Organised settlement in Canterbury had its genesis in a blending of the ideas and enterprise of two very dissimilar men – Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the colonial theorist and organiser of somewhat tarnished reputation, and John Robert Godley, a young Irish squire of deep religious convictions and with high connections in church and state. In 1848 the Canterbury Association, with an impeccable membership list including two archbishops, five bishops, assorted peers and baronets, members of parliament, and some high business figures, first met in London with the object of founding a Church of England settlement in New Zealand. A surveyor with extensive New Zealand experience, Captain Joseph Thomas was appointed to select a site comprising at least 1 million acres, of which approximately 300,000 were to be easily available for cultivation. The site should have an “almost complete absence of natives”, and, if on a coast, it was to have “a good and commodious harbour”. Few areas in New Zealand away from established settlements met these specifications and, although Thomas intended exploring the Manawatu, the Wairarapa, and the Hawke's Bay plains, his party first examined the country inland from Banks Peninsula. Thomas soon had no hesitation in selecting the Port Cooper plains as the site for Canterbury although a number of shortcomings were recognised in the swampy nature of part of the site for the capital town, the maldistribution of timber supplies, and the difficulty of access between Port Cooper and the plains. In 1850 the Canterbury Association was granted powers to dispose of land within 2,500,000 acres, generally known as the “Canterbury Block”, between the Waipara and Ashburton Rivers and occupying about half the Canterbury Plain.
In keeping with Wakefield's views on the “sufficient price” of land, rural allotments of 50 acres and upwards were to be sold at £3 per acre, 1 to be devoted to the educational and religious needs of the settlement, and another pound to be spent on assisted immigration of labourers. It was believed that the high price of land would prevent undue dispersion of settlement and, by discouraging men of small means from becoming landowners too soon, would ensure an adequate supply of farm labour. Alone among the “Wakefield” settlements the plans for Canterbury gave some recognition to pastoralism although it was accorded a distinctly subordinate and temporary role in the economy. Regulations provided for the leasing of unsold lands under annual licence but at comparatively high rentals and they gave no security of tenure or right of compensation. In contrast to Otago, where the surveyors marked out the 60-acre rural sections before the settlers arrived, in Canterbury rural sections were not surveyed until after the arrival of the settlers and the payments of the purchase money. Colonists were thus free to select land anywhere within the “Canterbury Block” as they saw fit and were not bound by the formal geometry of a prearranged plan.
The settlement was intended to be a transplanted cross section of the best of English society, complete from bishop and gentry to artisans and labourers, and emigrants were to be selected so that as far as possible “none but persons of good character, as well as members of the Church of England, shall form part of the population, at least in its first stage; so that the settlement may begin its existence in a healthy moral atmosphere”. These plans were to be put into effect under Godley's personal leadership and two years were devoted to preparatory work on the site involving surveys, road and wharf building, and the erection of temporary accommodation. The main body of 780 immigrants, 106 of whom were land purchasers, arrived in four ships at Lyttelton in December 1850 and were soon engaged in subduing a wilderness of swamp and tussock. Some 13,000 acres of land were selected, mainly around Lyttelton Harbour and within a four-mile radius of Christchurch, thus achieving, briefly, the concentrated pattern of settlement desired by the founders.
It has sometimes been claimed that Wakefield's colonisation principles more nearly succeeded in Canterbury than in Wellington, Nelson, and Otago. Certainly a more serious attempt was made to apply these principles, and Canterbury attracted a disproportionate share of talented and educated young men, many of whom were to play a leading role in provincial and national affairs in the next 30 years. Of the 3,500 immigrants who arrived on ships chartered by the Canterbury Association, one-third were fare-paying cabin class passengers. Land survey arrangements worked well and the Canterbury settlers escaped the hardships and muddle that afflicted many of the Wellington and Nelson immigrants. Nevertheless, the Canterbury settlers had the advantage of a decade of previous agricultural experiment in their area; they had a supply of acclimatised livestock and could draw on the mistakes of earlier colonising ventures in New Zealand.
There were few serious efforts to attain the rigid denominationalism envisaged by the founders. Canterbury was indeed the most “Anglican” of the provinces for some time: in 1861 sixty-seven per cent of its population professed adherence to the Church of England compared with 45 per cent for New Zealand Europeans as a whole. But Canterbury was soon surpassed in the proportion of Anglicans in the population by the provinces of Hawke's Bay, Taranaki, and Marlborough, none of which was founded with any thought of denominational exclusiveness. As for Canterbury's distinctively “English” character, 73 per cent of the overseas-born population of the province at the census of 1861 were born in England – a proportion slightly less than that of Nelson and Taranaki. In the composition of its original settlers Canterbury was only slightly more “English” than were Wellington, Hawke's Bay, and Marlborough. The English element among later immigrants to the province diminished. Of the 13,700 assisted immigrants brought out by the Canterbury Provincial Government between 1857 and 1870, some 45 per cent were of Irish or Scottish birth.