Tinwald: Southern suburb or more than meets the eye?

Tinwald! Is it just a suburb, Ashburton’s little sibling or is it something much more?

While the typical traveller passing through town along State Highway 1 might see Tinwald and Ashburton as one big place split in two by the river, us locals know that isn’t the case… There’s something different about Tinwald.

In the early days of European settlement, those living on the south side had it a bit harder than their neighbours to the north, which drove forth a sense of pride and independence that still endures today. To illustrate what life was like in early Tinwald and the changes that came over time, let’s take a look at some of the early history as written by Emily Bayliss in her 1970 book Tinwald: A Canterbury Plains Settlement.

Life on the south side

According to the Ashburton Guardian, an early visitor to Tinwald in 1878 spoke of the township as being “one of those progressive and irrepressible little centres of inland commerce that, springing up in all directions, show[s] the energy and thriving industry of New Zealand settlers, and this is known as the town of Tinwald.”

John Staples, blacksmith, with his assistant Billy Foreman and several other men outside their shop in Tinwald (no date.)

This visitor went on to describe the forthcoming erection of a school and master’s residence, a future church designed by Mr Mountford of Christchurch and plans for the Tinwald Domain. Early traders in Tinwald included grocers, bakers, storekeepers, bootmakers and more. One particular early resident who wore many hats was Thomas Williams: he was a builder, undertaker, cabinetmaker and wheelwright!

Shops on Archibald Street, late nineteenth-early twentieth century. The majority of Tinwald’s shops still stand roughly around this spot, over a hundred years later.

A mere couple decades prior, instead of a bustling township this unknown visitor would have laid eyes on a flat and swampy expanse, home not to overworked carpenters but instead to thick growths of harakeke/flax. What would become the Ashburton District was once an important section of the Eastern Coastal Trail of Te Waipounamu which was extensively travelled-through and settled by takata whenua. Kāika nohoaka (settlements) and kāika mahika kai (food-gathering sites) dotted the east coast along this important ara tawhito (traditional travel route).

Before Tinwald township was laid out, early European settlers used the area as a hunting spot. People from Turton’s Accommodation House in early Ashburton would cross the river to bag wild pigs, ducks and pukeko.

Tinwald rose from that swamp and became famous in its own right: John Carter’s Grove Farm and its respectable pedigree of racehorses managed by Edward Gates made headlines and earned Tinwald some kudos in sporting circles. Like Ashburton, farming has been the lifeblood of Tinwald. The Tinwald saleyards were especially important and only closed in 2016, which marked the end of its 138-year run of massive stock sales.

A serene early view in the Tinwald Domain.

Another point of fame for Tinwald is the Domain. The first steps toward laying it out were taken in 1881 and since then it has been praised non-stop for its quality as a grounds for recreation and relaxation.

Domestic doldrums… or not?

Life in early Tinwald was a mixed bag. Times were tough, but people pulled together and found happiness in each other’s company.

Until its amalgamation with the Ashburton Borough in 1955, Tinwald was described as a “self-contained community” and according to Emily Bayliss in her book on Tinwald, the locality was “settled by a working class people, who depended for their subsistence mainly on the surrounding farming country.” The keyword here is subsistence, since “most of the first settlers had very little financial backing” and many could barely afford the rent for their small cottages.

In the early days before 1880 there was no Hospital and Charitable Aid Board to dole out relief in the case of sickness or injury. Instead of relying on such assistance, people relied on each other, “the poor helped the poor.”

Life was a bit on the rough side for most, but how about the well-to-do? In some cases, a few wealthier residents chose to affiliate themselves with Ashburton rather than be associated with Tinwald. Talk about snobbish, since many people are proud of Tinwald these days and it just goes to show how opinions can change over time.

Tinwald today

There was once a time when the majority of Tinwald’s residents were older folk of the long-standing variety, who could remember many events and changes around the township vividly; they are still around of course, but due to rapid growth they are now a minority among the great numbers of young families and workers that now live in Tinwald.

The little township has changed a lot, but some things have stayed the same: the community spirit and pride sets Tinwald apart from the rest.

Crowds at the Tinwald racecourse, all dressed in their Sunday best.

Emily Bayliss wrote that “in times past the closeness of Ashburton to Tinwald worked to the disadvantage of the latter. Added to that was a feeling that the township was looked on with condescension by its opposite number across the river. However, an inferiority complex never developed. In the words of that unknown visitor in 1878, this ‘irrepressible little centre’ has gone on its friendly, united way to progress.”

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, 11 September 2021.

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