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Christchurch City Centre, 2008 | © Maxim75/Wikimedia Commons
Christchurch City Centre, 2008 | © Maxim75/Wikimedia Commons
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How Did Christchurch, New Zealand Get Its Name?

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 27 June 2017
Historically-speaking, the origins of Christchurch’s English language name have been marked by controversy. While the city and the surrounding Canterbury region, on New Zealand’s South Island, were carved out of strong Anglican foundations, the accounts as to what inspired its nomenclature are somewhat conflicting. Let’s take a closer look at where the issues lie.

The widely accepted version

A glimpse into the settlement of the region is needed to understand Christchurch’s naming. The Canterbury peninsula was first sighted by James Cook in 1770, during his voyage on the Endeavour. Thinking he had encountered an island, he named the location Banks Island after his ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks. Later, in 1815, the first sailors set foot on what is now known as the Banks Peninsula. By 1847, John Robert Godley, who is believed to be the founder of the Canterbury region, had joined forces with Edward Gibbon Wakefield, one of the leaders of New Zealand’s organised European settlement, to transform the area into something more cohesive. Wakefield in particular believed Canterbury could be modelled on the typical English community, with landowners, labourers, churches, schools, small farms and shops.

This idea led to the establishment of the Canterbury Association in 1848, a body that was supported by several members of parliament and English peers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many of the Canterbury Association’s founders, Godley included, had a shared commonality: they attended Christ Church College in Oxford. As such, the organisation decided to name Canterbury’s new capital city ‘Christchurch’, as a tribute to their esteemed Alma Mater.

Christchurch in 1852
Christchurch in 1852 | © Wikimedia Commons

A series of alternative accounts

Of course, the history of Christchurch’s name is not that simple. There are two major alternative accounts that emerged along the course of the region’s settlement. In brief, here’s what was debated:

The Hampshire Connection

Hampshire, in England, also has a town named Christchurch. Just like the Kiwi city, it has a River Avon running through it. It is these remarkable similarities that brought a new theory to life: that Christchurch was, in fact, named after its Hampshire counterpart. Accounts of this theory can be traced as far back as 1856, when the recently-arrived Archdeacon Harper confidently observed that ‘Through the site of the town, the River Avon, so called from the river at Christchurch, in Hampshire, winds its picturesque course’.

Alas, that statement is rather misleading. The New Zealand Christchurch’s Avon River was actually named by the pioneering Deans brothers, who chose the name as a tribute to the river that ran through their grandfather’s farm in Scotland. The two brothers were among the very first settlers in the region, founding Riccarton (also named after their grandfather’s property) in 1844 – well before Christchurch was conceived. A Hampshire connection, then, is highly implausible, and the similarities among the two Christchurches likely not much more than a happy coincidence.

The Patron Saint of Canterbury Cathedral

This version of events follows a similar logic to the widely-accepted reason behind Christchurch’s name. The regional settlement scheme was dominated by Anglican authorities, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was the very first president of the Canterbury Association. Because of this, there is a theory that ‘Christchurch’ was chosen as a tribute to the patron saint of the Canterbury Cathedral in England, which was consecrated under the name of Christ Church by St Augustine in 547 A.D.

Still, it is questionable as to whether this Church of England connection is as strong as the Oxford ties. Indeed, the Canterbury Association consisted almost entirely of Oxford College men, as well as clergy who were familiar with the Canterbury Christ Church. While the name Christchurch was adopted unanimously in 1847, it is difficult to pinpoint which of these influences had the strongest impact on the decision.

Christ Church Cathedral and Cathedral Square, 1926
Christ Church Cathedral and Cathedral Square, 1926 | © Wikimedia Commons

Ōtautahi – The Māori name for Christchurch

Unlike the English name, Christchurch’s Māori name has quite clear-cut origins. Ōtautahi, which literally means ‘the place of Tautahi’, referred to a specific area in central Christchurch before becoming the widely-accepted Māori name for the entire city. Its namesake is Te Potiki Tautahi, one of the original Ngāi Tahu tribe members to settle into the Canterbury region. Tautahi and his people made frequent expeditions around the area, particularly up the Avon River (Ōtakāro in Māori), as they looked for food. After Tautahi’s death, which occurred during one of his visits, the area that is now defined as Christchurch city became his special territory: Te Whenua o Te Potiki-Tautahi, which was later shortened to Ō Te Potiki Tautahi and finally to the contemporary Ōtautahi.

Christchurch City Centre, 2008
Christchurch City Centre, 2008 | © Maxim75/Wikimedia Commons