1880s Christchurch – Dull and as Flat as a Kitchen Table

In 1886, an English woman who called herself ‘Hopeful’, wrote of her experiences after emigrating to Christchurch, New Zealand.  She berated the agents of shipping companies who painted New Zealand in glowing terms to attract more people to emigrate. Hopeful felt she had made a huge sacrifice by giving up all she had loved in England and risking her safety during the treacherous three month voyage to get to the other side of the world. The new colony was described as ‘the land of promise… plenty … and hope’ but Hopeful tells it exactly as it was for her – a most disappointing experience – and she emphasised she was not alone in her thoughts. She met many disappointed emigrants who had left to go to Australia or were able to get back on a ship to return to England – if they could afford to.

Landing Immigrants at Lyttelton
A busy dock scene at Lyttelton, with steam and sailing ships, wharf buildings, and families awaiting their luggage, collecting their luggage and greeting friends and relations. Some are still being helped off the ship onto the wharf. [1]
On arrival at Lyttelton, Hopeful admits some disappointment but the feeling only grows once she makes her way to “The City of Plains” as it was commonly referred as, in the 1880s.

“It is as dull a spot as anyone would wish to pass their days in – there is very little amusement and everything is horribly local.” she laments.

Although she did not take to the country or the colonial society, and her writings may be a little biased, her impressions do go some way in exposing the ‘false truths’ fed to emigrants by shipping companies who were only interested in increasing passenger numbers to drum up revenue.  Some agents became very rich and had no concern for the fate or responsibility for the welfare of those they brought out. Hopeful’s critical eye of Christchurch provides an insight into the reality of arriving in a young country which was struggling to get itself up on its feet, and how difficult many emigrants found their integration to be.

The following passage, taken from her book, “Taken In” offers her impressions of Christchurch,

“….called the City of the Plains and named after Christ Church, Oxford and well indeed it deserves its former title – it is as flat as a kitchen table just turned and planed from a carpenter’s hand. The great plain extends for miles and miles, indeed every street is a mile long, and look this way, that way, north, south, east, west whichever way you will, but you will not find one curve, one bend, one undulation, mound or hillock, the effect is dismal in the extreme and most depressing to the spirits whether viewed in summer or winter.

View looking north up Colombo Street
A View of Colombo Street running north from the corner of Cathedral Square c. 1881. [2]
If it be the former – the sun blazing fiercely down on the rough cinder-coloured asphalte (sic), and the broad roads covered with cinder-coloured, great boulders of stone, the view is not pleasing, when you see the long street, you are making for, stretching ever so far before you, without one little bend or pretty peep or fine landmark of any kind to tempt you on,  the spirit sinks wearily; again in the winter you see the same flat view dimly lighted, your path most days wet and damp, and after rain it is dreadful to cross the broad road from one side of the street to the other, the filth being unutterable, and more like a bog than anything civilized.

The streets are all named after bishops either Colonial or English; thus we have Durham Street, Peterborough Street, St. Asaph Street, Salisbury Street, Manchester Street, Hereford Street, Gloucester Street, Worcester Street; we have also our Oxford Terrace, our Latimer Square and great many more ecclesiastical names. I am sure I don’t know if the young Colonial forms his or her idea of “My Lord Archbishop,” and the members of the Episcopal bench, from the dreary surroundings of these ecclesiastically named streets, if so they labour under quite a delusion. No, they should “My Lord” arrive on a Confirmation or a Visitation Day in the country, in all the pomp of full canonicals, with his staff of attendant clergy, some of whom are truly obsequious, and show their faith by firmly believing if only they can get near enough to creep up his lordship’s sleeve great things might come of it! Yes, the young Colonist would see a great deal to make him open his eyes on these august occasions so often to be seen in the old country.

The cathedral is the only bit of what may be termed architecture in the place, and when I say cathedral, you must not be misled and imagine that Christ Church Cathedral is a cathedral in reality or like anything at home or abroad.

ca 1880s Ref: 1/2-019743-F The Christchurch Cathedral building circa 1880s. Christchurch Cathedral was designed by the British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Quantity: 1 b&w original negative(s). DC Rights: Not restricted Format: 1 b&w original
The Christchurch Cathedral building circa 1880s. Christchurch Cathedral was designed by the British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. [3]
Oh! dear no, it is nothing more than a pretty, well designed church not so big as some of our large parish churches such as Swaffham in Norfolk, Eye in Suffolk, Spalding in Lincolnshire and so on, and I expect about six Christ Church Cathedrals would go into the far famed parish church of St. Michael’s, Coventry but of course for so young a country, it deserves its title; it is well and architecturally designed inside, and the spire is most elegant, being a landmark for miles round, and the only guide to find one’s way about so difficult a town as Christchurch.  All strangers complain of this. The town is built on the plan of a square from which the streets diverge, but for a long while one seems puzzled as all the streets look alike, at least in the chief centres of the town – shop after shop, with verandahs outside, all looking just alike – and beyond, the cathedral and post-office. There are no particular landmarks as in other places, so on first arrival, and indeed for some time after, the “City of the Plains” leads the poor stranger a weary and disheartening tramp. 

There are other public buildings I must mention but these are chiefly beyond the precincts of the town. There is the hospital, which is a nice building, pleasantly laid situated, with a good garden and ground, and the river Avon which is a pretty stream, is close by; then not very far from here is the museum, considered the best in New Zealand, then follows the public library, free from ten to ten, and also open on Sunday evening from seven till nine, and fairly well attended – the museum is also open on Sunday from two till five. For a small community the library is very good.

Date: [1880s] Ref: 1/2-055425-F View of Canterbury College, Worcester St and Canterbury Museum, Rolleston St, Christchurch, taken by an unknown photographer. Quantity: 1 b&w original negative(s). DC Rights: Not restricted Format: 1 b&w original negative(s), Single negative
View of Canterbury College, Worcester St and Canterbury Museum, Rolleston St, Christchurch. [4]
There are several banks, insurance offices, and other buildings of that description. The Normal School is a fine building supported by Government, and the College is one of the oldest institutions of the country, and has been a success, having turned out some good scholars who have gained honours at Home.

The hotels are mostly poor-looking buildings, and mere match-boxes, very different from anything you will see in our big towns, or provincial ones either, and indeed, cannot compare with some of the charming, clean, bustling, comfortable old fashioned inns, to be met within many country places and small towns in England. These buildings are quite devoid of the imposing grandeur of many of the town hotels at home, nor have they anything of the rustic, homely, welcoming look of those in our smaller towns and districts.

They have lately built a very fine hotel called the Hereford (the United Services) in the centre of the town (Cathedral Square) which would be a credit to any town of Christchurch size , but from one gathers it is a losing business and the contractor is supposed to have lost 2,5000 pounds by it.

There are some good shops. I may mention Bennington (sic) the chemist, who has as good a shop, and as well arranged and fitted up, as any of the same sort in England. Also some of the fruit and vegetable shops are prettily laid out, and make a good show, but the general aspect of the town, taken as a whole, with the exception of just the centre near the cathedral, is squalid and very poor looking – long, long, straight streets, without curve or bend, greet the eye whichever way you look, with no architectural beauty, and nothing to please the fancy or imagination.

City of Christchurch 1889
The city of Christchurch, taken from the balcony on the spire of Christchurch Cathedra, looking south across Cathedral Square and along Colombo Street towards the Port Hills. [5]
I had almost forgotten an important building – that is the theatre. This is a small building built in the usual manner, but without any internal beauty; it is not well attended as a rule, and is shut about half the year – it fills now and again for any special occasion; as a rule Christ Church people prefer local entertainments, which are forever going on – school affairs, bazaars, and things of that description, &c.  About three years back another theatre was built called the Queen’s but it has been a total failure as regards theatrical representations. Occasionally it is used as a lecture hall, or for bazaars, or for horticultural shows, and the Salvation Army for a time rented it while their own hall was being built, but, as I said before, it is not used for theatrical purposes, and the general aspect of the town is squalid and poor looking.  A great part of the houses and shops were built in the early times of the settlement, and are now gradually giving place to brick houses and a more English style. You may see pretty little gardens attached to the most humble shanties and sometimes a scarlet geranium growing all up the house and blooming magnificently, or sometimes it is a fuchsia, climbing in full bloom higher than the windows, and the richer houses in the suburbs and elsewhere have larger and more cultivated gardens attached to them, and splendid creepers up the house; sometimes you see large pots of camelias standing near the doorway enmass of bloom, and to an English eye it seems strange to see this flower, so highly prized at home and adorning the hair or breast of the more favoured of Fortune’s daughters, here carelessly stuck in the hat or button-hole of some street lad.

The tramway runs through the centre of the town, and to the various suburbs and here you may notice the difference of prices in the Colonies and at home – you pay threepence to go half-a-mile or a mile, and nothing under for ever so short a distance, whereas in that pleasant village London you can have many a nice jaunt for two pence and some amusement ino the bargain. You can go all the way from Brixton to Westminster for two pence, from Brixton to Blackfriars ditto, and indeed you may go between most parts of that little centre for that modest sum.

There is a very good working man’s club in Christchurch, possessed of a good library (later the Public Library) which also takes in the numerous home and Colonial papers. They have a dramatic and other entertainments once a fortnight, which are well supported. I must say I passed two or three most agreeable evenings at these entertainments; they were done very well, and did great credit to those engaged – songs, recitations, violin and other instrumental performances made the programme. The Variety Company, as one set of performers call themselves are an humble imitation of the Moore and Burgess Minstrels at home; I can say the conversation between Bones and Tambourine was quite as brilliant as we should hear at St. James’s Hall!  It was too local, but still it was amusing, and Mr. Johnson takes his place here also as the interlocutor, and numerous joke and local witticisms are indulged in, which plainly give great delight to the audience. After having been to this institution several times, I thought what a great pity it is that there is not more encouragement given at home to this sort of thing, where young men can meet and have the interest of working up their parts for some object – one shines on the violin, another on the cornet, another in singing a ballad; these talents must rust if there is no incentive to call them into play; but these public entertainments stimulate the performers to shine before their friends and acquaintances, and thus many an hour after work is pleasantly occupied which, most probably would be spent far less profitably if there were no such institution as the working man’s club – to which club I wish all success, and hope the day will dawn when there will be many like it both in the colonies and at home.

But taking Christ Church as a whole, I think it is about as dull a spot as anyone would wish to pass their days in – there is very little amusement; everything is horribly local.

Racing and betting however are carried on to a great extent here, and indeed throughout New Zealand. At one time sweeps and lotteries were so general, and the evil grew to such magnitude, that the Government interfered, and made it penal by way of suppressing it. I understand there is a great deal of dancing by a certain class, such as servants, barmen, barmaids, loafers, shop-girls – and a great many of that sort. I believe they are generally held in a back room of some small hotel There are also regular balls given quarterly, or at stated times by the better class which are well patronized. However, though so far, things are most distasteful to me, I must try and keep my ‘pecker’ up, and mind you do the same, old boy; and come what will, don’t you ever let a Colonist sit upon you; I won’t but they will if they can.


  1. Illustrated Australian news :Landing immigrants at Lyttelton, N. Z. Image: Alexander Turnball Library ID: PUBL-0119-1878-13.
  2. Photographer F.A.Coxhead. Image: National Library of New Zealand, Ref PAColl-4253-1-01.
  3. National Library of New Zealand Ref: 1/2-019743-F.
  4. Taken by an unknown photographer. Quantity: 1 b&w original negative(s). DC Rights: Not restricted Format: 1 b&w original negative(s), Single negative.
  5. Based on a photograph. Willis, Archibald Dudingston (Firm) :City of Christchurch, N. Z. W. Potts, lith, E. Wheeler & Son, Photo. A. D. Willis lithographer, Wanganui. 1889. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: ID: PUBL-0019-09.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Nigel Burrell says:

    Wow – I love this website! It is so interesting to read the migrant stories and their first impressions of Christchurch when they first arrived. In retrospect, these were the very early days of a new colony and as such it seems perplexing that they did not accept that a lot of hard work and city planning was still required. Surely it must have been in their minds that a new settlement was going to lack culture, the economy and government was still becoming established, and employment was going to be understandable volatile for a while. The migrants were obviously enticed and somewhat lead to believe that New Zealand was already well-established, full of job opportunities and housing. So it seems New Zealand was advertised (in the local papers) as an extension of life that they were already used to back in England. And so therefore I’ve always wondered what was the main drive behind attracting those to New Zealand in the first place, and I read that it was in part because of the shipping companies wanting to attract more passengers to obtain higher income. But was this the only reason? I’ve been told that it was also because the conditions that existing back in England wasn’t particularly great either, and that New Zealand was presented as the opportunity for those less fortunate to make a better life for themselves.


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