When twenty year old Walter Gee (pictured) stepped off the ‘Sir George Pollock’ in 1851 – the Canterbury Association’s 17th ship – he couldn’t have dreamt of the history he would witness and be part of.
Listed as a carpenter on the Association’s passenger manifest, Walter was also a blind-maker but found little demand for his trade at that time. So, he went into business with his baker father, Thomas Gee, on Canterbury Street in Lyttelton. One of their first contracts was to supply the Lyttelton Gaol with fresh bread every day.
The Gee family were the first in Canterbury to import the machinery needed for making biscuits and boiling sweets. Up to then, these goods had been imported into the colony at a high price. For the next five years, Canterbury Street was filled with the delicious smell of freshly baked bread and sweets.
George Gee, Thomas Gee’s father and Walter’s Grandfather suddenly surprised the family when he was spotted walking towards their house in Lyttelton. Eighty-one years old, he had made this journey all alone from England on the ‘William and Jane’ – the first wool ship to voyage directly from London to New Zealand. This ship had docked at Wellington so George found another way to Lyttelton, taking his family by surprise. He later opened his own business and lived the rest of his life at Port.
In spite of their busy business and family life, Thomas and Walter found the time to trek to over the Bridle Path and visit Christchurch. It was on one of these walks that Thomas planted Canterbury’s first water cress into the Heathcote River and any other swamp the pair came across. Walter continued these walks from Lyttelton on his own when he fell in love with his future wife, Ruth Coster – a Canterbury Association settler herself – who had settled with her family in Harewood. The pair were the first to get married at the St Paul’s Anglican Church on Papanui Road.
It was soon after the wedding that the Gee’s made the move to Christchurch, opening a confectionery shop on the North East corner of Colombo and Armagh Streets, adjacent to Market Place (Victoria Square). It was soon a common sight to see Walter leading a goat pulled cart full of sacks of flour through the streets of Christchurch. In 1869, the father and son catered some of the events around the Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s second son) visit to the city.
By 1871, Walter, now finding a high demand for window dressings, opened a shop of his own on Worchester Street, where the Heritage Christchurch is now situated in the old Government Buildings. In 1882, he was the only blind-maker in New Zealand to win a Gold Medal for his work at the New Zealand International Exhibition.
On the Canterbury Anniversary Day, before his death in 1923, Walter delighted as he always did in the history of Canterbury. He happily shared stories of his friendships with the likes of John Robert Godley (Founder of Canterbury), William Sefton Moorhouse (Canterbury Superintendent), and Captain Charles Simeon (acknowledged the naming of Simeon Street and the suburb of Barrington) amongst many others. He was always troubled by the loss of the older names and icons of early Christchurch and recalled how much it rained when he played trombone while in the First Volunteer Brass Band at the laying of the foundation stone of the Christchurch Cathedral in 1864.
*Image courtesy of Yvonne Glendenning*