South Canterbury Heritage Art & Culture
A region with a colourful history, South Canterbury NZ is rich in Maori and European culture, fascinating stories of local personalities and historic Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
Explore a rich blend of Maori and Pakeha (European) history at historic sites, museums and art galleries scattered throughout the South Canterbury region – many of them based in historic buildings with their own colourful past. Interactive and hands-on fun, from dress ups to mini-competitions, make it just as fun for the kids.
South Canterbury’s history is brimming with many interesting Maori and European heritage stories.
Sailing off the South Canterbury NZ coast in February 1770, James Cook saw and described the Hunters Hills, but did not land. When commercial whaling began in New Zealand waters, the reefs at Caroline Bay were used (as the Maori had used them before) for shelter on an otherwise inhospitable coast.
Timaru gained its name from the Maori words “Te Maru”, which mean “Place of Shelter”. Originally a safe haven for the weary Maori travellers that canoed along the often treacherous and shelterless coastline, Timaru was briefly settled as a whaling station in the late 1830s. In March 1839, the Sydney-based Weller brothers, already established at Otakou, set up a shore whaling station on the boulder beach below Timaru’s clay cliffs, which operated until 1841.
Timaru was sparsely populated until 1958 when the English ship Strathallan arrived with 120 immigrants. Many descendants of the original settlers still live in the region today. On coming in to shore at what is now called Caroline Bay, one passenger is reputed to have called out, “Timaru at last! Five houses in sight.”
The township of Timaru rapidly grew from that point. Still going strong today, Timaru's first local newspaper, the Timaru Herald, started in 1864. Timaru was constituted a town district in 1865, a borough in 1868 and a city in 1948.
Much of South Canterbury's Maori and Pakeha (European) history is displayed at the highly regarded South Canterbury Museum, with a strong focus on the natural heritage and history of the South Canterbury region through its land, life and people.
For South Island museums visit the Museums and Art Gallery, click here.
For a selection of South Canterbury accommodation options, click here.
Maori Rock Art
South Canterbury, with rolling hill country dotted with limestone outcrops and caves, is the Maori rock art centre of New Zealand. Several hundred known sites of this precious heritage provide a unique glimpse into the history of Maori settlement in the region. Many sites date back to the 16th Century, the bulk of these being in the Opihi and Pareora river areas.
Click here to view Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre.
Past Mirrored in the Present
The Victorian and Edwardian architecture that survives to this day have given Timaru some of the finest early 20th Century streetscapes in the country. In 1868 a major fire destroyed much of the town centre and as a result of a new bylaw requiring all shop frontages to be constructed of permanent materials, many new buildings arose, utilising the now famous South Canterbury limestone and bluestone.
Past sits comfortably with present here; Timaru's iconic Landing Services Building, one of the town's founding structures, is still in use today, housing the Visitor Centre, the Speights Alehouse and Restaurant and the Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre.
Other historic buildings still in active use include the Customs House (now a popular restaurant), the recently refurbished Grosvenor Hotel, many shops in Timaru's main shopping precinct and several beautiful churches, including the often visited Sacred Heart Basilica in Craigie Ave or St Mary's Anglican Church in Church Street.
A Strong History of Worship
South Canterbury's rich history is well represented in its church buildings. Taking 28 years to build and with 35 stained glass windows, the often photographed St Mary’s Anglican Church in Church St has stood on an elevated site since 1866. Constructed of Timaru bluestone and lined with Oamaru stone, St Mary's seats 800 people and boasts a tower and spire in the style of Christchurch Cathedral.
The Sacred Heart Basilica in Craigie Ave has been a dominant feature of the Timaru skyline since 1911, with white stone and red brick, twin towers, and a cupola of copper. The Basilica's array of fine stained glass windows are often admired by visitors and Sunday worshippers are called to church by the chimes of eight bells installed in one of the bell towers in 1914.
Chalmers Presbyterian Church, opened in 1904, is constructed with a gray plastered exterior with a high spire. The church has 15 stained glass windows.
Further afield, the Church of the Holy Innocents at Peel Forest (named in remembrance of local infant children who died between 1864 and 1869) and St David's Church at Cave (an enduring tribute to the pioneer runholders of the Mackenzie Country) provide a fascinating insight into the day to day lives, hardships and achievements of early South Canterbury pioneering families.
For more on South Island history check out our History Highlights page.
The economy of South Canterbury NZ has developed from an agricultural base which is grounded in the region’s famous historic sheep stations. In later years, dairying has become a major force in the South Canterbury farming scene. One of the world's biggest milk processing plants is a major local employer and South Canterbury has two meat processing plants.
The first Europeans to settle permanently in South Canterbury were runholders of large sheep stations who leased natural grasslands from the Government. The first run was The Levels, founded in 1851 by the (already established) pastoralists William, Robert and George Rhodes. George and his wife Elizabeth built a slab cottage to live in - this still stands at The Levels. In 1853 William Hornbrook occupied the region’s second run, naming it Arowhenua.
Lowland South Canterbury was fully occupied by sheep runs by the end of the 1850s. Some farm properties or districts still retain the names of these original runs – Te Waimate, Peel Forest, Pareora, Holme Station, Cannington, Mt Peel, Orari Gorge, Raincliff, Bluecliffs. The families of some of these original runholders still farm in South Canterbury.
In 1857–58 the runs known as Te Akatarawa, Hakataramea and Hakataramea Downs were taken up just north of the Waitaki River. The explorer and writer Samuel Butler took up Mesopotamia in the upper Rangitata Valley in 1860.
For more South Island activities and attractions, click here
For 4WD and Scenic Tours through historic South Canterbury farming areas, click here
Sheep could not have been managed on the vast plains and ranges of South Canterbury's Mackenzie Country without the help of sheep dogs (often border collies). In 1968 a memorial – a bronze sheep dog on a stone plinth – was built close to the Church of the Good Shepherd at Tekapo NZ. The statue is one of the most photographed images in New Zealand. Another memorial, at Dog Kennel Corner on the road to Lake Tekapo, honours the boundary dogs, which were chained for long weeks between properties to keep flocks of sheep from neighbouring properties apart.
For more on South Island NZ history, call into one of our Visitor Centres for information on how best to explore it.