Detail showing the "City Mills" from map of Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand, 1862 surveyed and published by C.E. Fooks
When the Hereford Street bridge was constructed, workers found part of the original mill and dam. Press, 22 September 1937
Mill Island, Otākaro/Avon River
beside the Hereford Street bridge
From Oxford Terrace, Mill Island is immediately to the right of the Hereford Street bridge. In 1938, the island was reduced in size by about 335 square metres to accommodate the current, wider bridge.
Otākaro: Mahinga Kai
Mill Island, and the entire riverbank, once looked very different
For Ngai Tūāhuriri and Ngai Tahu the entire area was an extensive Tahu kai (food gathering area). The Avon River – Otākaro – was a significant transport route and a source of food and materials. Māori harvested fish, birds and plants such as kumara, mahingapora (turnip), and aruhe (fernroot). Mill Island itself was used a campsite during the whitebait season.
In 1850, new arrival Dr Alfred Charles Baker described the river as “everywhere bordered with a luxuriant growth of flax.”
Change did not take long. In 1858, the Provincial Council agreed to spend £500 to clear the river of watercress. In 1862, the City Council began its first landscaping project, planting trees along the south bank between Montreal and Hereford Streets.
In 1855, the council approved a 30-year licence for Daniel Inwood to take water from the river and operate a flour mill on the island. The mill, and associated dam and mill race, were built in 1859. W H Lane bought the island and mill in 1862. Other milling operators leased the premises from 1878 onwards until the licence expired, and milling stopped, in 1888.
Avon Refuge: bleak night shelter
In the mid-1890s, more than 1,000 men in Christchurch were unemployed. Baptist Pastor William Birch used the old mill as a night shelter. It could sleep over 50 men a night. Women were turned away.
The Star published a first-hand account of conditions: “Selecting the soft wide of a board on which to lie I try to catch such fitful snatches of sleep as I may, but the cold, the squeaking of innumerable rates, and the sighing of the wind like the mocking of evil spirits, are not conducive the to the wooing of gentle slumber.”
The shelter moved to the Addington Prison buildings in September 1895.
The water wheel
The mill was deconstructed and the island sold to the city council in 1897. It then became the first project of the Christchurch Beautifying Society. It originally wanted to plant only natives, but ended up planting a mix of natives (eg kōwhai, northern rātā) and exotics (eg magnolias, maples).
The water wheel on the island today is decorative, not a replica or relic. It was installed in 1997 to mark the centenary of the Christchurch Beautifying Society.
Find out more
Christchurch City Council Heritage Assessment: the history and significance of Mill Island.
The Public Realm of Central Christchurch Narrative, written by Debbie Tikao, Landscape Architect and General Manager of the Matapopere Charitable Trust: Ngāi Tahu values, customs and traditions relevant to the Otākaro/Avon River Precinct.
Final Report for Archaeological Investigations on The Terraces, by Kathy Davidson, Clara Watson and Lydia Mearns, January 2019 (Archaeological Authority No.2017/130eq) is available for download through the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Digital Library.
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