The modern Ferry Road Bridge marks the site of where a ferry service once operated to serve those settlers who, after having arrived in Lyttelton and having crossed the Port Hills via the Bridle Path, would commence the final leg of their journey to Christchurch.
When standing on the bridge, let your gaze wander along the banks of the Heathcote River until it comes to rest on a house, partially obscured by trees, with an ad hoc blend of nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture. This is 285 Bridle Path Road, or as it was once known, Ferrymead House.
Although there is very little other than the house to show for it now, this was once the site of a busy cargo wharf and railway station.
In December 1851, James Townsend (d. 1866) leased a plot of one hundred and fifty acres next to the Heathcote River from Robert Godley for a period of three years. As part of this lease, Townsend was required to establish approaches to the ferry and provide a punt for the use of which he could charge tolls. In 1852 the ferry was moved further upstream to the site leased by Townsend.
Upon the site he leased, Townsend built a kitset house using the ‘best Van Dieman’s Land timber’. From an early photograph taken in December 1863 by Alfred Charles Barker we can deduce that it was similar in style to another ‘Hobart-town timber’ house, Dullatur, built in Opawa in 1852. Townsend’s house (as seen in the photograph below) faced north, with an east-west roof line and two dormers on the northern side of the first floor. Although he originally named its Greenlands, the property eventually came to be called Ferry Mead.
In July 1853 the mercantile firm of Joseph Longden and Henry Le Cren of Lyttelton advertised the house for let, describing the property as ‘one hundred acres of freehold land…situated on the Bank of the River Heathcote, where schooners can land goods at all times.’ It is possible that no one initially took up the offer, as by March 1854 Joseph Longden was still advertising the property. In October 1855 Charles Torlesse, who had married Townsend’s third daughter, Alicia, in 1851, was advertising the property for sale on behalf of Townsend.
By March 1856, John Mills, a former settler from Tasmania, was living at Ferrymead, where he sold roofing shingles which he imported from Tasmania. However, in September 1856 he sold up his stock and chattels and departed New Zealand. It is possible that the property remained in his possession, as by August 1857, Frederic Le Cren (a ferry master at the Heathcote) advertised the house for sale (or let). At this time it was described as a “desirable and convenient residence” containing six rooms and accompanied by a garden with trees, a stable, cart shed, fowl house, piggery and stock yards. Three months later, Frederic Le Cren married Cecilia, the eldest daughter of John Mills.
By June 1859 William Reeves was the occupant. He started a carrier business between Lyttelton and Christchurch via Sumner and used the property as a stopover point between the two destinations. In August 1862 the auction firm J. Olliver and Sons advertised the house, now consisting of seven rooms, to be let, with a lease for five years.
Initially the Heathcote had been used by cargo boats to bring goods further upriver to a site which later became known as Steam Wharf. In 1861 the Canterbury Provincial Council decided to build a railway line from Christchurch to the site of a proposed tunnel to Lyttelton. In 1863 this Christchurch-Heathcote railway line was extended to Ferrymead before officially opening on 28 November 1863.
Even though a former ferry operator, Thomas Hughes, had kept a house on the western side of the river known as the Heathcote Hotel, the prospect of a railway line and cargo wharf at Ferrymead offered the opportunity for a rival institution. In April 1863 Stephen “Yankee Doodle” Curtis opened a store at Ferrymead House. In that same month he applied for a license to sell liquor which was granted on the condition that he improved the house before the license renewal in the following year. By July he was referring to the building as Ferrymead Hotel.
The photograph taken in December by Alfred Charles Barker shows how the new settlement at Ferrymead looked. The approach to the now redundant ferry is situated in the foreground. Beyond stands a cluster of buildings, the centre of which is the Ferrymead Hotel. Next door, to the east, is the gaol and policeman’s house. Situated between the hotel and the river were the refreshment rooms and a goods shed. Just beyond this were the railway line and the cargo wharf.
In March 1866 the hotel was the site for the inquest on the body of a man, Laud, who drowned in the Heathcote River after falling overboard.
With the official opening of the Lyttelton rail tunnel in December 1867 the line to Ferrymead was eventually closed. By March 1868 the station buildings, apart from the hotel, had either been demolished or relocated. Although it was no longer on a route, the Ferrymead Hotel was still operating in 1874 as in May the licensee of the hotel, John Holman, is recorded as being charged with providing liquor after hours.
In 1886 the property was purchased by the Bunting family who used the land surrounding the former hotel to grow tomatoes. During their ownership the building resumed its original role as a house.
The house underwent renovation during its ownership by Leonard and Annie Shearman (nee Bunting), fruit growers, who are recorded as residing in the Heathcote Valley by 1913. During this time, a porch was built over the main entrance which was enclosed at a later date. A box window was added to the west façade of the ground floor. Upstairs, the two north facing dormers were merged to form an unusual gable. These changes must have been made after 1906 as a painting by Florence Hammond dated from that year shows the building in its original form. A photograph dated from the 1920s, when the property was still owned by the Shearmans, shows that the structural changes made to the building were already in place.
Under the ownership of the Shearmans a museum was established behind the house which, during the 1930s and 1940s, catered to visits by school classes. The museum collection consisted of photographs and items associated with the history of Ferrymead House and its environs.
In 1971 the house and nursery were purchased by Philip Wright (1943-2015), who had an interest in horticulture. A collector of antique items, Philip Wright kept the museum and the nursery open to the public, as an advertisement from the Christchurch Star (April 15, 1976, p.21) shows. In 2008, a short documentary “The Lost Time Traveller” was filmed, which consists of interviews with Philip Wright as he takes the viewer on a tour of the property. The documentary provides some glimpses of the interior of the house, including the original staircase.
The house suffered damage during the Canterbury earthquakes and the chimney, which was already on a lean prior to the earthquakes, was later removed.