I grew up just around the corner from Sawyers Arms Road, and, being a naturally curious child, one day I asked my father what a “sawyer” was.
After learning what a sawyer does, and then seeing the word ‘arms’ in the road name, I instantly imagined large-armed lumberjacks hard at work – but the true history of this small part of Christchurch runs much deeper than that…and is actually quite unique!
Sketches and paintings depicting the views that our Canterbury Association settlers saw from the top of the Bridle Path clearly show three pockets of trees amongst a seemingly never ending sea of tussock. These were: Riccarton Bush, Papanui Bush and Harewood Forest (the latter known today as Oxford).
By July 1851, about 27 acres of Riccarton Bush had been felled for timber and firewood.
This was part of the agreement made between the Deans brothers and the Canterbury Association in order to help secure 400 acres of Riccarton for the Deans’ – out of their original native lease of 33,000 acres from the Ngai Tahu which had been in place since 1843.
So, in short, the brothers had once leased the area that made up Christchurch City and some of its suburbs.
Papanui Bush – at 90 acres – was undergoing the same kind of felling at this time.
The last tree, a Totara, fell in the name of progress in 1857.
I don’t think another Christchurch suburb had to come up with a new occupation so fast or as early in our history as Papanui did: All the trees were gone…what now?
The time of the sawyer was over and the time of the market gardener began.
So how did the name of Sawyer remain in the area so long after this occupation was over?
It was thanks to the Sawyers Arms Hotel – an oasis amongst the graveyard of tree stumps.
The Sawyers’ Arms [Hotel] was opened in 1853 by two sawyers, Robert Carr and Henry William Roil. It appears that portion of the 28 acres on which they built the hotel on was payment for their recent felling – the rest was purchased from William Guise Brittan. Their partnership didn’t last long – they advertised Papanui’s first hotel for sale the following year. The advertisement boasted of a bar, a parlour, sitting and store rooms with stables, a cowshed, paddocks as well as horse troughs on the road side.
The Papprill brothers, Joseph & Thomas, became the hotel’s new publicans.
The hotel had already taken on quite a community role which included reading and writing lesson that were available at night – as well as having a library.
By the time the Sawyers Arms burnt down on 3rd November 1874, it had passed through the hands of many owners.
When the hotel was rebuilt the following year, it left its original site (today’s Papanui Domain) and was erected on the South West corner of Main North Road with a track becoming known as Sawyers Arms Road. Sadly, that building was also destroyed by fire in 1898.
Again, the hotel was re-erected but was renamed the ‘Phoenix Hotel’ as it had risen out of some very historic ashes! Unfortunately, this Christchurch icon was demolished in 1989 to make way for extensions to Northlands Mall, notably, the supermarket, Countdown.
As always, I am interested in those who first broke ground in Christchurch so I tried to find out what happened to the original owners after they parted ways.
Henry Roil had first arrived in New Zealand in 1842 at Nelson, its foundation year and by 1853, he was working as a sawyer at Papanui Bush. He was killed in an accident in May 1862 when the dray he was driving collided with another that was coming towards him. He is buried at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Harewood Road.
Robert Carr was much more difficult to pin down. There was a troubled soul by the same name popping up later in the papers, firstly in 1864 and then again in 1886. In trouble with the law, he was facing prison time for a stabbing in Lyttelton and later, a robbery in Auckland.
As no history is offered with these entries about Robert Carr, I have no idea if it is same person.
I was also very interested in the use of ‘arms’ in the road name as I was sure it had nothing to do with physical strength or a bodily description of any kind.
Firstly, the word Sawyer comes from a 7th century word ‘sagu’ and ‘saghe’, simply meaning ‘…one who saws wood…’.
The word ‘arms’ would likely have been used owing to the hotel having its own coat of arms – or at least an emblem – placed on the building as a mark of honour to their main consumers; a place of welcome, a place to quench their thirst, a place to belong.
*Photo taken by Annette Bulovic*