Train crash: Picturing Canterbury

Train crash. Kete Christchurch. PH14-197. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Jan Orr. CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 NZ.

Train crash. Date unknown.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch & Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

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Cafe Continental, Sumner, N.Z.: Picturing Canterbury

Cafe Continental, Sumner, N.Z. Kete Christchurch. CCL-Beaumont-014A. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt. CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0 NZ.

Postcard. Gold Medal Series, No.211.

Date: 1900s.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch & Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Maude Chisnall, aged 16: Picturing Canterbury

Maude Chisnall, aged 16. Kete Christchurch. PH16-019. Entry in the 2016 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Jill Hodgkinson. CC-BY-NA-SA-3.0 NZ.

Maude Chisnall. Photo taken by Standish & Preece. High Street, Christchurch.

Date: c.1902

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch & Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

The Hill of Hope – Cashmere Sanatorium

To be known as a graduate of Canterbury College was a mark of prestige for many a young Cantabrian in the first half of the twentieth century. The respect that came with a degree awarded by the institution meant that many could look forward to future filled with social and career progress.

However, for some of their contemporaries, there was another form of institutional graduation, one that often condemned them to a life of social exclusion and failure to gain employment. Known as ‘graduates of the hill’, they still considered themselves lucky. The less fortunate never graduated.

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (or TB) is a disease caused by bacteria which attacks the lungs. Transmitted from victim to victim via droplets, it is often dispersed through coughing. Today, the disease is treated through antibiotics, a process which takes six to nine months. However, before the 1960s the main form of treatment was rest and exposure to sunlight and fresh air. In addition to this, patients also underwent operations where the diseased lung was temporarily or permanently collapsed. The latter, thoracoplasty, was greatly feared by patients, as it often resulted in deformities and mutilation. Such surgeries were eventually succeeded by anti-tuberculosis chemotherapy and advances in the development of antibiotics.

The complex

Cashmere Sanatorium, 1913-1933. File Reference CCL-Arch887-066.

Although Nurse Sibylla Maude had initially established a tent based tuberculosis sanatorium in Wainoni in the early years of the twentieth century, the disease was deadly enough to warrant the need for a permanent facility in Christchurch. Eventually a site was chosen on a hillside at the edge of the Cashmere estate, on land that was donated by the Cracroft-Wilson family.

The foundation stone for the first sanatorium building to be constructed was laid on 20 March 1907. Designed by the architectural firm, Hurst, Seager and Wood, the building was built at an elevation which allowed it to escape the pollution of the city. The first patients were admitted as early as 1910. The sanatorium was initially managed by Dr. George Blackmore, who lived in a grand brick house situated on the hillside below the main building. The patients were housed in ‘shelters’, small sheds on the hillside that remained open to the elements in order to maximise air flow. Nearby stood the porter’s hostel and morgue, the latter inspiring a young porter, James K. Baxter, to pen a poem entitled The Morgue.

The next building to be constructed was Coronation Hospital. Situated at the foot of the hill, and named in honour of the coronation of King George V, it was officially opened on 3 June 1914. This section of the complex came to be known as the lower sanatorium, and that of the main building and shelters, came to be called the middle sanatorium.

King George V Coronation Memorial Hospital Christchurch [ca. 1920]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0040.
Further up the hill, overlooking the middle sanatorium, was the nurses’ home. Built in 1917, the building provided the necessary accommodation for the women who diligently cared for the patients. However, it was a cheerless place to reside, consisting of long corridors that echoed ominously and cold rooms with no heating.

At the summit of the hill was the military sanatorium, which opened in 1919 for soldiers who had returned from the war with tuberculosis. In 1925, with many of the soldier’s discharged, this became the civilian men’s sanatorium. However, in 1928 there were still some soldiers left who had spent the last ten years recovering. Known as the upper sanatorium, it closed in 1932.

To the east of the military sanatorium, near where Major Aitken Drive joins Huntsbury Ave, was another facility which consisted of the fresh air home for children of patients, opened in 1923, and a school (1926).

Children’s Fresh Air Home. File Reference CCL-Arch887-081.

The sanatorium complex was largely avoided by the general public, to the extent that people were unwilling to build houses nearby, or send their children to play with the doctor’s children, for fear of catching the disease.

The life of a patient

Often the first symptom was an irritable cough, followed by weight loss, excessive sweating and exhaustion. After being admitted, a patient would often spend the first six months of their stay at the sanatorium bedridden. Patients had to rest, sitting up only to eat or carry out other daily functions. Regardless of the season or the weather, the rooms in which they were housed were kept open to the elements. If progression was made, the patient was then allowed to spend half an hour out of their bed. The amount of time they could spend outside of their bed would increase, until a patient may be allowed to visit their home once a fortnight. Eventually they would be allowed to return home.

Women’s shelters at the Cashmere Sanatorium which opened in 1910 [1913]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0021.
However, like a prisoner on probation, the patient was still required to undergo regular check-ins and assessments. They were expected to live a quiet and restful life. The fear of relapse and return to the sanatorium, or even death, was always present. Many found themselves ostracised by former friends and jobless, with employers unwilling to take them on for fear of them still being contagious. The longest resident patient at the sanatorium had a stay of twenty one years (1937 to 1958).

As the 1950s drew to a close, the sanatorium was rendered obsolete. The development of new drugs and vaccines meant that the number of patients had been on the decline for the past decade. The last patient to recover was discharged in 1960. Following this, the open air shelters where the patients had lived were removed and many found a new purpose as garden sheds or sleep outs in the backyards of Christchurch. The fresh air home and school was renamed the Huntsbury Children’s Home, and continued to operate until 1971. Coronation Hospital was converted into a hospital for geriatrics until 1991, when the age of the building and health care budgets forced it to close.

Following the closure of Coronation Hospital, the construction company, Fulton Hogan, demolished the last of the sanatorium buildings and started the development of what was to become the Broad Oaks subdivision.

Hope

Dr. Blackmore, Cashmere Sanatorium, 1913-1933. File Reference CCL-Arch887-048.

Although the sanatorium was seen by the general public as a place of death and despair, Dr. Blackmore was adamant that the sanatorium would be ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and hope’. Despite his stern and reserved demeanour, he cared strongly for his patients, and was an advocate for their right return to society as contributing members, not outcasts.

At a time when there was no proven cure for tuberculosis, hope was all the patients had.

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Worcester Street Bridge: Picturing Canterbury

Worcester Street Bridge. Kete Christchurch. PH14-313b. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Dulcie Innes, CC-BY-NA-SA-3.0 NZ.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch & Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Gas Mask: Picturing Canterbury

Gas mask. Kete Christchurch. Pearce_family_photos_06.jpg. Entry in the 2013 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt, CC-BY-NA-SA-3.0 NZ.

One of the Pearce family wearing a WWI gas mask at the Pearce family home on Aikmans Road, Merivale, about 1919.

Kete Christchurch is a collection of photographs and stories about Christchurch & Canterbury, past and present. Anyone can join and contribute.

Holi – The Festival of Colours – Saturday 4 March 2017

Holi Hai!

With the Holi festival approaching its fourth year of being held in Christchurch, people should no longer be surprised by the sight of respectable adults running around, throwing coloured powder and water at each other in the first week of March.

The first Holi festival held in the Garden City was organised by Hitesh Sharma and Sandeep Khanna of Revel Events, and took place at the Pallet Pavilion on 23 March 2014. The festival has grown in size and popularity since and is now one of the many Indian cultural events which are becoming commonplace on the Christchurch social calendar.

There are food stalls, games and dance performances, all the while coloured powder is continuously being thrown around. Those who are attending are encouraged to wear clothing and shoes which are old (as the colour might not wash out). Sunglasses can help keep the powder out of your eyes. The coloured powder supplied at the event is corn based and non-toxic.

This year the festival will be held on the grass space at 221 Gloucester Street. Entry to the festival is free (though bring money to purchase coloured powder and food!)

Holi

The festival is traditionally celebrated throughout the Indian subcontinent on the last full moon of the Hindu month of Phalgun.

Holi derives its name and origins from a narrative found in the Hindu scripture, Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which tells of the sinful king, Hiranyakashipu. Believing himself to be more powerful than the gods, Hiranyakashipu was angered that his son, Prince Prahlad, who was a devotee of the god Viṣṇu, refused to worship him. Holika, the demoness sister of Hiranyakashipu, who was immune to fire, tried to kill Prahlad by leading him into the flames of a pyre. In order to save his devotee, Viṣṇu manifested in the world as the lion faced avatar, Narasiṃha, and saved Prahlad. This symbolises the victory of good over evil.

Narasimha defeating Hiranyakashipu, as Prahlada watches at the left. Wikimedia Commons.

To celebrate the defeat of Holika, a holika dahan, a bonfire with an effigy of the demoness, is burned on the night before the festival. On the next day, the streets are awash with colour as people of all different ages and communities bombard their friends and strangers with coloured powder and water. People are encouraged to lose their inhibitions. Anyone, at anytime, can suddenly find themselves surrounded and doused with colour. In this way, the festival also represents the putting aside of grievances and the celebration of community.

One game, which is commonly played, involves teams forming a human pyramid to reach a pot of butter which hangs high above the street, while bystanders throw coloured water on them. The game has its origins in the story of Krishna (another avatar of Viṣṇu), who tried to steal butter from Radha and the gopis (female cowherders). The game has featured at previous Holi events in Christchurch.

To prepare yourself for the fun of Holi, watch this scene from the Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey, based on the historical events of 1857.

Also make sure to check out Christchurch City Libraries’ collection of India related material.

The Thug hunter of Cashmere

The back roads of North India’s mofussil in the first half of the nineteenth century were not a place where you would wish to find yourself alone. Not only had the decline of the once mighty Mughal Empire led to instability, but the region had also suffered from the wars between the Marathas and the British East India Company. Poorly maintained, the roads were the haunts of dacoits (robbers) and wild animals.

Yet every year, once the monsoon rains had passed, many were forced to traverse these lonesome highways. Merchants and farmers left their homes to trade in nearby villages. Others departed to undertake pilgrimages to a distant shrines. Sepoys, who had spent the rainy season on leave, would hasten to return to their barracks.

Many never returned home. Having vanished without a trace, their families would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to their loved ones.

John Cracroft Wilson

There are seven witnesses to his good character, and did I not know the loose manner in which all depositions are taken in almost every court…I should be inclined to think him an innocent man.

So wrote John Cracroft Wilson when faced with a prisoner who, by all appearances, seemed an ordinary man. Decades later, while living out his retirement by farming the land which would later become the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere, it is possible that he often reflected on such encounters. For unlike many of his social peers in colonial Christchurch, he had started his career by assisting in the eradication of a murderous practice which had brought misery and devastation to untold Indian families.

Seated portrait of John Cracroft Wilson. Rolleston album 2. Ref: PA1-q-197-22-4. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22831683
Seated portrait of John Cracroft Wilson. Rolleston album 2. Ref: PA1-q-197-22-4. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22831683

John Cracroft Wilson was born in Madras Presidency, India, in 1802. The son of a British judge, Alexander Wilson, and his wife, Elizabeth, he was later sent to England for his education. There he was schooled at the East India Company College at Haileybury where he would have learned the skills required for a colonial servant in India. In 1826 he furthered his education at Brasenose College, Oxford. He does not appear to have completed his studies, for two years later he married Elizabeth Wall.

Following this he returned to India where he entered into the Bengal Civil Service. It was in this capacity that he was eventually appointed as assistant commissioner to William Sleeman (1788-1856), the district officer in Jubbulpore, and, as a result, drawn into the sinister world of thuggee.

Thug life

Throughout history, the threat of being attacked by bandits has often led to travellers joining together for protection. In India it was no different. Upon arriving at rest houses, travellers would seek out the company of those whose destination also lay along their route. Most often such unions resulted in the traveller safely reaching their journey’s end.

But for the unlucky few, they were marked for death the moment they accepted the offer to join a company of travellers. Confident that there was safety in numbers, they would spend weeks, sometimes even months, sharing the hardships of the road with their newly found companions.

To the unassuming traveller there was nothing extraordinary about their companions. Hindu or Muslim, they appeared no different from the usual farmers, merchants or priests that one might encounter on the road. Yet these men were in fact, thugs, practitioners of a particular form of highway murder known as thuggee.

Thugs differed from regular bandits in that they followed a strict code which regulated how the murder was to be carried out. Thugs would always lure their victim into a false sense of security and then, at a prearranged moment, strangle the victim with a cord. The body was then either buried or disposed of in a well. Anyone could be a victim: man, woman or child, Hindu or Muslim – they did not discriminate.

A groups of Thugs about to strangle a traveller on a highway in India in the early 19th century. Anonymous Indian artist. Made for Capt. James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow, 1829-1840. Wikimedia Commons.
A groups of Thugs about to strangle a traveller on a highway in India in the early 19th century. Anonymous Indian artist. Made for Capt. James Paton, Assistant to the British Resident at Lucknow, 1829-1840. Wikimedia Commons.

Hunting the stranglers

In 1830, it was the regular discovery of these bodies that caused William Sleeman to realise that something more than random highway murder was taking place. He saw these unsolved murders as a chance to raise his profile in the eyes of his superiors. Through methodical investigation, interrogation and meticulous record keeping, he created a policing system that was effective enough to track down the gangs of thugs which were operating in or, at the edge of, British territory in India.

In 1832 Sleeman put Cracroft Wilson in charge of operations in the doab region and made him his representative at Etwah. The role required Cracroft Wilson to carefully investigate those men who were brought before him on charges of thuggee, especially since those who were accused often appeared to be respectable family men and contributing members of society.

Those thugs who were found guilty of murder were summarily executed, while others were transported to the Andaman Islands. Some turned against their fellow thugs by becoming informers. In return for assisting British officials in tracking down their former colleagues, these men escaped the death penalty but would spend the remainder of their lives in prison.

Although they found the crimes of these reformed thugs abhorrent, working in such close capacity with the informers, and recognising that they behaved no different than ordinary men in their daily lives, caused some British officials to develop a strange sense of respect for the former thugs. Cracroft Wilson even commented that one of his informers, Makeen Lodhee, was “one of the best men I have known!”’

Thug prisoners. Wikimedia Commons.
Thug prisoners. Wikimedia Commons.

It was the publication of Sleeman’s report on these criminals and their methods which led to thuggee entering the Western imagination. The thugs were portrayed as a highly organised secret cult, fanatical worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kālī, to whom they sacrificed their victims. Post-colonial scholarship has sought to undo some of these misconceptions but they still remain, as can be found in the ridiculous portrayal of thuggee in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. However, Sleeman’s work on thuggee remains with us today in that the ruthlessness and lack of remorse which these criminals possessed caused the word thug to enter the English language.

By 1840 Sleeman was able to proclaim that thuggee had been removed from Indian society.

John Cracroft Wilson continued to work as a magistrate before taking leave in 1854 to visit Australia and then New Zealand, where he purchased land which would later become the suburb of Cashmere. He would later settle permanently in Christchurch, accompanied by his Indian servants, for whom he built Old Stone House.

Cracroft Wilson was certainly a man with personality flaws. Many in colonial Christchurch considered him to be rude, abrupt, and arrogant. Yet his role in the eradication of thuggee, and thus bringing to justice those men who murdered without any regard for their victims, should not be overlooked.

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The Victoria Street Ghost

If you were out taking an evening stroll along the streets of north central Christchurch in March 1894 then there is a good chance that you may have seen a ghost.

For that is what a young man named Cunningham initially thought that he had encountered on the night of March 9.

At 11pm Constable Isherwood was performing his evening rounds north of Cathedral Square. Being a Friday, the policeman was no doubt anticipating a night of drunken brawls and other misdemeanours. Yet when he was approached by a panic stricken Cunningham he could not have imagined that the young man would tell him such a bizarre tale.

Shortly before, Cunningham had learned from some children that something frightening was lurking in the grounds of St Matthew’s Church. As he approached the church, a figure clothed in white had suddenly leapt over the fence. At first the figure had proceeded to leap up the street towards a group of people. Then, to Cunningham’s dismay, it turned and bore down on him. His courage failing him, Cunningham did not stay to confront the figure but instead ran in the direction of Cathedral Square.

After telling Isherwood, he was directed by the policeman to give a statement at the nearest station. At first the police may have been sceptical of his claims. Only a week earlier there had been reports of women and children in Opawa being frightened by what they had believed was a ghost but which the local police insisted was simply a case of a girl in a white apron being misidentified. Yet as the police were soon to learn, Cunningham was not the only person to have encountered the strange figure that evening.

Provincial Government Buildings, corner of Durham and Armagh Streets, Christchurch [ca. 1885]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 12, IMG0084.
Earlier, at 9pm, two women had been returning home from a visit to Papanui. Making their way towards the provincial buildings on Durham Street, they had been startled by the appearance of a figure in white. When the figure started to follow them they ran screaming towards Gloucester Street Bridge. There the figure overtook them and blocked their path before escaping into the grounds of the provincial buildings.

An hour later, a number of distressed children residing in Victoria Street had told their mothers that they had seen a ghost. Although these reports were initially dismissed, their mothers were surprised to later learn that there had been some truth to their children’s stories.

The police step in as attacks increase

The matter soon caught the attention of Inspector Thomas Broham. Recognising that someone was purposefully making an effort to disturb the peace, he ordered his men to apprehend the individual.

Inspector Broham, from the Hall-Huston murder case, Timaru. Ref: 1/2-027927-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22721260

The next recorded sighting occurred on March 12. At 8pm two girls, Lizzie Smith and Bella Leith, were sent to deliver a message. As they passed a side street on Papanui Road the figure, now known as “the ghost”, jumped out at them.

On the following evening, at 11pm, Alfred James DeMaus, a machinist who lived on Montreal Street, was walking with several women near the vicinity of today’s Knox Church. DeMaus was already aware of the supposed ghost and after one of the ladies caught sight of a white cloth beneath a nearby tree, he went over to investigate. There he found two young men hiding. DeMaus reprimanded them for their behaviour and in response one of them struck him on the head, knocking him to the ground. His attackers quickly ran off when the women came to his aid.

Corner, Bealey Avenue and Papanui Road, Christchurch [ca. 1915] Muir & Moodie. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0100.
The confrontation with DeMaus did not deter the perpetrator, as the next evening the ghost struck again.

This time the victim was Albert Bellamin, a compositor who lived on Armagh Street. That night, as he walked home, his route took him past a paddock on the corner of Armagh and Madras streets. Nearing the paddock, he saw a figure dressed in white tights and wearing a mask illuminated by phosphorous (a chemical which glows when exposed to oxygen) which, was behaving erratically. Unsettled by the sight, Bellamin crossed the street. The figure, however, leapt out at him and proceed to dance around him in an attempt to prevent him from going on his way. Bellamin tried to force the figure aside but as he did so it grabbed him by the arm and kicked him into a gorse fence. By the time Bellamin had pulled himself out of the hedge the strange figure had vanished.

Hysteria grips the city

The threatening behaviour of the ghost worried Inspector Broham. People were afraid to go out for evening walks. Reports of the attacks were printed in The Press, and with each repetition the stories became ever more fanciful. The ghost was credited with the ability to make unnatural leaps and was said to have been seen in various locations at once. Some of these sightings, which ranged from Opawa to Addington, could no doubt be attributed to nervous people assuming that any figure they saw at night who happened to be wearing an item of white clothing was the ghost.

Another location for sightings of the ghost was Hagley Park. There its victims were often nursemaids and unattended ladies. A pair of lovers, who had met in the park, were also subjected to a terrifying experience. While they had been sitting on a bench the ghost had crept up behind them and thrust its face, with its fiery eyes, between theirs.

The Avon, Christchurch [ca. 1900]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0087.
The pretence of apprehending the ghost was even used by some citizens to commit crime. On March 17, after going home with Annie Davis, Andrew Galletly found that his money was missing. Upon leaving her house, he encountered a man who told him that he was a detective hunting for the ghost. The supposed detective warned him not to lay a complaint against Annie and took Galletly drinking at a hotel on Cashel Street. It was later discovered that the “detective” was a local rogue, John Carey Dudfield, who worked with Annie Davis to commit crime.

By the beginning of April the hunt was for the ghost was still continuing, as Inspector Broham had issued orders for his officers to collect legitimate claims of sightings in order to differentiate them from the embellished tales.

Ghostbusted

After a month of suspense the reports of the ghost suddenly disappeared from the newspapers. People assumed that the police had made an arrest but were puzzled as to why it had not been announced. Then, in a column of the Observer on 28 April 1894, it was revealed the reason for the sudden silence. As well as being the son of a well-known local doctor, the culprit was also a mental patient who had escaped from his carers. The fiery eyes which had given him a supernatural appearance were attributed to the use of rings made out of phosphorous material.

Sunnyside Asylum, Christchurch [1896?]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0095.
We may never know the identity of the perpetrator. It is possible that he was committed to Sunnyside Asylum to prevent any further escapes. Although a few similar ghost scare cases appeared in other South Island towns in the months that followed, the disturbance was not repeated in Christchurch by any imitators. With months of dark winter evenings on the approach, this must have brought relief to both Inspector Broham and the people of Christchurch.

Further reading

The Cashmere Caverns

Imagine a concrete lined room, hazy with cigarette smoke and lit only by a few shaded lamps which hang from the ceiling. In the centre, women in uniform surround a large table, atop of which a map of the Canterbury region is spread. Occasionally one of the women might adjust her headset and then, using a stick similar those wielded by croupiers at gambling tables, move a marker into a new position on the map. From a gallery above, officers look down in silent concentration. A runner enters the room and wordlessly passes a note to one of the officers. Then, from over the radio, a frantic voice breaks the tense atmosphere.

“Godley Battery has fallen. Japanese troops have taken Lyttelton.”

Defence of the South Island

Christchurch. 1942.

For many nights the residents of the hillside suburb of Cashmere had been woken by the sound of blasting accompanied by ground tremors. The war was in its third year and New Zealand was under the threat of an invasion from the Empire of Japan. Throughout most of 1942 black out practices had become a common occurrence in Christchurch. Those living on the hill simply assumed that the military was conducting yet another clandestine operation.

The New Zealand military already had a presence in Cashmere. In July of that year the Government had commandeered Cashmere House, the property of John Frederick Cracroft Wilson, to act as Combined Headquarters Southern Command.

Wilson family house, Cashmere House, exterior, Christchurch. Webb, Steffano, 1880-1967 : Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-004979-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22772645

Built in 1909 to designs by Samuel Hurst Seager, Cashmere House was set in a depression atop the Cashmere Hills. Reached via a long driveway which wound its way up the hill, the house overlooked an expanse of trees, lawns and gardens. Within, the house contained more than thirty rooms, enough to accommodate the different departments of the Air Force, Navy and Army that were required to oversee the defence of the South Island. Yet while it provided adequate office space, a civilian house was not designed to withstand the threat of aerial bombardment, nor was a house of that size likely to remain unnoticed by any invading troops.

In preparation for its war with Germany, Britain had established subterranean control stations so that the nation’s defence could be coordinated during aerial bombardments by the Luftwaffe. Anticipating the Japanese invasion, Southern Command adopted the same approach. No sooner had the military taken over Cashmere House than it started the construction of what was intended to be a secret, underground command bunker.

Construction begins

To the northeast of the house two separate adits (passage tunnels) were dug into the hillside. Throughout the excavation, the soil and rock was taken via a purpose built rail and disposed of in a nearby valley. Initially proceeding southward, the adits then curved westward, so as to offer protection against external explosions. From there the adits opened into a large U shaped chamber which had been excavated from the bedrock.

Entrance to Cracroft caverns, Cashmere by SueC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

Pre-stressed concrete ribs, constructed at a Public Works Department factory at the Birches near McLean’s Island, were used to brace the chamber. To set them in place a specially designed machine was manufactured at a workshop in Temuka. It was not necessary to set all the ribs in place, only those that were needed to stabilise the caverns. As a result most of the walls remained natural rock

Example of concrete ribs used to frame the chambers. Archway and Tunnel Interior, Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

A communications tunnel, intended only for the use of officers, was built to connect the chambers to Cashmere House. The tunnel was accessed from the basement in the house and descended on a slight gradient to the chambers. A ventilation shaft set at the midway point in the tunnel provided fresh air to the chambers. 

Stairs accessed from the inside of Cashmere House. Stairs down into the Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

Grand designs

Initial plans drawn up by the Public Works Department show the extent of the military’s aspirations. The plans show that the northern wing of the chamber was to house an office and separate rooms for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, along with a telephone exchange and cypher room. The southern chamber wing was to house another cypher room and a room for teleprinters. The two wings were connected by a western chamber and a further corridor.

Inside Cracroft Caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

The western chamber was intended to consist of two levels. The northern end would be the combined operations room. The southern end was the plotting room. Ladders would provide access to the upper floor. There, a gallery would allow observers to watch the movement of air force units being co-ordinated on the plotting table. It was proposed that the bunker would also contain kitchens, bedrooms and toilet facilities.

Work on the chambers continued until April 1943 when the war in the Pacific turned against the Japanese and the threat of an invasion was no longer considered a possibility.

Fire and concealment

By the end of 1944 the Army and Navy services had already vacated Cashmere House, leaving only the Air Force to occupy it. In November, plans were arranged for the Air Force to hand the building and its grounds back to the trustees of the Sir J.C. Wilson estate by the start of December. Yet before this could take place, on 12 November 1944 at 11:40pm, the building caught on fire. Although the fire was eventually brought under control, by 2am much of the building had been lost. The cause of the fire was never discovered.

By January 1945 details of the caverns had been leaked to The Press. The resulting article was accompanied by photographs which showed not only the district engineer of the Public Works Department inspecting the interior of the chambers but also the machines used to construct them. As it was still wartime, the defence force refused to discuss the existence of the caverns and no further information was made public. The tunnels were sealed and the owner of the property bulldozed the entrances to discourage any members of the public from attempting to enter them.

Following the conclusion of the war in September 1945 the existence of the caverns soon faded from public memory. Sworn to secrecy, those who had assisted with the construction or who had served as guards at the Cashmere property never spoke openly about what lay hidden beneath the grounds of the former house. As generations passed, even incoming members of the military seem to have remained unaware that such a project had ever been undertaken.

Tunnel in Cracroft caverns by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

A chance discovery

The caverns may have remained hidden from the public for longer were it not for the retirement of a nurse at Princess Margaret Hospital. In 1987, while attending a farewell function being held for his mother, TVNZ reporter Jeff Field was told of the caverns by the hospital gardener.

Intrigued, he visited the Ministry of Defence library where he found the aforementioned Press article. Since he was due to take up a new role, Jeff assigned the investigation to another reporter, Bill Cockram. Following the 1944 fire, a new house had been erected on the site of Cashmere House. Upon visiting the owner, Bill Cockram learned that the building was experiencing problems with drainage. As such, the owner was interested to discover what lay beneath his house and gave Bill permission to proceed with his investigation.

Given that the former grounds of Cashmere House had been redeveloped, the only sign that anything lay hidden beneath was the protruding end of a pipe which marked the location of the ventilation shaft. After breaking the seal with a jackhammer, Bill next contacted Tim Williams of the Canterbury Caving Group. Together, with fellow caver, Bud Chapman, a television crew, and the property owner, they abseiled down the ventilation shaft and entered the caverns.

It was the first time that anyone had done so since they were sealed.

The television crew filmed the experience and the resulting documentary was screened as part of The Mainland Touch. Bill Cockram’s discovery, coupled with the release of the documentary, led to renewed public interest in the caverns. In December 1987 the Heathcote County Council’s planning committee even considered listing the bunker as a historic place.

The university moves in

The University of Canterbury, however, already had a vision for the caverns. Initially their ring laser laboratory which measured variations in the earth’s rotation was set on the top floor of a building on the Ilam campus. Yet such a location meant that the experiments were constantly being disturbed by wind, heat, and the movement of people. After considering the military tunnels in Lyttelton and a seismological station at Gebbies Pass, it was eventually proposed to make use of the caverns.

So it was, for the first time since they were excavated from the earth, the caverns came to be formally occupied. Yet rather than being used to co-ordinate a desperate defence against an enemy invasion, the caverns became a temporary home for numerous PhD students and international scientists who joined together to perform research that might benefit humanity.

University of Canterbury ring laser laboratory. Inside the Cracroft Caverns, November 2002 by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License
Members of the public tour the caverns. Group on a guided tour of the Cracroft Caverns, 2002 by CCCArch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License

In 1995 the Christchurch City Council took ownership of the caverns and in the following year the university installed the CII ring laser. The university continued to use the caverns as their laboratory, installing new equipment, and producing new results. Open days were also held for those members of the public who were curious.

Although they were built to withstand the impact of an enemy bombardment, the facility was rendered unsafe by the Canterbury Earthquakes. They have remained closed to the public ever since.

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