William H. Harris, Wholesale Tinsmith, 101 Colombo Street, 1898

The neat and narrow, plastered brick building of William Henry Harris, Tinsmith of Christchurch stood at 101 Colombo Street in a matching line with a set of others. Standing opposite Mason Struthers, the building possesses a classical influence while the windows display an Arts Deco lineal frame around them. At one side of the shop, an iron bed fully made up, sits on the yard while behind the sun shade in the window, a collection of his shiny trophies are displayed.

Born in Christchurch on February 2nd, 1869, William was the son of Henry Harris and Jane Piper and brother to four girls and another boy. Family life was happy but followed a strict, adherence to the Baptist Church. When William was of age, he began his apprenticeship with a tinsmith. Unfortunately, his father died at a relatively young age in 1887.  Eighteen year old William, persuaded his mother to mortgage the family home for one hundred pounds so he could buy into a partnership at the “Canterbury Wire Works”.

The financial risk paid off and soon William had earned enough to purchase the company and change its name to his own,  W. H. Harris Ltd, Sheet Metal and Wireworkers.

William H. Harris, Wholesale Tinsmith, 101 Colombo Street 1898
William H. Harris, Wholesale Tinsmith, 101 Colombo Street 1898. Source: Industries of New Zealand, Illustrated, page 121. Image: Christchurch City Libraries PhotoCD 13, IMG0015

A newspaper article published in the Spectator:

“Situated at No. 45, Colombo Street South, are the commodious and thoroughly practical premises of Mr. W. H. Harris who is the owner of the largest tinsmith business in the city of Christchurch.  It has not grown up in a day, for its fifteen years since Mr. Harris having just completed his apprenticeship, determined to make a start “on his own.”

He began in premises in Lichfield Street where G. Paylins’s warehouse now stands with three assistants. After a few years he found the premises too small, and removed to Colombo Street (opposite Mason, Struthers) where he carried on business until about a year ago.

The steady growth of the concern compelled him to build and the result is the fine two storeyed set of premises now occupied which were completed about a year ago. The premises occupy twenty eight feet and a half feet frontage to the street, and extend 165 feet back.  The shop is about thirty feet deep and gives room for a good display of the general stock manufactured on the premises. In the window may be seen some fine samples of the japanned travelling trunks, for which Mr. Harris is noted.  

The shop is hung with all classes of tinware, such as buckets, watercans, kettles, and on the floor are samples of the portable boilers, iron baths, and corrugated iron tanks manufactured, whilst the samples of dairy goods such as milk cans, vats, aertors (Stephen’s patent) show that the business is an all round one, catering alike for town and country.  

A neat and commodious office adjoins the front shop, furnished with telephone No. 200, which, it is needless to say is in frequent use. Passing from the shop through a small stock room we enter the main factory, a room about 85 feet long and the full width of the section. Here are engaged the bulk of the operatives, on the various processes connected with a large and diversified tinsmith factor.

Numerous machines are being operated and there is an alertness and energy about the hands which speak well for the management. Beyond this is the canister room where some of the hands are manufacturing the tins in which various local firms do up their goods for retail sale. By means of machinery operated by a powerful gas engine, the labour is reduced to a minimum and a very large turnover is done in this department. behind this, again, is the japanning room, where are two furnaces, fitted up with all the latest improvements for the purpose of japanning the many articles which require a polish and a finish.

Returning to the front premises, a short visit is paid to the top floor, where is to be seen a very large stock of manufactured goods, from which orders are executed as they come rolling in.  

In the course of a short chat, Mr. Harris assured our representative that his business has steadily grown all the time and is still growing. He now employs twenty six hands and the output constantly increases. The bulk of his business is with North Canterbury but the quality of the articles turned out is rapidly extending the demand.

When the Midland Railway is completed, like many other business men Mr. Harris expects to secure a fair share of the West Coast trade, which now goes to Wellington. Evidently Mr. Harris has a sound and prosperous business, and has it well in hand, and the Spectator, accordingly congratulates him on the fact.”

By 1905, William was organising another move and he advertised the premises for lease at a ‘reasonable rate to a good tenant’. The building offered ideal space for a retail shop with very large workshops at back, and a right-of-way. By 1914 he was occupying premises at 19 Colombo Street, employing a young lad who meet an unpleasant end whilst working with an acetylene lamp in a room at the back of his parent’s residence, in Hawdon Street, Sydenham, whilst preparing for night work –  highlighting the fact that metalworking could be a very dangerous occupation.


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