Canterbury’s First Ball – 4th February 1851

By February 1851, after roughly 700 people came pouring off our first four Canterbury Association ships, one can imagine the stir caused with the arrival of a hand delivered invitation to a Ball. The first to be held in Canterbury or so the Lyttelton Times would later report.  After all, only 90 invites were sent out!

Lyttelton – with its dusty hillsides of tent, sod, mud and timber homes of all shapes and sizes – had become quite a character town which many were proud of.  Little communities –like the ‘Charlotte Jane Square’ – worked well; the friendships formed on-board glued our first families together for lifetimes, which, in many cases, stretched out over generations.

Finally, our settlers had a good reason to fling open their trunks and bags, pulling out the finest of their attire.  Servants were whipped into a flurry preparing households, no matter its situation – all due to Robert and Charlotte Godley wanting to seize the opportunity of a nearly empty Immigration Barracks to hold a dance.  The ‘Castle Eden’, the Canterbury Association’s 5th ship was due within days and given that Canterbury’s existing families were making the move into temporary housing, a few barracks were then empty.

With great excitement, 4 rooms were made ready.  Two were set up for dancing and two were made into a clock room and a supper room.  Evergreens, calico draperies and flags were used for decoration whilst muslin was used as table cloths.  60 gentlemen and 30 ladies were expected and as their time pieces clicked over to 10pm, people began to arrive.

Why such a late start? As street lamps were yet to become a common means of safely getting home, these Victorian parties ran over the darkest hours of the night and the partygoers headed home at dawn so their way could be easily seen.

And this would have been the case for this ball except that around 3am, gale winds suddenly turned Lyttelton into a dust bowl.  Charlotte Godley later wrote back to England about the sudden, mad dash home made by her guests, commenting on how the dust soon covered everything, making it hard to draw breath.  And the temperature soared. Charlotte compared the creaking and moaning of her timber home to being back in her ship’s cabin during rough seas.

But the ball would always be remembered as a great success – Ham and chicken pie were on the menu, quadrilles, polkas and waltzes were played by the band and one dancer took a moment to realise that the Port Hills would have never heard such music before!  Sherry was drunk (too much by one lady dancer) and Glee Singers filled the gaps of rest taken by the band.

Canterbury’s first Ball had ‘…a spirit known to our mother country ball-rooms…’

*please note the attached image is not of New Zealand*


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