From Circus Paddock to Busy Tourist Street
In the early days of Christchurch, an open field along the west side of Manchester street, between Armagh and Gloucester streets, which was bounded by a row of well-grown English Poplars and known as the Circus Paddock, was regularly used for touring circuses which came to town.1 In modern-day Christchurch, it is has served as a busy pedestrianised street known as New Regent Street.
In 1888, the vacant section, covered in tall marsh-mallows, was sold to Mr Robert Henry Donnelly. He had come to the city after overseeing skating rinks in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tasmania, Sydney, Nelson and Dunedin. Wanting to build the largest skating rink in the colony, he began his plan to construct a rink which would stretch from Armagh to Gloucester Street.
Local architect, Thomas Cane was commissioned to design the building which would have a ‘state of the art‘ roof spanning 240 x 94 feet. Instead, it was supported with thick concrete columns which ran along the edge to support the thirteen wide roof rafters allowing the rink to be free of obstructions. Construction was carried out by the builder, Daniel Reese and a party of about forty labourers. Its main entrance would open onto Armagh Street, while the back entrance was positioned on Gloucester Street.
Considering the building’s ambitious engineering, there had been no accidents until just a few weeks before opening. On the afternoon of September 11th, Robert Russell fell after climbing up to the top of the circular roof. Holding his mortising mortar in his hand, he hoisted himself up to the lantern lights in the ceiling, he slipped and fell back eleven feet, down to the gallery floor below. Fully conscious after the fall, and complaining of significant
pain inside his body, he was transported to hospital by the foreman, Robert Smellie. The resident surgeon, Arthur C. de Renzy found Russell was in severe shock and had fractured several ribs. Tragically, a rupture to the bladder was not detected, and Russell died later.
Great Excitement as Palace Skating Rink Opens
There was great excitement and interest when the Palace Skating Rink was opened by the city’s mayor, Mr Louisson, on October 2nd, 1888. Its advertisements in the Christchurch Star boasted that it was ‘the largest and handsomest skating palace in the Southern Hemisphere’ and that it was ‘brilliantly illuminated with electric light’ which ‘thousands visited each day’. It offered an early session for beginners from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. at sixpence admission and free skates. Later from 10 – 12 p.m. was a ladies morning session which provided free admission and instruction. It opened again at 2.30 p.m. till 5 p.m. and charged one shilling for men and sixpence for women. While skating, the Palace Band would play for the skaters.
The number of visitors gave the owner, Mr Donnelly an extremely successful skating season. The Star reported,
“…it would be a matter of no ordinary difficulty to name any pastime which has met with so much favour generally from the residents (ladies in particular) of Christchurch as roller skating. Skating is, of course, by no means modern innovation, for we find it mentioned in the Edda, written several hundred years ago, in which the god Ulla is represented as distinguished by his beauty, arrows and skates. It has even been regarded as one of the best exercises by which man, as Klopstock says, “Like the Homeric gods strides with winged feet over the sea, transmuted into solid ground.” We also find Lord Tennyson ..delighted in the exercise.
The rink closed over its first summer perhaps due to the heat generated by its large roof. The second ‘season’ began on Monday, March 25th, 1889 and it was reported that it was “pleasant news to the large body of ladies and gentlemen who derived such a vast amount of amusement and exercise combined from their visits to the Palace floor last season.”
“Special inducements” were offered to season ticket holders, ladies could skate for free on Monday nights and clubs of twelve or more could make special arrangements with Mr Donnelly. The rink promised “the usual amusements such as races, carnivals will take place as before and will doubtless again provide good sport and entertainment.”
The Palace Rink was easily converted to a public venue and, in March 1889, the Autumn Horticultural Show was held here.3
By 1890 the high costs of the building had bankrupted the owner Donnelly, and the complex closed in 1891. “The sport of rinking died a natural death, and the building went a-begging for some time.”
From Skating Rink to Boot Factory
Much to the regret of the inhabitants of Christchurch, the laughter and fun of the rink were replaced with the noise produced by O’Brien’s Boot Factory, which moved into the vacant rink building in March 1891.
The vast space was ideal for a large factory which also had premises on Dundas Street, Sydenham. From the Armagh Street frontage to the rear at Gloucester Street, the open space was filled with a gas engine which supplied power for all the sewing, stamping and cutting machines. Part of the rink was converted into rooms which housed fifty or more riveters and piece hands who stood and sat at high wooden benches. There were small compartments for the clickers and finishers, and four larger compartments for the women who worked on the sewing machines. The women’s area was connected to their very own dining room and lavatories – which were at the original ladies cloakroom.
The factory owner’s office was above in the gallery area which gave him a good view of the 135 employers and the factory’s goings-on. 5
Unfortunately, the factory foreman could not prevent a poor girl being involved in the most horrific machine accident on July 6th, 1896. Although the machinery was well protected to prevent accidents, the sixteen-year-old machinist, Miss Isabella Cunningham, who frequently had worked on the skiving machine, was taking apart her binding and trimming machine to clean it. As was the practice on a Monday morning.
Annie Patterson, who worked on a machine next to Isabella, accidentally dropped a screw out of her machine. She could not find it outside the boarding of the shaft, so thought she might have dropped it inside the enclosure. Isabella went to the forewoman, Miss Dardis, who gave her some matches to use to see in the darkened space beneath the table. Isabella bent down and struck the match to look in the shaft enclosure. Her hanging hair was caught by the shaft and pulled in until her scalp was torn off.
Doctor Deamer was called to the factory, and he took her back to his surgery. Seeing the scalp was completely torn off, he sent her to the public hospital where Doctor Fox, the House Surgeon re-attached the scalp with stitches but after three weeks it did not heal.
Isabella was temporarily released on August 8th but had to return on August 18th. She underwent numerous operations where the surgeons took skin grafts from her arm to replace her scalp. By November 7th, her scalp had healed, but she was readmitted three weeks later after it had ulcerated. 6
Isabella’s father, Edward, took Mr O’Brien to court to sue him for £200 in damages. His claimed the machinery shaft was not fenced at the top. Unfortunately, the Magistrate laid the blame squarely on Isabella, who had already suffered much pain and disfigurement. In summing up, the Magistrate said,
“If the plaintiff had not been engaged in doing that which was altogether outside her duty, the accident could not have occurred. There is certainly negligence on the part of the plaintiff.”
Later, O’Brien’s Boot Factory closed. The old rink was transformed into a venue for visiting shows, politicians presenting public addresses, events, and speakers such as Mr Scott who gave a lecture on his world breaking achievement for walking one hundred miles in twenty four hours. At one stage it was also used as a taxi rank and garage.
The Resurgence of Skating
After being a factory, the former Palace Skating Rink re-opened around 1902, as the Colosseum Skating Rink.
By 1904 roller skating was a fashionable pastime again. Social gossip in the Wanganui Chronicle on May 16th, reported that “many Christchurch girls had become graceful and accomplished rinkers.” In fact, Mrs Ellen Rhodes, the extremely energetic daughter-in-law of prominent Canterbury Settler, Robert Heaton Rhodes, may well have set the trend, with her ‘skating at home’ event given at the Colosseum that same year.
Amusements and competitions began again. On Thursday night, May 4th, 1908, a seventeen-year-old skater called Harry Davis, who worked for a local ironmonger, along with fellow skaters, Willie Murray and Reg Barnett, attempted to lower the mile record, set at 3 minutes 21 seconds. “Harry was well known at the rink and could skate from the roof to the floor.” 9
The Colosseum Picture Hall
With the advent of the movie theatre industry, the rink was then leased and transformed by Fullers Pictures into the Colosseum Picture Theatre, opening on the night of June 8th, 1908. 11 The screen was placed across the middle of the hall, but according to Christchurch resident and author, Johannes Andersen, the seats were hard and the house cold. 12 Skating returned within two months, but the Colosseum continued to be used with some success by Fullers as a picture hall well into 1915.
As Christchurch had no Town Hall at that time, the Colosseum was also a popular venue for concerts, exhibitions, carnivals, political and vice-regal events – including a lecture by Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1917.13 By early June 1917, it was opening again with a new skating rink, the floors made extra smooth by an electric skating machine brought over from the Olympic Rink. 14
Despite the building having a ‘Glasgow lease system’ – a perpetually renewable leasing arrangement, whereby any improvements made by the tenant became the property of the owner when they quit their tenancy, more money was spent on renovations in 1919. The building was thoroughly renovated, new electric lighting installed, the floor upgraded and an additional entrance opened on Armagh Street. Afternoon and evening skaters would be accompanied by live orchestra and spectators could watch from the newly built balcony cafe – the latest idea from America. 15
The Colosseum continued to play host to many casual shows until the ‘ancient fabric’ of the building could take the strain no longer. In 1919, following one stormy political meeting, it was condemned by the city authorities. 16
Fullers Pictures were not ready to give up on the Colosseum. In 1920 the building was sold to Fuller Proprietary who had previously held the lease. While the price was not disclosed, it was believed to be in the region of £12,000. They intended to erect an elaborate vaudeville theatre on the site – the finest in Australasia, but it never eventuated. The property was sold, along with the Opera House in Auckland, by Fullers in 1927. 17 After which the Colosseum became the used car showroom for Dominion Motors Ltd.
New Regent Street
In 1929, city councillor George Gould (1865 – 1941) put the idea forward that the building should be demolished and the site developed into a shopping street lined by small boutiques.
The idea was agreed upon, and the site was sold to New Regent Street Ltd. They began planning the new development with local architect, Mr Harry Francis Willis (1893 – 1972, also designed the Edmond’s Clock Tower, the telephone cabinet in Oxford Terrace, and Santa Barbara Apartments on Victoria Street). He designed the street’s continuous line of twenty small shops each side in the fashionable Spanish Mission style. Each shared similar design features such as wrought iron verandahs and window boxes. Willis was also responsible for the newly built Repertory Theatre on Kilmore Street which also shared this style.
Although the street did not resemble its namesake – London’s famous shopping street – the name certainly conjured up a feeling of class and style to entice shoppers to visit.
The street was completed by the builders T. Andrews & Sons in 1931. It was one of just a few large-scale projects completed during the depression. The undergrounding of services, ventilation and lighting systems, and extensive steel reinforcing were acclaimed developments at the time. It was very ambitious to believe that forty separate titles could be leased at the cost of £2,500. The financial layout for interested retailers was high. They had to guarantee their commitment by paying a £100 deposit and pay a £4 weekly rent to the owners. The developers offered inducements to prospective tenants, including paying for “all municipal rates, taxes, fire insurance on buildings, earthquake insurance, plate glass insurance and verandah lighting, also flood lighting.”
The city mayor, Daniel G. Sullivan opened New Regent St on April 1st, 1932. Although most the shops were still unleased, New Regent Street was an instant delight to visitors.
“One cannot but admire the beautiful Tanson marble entrance executed by T. Andrews & Sons and the exquisite Spanish tiles which surround the British plate glass windows and pillars… The staircases, in the whole forty shops, have three easy grades leading to a showroom on the upper storey. Specially selected timbers have been used to give a rich effect to the interior.” described one visitor.
One of the street’s most iconic cafes was the fashionable Coffee Pot Cafe which operated during the 1940s and 50s. Reputedly one of Christchurch’s best places to eat, it also held art exhibitions. One of its more famous exhibitors was New Zealand’s artist Rita Angus who lived in Christchurch was a frequent cafe patron. Her solo exhibition of paintings, called ‘The Goddess Series‘ was held during the war and proved to be controversial as it represented her pacifist reaction to the war.
One of the oldest business in the street was Pastel Shoe Dyers at No. 28. which opened its doors in 1934. The second-longest surviving was Petersen’s Ltd Jewellers which opened on the Armagh Street corner in 1939.
After 63 years the street was converted to a pedestrian walkway. Tram tracks were laid down on the street the following year.
- Old Christchurch in Picture and Story, by Johannes C. Andersen. Page 424-425.
- Source: Christchurch City Libraries.
- Star, Issue 6489, 7 March 1889, Page 3.
- Star, Issue 7267, 12 September 1891, Page 1. Image: Paperspast.
- Star , Issue 7116, 18 March 1891, Page 4.
- Evening Post, Volume LII, Issue 37, 7 July 1896, Page 5 and The Star, December 14th, 1896, Page 3.
- Photograph by the Steffano Webb Photographic Studio, Christchurch. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library Ref. No.1/1-009250-G.
- Photo believed to be by Steffano Webb. Image: Hocken Collection.
- Star , Issue 9219, 25 April 1908, Page 6 and Issue 8632, 24 July 1906, Page 2.
- Source: Hocken Collection, Ref: 0369_01_003A
- Press, Volume LXIV, Issue 13136, 8 June 1908, Page 7.
- Old Christchurch in Picture and Story, by Johannes C. Andersen. Page 425.
- Press, Volume LXIV, Issue 13185, 4 August 1908, Page 7. Press, Volume LIII, Issue 15830, 20 February 1917, Page 6.
- Press, Volume LIII, Issue 15920, 6 June 1917, Page 9.
- Press, Volume LV, Issue 16495, 11 April 1919, Page 8.
- Press, Volume LVI, Issue 16947, 23 September 1920, Page 7.
- Evening Post, Volume CXIII, Issue 129, 4 June 1927, Page 25.
- The Romance of New Regent Street souvenir booklet, page 47