Story: Lean, Alexander

Page 1: Biography

Lean, Alexander

1824–1893

Runholder, architect, military volunteer, musician

This biography, written by Brian W. Pritchard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Alexander Lean was born in London, England, on 21 May 1824, the son of Charles Lean, a stockbroker, and his wife, Emma Cleghorn Proctor. Nothing is known of his early education, but he was a clever and cultivated man. From 1845 to 1849 Lean trained as an architect and surveyor in the London office of L. N. Cottingham. On 17 July 1851, at Chelsea, he married Clara Eliza Haines. They emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, on the Fatima, arriving on 27 December 1851. The first of the couple's 13 children was born in Lyttelton on 8 March 1852; she and four other offspring died in infancy.

Having built Riverlaw, a wood-and-sod dwelling on the south bank of the Heathcote River by April 1852, Lean sought to invest the capital he had brought with him. He had sheep on terms by late 1852, and in September 1853 acquired the licence for the Lyndhurst run, later renamed Lendon, on the south bank of the Rakaia River. Impressed with land above the Rakaia Gorge, Lean secured a run there in August 1855 and, purchasing three more runs in 1857, amassed a 50,000-acre holding. He shifted his family to Lendon towards the end of 1855, moving to Hayescliffe (now Mount Hutt station) by 1860. The subsequent purchase of the Double Hill run on the upper Rakaia took his holdings to about 75,000 acres. However, he found enthusiasm no substitute for experience and shed Double Hill in 1863 and Lendon in 1864. Bankrupt by 1865, and having lost his favourite, Mount Hutt, he returned to Christchurch.

Lean served as assistant secretary to the Public Works Department of the Canterbury provincial government from 1865 to 1867 before turning to architecture. He established himself as an architect by securing the commission for the Supreme Court building in July 1868. Opened in December 1869, this Gothic inspiration, built to a budget of £3,000 and described as 'simple and truthful throughout', was eventually completed with a substantial frontage in the prosperous seventies. The court, despite criticisms of draughtiness and poor acoustics, was Lean's masterpiece and one of Christchurch's most imposing public buildings.

Lean helped found the Canterbury Association of Architects in 1871 or 1872 and became president two years later. His extensions to the Christchurch Club proved controversial: he exceeded his estimates by over £1,000 and allegedly used poor timber and supervised the construction inadequately. Overshadowed by the achievements of B. W. Mountfort and W. B. Armson, he turned to domestic architecture.

In 1865 Lean was gazetted lieutenant of the Canterbury Engineer Volunteers; he had been promoted to major by 1873. Appointed commander of the Canterbury Volunteer District in 1882 and promoted to lieutenant colonel the following year, he inherited a movement dispirited by years of official neglect. He fought vigorously for the financial incentive of a capitation grant, and boosted rank-and-file morale, discipline and efficiency through annual Easter camps and field days, eventually retiring from a revitalised force as colonel in February 1891.

Alexander Lean's outstanding contribution to Christchurch's social life was his leadership in musical affairs. A talented violinist and avid chamber music enthusiast, Lean boldly established the city's first orchestral society in 1871, well before the symphonic repertoire had been generally accepted into the concert life of Britain and the colonies. For nearly a decade he uncompromisingly maintained that 'the Symphony is the true raison d'etre of any orchestral society'. He built up an extensive library and conducted (for the first time in Christchurch) more than 40 symphonies and overtures by Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Gluck, Weber and Mendelssohn. Lean was probably inspired by August Mann's and Charles Hallé's pioneering work at London and Manchester, but this visionary enterprise foundered in 1878, the 'heavy' programmes consistently condemned by local critics. Not until the 1890s was symphonic music re-established in the city.

Lean gave much time to various public bodies. In February 1864 he had been instrumental in establishing the Ashburton Road Board, the first local body to administer the area between the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers. He also served as a justice of the peace. In Christchurch he was variously steward of reserves (1869), inspector of school buildings for the Canterbury Board of Education (1872), commissioner of the Waste Lands Board of Canterbury from 1875, sheriff of the Supreme Court (1882–91), visiting justice to the Sunnyside Asylum, and a director of the New Zealand Trust and Loan Company from 1885. He was serving as secretary to the Christchurch Domains Board and as returning officer for City of Christchurch electorate at the time of his death.

Clara Lean died in 1885, and Alexander Lean died suddenly at Christchurch on 20 November 1893. His impressive funeral, resplendent with military pageantry and attended by government and civic dignitaries and the musical fraternity, attested to the contributions he had made to many facets of Christchurch life.

How to cite this page:

Brian W. Pritchard. 'Lean, Alexander', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2l6/lean-alexander (accessed 21 November 2019)