Christchurch’s First Town Hall, High Street

During the year 1857, developments moved closer towards making colonial Christchurch a working city. The Bridle Path opening in March, provided emigrants direct access to and from Lyttelton, on a somewhat steep and sometimes treacherous track.  The opening of the city’s first town hall in October provided the residents with a suitable venue for meetings and entertainment.

The old Town Hall
The Old Town Hall. [1]
High Street (between Cashel and Lichfield Streets) was chosen as a suitable central site for the public building. Privately owned by a group of shareholders, the hall was constructed in wood and designed in an ornate neo-Gothic style.  The interior of the hall was graced with a portrait of the province’s founder, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (this was later relocated to the Canterbury Museum).

It was opened on October 1st, 1857, and its first public performance was a musical concert which the Lyttelton Times editor, James Fitzgerald attended and duly reported on,

“The occasion was full of pleasant interest.  For the first attempt at a concert, with a fair number of performers and in a spacious building filled to overflowing, showed that the trial and struggle for life’s bare necessaries endured by the first settlers were becoming less severe – that there were now time and means available for innocent recreation.  It must always be satisfactory in such communities as ours to see a wish to recur to pursuits, which in their own way, indicate a recollection that we are born for something higher than to seek a supply of our bodily wants. We hope that the first concert will be followed by many others, and that audience and performers will always be as well pleased with each other as they were on Thursday last.” [2]

Although it served for public meetings and the Magistrate’s and Supreme court, it was not ever going to be a perfect solution for the growing city. A larger more permanent town hall was needed so it was decided that as soon as funds allowed, a larger addition would be built.

In the Lyttelton Times, 8th January 1862, a report appeared on the progress of a new town hall,

“Mr Packer rose to move Government to place on the estimates a sum of money in aid of the Christchurch Town Hall. The house would recollect that assistance had been given for the building. The main portion was now erected and used partly by the Government for the sittings of the Magistrates’ Court. It was found that to supply the wants of this Court additional accommodation would be necessary, and the shareholders were prepared to subscribe 350 pounds if the Government granted 250 pounds. Showing their willingness to do what they could, they might fairly ask aid. It was a pity that the building should remain in an unfinished state, and the shareholders were willing to do their part. With them there was no questions of profit; they did not anticipate any.  He would move that his Honour be requested to place on the estimates a sum of 250 pounds to assist in building additional rooms to the Hall. 

Mr Olliver would only remark that  Government would be granting this sum having advanced 550 pounds to 950 pounds paid by shareholders, and for this he thought they ought to require a separate room for the use of the court.  He should like to know if it was their intention to provide accommodation to this extent.

Mr Packer said it was intended to build three rooms, two of which would be occupied by a caretaker of the premises. He could not promise that the other room should be devoted exclusively to the use of the Government, but they could have any fictures there in which they required, and the shareholders would be always ready to afford them any amount of accommodation either in that room or the large hall.

The motion was carried to a division.

A architectural competition was organised and advertised in the Lyttelton Times newspaper in January 1862.



The committee of the Town Hall invite designs for the erection of a New Hall to cover the site  between the present Town Hall and Mr. Watson’s House. The designs to be furnished by the 1st March next.  An offer of five pounds each will be given for the three best designs.

Further particulars may be obtained from the undersign.

W. WILSON, Hon. Sec. Jan. 24th 1862 [3]


Pursuant to advertisement a public meeting of the shareholders in the Town Hall was held in the building on Tuesday evening the 31st of December.  John Hall, Esq. in the chair, when the following report of the Committee of Management was submitted to the meeting:-

“Your committee, in presenting to you their fifth annual report, congratulate you on the extent to which during the past year the Hall has been found to be useful to the public, both on occasions which are a source of income other shareholders and on those on which its gratuitous occupation has been afforded to the Provincial Government. The amount of such gratuitous accommodation is not so well known as might be desired. The Hall has been occupied during the year 1861 for the purposes of the Supreme Court for 37 days and 10 days for other purposes connected with the Provincial Government; the ordinary rental for such an occupation would amount to considerably more than 100 pounds.

Your committee do no refer to this question in any grudging spirit, but they desire to point out that the arrangement under which a sum of money was advanced by the Government towards the erection of the Hall has provided an advantageous one for the public.

Your committee submit the Treasurer’s accounts of receipts and disbursements during the past year.  You will perceive that after providing for current repairs, and for the balance 33 pounds for the purchase money of the site for enlarging the Hall, there remains a balance in hand of 102 pounds 18 shillings 11 pence. Believing that it is not the wish of the shareholders to receive any such balance in the shape of dividend so long as it is required for the improvement and completion of their building, your Committee recommend that it should be devoted to this purpose.

Some temporary repairs to the south end of the Hall, the lining of the side walls and an improvement to the foot path in front of the building, appear to be much required; and if you concur in this opinion your Committee will take the necessary steps for having them effected.

You are aware that for a long time past complaints have been made of the incomplete condition of the hall and of the limited accommodation which it provides, but you have doubtless attached the less weight to these remarks than have generally proceeded from gentlemen who have no interest in the building, who have abstained from sharing in the trouble, the responsibility and the outlay, by mean of which you have provided such accommodation for the public, and for which you have received next to no returns.

Your committee believe however that the time has now arrived when an extension of the Town Hall is urgently needed and when an appeal may with a fair prospect of success be made to the public or co-operation in carrying out the work. They recommend, therefore, that a room of larger dimension be erected on the site already provided at the western side of the Hall. The Provincial Council has already voted the sum of 300  pounds in aid of this object, on condition that the period for which the Government is entitled to the gratuitous use of the Town Hall shall be extended.

Your committee although the sum in question appear to them smaller than under all the circumstances you had a right to hope for, recommend that the condition be acceded to. Also that the remain sum required for the new buildings be raised by the issue of new shares, or by means of mortgage, or by both, as may hereafter appear most expedient.  In the event of additional shares being issued, your Committee recommend that all the shareholders be enrolled as a public company, under the provisions of the Public Company’s Act, 1860.” By this means the liability of the shareholders will be limited to the amount of their respective share. With a view of ascertaining the amount of capital which it will be necessary to raise your Committee  I think it desirable that designs for the new building should at once be called for together with estimates of its cost if executed in wood, in brick or stone.

As the term for which your committee was appointed has now expired they ask that if you approve of the above suggestions you will give to the managing committees for the ensuing year the necessary authority for carrying them into effect.

John Hall, Chairman.

It was then moved, seconded and carried, “That the report now read be adopted by this meeting and that the Managing Committee for the ensuring year is hereby fully authorised to take the necessary steps for giving effect to the recommendations contained in that report. Motion was further made and carried that the following gentlemen be elected for the ensuing year. [4]

A committee for the new town hall was formed to decide on its design.  They advertised for designs for important additions and alterations to the building and offered prizes for the same, several sets of designs were sent in. The first prize was awarded to Messrs. Mallinson & Co., the second to Mr. Barnaard and the third to Mr. Stroutes. The palm, we think has been very justly awarded as Messrs. Mallison & Co. have taken pains to consider the former architect’s ideas in assimilating the additions to the style of the present building, without adopting its generally disliked proportions.  The designers have evidently been attempting to make a very ugly piece of work a useful adjunct, and en masse it will be a handsome pile of buildings. The additions are to be in brick, ornamentally worked.” [5]

Elijah Gadd owned a stone quarry at the foot of the Port Hills in Heathcote Valley in the 1850s – 60s and quoted that he could supply stone material for the new town hall’s walls and foundations etc at 30/- a yard.  At a meeting of the County Freehold Society, he recommended that the society wait until they had accumulated enough funds to purchase 800 acres of land which he thought was a sufficient amount of land to build a city. William Wilson recommended four hundred acres.

The larger brick and stone Gothic styled building was built adjacent to the original hall in 1862-63.

During the 1868 earthquake the stone portion of the Town Hall was shaken up, but it apparently ‘righted itself’ and was used for a further two more years before another quake in 1870 did further damage. A couple of architects were said to have declared it safe, but the public were not convinced, and after a few theatrical performances, the hall was ‘condemned’ going out of use as a place of public entertainment. However it was used occasionally as an auction room by Beath & Co.

In April 1873 fire ripped through the building, finishing off what the earthquakes had started. The property was disposed of by auction in October, obtained by Mr Strange for £7000, and the debris from the fire fetched another £300. Both sites on which the halls stood, were later built on by Strange’s Department Store and then Butterfields.


  1. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story by Johannes C. Andersen p. 357 – 360 and A Dream Come True by W. J. A. Brittenden, Chapter 1. The Canterbury Times, 16th December 1900, page 30. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Ref: PhotoCD 10, IMG0020.
  2. Papers Past, The Lyttelton Times, 7th October 1857.
  3. Papers Past, Lyttelton Times 29th Jan. 1862.
  4. Papers Past, Lyttelton Times, January 8th, 1862.
  5. Papers Past, Lyttelton Times April 5th, 1862.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wendy says:

    “The first TOWN HALL

    It was low on the studs, with a frontage of about 30 feet on the Ferry Road as High St was called, and a depth of about 60. Here the Supreme Court first sat when removed from Lyttelton, Gresson being the Judge.

    The present Sir John Hall, Sheriff, about 1858-9. Mr T.S. Duncan Crown Prosecutor.

    It was done away with and a stone building on the present site of Strange’s built in stone, Gadd contractor. It was one of the first stone buildings and almost at once had a cracked wall.

    In these buildings all the early politicians held their electoral meetings, Fitzgerald, Hall, Weld, Cracroft Wilson, Sewell, Moorhouse, Crosbie Ward, Brittan, Tancred, Wakefield, and the next generation of Montgomery, Turnbull, W. Williams, &c.

    Here also were held the Balls, Provincial Balls, as it were, where all the “quality” were to be seen – the Russells of Ilam, Lance, Creyke, Mallocks, Walker, and here the old musicians used to play to their dancing. Ben Button, Fuller, Thompson, Tankard, Button [sic] Crooks, Coombs.”

    William Ellison Burke
    Source: Burke’s Manuscript, 1850-1860. Christchurch City Libraries:


  2. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    A story circulated in Oct 1911 by the Truth, indicated the section for the Town Hall had originally been given by Michael Brannan Hart (arrived on board one of the first four ships, publican of the White Hart. mayor, city councillor), and the hall subsequently vested in the Town Hall Company.

    An old resident of Christchurch had written to the paper saying that in the 1860s the public of Christchurch subscribed money sufficient to buy a Town Hall site, situated in High street. The freehold was vested in two trustees on behalf of the city.

    Apparently, at the time the section and remains of the Town Hall was sold to Mr Strange, the Town Hall Company was broke so there was nothing left from the sale to distribute back to the shareholders – the public.
    Source: OLD CHRISTCHURCH. NZ Truth , Issue 330, 21 October 1911, Page 5. Papers Past.


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