People have been tinkering with the Avon River since the early days of European settlement. The original route of the Avon was round Owles Terrace. Sand blocked the channel and it was feared that this might prevent development of commerce, via small vessels, up the Avon. The cutting was started by contractors, McGrath and Brady, and completed by the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1859. The area which was created through ‘the cut’ is Withell’s Island, named after a late owner, Charles Withell (1832-1916). Vessels have never, in any appreciable numbers, come ‘sailing with the tide’.
For many years the ‘cutting’ or ‘island’, with its wildlife, attracted children and at least one boy, Eddie Lawry, was drowned there. About 1910, the New Brighton Borough Council took sandhills, trucked them to the island and filled in the original watercourse.
Tom Gray’s reminiscences contain references to the creation of ‘the Cutting’:A notable undertaking in which he played a part was the making of a cutting through the Avon near the present New Brighton bridge so as to do away with an ‘elbow’ in the river there. This work was put in hand in conjunction with the building of Bricks Wharf at Barbadoes Street, at the time when it was hoped to inaugurate a steamer service up the river to that point ….
New Brighton was a thorough wilderness then, Peter Kerr’s house on the old Brighton Road being the last habitation out in that direction. There were about 50 men employed on the work. The beach was … thickly scattered with whalebones, many of which were for years afterwards to be seen forming bowers and other sorts of decorations in residences in the neighbourhood of the city. There was … timber on the beach which had come down from the mills then working at various points round the coast, and the contract men occasionally made more money selling the whale-bones and the timber than they would in many a day’s work.
Mushrooms also grew thickly adjacent to the river banks right up to the niggerheads, and the swamps round about were smothered with wild ducks. Sea birds were to be seen by the thousands where you will only see an occasional one now ….
Another thing … was the great quantity of frost-fish which were washed up on the beach …. We did not know what they were and thought they were unfit for eating, till … our cook discovered their delicacy as a food. We might have known that they were good for eating … because the gulls were always making meals of them, and these birds, like the rats, don’t go in for the worst of things.
Betty Innes’ handwritten reminiscences of about 1910-20
The river carnivals were held annually. There would be decorated boat and many other attractions and competitions including pillow fight on the greasy pole. The pole was erected horizontally over the river and slightly greased to make it rather slippery and the two contestants sat on this and at the word go began to pelt each other with pillows until one was unseated and fell into the river ….
We used to spend much time fishing … Our usual place was the river opposite Mountbatten Street. On a fine day the river bank there would be lined with fishermen. We also occasionally fished at Herring Bay ….
The river originally followed the course alongside Owles Terrace,Union Street and Brighton Terrace and the cut through from the Power Boat Club to the end of Brighton Terrace was made some time before we came here but the old river bed was still full of water. Thus an island was formed. This was first used by Mr. Sefton, a local carrier and coal merchant, to run his horse in. One was bogged there and only extricated with great difficulty. Mr. Withell next brought this land and contracted with Mr. Bodger to fill it in. For months there was a small gauge tram track running from the sandhills along Shackleton Street to Union Street and thence to the island. Small trucks of sand were pulled along these by the horses. Many a ride we children had in those trucks.
- Brighton standard
- Greenaway, Richard,’ Taming the Avon’, Press, 28 February 1976
- Innes, Betty, ‘Reminiscences’ – held by Richard Greenaway
- ‘The lad from Tipperary’, Star, 31 May 1919 p 8
- Lyttelton times, Papers past
This information came from Richard Greenaway – an expert on the local history of Christchurch. Some of you might have been on one of his fascinating cemetery tours. He has an eye for a good story and the skill and patience to check and cross check all kinds of references. He has compiled a wonderful array of New Brighton stories.