Ashburton (now and then)

Work was slack and Hubby appeared home at lunchtime on a Tuesday.  We had to go to Ashburton to sort out some boring banking business. My EFTPOS card would not work.  So we parked by the railway track and strolled over to the blue plush premises of the Bank of New Zealand. What a pleasure to conduct banking with such a helpful and pleasant cashier rather than faff about unsuccessfully online. There is nothing like a BNZ cashier who tells you that they will sort everything out NOW! And then they do.

With time on our hands we wandered along to the Ashburton Heritage Centre, a smart new building which has replaced the small rooms that used to house the museum. Good job! We were greeted in a charmingly smiley way and directed to a section of the ground floor full of history. Colonial history. The stories were of indomitable Pakeha (British Europeans) who set up small settlements and Stations during the 1850s and then travelled down from Christchurch to the “runs”. The Māori tended to pass through using a coastal route. The Canterbury Plains were arid and difficult for travel. The area only achieved its famous patchwork of farm fields after major irrigation works in the twentieth century. Undeterred, as they usually were, the early settlers arrived.

The main obstacle to settlement was the great Rakaia and Hakatere (Ashburton) rivers. Because of their wide braided nature (the Rakaia is 2km width in some places), and their erratic flow as they bring water down from the mountains, they could not easily support a ferry or a bridge. Horse drawn vehicles struggled to cope with the crossing. People were having to ford the rivers in bullock carts. But in 1858 William Turpin managed to set up a ferry service across the Ashburton river, and he opened a hotel of sorts.

Rakaia River from the air

The railway arrived in 1874. There were long bridges, a new hotel, and suddenly the population grew from 50 to 500. People brought their tea sets, sewing kits and piano stools. We looked at the pictures of haggard bearded men and tight lipped women in stays, admired the glass cases full of their precious belongings, and marvelled at the audacity of setting up a fire service with just a few buckets.

One of the early residents was a lady called Clara, born in Norfolk to a sailor father. The family emigrated in 1875 when Clara was eighteen, and they settled in Ashburton. She married a fellow Methodist called William Lill and they had eleven children. She was President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for over 20 years, and signed the local petition for women’s franchise. The Union realised that unless women could vote, alcoholic prohibition would never be passed by the government. Sheep and cattle drovers were well known for laying all their wages on the bar and drinking until the money was gone. The women were angry!

Clara from Norfolk

In 1893 New Zealand became the first self governing country to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections, and this was a direct result of the massive grassroots petitions coordinated by Kate Shepherd and signed by the many “Claras” throughout the country.

We left the stories of the past and climbed the stairs to the art gallery.  Here the balance was redressed with giant photographs of half naked Māori displaying their body tattoos.

A bit of an anti climax then to finish our trip with a visit to The Warehouse to buy our own little works of art – a set of penguin shaped lunchbox cool blocks! That’s civilisation for you. I wonder if they will be in a museum one day?


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