Christchurch History: How New Zealand’s Garden City Was Built

Christchurch History

In This Article

Christchurch has a long, rich history, which explains its current reputation as New Zealand’s oldest established city. From its early settlers to its European heritage, it has been influenced by diverse cultures, progressive developments, and beneficial social and political reforms, making it the beautiful city and dynamic urban hub it is today.

And so as part of our Day Spa‘s homage to the place we call home, allow us to take you on a quick journey into our city’s interesting past. This will be a specially fun read for tourists and history junkies looking to visit Christchurch soon!

The First New Zealanders 

As tradition would have it, New Zealand was first home to the Māori – an indigenous group from East Polynesia who travelled via canoes and settled in the country sometime between 1250 and 1350. 

While not much is known about New Zealand’s history before this time, there is archaeological evidence supporting the presence of moa-hunting tribes as early as 1250 AD, particularly in the Christchurch region. However, their culture and influence did not persist in the centuries after. As such, the Maori influence as the first New Zealanders remains to be the most accepted tradition among historians and locals alike.

Maori History in Christchurch NZ

Throughout the centuries, the Maori people were dominated by different ‘iwis’ – a term used to describe the largest social units within Maori society. 

In Christchurch, the first Maori iwi to settle in the city were the Waitaha, believed to have migrated from New Zealand’s North Island in the 16th century. They were then succeeded by the Ngāti Mamoe, and then the Ngāi Tahu – now the most prominent Maori iwi in the country, particularly in the South Island.

And thus, the story of the first New Zealanders. For 600 years, the Maori people were the largest group inhabiting Christchurch and the rest of New Zealand, responsible for its social and economic progress for centuries. That was, until the Europeans came.

The European Era

From the Dutch crew of Abel Tasman to the British explorer James Cook to European whaling, sealing, and trading ships, the European influence in New Zealand spans many different stories and names across different time periods from the 16th century onwards. 

European History of Christchurch NZ

However, one in particular is especially significant to Christchurch’s history: The Weller brothers – three Englishmen from Sydney, Australia who founded a whaling station in Otago Harbour, New Zealand. 

After they purchased land at what is now modern-day Riccarton, there was interest among Europeans who hoped to develop the region further. One of the most prominent groups was led by Herriott and McGillivray. In 1840, they settled in what is now Christchurch city, hoping to establish a farm and grow wheat among many other crops. It wasn’t long before this project failed and was eventually abandoned. Hence, prompting the next set of important brothers in Christchurch history: William and John Deans. 

In 1983, the Deans brothers introduced the first horses and sheeps in the Canterbury plains. Soon, the region was home to Riccarton’s garden, orchard and stock, testifying to the top quality of the region’s soil. 

What eventually followed was an influx of European settlers, who zeroed in on Christchurch as a viable area to develop thanks to the Deans brothers and their efforts. Now known as the Canterbury Pilgrims, their goal was to build the city as the model Church of England settlement. It was to be designed around the cathedral and college similar to Christ Church in Oxford, thus inspiring what would eventually become the city’s name: Christchurch.

Christchurch City History

The Canterbury Association in England chose Captain James Thomas to head the development of the region, and he arrived at Port Cooper in 1848. In 1850, around 800 settlers arrived at Lyttelton and pioneered the first organised European settlement in Canterbury.

By 1856, Christchurch officially became a city by Royal Charter, making it the oldest established city in New Zealand. And, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

Modern-Day Christchurch

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christchurch grew as both a cultural and commercial hub of the South Island, with its economy driven by agriculture and manufacturing. Its fast-growing development attracted more people to the city, and by 1919, the population exceeded over 100,000 residents.

Modern-Day Christchurch NZ

The following are some of its other notable milestones, a testament to its contributions to New Zealand’s economy and culture.

Today, Christchurch boasts the many influences of its past, while still keeping its eyes on progress and the modern world. 

Past and Present of Christchurch NZ

For one, the city’s architecture, largely influenced by Gothic Revival style, earned it the moniker of the ‘Most English city outside of England’. 

Secondly, its population consists of various ethnicities, alluding to its Maori and European heritage and the many groups that settled in the region through the centuries. In fact, the Maori people remain respected as the country’s original ethnic group, remaining active in modern-day culture and society, including media, politics, and sports.

An Ongoing History of Resilience

Resilience of Christchurch NZ

Alongside honouring its past, Christchurch continues to make history as the country’s resilient city. The recent decade has seen multiple tragedies for the local community – from the 2011 earthquakes to the 2017 wildfires to the 2019 terrorist attacks.

Yet, despite its misfortunes, Christchurch continues to reinvent itself. Recovery and rebuild efforts were massive, with a focus on creating a more sustainable and resilient city. The city has also adopted a forward-thinking approach to urban design, integrating new technologies and sustainable practices. 

Overall, the community has demonstrated remarkable resilience, making Christchurch an emblem of unity and regeneration.