The Arts Centre

To tell the story of The Arts Centre, the cultural heart of Christchurch, is to surprising tell the story of Canterbury’s first school, the Anglican 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’, the Canterbury’s Association’s third ship, 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’ 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.

Jacobs took to the spiritual welfare of the Pilgrims with great vigor but it was the arrival of New Zealand’s Bishop, George Selwyn, on 3rd January 1851 that Jacobs found his true calling. He 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.

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.

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 of today is considered a spin-off from Christ’s College.

But before we follow the storyline of the Canterbury University, we must take a look at another Canterbury Association Pilgrim named Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort.

Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort stepped off the ‘Charlotte Jane’, the Canterbury Association’s first ship, full of ambition and cathedral-sized dreams! Born in Birmingham, England, the young Benjamin moved to London and studied architecture. Finishing his studies in 1848, he rolled up his sleeves and practised his new trade right there in London.

With Emily, his wife of 18 days, his brother Charles and his wife and sister Susannah, he boarded the Charlotte Jane and sailed bravely to a new world. I’m sure when Benjamin walked along the jetty towards the Lyttelton of 1850 with its 4 immigration barracks, 2 pubs and 12 or so houses; he must have stared over the place with a deep wondering breath. Disappointment soon followed as there was no real demand for an architect at that early stage of the colony.

Two years would pass before Benjamin was hired for his first design job; the Most Holy Trinity Church in Lyttelton. I’m sure this project boosted his spirits as he had been running a stationary shop to make ends meet. He even gave drawing lessons. In a crushing blow, the church did not survive past 1857 as it was buffeted by bad weather and was deemed unsafe. I’m sure being told that only his lack of knowledge of native timber and local weather was too blame for this failure did little to lessen Benjamin’s disappointment.

It was also around this time that Benjamin went into business with his brother-in-law, Isaac Luck. These two would face some of the most exciting projects in the colony to date. In 1864, with projects such as the Canterbury Provincial Chambers behind him, Benjamin became the official Provincial Architect. In 1869 he began the designs for the Canterbury Museum and the Canterbury College, now our Arts Centre.

It was 1876 when the Canterbury College opened even though the building wasn’t completed. Its main purpose was to teach tertiary-level education to those graduated from Christ’s College. The Clock Tower section of the Arts Centre was its first structure with necessary additions being made by fellow architects, Samuel Hurst Seager and William Barnett. The last building – the Engineering Block – was finished in 1923.

In 1933, the Canterbury College became known as the Canterbury University College and then in 1957, the University of Canterbury.

One hundred years later from the University being founded, the school buildings became historically protected and given to the people of Christchurch. By 1975, the Canterbury University had completed the move to its new Ilam site, land once belonging to J.C. Watts-Russell, a fellow ship mate of Rev. Jacobs on the ‘Sir George Seymour’. In 1978, the Arts Centre Trust Board was formed with cultural and tourism being the main focus.

The University of Canterbury was the first constituent college in the University of New Zealand.  It was also the second institution in New Zealand providing tertiary-level education and the fourth in Australasia.

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