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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911

Timaru, South Canterbury, February 20th, 1876

Timaru, South Canterbury, February 20th, 1876.

My dear St. John,

After a few weeks in Christchurch, I found myself in my new sphere of work. Eighteen years ago I rode from Christchurch to Timaru, then a journey of several days, through a mere wilderness of tussock grass, no roads, here and there a faint track, rivers to be forded, with an occasional night camped under flax bushes, under the open sky. Timaru was then a mere name on the map, one small hut on the beach, tenanted by an old whaler and his wife; nothing else but the rolling, grassy downs, the cliffs, the surf, and the Pacific Ocean. Yet, even then, there was something which attracted the eye of my fellow traveller, an Australian, whose remark comes home to me now: "In a few years' time this will be a port and a centre of the district; if you have any spare money to invest here in land, you would find it profitable." To-day, I find here a flourishing township, backed up by extensive arable and pastoral country. A single line of railway from Christchurch runs as far as the Rangitata river, and from thence a coach to Timaru, which I did not need, as my parishioners had sent a buggy for me. As I had chanced to meet en route two English tourists, Spencer Lyttelton, son of Lord Lyttelton, page 193one of the founders of the Canterbury Settlement, and A. J. Balfour, nephew of Lord Salisbury, I gave them a lift to Timaru.

South Canterbury, I imagine, will prove to be the pick of the province; about a hundred miles by fifty of rich land, free from native forest, open to the plough at once, with a background of hill country, much of it as yet unexplored. The climate, also, is all in its favour, moderate rainfall, cold winters, but plenty of sunshine; with this a population, small at present, but of the sort which the founders of the Settlement took pains to attract; practically picked emigrants in all classes of society; bringing with them a fair amount of capital, strong hands, and stout hearts, ready for any difficulty in making new homes for themselves in this Southernmost of all the colonies of the Mother country.

I am in a small rented house, taking stock of Church affairs here. I am inclined to grumble, for, with the exception of the small site on which the church stands, given by Mr. G. Rhodes, the pioneer of South Canterbury, nothing has been done to acquire land, which could have been had for a mere song years ago, and now is at a dear rate. There is neither land for house or school, or any extension of Church work. At first the Canterbury Settlement did not extend to South Canterbury. Within its limits ample provision was made for Church sites; but with much lack of foresight, nothing of this kind was done when the Province was extended to the South. So I have all my work before me, with the prospect of having to borrow considerably to get a due foothold for the Church, besides paying one's way year by year, without any endowment.

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The Church itself is a curious structure; a tiny wooden nave, well designed, built by the first resident in Timaru, Captain Belfield Woollcombe, R.N., and his cousin, Herbert Belfield. Captain Woollcombe was, and still is, to a great extent, the factotum of the place; a typical naval officer, of ready resource; Magistrate, Coroner, Registrar, Harbour Master, Churchwarden, and Lay-reader. With his own hands he built most of the nave, so well, that it might last a century; to this was added at a later date a small transept and sanctuary, in stone, but of clumsy design and badly built. A certain amount of parochial work, with somewhat irregular services, has been maintained, but with the disadvantage of the clergyman's residence outside the limits of Timaru. "We want you," said Mr. Ormsby, the churchwarden, to me, "to get everything into working order." That, I thought to myself, will be a very large order for some time to come, for I find I am in the position of a settler on land which has been badly farmed, instead of having virgin soil to tackle, as was the case in Westland. But I am with people, of whom the larger proportion are Church folk, who give me liberal assurance of support and co-operation, so I have little doubt of the future. "The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage."

Come with me, and have a glance at the general contour of the place. A coast line, not unlike that of the Southdowns at home, with the Pacific Ocean in place of the British Channel clay cliffs instead of chalk, buttressed by outcrops of dolerite rock; a sheltered bay, in which several ships are lying at anchor, with little risk, as the prevailing winds seldom blow on shore. The surf is not nearly so heavy as on page 195the West Coast, so we can have a cruise in a whale boat and get a good view of the situation; rolling downs, which lie up against mountain ranges forty miles inland. Ships are lightered here by surf boats, but there is already talk of a breakwater, a plan having been received from Sir J. Coode, of Colombo Harbour fame, for an enclosed harbour, rather an ambitious scheme, but quite possible, considering the enterprising character of Timarau colonists. One of them, a typical old salt, Captain Cain, has a firm belief in it. Years ago he was a sailor lad on a brig trading to the North Island, before Auckland was colonised, and eventually became owner of a small vessel, the first to visit Timaru regularly to supply the wants of the place. "I was chartered," he told me, "by Mr. G. Rhodes of the Levels Station, and one day he rode down to meet me on the beach, and said: 'What do you think I've done, Cain? I've been to Christchurch, and bought a hundred acres for fifty pounds just here,' pointing to the beach. "And when do you expect to see your money again?' said I. 'Cain,' he said, 'if we live another thirty years, we shall see a harbour here, and those cliffs covered with 'willas.'" I own I was fairly puzzled at this, till I surmised that the Captain's pronunciation of "villas" suggested the idea of "willows," of which as yet there is no sign in Timaru, the only trees being eucalyptus and pines of a few years' growth. But of the villas there is no doubt, as already the town, though small, is well built. There are other prosperous centres of population in South Canterbury,—Waimate, Winchester, Temuka, Geraldine, and Pleasant Point, all within my Archdeaconry.