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Bligh's Gardens (Wonderland)

Bligh's Gardens was a pleasure garden established in New Brighton by John Bligh in 1884. In 1908 it became an amusement park, Wonderland, before closing in 1909. Part of the property still remains as a public park.

Bligh's Gardens
Bligh's Gardens. Photographer (pht): Simon Daisley, Contributor (ctb): Simon Daisley. In copyright

John Bligh was an American (or Irishman) who had formerly served as a cook on a Panama mail service boat. In the 1860s he opened a restaurant on Whatley Road (Victoria Street) which developed into a hotel.

Following the establishment of Christchurch, the area which became New Brighton was initially an expanse of sandy dunes with no permanent settlements. In 1872, Joseph Harrop Hopkins purchased 150 acres in this area and built a boarding house which became the New Brighton Hotel on Seaview Road. When the hotel business failed, Hopkins transferred the property to an auctioneer. The original 150 acre property was divided into quarter acre sections which were then sold.

At some point, John Bligh purchased a section that adjoined the Avon River south of the cut made in 1859 which formed Withell’s Island. Using carts, he transported soil from the city to the site, and by 1884 he had established a successful garden from what was originally sand dunes. Initially, people could reach the gardens by boat and after asking for permission, could hold picnics in the grounds and also play games of tennis and cricket.

By 1891, a boarding house had been established on the property. A road, Union Street, had been formed in the previous year, allowing visitors to reach the gardens from Seaview Road. Arriving at the front gate, visitors were met by a large lawn surrounded by trees. At the other end of the lawn was raised ground upon which the house was built. This was surrounded by summer houses, an aviary containing goldfinches and canaries, a fernery, and outbuildings. Behind the house were orchards and a one hundred foot long vinery. There were also animals, including rabbits and rodents held in cages, for visitors to interact with. On the archery lawn visitors could practice archery and rifle shooting.

A decorative feature at the gardens was an entrance made out of whalebones. These may have been found locally as according to the reminisces of Tom Gray, recorded in 1919, the beach at New Brighton was “thickly scattered with whalebones, many of which were for years afterwards to be seen forming bowers and other sorts of decorations in residences in the neighbourhood of the city.”

Late in 1891 the property was advertised for lease. By February 1892, the proprietors of the gardens were Mr Richards and his wife. The property was once again advertised for lease in August 1894. The grounds were also used as a camp by the Christ’s College Rifles in 1895.

John Bligh died in December 1896 and the grounds were purchased by Nathaniel Joseph Suckling and his wife, Sarah Emma Suckling. In June 1897, Mrs Suckling leased the property. By 7 November, the property was reopened by her after having renovated the house to include modern conveniences. At some point a Mrs Gee ran the boarding house at the gardens, and in September 1900 Mrs Suckling offered it for lease once more. The property was again advertised for lease or sale in January 1902.

By July 1903, the house and grounds were run as a boarding house known as Rongomai by a Miss Cowper. In addition to accommodation it offered tennis, boating, and croquet. In December of that year the property was again offered up for sale. However, by 1904 it was still owned by Mrs Suckling (who had closed the gardens).

Part of the property fronting the Avon River was purchased in 1906 by F. D. Kesteven, the captain of the Union Rowling Club, who presented the section to the club.

Bligh's Gardens
Bligh's Gardens. Photographer (pht): A Brown, Contributor (ctb): A Brown. In copyright

In March 1908, a skating rink was opened at the gardens.

In June 1908, Sarah Emma Suckling died in Nelson and in May the house was sold by W. J. Shaw along with its contents. It appears to have been purchased by Frank Stevens, as in June 1908 it became known that he was converting the gardens into a place of entertainment. Stevens offered the Tramway Board a guarantee of £300 if they would construct a branch line down Union Road from Seaview Road.

The gardens formally reopened as Wonderland on 14 October 1908 and received a strong attendance both in the day and evening. Amusements included a skating rink, a shooting gallery, slot machines, a helter skelter similar to the one used at the 1906 exhibition, an ocean wave, and an aerial chute. In the evening the side shows and grounds were lit by acetylene gas lamps and a circus was held. The circus became a regular feature and included acts from ponies, dogs, goats, and clowns. Later the grounds came to feature a merry go round and a hippodrome and additional animals on display included monkeys, possums, cockatoos, pheasants, and parrots.

A fire destroyed the original house in July 1909 and by November, Frank Stevens advertised the property for sale. In February 1910, Charles Stevens wrote to the New Brighton Borough Council offering them the purchase of Wonderland for £1200. Despite this offer, the property was sold at auction in April 1910. The buildings, amusement rides, and animals were also auctioned.

By December 1910, the property had been subdivided and ten sections facing Richmond Street were advertised for sale as the Bligh’s Gardens subdivision. Further sections were sold in 1923. The remaining section became a public park adjoining the Avon River known as Bligh’s Gardens.

Many trees situated in the park were damaged during the Canterbury earthquakes and in 2012 around 60 pine and macrocarpa trees were removed.

Today the park can be accessed from Tovey Street and Jervois Street.