Torlesse Building, the first stone structure in Cathedral Square

The first stone structure built in Cathedral Square was the small Gothic stone Torlesse building. Situated in the south-west corner of the square, the two storey, three gable dormer windowed building, designed by Maxwell Bury, was completed in 1864. It was named after its original owner, C. O. Torlesse, a surveyor of the first party who surveyed and laid out Christchurch for the Canterbury Association.

The Torlesse Building, Cathedral Square, 1866 Source: One Photograph Black & White, 14 x 22 cm PhotoCD 6, IMG0068
The Torlesse Building, Cathedral Square, 1866 [1]
In this image, the photographer, Frank Arnold Coxhead has captured a view of the south-eastern side of Cathedral Square in 1881. To the left of the Torlesse Building is an empty fenced off site where Morten’s Building (United Services Hotel) will be built.

In the second photo below, the impressive Chief Post Office designed by W. H. Clayton dominates the right side of the square. Tucked in the corner, is the New Zealand Insurance Co. building which was built circa 1870, approximately nine years before the Post Office.

The Torlesse Building stood until 1916 when it was demolished to make way for the Strand Theatre, which opened on the 5th April, 1917.

Charles Torlesse

Charles Obins Torlesse was one of the earliest colonists of New Zealand, and the nephew of Edward Gibson Wakefield. He left England in 1842 with the Nelson pioneers and worked as a cadet in the survey department. He returned to England after five years, only to come out to New Zealand again in November 1849 with Captain Thomas, the Principal Surveyor for the Canterbury Association. Torlesse was described as having taken “part in the surveying and exploring of the Cantebury block, and in making the ways of the pilgrims a little straight before their arrival in the country.” [2]

Torlesse Building in south-eastern corner of Square c. 1884
The Torlesse Building, c. 1884 Cathedral Square. [3]

In 1849 Torlesse made an eleven week expedition south by the coast, as far as the Waitaki, returning along the foot of the ranges. The result of his exploration was a sketch map, from which the first lithographed maps of the Canterbury settlement were made. [4]

In his report on the Canterbury Block, Torlesse described the first sight of the Canterbury Settlement as “…very striking to every one, and particularly those who are familiar with other parts of New Zealand” and if to some tastes the general aspect of the country, a vast fertile expanse with a finely curved coastl ine, and bounded in the distance by lofty mountain ranges, fails to be gratifying, there is no one who will not acknowledge the beauty of particular views, which are grand even in this land of picturesque scenery.” [5]

After leaving the service in 1851, he marrried Alicia Townsend of Lyttelton, and turned his hand to sheep farming in Rangiora. Tragedy struck when, a few years into their marriage, two of their children were still born almost 12 months apart to the day.

Torlesse’s love of exploration lead him back into surveying, and in 1858 he surveyed the Waimakariri and Ashley. He became the first to ascend Mount Torlesse, which was named after him.

in 1860 he took his family to England, returning to the province in 1862, when he joined in business with Henry Matson, a former Victorian stock owner. In November they announced their partnership as Land and Estate Agents and Auctioneers, etc., from their premises on Colombo Street. Following ill health, Torlesse died in 1866  (the same year as the earlier photo above was taken) and was buried in his home churchyard in Stoke-by-Nayland, England.

Cathedral Square 1900
Cathedral Square, Christchurch, from the Worcester Street corner, 1900. Pictured from left: South British Fire and Marine Co. of New Zealand (170 Hereford Street), Bank of New Zealand building, Colombo Street, Morten’s Buildings, and at far right, the Torlesse building. [6]
On 9 June 1864, serious fire, threatening danger to the central business area, broke out in Colombo Street, on the western side between Cashel Street and Cathedral Square.

Two blocks of buildings were in danger – on the west, the square block surrounded on four sides by Hereford, Colombo, Cashel Street and the River Avon – the other on the east, comprising the triangle between High, Cashel and Colombo Streets.

In the west block, the houses were connected in a continuous row from the corner of Hereford St and Colombo St, along Colombo Street and down Cashel Street to the river. The triangle on the other side of Colombo Street was one compact mass of buildings occupying about 3/4 of an acre. [7]

The night was bright and still, with a light westerly blowing. The fire commenced on the corner of Hereford Street, in the rear of the building occupied by Matson & Torlesse, who had closed on Saturday at 4pm.

A light had been seen in the upper portion of Matson and Torlesse’s office just before 8pm, and shortly after smoke was seen rising from the chimney, but the alarm wasn’t raised until 10 past eight when large volumes of smoke was seen issuing from the back of the building.  The fire continued to spread rapidly and by 8.45 pm had seized hold of the front of the building as well.

To prevent the fire spreading to Cashel Street, a number of small wooden buildings were demolished. Axes and ropes were used, and building after building was speedily reduced to ruins, the debris “hauled bodily into the street, and the rubbish cleared away and removed further down the street by the bystanders.”

Despite the confusion of the situation and no one being in charge of this process,  a lane wass cut completely around the fire in just two hours. This, combined with a still night which sent the flames rising perpendicularly to the sky and into the open space of Cathedral Square, meant that the Triangle was saved.

You may well think that the cause of the blaze had been a fire to heat the Matson and Torlesse Offices, “but there had been no fire used any where in the offices the whole of that day.”[8]


  1. One Photograph Black & White, 14 x 22 cm PhotoCD 6, IMG0068.
  2. Star, Issue 6571, 13 June 1889, Page 3.
  3. New Zealand views, photographic prints by F A Coxhead, The Octagon, Dunedin. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0011, Archive 342.
  4. Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXIII, Issue 2982, 14 February 1867, Page 3.
  5. Mr. Torlesses’ Report Upon the Canterbury Block. Lyttelton Times, Volume I, Issue 26, 5 July 1851, Page 7.
  6. The Canterbury Times, 21 Dec. 1910. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0079.
  7. Colonist, Volume VII, Issue 692, 14 June 1864, Page 2.
  8. Colonist, Volume VII, Issue 692, 14 June 1864, Page 2 and Wellington Independent, Volume XIX, Issue 2072, 9 June 1864, Page 4.

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