The Arts Centre

The annual Christchurch Heritage Festival is currently taking place and this year we’ve partnered with The Arts Centre to produce an exhibition showcasing some of the artefacts found during archaeological monitoring of the earthquake repair works at The Arts Centre. The exhibition is located upstairs in the Boys High building and is on until the 8th of November. As well as cool and unusual artefacts, we also have a children’s table set up with fun activities for the kids! If you’re based in and around Christchurch, then we’d love to see you come down and explore!

Keeping with the theme of our Heritage Festival exhibition, this week and next week we’re going to be looking at The Arts Centre on the blog. This week we’ll go over the history of the site and next week we’ll take a closer look at the archaeology and what we’ve found.

Our exhibition at The Arts Centre! Image: C. Watson.

While The Arts Centre is best known for the Gothic Revival buildings that were built as part of the Canterbury College, the site was occupied long before that. Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and later Ngāi Tahu used the network of swamps and waterways of the Christchurch area as mahinga kai/food gathering places, and as temporary resting spots along kā ara tawhito/traditional travel routes. Several kāinga or pā were also located in the central Christchurch area, including the nearby Ōtautahi, which remains a Māori name for the city.

Ōtautahi, before the modern city of Christchurch was built. Image: Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor, Lith, London. Lyttelton, Published by Martin G. Heywood, [ca 1855]. Ref: D-001-032. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23051035

In 1848, Henry Kemp organised the sale of land from Ngāi Tahu to the British crown, in what was known as Kemp’s Deed. Following this, the land was subdivided by Edward Jolie in 1850 into town sections. The land the Arts Centre now occupies consisted of 22 town sections bordered by Worcester Boulevard, Rolleston Ave, Hereford Street and Montreal Street. This land was not initially intended to be the site of a university but was instead offered for sale to private landowners.

British settlers arriving in Christchurch via Lyttelton purchased the town sections and built houses on them from the 1850s into the 1880s. These settlers included a farmer, chaplain, builder, lawyer, surveyor, saddler, accountant, carpenter and a “gentleman”, along with their families. By 1877, 23 houses and out-buildings had been constructed on the site.

The site of what would become the Arts Centre in 1877. The town sections are numbered in red whilst the black shows the buildings that were located on the site when the map was created. Image: Strouts 1877.

One of the more interesting settlers living at the site was the Reverend Henry Torlesse. Rev. Torlesse purchased four of the town sections bordering Worcester Boulevard in January 1864. Torlesse arrived in Lyttelton on board the Minerva in 1853 to join his brother on his farm in Rangiora. He was ordained in Christchurch in 1859. Rev. Torlesse worked briefly in Okains Bay, where he set up a successful school, before he took up the position of chaplain in Christchurch for the local gaol, hospital, and lunatic asylum in 1864, which likely spurred his purchase of the central town sections on which he built his house. As well as his work as a chaplain, Rev. Torlesse taught lessons in Latin and English to pupils that boarded in his residence on Worcester Boulevard. Torlesse’s private schooling was the first use of the site as a place of education. Rev. Torlesse, along with others, also established a woman’s refuge on corner of Hereford Street and Rolleston Ave. During Torlesse’s work as chaplain he came across many destitute women, who were often driven into prostitution, and he saw the need for the establishment of a women’s refuge in the city. A building for the women’s refuge was constructed on the site by December 1864, and the refuge operated from that building until 1876 when it moved to a different premise elsewhere in the city.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any images of the block from this period, but no doubt the street would have looked something like this. This photo shows Armagh Street looking west to Hagley Park, with Deans Bush visible in the background. Image: Barker, Alfred Charles (Dr), 1819-1873. Armagh Street, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-022719-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22343733.

Following Rev. Torlesse’s death in 1870, the trustees of his estate sold the land to William Rolleston, Superintendent of Canterbury, in October 1873 for the site of a college and for other educational purposes. The idea of establishing a college dated back to the beginning of the Canterbury settlement in 1848, with 47 of the original 53 members of the Canterbury Association being alumni from either Cambridge or Oxford University and wishing to set up a similar institute in Christchurch. It was not until 1871 that the Canterbury Collegiate Union, formed by trustees of the Canterbury Museum and Christ’s College, became formally affiliated with the University of New Zealand and begun offering classes, temporarily held in Christ’s College’s classrooms.

In January 1874, Benjamin Mountfort was awarded the contract to design the first buildings for the new college, with the first stone building (The Clock Tower), opened in 1877. The buildings were designed in the High Victorian Collegiate Gothic style using basalt from the Port Hills and limestone from Oamaru. Between 1876 and 1926 the Canterbury College purchased and built on the rest of the town sections on the block. Christchurch Girls and Boys High Schools, opened in 1878 and 1881, were constructed to prepare students for higher levels of study, whilst later buildings connected to specific fields of study were built over the next four decades.

Canterbury College in 1880. The Canterbury Museum can be seen as well (along with an excellent penny farthing) Image: Canterbury University College and Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. Foxley Norris album. Ref: PA1-q-094-103. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22897824

In 1957 the University of Canterbury, as it was now officially called, begun the move to Ilam, which provided a bigger site for the expanding university. By the 1970s, the university had left the site and the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust officially became the owner. The Arts Centre provided a space for Christchurch creatives for around 35 years, until the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes severely damaged the historic buildings.

Next week on the blog we’ll be taking a look at the archaeology of the Arts Centre, in the meant time head down and check out the exhibition for yourself!

Clara Watson


This brief history of the Arts Centre was written using information from Strange, G. 1994. The Arts Centre of Christchurch: Then and Now. Clerestory Press, Christchurch.

‘An ornament and a credit to the city’

Illustrated Australian News (Melbourne), Wednesday 26 January 1876 page 13

An engraving of the Christchurch Normal School soon after it was constructed. Image: Illustrated Australian News26/1/1876:13.

The former Christchurch Normal School was one of the city’s significant architectural landmarks. Built from stone in the gothic revival style, the building occupied a prominent position at the corner of Cranmer Square. The school was commissioned by the Canterbury Provincial Council and completed in 1875. An extension was made along Montreal Street in 1879 to accommodate a kindergarten and training department. You may have passed this building many times and admired the beautiful carving around the doors and windows but never really thought about how the building was constructed and why the building looked the way it did.


The Kilmore Street wing of the Normal School prior to the earthquakes. Image: Kete Christchurch.


A page from a field notebook that forms part of the written record of the Normal School. This page describes the types of windows at the Normal School. Image K. Webb

The Normal School building suffered severe damage from both the September and February earthquakes. Prior to its demolition in October 2012 the building was recorded by archaeologists. This week’s post takes a brief look at the Normal School building, and some of the results from our investigation of the building from an archaeological point of view.

Examination of a building using archaeological methods has the potential to reveal significant evidence relating to the history of New Zealand and may provide information that cannot be obtained through other means. Four different techniques were used to record the Normal School building; these included the creation of extensive drawn, written and photographic records as well as sampling building fabric for analysis and curation.

The foundations of the Normal School were made from Portland cement concrete and were up to 1.5 m deep and 1.2 m wide. The walls were built from basalt stone from the Halswell Quarry, here in Christchurch. Limestone, probably from a North Canterbury quarry, was used to dress the windows and doorways as well as for the cornices, string courses and copings. During demolition of the building a relatively large number of mason’s marks were observed on carved stones from around the windows and doorways. The marks were on the joint beds and non-visible faces of the stones. 


Some of the stonemason’s marks found on stones from the Normal School building. Image: K. Webb.

Stonemason marks were used for a variety of reasons; as well as identifying individual masons, they were also used to identify masons working under a particular master or workshop and also may have been specific to the building site. Marks were also used to identify how stones fitted together, as shown in this video. Therefore, the marks may not be unique to individual masons, making it difficult to trace masons from one site to another. The use of mason’s marks during the 19th century was probably a revival of medieval traditions and they are still used today by masons who wish to continue the tradition (Alexander 2008). It is unusual to find stonemason’s marks on 19th century buildings in Christchurch, let alone so many different ones.


Drawing of one of the turrets decorating the roof of the Normal School. This drawing is part of a series drawn in 1972. The plans are held at Archives New Zealand.

There were a number of turrets along the ridge of the roof of the Normal School. These were decorative and also formed part of a complex ventilation system in the building. The wooden arch-shaped louvres in the turrets allowed the egress of stale air through the ceiling of the first floor, while fresh air was brought into the building through a system of clay pipes built in to the buttresses that supported the exterior walls. There were also a number of ventilation grates in the south and west exterior walls. The cast iron grates were highly decorative and allowed air flow in the space between the ground floor ceiling and the first floor.


Some of the decorative cast iron ventilation grates found on the south and west walls of the school. Image: K. Webb.

Good ventilation was a matter of some importance in the design of the Normal School building. This concern was demonstrated by a discussion held by Board of Education in 1878 with regard to the lack of ventilation in the existing school school buildings despite the multiple ventilation systems already installed. The poor drainage of the grounds was also a common complaint made by parents of the school children (Star 13/7/1877: 3). We don’t know whether or not this problem was solved .

Ventilation - BOARDS OF EDUCATION. Star , Issue 3158, 23 May 1878, Page 3

Report on a meeting of the Board of Education regarding ventilation at the Normal School. Star, 23/5/1878:3.

When the building was extended to accommodate a kindergarten and training department the style of the addition was quite different from the original building. The carving around the windows and doors was less ornate than in the original structure, although small finely carved spherical label stops and bosses were used to decorate the window sills and arches. Each of these carvings had a different design, usually in the form of a cluster of leaves or flowers as well as birds and critters.


Some of the carved label stops and bosses from the kindergarten extension at the Normal School. Image: K. Webb.


The Montreal Street wing of the Normal School showing the difference in appearance of the original building on the right and the 1879 extension on the left. Image: Dalman Architecture.

Several cost saving measures were employed in the construction of the extension, in addition to the simplicity of the carving. The internal walls were constructed from brick, a cheaper alternative to the stone used for the internal walls in the original part of the building. This also meant that the foundations could be less substantial than those for the original building, and therefore use less concrete. There were no fireplaces in the new kindergarten. Instead, it was heated by a system of pipes that carried heated water throughout the building, so only one boiler needed to be fuelled rather than several fires. So, while no expense was spared in the first phase of construction of the Normal School (a total of £14,269 was spent on the building, not including furnishings), the kindergarten extension was built as cheaply as possible, costing less than £2,700 to build (Star 17/12/1873:3; Press 6/6/1879:3).

Unlike the personal stories of individuals and their families that are told through archaeological investigation of a house, the establishment of a normal school in Christchurch highlights the importance of education within the colony during the 1870s and the preference to train teachers here rather than import trained teachers from the homeland; a normal school was also opened in Dunedin the same year as the Christchurch Normal School. Along with documentary evidence the building can tell us what the key concerns of the Board of Education were when the building was designed, for example construction cost, ventilation, heating and drainage.

This post was just a brief excursion into the Christchurch Normal School, the full archaeological report will be available to view on Quake Studies when it is completed.

Kirsa Webb


Alexander, J. S., 2008. ‘Masons’ Marks and the Working Practices of Medieval Stone Masons’, in P.S. Barnwell and Arnold Pacey, (eds) Who Built Beverley Minster?. [online] Available at:

Archives New Zealand, 1973. CALW CH166 8/14 AC 5222 Christchurch Normal School – Spire base and chimney details. Christchurch Regional Office.

Christchurch City Council, 1982. The Architectural Heritage of Christchurch: 1. The Normal School. Christchurch City Council, Town Planning Division. [online] Available at:

Illustrated Australian News. [online] Available at:

Press. [online] Available at:

Star. [online] Available at: