Lighthouse, Akaroa: Picturing Canterbury

Lighthouse, Akaroa [1898]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0091.
The Akaroa lighthouse began operation in Jan. 1880 with an oil-illuminated light. It was converted to electric power from a diesel generator in Nov. 1951 and later to the mains power supply. It operated manually from Akaroa Head 1886-1977, when it was replaced by an automatic light. The building was shifted to Akaroa township in Oct. 1980.

Do you have any photographs of the Akaroa lighthouse? If so, feel free to contribute to our collection.

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

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.

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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DECONSTRUCTION RECONSTRUCTED – an exhibition at Central Library Peterborough

Hard hats on … you are about to enter a construction zone!

Deconstruction Reconstructed Exhibition covering page
An exhibition in fulfilment of the requirements for a Diploma of Distial Photography by Helen McLeod

Helen helps us wrestle back control of our demolished city – taking us on a journey past our city’s older buildings. Some are under threat of demolition and susceptible to destruction and decay. Capturing them photographically, deconstructing and reconstructing them, giving them a surreal dimension, the buildings seem at times to defy physics. The photographs begin pre-dawn with sunrise ending with night fall as if over a day, the weather also changing – reflecting our climate as if there where four seasons in one day!

Come and take this visual journey with us at Central Library Peterborough from the 18th to the 25th of September.

Find out more on 2 Galleries Facebook and visit her at 2

George LeBrun up ladder at McLean’s Mansion: Picturing Canterbury

George LeBrun up a ladder at McLean's mansion
George_LeBrun_up_ladder_at_McLean_Institute_building_Manchester_St_ChCh, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 NZ. Kete Christchurch. Entry in the 2014 Christchurch City Libraries Photo Hunt by Sandra Serra.

George LeBrun, plumber, working on the roof of the McLean’s Mansion. Note the ropes on either side of the ladders to keep it steady, the only visible sign of health and safety requirements in those days. No hard hat, no Hi Viz vest, no cones, no harness. I am told that when transporting these long ladders 2 apprentices would carry it, each on his own bicycle with the ladder on his shoulder along with tool bags. Must have been interesting negotiating corners!

McLeans Mansion, 387 Manchester St, was completed in September 1900, but in recent years has been threatened with demolition. Recently plans were released to turn the building into an art gallery.

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

Government Life building in Cathedral Square – opened 50 years ago today

On 17 July 1964 the Government Life Building opened in Cathedral Square. One of my favourite photos in our entire collection is this one of its construction. workers on top of Government Life. It is the Ōtautahi version of the famous Lunch atop a Skyscraper (New York Construction Workers Lunching on a Crossbeam).

The Post Office tower is dwarfed in this view, taken from the top of the Government Life Insurance building in the Square.  [Mar. 1963] CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0059
The Post Office tower is dwarfed in this view, taken from the top of the Government Life Insurance building in the Square. [Mar. 1963] CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0059
That iconic clock has been a landmark of the central city – when it was turned off lots of us missed looking up to see the time (and the temperature).

Government Life Building showing clock 12:45 4 July 1963 CCCPlans Government-Life-11-2
Government Life Building showing clock 12:45 4 July 1963 CCCPlans Government-Life-11-2

In the 1965 photo above, you can see it is 1:52pm.

Christchurch Cathedral Junction and Woodwards Corner, Kete Christchurch
Christchurch Cathedral Junction and Woodwards Corner, 1965. Kete Christchurch

Post earthquakes, Mike Hewson’s artwork Government Life Suspension reflected the building back for us.

Government life art by Mike Hewson. Tuesday 22 January 2013. Flickr: CCL-2013-01-22-IMG_2308
Government life art by Mike Hewson. Tuesday 22 January 2013. Flickr: CCL-2013-01-22-IMG_2308
Government Life building. Wednesday 18 June 2014. Flickr: 2014-06-17-IMG_0287
Government Life building. Wednesday 18 June 2014. Flickr: 2014-06-17-IMG_0287

The Government Life building is currently being demolished.
See more:

Building the Government Life Insurance building

The Post Office tower is dwarfed in this view, taken from the top of the Government Life Insurance building in the Square  [March 1963]

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Christchurch’s grand designs

Cover TV3 on a Thursday finds me glued to the box awaiting Kevin McCloud, and his Grand Designs. I never miss it. Mr McCloud’s dulcet tones mixed with a hints of sarcasm and a good doses of scepticism keep me riveted as I watch impossibly adventurous houses being built or renovated by their often eccentric owners. There is something about architecture and everything we invest in a new building that is akin to a great soap opera. The drama, love, failure and thwarted dreams is compelling.

CoverPerhaps this is why as Christchurch people we are so interested in the buildings we are losing as well as what lies ahead. Our homes and our public structures represent what we stand for, what we publicly want to show the world about our taste, our dreams and what we represent as individuals and as a city.

The library website has some great guides outlining the architecture of Christchurch as well as overseas. One of my favourite links is to Christchurch modern. This is a blog that has done a tremendous job collecting images and information about  houses that have been built within a modernist tradition, many of which have been lost during the earthquakes. I hadn’t realised that Christchurch had quite such style in this respect. It is also worth checking out the Flickr link to Hum-dingers of the grid city.

Manchester Courts – a brief history

PhotoThe Manchester Courts building on the corner of Manchester and Hereford Streets is to be demolished following damage sustained in the 4 September earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.

When this seven-storey building was erected,  it symbolised prosperity and growth amongst the business community in Christchurch. Designed by the Luttrell Brothers, the building was the tallest in New Zealand at the time at about 112 feet (34.13 metres) high. The building, originally the New Zealand Express Company, is registered with New Zealand Historic Places Trust who describe the building on their website:

The New Zealand Express Company building, now known as Manchester Courts, is significant as one of the earliest attempts at the Chicago skyscraper style in New Zealand. The building’s combination of contemporary American styles with the existing tradition of British architecture means this building occupies a unique place within the history of New Zealand commercial architecture

PhotoFind out more at Christchurch City Libraries:

More information on the demolition:

An inside look- Image of the week

Interior of Council chamber, Municipal Buildings, Christchurch [ca. 1921]

Interior of Council chamber, Municipal Buildings, Christchurch

Do you have photos of Christchurch buildings interior or exterior? We love donations. Contact us

Also contact us if you have any further information on any of the images. Want to see more? You can browse our collection here.