Waterton: a township lost to time

When you come across the scant remains of a place like Waterton, you start to wonder what led to such a fate.

The old cemetery on Grahams Road is the last inkling of this once a popular township, which fell prey to issues caused by a need for labourers elsewhere, as well as that classic problem for many rural villages: the railroad did not pass through Waterton. Before the decline Waterton experienced an exciting boom period and was once described as a “favourite health resort” by the 1903 Cyclopedia of New Zealand.

As was the case with the village of Barrhill, it all started because of a need for labourers’ housing. Waterton was born out of necessity to accommodate many employees of the Longbeach Estate. In a nutshell, it was labour requirements that gave birth to Waterton Township, and a lack thereof that caused its recession into obscurity.

A town is born

Waterton was surveyed by Francis Pavitt in 1876. The intended scale was extensive – a central town belt surrounded by town streets and quarter-acre residential sections. William Tuckett Norrish and his family were the first arrivals and they built a home and set up a blacksmith’s shop.

Plan of the Waterton Township. From Miles of Tiles: Revisited by Gilmour Blee.

Land was sold on Saturday, 22nd of April 1876 which included 139 quarter-acre sections, as well as 10 and 20 acre blocks totalling 6,000 acres. The initial advertisement in the Lyttelton Times mentioned that the blacksmith’s was already up and running, and that there were Government schools close by, daily coaches from Ashburton to Longbeach and Reserves for a church and library. The pitch sounded ideal… and it worked.

Bidding was “brisk” according to the initial sale report and less than two years later in March 1878 the Ashburton Mail reported that “at Waterton there are signs of a township. There is a general store, butcher, baker, a general blacksmith and a saddler. Tenders are called for the erection of another store and the new Church of England is to be commenced next week. We have been shown the plans of a neat country hotel”.

Before the end of the year, progress had accelerated at an astonishing rate and it seemed that nothing could stop Waterton’s growth.


In the later years of the nineteenth century Waterton boasted a good number of services and facilities.

The crown jewel of Waterton was the hotel, which the 1903 Cyclopedia of New Zealand described as having “24 rooms including the dining room and four sitting rooms. A balcony runs round the house affording on the one side, a splendid view of the sea and on the other, of the picturesque neighbouring country, with the hills in the distance. Waterton is a favoured health resort. The house throughout is a model of cleanliness. A good table is also kept. Stabling is provided and there are accommodation paddocks for sheep.”

The Waterton Hotel, as seen in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1903. From left: E P March (proprietor) and his wife. Daughter Doris Ann March 4th from left.

Despite periodic closures due to licensing issues, the Waterton Hotel was a great asset to the township. The Waterton Store was also important since it sold groceries, confectionery, materials, clothing, hardware and footwear. It was without a doubt an essential service for this once-burgeoning rural community which boasted a population of 235 people at its peak.

Concerts and balls were common at the hall, which used to be the library. Aside from regular gatherings there were numerous special events which included a dance to celebrate the electrification of Waterton in 1925, a concert involving the new ‘wireless’ radio in 1926 and other entertainments. Magic lantern shows in the 1920s, silent movie screenings with piano accompaniment and talkies were shown later on by Len Colville before “pressure from outside stopped them being shown.”

Waterton Store c. 1912, with Mr and Mrs W T Soal (3rd and 4th from left) and family lined up out front. From Miles of Tiles: Revisited by Gilmour Blee.

Improved means of transport allowed Waterton locals to access the Ashburton Public Library, which led to the closure of the library in 1941, but it continued to be used as a hall until its final closure in November 1974.

The slow decline of Waterton eventuated in the sections that made up the township and surrounds being turned into lifestyle blocks in the early 2000s.

Waterton cemetery

The main bulk of what was once Watertown Township was on either side of Russells Road where it joins Grahams Road. The cemetery at Waterton is the last remnant of that community in situ, situated just down the road on the East side of where the township once was. The first interment was that of James Leyton in May 1881, a month before the Waterton Cemetery Board had even erected a fence or front gate. The cemetery is still open for burials to this day and last year marked 140 years since the first burial there.

Not only is the Waterton Cemetery a symbol of what once was, but it is still an important place for current residents and represents the enduring identity of the area.

However, the cemetery is not the final legacy of Waterton.

The Church of St Philip and St James, which once served the Waterton community for a very long time, was moved to the site of The Plains Vintage Railway & Historical Museum at the Tinwald Domain in 1976 and is expertly well cared for; a happy ending for a building that is still dear to many people.

The Church of St Philip and St James on the move. Ashburton Guardian, 5th of July 1976.

Special thanks

Research for this story came mainly from the fantastic and authoritative book “Miles of Tiles Revisited: A Journey through Longbeach and Surrounding Districts History” which was compiled and written by the late Gilmour Blee.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 3 August 2021.


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