Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Bit of Old Christchurch.

Star, Issue 5739, 2 October 1886, Page 4
A Bit of Old Christchurch.

I think it must have been about 1857, on the section where now are the buildings occupied by Messrs Dunning, Milner and Thompson and others, at the junction of High and Cashel streets, that an unusual event occurred. A circus planted itself on the vacant block, it may be the first that ever visited the city. The proprietor and manager was Mr Foley, who at that time was well known throughout the Colonies, and met with some ups and downs. As may be imagined, so important an occurrence made a sensation. The juveniles were not as numerous as to-day, and some of those are now staid old family men; but it needed not the youthful element to fill the tent. Hardened old fellows who had wrestled with the tussocks and bush and rivers, found their way in from the sod whares and weather-board homes by every mode of conveyance, from a plough horse to a bullock dray, to enjoy an evening reminding them of old times in the towns and villages of the Old Home. As may be imagined, the show was somewhat less than Bailey's or Colonel John Wilson's, and included no elephants or other sensational creatures. It simply consisted of a few horses and ponies, and a divinity or two. Including the bewitching Mrs Foley, and of course he could not be omitted — a clown. They took money, and I believe were very well satisfied with the venture.

That section remained unbuilt on, and was used for some time by Mr Barnard, the horse auctioneer, as a saleyard, and upon the rails of that block he posted himself on Saturdays, knocking down horses and other necessaries. It was a busy scene in a rough way. Most of the old identities who figured there have disappeared some have successfully mounted the ladder, many are under the quiet sod, some in other Colonies and defeated in the battle, but very very few to be seen in the streets of Christchurch.

So the section remained until about the time of the Otago rush, when, having passed into the hands of Mr W. Wilson, it was by him leased, at the rate, it was then said, of from a pound to twenty-five shillings a foot frontage. It was soon covered with buildings, and those have disappeared to make room for modern ones. In one of the original buildings was after wards published for some time a lively little evening paper, The Mail. It passed through many hands and met with many vicissitudes. It was originally started by Mr J. L. Hall, the comedian (who first appeared in Christchurch about 1858, amusing the public with all his abundant humour as clown to a dog show, then exhibiting in a tent alongside the right-of-way of the White Hart Hotel), and was meant to be a sort of Entr'acte; others then ran it, and for some time Mr E. J. Wakefield was editor, the then proprietor being, I think, Mr G. F. Tribe, once of the Central Hotel, later on M.H.R. for a West Coast district.

One of the original shops was occupied by Mr James Wood, the saddler, and in his windows he used to pillory, in caricature fashion, a rival tradesman who some years after disappeared; and also, one of his pet aversions, Mr John Birdsey, once of the British Hotel, Geelong, who came to Canterbury about 1861 and revolutionised the catering trade. Mr Birdsey's first venture was at the corner where now are Mr Hulbert and the Langham, and there he made a gorgeous display. He called into requisition the undoubted artistic talent of Mr St Quentin (an old Victorian decorator, who for some years came to the front as a political agitator, and even went so far as to very nearly get into the old Provincial Parliament), and ornamented his large window in a style to which the unsophisticated Christchurchians were quite unused. Added to this, his alimentary display was something immense. The window groaned with the fatness of the land; and, inside, behold the landlord, en chef, apron and cap spotlessly white, smiling benignly. That continued for a month or two, and then Mr Birdsey obtained a license. That was the original of the hotel, under many landlords, and under different names, where now is the Langham.

From the Wilson block were issued, some years later, the first penny tokens, claiming Canterbury as their parent. They were not an artistic success, being very plain, and not calculated to charm the eye of a collector of coins. Inartistic as they were, and not intrinsically very valuable, they, never the less, afforded the Resident Magistrate some employment in an action between Mr Raphael, a pawnbroker, and Mr Hall, a grocer, who had put them into circulation. The former claimed the right to compel the issuer to take the tokens over his counter as penny pieces, the latter refusing. There were counsel employed, and a grand display of ancient and forgotten law was made.

Whole cargoes of horses were, in the former years, brought down from Sydney and Hobart Town and auctioned, fetching prices that would astonish sellers of to-day. The pushing farmer and contractor had no difficulty in buying, a good providence having thoroughly established the bill system; and the man wanting only one horse had an opportunity, in bidding for two, of placing one on favourable terms. The only Bank — the Union — must have been a paternal institution. Its site was where now is the property of the late Mr W. Jones, in Cashel street. The manager for some time was Mr Stewart, a most genial and pleasant man, who was succeeded by Mr Palmer; Mr Stewart, I think, becoming manager of the Bank of New Zealand, when that now omnipotent concern commenced its modest career in a weatherboard building in Cashel street, about where is now Mr Hale, sail-maker.

Later on, Mr Wilson, whose old place of business was on the present site of His Lordship's Larder, erected premises at the corner, and there, with Mr Aikman, carried on auctioneering; and upon the dissolution of that firm was joined by Mr Alport. In the upper room, as is well known, the Chamber of Commerce held its sittings. That building, also, it may be said, was for some years the head quarters of electioneering doings, both as to superintendents and members of Council, especially so in the Moorhouse, Lance, and Travers' election.

The next section working northwards was, I think, the property of a Mr Bradley, and occupied for some time as a schoolroom. About the year 1859, the Wesleyan Chapel was built upon it, later on sold, when that denomination built their new church in Durham street. It was said that the land had been given by the owner for the purpose. The chapel when sold was converted into a hall and used for many purposes, and is now replaced by a drapery establishment.

The houses from there to Fisher's corner were unpretentious buildings. In one Mr Prebble carried on one of the first hair dressing enterprises in Christchurch, later on developed into Professor Ayers' establishment and baths. At the corner for many years Mr Fisher carried on a grocery business. Such is a short outline of the appearance at that time of the busy footpath from Cashel street to the Bank of New Zealand.

Ah, had people only known, wouldn't they have secured a few feet. But in those years, as in later years, even now, there were any amount of gloomy forebodings, and Christchurch and Canterbury, there is no doubt, have been doomed many times. They take a deal of killing!

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