Ashburton is situated mainly on the eastern bank of the Ashburton River in the central part of the Canterbury Plain about 10 miles inland from the shores of Canterbury Bight. The surrounding country is flat, but within 20 miles inland to the west and north it becomes undulating and hilly and rises to the complex mountain systems lying between the level plain and the Southern Alps. The South Island Main Trunk railway and the Picton-Bluff Main Highway pass through Ashburton. By road Ashburton is 54 miles south-west of Christchurch (53 miles by rail), 36½ miles north-east of Temuka (36 miles by rail), and 48 miles north-east of Timaru (47 miles by rail). Ashburton is the junction for a branch railway to Mount Somers (24 miles north-west); a branch railway from Rakaia (17 miles north-east) to Methven (40 miles north-west) serves the northern parts of the district.
The farming activities of the district are sheep and cattle raising, agricultural and mixed farming. Sheep are run extensively on the rising country inland and intensively on the lower levels. Cash cropping, including cereal cropping, is important. There is a large meat-freezing works at Fairton (adjoining Fairfield, 4 miles north-east). Some forestry is carried on in the district. Lignite is mined near Mount Somers township and lime is quarried. Silica sand deposits are being worked in the Mount Somers vicinity. Lime is also quarried at Staveley (34 miles northwest), Cavendish (24 miles northwest), and elsewhere. Land is continually being developed for more intensive farming by means of irrigation. The Department of Agriculture has an irrigation research institute at Winchmore (7 miles north-west). Ashburton is the commercial, industrial, and market centre for mid-Canterbury. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of butter, flour, other cereal food products and by-products, woollen goods, knitwear and hosiery, joinery and furniture, bricks, concrete products, agricultural implements, and coal gas. Sawmilling, engineering, and motor-body building are also carried on. There are large wool, grain, seed, and produce stores in the town.
Before 1850 Maori and European travellers used a coastal route east of the town. In 1844 Bishop G. A. Selwyn passed through the district and, shortly after, Edward Shortland. Country between the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers was settled by pastoralists in the early 1850s. Most of the “down country” runs were taken up between 1853 and 1856. The run which included the future site of Ashburton was occupied in 1853. Recognised routes gradually developed towards the interior from crossing places on the Rakaia River. In 1858 William Turton, generally regarded as the pioneer settler of Ashburton, established a ferry station in the vicinity of the present town bridge and built an accommodation house. By 1864 the coaches of Cobb and Co. were using the route through Ashburton in a two-day service between Christchurch and Timaru and maintained it until the completion of the railway. The town site was surveyed by Robert Park in 1864. John Grigg, a notable benefactor of Ashburton, took up property in the district in 1864 and was influential in the establishment of the frozen-meat industry. By the 1870s grain production had become increasingly important and flour was milled in the district. Towards the end of 1872 Alfred Saunders built a water-driven flourmill at Ashburton and commenced to grind wheat in the following year. This mill, subsequently modernised, is still in production. In the 1870s irrigation works were initiated and, since then, the acreage of irrigated land in the district has increased. The future South Island Main Trunk railway from Christchurch was extended to Rakaia by June 1873, to Ashburton by 24 August 1874, and to Timaru by February 1876. The line to Mount Somers township from Tinwald was opened by 4 October 1886 and gave access to the lignite mines near the township (which have been worked continuously since 1866). A line between Rakaia and Methven was constructed during the 1880s. Ashburton was constituted a borough in 1878. The adjoining districts of Netherby, Hampstead, and Allenton were amalgamated with the borough in 1917, 1921, and 1939 respectively, and in 1955 the residential portion of Tinwald Town District also was added. Ashburton was named in honour of Lord Ashburton (1774–1848).
POPULATION: 1951 census, 8,287; 1956 census, 10,176;1961 census, 11,604.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.