PEERSWICK – the forgotten past of Church Corner.

At Church Corner, at the western end of Riccarton Road, opposite Countdown are a series of shops and arcades.  Long past their prime and popularity, one arcade there especially doesn’t fit in and that would be the Peerswick Mall.  This very British sounding collection of shops is now the hub of Christchurch’s Asian shopping market, serving Canterbury’s Asian community with items and produce from home.

But behind this bustle of Asian life is the forgotten history that the Mall is named after.  The story of Peerswick – a small working village (the term ‘wick’ means village)and a racing stallion known as ‘The Peer’.  But we go back further.

It was 1855 when a stallion – that was to be known as ‘The Peer’ – was born in the stables of John Shand.  John Shand and his two sons had arrived at Lyttelton on the ‘Isabella Hercus’ (the Canterbury Association’s 6th ship) and settled on the land opposite to the Deans estate of Riccarton.  They are remembered today in the naming of Shands Crescent, Shands Reserve and Shands Emporium.
I’m sure, like most stallion foals destined for the racing track; The Peer was a lively and strong-willed animal that would find his match in his future owner, Edward Jerningham Wakefield (1820-1879).

The son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield (owner of The New Zealand Company and co-founder of The Canterbury Association), Jerningham Wakefield really had a lot going for him – he had the world laid out before him.  Jerningham first saw New Zealand in 1839 on the first ship and expedition of the New Zealand Company to New Zealand.   He was affectionately called ‘Tiraweke’ by the Maori which meant “Teddy Wide-Awake”.  Wide-Awake was the Maori way of saying Wakefield many believe.

Jerningham returned to London in 1844 where over the next five years, he lived just for the pleasure of things.  While he was throwing away truckloads of money, his father Edward had befriended John Robert Godley who shared many of the same views of immigration to the colonies.  In 1850, Godley boarded a ship (with his wife Charlotte and son Arthur) to sail to Canterbury to found the city of Christchurch. The bankrupt drunkard, that Jerningham had become, joined him for a fresh start of things. On arriving, he entered into politics. Early in the 1850’s, Jerningham headed back to London when his father Edward suffered a stroke. While caring for his father, he became involved in London politics.

As his Dad wouldn’t stay put, Jerningham was soon back in Christchurch.  It must have been at this time that Jerningham and ‘The Peer’ had the opportunity to make their first impressions on each other.  The date of purchase and where these two life-filled bachelors made their home is unknown but they were obviously regulars around the split of the future Riccarton Road, Yaldhurst and Main South Roads which we now know as Church Corner, Upper Riccarton.

I have come up with two reasons why Jerningham may have hung out at Upper Riccarton.  Firstly, there were the Yaldhurst Stables (in which the suburb is named after and sat opposite St Peter’s Anglican Church) and maybe Jerningham (or a professional rider) and ‘The Peer’ would take to the track during training times.

Secondly, Felix Wakefield, Jerningham’s uncle, owned the land that now makes up the school of Villa Maria, maybe Jerningham hung out there as well as the stables…no one can say for sure.  Whatever the reason, the area became known as Peerswick – Peer’s Village.  The naming of Peer Street, which runs alongside Villa Maria is named after this horse.  He must have been quite an animal!

By 1863, Jerningham and his new bride, Ellen Roe were making a life for themselves in Fendalton.  The fate of ‘The Peer’ is lost in history but Jerningham’s fate was anything but.  Unfortunately, Jerningham battled alcoholism and it slowly began to steal his life from under him.  He became known as being unreliable and erratic at his political work. Before anything critical was to be voted on, Jerningham’s colleagues started the habit of locking him in a room to sober up.  Eventually, Jerningham lost his fine home at Fendalton, had to sell the furniture and the family moved to a little cottage in Worcester Street. He would lose Ellen and his three daughters next, encouraging her to move into her brother’s place in Palmerston North.  Always an affectionate father, he would write to his daughters and delighted in their letters to him. He also sent books and music.

In 1878, Jerningham’s health failed him and he moved in with friends in Ashburton.  Unknown to his family, he had moved on into a half-way house. He couldn’t bear the shame of Ellen or his daughters to see him like he was so he stopped all contact. He died in that half-way house alone, clutching a photo of his daughters.

Edward is buried in Pioneer Park which was once the Old Settler’s Cemetery in Ashburton.

By the 1890’s, Peerswick was a busy and thriving small community.  It covered 5 streets that were home to many worker men’s cottages.  In 1903, Peer Street was then known as Stemmers Road, named after a local gardener, Robert Anthony Stemmer (1857 – 1935).  Not much is known about British born Robert except that he got married to Fanny Doe at St Peter’s Anglican Church (the church at Church Corner) in 1881.  Tragically during or after the birth of their son, Fanny passed away.  Robert remarried in 1884 to Mary Ann Webb and the pair would go on to have 4 children.  Robert was living in Hillmorten at the time of his death.  He is buried with Mary Ann and Lillian, one of his daughters at Sydenham Cemetery, Christchurch.

His claim to fame through the naming of Stemmers Road was short lived as by 1910, Peer Street seemed to be the most used term and here it has remained.

As for the term of Church Corner, we can thank the unconventional Rev. Octavius Mathias for this.  More popular with the Christchurch community than those in the church – around the mid 1850’s Octavius and family took up 160 acres on Yaldhurst Road.  He called his property ‘Horsford’ and farmed oats.  Out of that land, 20 acres was gifted for the building of St Peter’s Anglican Church and cemetery.  His land now houses the Huntley Lodge (www.huntleylodge.co.nz) at 67 Yaldhurst Road, with Octavius Lane nearby. John Holmes who built the Huntley Lodge that we know today, renamed the land after his hometown in Canada. He is remembered in Holmes Park that backs onto the grounds of Huntley Lodge.

Octavius died in 1864. Shops and offices closed on the day of his funeral; 30 carriages and many gentlemen on horseback, making up the procession behind his hearse. Fellow Reverends served as Pallbearers – coming from great pioneer families such as Torlesse, Cholomondely and Bowen.  Much of what was said was praise about him at the service as well as personal comments – such as the one from business man, William Burke, “…took his beer and allowed others to do so…”

His headstone stands out grandly amongst the others at Barbadoes Street Cemetery, Christchurch.

* All modern photos taken by Annette Bulovic*

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