Built with earthquakes in mind – St. Michael and All the Angels Church c.1871

The Anglican church of St. Michael and All the Angels, at 84 Oxford Terrace, stands on the site of the first church the Canterbury Association’s settlers built in 1851.

St Michael’s and All the Angels church from the west along Lichfield Street taken soon after its construction in 1871.
St Michael’s and All the Angels church from the west along Lichfield Street taken soon after its construction in 1871. [1]

Perhaps there are few buildings in Canterbury around which the early associations of many amongst us – the pioneers of settlement in Canterbury  – entwine so closely as the old St. Michael’s Church, so soon to be numbered amongst the things of the past. In it not only have they worshipped, been married, or had their children christened, but there are those… who cherish many kindly remembrances of happy days of childhood spent there.

…the disappearance of the old structure hallowed by so many memories, cannot fail to be a cause of mixed pain and congratulation – pain because of the sweeping away of the old building we all know so well and love so truly – pleasure because of the token of material advancement evidenced by the erection of the stately structure destined to fill its place…

“The New Church of St. Michael and All Angels.” [2]

St Michaels 1860
The view of Christchurch looking south in May 1860, with St Michael’s in the centre distance, the old Land Office and Worcester Bridge in the foreground. [3]
This second church was designed by a little known architect, William Fitzjohn Crisp (1846 – 1924) who was given the task of designing a church for £1500 –  for which he received £120 5s 6d in commission. [4][5]

Crisp, the oldest child of a surgeon, had come out from England and become apprenticed to architect, Robert Kelfull Speechly [endnote Speechly was appointed to supervise the building of George Gilbert Scott’s Christ Church Cathedral in Cathedral Square.] in 1864. Both men were from the same village in Cambridgeshire – Whittlesey. During their youth they lived not far from each other before Speechly went to London to pursue his architectural career. Crisp would later become his business partner, then, after Speechly left Christchurch, would practice on his own.[6]

Considerable thought to survival in an earthquake

Unlike the ChristChurch Cathedral’s architect, Gilbert Scott, Crisp understood the conditions that he was building under especially as Christchurch had only just been shaken by a magnitude 5 quake centred under Addington or Spreydon on June 5th, 1869. Crisp’s architectural plans were drawn up with considerable thought to its survival in an earthquake. The construction material was chosen due to stone being unstable if subjected to earthquakes.

A meeting for the church parishioners was held on 14th December 1869 to present the concept plans for the new church. Julius von Haast gave some scientific information; the quake had been estimated as being a magnitude of 5 and the ground shaking intensity of MMI. Unfortunately, St. John’s on Hereford Street, which was the first Anglican church in Christchurch, had been built of stone in 1864- 65 and had suffered considerable damage. It was at this church meeting that the general consensus and opinion of the vestry was that due to the chance of more earthquakes, wood rather than stone should be used in the church’s construction.[7]

Could this be the very first St Michael's? Source: Star, August 14, 1926. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.
Source: Star, August 14, 1926. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.

“The new building will be of wood, on stone foundations, having an open timber roof of good pitch, with ample projection at eaves and gable. The plan of the church consists of nave with aisles, north and south transepts, a chancel and sanctuary, and chancel aisles. At the south-west corner of the structure a bell tower, 14 feet square internally, rises 55 feet, surmounted by a lofty spire. The church is entered from Oxford Terrace through a porch well contrived against north-west or south-west weather, and from Lichfield street by a porch cutting the north aisle in the second bay eastward. The nave, which is 83 feet in length by 24 feet 8 inches wide, is lighted by circular foliated windows in the clear story, and divided from side aisles by arcades of 5 bays. The transepts are 18 feet wide, but have slight projection on the plan. The chancel, 21 feet long by 20 wide, is separated from the nave by a low screen, and approached by 2 steps.

The north aisle forms the organ chapel, whilst that on the south will be used as a sacristy. The sanctuary, projecting 16 feet beyond, and being of the same width as the chancel, is lighted by a large window in the east gable, and correctly appointed. The length over all will be about 120 feet, and the church will accommodate upwards of 600 persons.” [8]

Back to the beginning – The first church of St. Michael and All the Angels

Towards the end of 1850, a migration of early colonists took place from Lyttelton, over the hills to settle in the new city of the plains – a grand city on paper, but in reality a vast expanse of fern and ‘tutu’.[9]

The first public ministration of the Church of England took place in a small hut in the parsonage grounds, immediately opposite the future church.

St Michael's Bell Clapper. Feilding Star, Volume XIX, Issue 22, 26 July 1897, Page 3
St Michael’s Bell Clapper. [15]
With an increase in parishioners, new accommodation was needed, and the nave of the first church, which would double as a schoolroom on week days, was erected and opened on July 20, 1851 by the Dean of Christchurch, who came over the hills from Lyttelton especially. He not only preached the first sermon within its walls, but also the last – on the evening of Monday, 29th 1872.

The exertions of a few early colonists succeeded in raising sufficient money to build the transept in 1854. Six years later, in 1860, the south aisle and bell tower were erected.

The congregation of St Michael’s continued to grow but the building of the Cathedral, the erection of St Luke’s and St John’s, plus the subdivision of the parish after the Cathedral build struck delays, meant any plans to enlarge St Michael’s were put on hold. It wasn’t until a meeting in December 1869 that a decision was made to build a new church as soon as £1000 could be raised.[10]

The old church was considered of insufficient size, its fabric in bad condition, and in ‘unhealthy closeness‘ – which combined, in the view of the church, to ‘make this a work of pressing necessity.'[11] However the church wardens resolved that no tenders would be advertised until £1000 had been raised from parishioners, churchmen and old Canterbury settlers.

Within a short period, by April 1870, they had just over £1500 on their books, however this would only be enough to cover the cost of the framework and as much lining as the funds could cover, leaving all ornament and the proposed tower to be added later when sufficient additional funds could be raised. [12] Towards the end of July, ‘The Press’ reported that the Building Committee had accepted the tender submitted by Daniel Reese (1842 – 1891) [13] for the erection of the greater portion of the new church –  the nave, transepts, aisles, and porches, but without lining, and with a temporary east end, for the sum of £1988. They were confident that the remainder needed would be raised once building was underway, and enlisted the ladies of the Church to organise a fund raising bazaar and gift auction, which would bring in much needed additional funds.[14] Materials from the old church, that were not to be reused, were salvaged and sold to aid the fund.

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

No more appropriate day than The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels could have been chosen for the laying of the cornerstone for the new church of the same name.

On September 29th, 1870, at the conclusion of a semi-choral service, the Bishop, clergy and congregation gathered on the site of the new church, where a large crowd waited. The day was warm and cloudless, with a gentle breeze to take the heat out of the day – no doubt a welcome relief for the Bishop who was dressed in full Ecclesiastical robes. Psalms were chanted by the choirs of St Michael, St John and St Luke churches, standing on one side of the stone, opposite the platform occupied by the Bishop and his clergy. Prayers were said, lessons read, hymns sung, then architect William Crisp stepped forward and placed a sealed glass vase in a cavity of the stone. This contained an inscribed velum scroll and copies of ‘The Press’, ‘Lyttelton Times’ and the ‘The Star’.

Crisp then passed a trowel to the Bishop, who spread mortar on the bed. The stone was lowered into place, the Bishop striking it with a mallet. Prayers and the Bishop’s address followed. More hymns were sung as a collection was made, netting a further £92 15s 6d for the fund.[16]

Crisp gives up on the project

Not long after the laying of the foundation, in 1871, the brisk and enthusiastic start to the new Church project hit obstacles. No sooner had the new year been rung in, than Crisp announced in ‘The Press’ that the contract between the builder, Daniel Reese and the Church was at an end.[17] Work on the new church abruptly halted.

The contract for the build should have been completed by the end of April, 1871. Whilst most people in the Church knew of the circumstances behind the delay, the Dean – The Very Reverend Henry Jacobs – would not comment publicly. As one of the ‘contracting parties‘, Reese was taking him to Court to recover £670 14s 10d he alleged was contractually due to him.[18] In Court, the Church claimed that Reese had ‘neglected to comply with the terms of the agreement in not placing upon the site, within two months from the date of the contract, all the timber to be used in the building‘. Unfortunately for Reese, his claim was unsuccessful. He also had to pay costs, including £60 15s for the Church’s legal fees.[19] With nothing to superintend, William Crisp left Christchurch and returned to England. [20]

After Crisp’s and Reese’s departures, the Christchurch architect, Frederick Stouts (1834 – 1919) and builder, James Shoolbraid (1839 – 1924) took over, and the new church was swiftly completed by June, 1871. However due to financial constraints, the chancel, bell tower and spire were not completed.

Exterior view St Michael and All Angels
Exterior view. Year unknown. [21]
One of the largest Churches of its kind

Typically Victorian Gothic in style, St Michael and All Angels was constructed mainly of the native wood, matai or black pine, brought specially from Picton, and is considered to be one of the largest churches of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Its foundations are of stone rubble. The interior decoration includes a significant collection of Victorian and Edwardian memorial stained glass windows which were created by leading English stained glass firms of the day. There are also a number of items, such as the stone font, which were brought out in one of the first four ships in 1850.

St. Michael and All Angels was opened on May 2nd, 1872 and continued to act as the Pro-Cathedral (from 1856) until the ChristChurch Cathedral was completed in 1881. In 1875, the chancel was finally completed.

The belfry, which stands separate from the church, was designed by Christchurch’s preeminent Victorian Gothic Revivalist architect, Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort. It was erected in 1861 to house an important bell which had also been brought out by the church on one of the first four ships in 1850. This bell acted as Christchurch’s first timepiece and was rung every hour of the day, to let the early settlement know what hour it was. It must have been a comforting sound to many settlers who were homesick for the old country.

The Gothic Revival inspired school hall on the corner of Durham and Tuam Street was designed by the first Education Board architect, Thomas Cane and was completed in 1877. The other historic building on the site is the stone school building which was designed in the Collegiate Gothic style by the noted Canterbury architect Cecil Wood in 1913.



  1. Source: Bridge and Hastings family records / Marion Hastings Bridge, Archive 334, p. 41 .Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL Photo CD5, IMG0097.
  2. Press, Volume XIX, Issue 2797, 19 April 1872, Page 2.
  3. Source: Alfred Charles Barker. Image: National Library of New Zealand, ID: 1/2-022720-F.
  4. St Michael’s and All Angels’, Star, Issue 493, 15 December 1869, Page 2.
  5. Star, Issue 1306, 2 May 1872, Page 2.
  6. The notice of partnership between Speechly and Crisp appeared in the Press, Volume X, Issue 1152, 18 July 1866, Page 1. During their partnership, they designed and superintended the build of Readymoney Robinson’s new house at Cheviot Hill in 1867; the Head Master’s house at Christ’s College and The Christ’s College Chapel, 1867; a new stone house for the Hon, John Hall, between Riccarton and Lincoln Roads, 1866; St Mary’s Church, Merivale, 1866; St Luke’s Church, 1867; Church of St John the Baptist, 1867; Templeton Church, 1867; Hall and Library for the Lyttelton Colonists’ Society, 1867. The partnership was dissolved on 13 May, 1868, after Speechly’s engagement as superintending architect for the Cathedral was terminated (The Press, Volume XII, Issue 1680, 16 May 1868, Page 1.) After this date, Crisp was advertising himself as an architect in his own right located on Cashel and Lichfield streets, and worked on residential alterations and additions. He also was reputed to have designed the Pegasus Arms in Oxford Terrace.] [endnote Directory of British Architects 1834-1914: A-K – Page 466.
  7. ‘St Michael’s and All Angels’, Star, Issue 493, 15 December 1869, Page 2.
  8. Star, Issue 562, 9 March 1870, Page 2.
  9. Tutu was notorious for being deadly to stock who consumed it.
  10. “The New Church of St. Michael and All Angels.” Press, Volume XIX, Issue 2797, 19 April 1872, Page 2.
  11. Star, Issue 544, 16 February 1870, Page 1.
  12. Press, Volume XVI, Issue 2182, 16 April 1870, Page 2.
  13. Obituary, Daniel Reece. Star, Issue 7286, 5 October 1891, Page 4.
  14. Press, Volume XVII, Issue 2263, 25 July 1870, Page 2.
  15. Feilding Star, Volume XIX, Issue 22, 26 July 1897, Page 3.
  16. Press, Volume XVII, Issue 2320, 30 September 1870, Page 2.
  17. Press, Volume XVIII, Issue 2400, 7 January 1871, Page 3.
  18. Press, Volume XVIII, Issue 2485, 18 April 1871, Page 3.
  19. Press, Volume XVIII, Issue 2579, 5 August 1871, Page 3. Press, Volume XVIII, Issue 2585, 12 August 1871, Page 2.
  20. On Crisp’s return to England he worked in the office of Architect Rowland Plumbe – famous for designing many residential schemes across London, married the daughter of a retired engineering surveyor, and worked as both a civil engineer and an architect for the Admiralty. Sources: Directory of British Architects 1834-1914: A-K – Page 466. England censuses 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.
  21. Photographer: Richardson, James. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-6745.

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