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Canterbury region

by  John Wilson

Big skies, braided rivers, vast plains and snow-capped mountains: Canterbury has beauty and drama in all directions. At its heart lies Christchurch, with a settled charm and lively cultural scene that was disrupted in 2010 and 2011, when the region experienced a swarm of earthquakes that redefined its physical and cultural landscape.


The English settlers who reached Lyttelton in December 1850 first saw the Canterbury Plains from the top of the Bridle Path, up which they had trudged onto the Port Hills from Lyttelton Harbour. Below them was marshy, open country. The city of Christchurch now sprawls across these plains, but the wider Canterbury landscape has changed little. Behind the curved coastline of Pegasus Bay, the great plain recedes to the distant Southern Alps.

Canterbury is a region of vast skies, extensive views and bold contrasts – from gently sloping plains to high mountains, and from the indented coastline of Banks Peninsula to the featureless beaches that edge the plains.

Christchurch and its hinterland

Christchurch is the South Island’s largest city. More than any other New Zealand city, it has kept strong ties with its farming hinterland. Farming is now less important in the Canterbury economy than it was. But the region is still defined by images of farmland with long lines of shelter belts, and high-country sheep runs with lonely homesteads in magnificent mountain country.

Changing boundaries

Today the Canterbury regional council, known as Environment Canterbury, covers north, mid- and south Canterbury, and Kaikōura. North and mid-Canterbury are discussed here. The northern limit is the Conway River, and the southern boundary is the Rangitātā River. The western boundary is the main divide (the summit line of the Southern Alps).

Canterbury was once a bigger area. The Canterbury Province of 1853 ran from the Waitaki to the Hurunui rivers, and from the east to west coasts. The region now known as Westland, on the West Coast, became a separate province in 1873, and the area around the port town of Timaru sought (unsuccessfully) to separate as South Canterbury.

The people of Canterbury

Especially compared to North Island urban regions, Canterbury has relatively more people of European descent and relatively fewer Māori, Pacific Islanders and Asians. Its population is slightly older and more settled than the New Zealand average.

Ngāi Tahu

The Māori people of Ngāi Tahu and earlier iwi (tribes) knew Canterbury intimately and made good use of its resources. But the Māori population was always quite sparse.

The Canterbury Association

Canterbury’s origins are quite distinct from those of Auckland and Wellington.

English immigrants arrived from 1850, organised by the Canterbury Association. The community they envisaged was different from others in New Zealand: the goal was a hierarchical English society, with the Anglican Church at its centre.

Plains of vast extent

In 1844, from a hilltop on Banks Peninsula, Bishop George Selwyn ‘obtained a magnificent view over the vast plains of the South. Below us stretched the apparently interminable line of the ‘Ninety mile beach’, a continuous range of uniform shingle without headland or bay. Within this shingle bank is a great lake, Waihora [Ellesmere]… Beyond the lake are plains of vast extent, bounded by a range of snowy mountains behind which the sun was setting.’ 1

The association’s plan was to base the settlement on labour-intensive small farms. Instead, huge leased sheep runs developed on the expanse of grassland, followed by vast freehold estates, the last of which were not broken up into smaller farms until the early 20th century. Large leasehold pastoral runs still dominate the high country.

Geography and climate

Canterbury’s identity is also bound up in its geography and climate. The extensive Canterbury Plains, the wide braided rivers that cross them, the hot, dry nor’west winds, the rugged grandeur of the glaciated mountains, the dramatic landscape of the high country – together, these features distinguish the region.

The Canterbury earthquakes

The Canterbury earthquakes comprised two main events: the magnitude 7.1 Darfield earthquake on 4 September 2010 and the magnitude 6.3 Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011. The latter was an aftershock of the first event, but due to its shallowness and closeness to the city it was more destructive and caused 185 deaths, mainly in the central city from building collapses. During the aftermath thousands of dwellings and buildings were condemned as unsafe and demolished. The city is still in the process of rebuilding its physical and social fabric. 

    • Quoted in G. W. Graham and L. J. B. Chapple, Ellesmere county: the land, the lake and the people, 1864–1964. Leeston: Ellesmere County Council, 1965, p. 13. › Back


Mountain building

The Southern Alps dominate even distant views in Canterbury. Their rocks, which are mainly greywacke, were laid down between 230 and 170 million years ago. The Alpine Fault runs west of the main divide (the summit line of the alps).

Alps are thrust up as the Pacific tectonic plate undercuts the Australian Plate. Ranges uplifted between 140 and 120 million years ago were subsequently worn down. Another period of mountain-building, which formed the present-day mountains, began about 26 million years ago and is continuing. Total uplift has been about 20,000 metres, but erosion has kept the highest peaks north of the Rangitātā River below 3,000 metres.


In the past 2 million years there have been at least five major periods of glaciation. The last ended between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago. Since then, minor glacier advances have left behind the moraines (ridges of boulders and debris) that are a feature of Canterbury’s mountain landscapes. Since about 1890 the glaciers have been in fluctuating retreat.

The glaciers gouged out wide valleys that have been partly filled with gravels. They also enlarged some depressions between mountains into basins. Lakes Coleridge and Sumner occupy valleys excavated by glaciers. Smaller lakes lie in the hollows of old moraines.

Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula was born when eruptions of basalt began between 15 and 12 million years ago, about 50 kilometres east of the mainland. Over 6 million years these eruptions formed two large, overlapping volcanoes, which later eroded to less than half their original height.

About 1 million years ago alluvial fans, forming east of the rapidly eroding Southern Alps, linked this volcanic mass to the South Island. At times of intense glaciation, the sea was 130 metres below its present level and the coastline 40 kilometres further east. What had been an island was periodically landlocked. After the last peak of glaciation 18,000 years ago, this land link remained. Today’s harbours and bays are valleys that were drowned when the sea level last rose.


Movement on faults in Canterbury has caused earthquakes:

  • The north Canterbury earthquake of 1888, centred on Amuri, damaged many buildings and caused the top of the spire on Christchurch Cathedral to collapse.
  • A 1901 earthquake centred near Cheviot caused minor damage.
  • The Arthur’s Pass earthquake of 1929 caused significant rockslides in the mountains.
  • On 4 September 2010 Canterbury was affected by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, centred about 37 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. There was no loss of life, but considerable damage to buildings in the city.
  • A magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred on 22 February 2011, with its epicentre near Lyttelton. It caused 185 deaths and major damage to Christchurch, with thousands of people made homeless. Around a quarter of buildings in the central city were demolished as a result of the quake.
  • A magnitude 7.8 earthquake on 14 November 2016 began 15 kilometres north-east of Culverden and moved rapidly north-east. Two people were killed. 

Movement on the Alpine Fault is expected to cause major earthquakes affecting Canterbury in the next 50 years.

Diamonds are forever?

In the early 1880s, Alford Forest was the scene of a ‘diamond rush’, when J. S. M. Jacobsen announced he had discovered diamonds there. Although geologists said his finds were only small crystals of quartz, people poured into the area. But the geologists were right, and the planned town was never built.

Mineral resources

Canterbury does not have many mineral resources. There is some coal, which was sporadically mined mainly at Mt Somers and in the Malvern Hills. Plentiful limestone is quarried for agricultural purposes and in the 19th century was burnt to make mortar. In the 1880s, Mt Somers limestone was exported to Australia.

An outcrop of red-tinted, recrystallised limestone on the Waiau River supplied Hanmer ‘marble’ for many years, while stone from Halswell was used for buildings in Christchurch. Silica sand was mined at Mt Somers for glass making. Clay from Malvern Hills was used in brick and pottery works. Loess (deposits of a fine, wind-blown sediment) on the Port Hills was used to make bricks in Christchurch. The region has abundant gravel and sand for construction and road-making.



Three large rivers, the Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitātā, rise in the mountains and have glaciers at their heads. The Ashburton springs from smaller glaciers in the outlying Arrowsmith Range. The Waiau and Hurunui rise on the main divide but lack glaciers.

Most major Canterbury rivers have braided shingle beds and flow bank to bank only in high flood. Smaller, rain-fed rivers rise in the foothills and flow down between the fans of the major rivers.


In North Canterbury there are extensive areas of downlands – rolling country between the foothills and the plains. The underlying rocks are limestones and marine sands, with some coal and older volcanic rocks. These were laid down between 100 and 13 million years ago and eroded when mountain building raised the Southern Alps.


The Canterbury Plains, about 180 kilometres long and of varying width, are New Zealand’s largest area of flat land. They are not strictly flat but slope at an average 1 in 132 from the base of the foothills (at 365 metres or more above sea level) to the coast. They were formed from the overlapping fans of glacier-fed rivers issuing from the Southern Alps.

The plains are often described as fertile, but the soils vary in quality. Most are derived from the greywacke of the mountains or from loess (fine sediment blown from riverbeds). Some hold little moisture. The best were formed from mud and peat accumulating in the hollows between the fans of rivers.

Well watered

Unlike most urban water supplies, Christchurch’s water comes from aquifers (water-filled bands of gravel) beneath the city. According to some, it’s the best drinking water in the world.

Canterbury has abundant water, in the rivers which carry mountain rainfall to the coast, and in aquifers (underground gravels holding water). Beneath the plains, layers of porous gravels are interspersed with impermeable finer sediments. Near Ashburton, bedrock is at a depth of 1,600 metres.

Groundwater flows towards the coast through these porous layers. The aquifers are recharged by rainfall and by river seepage. They have been tapped to irrigate farmland and for town water supplies.

The coast

Most of Canterbury’s coastline is open beach – sandy north of Banks Peninsula and shingly to the south. All Canterbury’s beaches are composed of material eroded from the Southern Alps and carried down the rivers. The varied habitats include cliffs and coves along the coastline north of Waipara in North Canterbury, lagoons at the river mouths, and the estuary of the Heathcote and Avon rivers.


The most significant wetland is Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), about 20,000 hectares in extent, near the coast south of Banks Peninsula. Some swamplands, for instance those at Longbeach, were drained after European settlement, to create excellent soil for farmland. One of the reasons the February 2011 earthquake was so damaging was that much of Christchurch was built on land that had once been a swamp.

Weather and climate

A climate of extremes

The mountains give Canterbury a climate of greater extremes than most other parts of New Zealand. Of the country’s main cities, Christchurch has the least rainfall and the greatest  temperature range.


The mountains lie at an angle to the prevailing westerly air flow. The westerlies lose their moisture as they rise to cross the alps. On the eastern ranges and the plains, rainfall is much less. Rainfall on the plains comes mainly from the south and east, when depressions off the east coast push southerly flows over Canterbury.

Christchurch has an average annual rainfall of 648 millimetres (roughly half that of Auckland and Wellington).


The nor’wester blows across the plains as a warm, dry wind which can send Christchurch’s temperature soaring above 30°C. Associated with the nor’wester are distinctive cloud formations, including the nor’west arch. Typically, this wind is followed by a southerly.

Notorious nor’wester

Early settler Mark Stoddart wrote a poem about Canterbury’s nor’westers. One verse runs:

I’ve witnessed all the winds that blow, from Land’s End to Barbadoes –
Typhoons, pamperos, hurricanes eke terrible tornadoes.
All these but gentle zephyrs are, which pleasantly go by ye,
To the howling, bellowing, horrid gusts which sweep down the Rakaia.’ 1

In winter, southerlies occasionally bring snowfall to the plains, and cold air that causes hard frosts.

Christchurch is also affected by easterly winds. Easterly cloud keeps the average annual sunshine hours on the coast to less than 2,100.


Canterbury’s strongest winds blow from the north-west. A north-west gale on 1 August 1975 flattened tree plantations and damaged buildings. The 26–27 December 1957 storm that caused severe flooding in the mountains was also a nor’wester.


Canterbury is subject to two sorts of floods:

  • North-west rain in the mountains makes the Waiau, Hurunui, Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitātā rivers flood.
  • Southerly or easterly rain makes the smaller Ashley, Selwyn, Ashburton and Hinds rivers flood.

The Rakaia River was recognised as a threat to farmland in the 1860s. But the most severe flood hazard in Canterbury is the flood plain of the Waimakariri River. The first major protection works were built in the 1860s, but Waimakariri floodwaters flowed through Christchurch in 1868. The last serious break-out of the Waimakariri occurred in 1957.

Much of Christchurch was built on drained wetland, so local flooding after storms has been a periodic problem. This has become particularly acute following the February 2011 earthquake in a number of places, especially the Flockton Basin, Mairehau.


Canterbury is prone to droughts. The average rainfall is adequate for farming, but during nor’westers the rate of evaporation is high, especially from shallow, gravelly soils.

Droughts of between a few months and two or more years occur on average every six years.

Frosts and snowfalls

Frosts can be particularly heavy inland. Some lakes freeze over in winter, and Lakes Lyndon and Ida have in the past been popular for ice skating. Snowfalls in Canterbury are usually little more than an inconvenience, except in the high country, where heavy snow can cause severe stock losses – as in 1868, 1895 and 1992. Record snowfalls in Christchurch occurred in 1918 and 1945.

    • Quoted in Rosemary Britten, Lake Coleridge: the power, the people, the land. Christchurch: Hazard, 2000, pp. 48–49. › Back

Plants, animals and conservation

Original plants

Much of Canterbury was originally covered by tall podocarp forests. Kahikatea and mataī trees flourished in fertile, damp sites, while tōtara dominated stony soils.

There was beech forest in the hills north-west of the Rangitātā River, and in some parts of Banks Peninsula. High-altitude forests south of the Rakaia River contained mountain tōtara, mountain cedar and celery pine. Above this, broadleaf, dracophyllum and small-leafed shrubs grew in subalpine areas. Alpine vegetation consisted of tussock grasses and herbs.

Human impact on vegetation

After the arrival of Māori, fires destroyed forests on the plains. They were replaced by tussock grassland, which spread from alpine areas. Other native plants such as matagouri, kānuka, mānuka, kōwhai and wild Spaniard thrived after the fires.

When Europeans arrived, less than one-tenth of the region was forested. Timber was cut or burnt to create pasture, further reducing forests. In the mountains, fires were lit to provide better feed for sheep. This promoted the spread of short rather than tall tussock, and destroyed scrub and beech forest.

On the plains and downs, ploughing and introduced grasses all but eliminated native grassland. On the dunes, marram and lupin replaced native species. Pines, macrocarpa, gums and other introduced trees were planted.

Today, some original vegetation survives only in the alpine zone, in the foothills and on Banks Peninsula. Grasslands and arable farming prevail on the plains.

Human impact on animals

With pre-human habitats different from much of the rest of New Zealand, Canterbury had a distinctive fauna. Wetlands, especially at Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere), were once home to many fish and bird species. The mixing of cold subantarctic and warm subtropical waters off the Canterbury coast attracted fish, marine mammals and seabirds.

Seals were a food for Māori, and whales were hunted by early Europeans. Other water species were threatened as the wetlands were drained, overfished and polluted.

Local native species at risk include Hector’s dolphins, Canterbury mud fish, alpine grasshoppers, orange-fronted parakeets and several other birds.

Rabbits became a problem when they spread into Canterbury from Marlborough and Otago in the 1880s. Goats and red deer also severely damaged plants. Nassella tussock, a troublesome exotic weed, was a serious problem in North Canterbury.


The moa, adzebill and a native goose were hunted to extinction by Māori. The giant Haast’s eagle disappeared with the loss of its main prey, the moa. The piopio and the laughing owl disappeared after the arrival of Europeans, and the native quail was last seen around 1870. The eastern weka disappeared from Canterbury in the early 20th century. Kiwi, kākāpō, yellowheads, parakeets and tūī have disappeared from Banks Peninsula.

Draining resources

Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and the Avon–Heathcote Estuary were once linked by an extensive wetland across the neck of Banks Peninsula. This formed when the shoreline retreated about 6,500 years ago. The prolific bird and fish life provided a rich supply for Māori, but the land was mostly drained after European settlement.

Conservation issues

Cantabrians such as Thomas Potts, Leonard Cockayne and Harry Ell were prominent in the growth of New Zealand’s conservation movement. Conservation is still a major issue. Problems include loss of habitat for native species, pollution, and over-exploitation of water resources.

Irrigation, homes and industries, conservation programmes, recreational fishing and power generation compete for water, which once seemed a limitless resource. Nitrate levels in groundwater are worryingly high in some areas. Erosion in the high country is also a problem.

Conservation land

In 2005, the Department of Conservation administered nearly 20% of the land area of Canterbury (including South Canterbury). Reserves were first set aside at Hanmer Springs in 1881 and at Arthur’s Pass in 1901. Small forest reserves were created on Banks Peninsula. Arthur’s Pass National Park became the South Island’s first national park in 1929.

Other initiatives include:

  • reserving foothill tussock grasslands such as Korowai–Torlesse Tussockland Park
  • creating a 12,000-hectare ‘mainland island’ (a haven for native animals) in the Hurunui valley – the largest of six in the country
  • restoring Christchurch’s Travis freshwater wetland, a habitat for the pūkeko swamp hen, whose numbers are dropping in Canterbury.

Discovery and settlement

The Māori past

Canterbury was first settled by Māori 600–700 years ago. They lived mainly beside the productive wetlands near the coast, and around Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) and Wairewa (Lake Forsyth) – renowned eel and flounder fisheries.

Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) was important because it combined the resources of forest and sea. Artefacts have also been found inland, at summer camps for expeditions to gather moa and weka, eels and rats.

Ngāi Tahu

Canterbury lies within the traditional boundaries of the main South Island iwi (tribe), Ngāi Tahu. Originally from the North Island’s east coast, the Ngāi Tahu people migrated south to Wellington, and then to the South Island. As they moved south they fought several battles with two tribes already living there, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha, and today’s tribe members are linked to these earlier peoples. By the end of the 18th century Ngāi Tahu had reached Foveaux Strait, at the foot of the South Island, and occupied the West Coast.

The most important was at Kaiapoi, a centre of trade in pounamu (greenstone) from the West Coast. In the early 1830s it was sacked by the Ngāti Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, but his raids from the North Island did not succeed. Ngāi Tahu kept their ownership of Canterbury.

Rivers revert

Since European settlement, relatively few local Māori place names have remained, but three rivers keep their original names. The English names of Courtenay for the Waimakariri, Cholmondeley for the Rakaia and Alford for the Rangitātā did not catch on.

European discovery

Lieutenant James Cook sighted the Canterbury coast in 1770, but did not land. From well offshore he mapped Banks Peninsula as an island. The first recorded European landing came in 1815 or 1816, when a sealing ship put into Akaroa to trade for potatoes and flax.

In the 1830s, whaling ships began anchoring in Port Cooper (Lyttelton Harbour) and Akaroa Harbour. Shore whaling stations were established in the southern bays of Banks Peninsula.

Organised settlement

Signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi were gathered at Akaroa in 1840, opening the way for British settlement. But organised settlement began when a French captain founded the Nanto-Bordelaise Company, which sent out French (and German) settlers who arrived in August 1840. Though British sovereignty had been proclaimed by this time, the French settlers stayed to found Akaroa.

From a Banks Peninsula whaling station, a small party of Englishmen set out in 1840 to establish a farm on the plains. After 18 months at Putaringamotu (Riccarton), they abandoned the venture. But in 1843 brothers John and William Deans returned to the same site to found the first permanent European settlement on the plains.

Land purchase

Most of the region was purchased from Ngāi Tahu by the government in 1848. In an atmosphere fraught with misunderstanding, 16 Ngāi Tahu chiefs signed a deed prepared by Commissioner Henry Tacy Kemp at Akaroa on 12 June. This allowed them to keep their settlements and food-gathering sites as well as other reserves. But when the land was surveyed later that year, many of the reserves agreed in the Kemp Purchase were reduced or ignored. The people of Ngāi Tahu never gave up their claim for compensation.

The Canterbury Association settlement

In 1848 the Canterbury Association was founded in England, inspired by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and John Robert Godley, to start a settlement in New Zealand. They sent out Captain Joseph Thomas, who was not deterred by the swamps lack of timber, and tricky access between port and plains. He had laid out the port town of Lyttelton and the plains town of Christchurch, and begun a road over the Port Hills, by the time the first settlers arrived.

The first four Canterbury Association ships (the Randolph, Cressy, Sir George Seymour and Charlotte Jane) arrived in December 1850. By 1853, 3,549 settlers had arrived. Of these, 400 were land purchasers and the rest mostly labourers and servants. The association’s goal was to replicate England’s stable, class-based society in Canterbury.

Exploring the interior

The northern mountains were explored by men trying to find ways to bring sheep from Nelson and Marlborough into Canterbury. Routes were discovered from the upper Clarence River onto the Hanmer Plain in 1850–51.

Another aim was to find routes over the Southern Alps. Leonard Harper had a Māori guide when he crossed Harper Pass in 1857. The main routes to the West Coast goldfields – Arthur’s Pass and Browning Pass – were crossed in 1864 and 1865 respectively. In the 1860s, Julius Haast, as Canterbury provincial geologist, penetrated most of the mountain valleys. But remote areas of the alps were not explored until the 1930s.

Agriculture before 1900

Māori and early European farming

Banks Peninsula was close to the southern limit for growing kūmara (sweet potatoes), and gardening was never as important in the Māori economy of Canterbury as it was further north. The introduction of potatoes extended the range of cultivated crops.

European farming began when cattle were landed near Akaroa in 1839. By 1850, the Deans family had established a successful farm at Riccarton and other Europeans were farming on Banks Peninsula and at Motunau in North Canterbury.

A piece of paradise

In 1844 John Deans wrote to his father about his land at Riccarton: ‘This is certainly by far the best place I have seen in New Zealand, and for squatters like ourselves no place could be better, as there is plenty of level land with good pasture for cattle of all descriptions … there is a wood about 200 acres … and a river of water clearer than crystal (indeed the finest water I ever saw) running close past the front.’ 1


Three years after the arrival of the Canterbury Association settlers in 1850, Canterbury Province was established. To support the development of the region, it began recruiting more immigrants from the United Kingdom, offering assisted passages to labourers and skilled workers in particular.

Between 1854 and 1870, 56% of migrants came from England, 22% from Ireland and 20% from Scotland. Scottish shepherds were encouraged to emigrate to work on back-country runs.

Sheep farming

Unexpectedly, sheep farming gave Canterbury its economic start, and no other region is more closely associated with it. Sheep were turned out on ‘native’ pastures to produce wool, which was in demand in Europe. By 1860, most of the region was divided up into large leasehold runs, and many of the runholders were to become extremely wealthy. Sheep numbers reached 3,152,525 in 1885 – 21.7% of the national flock. The top breed was merino. Besides wool, skins and hides, tallow and potted and salted meat were produced.

High-country sheep runs

On the plains, leasehold sheep runs gave way to freehold estates and family farms in the 1870s and 1880s. But in the high country, grazing sheep on leased land remained the norm. The laconic shepherd with his dogs and the autumn muster became key elements of the image of Canterbury.


Steel ploughs and reaping and threshing machines made wheat-growing easier and more profitable.

In the 1870s and early 1880s Canterbury enjoyed a wheat boom. Between 1870 and 1913, it had more than half the total area of New Zealand’s wheat land. Large flour mills were built in Christchurch and Ashburton. But by 1900 the boom was over. It had speeded up the change from large sheep runs to mixed farming on smaller properties.

Canterbury cocksfoot

For a few years Banks Peninsula farmers earned good money from an unusual crop: the seed of cocksfoot grass. This plant flourished on the volcanic hills, which the settlers had cleared by burning. The seed was in demand for pastures in the North Island, and in 1905 the peninsula grew 83% of New Zealand’s supply.

The family farm

Some small landowners in the 1850s were little more than subsistence farmers, but a ‘middle rung’ of farmers was already producing wool, meat, milk and wheat for markets.

More intensive farming on the plains was possible once a railway network had been built and shelter belts planted. New crop options – peas, potatoes and fodder crops – made small farming more profitable. Large areas of the plains were without surface water, and the first water races were built in the 1870s, bringing water to stock between the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers. Stock races were built in mid-Canterbury and on the Waiau Plains in North Canterbury in the 1880s.

Refrigeration helped make smaller farms viable. The Canterbury Frozen Meat Company was formed in December 1881 and slaughtering and freezing began at Belfast, on the northern outskirts of Christchurch, in February 1883. Cross-bred sheep, for both meat and wool production, were developed as the family farm emerged. But the depression of the 1880s limited opportunities to get into farming in Canterbury, and in the 1890s many farmers moved to the North Island to try their luck there.

    • Quoted in Gordon Ogilvie, Pioneers of the plains: the Deans of Canterbury. Christchurch: Shoal Bay, 1996, p. 41. › Back

Agriculture after 1900

Breaking up the large estates

The spread of the family farm was hastened by the breaking up of large freehold estates between 1890 and 1914. The Liberal government acquired estates for farm settlements, and some owners subdivided their land privately.

By the time of the First World War, the family farm of between 320 and 640 acres (130 and 260 hectares) was the norm on the plains. After the Second World War, some large properties were cut up by the government for allocation to returned servicemen.

Farming in the 20th century

Between the world wars, farm mechanisation, the use of lime, and improved seed, raised farm productivity. There was even greater progress in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Canterbury lamb’ remained one of the region’s major products.

Sheep on show

Canterbury celebrates its anniversary not on the actual date of its founding (16 December), but on Show Day, held by the Agricultural and Pastoral Association each November. At the Christchurch Showgrounds ‘town and country mingle more freely than in any other metropolitan centre of New Zealand’. 1

In 2012 there were 3,440,983 sheep in the region. This represented 11% of the national flock, compared with 21.7% in 1885.

The region remained ‘the granary of New Zealand’. In 2012, 62.5% of the country’s wheat, 52.6% of the barley and 26% of oats was grown in north and mid-Canterbury. The Ashburton district alone produced 46.6% of the country’s wheat.

Orchards, market gardens and vineyards

Today, on smallholdings, especially around Christchurch, farmers grow vegetables and fruit, and raise poultry. Apple and other fruit orchards have been planted in the sun-trap valleys of the Port Hills and at Loburn. Some Ellesmere farmers grow vegetables for freezing in a plant near Hornby.

The region’s first grapevines were planted by Akaroa’s French settlers in the 1840s. After the first large vineyard was planted near Christchurch in the 1970s, grape-growing expanded at Waipara and Burnham. About 4% of the nation's vineyards by area are in Canterbury.

In 2012 north and mid-Canterbury had only 2% of the land used in New Zealand for horticultural crops, but about half the land used for growing peas and over one-third of that used for potatoes.


Large-scale irrigation of the Canterbury Plains became possible only after the Rangitātā diversion race was completed in 1945. This drew water from the Rangitātā River and snaked across the upper plains to the Rakaia River. Three major irrigation schemes are supplied by the race.

Construction of a major irrigation scheme in the Amuri district began in 1977. Water flowed into the main race from the Waiau River in 1980. The smaller Balmoral scheme, with an intake on the Hurunui River, was begun in 1981. Farmers outside the schemes sank bores and used spray equipment.

Central Plains Water Limited’s controversial irrigation scheme, which started operating in 2015, was the largest irrigation construction project in the South Island. A 56-kilometre canal between the Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers irrigated 45,000 hectares of the central Canterbury Plains and supported intensive land uses like dairying. At the same time Hurunui Water Project Limited was developing a scheme to build four water storage dams on the Waitohi River, to irrigate 60,000 hectares of North Canterbury land. In 2012 the 385,271 hectares of irrigated land in the region was 62% of the total area of irrigated land in New Zealand.  

The impact of dairying

With irrigation, dairying expanded quickly in the 1990s. North Island dairy farmers were attracted south by cheaper land. Effluent and heavy use of water from aquifers caused environmental problems.

Different work routines disrupted traditional patterns of community life. Long-established families sold up, and share-milking increased the movement of families in and out of districts.

Between 2002 and 2012 the number of dairy cows in Canterbury increased by 115%, from 397,533 to 855,942. The region now accounted for 13.3% of the national dairy herd, up from 7.7% in 2002, and this proportion was set to rise further. The increase raised concerns about the environmental damage intensive dairying was having on the region’s waterways and led to stricter controls on land use and effluent run-off.  

Rural towns

In the 19th century, small townships had developed as rural service centres. Besides shops and stock and station agencies, they had churches, schools and public halls. Even in their heyday, few of these towns had more than 1,000 inhabitants.

After the First World War, country people began driving to Rangiora, Ashburton or Christchurch to shop. Some villages disappeared, leaving only a church or hall. Country schools, hospitals, banks and post offices closed, and hotels became taverns.

A few settlements within commuting range of Christchurch grew. Hanmer and Akaroa became popular for holiday homes and retirement and, like Methven, with tourists.

    • W. J. Gardner, Where they lived: studies in local, regional and social history. Christchurch: Regional Press, 1999, p. 14. › Back


From the early days of settlement Christchurch had a range of industries, and a number of well-known New Zealand firms are still based there.

Industry and farming

The earliest factories processed farm products or made goods for farmers. Flour mills, tanneries, wool scourers and soap factories were built mainly at Woolston, near the Heathcote River. Large woollen mills were built at Kaiapoi and in Christchurch, and freezing works at Belfast, Kaiapoi, Islington, Hornby and Fairton. Ashburton also developed industries such as flour mills, which linked town and country.

In the 20th century, a fertiliser works opened in Hornby. The Addington railway workshops were at their peak when branch railways served the rural areas.


Clothing, boots and shoes, beer and biscuits were produced for the domestic market. Lane Walker Rudkin, Lichfield and other garment producers made Christchurch the clothing centre.

Initially Christchurch dominated the rubber industry. The Para Rubber Company was founded by George Skellerup in 1910. Plastics for electrical goods became important from 1932.

In the later 20th century many long-established factories closed down – the railway workshops, the Hornby glassworks, the Islington freezing works, the Kaiapoi woollen mills, the Whitcombe & Tombs printing factory. More recently, electronics industries have flourished.

In 2013 a relatively high proportion of Canterbury’s population worked in manufacturing: 11% compared to the national average of 9.8%.

Software and sport

Electronics and computing industries have had a high profile in Christchurch. In 1998 the top sporting venue, Lancaster Park, was renamed Jade Stadium after naming rights were sold to the locally based Jade Software Corporation Ltd. This turned out to be a poor investment when the facility was destroyed by the 2011 earthquake.

Hydroelectric power

From 1915 a hydroelectric project at Lake Coleridge provided a continuous power supply for Christchurch. Hydroelectricity became a major source of energy for industry as a national grid developed.

The timber industry

With native timber scarce, there was an early interest in exotic forestry. Exotic trees were also planted for shade and shelter on the exposed plains.

Government afforestation began in 1902–3 at Hanmer, and continued after the First World War at Balmoral and Eyrewell. Exotic forestry proved marginal because of frost and the fire risk associated with drought. In 1955, 7,600 acres of the Balmoral pine forest was destroyed by fire.

Many forest products are used locally. A plant near Rangiora manufactures particle board.


Fishing fleets have worked out of both Lyttelton and Akaroa. Commercial fishing has all but ceased from Akaroa, but continues from Lyttelton, which also services deep-sea trawlers. A salmon farm operates at Akaroa Harbour.

Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) once supplied Christchurch with fish. In the 1970s large numbers of eel were taken for export, but stocks were depleted and the eel fishery is now small.


In 2010 tourism accounted for about 8.4% of all jobs in Canterbury, similar to the national average. The figure was higher in popular spots like Akaroa. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake severely affected the tourism sector. International visitor arrivals fell by 46% following the loss of 43% of commercial accommodation in Christchurch. At least 900 jobs were lost in the hospitality sector alone. The opening of four new central-city hotels in 2013 was a sign of recovery. The number of guest nights (visitors staying overnight) in Canterbury also increased. In the three months to February 2014 the total was 1.49 million, still below the figure of 1.7 million for the same period four years earlier.

Christchurch’s international airport remained the South Island’s gateway to Aoraki/Mt Cook, Queenstown and Milford Sound. The Mt Hutt skifield attracted Australian skiers. Passenger trains to Picton and Greymouth have survived because they are popular with tourists.

Running a marathon

In 2014 Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter compared his sector’s recovery to running a marathon. ‘We are through the first third, but we have a wee bit of a way to go yet,’ he said. 1 Hunter thought fewer flights from Australia, a lack of a convention centre and a decline in sporting events were all having a detrimental impact on visitor numbers. 

International trade

A small proportion of New Zealand’s incoming and outgoing cargo passes through Lyttelton port and Christchurch airport. In 2013 they together handled 9.6% of New Zealand’s imports (by value) and 16.5% of exports. 



City and port

One of the disadvantages of Christchurch’s site was that the Port Hills separated the city from its port. The Sumner Road was completed in 1857, but most goods were still ferried across the Sumner bar to wharves on the Heathcote River. In 1863 the wharf at Ferrymead was linked to Christchurch by the first public steam railway in New Zealand. A year earlier, the first telegraph line in New Zealand linked Lyttelton and Christchurch.

The problem of port access was solved by the Lyttelton rail tunnel. The first in New Zealand, it was completed in 1867. A road tunnel opened in 1964.

Getting about Christchurch

Until about 1950, most people used trams or bicycles, or walked. Christchurch had New Zealand’s most extensive tram system (87 route-kilometres), but trams and trolleybuses were replaced by diesel buses in the mid-1950s.

Constant cycle

Cycling peaked in Christchurch in the early 1950s, when 80,000 bikes were in use. In 2006 Christchurch was said to still have one of the highest proportions of cyclists to car drivers in New Zealand.

A northern and southern motorway and a one-way inner-city system spared Christchurch from severe traffic congestion until the 2011 earthquake. This severely damaged the street network and congestion was common as streets were repaired. Under the government’s Christchurch Motorways scheme, $800 million was being spent on new arterial routes in the city’s north, west and south to improve access to the CBD, airport and Lyttelton. 


The main trunk railway south from Christchurch reached Ashburton in 1874 and Dunedin in 1878. The line north had reached Waipara by 1880, but did not extend to Parnassus until 1912, or to Marlborough until 1945.

The Canterbury provincial government began building railways out from Christchurch in the 1860s. Branch railways carried passengers and freight between rural districts and Christchurch or Ashburton. They were not displaced by road transport until the 1950s.

Connecting east and west

The westward railway finally reached Arthur’s Pass in 1914. The 8.5 kilometre Ōtira tunnel opened in 1923, forging an important link with the West Coast. Timber and coal came east. The Press newspaper went west. Trampers and mountaineers used trains to reach Arthur’s Pass. Today, West Coast coal comes to Lyttelton for export, and the Tranz Alpine Express is popular with tourists.

The far horizon

The single furrows which guided the earliest travellers across the plains were soon replaced by metalled roads. The long, straight, dusty road leading to the horizon became emblematic of Canterbury, as Robin Muir describes: ‘The road stretched ahead, straight and true, pointing at the wall of mountains; the telegraph posts like a lesson in perspective drawing’. 1

In 1864 gold was discovered on the West Coast. The first diggers used a rough track across Harper Pass. In 1865–66 a stock track was built over Browning Pass, but it was high and steep, and Arthur’s Pass was chosen for a new road that opened in March 1866. A track was made over the Lewis Pass in the 1890s and a road built by relief workers during the depression opened in 1937.

Bridging the rivers

Rivers were a major obstacle to roads and railways. Slowly, river ferries were replaced by bridges, many carrying both road and railway. Construction was often difficult because of extremely wide riverbeds with no bedrock near the surface. One bridge across the Rakaia River is still the longest in the South Island, at 1.75 kilometres.

Sea and air links

The overnight ferry service between Lyttelton and Wellington ceased in 1976. It was replaced by a ferry service between Picton and Wellington, and by air services.

In 1923, the Sockburn field of the Canterbury Aviation Company became Wigram Aerodrome, the birthplace of the New Zealand Air Force. An Air Force Museum, opened in 1987, remained after Wigram closed in 1995.

From 1930, Ashburton had the first airport in the South Island operated by a local body. The Christchurch’s municipal airport opened at Harewood in 1940. In 1950 it was designated New Zealand’s first international airport, and in 1956 it became a base for flights to Antarctica.

    • Quoted in Anna Rogers, Christchurch: the city in literature. Auckland: Exisle, 2003, p. 231. › Back

Politics and government

Canterbury province

A provincial government was formed three years after the founding of the settlement. The Canterbury Provincial Council was the main focus of political activity.

The Canterbury province of 1853 took in Westland and South Canterbury. It lay between the Waitaki and the Hurunui rivers, and the east and west coasts. Westland became an independent province in 1873, and South Canterbury sought provincial status (unsuccessfully) from the 1860s.

Canterbury local and regional government

After the abolition of the provinces in 1876, the former province was divided into a number of large counties. Now there are five local authorities in north and mid-Canterbury: Christchurch City (which since 2006 has included Banks Peninsula) and Waimakariri, Selwyn, Ashburton and Hurunui districts.

The Canterbury United Council of 1979 was the first regional government body since the abolition of the provinces in 1876. In 1989 it was replaced by the Canterbury Regional Council or Environment Canterbury (ECan), which covers north, mid- and south Canterbury and Kaikōura. In 2010 ECan was sacked by the government for reported delays in dealing with water management and resource consent issues. The 14 elected councillors were replaced by seven government-appointed commissioners. Seven councillors were elected in 2016 and the council was fully elected in 2019. 

After the 2011 earthquake the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was established to lead the rebuilding process. CERA had powers to relax, suspend or extend laws and regulations. The authority was disestablished in 2016.

Christchurch local government

Christchurch was made a city by royal charter in 1856, and in 1862 became a municipal district. The Christchurch City Council originally administered only part of the urban area. In the first half of the 20th century, Christchurch City absorbed neighbouring boroughs, and areas run by county councils. The Christchurch Regional Planning Authority was established in 1954. In 1989 the entire built-up area was included in the city.

Canterbury in national politics

For the first national elections of 1853, the region was divided into four electorates – Christchurch Country, Christchurch Town, Lyttelton and Akaroa. The urban electorates of Christchurch grew in number, but rural electorates were fairly static.

For most of the first half of the 20th century there were five urban and four mostly rural electorates. North and mid-Canterbury now contain:

  • three mostly rural electorates (Kaikōura, Rangitātā and Selwyn, with the first two only partly in this region)
  • two partly urban electorates (Waimakariri and Port Hills)
  • four Christchurch seats: Ilam, Wigram, Christchurch Central and Christchurch East.

The Māori seat of Te Tai Tonga includes all of the South Island.

Nine of the South Island’s 16 general seats in Parliament are in north and mid- Canterbury.

Radical Christchurch

The Canterbury Association envisaged Canterbury society having a strong upper class, but Christchurch also has a tradition of radicalism.

In the 19th century, the suburb of Sydenham was ‘the capital of New Zealand prohibition’, although the only district in the region to go ‘dry’ was Ashburton. Kate Sheppard and other leading figures in the associated women’s suffrage movement were from Christchurch. Later, Christchurch gave the country its first woman member of Parliament, Elizabeth McCombs, and its first woman cabinet minister, Mabel Howard.

A city for the people

The Christchurch City Council has a long-standing commitment to ‘municipal socialism’. This prompted Auckland businessman Douglas Myers to describe the city as ‘the People’s Republic of Christchurch’ in 1998.

Christchurch was an early centre of the New Zealand Labour Party. The city elected the country’s first Labour mayor, John Kendrick Archer, in 1925, and the first Labour-controlled city council in 1927. Local left-wing politicians who had a national impact included William Pember Reeves, T. E. (Tommy) Taylor and Dan Sullivan. Unions were strong, and the 1889 Kaiapoi Woollen Company strike and 1932 tramway strike were key events.

From the 1970s there were vigorous campaigns against American military activity in Canterbury. In 1973 the country’s first environmental centre was set up in Christchurch.

Canterbury prime ministers

Four conservative prime ministers came from Canterbury:

  • runholder John Hall (premier, 1879–82)
  • Cheviot farmer George Forbes (prime minister through the depression, 1930–35)
  • businessman Sidney Holland (prime minister, 1949–57)
  • Jenny Shipley (first woman prime minister, 1997–99).

Three Labour prime ministers had strong Canterbury connections:

  • Norman Kirk (1972–74) represented the seats of Lyttelton and then Sydenham
  • Geoffrey Palmer (1989–90) was MP for Christchurch Central
  • Mike Moore (1990) held the Papanui seat.

John Key (National prime minister, 2008–16) moved to Christchurch as a child and received his school and university education there.

Social institutions


The Church of England (Anglicanism) was central to the Canterbury Association’s plan for the new settlement. Although Anglicans continued to predominate in Canterbury society, there were many Presbyterians among the Scottish settlers who arrived in the 1850s and 1860s, and Roman Catholics among the Irish. Wesleyans and Baptists were strong in some districts. In Christchurch, Anglo-Catholicism had a following, and there were also some eccentric sects.

The 20th century saw the growth of the Mormon Church, and in urban areas fundamentalist Christian sects and non-Christian religions such as Buddhism and Hare Krishna.

The Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals were among Christchurch’s most notable buildings. Both were severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The Catholic cathedral is to be demolished and replaced on the same site; the Anglican cathedral will be restored with substantial taxpayer assistance. Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists also built inner-city churches in the 19th century.

Primary and secondary education

The earliest schools in Canterbury were private or run by churches. The ideal of education for all was realised from 1863, with the establishment of state elementary schools under the provincial government. But primary education was not free to all until the passage of the Education Act 1877, and secondary education remained out of reach for many until 1936.

The oldest educational institution in Canterbury is Christ’s College, an endowed fee-paying boys’ school, founded by the Canterbury Association in 1850. Christchurch Boys’ High School and Christchurch Girls’ High School were founded as public secondary schools later in the 19th century.

There are now many other public high schools in Christchurch and the larger country towns such as Cheviot, Darfield, Rangiora, Akaroa, Leeston and Ashburton. Several private secondary schools and the older state secondary schools in Christchurch attract students from rural areas.

Tertiary education institutions

The only tertiary educational institutions in the region are in or near Christchurch. Canterbury University College (now University of Canterbury) was founded in 1873. With the College of Education it moved from an inner-city site to a new campus in the suburb of Ilam in the 1960s and 1970s. In 2013 the university had 14,872 students.

The Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (which remained in the inner city) grew out of the Christchurch Technical College, founded in 1902. Lincoln University (which began in 1878 as an agricultural college) is less than half an hour’s drive from Christchurch.


Public health was a pressing concern for 19th-century Cantabrians. Epidemics of infectious diseases took a heavy toll. Built on swampy land, Christchurch was particularly unhealthy and smelly. Its artesian water supply was contaminated by cesspits in the 1870s, and it was not until a drainage board was established in 1876 that improvements were made. Christchurch did not have a sewerage system until 1882, and this did not extend widely until 1914.

A hospital opened in Christchurch in 1859, and other facilities and services developed gradually. A district nursing service founded by Sibylla Maude in 1896 was one progressive measure, later adopted nationally, that brought health care to those most in need.

Smog city

Christchurch has always suffered winter air pollution, and it was very bad in the 1970s. On cold nights the hills, clear skies and lack of wind create an inversion layer that traps smoke and fumes over the city. By the 1990s pollution was reduced as industries converted to electricity, and people relied less on open coal fires to heat their homes.


Christchurch has several private and six major public hospitals, with a specialist spinal injuries unit at Burwood Hospital and a mental health service at Hillmorton Hospital (formerly Sunnyside Hospital). There are also public hospitals at Akaroa, Ashburton, Darfield, Ellesmere, Lincoln, Oxford, Rangiora and Waikari.


The Christchurch Press, founded in 1861, is New Zealand’s oldest surviving metropolitan daily, linking town and country. Its older competitor, the Lyttelton (later Christchurch) Times, founded in 1851, was a victim of a celebrated newspaper war and ceased publication in 1935.

The evening Christchurch Star was started in 1868. It combined with the rival Sun in 1935, appearing as the Christchurch Star-Sun until 1958 when it reverted to its former name. Since the early 1990s it has been a free broadsheet, published twice weekly.

Daily newspapers were once supported by a number of Canterbury towns, but the Ashburton Guardian, dating from 1879, is the only survivor. In the early 1900s the Weekly Press was the country’s leading agricultural and racing newspaper.

Māori institutions

Ngāi Tahu life was dominated for 150 years by a long campaign to get the Crown to honour promises it made at the time of land purchases. Partial settlement was achieved in the first half of the 20th century, and the Ngāi Tahu Trust Board was set up. The claim was finally settled in 1997. Ngāi Tahu is now a major force in the Canterbury economy.

The traditional rūnanga (councils) of Ngāi Tahu in the Canterbury region are based at Tuahiwi, Rāpaki, Koukourarata, Ōnuku, Wairewa and Taumutu. From the 1950s, some Māori of North Island tribes began moving to Christchurch. One trade-training hostel developed into the city’s main urban marae, Rehua. Work in freezing works and shearing sheds brought North Island Māori to mid-Canterbury, and in 1970 the old Fairton School became the Hakatere Marae.


The city expands

There were no natural barriers to Christchurch’s growth, except for the sea to the east and the Port Hills to the south. Laid out in a grid pattern centred on Cathedral Square, it spread along the main tramlines. Outlying villages like New Brighton, Sumner, Papanui and Upper Riccarton were eventually swallowed up. The downtown area remained the focus until the 1960s, when the first suburban malls appeared.

Christchurch grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, when large tracts of state housing were built. A green belt curbed growth into farmland, but changes in town planning regulations associated with the Resource Management Act 1991 have allowed peripheral expansion to proceed.

More English than England?

Before the 2011 earthquake Christchurch was sometimes described as the most English of New Zealand’s cities. Tourism ventures exploited this, focusing on the central city’s picturesque architecture and promoting such activities as punting on the Avon River. The levelling of much of the central city after the earthquake shattered this illusion, although English references survive in street names and a few remaining heritage buildings, especially the Arts Centre and Canterbury Museum. A planned increase in green space in the city will enhance Christchurch’s reputation as New Zealand’s ‘garden city’.  

Compared to other New Zealand centres, a slightly higher proportion of the overseas residents were from England in the early days. But by the later 19th century the Irish were as numerous as elsewhere and the Scots only slightly fewer.

A class society

Christchurch is also seen by some as having more obvious social distinctions than elsewhere in the country, with a marked ‘upper crust’: the élite living in Fendalton, sending their children to the right schools, shopping at Ballantynes and belonging to the Canterbury Club or Christchurch Club.

The Canterbury Association’s wish to transplant the English class system may have promoted a stronger sense of division. Even today, being able to trace ancestry back to one of the first four ships carries some weight. Yet some commentators insist that social and economic inequalities are no greater in Christchurch than in other New Zealand cities.

Peers and peasants

The son of one of the Canterbury Association founders explained the class differences in Christchurch: ‘[T]he great and obvious distinction between the population of Canterbury and the other provinces of New Zealand is, that Canterbury is populated by representatives of every class and section of English society, from the peer to the peasant, while the population of the other provinces is nothing more nor less than a straggling, struggling mob – an undistinguished herd, made up of mere men and women.’ 1


Like all large cities, Christchurch had its subcultures and nonconformists. The best-known local eccentric was the Wizard (Ian Brackenbury Channell). In the 1970s and 1980s urban communes and alternative lifestylers made a mark: the Avon Loop community (known fondly as ‘Loopies’) promoted environmental awareness and self-sufficiency.

At that time a local punk culture also emerged. A negative side of social change was racial violence, with white-supremacist skinheads periodically attacking ethnic minorities. Despite concerns about such violence, and drugs, the Christchurch crime rate has fallen since 1995. The 2019 terrorist attack in which 51 Muslims were killed was a shocking exception to this long-term trend.


Christchurch has a well-tended and attractive environment. Hagley Park at the centre, with its magnificent trees, is one of many parks and reserves. The high standard of public and private gardens has earned the Christchurch the name Garden City. Notable public gardens include Mona Vale, the grounds of the Ilam Homestead, and the Botanic Gardens.

There are popular walking tracks over the Port Hills, and the beaches at Sumner, New Brighton and Taylors Mistake are popular. Residents and tourists enjoy Christchurch’s proximity to the mountains, lakes and rivers for outdoor pursuits such as skiing, snowboarding, fishing, tramping and mountaineering.

Until the 2011 earthquake the central city had a flourishing café culture and nightlife. An aim of the CBD rebuild was to revive this element. In the meantime new night-life and café culture hubs had emerged along northern Victoria Street on the CBD periphery and in western suburbs like Addington.

City size

Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island. The metropolitan area contains three-quarters of the population of Canterbury and one-third of the population of the South Island.

In 1900 Christchurch had about the same population as Auckland. By 2000, Auckland had three times the population of Christchurch. Christchurch and Wellington, however, kept pace with each other in size and rate of growth. Which city has more people depends on how the figures are compiled. In 2013 Christchurch city had 341,469 people, a reduction of 2% since 2006 because of the earthquakes.


On 4 September 2010 Canterbury was affected by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake, centred about 37 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. There was no loss of life, but considerable damage to buildings in the city. On 22 February 2011 a magnitude 6.3 earthquake occurred, with its epicentre near Lyttelton. It caused 185 deaths and major damage to Christchurch, with thousands of people made homeless. Around a quarter of the buildings in the central city were demolished as a result of the quake.

    • Edward Jerningham Wakefield, quoted in Steven Eldred-Grigg, A new history of Canterbury. Dunedin: McIndoe, 1982, p. 20. › Back


Population today

The total population of the Canterbury region in 2013 was 478,623 – 11.3% of New Zealand’s population. Just over 71% of Cantabrians lived in Christchurch city, which had a population of 341,469 – a decline of 2% since 2006.

A major reason for the decline was the exodus of people from the city following the 2011 earthquake. Some of the badly damaged eastern suburbs experienced population decreases of over 40%. Many residents relocated to less-affected areas on the south-west outskirts of the city and in the Selwyn and Waimakariri districts, which experienced population increases of 32.6% and 16.7% respectively between 2006 and 2013.

Chinese in Christchurch

Christchurch’s sizeable Chinese community includes descendants of 19th- and 20th-century immigrants, and more recent arrivals from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South-East Asia. They embrace both Chinese and New Zealand culture: for instance, the Taiwanese have formed a writers’ association whose members write in Chinese and translate New Zealand works into Chinese.

Population in the past

Canterbury’s population first boomed between 1871 and 1881. There was a second spurt between 1955 and 1970. During the 20th century the population trebled. By the early 2000s the proportion of urban dwellers (in Christchurch, Rangiora, Kaiapoi and Ashburton) had grown to more than 90%. The rural population as a whole was steady until 1941, but then fell and has not recovered.

Māori and other ethnic groups

Canterbury’s population is more European than in most North Island regions. In New Zealand as a whole in 2013, 74% of the population identified themselves as European. Canterbury’s 86.2% was significantly higher. In Waimakariri district, only 9.9% in total identified as Māori, Pacific or Asian.

Most Māori, Asian and Pacific people of the region live in or near Christchurch. In 2013 the proportion of Asians in Christchurch was slightly lower than the national figure, and the proportion of Māori and Pacific people was much lower:

  • Asians were 9.4% of the city’s population, compared with 11.8% of the national population
  • Māori were 8.5%, compared with 14.9% nationally
  • Pacific people were 3.1%, compared with 7.4% nationally.

From 1981 the proportion of Māori and Asians grew – by 2013 there were 2,634 Muslims living in Christchurch.

Age, education and wealth

Through the 20th century and into the 21st, compared to the rest of the country, Christchurch people were older, better educated and enjoyed a higher level of home ownership and lower mortgage debt.

Median incomes were close to the national figure except in Selwyn, where they were significantly higher. In mid-2014, as the Christchurch rebuild took off, the region’s unemployment rate was half the national figure.

The arts

19th century


The Canterbury Association had a vision of Christchurch as a place where culture, literature and art would flourish. Verse appeared in the Lyttelton Times in the 1850s. In the 1860s, the Press published some of the earliest writings of Samuel Butler, whose satirical fantasy Erewhon (1872) drew on his New Zealand experiences.

Mary Anne Barker published factual accounts of life on a high-country sheep station in the 1860s. George Chamier’s novels were based on his experiences in Canterbury around the same time. In 1898, poet and politician William Pember Reeves produced the first comprehensive history of New Zealand.

Art and architecture

Many early artists of Canterbury’s distinctive landscapes – among them Nicholas Chevalier, J. B. C. Hoyte and C. D. Barraud – were wayfarers rather than residents. But a regional art movement gradually emerged, foreshadowed by masters such as Petrus van der Velden.

From the 1850s architecture flourished under Benjamin Mountfort and his successor Samuel Hurst Seager. Mountfort’s magnificent Gothic Revival public buildings, notably the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings, Canterbury Museum and Canterbury College, gave central Christchurch a distinctive architectural flavour.


A strong tradition of local choirs began in the 19th century. The all-male Christchurch Cathedral choir, founded in 1881, is one of the oldest cathedral choirs outside England. But not all musical tastes were highbrow: more popular musical and theatrical entertainments were offered regularly by touring companies, and brass bands gained a strong following in working-class areas.

20th century

The 1930s and 1940s

Christchurch’s press, university and art school all fostered creative expression in the early 20th century, and by the 1930s the city had a leading place in New Zealand arts. Two important small presses, Caxton and Pegasus, were founded then, and leading literary figures included the poets Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Ursula Bethell.

In visual art The Group, a Christchurch-based art association, included some of the most progressive painters: Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Olivia Spencer Bower, Rata Lovell-Smith, Doris Lusk and Evelyn Page. Between 1927 and 1953 the Little Theatre played a critical role in the development of drama in New Zealand, particularly under the directorship of Ngaio Marsh in the 1940s.

By the 1950s Christchurch had lost its literary and artistic leadership, especially once painter Colin McCahon, poet Allen Curnow and composer Douglas Lilburn left for the North Island. For a time, its cultural life was seen as stuffy and conservative.

Writing about the region

Author Stevan Eldred-Grigg has examined Canterbury and its people in many publications. Histories such as Southern gentry (1980) and A new history of Canterbury (1982) give fresh perspectives on the past. Novels including Oracles and miracles (1987), The siren Celia (1989), The shining city (1991) and Gardens of fire (1993) are set in Christchurch and Canterbury and often draw on historical episodes.

New developments

Staff of the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, including Doris Lusk, William A. (Bill) Sutton, Don Peebles and Rudolf Gopas, were influential as teachers and practitioners between the 1950s and 1970s. They inspired major artists such as Philip Clairmont, Philip Trusttum, Tony Fomison, Buck Nin and Bill Hammond.

In architecture, Miles Warren’s clean-lined concrete block structures were designed for the Canterbury climate, while Peter Beaven’s imaginative public buildings paid homage to an earlier Christchurch architect, Benjamin Mountfort.

Performing arts

Professional theatre began in 1971 with the Court Theatre. In 1975 the old central-city university buildings were renamed the Christchurch Arts Centre and became home to the Court Theatre and other arts groups, including in its early years the new Christchurch School of Instrumental Music. The Arts Centre was severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake but is being steadily restored. 

Not in harmony

In the late 1970s Christchurch had two rival orchestras – the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the Canterbury Trust Orchestra. They were linked to opposing political factions, and their disputes created a long-running public controversy. In the end, only the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra survived.

Popular music

From 1973, Radio Avon catered to the wide audience for popular music. Performing at venues such as Dux de Lux in the Arts Centre, alternative bands, including The Bats and The Jean Paul Sartre Experience, gained a following in the 1980s. Mainstream rockers the Dance Exponents were [popular. The award-winning band Salmonella Dub formed in Christchurch in the early 1990s.

21st century

In the 2000s Christchurch had a professional or semi-professional ballet, opera, theatre, orchestra and choir. The School of Music at Canterbury University includes a well-regarded jazz school. In popular music, rapper Scribe dominated New Zealand’s hip hop scene. The Feelers, Anika Moa, Ladi6, the Eastern, Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams were other well-known acts.

An exciting development was the 2003 opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery/Te Puna o Waiwhetu. This replaced the Robert McDougall Art Gallery as the home of the city’s art collection. 

Sport and leisure

With so much flat land, Christchurch has always had many playing fields. Hagley Park was the birthplace of many sporting codes in Canterbury, and Lancaster Park (later Jade Stadium) was the focus of Canterbury sport from its opening in 1881 until it was irreparably damaged in the 2011 earthquake. In 2012 Rugby League Park in Addington was upgraded to host major rugby union, rugby league and football games until a new stadium opened the edge of the rebuilt CBD..


A cricket club formed as early as 1851, foreshadowing Canterbury’s domination of the game. The New Zealand Cricket Council was formed in Christchurch in December 1894 and administration has centred on Christchurch ever since. Following the 2011 earthquake, a new venue for top-level cricket was developed at Hagley Oval.


The Canterbury Rugby Football Union (1879) was the first in New Zealand. It remains the main Canterbury union, although Mid-Canterbury is a separate union competing in the Heartland championship.

In the 20th century, rugby was the most popular sport in Canterbury. Lancaster Park was its home, and many provincial and national touring sides battled it out with the local team in its distinctive black and red colours. The Christchurch-based Crusaders have won more Super Rugby titles than any other franchise.


The Christchurch Lawn Tennis Club was founded in 1881, and there were at least eight clubs by 1886. Anthony Wilding, who won four consecutive Wimbledon men’s singles titles (1910–13), gave Canterbury its leading place in the nation’s tennis history.

Racing and trotting

By the late 1880s Riccarton Racecourse was known as the home of the New Zealand Cup and the Grand National Steeplechase. Cup Day in early November was timed to coincide with the Agricultural and Pastoral show, and it remains a key event.

In 1896 the New Zealand Racing Conference was set up in Christchurch, where it was based until 1930. Trotting began at Lancaster Park in 1886, and Christchurch was soon regarded as the country’s trotting capital. The centre for trotting is now at Addington.

Other sports

The Pioneer Bicycle Club (1870) was probably the first in New Zealand. The Canterbury Rowing Club held regattas on the Avon River from the 19th century. And both the New Zealand boxing and hockey associations were formed in Christchurch in 1902.

In the 1900s swimming and surf clubs formed at Canterbury beaches. Later, other individual sports such as hang gliding and jogging became popular. Skifields at Mt Hutt and on the Craigieburn Range have made skiing a very popular Canterbury sport.

Peter Snell at Lancaster Park

Lancaster Park (later Jade Stadium) hosted many major sporting events. One of the most exciting was when Kiwi runner Peter Snell set world records for the 800 metres and half-mile on 3 February 1962. In the same race Snell set an unofficial world record for the 660 yards.

Commonwealth Games

The most important single event in Christchurch’s sporting history was the 1974 Commonwealth Games. It was considered one of the most successful and friendly games ever held, and television coverage gave the city international publicity.

Canterbury earthquakes and rebuild

The Darfield earthquake

At 4.35 a.m. on Saturday 4 September 2010, Canterbury was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred near Darfield. There was no loss of life and few serious injuries, but many stone and masonry buildings were damaged. Some buildings in coastal settlements like Kaiapoi and Bexley were badly affected by liquefaction (water-saturated sand and silt). Aftershocks continued to rattle the region.

Army of helpers

After the Darfield earthquake University of Canterbury students formed the Student Volunteer Army via social media. The ‘army’ organised thousands of students to help clean up quake debris in affected properties and streets. In two weeks they shovelled away 65,000 tonnes of liquefaction. Following the Christchurch earthquake they cleared another 360,000 tonnes of liquefaction.

The Christchurch earthquake  

The largest aftershock was the magnitude 6.3 Christchurch earthquake, which occurred at 12.51 p.m. on Tuesday 22 February and struck along the northern edge of the Port Hills. The earthquake’s shallowness and the high energy level caused severe shaking. Many buildings collapsed completely or partially, causing multiple deaths and injuries. These included the Canterbury Television (CTV) Building (115 deaths) and the Pyne Gould Corporation Building (18 deaths). A further 36 people died elsewhere in the central city and 12 in suburban areas, some from rock falls. Four more deaths were attributed to the earthquake by the chief coroner, bringing the total to 185.

Tens of thousands of dwellings were damaged and many people were made homeless. Streets and bridges were twisted, water and sewerage pipes broken and electricity lines severed. People experienced varied emotions: fear, shock, relief and despair.


The government civil defence agency declared a national state of emergency. The central city (or ‘red zone’) was cordoned off as Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams searched for survivors and bodies in the rubble. Electricity was restored to 75% of the city within three days. Households without power made do with candles and lanterns and cooking on gas barbecues. Neighbourhoods without drinking water were given bottled water and visited by water trucks. Portaloos (chemical toilets) were delivered to areas with broken sewers. Neighbours came together in mutual aid; outsiders arrived to help clean up. Engineers worked tirelessly to declare damaged buildings safe or unsafe. More than 70,000 people left the city, some permanently.

Eastern suburbs neglected  

In early March 2011 blogger Peter Hyde described Christchurch’s lower-income eastern suburbs as a ‘refugee city’ populated by 50,000 to 100,000 people. 1 There was little access to power, no showers or ways to wash dishes and clothes, too few portaloos, and no face masks to protect against windblown silt. Such conditions led to claims that the official response was favouring higher-income areas at the expense of the east. This was denied by officials, but earthquake recovery minister Gerry Brownlee conceded the area had been neglected.


The government set up the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) to lead the city’s rebuilding, alongside territorial authorities, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and other groups. On 30 April 2011 the state of emergency was lifted and CERA took over from Civil Defence. It continued inspecting damaged buildings, ordering the demolition of hundreds. By February 2015 over one-quarter of buildings in the central city had been either demolished or partly demolished (including those destroyed in the quakes).

Land zones and insurance claims

CERA mapped Christchurch into land zones for rebuilding.

  • Red-zoned land was deemed unsuitable for rebuilding. Property owners could accept a government buyout of their properties or negotiate with their insurer. Most accepted the government offer. 8,062 properties were affected.
  • Green-zoned land was deemed suitable for rebuilding. Those with damaged properties had to negotiate settlements with the government Earthquake Commission (which covered damage up to $100,000) and their insurer.

The settlement of claims was slow. Critics charged insurers with deliberately delaying claims for financial benefit. Insurers said the complexity of claims was the problem.

Still suffering

A survey of 800 Cantabrians in early 2014 found that 67% were still grieving for what had been lost in Christchurch, 65% reported feeling tired and almost half were not sleeping well. Experts were not surprised by the finding, explaining that recovering emotionally from a disaster could take between five and 10 years.

Recovery plan

In July 2012 the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan was released. It was the culmination of thousands of ideas contributed by residents and professionals. The plan envisaged a low-rise CBD framed by corridors of open space. Its backbone was 12 anchor projects, from a rebuilt city mall to a new arts precinct. The rebuilding would be managed by the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU). In June 2013 the government and Christchurch City Council entered a cost-sharing agreement over funding the anchor projects and damaged infrastructure like streets and pipes.

Rebuild pace

In mid-2014 opinion was divided over the direction and pace of the rebuild. Tensions between the government and Christchurch City Council had hindered progress; some thought CCDU processes were scaring off developers, and thousands were still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt. On the other hand, the government’s relationship with the council was improving; about 10% of the rebuild had been completed, cordons had been lifted from the inner-city red zone and several large businesses had committed to moving back into the CBD.

The Kaikōura earthquake

At 12.02 a.m. on Monday 14 November 2016 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck central New Zealand, causing significant damage to buildings and infrastructure in northern Canterbury and neighbouring Marlborough. Landslides cut off road and rail links to Kaikōura, stranding large numbers of visitors in the popular tourist town. Two people lost their lives: one at Mt Lyford as a result of a heart attack and another when a house collapsed in Kaikōura. 


Facts and figures

Land area

  • Canterbury: 25,252 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Christchurch)

(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 17.5°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 6.6°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 618 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,142 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Canterbury: 462,783 (2006); 478,626 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027, 947 (2006); 4,242,048 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Canterbury: 86.2%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Canterbury: 8.2%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Canterbury: 2.6%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Canterbury: 7.5%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Canterbury: 0.9%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes

Ngāi (Kai) Tahu

Population of major urban areas, 2013

  • Christchurch city: 341,469
  • Ashburton: 18,471

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Canterbury: 18.7%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Canterbury: 66.3%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

Over 65

  • Canterbury: 14.9%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Canterbury: 5.8%
  • New Zealand: 5.4% 


  • Canterbury: 11.6% 
  • New Zealand: 7.9%


  • Canterbury: 10.9%
  • New Zealand: 9.8%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Canterbury: 3.4%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers. 2012

(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)


  • Canterbury: 3,440,983
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Canterbury: 855,942
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Canterbury: 299,741
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412
    • The category 'New Zealander' was introduced in the 2006 census. › Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Canterbury region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 14 o Hepetema 2006, reviewed & revised 6 o Hūrae 2015