Canterbury College

Learning by Design: Building Canterbury College in the City 1873-1973. An illustrated history based on the Armson Collins Architectural Drawings Collection

The Collins Family

Four generations of the Collins family were to serve as architects for Canterbury College and the University of Canterbury. They included:

  • John James Collins (1855–1933)


Portrait of J.J. Collins, from the Cyclopedia of NZ, 1903.

John James Collins was born in Christchurch in 1855. He was the son of James and Selina Collins who had arrived on board the Bangalore from England in 1851. His father is noted in different sources as being either a gentleman farmer or a gentleman’s servant, but the Passenger List for the Bangalore records James Collins, in steerage, as a general labourer. Mr Collins Snr served as the Steward at the Canterbury Club, and then established several hotels, including successfully running Collins Hotel in Hereford St, (which was later known as the Occidental).

J.J. Collins was educated at Christ’s College from 1865 to 1871, and so would have witnessed firsthand the establishment of the Canterbury Collegiate Union. He was interested in architecture, and joined William Armson’s firm in 1871 as an articled pupil at the age of 16. Collins was also evidently a keen sportsman, having been a member of the Canterbury Rowing Club, and a life member of Canterbury Rugby Union. He was elected a life member of the Rowing Club after designing their new sheds on the Avon in 1886.

In 1882 John James Collins married Arabella Walkden. The following year his colleague William Armson died without having made Collins a formal partner in the firm. As a result, Collins had to sell his house, and his pony and trap to raise the capital necessary to purchase the firm – no small undertaking with a new wife to support.

In 1887, Collins invited Richard Harman to become a partner in the architectural firm. They carried on the firm successfully, and with the same commitment to professional standards. J.J. Collins was a Foundation member of NZ institute of Architects. He also demonstrated a commitment to supporting the local community, as a Fellow and Trustee of the Benevolent Foundation.

Collins showed an interest in local architectural history in his private life, having purchased the Red House (now the Cranmer Club) for £1200 in 1907. In 1911, he sold the Red House to L.G.D. Acland for £1750.  After Collins retired in 1921 he moved into another historic building, 'Englefield' in Fitzgerald Avenue. Finally, Collins bought ‘Hadleigh’ house which was sadly destroyed in the recent Christchurch earthquakes.

J.J. Collins retired from architectural practice in 1921, and died in 1933 aged 78 years. Like his mentor, William Armson, Collins was extremely proficient in Gothic Revival style and was one of its foremost designers in New Zealand during his career.

  • John Goddard Collins (1886–1973)


Portrait of J.G. Collins at his desk.

Born in 1886, John Goddard Collins was the son of John James and Arabella Collins. Like his father before him, J.G. Collins attended Christ’s College from 1896 to 1903. After leaving school, he then joined his father’s architectural firm as an articled pupil.

John Goddard Collins was evidently interested in art and exhibited with Canterbury Society of Arts (CSA). It is possible that he attended the Canterbury College School of Art, where he would have been taught architectural drawing by Samuel Hurst Seager. This is hinted at in the 1910 CSA catalogue, which shows that Collins won 1st place for architectural sketches in the students’ category, for which he would have won a silver medal. The same catalogue lists both Hurst Seager and J.G. Collins as working members of the Society. Collins also had his drawing of the Provincial Government Buildings, designed by Benjamin Mountfort, published in the Canterbury Times in May 1907. It is tempting to wonder if the drawing was completed as part of his architectural education.

J.G. Collins was married to Doris Roskruge in Wellington in 1909. Perhaps the Collins family continued to move in artistic circles, as a portrait of Mrs John Goddard Collins was entered in the CSA annual exhibition in 1912 by well known portraitist Elizabeth Wallwork. Alongside his father, J.G. Collins was a Foundation member of NZ Institute of Architects. He represented New Zealand in rifle shooting as a teenager, (where he would have been familiar with Richard Harman’s father who had founded the Canterbury Rifle Association), and was a lifelong member of Canterbury Rowing Club.

One of J.G Collins’ first big commissions after completing articles was The Press building in Cathedral Square (1909). Over the course of his career he was responsible for designing many of the buildings on the Canterbury College town site, including the Chemistry, Physics, Library, School of Engineering, and Student Union buildings. His sense of civic duty is demonstrated by his involvement with the Nurses Memorial Chapel which he designed in 1926/1927. He subsequently supervised its construction free of charge. Collins also designed many other well-known Christchurch buildings including the Sign of the Takahe and Nazareth House Chapel.

J.G. Collins retired in 1953, (though some sources suggest 1955), after 50 years with the family firm. By the end of his career he was recognized in New Zealand as a leading authority on Gothic design. In the Home and Building Magazine of 1953 he described his many years in architecture as “an unduly severe sentence in view of the small nature of the crime.”

  • John Kempthorne Collins (1916–1983)

John Kempthorne Collins was the third generation of Collins men to work as an architect with the family firm. The son of John Goddard and Doris Collins, he was born in 1916. As was family tradition, J.K. Collins was educated at Christ’s College from 1930 to 1933, and then studied at Canterbury University College, where he would have become very familiar with the town site. After completing his studies, he became an articled pupil with Mr A.H. Manson of Christchurch, and then joined the family firm in 1936.


J.G. Collins and his son J.K. Collins, featured in the Home and Building Magazine, August 1953.

During World War II, J.K. Collins served as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester Regiment, and later as a Captain in the 29th Battalion, where he would have seen action in the Pacific. Following the War he rejoined the family practice and resumed work as an architect.

By the time John Kempthorne Collins re-joined the firm, Canterbury University College was on the verge of announcing that it would be moving to the Ilam site. Consequently, J.K. Collins was more involved with design work for the Ilam campus than previous generations of the firm. J.K. Collins died on 19th June 1983. His son Richard John Kempthorne Collins would be the fourth generation of Collins to join the family firm in 1960.

Next: Richard Harman