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 Old Tin Shed

The tin shed just visible through the trees, with the Clock Tower behind it.

The first building designed and built for the newly formed Canterbury College was to be a Chemical Laboratory. Although the College was officially founded in 1873, debate over where it should be sited delayed the initial building plans. Finally, after the arrival of the freshly appointed Professor of Chemistry in 1875, the Board of Governors commissioned Benjamin Mountfort to design a temporary laboratory. The building was a modest one, completed in 1877 by contractor J.H. Kerr for the grand sum of £2,347/18/6. It was two and half storeys high, framed with wood, and lined with corrugated iron.

Once built, the laboratory held the largest lecture room in Christchurch at that time, and it was used both for teaching and for public demonstrations and lectures. Professor Alexander Bickerton was fortunate to also secure a grant of £450 to furnish the laboratory with apparatus. When the Clock Tower and laboratory buildings officially opened in 1877, he put the new equipment to good use, and demonstrated several experiments in applied electricity, including illuminating the Cathedral Square buildings with a searchlight.

Mountfort’s first building for the College was supposedly a temporary structure, and was never fully finished. Unfortunately, the building earned a reputation over its lifetime span of 40 years for being extremely inconvenient in its appointments, and was described by one staff member as "damp, dingy, drab and disreputable." Such was its reputation that it earned several nicknames including ‘The realm of stinks’. However challenging the building may have been, it is interesting to note that one of Canterbury’s most well-known science graduates and a pupil of Bickerton, is likely to have encountered the Tin Shed. Ernest Rutherford later wrote of his time at Canterbury that “I learnt more of research methods in [my] first investigations under somewhat difficult conditions that in any work I have done since." The College’s first building did eventually prove to be temporary, as it was demolished in 1916 to make way for the new College Library.

Next: The Clock Tower

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