There was no rugged New Zealand pioneering in the naming of Canterbury. The Church of England wanted to establish “a specifically Church of England colony” and the Canterbury Association was formed to give reality to a dream. When the association’s first ships sailed into Port Cooper, soon to be re-named Port Victoria and later Lyttelton, Canterbury was already named after “our ecclesiastical mother.”
Christchurch was to be the capital of the new province, and for a time there was some confusion about the transfer of the name from England. Christchurch in Hampshire stands on the banks of the river Avon and there was a theory that the New Zealand Christchurch was named after it — a theory supported by Archdeacon Harper, who wrote on Christmas Day, 1856, that “through the site of the town the River Avon, so-called from the river at Christchurch, in Hampshire, winds its picturesque course …”
The archdeacon was wrong on two counts. The Canterbury Association’s surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas, had first planned to locate Christchurch at the head of Lyttelton harbour where there is no river, and to place a subordinate town named Stratford on the already-named Avon where Christchurch now stands.
And the Avon which winds its “picturesque course” through the New Zealand Christchurch had no connection with the Avon of Shakespeare’s village fame. It was named by the Deans brothers after the Lanarkshire stream that formed the boundary of their grandfather’s estate in Scotland.
The “founder of Canterbury”, Oxford-educated Irishman J.R. Godley, writing to his father in 1851, put the matter of the origin of Christchurch in Canterbury beyond all doubt. He said, “I hope my old college [Christ Church] is grateful to me for naming the future capital after it.”
Naming streets in the new towns of Lyttelton, Christchurch and Sumner — the latter so named to honour the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr J.B. Sumner — has all the elements of comic opera. Edward Jollie, who prepared the plan of Christchurch, recorded the event.
The plan was to use the names of Church of England dioceses, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Jollie wrote: “Captain Thomas with his gold spectacles on and a Peerage in his hand read out a name that he fancied and if he thought it sounded well, and I also thought so, it was written on the map.
“The Lyttelton map was the first that was finished and the first dealt with. Sumner followed. The result was that these two towns had used up most of the tip-top English titles and for Christchurch, which came last, there was scarcely anything left but Ireland and the colonies …”
The mystery of the names Antigua, Colombo, Madras and Montreal among the English names of Christchurch streets disappears!
But English names designed to perpetuate all that was deemed to be best in English society including a stratified class system — proliferated as the settlement grew. Oxford, possibly after Samuel Wilberforce,
Bishop of Oxford and a member of the Canterbury Association; Ashburton, after another member of the association, Francis Baring, later Lord Ashburton; Ashley after yet another association member, Lord Ashley, who was to become the seventh Earl of Shafts-bury, and still another association member was honoured by naming a district in the ashburton area Carew after W. Pole Carew, MP.
But other names were bound to creep in as new waves of settlers arrived. They tell something of the people and of pioneering life. Maternity Creek is said to be so named because it was once a breeding ground for wild pigs; the legend of Kingsdown, a few kilometres out of Timaru, centres on a “swagger”, Thomas King, who received anything but a cordial welcome when he called at Mt Horrible station. He went on his way to Christchurch and bought the freehold of the station for 20,000 pounds.
The Styx River was originally simply The Sticks, referring to sticks which were used to make a crude bridge across the narrow stream. The name is in no way related to classical mythology or to “the flood of deadly hate” of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Canterbury’s place names were, by and large, a symbol of orderly settlement. Unlike the West Coast, where Arthur Dudley Dobson’s name lives on in the pass that links the plains with a more rugged land, there were no roystering goldminers to leave vivid splashes of colour on the map.
But some names conjure up visions of desperate times: Murders Creek is the reminder of a miner returning from Westland in 1867 and spending a night in a rough but with a party of Chinese. Later his body was found buried in a shallow grave.
And not far from Kaiapoi is Swannanoa, a Red Indian link with the Appalachian mountains in North America so named, and misspelled by adding an additional “n”, by American John Evans Brown who settled there in 1864.
There is also the strange name Nonoti in the Waiau Valley. The story goes that the local MP — or was it a squatter’s wife? — was invited to give the district a name, but modestly declined with the words, “No, not I.” Of such tales are legends made.