Immigration barracks: A starter for some, for others an ending


New chums

While not a port, Ashburton received it fair share of ‘new chums’ direct from the immigrant ships. Men, some with families, came to the area in search for work, and while jobs were available, housing was not. Although some lucky people had accommodation pre-booked, via family, friends, even employers, the majority of immigrants had to spend the first few weeks of their new lives in the immigrant barracks.

These barracks (sometimes called ‘depots’ to placate those who felt the term barracks suggested prison or army accommodation) were a joint venture between the Provincial Government and the General Assembly, in Wellington. Each province was responsible for the construction, maintenance and administration of their barracks.

In 1873, John Grigg, Chairman of the Ashburton Road Board (which later formed part of the Ashburton County Council), suggested that Ashburton should have barracks, or cottages, situated just outside the town belt, where land values were lower. The reserve decided upon was the block bounded by Short, Grigg, Tancred and Winter Streets.

Rakaia too had an immigrant’s depot. It was the old South Rakaia hotel which was built in 1864. In 1874 the Provincial Government took over the building when it lost its licence. Smaller than Ashburton’s, this building could still house 15 families and 20 single men.

Ashburton barracks

The wooden Ashburton barracks were estimated to cost over 1000 pounds, of which the Central Government provided 750. Never intended for long term stays, the building was divided into 23 rooms, 20 feet x 9 feet, for up to 20 families, plus a dormitory for 20 or so single men.

Alongside the barracks were cottages, which could be rented out to those immigrants who needed a little more time to settle themselves. These cottages were sold for removal in 1882 and a house for the Barrack’s Master and Matron was erected in their place. This building was later moved to Tuarangi Home and became the gardener’s cottage. The Ashburton Road Board also erected nine two-bedroom rural cottages in rural areas.

Many uses

This barracks also served as Ashburton’s first ‘hospital’, or more correctly emergency ward, where cases could be treated before being transported to Christchurch. It also proved a necessity when the flood prone area was cut off, sometimes for weeks, from either Christchurch or Timaru. The use of one room and a medical chest for use by local doctors was arranged by the Provincial Government.

Although there were still a few immigrants making use of the barracks, in 1878 the building was given to the local Charitable Aid Board who used it to house destitute old men from Ashburton and beyond. Until 1880 when the Ashburton hospital was built, the old, infirm, sick and maternity cases, all jostled for room among the immigrants.

In 1879 the secretary of Christchurch Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, which administered Ashburton, stated that the buildings were unsuitable.

It was altered, so it now had 20 dormitory places, a kitchen, bathroom and an open air veranda which faced Short Street.   It also had a room for the invalids, who were largely bedridden. It may have been larger but it was still a cold and draughty ‘refuge’.

New Wing

In 1885 a new wing was added to the barracks, built by men on Charitable Aid and the inmates themselves. There was no such thing as retirement in the days before national superannuation. Men who could, were expected to work. There is a well-known story of a resident with no feet who still managed to dig the garden. If unable to work outside, ‘inmates’ were directed to undertake tasks, such as washing dishes or looking after fellow inmates. Failure to perform such duties as well as other acts of insubordination, such as not getting up on time, leaving the home without permission, or bad language, could get the offender expelled.

In 1902 the old men left the immigration barracks for a new home called Tuarangi Home. Some of the buildings, including the master’s house, followed them. One was used as a day or smoking room and chapel, another as a gardener’s shed. The others were sold for removal in 1903.

If buildings could talk they could tell of the comings and goings of new families fresh from overseas and the drama of medical procedures and illnesses. They also could tell the long, sometimes sad, and uncomfortable tale of men who had come to the barracks to end their days or seek shelter through harsh winters.

While the walls, long since gone, haven’t left any stories photographs and documentation in the archive at Ashburton Museum paint an interesting picture of one of Ashburton’s formative buildings.


1: The former Rakaia accommodation house that later became an immigration barracks. ©Ashburton Museum.

2: One of the buildings from the old immigration barracks was moved to the new Tuarangi Home, where it became a day room and a chapel for use of the patients. ©Ashburton Museum.

3: Part of the Short Street immigration barracks became a headquarters for gardeners at Tuarangi Home. ©Ashburton Museum.

Author: Kathleen Stringer


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