The land on which the town of Ashburton stands was obtained from the Canterbury Association which held the land under the Wakefield Scheme. The aim of the scheme was to build a Church of England settlement like the Mother Country.
At this time the Ashburton District was a wide expanse of tussock covered land swept periodically by gales from the north-west. There were no trees in general except a few cabbage trees and matagouri. The wide snow-fed braided rivers meant fords constantly changed and crossings could be difficult.
Central Ashburton as seen from the post office tower, Oct 1903
(Photo - Muir & Moodie)
William Turton, accompanied by his wife, Frances, their three-year-old son and three-month-old daughter, opened an accommodation house on the northern bank of the Ashburton River in 1858. It was the first building in what was later to become Ashburton.
The land was surveyed in 1863 by Robert Park and boundaries laid out. A notice in the Provincial Government Gazette proclaimed Ashburton a township. The river and the town were named after the Hon. William Baring (Lord Ashburton) a prominent member of the first New Zealand Land Association founded by Wakefield in 1837. The coat of arms used by the Ashburton Borough Council features a bear's head taken from Lord Ashburton's family arms - the bear with a muzzle represents the so-called sport of bear baiting, or "bearing" and is a pun on Lord Ashburton's family name, Baring, which is also given to the town's central square.
Cobb and Company coaches began a service in 1864 and a Road Board was set up to control the area from the Rakaia to the Rangitata and from the Southern Alps to the sea.
John Grigg settled at Longbeach and began draining the swampy land, turning the estate into a model farm that attracted world-wide attention. Grigg's drive and energy extended around the district - he is remembered as a man of strength, physically and morally, and a key figure in the development of the Ashburton area.
He later founded the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company, which shipped frozen stock to Britain, was chairman of the Farmers' Insurance Company, a member of the Ashburton County Council and a member of Parliament. After his death in 1901 a statue of Grigg was erected in Baring Square.
As the population increased, so did the facilities of the new town. Ashburton Borough School was built in 1872, the Canterbury Flour Mills opened and shortly after the Rakaia River was bridged, a branch of the Union Bank of Australia opened.
In 1876 the Ashburton County Council was formed and council offices built, the ‘Ashburton Mail began publication the following year and the Agricultural and Pastoral Association formed with John Grigg as first president.
In 1878 Ashburton was constituted a Borough and Thomas Bullock was elected first Mayor. The district was growing steadily and before the turn of the century its first hospital opened, Ashburton High School was founded and E. G. Wright became the first member of Parliament for the district.
Business grew too, a woollen mill opened in 1880, a freezing works was established at Fairfield in 1899 and gas lighting came to Ashburton streets. The town's high pressure water supply was established in 1911 and a water tower built.
The Ashburton Electric Power Board was elected in 1921 and reticulation of the town and country began. Electricity powered street lights in the Ashburton Borough.
In 1945 rehabilitation farms were balloted for and the Highbank Power Station started generating power.
On the education front, Ashburton High School and Hakatere College amalgamated in 1965 to form Ashburton College, which has a roll today of about 1100 students.
In 1989 the Borough and County Councils amalgamated into Ashburton District Council. The former county chambers were turned into a museum and art gallery.
The Ashburton Historical Society
The society was founded in 1958 when a public meeting was called by Dr. W. H. Scotter and Mrs Ethel McQuilken. Articles were donated and loaned and a series of bi-monthly meetings held.
In 1967 a small museum manned by volunteers was opened in the Pioneer Hall, Havelock Street and in 1977 the museum moved to new premises in the former Ashburton Technical College buildings in Cameron Street. It remained there until a new purpose-built building was created by the renovation of the former Ashburton County Council building in Baring Square East which was opened to the public in September 1995.
Museum displays show the development of the local area through items showing its historical and cultural development as well as through the geology of the area.
A large relief model of the Ashburton District is a popular display and a working model of flood irrigation, so important to the development of farming in the district, demonstrates how this type of irrigation operates.
The museum is run by the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society, a non-profit making organisation of local people supported by the Ashburton District Council. It has a staff of three assisted by volunteers.
Archival material on the Ashburton District is stored at the museum and research connected with local history and family histories can be undertaken by arrangement. A collection of local Borough, County, School and Church histories are available for sale. The museum also has an excellent collection of early photographs and negatives of events, local scenes and people connected with Ashburton and the surrounding districts.
The society holds bi-monthly meetings at the museum with speakers covering a variety of topics.