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The History of Christchurch

Early history and Māori

Māori oral history and archaeological evidence suggests that people first inhabited the Canterbury area about a thousand years ago. These first inhabitants were moa-hunting tribes and were followed by the Waitaha, Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu. This migration continued until about 1830.

Ngāi Tahu trace their descent from Paikea, who, escaping from the treachery of his brother, Ruatapu, jumped into the sea and was saved by a whale, riding on its back from mid-ocean to the east coast of Te Ika-a-Māui (New Zealand's North Island).

Paikea fathered Tahupotiki, who was the founding ancestor of Ngāi Tahu. Eventually Ngāi Tahu moved to Te Wai Pounamu (New Zealand’s South Island) and intermarried with the Ngāti Mamoe and Waitaha peoples, over time becoming the dominant tribal group of the entire South Island.

European settlement

The first European landed in Canterbury in 1815, 45 years after Captain James Cook sighted what he named “Banks Island”, later found to be a peninsula.

In 1840, the first Europeans settled on the plains and whaling ships were operating out of Lyttelton by 1850.

The settlement of Canterbury was one of a number of private company immigration schemes in New Zealand. John Robert Goldey was principally responsible for the Canterbury settlement. In 1848, the Canterbury Association was formed by Godley and Edward Gibbon Wakefield with the aim of transporting a cross section of English society to a new land. The Canterbury Association gained the support of the Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other members of the English elite.

During 1850-1851, the first Canterbury Association settlers arrived on the 'first four ships' into Lyttelton Harbour. The Association settlers came predominantly from southern England, with smaller numbers of Scots, Irish, Welsh and English from other parts of England.

Christchurch became a city by Royal Charter on 31 July 1856, making it the oldest city in New Zealand. Many of the city's original Gothic buildings dated from this period.

Women's Suffrage

In 1893, New Zealand women achieved a world first when they won the right to vote. This significant event was honoured in 1993 when the Kate Sheppard memorial (located on Oxford Terrace north of Worcester Boulevard Bridge), a commemoration to Women’s Suffrage was unveiled on 19 September 1993.


The agricultural industry has long been the economic core of Christchurch with Canterbury often considered to be living "off the sheep's back". Although it's economic beginnings were in refrigerated meat and dairy exports, Canterbury now has a diversified regional economy with growth across a range of "new economy" sectors including ICT and tourism.

Gateway to Antarctica

Christchurch has a history of involvement in Antarctic exploration - both Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton used the port of Lyttelton as a departure point for expeditions.