The Government Provincial Buildings

View from the Canterbury Provincial Government Buildings c. 1860. Source: Dr. A. C. Barker. Image: Christchurch Cit Libraries, file ref: Photo CD2, IMG0007.

Christchurch has a frontier appearance about it in this photograph taken by Dr. Barker in 1860 from the tower of the Canterbury Provincial Buildings.  With little beyond the immediate streets, it certainly has an appearance of being very small and very isolated in the middle of a large swampy plain.  However, there are some semblances of development such as the small bridge that has been built over the Avon at Armagh Street and the new Canterbury Provincial Building.

Within this building, Canterbury’s founding politicians made their greatest plans for the fledgling province.  They were ‘possessed with a dream’ of creating an ‘English Eutopia on the other side of the world’.  Decisions, such as appointing the Gothic revivalist, Benjamin Mountford as the official  provincial architect to build stone and plastered buildings within the inner city were well thought out with intellectual and aesthetic vision which generations of the city’s residents had the pleasure to use and enjoy.

After John Robert Godley left the settlement, the Provincial Government system was introduced throughout New Zealand. A provincial government building, based on the English parliamentary system was planned, but was not begun until 1857 when a suite of offices and small wooden council chamber was built on Durham Street.  After it was opened in 1859, it proved too small for the parliament, reporters and ‘strangers’ in the galleries and so, extensions were planned

A second addition in the shape of a long wooden building was built along Armagh Street and around the corner into Durham Street to join up with the smaller original building.   It was bisected by a  red stone tower with a clock which had been made in England. Unfortunately, when the clock was fitted, it proved to be too heavy and so was put into storage until years later, it was erected as the Jubilee Clock on High Street.

By 1861, Canterbury’s development was making good progress and the council had grown from twelve to thirty five politicians.  Finance was made available to build Mountfort’s High Victorian Gothic Revival stone legislative chamber.

This was opened by the Superintendent, Mr Samuel Bealey on November 21st, 1865.  What the Canterbury founding fathers had accomplished in just fifteen years was astounding – a railway tunnel through the city to the port of Lyttelton was almost complete, the economy was gaining strength and the small town had gained city status.

The Canterbury Provincial Buildings. Source: Bridge and Hastings family records / Marion Hastings Bridge Archive 334, p. 368. Image: Christchurch City Libraries file ref: PhotoCD 14 IMG0017.

The stone work on the Canterbury Provincial Chambers was completed by William Brassington’s and his team of stone masons.  They had been allowed to carve small adornments such as masks of international figures to the legislative’s interior stonework. Brassington and a Mr. St. Quentin, who stencilled ornate designs on the ridge and furrow ceiling, carved their heads there. Even a local barmaid named “Nell” was immortalised alongside them. The tops of the stone side pillars have ornately carved leaves of New Zealand and English trees.

Symbolism has also been included on the walls of the chamber. Above the visitors gallery two hands are shaking. There is a shirt cuff and a coat sleeve end attached while the other hand is large and rough, acknowledging the professional skills of the architect and expertise of the tradesmen to construct the building.  Above the reporters’ gallery is a carving of a toad and a monkey which tells us the political press was considered to be as sly as a monkey and as slippery as a toad.

The stained glass windows contain texts that were chosen to impart wisdom or give guidance to the lofty members of the Provincial Council. The quotes include:

Provincial Building suffers earthquake damage
Provincial Building suffers earthquake damage 1929. Source: Evening Post, Volume CVII, Issue 57, 11 March 1929, Page 10. Image: Papers Past.

Good sense and reason ought to be the umpire of all rules.
Better is he that hideth his folly than a man that hideth his wisdom.
Refrain not to speak when there is occasion to do good.
Censure is the tax a man pays to the public for being eminent.

The dining room named Bellamys after the British House of Parliament’s dining room, had dining facilities, a smoking and coffee room, library and a balcony on the upper floor.

The housekeeper, Mrs Potten,  (who remained as such throughout the rest of the Provincial council’s tenure) had an impressive three storey residence adjoining Bellamys.  Her front door had a sanctuary door handle similar to those seen on the cathedrals’ doors of Europe. This was a symbolical of her immunity from the ‘political circus’ that revolved around her.  Mr and Mrs Potten’s masks were also carved above the courtyard doorway.

Because the buildings were constructed so quickly over a period of six years, they were never linked with internal doorways. Cloisters, (long low corridors), were built to provide covered access ways between the buildings. Visitors could well imagine that they were walking along the flagstones of a monastery.

When New Zealand formed a central government in 1876, the Provincial government buildings were occupied by a number of different government departments.

From the 1970’s, the Canterbury Regional Council and government departments were there. From 1993 to the present time,   the Christchurch City Council, were responsible for the restoration and preservation of these unique and wonderful buildings.

Despite the swamps, empty paddocks and the unhealthy environment many Christchurch dwellers were living in, the Provincial Government Buildings solidity and air of permanence, seemed to herald the message that Christchurch was a flourishing city with a long-term future.

Looking Across the Avon River to the Canterbury Provincial Buildings in 1953. Source: Private Collection, Photographer Patricia Gregan, Colour Slide image 225. Click to enlarge.
View from the river side, November 2010.
View from the river side, November 2010. Copyright Wendy Riley. Click to enlarge.

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