Story: Canterbury places

Page 16. Ellesmere district

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Town 22 km south-west from Christchurch, named for Canterbury’s last provincial superintendent, William Rolleston. It was once a small railway junction, where the West Coast railway line leaves the main line. A 1972–74 plan for a substantial ‘new town’ was abandoned, but Rolleston has since grown fast. Between 2006 and 2013 its population more than doubled, to 9,555.


Town 13 km south-east of Rolleston, with a 2013 population of 3,924. Nearby Lincoln University was founded as a college in 1878 to provide a practical education in farming. The original Ivey Hall, now surrounded by modern buildings, is a notable historic site. At the college scientists developed new sheep breeds and wheat crosses. Students now also train for careers in parks and recreation. Many staff and students commute from Christchurch.


A military base since 1918, Burnham is 6 km south-west of Rolleston. The population of the camp in 2013 was 1,089. Originally the area was the site of Burnham Industrial School (1874) for neglected or troublesome children. All Saints Church (1864) was moved to the school in 1901. In 1882 the transit of Venus was observed from Burnham, and a stone cairn commemorates this.


Township 40 km south-west of Christchurch, with a 2013 population of 471. In the early 1870s a town was laid out just south of the Selwyn River, but when a railway station was built 5 km south in 1874, Dunsandel developed there instead. It is the main rural service town between Christchurch and Rakaia.


Principal town of the Ellesmere area, a large tract of farmland 43 km south-east of Christchurch between the main south road and Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere). In 2013 its population was 1,506. The town has been a centre of local government since 1864. Ellesmere College is the high school for the district.


Township 19 km south-east of Dunsandel, and terminus of the branch railway from Hornby. Southbridge has lived in the shadow of its larger neighbour, Leeston, the seat of local government. Yet unlike other Ellesmere townships – Irwell, Killinchy and Brookside – which have almost disappeared, Southbridge still has shops and active social institutions. Its population rose from 636 in 1991 to 858 in 2013. Its most famous son was the All Black Dan Carter.

Kaitorete Spit

Huge bank of shingle which separates Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) from the Pacific Ocean. Technically the Kaitorete Spit is a ‘barrier beach’. Though farmed, the spit is one of the least modified environments of lowland Canterbury and supports the region’s only large stands of pīngao (native sedge).

Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere)

Largest lake in the Canterbury region (around 20,000 hectares in area), and the fifth largest enclosed body of water in New Zealand. It is about half the size it was when Europeans began settling in Canterbury. Shallow and slightly brackish, it was an abundant source of eel and flounder for Māori. It remains a wildlife habitat of international significance because of the birdlife. In 1998, ownership of the lake bed was returned to the Ngāi Tahu people.


Canterbury people use the word ‘huts’ for a fishing and holiday settlement at a lake or river mouth. Most of the dwellings were once literally huts. The Ellesmere area has the Rakaia Huts, Selwyn Huts and Greenpark Huts.


Tiny settlement at the outlet to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), 11 km south-east of Southbridge. There are the remains of two important in Māori history, a Māori church and a cluster of fishing huts.

Rakaia Huts

Cluster of holiday homes and fishing huts on the north bank at the mouth of the Rakaia River. Rakaia Huts has intriguing examples of early New Zealand bach (holiday cottage) architecture.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury places - Ellesmere district', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015, updated 17 Aug 2015