Canterbury’s First School – Christ’s College

Rev. Henry Jacobs was under no illusion. He knew that there would be no church or school awaiting him upon his arrival in Canterbury but like any man of great faith, with his words and actions aboard the ‘Sir George Seymour’ would make one think a Cathedral awaited him.

Henry had been promised work by the Canterbury Association as a Classical Professor for the proposed new college of Christchurch.  So, with his wife Charlotte, they boarded the ‘Sir George Seymour’ – our third ship from our First Four – and sailed for the end of world.  On each of the First Four Ships, there were certain items and professions that were a must and one of those was a Reverend to watch over the spiritual welfare of the passengers.  This was Jacobs’s job those 3 months at sea.

Upon landing in Lyttelton, the Jacobs spend their first few nights in the Immigration Barracks. It was also here on 22nd December 1850 that he conducted Canterbury’s first Anglican Church Service. From then onwards, Jacobs preached every day and in between his services, he made plans to open a boy’s school. With the arrival of New Zealand’s Bishop, George Selwyn, on 3rd January 1851, Jacobs opened his school with the Bishop’s blessing in the Immigration Barracks on 6th January 1851. He had twelve pupils. It cost two guineas to enroll.

Working with very few supplies and resources, the roll numbers changed daily with the arrival of more ships and with families making the move over the port hills. Completely adored by his pupils, his simple and quiet ways were constantly abused. One pupil later spoke with great fondness how Jacobs would wear a cloak and while he was teaching, totally absorbed in what he was writing on the board, the boys would use his swishing cloak to send notes back and forth down the line to each other.

In April 1852, the school made the move over to Christchurch, setting up its base at Christ’s Church’s (St Michael and All Angels) parsonage with only five pupils. By this time, the school which we now know as St Michael’s Church School was using the actual church for its pupils. As these two schools ticked away beside each other, Jacobs must have thought with a smile that one day, they would move to their own 3 acres in Cathedral Square. It had been the dream of the Canterbury Association that the Cathedral and the city’s college been at the heart of Christchurch. The school he was running was, after all, based on the grandest schools back in England, the schools that the men of the Canterbury Association had attended themselves. But by the following year, a 10 acre site had been chosen in the Government Domain (Hagley Park) so the school had room to expand.

On 26th November 1857, the first of Christ’s College building was complete. The carpenter, James Johnston, had been working around Lyttelton and Christchurch before the arrival of the First Four Ships. He had worked on the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks and a year before be worked on Christ’s College, he had built what we historians called Stage One of Riccarton House at Riccarton. He also built Riccarton’s stables which unfortunately are no longer with us. His carpenters’ shop on Cashel Street had been used for the first Presbyterian Church Service in Canterbury in 1853.

Named Christ’s College by Canterbury’s first Superintendent, James Edward Fitzgerald, after his Cambridge school, those who assisted, taught and founded today’s Christ College is a huge list of who’s who in early Canterbury and the college is very proud of its history and its past pupils. The Canterbury University is considered a spin-off from Christ’s College.

In 1863, a building which had been designed by James Edward Fitzgerald called ‘Big School’ was completed. At the time, the whole school could fit inside this simple construction. It is now the oldest educational building still in use in New Zealand. After a few upgrades and additions, ‘Big School’ is now the school’s library.

Christ’s College is the oldest independent school in New Zealand.

*image of Christ’s College in 1860 is courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – – File Reference CCL Photo CD 17, IMG0031
*image of Big School in 1867 is courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library – Creator unknown : Photograph of Big School, Christ’s College, Christchurch. Ref: PAColl-8850. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
*All modern photos taken by Annette Bulovic*

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