|Canterbury Provincial Council
Fyffe House, Kaikoura
Lyttelton Timeball Station
Ngaio Marsh House
Visitors to Christchurch usually remark on the flatness of the city, its rectangular pattern of streets, its open spaces, its gardens and the Avon River. In an age when steel, cement, and glass are popular materials, the visitor's eye may also be caught by a number of buildings (largely in the west central portion of the inner city) of Gothic design in stone and wood.
Of these, the gem is without doubt the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings - the only Provincial Government complex still standing in its entirety in New Zealand. This group of buildings was erected between 1858 and 1865, in three stages. The stages are skilfully unified yet each is quite distinct. Christchurch was fifteen years old when it gained what most believe is one of its finest buildings, the stone Provincial Council Chamber of 1865.
Because of their great architectural and historical significance, the Buildings have been given the New Zealand Historic Places Trust's highest classification. They are also listed as being worthy of preservation in the Christchurch City Council's district planning scheme. The people of Canterbury have always been proud of these buildings and we hope that you will be impressed by their beauty and interested in their story.
In the longest migration (20,000) in human history, planned settlements had been made in Wellington, New Plymouth, Nelson, Wanganui, and Otago before the Canterbury Association was formed in England. The "First Four Ships" (out of a total of twenty-five Canterbury association ships) arrived at the end of 1850 and the Association was "wound up" in July 1855. In the meantime (June 1852) provision was made for self-government in New Zealand, including the setting up of six (later ten) provincial districts. Elections were held in September 1853 to choose a Superintendent - a cross between a president and a prime minister - and, initially, a twelve-man council in each of the provinces. This fragmentation of government in a country with fewer that 50,000 Europeans was enforced by the scattered settlements and slow means of communication.
The little governments, each with a "Speaker" and as much of the paraphernalia and ceremonial of the "Mother of Parliaments" as could be mustered, took themselves very seriously. Because they met before the first representative Colonial Parliament assembled in Auckland, the Provincial bodies assumed responsibilites and authority far beyond that intended.
Unitl better communications and transport, among other things made their abolition desirable (though not universally welcomed) in 1876, provincial government was a major form of government in New Zealand. Provincial functions covered the provision of public works (roads, bridges, railways, wharves, and harbours), public education, a police force, hospitals, and public health services.
Because the Canterbury Association had
made no special reservation for land and buildings for
permanent government offices, the Provincial Council was
forced to "make do" with the most improvised
accomodation for several years. A reliable contemporary
account describes the first of the three makeshift
meeting places thus :
Within two years, the first Superintendent, James E. Fitzgerald, had commissioned and obtained from the Provincial Architect, Benjamin W. Mountfort, a design for a group of buildings to comprise the government offices. This drawing, which has survived, reveals Mountfort's pre-occupation with the Gothic style which was experiencing a revival. The drawings were for a legislative chamber, a record (archives) chamber, library, coffee, and committee rooms, kitchen, and administrative offices. However, as time went on, the original plans were greatly modified. Portions of today's buildings can be discerned in the original plan. A first contract was let for a council room and offices in 1858 and these were occupied in September 1859. Extremely modest in style and economical in cost, this council room and the offices facing Durham Street represent a remarkable adaptation of Gothic stone forms to the native timber used. At the time the ceiling of this neat council room evoked special interest, as it does today.
In 1859 a further contract was let for the buildings in wood and stone facing north to Armagh Street and connected by a very long low corridor paved with flag stones. The corridor was originally paved with wood.
This second group of buildings, because of improving financial conditions, was more elaborate and spacious. It was dominated by a large stone tower of scoria featuring ornamental bands of trachyte which originally gave striking colour contrasts.
In 1862 a Lyttelton Times report stated that a "massive clock tower was about to be added". The iron clock tower, made in England to a local design, was found, when mounted, to be much too heavy for the wooden tower made to carry it. After remaining in storage for 35 years the iron clock was mounted on a stone base and installed at the Manchester/High Street intersection to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign. In 1930 the clock tower was moved to the corner of Victoria and Montreal Streets. It was renovated in 1978.
(Currently closed and under
This surprisingly large and impressively decorated chamber is usually regarded as the greatest architectural achievement of the provincial period. The council chamber was let to contract in mid-1864 and was first occupied on November 21, 1865. The finely gilded and stencilled ceiling, again designed by Mountfort, is the work of J.C. St Quentin and the elaborate stonework that of W. Brassington.
The "masks" of both craftsmen appear in the stonework, Brassington on the east wall of the public gallery, and St Quentin near the east wall and fireplace on the ground floor. Much of the metalwork, though it was designed here, was made overseas, as were the mosaic wall sections and the very fine stained-glass windows, which carry a remarkable range of inscriptions comprising homilies and texts. Hot water tubes, fed by a central boiler, ran under the floor gratings to heat the chamber. The "fireplaces" are in fact part of the ventilation system which also included a concealed duct in the ceiling. A variety of stone was used, principally trachytes from Halswell and Hoon Hay, but also freestone from Governor's Bay and limestone from Weka Pass. Baltic pine is the principal timber used in the ceiling.
Behind the main chamber is the Speaker's room. The Superintendent appeared in person in the chamber to address the members of the council at the opening and closing of each session and on special occasions. He did not lead the House in the manner of a Prime Minister.
The system of Provincial Government was terminated at the end of 1876, some of the functions being absorbed into the Colonial Government while others were transferred into a range of new local authorities, chiefly county councils and harbour boards. Recent proposals for reform, including revision of boundaries and some change in functions, suggest that New Zealand is still in search of ideal local government. One thing is clear- that the Provincial Government system once housed in these buildings was as unique as the complex of buildings that housed it.
It had been recognised for a number of years that seismic strengthening was necessary in certain parts of the buildings. In 1989 detailed structural reports were commissioned by the Canterbury United Council resulting in a programme of strengthening work being initiated. Work on the Stone Council Chamber and on the Durham Street tower were completed by the end of 1990. Further works are programmed for Bellamy's block in 1996.
The Canterbury Regional Council, successor to the Canterbury United Council, commissioned a management/conservation plan which provided for some areas to remain as leased office accommodation in a manner consistent with conservation policies adopted. The Christchurch City Council took over the administration of the buildings from July 1 1993.