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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 4 (July 2, 1934.)

How Christchurch Got Its Name — A Controverted Subject

page 31

How Christchurch Got Its Name
A Controverted Subject.

The inhabitant of Christchurch is vaguely aware that the name of his city was the pious choice of the Church of England founders of it, and his guess is probably a very near approximation to the truth; but there have been several conflicting explanations of the name's origin, which have occasionally given rise to fierce controversy.

A coincidence that the town of Christchurch in Hampshire, England, also possesses a River Avon, has been the chief stumbling-block. Hampshireborn people naturally have always supported the theory that the new Christchurch was named after their Christchurch, but as long ago as 1856, Archdeacon Harper, a new arrival, confidently wrote: “Through the site of the town, the River Avon, so called from the river at Christchurch, in Hampshire, winds its picturesque course.”

A Scottish Avon.

This argument is exploded, however, when it is recollected that the Avon was named by the brothers Deans, the first settlers in the district, long before “Christchurch” was thought of, and after a stream that bounded their grandfather's property in Lanarkshire, Scotland. For instance, John Deans wrote in 1849: “The river up which we now bring our supplies is to be called the Avon at our request, and our place Riccarton.”

Moreover, it may be remembered that when Captain Thomas came to prepare a site for the new settlement, in 1849, he decided first of all that the capital of it, Christchurch, should be established at the head of Lyttelton harbour, beyond Governor's Bay, and that on the plains over the hill should be a smaller town, “Stratford,” named, no doubt, in deference to the Warwickshire and Shakespearian Avon.

So the Hampshire argument is assailed on all sides. How then did Christchurch get its name? Well, there is the theory that the city was called after a patron saint of Canterbury Cathedral, England, which was consecrated by St. Augustine in A.D. 597 under the name of Christ Church. This is plausible, because the Archbishop of Canterbury was the first President of the Canterbury Association, and the Church of England authorities at the time were prime movers of the settlement scheme.

But there is yet another explanation, the widely-accepted one, and actually the most satisfactory. Many of the founders of the Canterbury Association, including John Robert Godley, came from Christ Church College, Oxford. It is quite probable that the name of their famous old Alma Mater appealed to them as the most suitable for the virgin City of the Plains, which had been planned to include a Cathedral, a College, and a Cathedral Square, in exactly the same way as the Oxford College possessed its unique Cathedral —the smallest in England—within its gates.

Of course it possibly happened that the name “Christchurch” was chosen out of deference to both Canterbury Cathedral and the Oxford College. In any case the Canterbury Association consisted almost entirely of old Oxford men and clergy who were familiar with both the Oxford and the Canterbury Christ Churches. It is interesting to reflect that the name Canterbury itself was chosen unanimously when the Association scheme was mooted in 1847.

The first prospectus of the settlement scheme, issued in 1848, commenced: “The Plan of the Association for Forming the Settlement of Canterbury, in New Zealand.” And it is worthy of note that the chairman of the general committee of the Association was a Lord Lyttelton, who became an ardent worker, and whose name was later substituted for that of Port Cooper, the original anchorage in the harbour. Nowadays Canterbury folk give the names of Christchurch and Lyttelton different connotations from those they originally possessed—meanings varying with experience, sentiment, and knowledge. But the rest of New Zealand still recognises Christchurch as “the Cathedral City,” and it may be hoped that the distinction will long remain.

The River Avon, Christchurch, shewing the Anglican Cathedral in the background.

The River Avon, Christchurch, shewing the Anglican Cathedral in the background.

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