The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 10 (January 2, 1939)
Lyttelton—The Gateway to Canterbury — An Historic Harbour
How many travellers from the North Island have had their first introduction to the South Island by arriving early on a cold, bleak morning on the deck of the Wahine or Rangatira as she steams alongside the five miles of craggy cliffs (which O. E. Burton has likened in “The Silent Division” to the entrance to Lemnos Harbour of deathless memory), with screaming gulls skimming the wake? The vessel swerves out by the moles, goes into reverse and backs neatly into Lyttelton's inner harbour. Here at the ferry wharf the passengers change from ship to electric train which whirls them off from New Zealand's third largest port, through New Zealand's second longest railway tunnel, which pierces the “fire-fused line of the Port Hills,” and which is the gateway to the far-famed Canterbury Plains.
And how few have appreciated or even observed the charm and rugged beauty of this historic port and harbour.
Even “Robin Hyde,” in “Passport to Hell,” when telling of the escape of the immortal Starkie over the hills from the Kittewa, describes Lyttelton as “a disconsolate hill-slope of blackened houses, inhabited only by officials who can afford to live nowhere else.” Were she to see the bathers at sparkling Corsair Bay and the white sails of the Lyttelton yachts gliding on the azure bosom of the waters of the Raupo Harbour, as the Maoris called it, in the golden summer months, perchance her opinions would be less harsh.
Rugged they are, these great hills, once the crater rim of a mighty volcano, yet when they are covered with a mantle of pure white snow arising from a still sea as calm as if frozen, with tiny ships creeping along the wide sea lane below to the haven of port, they stand as calm and solid, as eternal and uncaring of the works of Man as the Sphinx. And indeed the toes of Mount Herbert are not unlike the toes of the carven riddle of the sands.
In the changing lights of evening the green slopes turn yellow and grey, as flat and unreal as the stage scenery of a pseudo-epic play, yet with a beauty that must be seen to be believed or even imagined. And when the cold winds of winter whip the ruflled surface of the sea into tossing waves, and white spray dashes itself against the rocky cliffs, the snow-white ethereal clouds pour down over the hill-tops as they are forced down by wind-streams, into the hollows and valleys to hang like a mantle of snow covering the peaks and hillsides with a fascinating and entrancing beauty all its own.
Through this portal of the plains the whole cavalcade of Canterbury's history has passed. The scrubby bush has vanished before the invasion of houses, streets, foundries, shops and oil-tanks of the busy port, yet the hills themselves are unchanged since the far-off days when the white sails of the little barque Charlotte Jane (aboard which Fitzgerald wrote his “Night-watch Song of the Charlotte Jane” on the self-same voyage) appeared around Officers’ Point, the first of the first four ships, bringing to the tiny British settlement a cargo of picked settlers to found here in the Antipodes a newer England free from poverty, class strife and hide-bound tradition, a modern Utopia.
To this very day on the 16th December, Canterbury Anniversary Day, as great modern 10,000 to 20,000 ton overseas liners glide into port throbbing with the power of their great motors, the quaint little castle-like signal station on the point flies the original signal, “Barque sighted, Charlotte Jane.”
In the quiet evening when the inner harbour is as calm and unruffled as a mirror reflecting all the myriad lights of town and wharves and shipping, the inter-island steamer express glides out between the red and green port lights at the end of the moles, all her portholes and masts gleaming with lights in the surrounding darkness, and turns, bound for the open sea, the living link of empire connecting the South with the Capital City and the North.
Perhaps the fact of being able to see all of the port and town from almost any one of the houses on the hillsides—the great cranes on the wharves loading grain and wool and produce from the Plains for ships to carry to half the countries of the earth, and the scene of the ships entering and leaving port down there before your eyes—adds a greater interest to the scene.page 38
Upon that trig-topped peak behind the town a scene of the wild times of old Maoridom was enacted long years ago when the victorious Maoris from the little pa Rapaki, still extant further up the harbour, defeated the local tribe in battle down there where the wharves now stretch into the sea, and placed a basket of their severed heads upon this Place of the Basket of Heads as an offering to their goddess Kahukura.
The streets of the port were named after English bishoprics, Canterbury being then solely Church of England; Norwich Quay, Canterbury, Ripon, Exeter, London, Winchester and Oxford Streets. The celebrated track, the Bridle Path, which crosses the hills behind the town was made for the Canterbury Pilgrims to reach their future homes on the wide plains on the other side of the hill. Over this Path between 1899 and 1902 rode the Canterbury mounted riflemen of the New Zealand Contingents to ship for the South African veldt, and that worthy foeman, the brave Boer.
Scott and Shackleton both called in here on their way to the frozen South. Down at the wharf to-day lies the old sailer Raupo, which once had for mate Lt.-Commander Sanders, V.C., New Zealand's mystery-ship hero of the North Sea. This old sailer was destined to go the way of the old Kuku, Cygnet and Calm.
Around the road to Sumner are the remains of the old barracks, rifle ranges and gun emplacements, relics of the Russian scare of the Eighties. Across the harbour other parts of the fortification scheme known as Fort Jervois still stand. There is a perfect little concrete diamond of a fort called Ripa Island. Here in 1917 Count von Luckner, the Sea Devil, sojourned as a prisoner of the Government after his ill-starred attempt to escape from Motuihi Island, Auckland.
Quail Island, the island in the centre of the harbour which can be reached by land at low tide, saw less happy days as a leper station. It is now a picnic resort.
Just past the library up the Sumner Road stands Godley's old house, still occupied, but soon to be demolished. The old Lyttelton gaol has gone, but parts of its white stone walls still stand, though its inhabitants have changed from uniformed warders and slouching prisoners to children at play in their school grounds.
The butchers here deliver their wares on horseback, which is still the best mode of transport along some of these steep, narrow hillside streets. Some of these little gabled houses were built in the Sixties, or before, of lasting hardwood timbers, though many were gutted in the disastrous fire of 1870, which wiped out the entire heart of the town.
Perhaps the most poignant of all Lyttelton's tales is that of the dredge Manchester, which steamed out with many local men aboard, en route for Australia, and after passing Cook Strait was never heard of again, a tragedy then, a legend, perhaps, in the years to come.
The port also has her quota of famous sons. Billy Webb, one-time world champion sculler, William Pember Reeves, New Zealand writer and legislator, and Dalley, the 1924 All Black were “local boys,” as were “Curly” Page, captain of the New Zealand cricket team which last toured England, Cecil Matthews, British Empire running champion and Olympic competer, and a former Prime Minister, Mr. G. W. Forbes. And in the New Zealand yachting world Lyttelton yachtsmen stand second to none in their sport and their far-famed hospitality.page 40