Canterbury College

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

Christchurch Girls' High School


The Girls' High School, later the School of Art, with the newly completed Great Hall at the far left.

In 1876 a girls’ high school was proposed by the Superintendant of Canterbury, William Rolleston, who set aside £3000 for it so that “a sound and liberal education [for girls] can be obtained at a reasonable cost.” It was proposed that Canterbury College should take over management of the School, and once an agreement had been reached, a site at the corner of Rolleston and Hereford Streets was purchased. The building previously on this site had been a Female Refuge for “fallen women not hardened in vice and desirous to retrieve their position.” Obviously this was not seen as reflecting on the status of the Girls' School in any way.

Planning for the new high school building began, and the Board felt strongly that “it is desirable that the building to be erected should harmonise in style, material and general elevation with the adjoining buildings about to be erected in Worcester Street for other departments of the College.” The building was designed by T.W. Cane (1830-1905), and the contract to build it, at a cost of £3,690, was awarded to D. Reese.

Christchurch Girls' High School officially opened in 1877 but the new building wasn’t completed until 1878. Once opened, the Girls' High building featured four classrooms, the largest of which could hold 100 students. This room had to be divided into two classes by hanging heavy curtains, to cater for the 115 girls aged between 7 to 17 years who enrolled in 1878. Christchurch Girls' High School immediately proved to be very popular and promptly ran out of space. Just four short years after opening, the School moved to new accommodation in Cranmer Square. Elizabeth Milson, pupil from 1878-1882, recalled “When the time came when we had to vacate the grey stone building, and go to the new brick one, some of us felt that we were losing something of beauty; the brick seemed commonplace.”

The building they vacated was snapped up by the newly formed Canterbury College School of Art (CCSA) in 1882, who remained the occupants until 1957. Re-modeling and extensions were undertaken numerous times so that the building provided the necessary spaces. In 1882 a director’s office and a class were added downstairs, while a modeling and display room and technical drawing room were placed upstairs. The 1883 additions designed by T.W. Cane created a specific room for students to learn life studies, or drawing from the nude. The life studies class was situated on the first floor, and was built with a skylight rather than lots of windows, to maximize privacy. Yet further additions designed by Samuel Hurst Seager were made in 1902, which allowed for the inclusion of a library and a classroom for clay modeling. Finally in 1915 an extension designed by Collins and Harman made space for a still life room.

For some burgeoning artists, their experience in the new School was influenced by more than just the sense of space. Ngaio Marsh, a student in the 1920s, wrote that the Art School had “An antique room smelling of mice and Michelet paper, a still-life room smelling of stale vegetables, a modeling room smelling of clay, an architecture room, and exclusively at the top of its own flight of stairs, the life room, smelling very strong indeed of paint, turpentine and hot stoves.” Despite all the extensive re-working, the building still proved to be a little small, and by 1932 the CCSA jubilee souvenir optimistically predicted “In spite of the present depression, we may confidently look forward to the time when the excellent site already purchased by Canterbury College will be occupied by a fine and modern building.” They were not to get their new building until the CCSA moved to Ilam in 1957, and even then what they received was the remodeled Okeover House.

Next: The Boys' High School

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