Just over the river behind the Christchurch Town Hall and Convention Centre is Victoria Square. (New Zealand) In 1850, swamp covered Christchurch and settlers had to traverse bog to get home after shopping in the market.
Those early settlers must have been sorely disillusioned when they first saw the soggy land of their dreams, however they weren’t the first to inhabit this piece of land.
Between 1000 and 1500, the indigenous Maori (who had arrived here from the Pacific) had a settlement here, called Puari. It stretched east from the Otakaro River, and was home for around 800 Waitaha people who gathered eels, whitebait, native trout, ducks, and flounder here.
To mark this village, and acknowledge the cultural value of the site to the Ngai Tahu iwi, a special poupou was commissioned as part of the 1990 commemorations of the 1840 signing of The Treaty of Waitangi: the six-metre, totara, poupou (carved by a local man) was erected in 1994.
The Otakaro river was renamed the Avvon – after a Scottish river – then this too was changed to Avon, and the first bridge to span the river was a cart bridge in 1852. Ten years later the first public lamp was lit at the same market street bridge but kerosene was considered too expensive and the town lighting project was halted for two years.
A post and chain fence (some portions are still in use) was built along in the 1860s to save ‘innocent children and tipsy men alike’ from drowning, as some 30 people had drowned in what now seems an extremely placid river. A new iron bridge replaced the old one in 1864.
A police station and lock-up was built in Market Square (by the 1870s it was being used as a women’s prison), and it also had a blacksmith’s forge and stockyards where farmers tethered their horses while they sold produce. This was the centre of the rural community of Christchurch –the village centre.
Nevertheless the traffic-census on the bridge on one day in 1862 shows how vital Market Square was.
- 10 bullock drays with 58 bullocks
- 51 horse drays with 6o horses
- 36 carts with fifty-one horses
- 199 saddle horses
- 20 cattle
- 204 sheep
- One donkey and cart
- 1000 foot traffic.
An 1861 photo shows wooden homes and business and a post office. One long building with a white gable and verandas around three sides was the Market Hall, and the ‘coffee-palace’ attached to it was most likely the first coffee shop in Christchurch.
In the late 1800s – when the old square was considered an eyesore – the area was renamed Victoria Square to commemorate the queens diamond jubilee. It was put in order with lawns, flowerbeds, and willow trees that are believed to be from cuttings off a tree at Napoleons grave at St Helena.
In the early 1900s the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York lay the foundation stone for the commissioned statue of Queen Victoria. It was also a jubilee memorial to the pioneers of Canterbury, and to those who had died in the Boer War. By the time the statue was unveiled, the queen had died.
Victoria Square has changed many times over the years – the queen has been moved around like a chess piece, the road closed, band rotundas built and removed, and in 1931 a fountain was built. The biggest change came with its new neighbour – the Town Hall, built in the 1960s: it too sits on a historical site.
The Limes Hospital – where one of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Christchurch was held – is remembered by The Limes Room. It also has the two largest hand-blown chandeliers in the Southern Hemisphere: made in two pieces, it’s banded with copper with 104 bulbs in each.
Another artwork in the Town Hall is a tapestry that celebrates New Zealand women gaining the vote in 1893 – the first country in the world to achieve this. A plaque also commemorates Douglas Lilburn, New Zealands premier composer.
The whole area is a cornucopia of history – invisible to those who hurry past.
© Heather Campbell Hapeta