Steam and Speed, Christchurch’s Railway Station in 1878

The Original Railway Station
The Original Railway Station, the No. 1 (Pilgrim) & No. 2 Locomotives on the Irish Broad Gauge Line c. 1864. Source: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference: PhotoCD 5, IMG0084 Ephemera 25.

Tiny British-made locomotive engines first began chugging between Ferrymead’s Wharf on the estuary and the city on December 1st, 1863.

This was New Zealand’s first public railway line, offering the early settlers an easier way to haul their luggage and furniture as well as providing an efficient transport system across the seven kilometres to Christchurch’s first rail terminus building on South Belt.

Canterbury was the first recipient of a railway thanks to Canterbury’s Superintendent, William Moorhouse or “Railway Billy” as he was nicknamed. He was renowned for his ‘fanatical’ belief that New Zealand should be linked up with rail as soon as it was viably possible. It was reported that he famously replied to a public toast at a provincial dinner that he hoped that he would,

“ day be able to send a clerk to Timaru from Christchurch after breakfast with instructions to return home for tea!”

The Christchurch Railway Station, 1878.
A Postcard of the Christchurch Railway, signed Love from Jess, dated 1878. Source of Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0098.

Although his comment was greeted with a roar of incredulous laughter, Moorhouse did actually live to see the country’s first main trunk line open between Christchurch and Dunedin in 1877.

Offering a speedy 11-hour trip, the journey by train was a more comfortable and safe alternative compared to a sea voyage, riding a horse or sitting in a coach – which had to climb steep passes and navigate through thick bush and cross treacherous rivers.

A grand station to reflect the status of the Province

Linking two major cities with a reliable transport system was hugely significant not only to New Zealand’s progress but to the city as a starting point and destination. It was of great importance to the forefathers to design the city’s railway station reflecting the province’s new found status, wealth and progress. And so the design brief given to Canterbury’s Railway Engineer, Mr. John Godfrey Warner, was that the station should be a top Class-1 station, using the highest Victorian Gothic style to reflect the province’s emerging status.

The new and larger passenger railway station was built near the site of the earlier passenger railway station. There was much concern when the Provincial Government had intimated that the new passenger station was to moved from the original station’s original position. A public petition signed by 400 citizens wrote appealing to the provincial position it adjacent to where the original one stood.

The Railway Passenger Station

The following is the text of the petition now being circulated for signature in the city:-

To the Honourable the Provincial Council of Canterbury, in Council assembled, – Your petitioners have read in the report of the proceedings of your honourable Council that it is proposed to remove the Christchurch Railway passenger station to some more convenient position.

Spectacular view of the Railway Station on South Belt, as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, also shows the Terminus Hotel opposite, which was on the corner of Manchester and South Belt (Moorhouse).
Spectacular view of the Railway Station on South Belt, as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, also shows the Terminus Hotel opposite, which was on the corner of Manchester and South Belt (Moorhouse).

In the absence of any further information which will enable your petitioners to form any opinion upon the subject under consideration, your petitioners would most respectfully suggest that a position closely adjacent to the present passenger station should be chosen as, for example, about the site of the present railway traffic-manager’s house, which would be in juxtaposition also with the goods shed – unless it shall be the intention of the Government to bring the passenger traffic into some more central position within the city of Christchurch.

Your petitioners would, however, urgently pray that in any case, the contemplated action of the Government may be made known to the public, in order that the inhabitants of Christchurch who are so largely interested in the change, may be afforded the opportunity of duly considering the matter before any final determination shall be arrived at. And your petitioners will ever pray, &.

Between 400 and 500 persons have already signed the petition, which now lies at Mr Makeig’s office, Hereford Street. [endnote Taken from Past Papers, Christchurch Star, 15 June, 1874]

The new passenger station’s foundation stone was laid by Superintendent William Rolleston on November 22nd, 1876 . This was one of Rolleston’s last public duties. Christchurch’s new station was officially opened on December 21st, 1877.

The most perfect railway station in New Zealand

The building was constructed of local brick with Cass Peak and White Rock stone facings. Described as “the most perfect railway station in New Zealand”, it had gone well over budget, amounting to a massive £7,072.  However the importance and the amount of service this public building provided – hundreds of thousands of people travelling between the South Island from the time of its opening until its demolition  – meant that it outweighed the high costs.

Scene on a platform at the Christchurch Railway Station, circa 1910. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference Number: 1/2-038597-F.

This building was a social hub which witnessed  the daily comings and goings, the welcomes and farewells, and the anticipations and sorrows of the Victorian and Edwardians of Christchurch. It shifted politicians, government officials, commercial travellers, circuses and touring entertainers, as well as the mundane but important transportation of mail, newspapers, parcels, products and goods of every kind. It was an important building for tourists and overseas visitors such as British royalty who travelled the South Island by train. So influential was the Christchurch Railway Station that local business activities would often revolve around the train timetable.

This station provided the ‘hallmark railway refreshment rooms,’ where neatly attired waiters and waitresses served convenient food such as savouries, sandwiches, cakes and steaming hot tea for waiting passengers.  Amongst the hub bub on the platform, newsboys would sell the local papers to travellers.

Christchurch Railway Station 1887
Christchurch Railway Station 1887, Source: The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 2 (June 1, 1927). Image: New Zealand Electronic Text Centre.

By January, 1879, the railway line was extended south to the town of Invercargill, a fifteen hour journey to Christchurch. This line was later taken to the Lyttelton Tunnel and then extended south to the Selwyn River. There were also plans for a northern line to Rangiora.

With rail travel becoming more and more popular, plans were made by the Department of Railways to build a new station in 1914. On the eve of World War One, the plans were postponed. Architect drawings were made public in the Department of Railways’ annual report in 1938 but the advent of another war meant any plans for development were not a possibility.

Brutal Bauhaus replaces Victorian Gothic

In 1953, minor additions were made to the plans by the architects, Gray Young, Morton Calder. Finally a new plan was agreed upon and the old railway station was demolished in 1959.

The supervising architects, M, Seward & Stanton worked alongside the builders Wilkins and Davies (foundations), P. Graham & Son (superstructure). The new and very different station was officially opened on November 1st, 1960 by the Minister of Railways, the Hon. Michael Moohan (1899 – 1967).

The new station could not have been more different. It was a vast, rather brutal Bauhaus styled, red brick with a massive clock tower. Apart from Princess Margaret Hospital, the new station was the largest building to be built in Christchurch for a considerable time. It was said that, “The new Christchurch station is a magnificent symbol of the steady modernisation of New Zealand’s railway system, planned to meet the needs of a dynamic and vigorous community.” (Source: Christchurch City Civic Developments)  The station contained a large number of offices for railway employees. However, due to the declining popularity of rail travel, the station never reached its full potential.

The new Railway Station, 1959. Image: Private collection.
The popularity of Private Cars signals the demise of Public Rail

Its slow demise can be partly blamed to the increasing use of the private car and transport truck.

Over the years, the passenger services were reduced. The station closed in the late 1980s and a new and smaller station was built alongside the tracks further south off Blenheim Road.

The drive and foresight of Moorhouse gave Canterbury connections to expand the province’s commercial opportunities. In appreciation of his service, the colonists named the Lyttelton Tunnel after Moorhouse however his name has long since been discontinued – remembered by Moorhouse Avenue on which the Christchurch Railway Station stood. A statue in his memory stands in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens facing the entrance of the tunnel he saw built.





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