Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The remains of a much-loved statue

Jayne sent an email heads-up today about the discovery of two time capsules under the fallen statue of John Robert Godley at Christchurch, part of Christchurch I'm glad I photographed back in 2007. According to, yesterday:
Two time capsules were discovered in Cathedral Square under the plinth of a statute of John Robert Godley, damaged in the quake. One was a small glass capsule while the other was a large metal-like object. … The first task would be to stabilise the paper found in the half-smashed glass bottle.

Museum director Anthony Wright … said the time capsule smells a bit like blue cheese and two words could be made out: "by" and "erected". "People would love to know what's in it," said Wright.

The age of the time capsules is not known. There were several opportunities to put the capsules under the plinth of the John Robert Godley statue - one when it was first erected in 1867, or when it was returned to its original site in 1933, after being removed in 1918 to make way for a tram shelter and toilets, which were later demolished.
The statue to Godley, the founder of the Canterbury settlement, was first agreed to by the Canterbury Provincial Council in late 1862. This was the first publically commissioned statue in New Zealand. Thomas Woolner was approached by a committee in England to design it, cast in bronze, and it was well underway, to the delight of Cantabrians, by late 1863. The clay model was cast in early 1865, the casting superintended by Thomas’ brother Henry. The completed statue was loaded on board the Talbot in 1866, weighing nearly three tons, and arrived in August. It had to wait, however, for its first pedestal to be completed before the public could view it. It was finally unveiled on 6 August 1867 at Cathedral Square.

The Godley statue, erected in Christchurch, Canterbury, was unveiled on the 6th instant, the day wearing the appearance of a holiday, many of the shops being closed, and flags displayed from different housetops. …The statue (observes the Lyttelton Time) is that of a tall figure, slightly but strongly framed ; extremely erect, and remarkably expressive of dignity, energy, and decision. The forehead is bald; and the features of the face, as well the whole air of the effigy are the benignant heroic type. In gazing upon the lineaments we were reminded of that paradoxical judgment pronounced on Mr. Godley's character by Mr FitzGerald, when he said he thought he would have been a better man had he been a worse, or used words to that effect. It may have been so, looking at the great colonist as a member of ordinary society, but we have to look back on him as a leader of pioneers into a new land, where more than ordinary difficulties had to be overcome, and where it was his vocation, not only to overcome those which directly assailed himself, but to support others in their struggles, and preserve an ordinary march onwards to the conquest of such conditions of life as appertain to civilization. Surely in such a position too much virtue was hardly possible, even though it was tinctured with severity. Taking this work of combined veneration and art as a whole, it is not a mere embellishment to our city, it is an inspiration.
Evening Post 9 August 1867

The statue, and its position, was the site of meetings, rendezvous, band performances and generally formed a landmark in the city before the Anglican Cathedral fully took its form. A concrete wall was built around the statue in 1878, along with iron railings. In 1890, larrikins decorated the statue with a collar and tie.

A letter writer to the Otago Daily Times of 13 June 1894 didn’t think much of such commemorative works of public art.

I heard a reference to the statue of John Robert Godley in Christchurch as showing the uselessness of such a memorial. The example was a good one. How many of us have heard of John Robert Godley? How many are there who know his name, what he did, who he was ? His statue stands in the most prominent position in the city of Christchurch, and yet, one would be safe in saying that the vast bulk of the inhabitants of even that city itself know nothing whatever and think less of the man. A figure of a man stands in Cathedral square, unnoticed, unregarded, uncared for. That is all. What is a statue as a memorial? A mere nothing. If there be any art in it, and as a rule there is very little in New Zealand statues, the connoisseur may gaze upon it with some little interest for a few moments, but there is an end of it. The people pass by unheeding. There is nothing in it to appeal to them. They are never brought into contact with it. They are never compelled to think about it, and they never do.

The university students were quite fond of the statue, though. In 1903, it was found one morning in full academic robes after Diploma Day.
From Otago Witness, 26 August 1903

Proposals to move the statue for the first time began in 1904. In 1907, the Christchurch Council viewed plans for underground male and female loos at the back of Godley’s statue, and again suggestions were made to move it. The loos were installed in 1908, but the statue remained until 1918.

The Godley statue, which for more than fifty years has stood in the position facing the Christchurch Cathedral, was lowered on Friday last. The operation, was performed! at 5.30 a.m., the only spectator present being an enthusiastic photographer. The work of lowering the statue was .effected by placing a strong cable under the arms and across the shoulders, which gave a perfect balance. The approximate weight of the statue, which is of bronze, is 35cwt, and the height 9ft. 6in. A 3-ton derrick was used to effect the lowering from the pedestal to the ground, and with the necessary gear the figure was lifted and lowered with ease by one man. The statue is to be re-erected in a new position.
Poverty Bay Herald, 23 January 1918

The statue of John Robert Godley, which, for 50 years stood in the centre of Cathedral Square, Christchurch, has been placed in position in its new site on the northern grass plot of the Cathedral grounds. There was a small gathering to witness the ceremony of cementing the statue on its base. Before the statue was lowered into its bed of cement, a bottle was inserted in a small hollow under the statue. The bottle contained a parchment bearing the following statement in Indian ink —"This statue of John Robert Godley, executed by Thomas Woollier, R.A., was erected in the west side of Cathedral Square by the Provincial Government of Canterbury, and unveiled by the late Sir Charles Christopher Bowen, K.C.M.G., on August 6, 1867. It was moved to this site in March, 1918."

The statement was signed by the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch, the Mayor (Mr H Holland); the Town Clerk, and the City Surveyor.
Colonist, 18 March 1918

Ah, but yes, this certainly was a restless statue. By the 1930s, the city wanted the statue’s new site for a war memorial.

Although the Christchurch Diocesan Synod has unanimously acceded to the request of the War Memorial Committee that the memorial should be placed on the site in the cathedral grounds which is now occupied by the Godley Statue, there is no intention to move the statue back to its original site in the centre of the Square for at least another six months (states the "Christchurch Times"). Councillor J. W. Beanland, chairman of the Works Committee of the City Council said yesterday that the council did not have any money available for carrying out the work in the present financial year, and he expected that the removal of the statue would cost about £200. It was intended to do the work in the next financial year.

Evening Post 26 October 1931

By 1933, it was back to its original spot.

Trees cut down and site prepared for the restoration of the statue. Evening Post, 22 April 1933

The descendants of John Robert Godley, who played such a conspicuous part in the foundation of Canterbury, are gratified that the Godley statue has been placed back in its original position in the middle of Cathedral Square, Christchurch. This was stated on Thursday by General Sir Alexander Godley, when speaking at a civic function in Christchurch, states the "Press”. The Canterbury pioneer was Sir Alexander's uncle. "I wish to thank the "Christchurch City Council and all those who were instrumental in having the statue replaced," Sir Alexander said. “'The present members of the family will be very glad to hear that I saw the statue standing in such suitable surroundings and in the place where they believed it should be.” Sir .Alexander said that he had been told at Home that the statue was regarded as a work of art, and one of which any city in the Empire could be proud. Sir Alexander mentioned an occasion when the statue was subject to slight vandalism. It was while he was in New Zealand inaugurating the territorial forces. There was considerable discussion on the proposal, and some ' persons who apparently disliked the idea of military training chalked on the foot of the statue, "To hell with Godley"

"But that was rather bad luck on my uncle," Sir Alexander said.
Evening Post 19 January 1935

Rather bad luck indeed for the statue, at the moment. The 22 February earthquake knocked it down from its pedestal, and knocked its block off for good measure. Hopefully the city will be able to restore a truly historic piece of public art. The current Mayor, Bob Parker, seems keen at this time to have it fully restored.


  1. What a fine, handsome figure of a man he is!
    Yes, I certainly hope he's back together soon and upright, looking over the grand town he helped found :)
    And yay on finding what the wording on the paper was!

  2. Thank you, Jayne, for giving me the heads-up. That is a statue with one heck of a story. Yes, agreed -- I really, really hope they manage to pull the old fella back together.

  3. Brilliant post Lisa ... exceptionally well done... Loved that statue i did :(