South Canterbury’s identity as a separate region has been bound up with its sports teams. As early as 1873 a rugby match between Canterbury and South Canterbury was played at Ashburton. In 1950, for a euphoric moment, the South Canterbury team held the Ranfurly Shield, only to lose it at the first challenge. In 1974 it won it again, repulsing one challenge before losing it to city slickers from Wellington.
Three South Canterbury names belong to New Zealand’s sporting history.
- One of the world’s most successful racehorses, Phar Lap, raced in Australia but was bred at Seadown, near Timaru.
- Jack Lovelock, winner of the 1,500-metre race (in world-record time) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was schooled at Temuka, Fairlie and Timaru. He received an oak sapling with his medal, and the mature tree still stands at Timaru Boys’ High School.
- Bob Fitzsimmons, who world boxing titles in three different weight categories, was educated and worked as a young man in South Canterbury.
Timaru is the centre of South Canterbury’s cultural life. The South Canterbury Museum has collections covering the region’s natural and human history, including fossils and Māori rock art. New Zealand and European artworks from the 17th century to the present are displayed in the Aigantighe (pronounced ‘Egg & Tie’) Art Gallery. Founded in a historic homestead in 1956, it is the South Island’s third largest art museum. The Theatre Royal is the focus for drama and performing arts, and hosts many touring shows.
Amateur cultural groups also flourish in smaller towns. There are historical museums in Temuka, Geraldine and Waimate, a rail museum in Pleasant Point and a vintage car and machinery museum in Geraldine.
The most important New Zealand literary figure with South Canterbury associations is Jessie Mackay, a journalist and poet who taught at Kakahu and Ashwick Flat in the 1880s and 1890s.
The English author Samuel Butler held the sheep run known as Mesopotamia between 1860 and 1864. It lies in today’s South Canterbury, but Butler is associated with Christchurch rather than Timaru. The initial scenes of his satirical novel Erewhon are set in a version of Mesopotamia.
One of the country's finest short story writers, Owen Marshall, has lived for many years in Timaru.
Street fighting men
In Timaru on Boxing Day 1879, some 40 Irish Protestants (known as Orangemen) clashed with Catholics. Despite official pleas, they joined a march of friendly societies. A 150-strong crowd of Catholics blocked their way, crying ‘remove your colours’ (regalia celebrating William of Orange’s victory over the deposed James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). The Orangemen refused, and scuffles broke out. After a tense standoff the Orangemen retreated and removed their colours. The Catholics then marched in triumph along the main street.
Between 1878 and 1916, South Canterbury had its own Board of Education. The Christchurch-based Canterbury Education Board then took control until 1989, when much of the responsibility for running schools was devolved to their communities.
Timaru High School opened in 1880 as a co-educational institution, but split into boys’ and girls’ schools in 1897. A technical college founded in 1901 became a technical high school in 1918. This was the predecessor of Aoraki Polytechnic, which in 2016 merged with the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology to form Ara Institute of Canterbury.
The region’s only surviving daily newspaper is the Timaru Herald, founded in 1864 and a daily since 1878.
Anglicanism and Presbyterianism were the main Protestant denominations in South Canterbury, reflecting the region’s English and Scottish heritage. There was also a sizable Irish Catholic community, especially in Waimate and Geraldine.
As elsewhere in New Zealand, the importance of religion has declined in recent decades, but churches remain a notable part of the streetscape in many towns. The spires of St Mary's Anglican and Chalmers Presbyterian churches, and the domes of Sacred Heart Basilica, still dominate Timaru's skyline.
Climbing and skiing
Aoraki/Mt Cook has been the country’s major centre for guided climbing, and was also important in the development of skiing during the 1920s and 1930s. Later skifields were established elsewhere in the Mackenzie Country. Rock-climbing is another attraction – at sites with descriptive names such as Hanging Rock and Mt Horrible.
Trout were introduced into the region in the 1870s, and by the 1890s it had gained a reputation for having some of the best fly-fishing in New Zealand. In recent decades, pollution and the extraction of river water for irrigation have undermined this status. Salmon fishing in the Waitaki is centred on Glenavy.
City of the rose
Roses do well in the central South Island, with its dry summers and cold winters. The Trevor Griffiths Rose Garden, at Timaru’s Caroline Bay, displays thousands of old and modern species in a landscaped setting with fountains and arbours. It evolved from the collection of local grower Trevor Griffiths, who once had the third largest collection of roses in the world.
Timaru’s Caroline Bay, with its piazza and views to the mountains, attracts many visitors. The wide beach was formed by the build-up of current-driven sands against the harbour’s northern breakwater. In earlier times, day trippers came by train from Christchurch and Dunedin, and a summer carnival has been held since 1911. Holidaymakers still enjoy the promenades, picnic areas and fairground, as well as the cafés and bars above the bay.