Story: Sports venues

Page 1. The first city sports grounds, 1850 to 1914

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Grounds for playing

Settlers from the United Kingdom brought traditions of playing games outside, and quickly established parks for this purpose. In 1855 the Canterbury provincial government set aside Hagley Park in Christchurch for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. In the late 19th century schools established playing fields and local councils began providing sports grounds for their communities. In the 21st century they still do so. For example, in 2013 Wellington City Council was responsible for 45 parks. Many had changing rooms and fields for winter sports such as rugby, football or hockey; and some had prepared cricket pitches in summer.

Venues for watching sport

During the 1860s and 1870s provincial and international games in cricket, and occasionally rugby, attracted spectators, and they required other facilities such as grandstands. Initially games were played on public reserves such as Hagley Park or Latimer Square in Christchurch, and the Domain in Auckland. Caledonian (Scottish) societies in some communities established grounds that could accommodate spectators for their Caledonian games (as in Dunedin), often held on New Year’s Day.

However, cricketers could not charge spectators to watch important games because the Public Reserves acts of 1877 and 1881 made it illegal to do so on public grounds. Cricketers began to establish private grounds.

A versatile place

Cricket was always the Basin Reserve’s main use, but, as was true of other city arenas, its central location and grandstand allowed for a huge range of activities. Sports, including rugby, league, football, hockey, athletics, boxing, cycling, softball and baseball. There were also public events such as a balloon ascent by Captain Lorraine (1899), a Māori carnival (1900), the 1908 Dominion Day, Archbishop Redwood’s Diamond Jubilee (1934), VE celebrations in 1945, Father Patrick’s prayer meeting (1954) and a concert by opera singer Malvina Major (1994).

Basin Reserve, Wellington

The first place to establish a private cricket ground, even before the Public Reserves Act 1877, was Wellington. The 1855 earthquake lifted a shallow lagoon, the Basin, by 2 metres. Two years later, frustrated at continually losing their grounds to new buildings, cricketers persuaded the provincial government to reserve the Basin as a cricket ground and public park. Fundraising by cricketers and work by prisoners from Mt Cook Gaol prepared the ground. The first game was played in 1868, and the first grandstand, organised by the Caledonian Sports Association, was built that same year. In 1896 rugby left the Basin for Athletic Park in Berhampore.

Carisbrook, Dunedin

Dunedin was the next to obtain a ground for spectators. International cricket games had been played on the oval in 1864; but cricketers wanted their own paying facility. So in 1874 the Carisbrook Cricket Club leased some swampy land from the Presbyterian Church, and in 1880 set up a company which drained it, enclosed it and built a grandstand. The first international game followed in 1884. Rugby was invited in to help pay the lease; and the first major rugby game was Otago versus New South Wales in 1886. The entrance fee was sixpence for men, and a seat in the stand was an extra sixpence – women were allowed in free to improve the men’s behaviour (a practice that continued until 1928). In 1907 the Otago Rugby Football Union took over the lease and developed new stands.

Sporting swamps

Remarkably, the four major traditional cricket grounds in New Zealand all began as swamps. The Basin Reserve became a swamp after the earthquake had drained the lagoon. Carisbrook was originally offered ‘to anyone who had need of a patch of swamp’1, and was later known as ‘Lake Carisbrook’ in which the Otago team played ‘aquatic rugby’. Lancaster Park was also once boggy, which partly explains its damage in the 2011 earthquake. Eden Park was originally Cabbage Tree Swamp.

Lancaster Park, Christchurch

In 1880 the desire to charge for admission led three Christchurch cricketers, Frederick Wilding, William Pember Reeves and Arthur Ollivier, to purchase land from an English absentee investor, Benjamin Lancaster. They set up the Canterbury Cricket and Athletic Sports Company to develop the newly named Lancaster Park. A cinder track (made of volcanic stones) was laid, the ground enclosed and cricket began in October 1881. The first international rugby game came the next year. From 1911 the Canterbury Rugby Football Union joined the cricketers as joint owners, followed in 1919 by a Victory Park Board, on which sat representatives of the city and other sports.

Eden Park, Auckland

In 1902 the Kingsland Cricket Club took out a lease on Cabbage Tree Swamp and drained it. Three years later the Eden Cricket Club bought the land, and in 1910 sold it to the Auckland Cricket Association, which had been looking for a ground in preference to the public Domain, where they could not charge an entrance fee. The rugby union, having moved from the Domain to the Auckland Showgrounds, signed a lease in 1913. The following year two stands were erected, and the first rugby and international cricket games were played. In 1926 the rugby union joined the cricketers as joint owners.

Other early grounds

Larger provincial cities also established charging grounds for the major sports before the First World War. They included:

  • Rugby Park in Invercargill, which was first used for cricket in 1886
  • Trafalgar Park in Nelson, known initially as the Mudflat Recreation Ground, which opened for rugby, cricket and cycling in 1888
  • Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, regarded as one of the most scenic grounds in the world, which was developed from 1889 for cricket
  • Cook’s Gardens in Whanganui, which was developed as a charging venue in 1896 after complaints from cricketers about the lack of good pitches, and in cooperation with the athletics and cycling club
  • McLean Park in Napier, which was purchased as a memorial to prominent local politician Donald McLean in 1905, and was at first used primarily for athletic and Highland (Scottish) games.
  1. Quoted in ‘Carisbrook,’ New Zealand Historic Places Trust, (last accessed 26 April 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Sports venues - The first city sports grounds, 1850 to 1914', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 Sep 2013