Early Days in Sydenham, how the Pioneers Fared

An interesting contribution to the history of the early days of Christchurch, and especially of the district now known as Sydenham, was made by Mr Henry Ffitch, of Glandovey road, Fendalton, in a series of reminiscences related by him to a “Press” representative.

Sydenham Gas Works, circa 1877. Source: State Library of Victoria. http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=MAIN&reset_config=true&docId=SLV_VOYAGER1730727
Sydenham Gas Works, circa 1877. [1]
“I remember very well,” said Mr Ffitch, “that part of the country on what is now the borough of Sydenham in the years 1851 and 1852. I have a vivid recollection of the country, in its native state at the time when the Canterbury settlers were just starting to settle on their lands purchased from the Canterbury Association before leaving England. The names of the settlers whose selections were in this locality were Archdeacon Wilson, below Wilson’s bridge, from whom it takes its name; H. and W. Clarkson, above the bridge; Captain Fisher —there is a store on the corner of his section now; Edward and Fred Bishop, at the end of what is now Aylmer street; Captain Simon, the west side of the Windmill road; Mr T. S. Karman, on the west side of the Upper Windmill road; Mr Caulfield, just below the town belt on the east side of the Windmill road; and Mr Edward Hobson, C.E., near the present site  of the Christchurch Gas Works. Over the Heathcote river were James Fisher and E. O. Latter (late Official Assignee for Christchurch), and Mr Charles Clark. The late Sir John Hall, I think, had a section where Sydenham Park is now. Also Mr Creyke had a section adjoining the section selected for my father. The area of these were from 50 to 100 acres.

“My father’s section of sixty-three acres, was bounded by the Windmill road on the west and on the east by H. and W. Clarkson’s section. Colombo street extended no further south than just below Sydenham Park. When my father sold his farm he gave the land for the continuation of Colombo street through to the present junction of Colombo street and the Windmill road corner (Windmill road was re-christened Antigua Street by the City Council in 1909, although the two names had been used interchangably since around the 1860s, so this would suggest it was the corner of Strickland and Colombo street). My father also had a preemptive right of purchase over 250 acres on the Port Hills, commencing from the hills at the end of the tram lane and up to Dyer’s Pass, including the site of Victoria Park and nearly the whole of the spur. This pre-emptive right my father sold for a very small amount, I am sorry to say. After a time we turned young cattle out to graze on the hills; as there were no fences we had some hard runs to muster them.


Where Colombo street meets Dyers Pass Road.
Where Colombo street meets Dyers Pass Road.

“My father brought about twenty tons of cargo with him from the Old Country, including a four-roomed house. This was brought round from Lyttelton in a small schooner of 22 tons called the Old Man. This schooner came up the river Heathcote as far as Wilson’s bridge, landing it there. It was then carried and wheeled in wheelbarrows across Clarkson’s section on to my father’s section. The site my father chose for the house was close to a sandhill. A hole was made in the side of the sandhill, in which my father and the man he brought out with him slept while putting up the house. We afterwards found Maori skeletons in this sandhill. One — a perfect one — we gave to Dr. Coward, which I believe he sent Home to the British Museum. Of course the whole country was in its native state, growing flax, fern, cabbage trees and tussocks, interspersed with waterholes and swamps. We used to walk to St. Michael’s Church across country; there were no fences, and the track wound round deep holes, flax bushes, and swamp. St. Michael’s Church was a small building then, with a large bell, hung on four posts, close to the ground. I believe this bell became cracked in some way, and had to be re-cast. I have heard that a gentleman took the clapper off for a joke and took it home to England with him. Archdeacon Mathias was incumbent.

St Michael's Bell Clapper. Feilding Star, Volume XIX, Issue 22, 26 July 1897, Page 3
St Michael’s Bell Clapper. [2]
”The first year was a very hard year for all; Nothing had been produced in the country, and the settler had to subsist on ships’ surplus stores mostly, and they were dear —American barrel flour £20 per ton, tea 3s 6d per lb, sugar 6d to 7d per lb, preserved apples 7d. Fresh meat of all kinds was very difficult to get owing to there being very little stock of any kind in the country. We had to be satisfied with barrel pork.

“I remember the first mob of sheep I saw in the country was a small mob of merino ewes, brought over from Australia by the late G. H. Monro, of Glenmark. They were grazing in my father’s paddock about a fortnight before going on to Glenmark. Part of the first crop of wheat which we grew from seed my father brought out with him, we carried down to Mr Tattus, who had a small stone hand mill, where we ground it, carried it home, sifted it through a fine cloth, and the bread made from that flour was very good – quite a treat after ship’s biscuits. Not long after, there were two flour mills started – lnwood’s on the Avon by the Hereford street bridge, and W. D. Wood’s windmill on the Windmill road, from which the road takes its name. Some of the first wheat my father grew in the country he sold to the late Mr John Deans, of Riccarton, at 10s per bushel.

Inwood's Mill stands with its foundations in the Avon.
View over the Avon to Inwood’s Flour Mill, the foundations of which sit in the river. Erected about 1858, it was known as ‘City Mill. It became know as Lane’s Mill some time in the late 1860s and was demolished in 1897. [3]
“We considered ourselves lucky in having a house; our neighbours were living in tents, V huts, or lean-tos: why they were called lean-tos I could not say, they had nothing to lean to; we had to economise. I remember my mother asking the man who my father brought out if he would have some more tea. His answer was, ‘No, thank you, ma’am; I’d just as soon drink cold water as hot.’

“There were no trees, with the exception of the Riccarton and Papanui Bushes. The settlers commenced to plant as soon as possible. My father bought from the late William Wilson (gardener) afterwards known as Cabbage Wilson, twelve small willow cuttings, about 9in long, giving 1s for them.

“Money-was very scarce at that time, and it was a hard matter to find it to pay wages. We used to help each other in the work of the farms, and barter, exchange, and borrow. I remember during one harvest we borrowed a ladder from a neighbour and used it through the harvest. We found out afterwards that they slept in a loft, and this ladder was the only means they had of getting up to bed; but they never asked for the ladder until we had no further use for it. How they managed we never knew.

“My father paid the man he brought out with him £1 per week. He stayed with us one year, and did very well in the country, soon getting a farm of his own. As a rule a man would not draw his wages until the end of the year, or even two, and trust to his employer to pay in a lump sum. I know one case where the employer could not find the money, and the man took the team of horses he was working as payment; his master getting further into his debt, eventually he took the farm from his employer, who then worked for him, taking his place as employee.

“Mr Edward Bishop had a man working for him as day labourer who used to walk from Lyttelton and back every day to his work; he was a Highlander. Day wages were 5s per day, without board.

“There were a few Maoris about dressed in their flax mats and flax sandals, invariably carrying their carved wooden spears. They were very friendly —almost too much so. They would come into the house without asking permission, take off the lid of the saucepan, and if it smelt good would stop and have some. We never said them nay.

“Although we worked hard and fared hard, we did not go to the Provincial Government for help. Nor did we have a Royal Commission to enquire into the cost of living; but had the true spirit of the pioneer and the colonist and had great faith in the country. But they harve nearly all passed away, as have their old homesteads and landmarks. A new order of things has taken place. The increase in the value of the land is enormous. The original price per acre to the Canterbury Association was £3. [4]Sydenham circa 1877. Source: State Library of Victoria. http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=MAIN&reset_config=true&docId=SLV_VOYAGER1730727


Mr. Henry Ffitch, who arrived in Lyttelton in 1851, died at Fendalton in 1918 at the age of 78. For many years he was inspector of farms for the Church Property Trustees. He came out from Essex with his father and family under the auspices of the Canterbury Association in the Sir George Pollock. For a number of years he was engaged in farming with his father in what is now Sydenham, and in the sixties he removed to Ellesmere, afterwards taking up the Woodstock run on the Waimakariri, where he remained for some years. He was also engaged in farming in the Oxford district before retiring to Fendalton. [6]

  1. Source: State Library of Victoria.
  2. St Michael’s Bell Clapper. Feilding Star, Volume XIX, Issue 22, 26 July 1897, Page 3.
  3. Image: National Library of New Zealand Ref: ID: 1/2-C-22845.
  4. “I REMEMBER.” Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14454, 7 September 1912, Page 14.
  5. Image: State Library of Victoria.
  6. Source: ‘OBITUARY’. Press, Volume LIV, Issue 16164, 19 March 1918, Page 7, and Evening Post, Volume XCV, Issue 69, 21 March 1918, Page 8.

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