Christchurch Gardens – Their Early History

The Old and the New 1

Christchurch people of the younger generations and strangers to the city who wander among the ordered prettinesses of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, and pace along the pleasant winding paths between old-world blooms and old-world trees, can scarcely realise that little more than 50 years ago the place whereon all this beauty grows was a waste, yet so it was. Less than 60 years ago there were sandhills from where the City Council Chambers are situated now, at the corner of Worcester and Durham Streets, to more than half-way across North Hagley Park.

The greater portion of North Hagley Park and of the Domain Gardens consisted of sand on shingle, with little more vegetation than grasses upon it. Evidently there was an old and broad riverbed there. Gradually the rotting of the dead grasses formed a top layer of black soil, and with the growth of the city the appearance of the land changed. South Hagley Park, however, has always been of a different character, the soil there being largely, a stiff clay, for it lies outside the line of the old riverbed. It is said that when the land in South Hagley Park was first broken up, away back in. the ‘fifties, it produced 120 bushels of oats to the acre. That sounds rather “tall,” but, there were phenomenal yields of grain from the Virgin soil in the early days of Canterbury.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 24 NOVEMBER 1904 p007. Photo by H. Winkelmann. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19041124-7-2
A view in Hagley Park, 1904. 2

In conversation with an old resident of Christchurch, who is a keen botanist, and who has always taken a very close interest in the Domain Gardens and the city’s parks, the writer gleaned some interesting details of the early history of the Gardens. The grst site set apart by the Provincial Government of those days was a block of land between Lincoln Road and where Selwyn Street is now, the block being somewhere about the present site of the West Christchurch School. However, when the Provincial Government, needing funds, sold the reserves which bounded Christchurch, this block of land also was disposed of, and about 90 acres were then set apart where the Gardens stand now. Later, about 10 acres were taken from the Gardens block for Christ’s College. Hagley Park was the gift, to the province, of some of the promoters of the Canterbury settlement, including Lord Lyttelton and the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, the park being named after Lord Lyttelton’s country seat at Home.

The First Tree-planting

The first man in charge of the Gardens was a Mr Barker, who planted the first trees there, and some of the trees in Hagley Park and along the river bank. The first tree planting in the Gardens was the oak which was planted in 1863 to commemorate the wedding of the late Kind Edward – the Prince of Wales, as he was then — to Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Many of the trees planted at that time were poplars. In 1867 the gardens attained to the dignity of having a curator, and Mr J. F. Armstrong, who had previously been a plant collector in Australia and South Africa, for private botanists, was appointed to the position.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 02 FEBRUARY 1905 p010. Image by H. Winkelmann. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050202-10-3
A portion of Hagley Park, the Public Domain of Christchurch. 3

Plantation work went on vigorously after that, trees and shrubs being sent from the nursery which was established at the gardens, to many parts of Canterbury, for planting in other domains, in school gardens, and along railway lines, etc. The Ashburton Domain was established with trees from the Christchurch Gardens. The gardens were the means of introducing many English and foreign trees to the country – oaks, ash, elms, sycamores, pines in 20 or 30 varieties, and many others. Plantation in those early days was carried on under difficulties. The seeds of coniferous trees were the only ones that would “carry” in the long voyages from the old world. There were no steamers trading to New Zealand then, and the sailing ships occupied four, five, and sometimes even six months in the voyages from Britain. All the first foreign deciduous trees which were planted in Canterbury therefore had to be imported. The young trees were brought out in boxes, and by the time they reached Christchurch they were pretty dry, so they had to be soaked in the Avon for at week or two before they were planted out. Many thousands of trees were imported, but, of course, when these produced seeds later on supplies were raised from the seeds, as well as from grafting and from cuttings. When the trees were planted quantities of shingle had to be taken out of the soil. As the water supply of those days was a poor one, obtained only from the Avon and from a few artesian wells, much water had to be carted, and, with the young trees needing almost daily watering in the heat of summer especially in seasons of nor’-westers—when the shingly soil would not retain moisture, the watering of them was an arduous process.

Domain Fete, Christchurch, 1910. The Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. Charles Chilton photographs.
Domain Fete, Christchurch, 1910.4
Collecting Native, Flora.

One of the first works which Mr J. F. Armstrong had to set about was the establishment of a native section, for which he collected largely all over Canterbury. Banks Peninsula was practically all forest then, and it had as great a variety of native flora as any other part of New Zealand. Many of the northern plants were represented on the Peninsula, which, jutting out as it does right athwart the currents along the coast, caught many drift seeds, and was also warm enough for- he growth of the northern plants. Other parts of the province provided their quota, especially of veronicas, which always had their centre in Canterbury. Then there were the mountains to draw upon for alpine and sub-alpine plants. So an excellent collection of native plants was got together. It occupied a portion of the Gardens behind Christ’s College. The site of the present native section was then a deer park, containing about a dozen fallow deer. After the abolition of the Provincial Government, in 1876, the Gardens fell on leaner times. Tree plantation gradually stopped, for lack of funds. How big a thing that had been can be estimated from the fact that in one year 250,000 trees were distributed from the Gardens for various places in the province. Naturally a large percentage of those trees were planted in and around Christchurch.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 09 APRIL 1908 p003. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080409-3-1. Photographer J. N. Taylor.
The mid-day rest: sheep in Hagley Park, circa 1908. 5

The Domain’s revenue was now restricted to the money obtained from letting the parks for grazing, to a small endowment left by the Provincial Government, and to the money obtained from the sale of timber. Both the latter two sources of revenue disappeared in the course of time, and the receipts from the rental of the parks for grazing formed the only steady source of revenue until the Christchurch Domains Amendment Act of 1913 gave the Domains Board power to levy rates upon surrounding local bodies. Limited finances, of course, meant, limited improvement of the Gardens. New fashions and the predilections of succeeding curators and succeeding boards also caused a change in the character of the gardens. Gradually some of the old features disappeared. The old native section became practically a thing of the past, and the pinettum, which contained over 250 coniferous trees and shrubs, also dwindled, a couple of fires helping in its destruction. A collection of British plants, of especial interest to old colonists disappeared, too. At one time the I Gardens contained a very fine botanical collection, but most of it disappeared long ago. The present curator, Mr J Young, who has been in charge of the Gardens for only a few years, is working it up again. Now, under Mr Young’s guiding hand, and with the late Mr C. A. C. Cuningham’s bequest for the erection of winter gardens, the Christchurch Gardens are taking again among the finest in Australasia.
A.L.C.

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 10 NOVEMBER 1910 p003. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101110-3-2.
Erecting a footbridge across the Avon into the Domain Gardens. 6

Historical Trees: Domain Reminiscences 7

The article which was published in The Sun yesterday regarding the early days of the Christchurch Botanical Gardens aroused the approving interest of some of the old colonists, one of whom drew the attention of the writer of the article to the fact that Mr Joseph Armstrong, a son of the first curator of the Gardens, is living in Christchurch. Interviewed by The Sun man, Mr Armstrong testified to the accuracy of the facts set out in the article, and gave some additional information. In passing, it may be mentioned that Mr Armstrong remarked that there were over 5600 sorts of trees and shrubs in the Gardens before 1890.

It seems that in the early days of tree-planting in the Domain and Hagley Park it was the custom to get Governors of the colony and distinguished visitors to plant trees. Some of those trees still remain, others have gone into the furnace. Such of the trees as were known to have been planted by personages were distinguished by wooden plates at their base, but in some cases the plates rotted away, and in other cases the inscriptions were effaced by the hand of Time. Consequently the means of identifying some of the trees was lost, and these trees were chopped down in ignorance of their history.

Photograph taken by William Williams. [circa 1900s-1920s]. Edgar Williams Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/4-055394-G.
Pond area, including flax bushes, native trees, Christchurch garden and domain. 8

It so happened that the Governor who did the most planting did it in a way which left many witnesses to his labours unknown. He was Sir Arthur Gordon, afterwards Lord Stanmore, who was Governor of New Zealand in 1880-2, and who preferred living in Christchurch to living in Wellington. Sir Arthur took a keen interest in the Domain; and the Park. It was his custom to spend some of his leisure in tree-planting. Accompanied by Lady Gordon, and by a footman carrying a basket of young trees he would go forth quietly and plant trees where he thought trees should be. He did this so quietly that the fruits of these labours of his are an unknown quantity.

“Sir George Grey was always anxious to plant a tree in the Gardens, but he neyer managed to do it,” went on Mr Armstrong. “He sent one from Kawau, and it was planted for him. It was an English elm, variegated, but it has disappeared. Sir George was a very good botanist, and a great patron of the plantation. He sent many plants from Kawau. A big oak which was planted by Sir George Bowen was cut down about two years ago, it had no nameplate on it. The Marchioness of Normandy planted a cedar tree. The cedar tree in the front lawn of the Gardens, which is said to be the one she planted, was not planted by her, but by me, several years after the Marchioness was here. Possibly the mistake is due to the fact that the tree has grown so well that it appears to be several years older than it really is. It is an Indian cedar. The tree which the Marchioness planted is a cedar of Lebanon, and is on the other side of the lawn.”

Photograph taken by William Williams, circa 1910s-1920s. Edgar Williams Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/4-055397-G.
Christchurch gardens and domain, circa 1910-1920. 9

 

  1. Written for THE SUN. Sun, Volume II, Issue 563, 29 November 1915, Page 11.
  2. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 24 NOVEMBER 1904 p007. Photo by H. Winkelmann. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19041124-7-2.
  3. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 02 FEBRUARY 1905 p010. Image by H. Winkelmann. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19050202-10-3.
  4. The Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. Charles Chilton photographs.
  5. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 09 APRIL 1908 p003. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080409-3-1. Photographer J. N. Taylor.
  6. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 10 NOVEMBER 1910 p003. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19101110-3-2.
  7. Sun, Volume II, Issue 564, 30 November 1915, Page 11.
  8. Photograph taken by William Williams. [circa 1900s-1920s]. Edgar Williams Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/4-055394-G.
  9. Photograph taken by William Williams, circa 1910s-1920s. Edgar Williams Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/4-055397-G.
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