History and chronology

Ilam homestead 1 landscape

When established in 1873, Canterbury College, as the University was originally known, was only the second university in New Zealand. Housed in graceful stone buildings on a central city block, it was dependent for survival on rents from high country farms with which it had been endowed by the Canterbury Provincial Council.

It was set up on the Oxbridge model with one major difference: women students were admitted from the start. An early graduate, Helen Connon, became the first woman in the then British Empire to win honours.

Ernest Rutherford, Canterbury’s most distinguished graduate, studied at the University in the 1890s. He discovered his own scientific ability during a year of postgraduate research before taking up a scholarship to Cambridge. A contemporary of Rutherford, Apirana Ngata of Ngati Porou, was the first Maori graduate from any New Zealand university. The portraits of these two men, respectively, grace the nation’s $100 and $50 bank notes.

For most of its first 100 years the University was situated in the centre of Christchurch (now the Arts Centre). By 1975 it had completed its move to a spacious purpose-built 76 hectare site in the suburb of Ilam, 7km from the old city site. It comprises a central complex of libraries, lecture theatres, laboratories and staff accommodation surrounded by playing fields, woodlands and the renowned Ilam Gardens. On 1 January 2007, the neighbouring Christchurch College of Education, the second oldest teachers' training college in New Zealand, merged with the University and became UC's sixth College/School.

The University now has five Colleges:

  • Arts
  • Education, Health and Human Development
  • Engineering
  • Science
  • Business and Law

Canterbury offers undergraduate and postgraduate courses in more than 70 subjects, from accountancy to zoology. It has the most extensive network of field stations for student and staff research of any university in New Zealand. UC has stations at Kaikoura, Cass, Westport, Harihari (South Westland), the sub-Antarctic Snares Islands and Antarctica, and New Zealand’s premier astronomical research facility at Mount John, Tekapo. In addition, UC operates a field station in Nigeria as part of the Nigerian Montane Forest Project. Locally, eight accommodation facilities provide board for more than 2000 students.

Some 12,000 students are enrolled and, each year, more than 3000 students graduate.

YearKey Events


June 16: Canterbury College (University of New Zealand) foundation day.

Alexander Bickerton appointed first professor (in chemistry).


Teaching begins, with five part-time lecturers until founding professors arrive from England.

John Macmillan Brown appointed first professor of classics, history and English literature; Charles Cook first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy.


First annual examinations.


Julius Von Haast appointed professor of geology and palaeontology.


LLB course introduced.

Lyttelton Times, mid-1877: "At length after innumerable stoppages and delays the new buildings of Canterbury College are completed, so far as they go, and are ready for occupation."


James Hay and Frederick Fitchett become first graduates.


The College Library established.


Helen Connon becomes first Canterbury College woman to graduate.


Helen Connon becomes first female honours graduate in the British Empire.

First student drama production (of Much Ado About Nothing).


School of Art opened.


BSc and MSc courses first introduced.

First annual rugby match against Otago University.


First courses in engineering offered.


Ernest Rutherford starts at Canterbury College.


Apirana Ngata becomes first Maori scholar to complete a University degree.


Ernest Rutherford awarded Nobel Prize (for chemistry).


Ernest Rutherford knighted for his contribution to science.

Henry Stokes Richards becomes Canterbury's first Rhodes Scholar.


Opening of Helen Connon Hall, first women students' hostel, and Rolleston House, first men's hostel.


Four faculties established - Arts; Science; Commerce & Law; and Mental, Moral & Social Sciences.


Music faculty established.


Law and Commerce become separate faculties.

Apirana Ngata knighted.


Students' Union opened.


Volume 1 No 1 of the student magazine Canta produced.


Canterbury College becomes Canterbury University College.


Library of Congress classification scheme adopted by the University Library.


Arrival of philosopher Karl Popper, who lectured at Canterbury until 1945.


First internal examinations, papers having previously been sent to Britain.

17 Rolleston House men fined for their part in penning 50 sheep in College quadrangle overnight and tampering with the clock tower.


For the first time it was not compulsory to study a foreign language.


James Hight knighted.


Ngaio Marsh receives an OBE.

University Grants Committee established.


Official announcement of intention to move to Ilam.


Frederick Llewellyn appointed vice-chancellor and rector. After 1957, he dropped 'rector' from his formal title whenever he could, in effect creating the role of vice-chancellor for Canterbury.


Carleton Perkins appointed chancellor.


Canterbury University College becomes the University of Canterbury.

Donald Bain appointed chancellor.

The move to Ilam begins, with the School of Fine Arts transferring to Okeover.


Leslie Pownall appointed vice-chancellor.


Rt. Rev. Alwyn Warren appointed chancellor.


Ngaio Marsh becomes a dame.

Neville Phillips appointed vice-chancellor.


Terence McCombs appointed chancellor.


Ilam Homestead opened as the Staff Club.


Opening of the James Hight Library, New Zealand's largest university building at the time.

The three university halls of residence at Ilam become known collectively as University Hall.


Three new halls of residence open, initially named 'North', 'South' and 'West'.

John Matson appointed chancellor.


The University's centennial, at which it is announced that buildings at the old town site will be given to the people of Christchurch as an arts centre.


Plans for student radio station Radio U announced, to broadcast during enrolment and orientation in 1976.


Albert Brownlie appointed vice-chancellor.

Brian Anderson appointed chancellor.


Jean Herbison becomes first woman chancellor of a New Zealand university.

School of Fine Arts shifts from Okeover Homestead to its new buildings.


New Start programme for adult students established by Department of Extension Studies.


David Tan, aged 16, completes a BSc(Hons) degree in mathematics.


Charles Caldwell appointed chancellor.


Botany department becomes P.A.M.S. (Plant and Microbial Sciences).


BA (Hons) degree introduced.

John Densem's musical Bicky premieres at the Court Theatre, starring the only professor ever to be sacked by Canterbury, A.W. Bickerton.


Richard Bowron appointed chancellor.


Women graduates outnumber men for the first time in the University's 118 years.

Two famous alumni faces appear on the new New Zealand bank notes; Sir Apirana Ngata on the $50 note and Ernest Rutherford on the $100 note.


Ian Leggat appointed chancellor.

Seven-year-old Michael Tan becomes youngest New Zealander to attend university.

Linguistics becomes a department.


Pro-chancellor Reverend Dr Phyllis Guthardt becomes a dame.


Alumni Association officially launched.
Canterbury's oldest known student Roland Denton signs on as a member, aged 100.

The feminist studies programme is given departmental status.


Daryl Le Grew appointed vice-chancellor.

Dame Phyllis Guthardt appointed chancellor.


Fine Arts graduate Vincent Ward's film What Dreams May Come picks up an Oscar for best visual effects.


College House 150th anniversary and reunion.


Professor Daryl Le Grew resigned as vice-chancellor.

Professor Bob Kirk appointed acting vice-chancellor.


Professor Roy Sharp appointed vice-chancellor.

Dr Robin Mann appointed chancellor.


New structure introduced - four colleges (Arts; Business and Economics; Engineering; and Science) and a School of Law.

First Performance-Based Research Fund results released.

2006 The inaugural University of Canterbury Arts Festival, Platform, was held.
2007 On 1 January the Christchurch College of Education merged with the University of Canterbury.

Professor Roy Sharp resigned as vice-chancellor.

Professor Ian Town appointed acting vice-chancellor.


Dr Rod Carr appointed vice-chancellor.

Rex Williams appointed chancellor.