoods (Figure 18).

Figure 17: Horseshoe Lake (top centre) now isolated from the main body of the Avon River(Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 18: The extensive Burwood Red Zone (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

In contrast we also see the birth of new towns like Pegasus Town, to the north of the city (Figure 19 and Figure 20). When comparing different decades of aerial imagery, it can feel like these new towns and subdivisions spring up overnight. They may seem like a major change, but in reality, it’s just another step in the urban growth of the region and the start of a new story.

Figure 19: The location of Pegasus Town prior to development in the mid 2000s. Woodend is tucked in the bottom left corner (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

Figure 20: Pegasus as it stands today (Canterbury Maps, 2023).

I could go on for hours showing off more sites and explaining the uses of aerial archaeology, but I am nearing my word count. So, lets park it for now and maybe we can come back again and share more finds from the sky in future. In the meantime, check out some historic aerial imagery and have a snoop! These resources are free and online. You never know what you will find!

Alana Kelly


Canterbury Maps, 2023. Canterbury Maps Viewer. [online] Available at: https://canterburymaps.govt.nz/

Gorbey, G. 1967. ‘Aerial Photography in New Zealand archaeology’, New Zealand Archaeological Association Newsletter, 10(4): 167-175.

Jones, K. 1996. ‘Aerial Archaeology in New Zealand Archaeology’, Australasian Historical Archaeology, 14: 25-33.

New Zealand Post, 1990. Heritage – the Achievers stamp issue. [Stamp]. Available at: https://teara.govt.nz/en/postage-stamp/6562/commemorating-new-zealands-first-flight

Renfrew, C. and Bahn, P. 2012. Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice. 6th edn. London: Thames and Hudson.

Unknown, 1890. Mansion House, Cheviot Estate. [Photograph]. Available at: https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE57788&dps_custom_att_1=emu Accessed March 2023.


Cutting Edge: The Banks Peninsula Timber Industry

We have often mentioned on the blog how Christchurch was built on a swamp (and the inevitable drainage problems that this caused!), but another big issue for early settlers living in a swamp was the lack of available timber and firewood. There were, of course, the small areas of bush standing at Riccarton and Papanui, but these were not sufficient to sustain a developing township, and it was not long before these sources were felled or reserved. A significant amount of timber was actually imported into Christchurch – from elsewhere in New Zealand, from Australia, or from further afield – but that is a topic for another day (hopefully by our magnificent leader Kirsa Webb who just finished her Masters degree on the topic). By far, the largest wooded area within close proximity to the Christchurch settlement was on Banks Peninsula, and so, for a number of decades, timber milling was the dominant industry on the Peninsula.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, Tangata Whenua had cut timber to build dwellings, forts, canoes, and other structures in native woods, but the level of this felling had little impact on the natural forests. During the 1830s, sailors who came to New Zealand as whalers also began to fell the native bush, often assisted by local Māori, and this began the origins of European timber milling in New Zealand. By the mid-1830s, about a third of the European men in New Zealand worked in the timber industry (Swarbrick, 2007).

On Banks Peninsula, former sailors had begun to settle in the numerous bays by the 1840s and mill the dense bush. Following the arrival of the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850, other landless drifters and squatters soon joined them (Ogilvie, 2007: 119). By the 1860s, there were numerous timber mills in operation throughout the Peninsula (Ogilvie, 2007: 5).

Map of Banks Peninsula, with the shaded area representing forest cover in c.1860 and the location of sawmills indicated with stars. Image: Wood and Pawson, 2008: 455.

Many of the earlier timber mills were of a more temporary nature than those established at a later date. For example, George Holmes mill in Pigeon Bay that he established in 1862, appears much to be a more haphazard building than William Coop’s second mill and home complex that he established at Little River in 1873, further up the valley than his original 1863 mill. Many of these early millers were contracted by governing bodies to fulfil specific orders. Ebenezer Hay of Pigeon Bay was contracted by Canterbury Association in 1850 to supply timber for the new township of Lyttelton, and George Holmes was constructed to supply timber for the Lyttelton Tunnel in the early 1860s.

George Holmes timber mill at Pigeon Bay in c.1865. Image: William Locke, 1865.

William Coop’s home and timber mill at Little River. Image: Cantage – Canterbury Heritage

The bushmen who worked for the mills were often landless drifters and squatters who built primitive whares adjoining the bush they felled. Ogilvie notes that it wasn’t uncommon for most of their earnings to go on grog and they were an unruly element in the small Peninsula communities (Ogilvie, 2007: 119). A survey plan of Okains Bay in 1860 shows the footprint of numerous buildings located within the vicinity of the modern Okains Bay township, which are believed to be the location of the various whare occupied by early bushman in the area.

Photograph of bushman John Raddings outside his slab and totara bark whare located on the spur above Okains Bay. Image: Ogilvie, 2007: 121.

Detail from Black Map 120 showing Okains Bay in 1860, indicating the location of a number of small buildings believed to be the whare of early timber millers (blue circles). Image: Archives New Zealand, 1860.

Initially, the early sawyers concentrated their operations at the heads of the various bays, where they could more easily ship their cargo to their destinations. From the mid-1850s, as the bushmen moved up the valleys, they began to employ the use of mechanical mills, with the first water-driven mill being established near the head of Akaroa Harbour in 1854, and the first steam-powered mill at Le Bons Bay in 1857 (Wood and Pawson, 2008: 453-454). As techniques improved, more and more timber on Banks Peninsula began to be cut. The two largest mills (in terms of potential output) constructed prior to 1880, were William White’s at Little River and John Thacker’s at Okains Bay, which could produce up to 60,000 and 70,000 super feet per week respectively (Wood and Pawson, 2008: 454). By the 1920s, the vast majority of the timber on the Peninsula had been felled.

Deforestation of Banks Peninsula between 1830 and 1920. Image: Boffa Miskell, 2007: 27.

As milling operations moved further and further inland, the bushmen were required to transport their timber cargo over greater distances. The most common form of bush transport was to ‘skidd’ the logs along the ground using teams of bullocks harnessed together in wooden yokes. Sometimes this method brought bushmen in conflict with their local road boards, as logs skidded over roads often caused significant damage to the road’s surface that the road boards worked hard to maintain. John Thacker, for example, was brought before the Magistrate on a number of occasions by the Okains Bay Road Board for just such an offense (Lyttelton Times, 14/8/1875: 3; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, 30/1/1877: 2). To speed up the timber delivery system, larger sawmills began to construct wooden tramlines to connect their mills with the bush they were felling and to the jetties from which they dispatched their cargo. John Thacker was again in trouble with the Okains Bay Road Board in 1875, when he constructed a tramline along a public road reserve to his mill in Okains Bay without obtaining permission (Lyttleton Times, 21/8/1875: 3). In some cases, the wooden trams required timber viaducts to traverse streams, rivers or particularly unaccommodating terrain. In Thacker’s case he constructed a timber viaduct over the Opara Stream to reach the jetty.

Photograph of a 16-bullock team pulling a log through bush in Northland. Image: Mahoney, 2007.

Photograph of a three-horse team pulling a trolley with a rimu log along a wooden bush tram, probably in Taranaki. Image: Mahoney, 2007

Photograph of a John Thacker’s wooden mill tramway viaduct over the Opara Stream in c.1889. Image: Ogilvie, 2007: 120.

Ship with a consignment of timber on a jetty in the 1910s, probably located in the Nelson district. Image: Frederick Nelson Jones.

From Banks Peninsula timber could be shipped around New Zealand or further abroad. Significant consignments of the Banks Peninsula timber were shipped to Lyttelton and then transported via train into the Christchurch township where it was offered for sale at various timber yards in the city.

Front cover of the Kauri Timber Company’s catalogue for their Auckland factory in 1906. Image: Swarbrick, 2007

The development of steam powered timber mills was an important advancement for the New Zealand timber industry from the 1860s. During the first decades of settlement in Canterbury, the majority of timber used in the interior of houses was still being imported from overseas. This was because it was cheaper to import foreign finished timber than it was to prepare domestic timber by hand. The development of machine timber processing in New Zealand meant that not only was the cost of domestic timber lowered, but it also materially increased the consumption of timber grown in New Zealand, lowered imports, and provided local employment. The first large scale use of steam power for timber sawing in Christchurch was by Mr F. Jenkins in the early 1860s. Jenkins later extended his business to use machinery to also prepare the timber. But it was not until the early 1870s that this industry really took off in Christchurch, with about five companies branching into the steam timber milling industry during this period (Lyttelton Times, 15/2/1875: 2).

One such Christchurch yard that converted into steam powered milling was the Victorian Sawmills and Timber Yard located on Lichfield Street between Durham and Colombo Streets. Established by James Booth in c.1863, these yards covered half an acre of land. By 1872 Booth had converted his sawmill into steam power and offered a wide range of timber products that could be planed, grooved, beaded, and bevelled to the purchasers needs (Star, 15/2/1875: 2). The business continued to run on the site under various management until 1895. In June 2014 we excavated the site of the former mill and uncovered a large complex of paved brick that is believed to be the main working floor of the sawmill buildings. In addition, we found other paved brick surfaces outside the building, stone and brick footings onto which we suspect the sawmill’s machinery was once fixed, as well as the foundations of the sawmill’s chimney and the likely location of the timber storage yard. You can read more about our excavation of Booth’s sawmill on our blog here.

Photograph showing part of the paved brick floor complex of the Victorian Steam Sawmills and Timber Yard in 2014. Image: Hamish Williams.

Another timber yard that harnessed the power of steam for its sawmill was William Montgomery’s yard located on the southeast corner of Colombo and Tuam Streets. Established in 1873, Montgomery’s business is an example of a successful timber import business from 1862 adapting into a domestic timber milling business in 1873. Montgomery’s business was very successful and in 1876 he constructed a handsome stone office building on his mill premises at the corner of Colombo and Tuam Street. The business continued to run on the site under various management until the 1930s. Between November 2020 and March 2021 UOA excavated part of the former sawmill and timberyard premises and encountered a number of features associated with the old mill, including a brick floor associated with one of the factory buildings, part of the tramline used for transporting timber around the site, and other brick and concrete foundations associated with the various machinery that were used on the site.

Photograph looking southeast towards W. Montgomery and Co.’s brick office building on the corner of Colombo and Tuam Streets in c.1876, not the stacks of timber on the right-hand-side. Image: Early Canterbury Photography, 2009

Detail from Strouts’ 1877 map of Christchurch, showing the footprints of the buildings present on W. Montgomery’s premises (outlined in red). Image: Strouts, 1877

Photograph showing part of the paved brick floor associated with Montgomery’s steam sawmills and timber yard. Image: Michael Healey.

Photograph of part of the tramline used to transport timber around the timber yard. Image: Michael Healey.

The Banks Peninsula timber milling industry impacted the way in which the City of Christchurch was constructed. Although the timber industry pre-dates the settlement of Christchurch, the arrival of the Canterbury colonists in 1850 led to an increase demand for timber and provided the manpower needed to fell it. For decades timber milling was the dominant industry on the peninsula. It resulted in technological developments, provided cheaper materials with which to construct Christchurch, and ultimately changed the environment and landscape of the peninsula. Today we encounter the remains of the 19th century timber mills right in the heart of the city. These mills not only show a direct link between the city and peninsula, but they also provide a sense of the scale of the industry which was so crucial to the development of Christchurch in the 19th century.

Lydia Mearns


Boffa Miskell, 2007. Banks Peninsula Landscape Study: Final Report. Prepared for Christchurch City Council by Boffa Miskell Ltd.

Ogilvie, G., 2007. Banks Peninsula Cradle of Canterbury. Christchurch: Phillips & King.

Swarbrick, N., 2007. ‘Logging native forests’. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] Available at: <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/logging-native-forests>

Wood, V., and Pawson, E., 2008. The Banks Peninsula Forests and Akaroa Cocksfoot: Explains a New Zealand Forest Transition. Journal of Environment and History. Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 449-468.