The wide stretches of the Avon River provided a suitable stretch of water for rowing to become a major sport and past time for Christchurch residents. The Canterbury Rowing Club was formed in 1861 while the Union Club began in 1864 – many of its members coming from the workers on the railway between Christchurch and Lyttelton. The Trades Rowing Club which was set up later, was eventually called the Avon Rowing Club. All the clubs built wooden boat sheds along the banks of the Avon around the Fitzgerald Bridge.
Rowing was not only popular in the garden city, it became the ‘in’ sport throughout the colony. Regional towns trained their teams with gig and whaleboat crews, spending much time and ‘hard at practice work’ for the up and coming regattas of the season.
The opening of Christchurch’s rowing season, every October, was a widely celebrated event which attracted a huge numbers of spectators. The viewpoint in Gibb’s painting, was taken from Fitzgerald Avenue, near the corner of Windsor Terrace where Mr Bowron’s house once stood. E. D. Ree’s former boatsheds (known as Canterbury Boatsheds) are on the right, next to Mr Steel’s house. Then there are the various buildings of Ward’s Brewery which includes the old Malthouse on the left.
The left bank of the river, once called The Daisy Paddock, was a popular picnic spot for the citizens of Christchurch. Now covered in houses and roads, the point on the opposite bank was cut away and both banks were more defined.
The opening would start with a parade of ‘gaily decked’ boats before being followed by a ceremony presided over by the Commodore which was then followed by ‘scratch matches’.
The Weekly Press on 21st October, 1908 commented on that year’s opening:-
“Perhaps the most conspicuous change is in the number of people, the crowds at last week’s opening covering both banks from Windsor Terrace to Stanmore Bridge.”
In 1883 the Auckland Star reported on the opening of the Christchurch Boating season, describing,
“One six-oar, thirteen four-oar, and twenty-two pair-oar outriggers, besides skiffs, took part in the procession.” In 1885, 41 boats took part in the event which was watched by a crowd of 3,000 spectators who lined the banks of the Avon.”
The photograph above, shows the opening of the season at the Canterbury Rowing Club in 1893. The view is north from Ward’s Brewery which stands on the corner of Kilmore Street and Fitzgerald Avenue. Beyond are the boathouses of the Avon and Union Clubs.
In October 1889, Clara Wright, a young woman newly arrived from Thames attended the opening of the Rowing Club with her father and described it as, “a pretty sight, there were fifty eight boats took part in it and they were beautifully decorated.”
Four years later, in 1893, the above photograph shows the opening of the season at the Canterbury Rowing Club. This popularity of the event can be seen by the large number of spectators who have lined the river banks to get a good vantage point to view the boats as they race past. This view from Ward’s Brewery, on the corner of Kilmore Street and Fitzgerald Avenue looks northward. Beyond are the boathouses of the Avon and United Clubs.
- Painting by John Gibb. Source: The Weekly Press on 21st October, 1908. Image from Christchurch City Libraries CCL PhotoCD 17, IMG0048.
- Image from Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0013.