A heart for the hills
Out for a spin in his father’s 1954 MG, Darryl Moore is one of thousands of Christchurch and Lyttelton residents who escape to the Port Hills for recreation via the Summit Road. Yet without local visionary Harry Ell’s passionate belief that the hills were an asset to be shared by all, it is unlikely the road and its associated byways would be there today.
I hunkered down in my jacket as the evening breeze rustled the tussock. In the distance two climbers made their way up one of Castle Rock’s more prominent turrets. Close by an elderly couple approached their car at the end of an afternoon’s walk. Chatter from a small gaggle of mountain bikers floated up on the wind before they turned off the main trail and sped back down to the city. My dogs, panting with exhaustion after another fruitless rabbiting expedition, collapsed in a contented heap next to me. As the sun sank over the Southern Alps, Christchurch’s Port Hills were, as usual, emanating their powerful aura of freedom.
I grew up in a small Waikato farming community, and an enduring memory of my youth is the sense of space and liberty I felt walking the backblocks of my parents’ farm. University, work, the search for adventure—all contributed to a move to the city, something of an inevitability for my generation of farm kids. I am still an uncertain city dweller, for whom the proximity of the Port Hills is a godsend. Without the opportunity to roam across them, to revisit the “landscapes of the mind,” I don’t think I would survive here for long.
For many years I happily explored these hills without ever wondering how they came to be a public asset. Now I rarely visit them without paying silent homage to the heroic efforts of one man: irascible, audacious Harry Ell. The struggle to see the Port Hills preserved for public enjoyment, and, central to this, the dream of creating a walkway between Christchurch and Akaroa, was an obsession Ell pursued for some 30 years, until his death in 1934.
Growing up on his father’s farm at Halswell, now an outer suburb of Christchurch, Harry Ell had the Port Hills on his doorstep. He regularly rode his white pony up the bridle path through Kennedys Bush, on the hills’ western flank, to the ridge crest. At that time native flora and fauna still had a grip, albeit a weakening one, on the slopes, and Ell’s boyhood rambles instilled a love of nature that stayed with him all his life.
It was at Kennedys Bush that Ell’s crusade to protect the Port Hills would start, although not until after campaigns of a different nature. In 1879, following short spells as a junior attendant at the Canterbury Museum and working on a sheep station and at a wool-scourer’s, Ell volunteered for the Armed Constabulary. He served for three years, helping crush resistance by Taranaki Maori at Parihaka (although he was subsequently critical of the race policies of the time). Returning to Christchurch, he took up civilian employment once again, working in the printing department of the Press and later with a firm of manufacturing stationers.
In 1892, aged 30, he married Adelaide (Ada) Gee, whose conservative parents the liberal-minded Ell seems to have had a harder time charming than their daughter, although with equal success. He and Ada had two sons and three daughters, to whom Ell proved a caring if disciplinarian father: physical fitness, cold washes and outdoor living were mandatory for the Ell offspring. Of a gentler, more retiring disposition than her husband—yet no less determined—Ada provided something of an antidote to the animated idealism so characteristic of all he undertook.
The 1880s were years of depression in New Zealand; jobs were scarce, wages low, working and living conditions poor. Those bent on remedying matters were drawn to the reformist agenda of the Liberal Party, in opposition to the governing Conservatives. Ell was among them, joining a variety of political, educational and social-service organisations. He was also an ardent prohibitionist, and it was as such, in the 1896 election, which revolved largely around the issue of liquor trading, that he first stood for Parliament, backed by the National Council of Women.
During the election campaign, a newspaper drew attention to that characteristic of Ell’s passionate nature that would become the running theme of his Summit Road crusade in years to come—his propensity for forging ahead with schemes close to his heart without the necessary funds: Mr Ell out-crimsons even Mr Smith and Mr Taylor [two fellow campaigners] in the brilliant red of radicalism. His socialism does not even pretend to have regard for the practical side or the possible. Money with him is no object. He advocates, as all the candidates do, the old age pension scheme. But, says Mr Ell very finely, “cost is out of the question. If it is right to do it, it should be done and done properly.” This sanguine young man has apparently still to learn the value of money.
Failing to win a seat at his first attempt, Ell was back in 1899, when, as an independent Liberal in the newly formed Christchurch South electorate (today known as Wigram and represented by Jim Anderton), he topped the poll and embarked upon a 20-year parliamentary career.
Zealous and primed for action, Ell threw himself into the many social issues about which he felt so strongly. Following his appeals in the House concerning the damage caused to the colony by tuberculosis, for which there were no hospitals, a sanatorium was established in Cambridge, followed by another in Cashmere. While pressing the prohibitionist agenda, he made it clear he questioned the gaoling of alcoholics: surely more appropriate supervision could be devised. He also urged more humane treatment of the mentally ill, commonly regarded as criminal rather than sick, and was successful in having the term “lunatic” abolished. Like his fellow Liberals and the House’s few Labour members, he argued for widows’ and old age pensions, a 40-hour week, and better employment conditions and housing for labourers. He asked the Minister of Railways to provide foot-warmers in the frigid second-class carriages, and, as Postmaster General in the short-lived administration of Thomas Mackenzie, oversaw the introduction of slot telephones into New Zealand.
Ell’s greatest parliamentary successes, however, concerned the preservation of New Zealand’s native fauna and flora. At a time when forests were still falling to the axe and the fire to make way for grazing, he unrelentingly championed the setting aside of scenic reserves—“one hundred to one hundred and fifty acres of bush land every four or five miles . . . not merely [for] ourselves, but for the people who come after us. When once the bush is destroyed there will be no possibility of restoring it to its native beauty.”
Largely as a result of his persistence, the Scenery Preservation Act was passed in 1903, providing for a commission to investigate which areas were suitable for preservation. This legislation was amended in 1908 to provide for the formation of scenic reserves boards, thereby accelerating the setting aside of areas of scenic value. By the time Ell left Parliament 11 years later, more than 500 reserves had been created throughout the country; there had been fewer than 100 when he entered.
It was a remarkable period for New Zealand conservation, a time when people were slowly waking up to the thoughtless destruction of the settler years. The two-pronged case Ell put for reserves was the precursor of the conservationist argument so familiar in New Zealand today: preservation of native wildlife and provision for outdoor recreation. Many of the early reserves, such as at Mount Cook/Aoraki and in the Paparoa Range, south of Westport, formed the basis of future national parks, but perhaps of greater significance were the numerous small reserves, both rural and close to urban areas, from which people all over the country benefit more regularly.
By the time Ell entered Parliament, Kennedys Bush was one of the few healthy areas of native forest left on Banks Peninsula. Following the passage of the Scenery Preservation Act, Ell and a friend, the eminent botanist Leonard Cockayne, requested that the area be acquired as a scenic reserve. Sympathetic to their cause, Premier Richard Seddon made a government offer of £2 for every £1 of public subscriptions. With the help of a small honorary committee, Ell set about collecting the necessary cash to purchase the land.
To encourage the donation of money, Ell organised a picnic at the bush, but evidently such a wilderness journey was beyond the capabilities of most townspeople. Of the 500 who set out from the tram terminus at the foot of Dyers Pass Road, some 200 failed to find the site. Nevertheless, by September 1906 Ell had raised sufficient funds for the purchase of 21 ha, and Kennedys Bush was declared a Crown Reserve. Today 90 ha in area as a result of subsequent donations, it is one of 32 publicly owned reserves on the Port Hills, managed by the Christchurch City Council.
The idea of a summit road came to Ell during his drive to save Kennedys Bush, but it was originally the inspiration of another well-known Canterbury man, William Rolleston. In 1873, Rolleston had instigated the creation of the Summit Road Reserve, a strip of land extending 30 metres either side of the ridge crest. It was this reserve, which had lain idle for 30 years, that would provide the foundation for Ell’s roadway.
Ell’s dream sprang from his unshakeable belief in a citizen’s right to roam. At the time of his election to Parliament, local authorities were able to close roads with scant consideration for the wishes of the public, and there was a danger that such closures would soon deny ordinary people access to the Port Hills. To Ell this was an intolerable state of affairs, and he fought tenaciously—and successfully—for amendments to the Public Works Act of 1900 that would prevent the closing of roads without the issue of public access being properly considered. It was a short step from maintaining access to increasing it.
Ell’s initial concept was for a continuous footpath along the top of the Port Hills from Godley Head (the northern headland at the entrance to Lyttelton Harbour) to Gebbies Pass (above the south-west corner of the inner harbour), linking a series of scenic bush reserves. Although his concern was primarily for the pedestrian, he envisaged the ultimate widening of the path for motor vehicles (still a rarity at that time). A complementary network of tracks would ensure walkers continued to be catered for. In time the vision would expand, the hill road stretching in Ell’s imagination as far as Akaroa, graced with a chain of rest houses providing shelter and refreshment.
One of the first things Ell did to make his dream a reality was improve access to the Summit Road Reserve near Dyers Pass, above Governors Bay, at the northwest head of Lyttelton Harbour. The road up from Hoon Hay, on the city side of the hills, had an impossibly steep gradient, and, following a direct appeal to the government for help, Ell saw to the surveying and laying of a new route which was gentler and extended all the way to the reserve.
While legislation pertaining to the Dyers Pass Road deviation and extension made its way through Parliament, Ell, working almost entirely alone, pressed ahead with his plans for the Summit Road, identifying land for future reserves and forming a series of walking tracks. At an unofficial opening ceremony on November 28, 1908, the first sod of the Summit Road was turned—a small triumph, yet one which was to usher in a decades-long period of toil, dispute and difficulty for Ell. Many in Christchurch would admire him for his single-minded pursuit of a dream that was undeniably in the public good, but there would also be many confrontations with those who saw his means of achieving that dream as bordering on the reckless.
Ell expected to continue with his self-appointed task in the easy, independent fashion to which he had become accustomed. At the first meeting, in November 1909, of the Summit Road Association—the first of a string of bodies he formed to help him in his endeavours—he made it clear that he saw the association’s primary purpose as the collection of money to fund purchases of land and the construction of the road—matters he would oversee. The same went for the Kennedys Bush Scenic Reserve Board, constituted the same year, and the Summit Road Scenic Reserves Board, responsible for the management of all other lands secured by Ell and with which the Kennedys Bush board soon amalgamated.
Initially, Ell kept the full extent of his plans to himself and set about spending money on further reserves along the route of the Summit Road faster than the association could bring it in. By 1912, both association and board were in deep financial trouble, unable to meet the commitments Ell had made on their behalf. Hopes of a government bail-out were dashed by the administration’s growing war expenditure, and despite the two bodies teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Ell continued to buy first and worry about paying later.
Ever more vigorous protests from his associates fell on deaf ears. Ell steadfastly refused to have his ideals compromised by a mere want of cash. To add further to the financial woes, he commissioned Christchurch architect Samuel Hurst Seager to design a small red-stone teahouse on a site at the head of Kennedys Bush, near the summit crest. The Sign of the Bellbird was opened in May 1914, the first building in Ell’s grand scheme, and for a while it doubled as a post office.
By 1915, Ell had committed the association to the acquisition of 23 reserves covering nearly 1200 ha of the Port Hills. That same year he acquired Coronation Hill, where Dyers Pass Road begins its descent to Governors Bay. His plan was to erect a “small toll cottage at Dyers Pass to place therein a toll-house keeper rent free with the right to dispense refreshments and take the profit thereon.” The toll charge of one penny for pedestrians and one shilling for motorists would provide revenue for furthering his dream, but the Summit Road Association, determined to avoid yet further debt, refused to have anything to do with the scheme. Undeterred, Ell sought loans and promises of support from friends and sympathisers and pressed ahead, and, after what Ell described as a “short, sharp fight,” the Sign of the Kiwi opened in 1917. A toll-gate was installed five years later.
This early bungalow-style building was another Hurst Seager creation. A third, commenced around the same time but opened the year before, was the smaller Sign of the Packhorse, erected at the top of Kaituna Saddle, near Mount Bradley, south of Gebbies Pass. This gave a strong hint as to where Ell’s scheme was heading: clearly the pass was not to be the end of the road, nor were the three refreshment stops already in place likely to be the only ones.
To embark with such abandon, during a time of war, on a recreational endeavour could be regarded as a natural response to the times; nevertheless, it is surely remarkable that while millions were dying in the mud of Europe, Harry Ell was intent on building teahouses.
By the end of 1916, the Summit Road Scenic Reserves Board was in debt to the tune of a staggering £4000. As Ell had spent this money without its authorisation, the board was left with no choice but to take action against him to recover it. Once again friends came to the rescue, yet it is likely such generosity played a part in encouraging Ell to amass fresh debt.
The Summit Road Association, in limbo since the transfer of its financial affairs to the reserves board, was eventually resurrected as the Summit Road and Reserves Association, under the chairmanship of Christchurch solicitor George Harper. The association consisted of a number of committees for dealing with everything from tree planting to managing the rest houses. Ell, of course, had a seat on each.
The new association found itself confronted with a debt of £5000 which Ell had built up in just a couple of years. While it dealt with this through the combination of a government grant, public subscriptions and a bank overdraft, the ever-impatient Ell formed the Port Hills–Akaroa Summit Road League to raise more money for further work.
In 1919, Ell lost his seat in Parliament. He had decided to stand in the Lyttelton electorate so that he might represent the area that included the Port Hills, but the tactic backfired. If he had stayed with his loyal working-class voters in Christchurch South, his seat would probably have been safe, but “safety first” was not in Harry Ell’s make-up. The loss brought its compensations: free of parliamentary duties in distant Wellington, Ell threw himself ever more fervently into his beloved Summit Road project.
By 1920, the Summit Road and Reserves Association was in a position similar to that of its predecessor: struggling for financial survival. It was at this juncture that a new face appeared on the scene in the shape of William Machin, a recent immigrant from England. Having business with George Harper, Machin was approaching Harper’s office one morning when the “door burst open and down came a most extraordinary figure, who seemed to me to be something of one of the old prophets of Israel—wispy hair, lined face, thin, with piercing eyes. He was muttering to himself all the way down the stairs, and when he got into the street Mr Harper turned to me and said, ‘That is the famous H. G. Ell.’”
Such pressure was Harper under in his dealings with Ell that Machin soon took over the chairmanship of the association, bringing a fresh outlook on the Summit Road scheme and a no-nonsense approach to financial management. Predictably, he proved to be Ell’s nemesis, although not, despite a struggle, his vanquisher.
The lines of battle were as before. “Your job and that of your committee is to find the money,” Ell told him. “I’ll spend it, and don’t you try to mould the policy of the association, because that’s my business.” Machin, for his part, was determined that the association should be the only authority in the matter of money, and did his utmost to apply the brakes to Ell’s spending. As a last resort he placed an advertisement in the Christchurch papers declaring that the association would not be responsible for any bills unless it had approved them in writing. Ell was incensed and threatened to resign. Machin called his bluff and said his resignation would be accepted if it were formally offered; furthermore, he would advertise it in the next day’s papers.
Ell was momentarily flummoxed. But by this stage he had been too long engaged on the Summit Road, and become too deeply involved, to be thwarted by rules of fiscal prudence. He gave vent through the press: “This new chairman . . . is fighting me for possession of the whole of my life’s work . . . I am not hampering or in any way hindering the Summit Road Committee (of which I am the senior member) and I only claim freedom to work for the further development of this undertaking according to the ideals which prompted me to start it over twenty years ago.” Such protestations aside, he simply became sneakier, and expenditure continued unabated.
The next flashpoint was not long in coming. Ell and his wife had been trying to keep the financially ailing Sign of the Kiwi afloat, covering its losses both by forking out large sums of money from their own pockets and, as usual, by relying on the goodwill of others. When the caretaker resigned because “it was quite impossible to make the house pay under that gentleman’s authority,” the new Commissioner of Crown Lands, in his capacity as chairman of the Summit Road Scenic Reserves Board, innocently appointed Ell to replace him. The Summit Road and Reserves Association took exception, and the commissioner, once the association had filled him in on the nature of its relations with Ell, was persuaded to cancel the appointment. But before a replacement could be found the Ells moved into the Kiwi anyway and made it their home.
Infuriated, the association tried everything in its power to remove Ell, and threats were made on both sides. Ell put his eloquent pen to use and conjured up a flood of public support from prominent citizens urging the association to leave him be. “Some people would say Ell is fanatically inclined,” wrote one admirer. “Well, one has to be fanatically inclined to do any good in this world, the half-hearted never do any good. All the world’s thinkers and big men have been fanatics in their own sphere.” In the face of such fervent support, the association backed down. No doubt a contributing factor in its doing so was the fact that Ada had swiftly turned around the catering business at the Kiwi, and the establishment continued to turn a profit until she retired in 1926 through ill health.
For a couple of years in the early 1920s an uneasy peace ensued. Ell went so far as to make a written undertaking to behave more responsibly in his dealings with the association, even though, like an addict unable to break the habit, he continued to spend on the sly. Some members of the association even abetted the miscreant: one raised a chuckle all round when he openly admitted to “having given Ell a tenner yesterday.” But it was merely the calm before the next storm, for Ell was about to reveal the true extent of his plans—plans that would make the cost of the Summit Road to date appear trifling. Not only was he thinking ahead, he was thinking big.
A newspaper report explained that the road was now to extend from Godley Head to the Pigeon Bay saddle, halfway along the north coast of Banks Peninsula—a distance of 85 km. Ell elaborated in a letter: “Along the roadway there will be about 15 stone houses whose sites I have already selected . . . I am convinced that, with the sympathetic support of the trust, I can provide the people of Christchurch and Canterbury with a great pleasure asset, which will be an attraction also to the Dominion and overseas visitors . . . This road will run from scenic reserve to scenic reserve; and for a good deal of the way it will be fringed by beautiful bush, where may be seen and heard many varieties of our pretty native birds.”
“The trust” was the Port Hills–Akaroa Summit Road Public Trust, Ell’s latest administrative creation, designed to rid him of the meddling Summit Road and Reserves Association and the painful Mr Machin. It was brought into legal existence in 1926, the trustees being handpicked by Ell himself, and under its trusteeship fell all the existing reserves, roadways and rest houses.
But Ell had merely replaced one rod for his back with another. He still spent money when there was none to be had, was careless in recording his outgoings and concealed accounts from his fellow trustees, who were soon telling him they would not accept responsibility for debts run up without their authority. Many of those debts resulted from the construction of the most imposing rest house so far, the Sign of the Takahe.
More than any other single feature of the Summit Road project, the Takahe is a manifestation of Ell’s self-belief and dogged determination and an expression of his increasingly extravagant dreams for the Port Hills. Situated on Dyers Pass Road at the edge of Cashmere, it was initially promoted by Ell as the “Tram Terminus Rest-house”—a staging post before the traveller launched out on the Summit Road proper. It opened in 1920, beginning life as a simple establishment—“one room and a rough lean-to of wood . . . four small tables, very common crockery and no pictures or ornaments by way of furnishing.”
In 1926, it became the responsibility of the trust, which completed construction of the ground floor, added a proper roof, and at that point considered the job finished. But Ell had hardly begun. With the help of half a dozen stonemasons he set about adding a second floor.
By 1928, the trust was facing bankruptcy, a situation averted by increasing the number of trustees and by Ell’s reluctant agreement to put off further development until all outstanding debts had been paid. Needless to say, this fragile truce didn’t last, and work on the Takahe was soon consuming Ell as never before.
Ironically, the project received its biggest boost from the Great Depression. The Labour Department, faced with finding jobs for increasing numbers of unemployed, sent them up into the Port Hills. At last Ell had a workforce that could do justice to the majestic structure he had in mind—and at an affordable cost. He did his best to employ each man according to his trade, be he carpenter or bricklayer, painter or sign-writer, gilder or stonemason. Ell having no tools, the men brought their own; others were fashioned from scrap using a Public Works Department forge. Rock was quarried from the hills themselves and laboriously transported by horse and dray. Local firms donated other materials. In a time of severe want, Ell fired the men with his own indomitable spirit, and inspired loyalty among those delighted to be doing something creative with their hands.
Although shortages continued to impede progress, the Sign of the Takahe slowly but inexorably took the shape we know today: a Tudor-Gothic “phantasy in stone” inspired by the manor houses and inns of England. An architectural anachronism it may have been, all the more remarkable for the fact that it was built without plans, but this only added to the sensation it caused.
Ell’s dreams were not limited to roadways and tea houses. Adding a touch of romance to the vision was an old-English coach-and-four rolling along the hilly highway—horses sweating and snorting, paintwork and polished brass gleaming, coachman and guard resplendent in red coats, striped waistcoats, breeches, boots and toppers. Ell signed a contract for the construction of a carriage in 1918, but the never-ending problems with debt on the Summit Road itself and, come the Depression, the accusations of indulgence that surrounded the project, rendered this an obsession too far.
Ell did acquire an old Cobb & Co. coach that had worked the Arthur’s Pass route between Springfield and Otira. He used this cumbersome conveyance to promote his coaching aspirations and to raise funds for the Summit Road by giving sightseeing tours around Christchurch and parading it on special occasions, including during the Duke of York’s visit to the city in 1927. For all his efforts, though, he only managed to run a three-seater brake for a time between the Takahe and Kiwi, a modest affair compared with the equipage of his imagination.
While the takahe’s praises were sung in distant England and America as well as closer to home, Ell continued to clash with officialdom, this time in the shape of the Unemployment Board. By 1932, more than 300 men were employed in the hills, most of them building the road house and making pathways,
but the board, which was footing the bill, took issue with what it considered the frivolous nature of the work to which some were assigned. Two bookbinders, rather than being handed shovels, were directed by Ell to bind volumes of illustrated papers for patients at the Cashmere tuberculosis sanatorium—a waste of public money, in the board’s opinion. A surveyor was described as “messing about . . . taking altitudes from sea level at different points along the Summit Road Highway . . . More of Ell’s damned waste of public money.” There were accusations of loafing among the men now dubbed “Ell’s angels,” and of poor supervision by Ell himself.
While such attacks appear to have been exaggerated, or to have failed to take into account the difficulty of overseeing such a large workforce over such a wide area, not to mention the fact that Ell had been given no clear definition of what authority he wielded, they proved a constant strain.
Vandals added to Ell’s woes when they wrecked the workers’ shelters along the road. “All this worry is making my life a hell,” Ell was once moved to exclaim, but his missionary zeal remained unquenchable.
It was during the Depression that the “Battle of the Stone Wall” hit the headlines. Ell and the Heathcote County Council had been sniping at each other for years, and the council at last saw its chance to bring down “the little king on the hill.” Ell had built a wall on the south side of the Takahe himself—a 5 m-high, dry-stone construction. He had done so without a permit, and although there was considerable evidence that members of the council had been aware of its erection, yet had raised no complaint at the time, the council now considered it dangerous. It also encroached on the road by about a metre.
In reality, the wall was as solid as the baronial edifice within, but the council declared it would have to be pulled down. Not only was Ell incensed by this bureaucratic interference, his pride as a builder was hurt. Using his customary public-relations savvy he shifted the argument to the newspapers and as usual made such a convincing case that public support swung behind him. The wall was “built like a castle,” declared one reader, while an architect of Ell’s acquaintance assured him it “would last like Stonehenge.” Wrote another correspondent: “I can quite understand the concern of the council as its [own] walls usually fall down.”
The council was unmoved, and sent out a lorry with a gang of men to realign the offending structure, only to find Ell and his men already on the job, with a news-paper photographer present to record the deed. The council had won on points, but Ell gained the moral victory. As one correspondent was inspired to write: “the public would prefer ‘a little king at the hill top’ to a blustering fool at the hill foot.”
No sooner had this debacle died down than Ell was again in trouble with the council, this time over the toll-gate at the Kiwi. The Canterbury Automobile Association had argued for years that the toll should be optional, and when the Main Highways Board took over the section of the Summit Road between the Takahe and the Kiwi—meaning motorists’ taxes now went towards its maintenance—it began to object to what was in effect a second charge and to call for the toll-gate’s abolition. In the Heathcote County Council it found a willing ally.
Knowing the tolls were part of the Summit Road’s lifeline, the council saw another opportunity to cut Ell down to size. It was an attack on a man who was now nearly 70, yet Ell, his passion undimmed, gathered a petition in favour of keeping the gate, headed by two members of the CAA, and submitted it to the Minister of Public Works. He also wrote a near-hysterical letter to the paper, declaring that “I am making my will tomorrow, and am going to live in the toll house myself—and I am not coming out alive! . . . I am going to move up there and take the tolls myself, until they kill me.”
Both the Heathcote County Council and many among the public were unmoved by these theatrics, and in October 1932 the council demanded an end to the collection of tolls. Fortunately for Ell, a short way up the road, between the Kiwi and the Bellbird, the road passed through the jurisdiction of the neighbouring Halswell County Council, and it was this body that came to Ell’s rescue. Ell was allowed to move the toll-gate one mile up the road from the Kiwi, Halswell welcoming the increased income to maintain its part of the road. Once again Ell had outmanoeuvred his opponents. Only when the Main Highways Board finally took over the whole of the Summit Road, after Ell’s death, was the toll-gate removed.
As work progressed on the Takahe, Ell continued to drive the Port Hills–Akaroa trust to the edge of despair. Even so, it is clear from the trust’s records and correspondence that it had come to accept its lot was to pick up the bills for a man who was now widely considered a somewhat crazed genius. That it should have done so may be attributed to the fact that, for all the exasperation Ell caused, there was never any hint that money found its way into his own pocket. Indeed, Ell’s own financial commitment and his willingness to go without to achieve a greater good aroused the trustees’ genuine admiration.
The government also recognised Ell’s financial sacrifice, granting him £300 “in recognition of the valuable public services rendered in the matter of the Summit Road and Reserves,” to be used “in discharge of your existing personal liabilities.” Though long gone from the corridors of power, he was not forgotten.
Harry Ell didn’t live to see the official opening of the Summit Road. In May 1934, those working with him noticed for the first time that he was starting to show signs of strain. Now 71, he was a familiar, if somewhat forlorn, sight to Cashmere residents, trudging up to the Takahe from Duff’s store with a sackful of groceries and provisions in even the worst weather.
For the previous year he had lived on site, continuing to control and oversee even the smallest details of the project. His greatest fear was that his vision might be compromised. To leave the hills—latterly, to leave just the Takahe—was to risk interference in the work he jealously regarded as his alone. Taking a holiday was out of the question, even when a staunch admirer offered a generous sum for that very purpose, and family life suffered. The years of toil and argument had bred in Ell the belief that he was being persecuted, and that at every turn lurked someone who was out to wreck his plans. In an attempt to set the record straight he wrote a “true” history of the Summit Road. It was so libellous no publisher would print it.
Ell had given nearly half his life and everything he had to the Summit Road, and his energy was finally running out. On his doctor’s insistence, he went into hospital on June 23, leaving his son, George, in charge of work at the Takahe, and a loyal friend and supporter, expert carver Mary Douglas, to manage the tea-rooms. He took paper, pencils and notes with him to carry on the struggle from his bed, but a few days later, after undergoing an operation for stomach cancer, he died.
News of his death stunned the people of Christchurch. He had been around for so long, working tirelessly on the Summit Road, that he had seemed indestructible. Although his difficult nature was not forgotten—his unco-operativeness, his inflexibility, his ill temper and, most famously, his flimsy grasp of financial reality—both friend and foe praised what he had achieved.
“Of age, of the retreats and surrenders and growing indifference by which age is frequently acknowledged, he gave no sign,” ran his obituary in the Press. “He held on his way with the vigour, the humorous, sometimes stormy pugnacity, the bold opportunism, and the unfailing confidence which made him a remarkable man, and gave him success in a remarkable self-imposed task. Men of one idea often achieve a great deal, as Mr Ell did; they often live long and die young, as Mr Ell did.”
In 1938, the minister of works, Bob Semple, opened the section of road between Evans Pass, a few kilometres short of Godley Head, and Dyers Pass, where the Sign of the Kiwi nestles against the hillside. It would have been some comfort to Ell that Semple was part of the first Labour government, which shared his high ideals of public service. Ada cut the ribbon. The road was later completed as far as Gebbies Pass. From there only walking tracks, some crossing private land, continue to the Pigeon Bay saddle, which was as far as Ell surveyed. The final section of the route follows the Peninsula Summit Road to just above Akaroa.
During the Second World War, the Summit Road was sadly neglected, and in the absence of Ell’s watchful eye some of the buildings fell into disrepair, and the Bellbird and Packhorse were badly vandalised. The Bellbird is today just a shelter, but the now restored Packhorse is maintained by the Department of Conservation as a trampers’ hut. The Takahe is leased out as a restaurant, while the Kiwi is operating just as Ell envisaged: as a teahouse where people stop to admire the view before stepping onto the walkway to enjoy the freedom of the Port Hills.
In 1947, at a meeting in Kaikoura of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, Harry Ell’s grandson, John Jameson, proposed the formation of a society to beautify the Summit Road. Since its inaugural meeting the following year, the Summit Road Society has been active in shaping policy and in undertaking much of the hard manual work required to restore and enhance the Port Hills landscape for the purposes of conservation and public recreation. Today, the public land on the Port Hills—still only 11 per cent of the total, despite the efforts of Harry Ell and those who have followed—is administered variously by the Department of Conservation, Christchurch City Council and the Summit Road Society. The responsibility for its management rests largely with the council’s Park Ranger Service, whose annual operational budget of some $300,000 goes towards an extensive programme of reforestation, the cutting and maintenance of walking and mountain-biking tracks, a fire patrol service, and plant and animal pest control. Voluntary groups, including the Summit Road Society, provide most of the manpower for tree-planting and track maintenance.
The remaining 89 per cent of the land is owned or leased by farmers, and access to the Summit Walkway, which roughly parallels the Summit Road, and subsidiary tracks still relies on a degree of goodwill. Even so, nearly a fifth of the land—some 3000 ha—is covered by some form of environmental protection, and a proposal has been drawn up for the unified management of the entire Port Hills area between Godley Head and Gebbies Pass as a single regional park, bringing conservation, farming and recreation under one umbrella.
Thus is the legacy of Harry Ell, and before him of William Rolleston, carried into a new century. There may be no plans for another Takahe, nor is the clarion call of a coaching horn likely to echo around the Port Hills; and perhaps Ell’s ghost stalks the Summit Road in vexation, distraught that his grand design remains so terribly incomplete. But for the many thousands each year who walk, run, bike, motorcycle, drive, ride, climb and paraglide in these hills, revelling in the airy spaciousness of the rolling high lands he fought so long and hard to preserve, his labour of love is a priceless treasure.
Late one cold October evening, after a stressful day at work, I drive up to the Sign of the Kiwi, park my car and start walking. After about an hour I reach a high point on the crest of the hills that I visit often, where the ashes of a dog of mine have been fertilising the tussock for a couple of years now. He was a strapping black Labrador in his time, and this used to be a favourite area for hunting rabbits. I sit amongst the tussock, wrapped in mist, remembering him gliding along the track, nose to the ground, clearing the stiles with an easy leap, standing on the rises, panting, ears blown back by the wind.
A lucky life for a town dog. A lucky life for all of us who have these hills in which to roam. Lucky for Christchurch it produced such a visionary as Harry Ell.