Harry Ell (1862 – 1934)

Harry Ell will always be remembered as a great lover of the Port Hills.

Harry was born in Christchurch in 1862. He grew up on his parents’ farm in Halswell. From an early age, he became passionate about Christchurch’s natural heritage and its endangered species. It’s not hard to understand why his first job was at the Canterbury Museum.

Harry returned to his farming roots before becoming an armed constabulary at Taranaki, North Island. His participation in the destruction of Parihaka in 1881– a large Maori village – would shape young Harry forever. He was completely dismayed with how the Maori people were treated and also witnessed the destruction of the native flora there. Still confused later in life, he wrote that his fellow soldiers actions, ”…brought about the bitterness and estrangement between two races…”

Back in Christchurch, Harry took on a few different jobs. He became a printer for ‘The Press’ and for a time, a salesman. He finally took an interest in local politics and became a Christchurch City Councillor. He became known for his energy and his dauntless approach to all his projects.

During his political career, he was involved in the introduction of the old age pension and for schools -physical education, conservation studies and dental care. He also took part in the Temperance Movement and was firmly against the evils of gambling.

In 1892, Harry married Adelaide Eleanor Kee and the two went on to have 3 sons and 1 daughter.

Always interested in conservation and recreation, Harry’s greatest achievement was being a huge part of the Scenery Preservation Bill that was passed in government in 1903. In the face of an expanding settlement, Harry wanted Christchurch to keep its scenic beauty – especially the Port Hills.

Harry had visions of walkers and travellers enjoying a network of scenic reserves along the hills connected by a road with rest-houses along the way – right through to Akaroa.
I know the thought of walking to Akaroa is enough to make us 21st century people’s toes curl but it was not an unheard of thing. William Deans would walk to Akaroa from Riccarton to get mail in the 1840’s. Using the Maori trails etc, he would make it there within a day. With just under 20 rest-houses planned along what would start off as Summit Road, these would be places where people could stop and rest. Of course, only 4 of these buildings came to fruition.

When Harry’s political career came to an end in 1918, he poured his heart and soul into his Port Hills project. He faced financial strife as well as the doubts of many. He never let that bother him, he pushed forward, almost obsessed some said. The first area to be preserved was Kennedy’s Bush, the land above his father’s farm.

The foundation stone for the Takahe was laid in 1918, the thought of it being tea-rooms for weary travellers.  Its main purpose by the time it was finished, was a tram and bus terminus. It’s now a Function venue, mostly for weddings etc. Its been closed since February due to earthquake damage.

By the 1930’s, the Port Hills section of the Summit Road was complete. A string of reserves were proposed from Godley Heads to Pigeon Bay. The Sign of the Kiwi, The Sign of the Bellbird and The Sign of the Packhorse were built but the Sign of the Takahe was not finished when Harry died in 1934. The place remained unfinished until the Christchurch City Council picked it up and it was finally opened in 1949.

Thanks to Harry, we have the Port Hills that we know and enjoy today. Walkways, scenic reserves and viewing areas that we can stop in and look out over our beautiful city.

Harry Ell is buried at St Mary’s Anglican Church in Halswell.

*image of Harry Ell courtesy of http://christchurchcitylibraries.com*
*All photos taken by Annette Bulovic*

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