New Zealand’s Oldest Educational Building First Used – 15th December 1863

From the moment the names of Christchurch and Canterbury were adopted at the very first Canterbury Association meeting on 27th March 1848, these founding fathers wanted this new Anglican settlement to be built around religion and education.   A cathedral and a college would be built in the town’s main square.

With this in mind, the Canterbury Association secretary, James Edward Fitzgerald, put his pencil to paper and designed a small, practical, stone school house.  As he was no architect but a very talented artist, he gave his little project much thought, careful to consider weight, pressures and even the weather it would be subjected too.

It is unclear whether Fitzgerald had called his drawing ‘Christ’s College’ (after his Cambridge School) at that very early stage but by the time the foundation stone was being laid for the school at the Hagley Park site on 15th July 1856, the name was well in use.   It had been decided at an earlier date that placing the school in Cathedral Square would limit its growth so another site (Hagley Park) was sourced.  Since early 1852, after a couple of months at the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks, the college had been struggling for space at Christ’s Church (St Michael and All Angels) as it was alongside another historical educational institute known as St Michael’s Church School who still uses this site today.

In 1862, the college decided to erect their first stone building, choosing Fitzgerald’s design which already had backing by way of a £1000 grant from the Canterbury Provincial Council.   It was first used on 15th December 1863 for an examination; the boys gave three hardy cheers to Fitzgerald for their fine new building.  Today known as ‘Big School’, it is New Zealand’s oldest educational building that has remained in continual use.  It once could house the entire school population.  After a remodeling in 1970 and an extension in 1989 (by Christ’s College Old Boy, Sir Warren Miles) it now serves as the College’s library and remains a very special part of the school.

James Edward Fitzgerald is mostly remembered in Canterbury’s history as being our first Superintendent, the founder of ‘The Press’ and the first Canterbury Association settler to step ashore at Lyttelton.

*Image 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.*
*Photo of Big School’s door taken by Annette Bulovic*

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