HOW CHRISTCHURCH BECAME THE GARDEN CITY – Diana Madgin

Garden-making was an important institution from the earliest days of settler colonisation in Christchurch.  It wasn’t until more than half a century later, however, that we became known as the Garden City of the Dominion.  But long before the Canterbury Association was founded in England in 1848, there were lots of food-gathering sites–mahinga kai–used here by local Ngai Tahu. 

Otautahi, the Place of Tautahi, where the Avon loop is now, was a special and spiritual place.  And as garden historian Matt Morris says, the land had been a small settlement even earlier, in Waitaha and Ngati Mamoe days, as had Putaringamotu, the place we now call Riccarton.  Tautahi’s people used Otautahi as a seasonal food-gathering site and were still doing so when the Deans brothers arrived [food preparation implements have been found at Purari about halfway between these two sites].

There were big gardens at Tuahiwi north of the Waimakariri River.  Sealers in the 1820s and flax traders in the 1830s provided seeds for provisioning gardens for their ships, and so by January 1851, only a month after the first four ships arrived, the gardeners of
Tuahiwi were selling peas, cabbage, corn, pumpkin and other veggetables to the new arrivals.  In fact, in an 1848 survey
by the Canterbury Association, 312 acres of gardens were already cultivated in Canterbury, a third of that in wheat and potatoes.  Tuahiwi Rangitira George Williams Metehau offered these new Pakeha land “to cultivate potatoes and corn and all the
seeds”, but he wanted eight pounds a year rental.  The settlers were outraged.

Of course, with a slice of English society firmly in place, as planned by the Canterbury Association, there were those settlers with plenty of money and a team of servants, including a large staff of gardeners. These fellows needed to be able to produce enough vegetables and fruit for the whole of the household all year round, servants included.  In the settler gardens, aesthetics took a
back seat because food was so important.  There were, generally speaking, really good conditions for growing, and in one season a couple could grow a significant amount of food.

It was obvious that growing vegetables, fruit trees and shelter belts was critically important, and only months after the settlers arrived in December 1850 there were discussions about what was to be called a ‘botanical garden’.  That actually referred to a plant nursery for the settlers, and a fellow nick-named Cabbage Wilson was the first plant nurseryman here in Christchurch.  We know that his nursery was located at Otautahi.  (On the commemorative  first edition of the Press today, his advertisements can be seen on the back page.)

By February 1851–only two months after the first four ships–a Botanical Society was established and seeking permission to use part of the nursery to plant seeds and cuttings brought by settlers, in order to keep the plants alive after their long ocean voyage.  And by 1857, Mr Wilson was the richest man in Christchurch. He then became a city councillor, and in 1868, just as he was asked to
vacate his land so it could be sold to defray Canterbury Association debts, he became the city’s first mayor.

In 1852 the Botanical Society changed its name to Christchurch Agricultural, Botanical and Horticultural Society.  Robert John
Godley was its president and W G Brittan, treasurer.

Right from the start of settlement, there was vibrant interest from the professional gardeners in having garden shows to display their best fruit and vegetables.  These were men who had worked in that competition tradition in Britain, and they were right behind the formation of the new Christchurch Horticultural Society in December 1861.

The first exhibition was held in two tents in Cathedral Square, where the Godley statue is now, although most ignominiously flung, and 2000 visitors came on a beautiful Boxing Day.  These shows were the beginning of a strong and consistent horticultural tradition, which eventually in the 20th century included affiliated garden clubs throughout the city and province.  We have lots of their
members here tonight–that you for coming.

By the late 1870s there was growing concern amongst our city fathers that Christchurch was a swampy, dirty, ugly mess.  Waste from
factories was dumped in the rivers, there were no footpaths, the roads were lousy, and everywhere there was the smell of animal excrement, especially horse.  Market Square was the city centre; it was muddy from horses and smelly from horse poo.  Shingle for the new roads was dumped there.

To celebrate 50 years of settlement, the fine bronze commemorative statue of Queen Victoria we have today was then pictured surrounded by fences plastered with obtrusive advertising. These hordings were a particular bone of contention for Samuel
Hurst-Seagar, who was the city’s most prominent architect, progressive town-planner and conservationist.  Like many public figures of the time, Hurst-Seagar was influenced by both the American City Beautiful movement and, more particularly, by Ebenezer Howard’s English Garden City philosophy, which espoused enlightened urban design, clean cities with good amenities for all levels of society.  Hurst-Seagar was elected to the Christchurch Beautifying Association’s executive at its inaugural meeting in 1897, as were
many of the city’s up and coming professional gents.

In fact, the Beautifying Association was to become the driving force for promotion of the title, “Christchurch, the Garden City”.  Its immediate objective was to save the last remaining patches of native bush close to the city and to beautify the city’s reserves. It began with what would become the iconic Avon River at its centre.  Generally speaking, the public had little interest in native flora at that time, believing that a love of flowers had a refining effect on character.

The first president of the Beautifying Association was Mayor Charles Louisson, and that connection with city government established the Association’s participation in city affairs, like the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall’s visit in 1901 and the completion of the cathedral in 1904 and the move of the city centre to Cathedral Square.

Leonard Cockayne, the Association’s first secretary, introduced the concept of garden competitions.  Surprisingly, he felt they
could demonstrate to residents the importance of local native species, which was his passion, of course.  He was supported by both Harry Ell of Port Hills fame, and Samuel Barker, who was a keen amateur botanist and established a garden of native species on the north bank of the Avon River between Madras and Manchester Streets.  There’s a remnant of his planting there today.

The title “Garden City” has been around for more than a century.  It was coined originally by Sir John Gorst, a special commissioner from England at the 1906 International Exhibition.  He was a keen disciple of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City philosophy, and
he remarked then that Christchurch was a garden.  In 1914, Mayor Henry Holland addressed the Beautifying Association, urging them to work until there was no doubt that Christchurch was a garden city.

It didn’t happen immediately.  In the 1920s and 30s there was increasing concern about the deterioration of the nation’s health.  Too many men were rejected for military service, we had high infant mortality rates, over-crowded and sub-standard housing.  New ideas on health, sanitation and nutrition emerged and were endlessly debated.  Out of all this, modern city planning adopted the suburb, considered the ideal environment for the nuclear family, which would uplift the moral fibre of the nation.

In the 1930s, state housing allocated large sections for garden and play, and boys learned vegetable gardening at school in the expectation that they would become the providers for their families.  Plunket’s Sir Truby King was constantly outspoken in his belief that fresh air and sunlight were the vital keys to the nation’s health.  Businesses and factories were encouraged to improve their landscapes for the health and wellbeing of their workers and to enhance the district.

By this time, the Beautifying Association had set up competitions for the best street frontages, not just for private homes, but for whole streets, factories, hotels, hospitals.  The Horticultural Society complemented this institution by setting up different classes for the best all-round gardens.  It wanted to see excellence in gardening skills, including, importantly, food for the family in fruit and vegetable gardens.  The suburban style espoused neat paths, velvet lawns and bright, colourful beds of flowers.

By the 1960s, when aeroplanes whizzed visitors to Christchurch, the pilot announced their arrival at the Garden City, and the name was here for good.

In the early 1990s, New Zealand was a tourist destination for Japan.  I guided large groups of Japanese visitors on full-day tours of prize-winning gardens filled with bright annuals.  Journalists from Japan’s glossy women’s magazines wanted to know the story of the Garden City and the institutions that supported it.  They wanted garden competitions, too.   Since then, competition gardening has receded, and vegetable gardens and allotments have taken off.  More school kids are learning about sustainability.  Garden tours now include a wide range of outstanding gardens in many styles.

Our Garden City has suffered a shocking attack from quaking earth. But unlike our Neo-Gothic architecture, most of our heritage trees are still upright.  And most of us are, too, thankfully.

So, it looks like the Garden City is off on its next phase.

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