Early Urban Ashburton

Ashburton as we know it has been constantly evolving ever since the construction of William Turton’s first accommodation house along the Hakatere Ashburton River in 1858. Rural has become urban, paddocks have become suburbs and buildings have been built, moved, modified and demolished.

Postcard image showing early view of Ashburton west side, looking along Cameron Street. The courthouse we know hadn’t been built yet, and neither had the Ashburton Art Gallery & Museum of course! (Photo reference 02.1983.0304).

Ashburton was first surveyed by Robert Park in 1863 and from there our town began to grow. Generally speaking, urban Ashburton spread from the vicinity of Mona Square, northwards along East Street, and outwards along the side streets. Shops, offices, grain stores, agents and auctioneers quickly populated our fledgling central business district faster than you could say ‘Ashburton Borough Council’. Before we were even considered a borough, considerable growth had occurred.

In 1903, a volume of the Cyclopedia of New Zealand covering the Canterbury Provincial District was published, which included an extensive section about Ashburton. Let’s take a look at how Ashburton was faring as a burgeoning town just after the turn of the century and see if we can draw any parallels between our past and our present. Before we dive into the cyclopedia however, let’s consider the importance of this land before Pākehā settlement and its significance for takata whenua.

Our shared past

Before towns and suburbs, this little slice of Aotearoa was more than capable of supporting growth and livelihood. Māori were the first to know the land that later came to be known as Ashburton District. This area contained a wide range of natural resources that were sustainably managed and collected, including seasonal foods and stone materials.

Travel routes through the region were deliberately punctuated by stopping points which were in the vicinity of such resources, as well as water and shelter. Prosperity for takata whenua in this area and across Te Waipounamu (the South Island) relied on the important matauraka (knowledge) of mahika kai, the concept of valuing the natural resources that sustain life.

Early urban landscape

Ashburton in 1903 was described as having “the appearance of a healthy, prosperous, inland town, and that it is the centre of a rich agricultural district can be seen by glance at the large grain stores situated in the neighbourhood of the railway. The public buildings, and many of the business premises, are handsome and imposing, and the wide and well-formed streets, on market day especially, present a very busy aspect.”

View showing rear of buildings fronting East Street, including the old stables which would become the Radiant Hall and the Saunder’s Building. (Photo reference 03.1985.0908.)

“The town is well built, and the streets and houses lighted with gas. With an ample supply of water always flowing in the side channels, the sanitary arrangements are excellent, and Ashburton is one of the healthiest places in New Zealand. The local industries comprise a woollen factory, flour mills, a brewery, and the Fairfield freezing works.”

As for Ashburton’s population at the time, the cyclopedia states that “the recorded population of the borough, within the statutory boundaries, 2,322, does not represent the actual number of residents in the business centre of the district; if the immediate suburbs of Hampstead and Allenton were included, it would amount to at least 5,000.”

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, 12 March 2022.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: