Choosing a site for Christchurch
When Captain Thomas recommended a site for colonists to build a town in
Canterbury he chose a flat area on the Plains with room for expansion in
all directions rather than a site at the head of the Lyttelton Harbour
where there was a comparatively small area of flat land. Given the
expansion of the city over the last 150 years this was a wise decision.
However given the swampy nature of the land he was choosing a site which
was to present serious problems.
First Canterbury settlement
The first permanent European settlers on the Canterbury Plains were two
Scottish brothers, William and John Deans, and the Gebbies and Manson
families who worked for them on the farm which they established at
Riccarton in 1843.
The first organised settlement was in 1850 when four ships carrying British
immigrants arrived in Lyttelton Harbour. The land they were to settle was
on the other side of the Port Hills on the Canterbury Plains. As they
stood at the top of the Bridle Path over the hills they must have felt
daunted by the first sight of the Plains with extensive wetlands and raupo
The largest waterway, the Waimakariri, is a braided river. It originally
flowed out through Lake Ellesmere, but has changed its course many times,
and the small rivers that flow through Christchurch flow in the former beds
of the Waimakariri. The main ones are the Avon, Heathcote and Styx
In 1859 a flood in the Waimakariri River caused serious damage in the town
of Kaiapoi north of Christchurch and in 1867 as a result of another flood
all the low lying parts of Christchurch city were several feet under water
and some houses had to be evacuated.
Drainage a problem
The new settlers worked hard to establish the town of Christchurch with
sound wooden buildings and a pattern of roads, but with low lying swampy
areas in the central city and suburbs drainage was a major area of concern.
The resources of the new settlement were inadequate to address such major
Because of the inadequate drainage the city had problems with flooding,
foul odours and disease. Newspaper leading articles stressed the dangers of
the insanitary conditions in the city. In 1874 Christchurch had the
highest death rate of all New Zealand cities. After a serious epidemic of
typhoid fever the local authorities had to submit to the overriding
legislative power of the central Parliament.
Central Government sets up the Christchurch Drainage Board in 1875.
On October 12 1875 Parliament passed the Christchurch District Drainage
Act. In 1876 it passed the Public Health Act including a special clause
constituting the Christchurch District Drainage Board as a Local Board of
Health for the area under its control. By this time, twenty five years
after it was founded, the population of the central city alone was 12,000.
The need for systematic drainage of both city and suburbs was urgent. The
establishment of the overriding authority ended the arguments about the
responsibilities of each local authority in the area.
The preamble to the Act of Parliament stated that it was being set up 'for
the improvement of the drainage of the City of Christchurch, and the lands
surrounding the said city." One of the chief means by which the drainage
would be improved would be by the development of a more satisfactory means
of disposing of sewage.
Ratepayers oppose building underground sewers.
The first engineer to the Board, Mr Carruthers, recommended the building of
underground sewers which ratepayers declared were 'unnecessary, expensive,
and dangerous to health'. They wanted to avoid the use of pumping stations
and to drain the district by gravitation.
Swimming baths opened in polluted water.
There was other evidence that some of the Christchurch citizens, while they
expressed concern about prevalent sickness in the community, understood
little about its causes. In January 1877 a swimming pool was opened in the
River Avon a little upstream of the bridge which is now the Bridge of
Remembrance. A deeper channel was dredged in the river between the island
in the river and the bank. This meant that the baths were downstream of
where the Public Hospital discharged its wastes into a stream which joined
the Avon River. The drainage from the hospital was described by the
Engineer of the Christchurch Drainage Board as coming "from the wash house,
from the dead house, from urinals, kitchen and house washing, and from the
baths." Small wonder that the patronage of the baths was not up to
expectations and that people preferred to bathe upstream of the hospital.
English consultant appointed
To settle the disagreements the Board employed a consultant, William Clark,
an English engineer who had been in New Zealand only a short time. After a
month's work he presented to the Board a comprehensive report of seventy
three clauses plus a plan and explanatory diagrams. The greatest problem
he considered to be the water-logged site with water in winter in some
places only a few inches below the surface or even stagnant on the surface.
Surface drains would therefore be inadequate to drain the district
No sewage to be emptied into the Estuary
He disagreed with Mr Carruthers' suggestion of emptying sewage into the
Sumner Estuary and stated that the sea was too far away. He therefore
suggested that the sewage from the city area and close suburbs should be
pumped to the sandhills in Bromley. He also recommended that storm water
should be drained to the rivers.
Saturated soils create problems.
He was aware that it would be difficult to complete such work in the
saturated soils of Christchurch, but that the first part would be the most
difficult. After that it would improve. His warnings proved to be
accurate during the building of the Tuam Street pumping station as there
was great difficulty because of the quicksands and beds of shingle around
the site. Finally with the support of a recommendation from Mr Clark the
proposal made by the Board's engineer Mr Bell was adopted and the tank was
built on a curb and lowered from the surface. The pumping station, the
main sewers in the inner city and a siphon under the Avon River were
completed, but the work took two years - from 1880 to 1882.
At first there were problems at the sewage farm with the drainage of the
sandhills reserve, but soon the farm was working successfully and in 1890
the Colonial Analyst reported that the liquid entering the Avon and
Heathcote Estuary was free of harmful constituents. Other constituents of
a beneficial nature were also missing, but these were enriching the land at
Fragmentation of local controls causes problems.
The Drainage Board was originally established to give an overriding control
over the divided areas needing its services. The area became more divided
when the boroughs of Sydenham and later St Albans were established, and
town boards were set up in Woolston and Linwood. In the Drainage Board's
area there were then nine local authorities. The power of the Board to
charge rates was a frequent cause of friction. Suburban and rural areas
objected to paying rates much of which was spent on services for the city.
The workload of the Board's staff was consequently increasing, but the
funding was inadequate.
The Board of Health and Nuisances
As a Board of Health the new organisation appointed a Medical Officer and
an Inspector of Nuisances. The nuisances that were reported were numerous.
There were waterlogged back yards of houses where sewage was buried in
holes dug in the mud. Pigs were being kept in disgusting conditions close
to houses. Hospital wastes were being drained into the River Avon. There
were many cesspools in the city (1000 reported in 1879) and more in the
suburbs, and slops were being emptied on to peaty land. Notices were
served for the abatement of 1200 nuisances in 1883 according to the medical
officer's annual report for that year.
There was a problem persuading citizens to connect with the sewers which
had already been laid by the Drainage Board in some streets.
The Board of Health did valuable work for the community. In 1875 the death
rate was 30.4 per 1000 persons, but by 1884 it had been reduced to 13.7 per
1000. Some of the credit was due to the improved drainage, but the
unwillingness of some of the citizens to use the improved facilities means
that much of the credit must go to the medical officer of the Board of
Depression in the 1880s and 1890s
The worldwide depression of the 1880s and 1890s increased the financial
problems and forced the Board to curtail its work. It paralysed public
works all over the country. The City Council even considered trying to
have the Drainage Board abolished. As the financial problems continued
the Board finally delegated its powers as the Local Board of Health to the
local bodies within the Drainage District.
Central Government pays for the Hospital's sewer connection.
In 1884 the most important work of all, connecting the Christchurch Public
Hospital with the sewer instead of letting it discharge its waste into the
River Avon, was carried out and paid for by Central Government. The
Government also paid for a sewer to be laid from Lower Lincoln Road as far
as the Heathcote River. This enabled the Asylum at Sunnyside and the
Addington Gaol to connect to the sewer.
Improvement in public health
In 1889 the the death rate for the city was down to 9.77 per 1000, and the
engineer stated in his annual report to the Board that this statistic made
Christchurch 'one of the healthiest cities in the colony'.
The Amendment Act 1900 allows the Board to raise loan money.
This act authorised the Board to complete the sewerage system for the inner
city by raising a loan which was to be repaid by a special rate levied only
on rateable property in that area.
Rapid progress until the outbreak of World War I
From 1901 until 1914 the number of properties connected to the sewers grew
rapidly. In 1903 the districts of Linwood, St Albans and Sydenham were
included in the city. The city administration had to look beyond the area
within the four town belts. The Drainage Board raised a further loan in
1906 to provide sewers in the suburban areas - a task which involved
building auxiliary pumping stations.
Post war expansion
Little new work was done by the Board's staff during World War I, but with
servicemen returning after the war and wanting to build homes the city grew
and the demand for sewerage and well drained land grew with it.
When William Clark designed the sewerage system for Christchurch he
expected that the city would develop like the European cities he had known
and have a concentration of population over a restricted area.
Christchurch spread out as most households lived on a quarter acre section
with lawn and flower and vegetable gardens. This meant that there was
growth in suburban areas where the system of gravity sewers would not