The Triangle – Noxious Exhalations, a Precocious Wastrel and a Special Earthquake

“William Wilson was formerly a cabbage dealer in Canterbury; but fourteen years ago he was poor, whereas now he is rich, a circumstance attributable to a lucky speculation in a piece of land called the Triangles, at Christchurch, which was offered to more than one, previously to being bought for £200 by Wilson, who, unlike the others, had sufficient foresight not to refuse it which now, in rental, brings him in £900 per annum.” [1]

A Bit of Old Christchurch

Extracts from “A Bit of Old Christchurch.” [2]

I think it must have been about 1857, on the section… at the junction of High and Cashel streets, that an unusual event occurred. A circus planted itself on the vacant block, it may be the first that ever visited the city. The proprietor and manager was Mr Foley, who at that time was well known throughout the Colonies, and met with some ups and downs.

That section remained unbuilt on, and was used for some time by Mr Barnard, the horse auctioneer, as a saleyard, and upon the rails of that block he posted himself on Saturdays, knocking down horses and other necessaries. It was a busy scene in a rough way.

So the section remained until about the time of the Otago rush, when, having passed into the hands of Mr W. Wilson, it was by him leased, at the rate, it was then said, of from a pound to twenty-five shillings a foot frontage. It was soon covered with buildings, and those have disappeared to make room for modern ones. In one of the original buildings was after wards published for some time a lively little evening paper, The Mail.

One of the original shops was occupied by Mr James Wood, the saddler, and in his windows he used to pillory, in caricature fashion, a rival tradesman who some years after disappeared and also, one of his pet aversions, Mr John Birdsey, once of the British Hotel, Geelong, who came to Canterbury about 1861 and revolutionised the catering trade.

The next section working northwards was, I think, the property of a Mr Bradley, and occupied for some time as a schoolroom. About the year 1859, the Wesleyan Chapel was built upon it, later on sold, when that denomination built their new church in Durham street. It was said that the land had been given by the owner for the purpose. The chapel when sold was converted into a hall and used for many purposes, and is now replaced by a drapery establishment.

The houses from there to Fisher’s corner were unpretentious buildings. In one Mr Prebble carried on one of the first hair dressing enterprises in Christchurch, later on developed into Professor Ayers’ establishment and Turkish baths.

At the corner for many years Mr Fisher carried on a grocery business. Such is a short outline of the appearance at that time of the busy footpath from Cashel street to the Bank of New Zealand. Ah, had people only known, wouldn’t they have secured a few feet. But in those years, as in later years, even now, there were any amount of gloomy forebodings, and Christchurch and Canterbury, there is no doubt, have been doomed many times.

High Street-27477-577958
High Street 1869, decorated for the first Royal visit, that of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. [3]
High Street 1869, decorated for the first Royal visit, that of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. Mundy Album, no 2. page no. 75. Auckland War Memorial Museum. Slide No: 558. Number: C7352
Looking down High Street 1869, from Colombo street during the Royal visit. [4]

John Jauncey Buchanan and His Valuable Allotment

Prior to his arrival in Christchurch, the family of Scotsman John Jauncey Buchanan purchased land on what would become the centre of Christchurch. It was a “valuable allotment, known as the Triangle” which would be used for ‘his future sustenance’. Buchanan had wanted to go to America – or to join the settlement in Otago – but circumstances proved a prevention to either of these options.

Triangle City Hotel block (end of fifties)
The Triangle at the City Hotel block (end of fifties). [5]

Buchanan was part of an illustrious naval family: the fourth son of a Naval Lieutenant; Grandson of a Rear Admiral; Great grandson of Admiral Sir John Knight, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. His family, it would seem, had emigrated to Australia, settling in Victoria some time before 1849. However, they had left the teenaged Buchanan in Scotland. [6]

In 1849, John left Scotland for England where he joined the waiting Canterbury Pilgrims to set sail for the New World. The following year – on July 30th – he and his fellow immigrants packed into St Paul’s Cathedral to hear the farewell sermon to the pilgrims preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He also attended the farewell breakfast for the colonists at Blackwall.

Whilst he did not get a passage on the first four ships, he was able to set sail on the fifth, the Castle Eden, which left Plymouth Sound on October 8th, 1850. Also travelling on board was the new ball for St Michael’s and All Angels’ Church. Having spent Christmas at sea, the Castle Eden arrived in Port Cooper on February 7th, 1851, two months after the Cressy.

“Most of the land known as the Triangle belonged to a dairy farmer residing at Addington, to whom William Wilson had given credit for goods totalling £60. Wilson, after vainly endeavouring to obtain payment of his account, suggested that he take over this tri­angular section and pay his client £60 in full settlement of accounts. The suggestion appealed to the dairyman and thus Wilson became the owner of one of the most valuable, pieces of property to be found in New Zealand today for £120, less his profit on the £60 worth of goods he had sold to his erstwhile customer!” [7]

It was with great difficulty that Buchanan and his fellow immigrants found the site of the new city amongst the fern and scrub. The river could hardly be seen ‘for the reeds that lined it and grew in the shallows’. Whilst many described Christchurch as having been one great swamp, Buchanan did not find it so. ‘There was swampy land, to be sure, but it was not in the centre of the town, but towards the Lincoln Road,” he recalled in 1900.

“It was a scorching hot day, and I never forget the first glimpse I had from the summit. It was a vast extent of bare, tree-less, yellow plain, with a few cabbage trees dotted about here and there, and a huge swamp, which looked like an island of vegetation of raupo flax and toi-toi in a sea of rusty fern, and yellow, brown, lank tussock grass, through which the rivers cut a silvery way in the fierce glare of sunlight.” said Buchanan on a trip to Christchurch to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the arrival of the Canterbury Pilgrims. [8]

Buchanan’s town section was 3/4 of an acre on what became known as the ‘Triangle’. Running through this section was a deep gully, which would later be filled in to allow it to be built on. [9] He let the section to Mr J. E. Fitzgerald – the Immigration Agent who had come out on the Charlotte Jane – for £5 per year. Fitzgerald put up a sod fence and grazed a cow on the section.

Buchanan also had suburban land in Selwyn street – several acres of what would become the Addington Cemeter – however he did not think much of his prospects in the new Province. It wasn’t long before he sold up and headed for ‘the el Dorado that promised in Australia’. He made several trips between the two colonies, and tried his luck on the South Island’s West Coast, before settling in Hawke’s Bay.

A Precocious Wastrel

Dugald Ferguson worked for Buchanan in the 1860s. At that time Buchanan was a farmer, although one who was particularly ‘highly connected’. Ferguson described Buchanan as a ‘precocious wastrel’ who had been sent out to New Zealand alone, at the age of fourteen. [10]

According to Ferguson, Buchanan had a heavy drinking problem, and after a drunken bout he had parted with his town section to ‘Cabbage Wilson’ for £60. When news of the sale reached his family – who at that stage would have been in Victoria, Australia – they endeavoured by litigation to re-claim it on the basis that he was under age when the property was sold, however their claim failed.

General grocers on the corner of Colombo and High Streets, circa 1861. [11]

Noxious Exhalations and a ‘Special Earthquake’

By 1864, the Triangle was ‘one compact mass of houses occupying about three quarters of an acre’. It had been leased by Wilson to tenants for 21 years, and was the ‘most thickly populated part of the town’. Part of Town Section No. 840 in the Triangle, having a frontage of 20 feet, and a depth of 63 feet, with shop and buildings, had been rented in 1858 and attracted a ground rent of £20 10s, payable quarterly. [12]

At this time the Triangle consisted of 32 tenements, two stables and a bake house. It was part of the ‘populous and ill-drained portion’ of the city that also included Colombo street – from Lichfield street to the river – and the adjoining streets and blocks of buildings. [13]

“Out of New York, I do not think there is a more unprepossessing, ramshackle, filthy lot of wooden back premises in existence. Heaps of dust, and hillocks of refuse of all description in every stage of putrescence adorn their gates; a festering gutter is the only pathway, swarms of flies batten on a noisome feast, and the stench – well a blind man described his idea of the colour of scarlet as the sound of a trumpet- my idea of the sickly overpowering smell that assails you here is like unto the sound of a complete brass band. The noise of it woke the slumbering City Council, and for its amelioration they called for a special rate. I think that the best thing that can be done now is to call for a special earthquake to swallow this rotting sore, and hurry it from our sight.”[14]

The ‘sanitary arrangements in that locality were most defective’. The private right-of-way which ran through the Triangle from Cashel Street to Colombo, at a width of ten feet, was described as being in ‘a most disgraceful state’. An ‘accumulation of offensive matter injurious to the health of the inhabitants of the city’ existed on the road, and the City Council gave notice to Wilson in 1863 to remove the ‘noxious matters from his premises in the triangle’.

Whilst Wilson was being reprimanded for the noxious discharges of his tenants, the City Council was granting to another Triangle occupant, Professor Ayers, the right to discharge waste water from his public baths into the streets. It was said that in passing down Colombo Street ‘your olfactory organs’ would be ‘assailed with a very offensive smell, upon which you naturally stop to ascertain from whence it arises, and with little difficulty find it arises from a stagnant pool opposite a chemist’s establishment’. [15]

“…upon making enquiry I find this nuisance emanates from that august body, the City Council, having given a certain owner of baths leave to turn all the refuse water into the street, without their making provision to convey the same away. Well this strikes me as singular, that they should be one day threatening a Mr. Wilson with all the terrors of the law to compel him to remove a nuisance from the Triangle, and in almost the same breath actually give a written consent yet greater one.” [16]

The porous nature of the soil of Christchurch, combined with the cesspools in the thickly-populated parts of the city, had the effect of polluting the surrounding earth, and creating noxious exhalations extremely detrimental to the health of the inhabitants.

Whoever peeps into the back yards of High Street, Cashel street, or Colombo street, or even walks along the public streets round the Triangle, must see and smell, if not touch, the horrors of want of drainage. To say that the sewage is oozing out into the thoroughfare is little but what must be the state of things within the enclosures dirt, disease, and death breed in such places; and the inhabitants cannot help themselves. This is the want — to give these people a drain. [17]

Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 25 AUGUST 1904 p016 . Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19040825-16-1
The cab stand at the Cashel street end of the Triangle. [18]

Sir – Allow me, through the medium of your valuable paper, to draw the authorities attention to a great nuisance which exists within a stone’s throw of the Cashel Street bridge. Passing by this place one would think he was in a Chinaman’s alley, or perhaps worse, if a dirtier place could be found. One can see several children with about one year’s growth of filth on their bodies and clothing. Apart from this, the nuisance lies in what one smells. At the very back door there are stables, and, I believe, a cow is also kept. There is also a stench of decayed and bad fish, and the water in the gutters for chain or so is stagnant, and green. I hear that the Inspectors have not reached this locality on their visits yet, but I should propose, for the health of the city, that an early visit should be made to this place. A visit would prove that my words are in no way exaggerated, and if they do not find it far worse than what I say I shall be very much surprised. To my mind, it is time that these buildings, on the triangle to which I refer, were destroyed, for they are only a harbour for the dirt and stenches which rats are so very fond of. I may add that the old mill which was pulled down some time back, on account of the rubbish, rats, etc, which, it harboured, was a palace to these places,–I am, etc., PREVENTION. Christchurch, May 14. [19]

‘Another ominous warning’

One of the most dangerous places for a fire to break out at this time was a closely built line of old and new, large and small, wooden houses, communicating without a break of more than a few feet with Cashel Street on the one hand, and on the other with the block of piled up wooden tenements know as the ‘Triangle’, cut off only by the width of the street. One night in early June 1864, Christchurch had ‘another ominous warning’.

In three hours, on the 4th of June, a fire swept away a large block of buildings in the part of Colombo street ‘lying between Hereford street and Cashel streets, and opposite the Colombo street face of the Triangle’.

“The heat from the burning houses opposite was at one time so great that the corner house of the Triangle actually caught fire, but the close neighbourhood of the nozzle of the hose immediately extinguished it, and when it is considered what an amount of property is held in that block of buildings, it is impossible to give too much credit to the skill and exertions of the Brigade, to whom alone it is owing that the whole of that block was saved.”[20]

  1. Hawke’s Bay Herald, Volume 11, Issue 871, 31 August 1867, Page 3.
  2. Extracts from “A Bit of Old Christchurch.” Star, Issue 5739, 2 October 1886, Page 4.
  3. High Street 1869, decorated for the first Royal visit, that of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. Mundy Album, no 2. Auckland War Memorial Museum. Item No: 147a. Call Number: Album 86.
  4. Looking down High Street 1869, from Colombo street during the Royal visit. Mundy Album, no 2. page no. 75. Auckland War Memorial Museum. Slide No: 558. Number: C7352.
  5. The Triangle at the City Hotel block (end of fifties). Ref: A-163-010. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  6. Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXX, Issue 13006, 14 March 1913, Page 2.
    Buchanan’s father was Naval Lieutenant Alexander Buchanan. His grandfather was Rear Admiral of the Blue, Alexander Shippard. One of John Buchanan’s older brothers, George William Henry Buchanan, born 11 August 1829 in Duddingston, Scotland, died at just age 11, in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Their father also died there in 1849.
  7. The Early Days Of Canterbury. Chapter 5. Early Business Thoroughfares. Compiled by A. Selwyn Bruce. Published 1932.
  8. AN EARLY COLONIST. Star, Issue 6984, 27 December 1900, Page 1.
  9. BACK FOR THE JUBILEE. Star, Issue 69691, 6 December 1900, Page 1.
  10. THE EARLY DAYS – WESTLAND RE-VISITED. West Coast Times, 9 December 1909, Page 1 and BACK FOR THE JUBILEE. Star, Issue 69691, 6 December 1900, Page 1.
  11. General grocers on the corner of Colombo and High Streets, circa 1861. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0015.
  12. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXIX, Issue 2265, 25 March 1868, Page 4.
  13. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXII, Issue 1304, 15 October 1864, Page 4.
  14. CANTERBURY GOSSIP – II. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXIII, Issue 1359, 14 February 1865, Page 4.
  15. RESIDENT MAGISTRATES’ COURT. Lyttelton Times, Volume XX, Issue 1173, 22 December 1863, Page 5. CHRISTCHURCH CITY COUNCIL. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXI, Issue 1230, 3 May 1864, Page 5.
  16. Letter to Editor from ‘A Christchurch Resident’, Christchurch, Jan. 5, 1861, published in the Press, Volume IV, Issue 372, 8 January 1864, Page 2.
  17. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXII, Issue 1267, 23 July 1864, Page 4.
  18. The cab stand at the Cashel street end of the Triangle. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 25 AUGUST 1904 p016. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19040825-16-1
  19. A Nuisance. Star, Issue 6795, 15 May 1900, Page 2.
  20. EXTENSIVE FIRE IN CHRISTCHURCH. Press, Volume IV, Issue 500, 6 June 1864, Page 2.

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