Scottish born carpenter, James Johnstone, was offered a job that he just couldn’t refuse. He had been happily living in Tasmania, Australia after immigrating with his wife Janet and their children in 1843. Now, as the new Foreman Carpenter for the Canterbury Association – earning 63 shillings a week – he made his plans to move his family to New Zealand.
Along with Johnstone aboard the ‘Rebecca’ were a small crew of carpenters and cadets including a cargo hold full of Australian timber. The Canterbury Plains were infamous for being almost tree free, apart from Riccarton, Papanui and the Rangiora Bushes. By this time, the Johnstone family were twelve in number, including James and Janet – with their 11th child due any day. Upon arriving in Lyttelton in January 1850 – after a brief stopover at Wellington – Johnstone’s first project was the construction of Lyttelton’s four Immigration Barracks. This build was to include a cookhouse, a laundry and toilets.
Johnstone continued to work around Lyttelton, also rebuilding the Canterbury Association Store at Sumner. This structure was later used as the stables for the Day’s Hotel (1850’s – 1892). A year later, the move to Christchurch was made. Johnstone took a plot of land on Cashel Street, near the north east corner with Oxford Terrace. Here he opened his own carpentry shop and was within walking distance of his next project – building the Christchurch’s Land Office. We now know this site as the home of the (earthquake damaged) Municipal Chambers, the first home of the Christchurch City Council. Nearby, he also constructed a footbridge over the Avon, now known as the Worcester Street Bridge.
Janet Johnstone later confessed that she was always worried that James would struggle to find work as Canterbury was now well equipped with these kinds of tradesmen. But the jobs kept rolling in. Johnstone erected the first timber buildings at Christ’s College and St Michael’s Church School. These two educational institutes – Canterbury’s oldest – were using the same Oxford Street site at that time. In 1855, fellow Ayrshire born settler, Jane Deans, hired Johnstone for the construction of Riccarton House (Stage 1) and other Riccarton Farm buildings.
On the last Sunday of October in 1853, Canterbury’s first Presbyterian service took place at Johnstone’s carpentry shop. It was at this service that many of the children of Christchurch’s Scottish families were baptised, including John Deans II. It was after this service and with the purchase of land and a new minister from Scotland also appointed, Johnston built St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. This church still serves the community at its location at Rangi Ruru Girls’ High School.
James died on 11th April 1870 in Christchurch from Typhoid. He was 61 years old.
*Image of James Johnstone courtesy of the Johnstone family*