Beneath Ōhinehou Lyttelton lies a marvel of Victorian engineering in a significant network of brick barrel drains that dissect the street layout of the planned township. This approximately 5.4 km web of large round drains was built of two layers of clay bricks, with a round or occasionally egg-shaped opening. Some sections beneath roads utilised large basalt rocks in place of the earthenware bricks. Originally designed to channel both storm water and sewage over Lyttelton's steep terrain, they still function as storm water reticulation, with sewage now carried separately. Built by the Lyttelton Hard Labour gang (prisoners from the local gaol), they were utilised for many years by the Lyttelton Volunteer Fire Brigade for Confined Spaces training.
Ground conditions in the early colonial settlement, especially in steep gully areas, were often diabolical;
“Norwich Quay is a filthy slough, Oxford Street worse than any newly ploughed field, London Street an alternation of watery mud and muddy water... In Oxford Street in the centre of the crossing between London Street and the Sumner Road is another swamp of even worse description, where the unwary traveller, groping his way in the usual pitchy darkness, finds himself suddenly engulfed nearly to his knees.”
Hence it was that in 1870, architect Samuel Farr, having earlier been involved in surveying Lyttelton and the formation of road infrastructure and then holding the position of Lyttelton Borough Council Surveyor for two years, designed a drainage and water supply network. His enthusiastic and innovative use of concrete in curbs and channels (and in some of his building designs), earned him the somewhat disparaging appellation “The King of Concrete”.
The structure visible in our photo was Lyttelton's first European well at 14 Oxford Street (next to the now restored Taylor’s Plumbers building at 16 Oxford St); likely a Farr design it displays the double skin of bricks laid in the round as also used in the brick barrel drains. Prior to the construction of a reservoir and pumping station in Heathcote in 1877, which delivered water via pipes through the rail tunnel to Lyttelton, this well was a crucial water source for early English immigrants. It was uncovered in 1966 when the Kinsey building was demolished; Kinsey's was an important early shipping agency whose greatest claim to fame was serving both the Scott and Shackleton polar expeditions.
Farr, born in North Hertfordshire, England in 1827, was influenced by his father's profession as a builder. Arriving in Akaroa in 1850 on the “Monarch” along with his future wife's family, his marriage to eldest daughter Mary Ann Pavitt on 15 June 1850 holds the distinction of being the first officially recorded marriage in the new settlement. It was one of many firsts in his long life; as secretary of the Acclimatisation Society for 22 years he was largely responsible for stocking Canterbury's rivers with fish and instrumental in the introduction of the bumblebee to the region. In 1852 he was the driving force in the development of the track from the Akaroa Heads to Purau Bay and was an accomplished painter for good measure.
Farr and his young family moved from Akaroa to Otautahi Christchurch in 1862. He was denied membership to the Canterbury Association of Architects alongside other colonial architects William Armson, Benjamin Mountfort, Alexander Lean and Frederick Strouts because he was not formally trained. Nevertheless he was responsible for a number of notable public and private buildings. A few well known examples include St Paul's Church in central Christchurch (St Paul's Trinity Pacific Presbyterian Church in more recent years), St John's Presbyterian Church in Lyttelton and the Normal School at Cranmer Square (latterly known as Cranmer Courts); all these examples sadly destroyed due to the Canterbury earthquake sequence of 2010/2011. Happily, a fine example of his domestic architecture survives; the 1865 Dalcroy House at 16 Godley Quay was built as both residence and Presbyterian school.
But back to the brick barrel beauties beneath Lyttelton's surface. Although not individually listed by Heritage New Zealand, the network is recognised as an important example of pre 1900 engineering and for contributing to the historical and archaeological significance of the township. Post earthquakes, some of the drains have had new manhole inspection points installed, Coleridge Terrace being a recent example with work completed in 2022. One of the main lines runs diagonally beneath Albion Square and is referenced in the design of the water feature in the current playground area.