The Bridle Path symbolizes a lot of different things to many different people. As a Canterbury historian, my heart jumps in my ribcage every time I see it and I am not even a descendant of a family that walked over it 150 years ago. My British parents and older brothers would make the same journey 115 years later but had the comfortable Lyttelton Railway Tunnel to deliver them into Christchurch and their new lives.
For the Canterbury Association’s Chief Surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas, the Bridle Path would have symbolized disillusionment, bitter disappointment and an anger that would take years to dissolve. No can say whether he glared back at Lyttelton with its Bridle Path on his way back to England after being dismissed – but I know he left New Zealand with a broken, heavy heart and was destined to become the most forgotten man in Christchurch’s history.
Stepping back to 1849, Captain Thomas and his group of surveyors stood on a beach of one bay of Lyttelton Harbour (Rapaki I believe) and dared to dream – they were there to build the foundation of a future settlement. The words of the Canterbury Association must have rung in Captain Thomas’ ears during those first few months: he would become the Chief Officer once the surveying was all done and he would be known as the founder of Canterbury!
With only £2000 to play with, Captain Thomas had to choose his projects carefully. He chose to build a jetty, immigration barracks, an Association store (in Sumner) and a route from the port to the plains was urgent. His road gang – made up mostly from Maori and ex-convicts – began to construct the Sumner Road, carving a track into the side of the harbour wall. Progress was slow and expensive.
Whatever thoughts of grandeur Captain Thomas had for himself was popped when John Robert Godley arrived in Lyttelton in April 1850. Assigned as the Association’s Chief Officer (the job promised to Captain Thomas), Godley halted all projects, fired the survey team and blamed Thomas for the debt that the settlement had slipped into. The disagreements between these two men became so fierce that Godley left for Wellington soon after, only to return with the arrival of the First Four Ships. This didn’t bring Thomas any further peace as he had begun to lose the trust of his team and many at one time or another refused to work with him.
This was written by surveyor Charles O. Torlesse on the 20th September 1850:
“You know what a strange person Thomas is; and though Boys and I received a handsome testimonial from him on the occasion of our discharge he has followed up the injury of disappointing us by constant snubbing and insulting conduct. However, we have restrained ourselves, taken everything quite coolly, and been careful to give him no cause offence. I should indeed be nervous about getting further employment under him…”
In September/October 1850, Godley sent Thomas a further £2400 to build an Association store in Lyttelton and to make the Sumner Road passable for pack horses if possible. If not, a new track was to be made over the Port Hills to the plains.
The Bridle Path was born. The name speaks for itself.
And so it came to pass. On the 16th December 1850, the Charlotte Jane sailed into Lyttelton Harbour after 3 months at sea. As the first pilgrims took to the Bridle Path, it wasn’t even completed. By early 1851, the track was finished and widened. Not surprisingly, others saw great business opportunities around the path – a Ginger Beer stand was erected at the summit, and a daily cart and horse service opened.
One settler commented that the crossing of the Bridle Path was the last of the mental force fields that the journey to Canterbury had been. After 3 months aboard their ships, many of the pilgrims were in no shape to make the climb. It proved too much for baker John Williams who was found dead in the dirt from a stroke. The 41 year old had decided to make the first climb on his own to take a look from the summit before moving his family out of Lyttelton. A passenger from the ‘Randolph’, he left behind his wife Isabella and their 7 children.
The Bridle Path continues to be quite a presence. Today it is legally listed as a road (the first wheeled transport was a spring cart in 1857)and scattered along its length are memorials to the First Four Ships, Jane Deans, Emily Rose Jacobs and the most well known, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Hut at the Summit.
*Photos of Bridle Path taken by Annette Bulovic*
*Black and white photo courtesy of http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz*