GODLEY HEAD – Captain Joseph Thomas (1803 – ?)

What actually inspired me to do the story of Godley Head was the old Maori term for the place, ‘Otokitoki’ which means ‘a place of axes’.
My imagination was instantly stirred, but it proved to be one of the biggest anticlimaxes since I began to peel back Canterbury’s history almost 3 years ago.

Standing like a guardian at the entrance of Lyttelton Harbour, the harsh cliff face of Godley Head no doubt had our pre-adamites (a term used by Jane Deans to describe those European settlers that arrived before the First Four Ships) quite intimidated.
Rowing around the entry of the harbour was the most used route between Port Cooper (Lyttelton) and the Port Cooper (Canterbury) Plains.
As the future site of Christchurch was a series of swamps and lagoons, it proved easier to travel by whaler’s boat down the Otakaro (Avon River) than set about on foot.

Around 1838, historians claim there were roughly around 90 Europeans living on Banks Peninsula.
These were mostly ex-sealers/whalers/sailors, rough types that were hiding from their pasts. It was then that a French whaling ship sailed into Port Cooper (Lyttelton) but not before almost wrecking itself on the rocks of ‘Otokitoki’. The ship was named ‘Cachalot’ and when the surveyors from the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association arrived 10 years later, ‘Otokitoki’ had been renamed after that ship – Cachalot Head.

As Chief Surveyor for the Canterbury Association, Captain Joseph Thomas had undertaken most of the renaming for the region and also named the new townships and streets – such as Lyttelton and Sumner, I have taken the liberty (I could be wrong) of crediting the naming of Godley Head to him.
There is no date or detail of when this name kicked in but there is no doubt it was named in acknowledgement of Canterbury’s Founder, John Robert Godley.
If it was Captain Thomas who did the renaming, I’m sure he was kicking himself soon after as the two (Thomas & Godley) fell out with each other even before the First Four Ships arrived. In fact, Thomas was fired by the Canterbury Association in 1851 and left Lyttelton for England under a very dark cloud.

But Godley Head was here to stay.

In spite of Captain Thomas’ disgrace, those of the Canterbury Provincial Council (which formed in 1853) still referred back to the recommendations made by him.
Thomas had written in his notes that Godley Head was a perfect place to put a lighthouse. In 1859, the Provincial Council approved the project but it would take another 6 years for a lighthouse to be erected.

The first European to settle on the head was John Townsend Parkinson (? – 1863) who was a stock trader. In 1856, he took over a butcher’s shop in Lyttelton and opened his own stockyards in Christchurch. Less than 10 years later, completely broke, John decided to end it all by drinking poison.
The property moved on to other historically known land owners such as Major Alfred Hornbrook (built the ‘The Mitre’ hotel in Lyttelton and is remembered in the naming of Major Hornbrook Road in Mt Pleasant), J.S. Monck (remembered in the naming of Moncks Spur, Redcliffs), and Richard May Morten (remembered in the naming of the suburb of Hillmorten).

Life plodded on quietly for Godley Head until the outbreak of World War II. New Zealand was gripped in fear of invasion, so two 60 pounder field guns and two 6 inch coastal artillery pieces were stationed on the head.
The poor lighthouse had to be moved and it found itself down the cliff face, just recently rescued by helicopter in pieces as the quake damaged cliff face had threaten to drop the now historic building into the sea.
It wasn’t a rescue for the faint-hearted!

The nearest the war got to Godley Head was in the early hours of the 25th June, 1941.
A German minelayer named ‘Adjutant’ successfully laid 10 mines at the entrance of Lyttelton Harbour without anyone knowing.
We only found out through captured German papers 4 years later. They were buried between 16 to 22 metres deep and the nearest was just 5km from the coast line.
This German submarine did the same honours to the entry of Wellington Harbour just 24 hours later.

The only real action the guns got was performing test warning shots. One of these practices ended in disaster when a local fishing boat named the ‘Dolphin’ was struck by a stray shell and one of two fishermen on board – James Brassell – was killed.
From then onwards, if there were any reasons for concern, a rifle was to be fired in the air as a warning.

It was 1946 when the lighthouse went electric.
After the war, the army used the area as a training ground but that ended in 1958.
In 1976, the lighthouse when into automatic operations so after 100 years, Godley Head had no lighthouse keeper.

Even though Captain Joseph Thomas had made Godley Head a Government Reserve, public use of it for recreation did not start until 1906 when a road was completed. Today, the Department of Conservation says that Godley Head sees 100,000 visitors a year.

But the question remains doesn’t it? After using 5 different sources for this article, no one can say why it was known as ‘a place of axes’.
Did a huge battle happen there between the Ngai Tahu and the Ngati Mamoe during the 1700’s? Or even the Ngai Tahu and the Ngai Toa in 1830?
Dunno – I think the use of a European name since the 1830’s has caused this knowledge to be forgotten.

In the 1970’s, the remains of what looked like a small Maori outpost was uncovered and was dated back to the 1830’s.
After further investigation, it was concluded that what was found was an old livestock pen.
And so the past of Godley Head remains a mystery.

*image courtesy of Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 16-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/34593/godley-head-coastal-defence-battery*

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