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Christchurch History and Travel Information

The first citizens of Christchurch, looking down from the Port Hills, viewed a swampy town sire flecked with reeds and tufted with tussock.

It could not have been more desolate, damp and daunting. The uninspiring location of their new settlement was backed by treeless, featureless, flat terrain all the way to the distantly glimmering alps.

After twenty thousand kilometres of travel - with seasickness, dysentery, foul food, filth, and burials at sea - the pioneers seemed literally at the end of the earth.

Yet never did a New Zealand settlement rise more in tune with the melodic vision of those who fathered it.

They cleared and cropped, dug and drained, and hammered up rough homes and churches. Those pioneers in whiskers, bowyangs and bonnets - certainly those who could not pay their own passage - had been certified as of 'sober, industrious and honest' character by their local vicars.

They were meant to compose a creditable, upright cross-section of English society.

By 1850 New Zealand had been settled haphazardly for twenty years by British migrants, and formally colonized for ten.

Other planned settlements soon had a democratic character, but Christchurch - a Church of England enterprise in partnership with Edward Gibbon Wakefield's New Zealand Company - was to be different.

This was to be more than another rough colonial community in the South Seas. Its founders foresaw a better Britain, decorous and devout, distinctly Anglican and presided over by landowning gentry. The first step was to ensure that empty land didn't turn humble heads. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of level, mostly fertile land were free for settlement on the eastern seaboard of the South Island.

Little settled by the Maori, whose local population had recently been thinned still further by the raids of northern tribes, the area had been sold off cheaply to the English. But the planners of the Canterbury settlement fixed its resale price far beyond the reach of artisans and labourers.

The land was reserved for those of social standing. Artisans and labourers were to be confined to that which they knew best: the provision of menial skills and muscle, rather than take up the profitable production of wheat and wool.

In late 1850, some seven hundred and eighty migrants left England in the first four ships; five hundred and fifty of them were cruelly crowded in steerage, while the rest enjoyed comfortable cabins.

Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand and later premier was to see the Anglican scheme as seeding 'great and future evil ... from the very first moment of its colonization'. The ills of England were planted here too.

The migrants were dumped ashore in the port of Lyttelton with little ceremony. Lyttelton had come into existence of its own accord, and then had sixty houses and a couple of grog-shops.

There were immigration barracks for the steerage passengers, but few roofs under which their social superiors could respectably shelter. Then all were obliged to toil up the rough bridle path over the Port Hills and down to the site surveyed for their town.

The plan showed buildings already in existence, but even the keenest visionary could not detect them. There was just one rough riverside house, a heap of sawn timber, a beached dinghy, and no one at home.

Within just a year, one Charlotte Godley, wife of John Robert Godley, the self-confessed despot of the fledgling community, recorded delight at 'how very civilized' Christchurch had become.

Others saw an exposed, dusty, ugly settlement as characterless as a whistle-stop on the American prairie. The dream survived cynics.

As early as 1856, Christchurch had as many churches as hotels, something unique in any colonial outpost. By 1864 the foundations of its future cathedral had been laid.

With the best will in the world, Christchurch was never to be seen as an exclusively Anglican preserve. There were the obstinately Catholic Irish, Presbyterian Scots and Lutheran Germans.

When the English novelist Samuel Butler arrived, the first man he met was a Methodist preacher. Then there were the Australian arrivals, whose religion was largely wool and wealth, and who joined the gentry in the race for land.

Today a fleece features prominently in the city's coat of arms. No urban society in the world was more firmly built on wool.

Vast tracts of grazing land were seized by early arrivals and gave migrant gentry, Christchurch's aspirant elite, the economic base they lacked elsewhere in New Zealand. Here, according to the Lyttelton Times of 1876, land laws had allowed the gentry to become 'a favoured race ... elevated into a position of boundless wealth and disgraceful monopoly'.

Even Edward Jerningham Wakefield, of the colonising family which had done so much to settle southern New Zealand, finally denounced the landowners of Canterbury as 'degenerate'.

Often as not, the new rich of Canterbury left managers looking after their estates, and reside comfortably in Christchurch mansions.

These wool-kings, in alliance with merchant-princes, were the movers and shakers of nineteenth-century Christchurch. The leafy appearance of the city - its shady squares and avenues, its riverside daffodils and sheep-grazing parkland - suggest its rural base.

Willows trailed along the waters of the Avon River, near which Christ's College had risen to educate landowners' sons.

Fashionable shops boasted of past services to aristocracy in competing for the custom of wool-kings and their wives. The wealth of the region soon materialized in civic architecture.

Hand in hand with the planting of oak and elm, sycamore and poplar, substantial Gothic and neoclassical buildings began to appear. Soot soon darkened towers, turrets and facades.

Christchurch was slowly ringed with industry and industrial suburbs, as wool-kings put their capital to work in their social headquarters.

Christchurch was no longer an unkempt outpost of Empire, but a prosperous bastion of virtue, or so its leaders saw it. Others saw vice, and not of the kind the colonial town's thirty brothels provided.

They saw snobbery and social climbing as rampant as the gorse introduced from England for tidy hedgerows and now a satanic weed.

The first families of Christchurch were accused of having shameless appetite for titles. Nothing gladdened nineteenth-century civic leaders more than the observation that their community was 'comfortable and thoroughly English' - as novelist Anthony Trollope obliged them by saying in 1872, beginning a tactful tradition. 'More English than England,' remains the most acceptable compliment.

Now no more than a moderately arduous tourist excursion, the first pilgrim bridle path still climbs over the Port Hills from Lyttelton Harbour. Under the climber's feet, rail and road tunnels hum with subterranean traffic between the city and the port.

Annually, on the nearest Sunday to December 16, hundreds of citizens re-enact the journey the city's founders made, up the tussock slopes to the point where, tight-lipped, they looked our on their promised paradise. The splendid coast, curving away to the north, is still there.

So are the white alps floating one hundred kilometers away beyond the Canterbury Plains.

But the bleak, reedy swampland they saw has vanished. Under the vast Canterbury sky there is a sprawling city of nearly three hundred thousand people.

Factory chimneys compete with spires. Densely settled suburbs spill into crop-patched farmland. It might be any New Zealand city.

A walk through the centre of Christchurch, however, reveals a city less haphazardly grown than any other in New Zealand. It is far more than an antipodean facsimile of an English market town.

No English city was ever quite so coherent - or contrived - in character.

No English city was ever quite so manicured. Certainly no English city ever had streets, in one poet's phrase, 'closed with shining alps'.

For all its affectations, Christchurch is still a frontier city raised by colonists - the colonists Samuel Butler saw as already un-English in the eighteen-sixties, 'shaggy, clear¬complexioned, brown and healthy-looking, who wear exceedingly rowdy hats'.

They built as best they remembered, or as best they dreamed, and built durably. They wanted Christchurch to be more than a tradesman's entrance to Canterbury.

It was a garden - perhaps the garden, where Adam walked with Eve - that the pioneers most wanted. A garden was made. The city seems to be in bloom most of the year, with over three thousand hectares of parks and reserves.

Even factories pride themselves in immaculate floral settings. Such factories emphasise that Christchurch has long moved beyond dependence on wheat and wool.

More than a third of the work force is employed in manufacturing, in more than a thousand factories.

The most spectacular example of Christchurch's industrial enterprise is the Hamilton jet boat, which has revolutionised water travel around the world.

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