As South Canterbury’s only city and port, Timaru dominates the region.
Early European history
Brothers William and George Rhodes founded the Levels run in 1851. They used the sheltered shore at Timaru, the site of an abandoned whaling station, to land stores and ship wool. Timaru’s first building was a cottage on the beach, and the first permanent inhabitant was Sam Williams, the whaler who introduced George Rhodes to South Canterbury.
In 1853 the Rhodeses bought land behind Caroline Bay and laid out a town. In 1856 the government surveyed a second town to the south, but because of its superior landing places it was the brothers’ town that prospered. Eventually, the two settlements merged. When the Christchurch-based politician Henry Sewell visited Timaru in 1856, his reaction was unflattering: ‘Timaru is a miserable apology for a shipping place without wood or water. Nothing will ever spring up there but a public-house, a store and a woolshed.’ 1
But other runholders began to use the beach to ship stores in and wool out, and in 1857 Belfield Woollcombe was appointed as government agent, an all-purpose official.
The first significant boost to Timaru came in January 1859 when 100 British settlers arrived on the Strathallan. They were joined by a further 360 immigrants in 1862–63. By 1866 the town had a population of 1,000, and it became a borough in 1868.
The population doubled in the 1870s, then stagnated. From 1896 until 1911 there was relatively high growth, linked to more intensive farming in the region. Timaru became a city in 1948.
Timaru owes its size and prosperity to its port. Initially, ships anchored in the shelter of basalt reefs. Their goods were carried ashore in small boats and offloaded in a landing service (a large shed). The first landing service was opened in 1858 at the bottom of Strathallan Street. It was bought by the government in the mid-1860s and used for the first shipment of wool direct to England. Entrepreneurs later set up a private service in competition. The George Street landing service building is one of Timaru’s oldest structures.
Shipwreck in the sun
Before the harbour was built, many ships were wrecked along Timaru’s coast. The most dramatic event was the beaching of the City of Perth and the Benvenue in 1882. Nine people drowned. One witness noted: ‘It was a strangely tragic afternoon; brilliant sunshine over all that surging waste of waters; on land the calm peace of an autumn day; nearly the whole population of the town on the beach, watching the struggle with death, unable to help.’ 2
Building a harbour
By the late 1860s Timaru’s leaders realised that the landing services, which required double-handling of cargo, were restricting the port’s growth. They initiated plans for an artificial harbour to provide wharves and a safe haven for ships. Opponents thought that because Christchurch’s port at Lyttelton was soon to be linked to Timaru by rail, a local harbour was unnecessary. But the scheme went ahead, as advocates believed that without its own harbour, the town would decline.
Taming the waves
Work began in 1878 with the construction of the 700-metre southern breakwater. In the late 1880s, the northern breakwater was built to keep sand shoals out of the harbour. Between 1899 and 1906 the eastern extension of the main breakwater was completed, preventing shingle drifting north into the harbour. During the 20th century the breakwaters were extended, realigned and raised.
The port today
The port survived both the decline of coastal trade and attempts to concentrate overseas shipping at major ports. An all-weather meat loader was built in 1963–67. A second northern breakwater allowed land to be reclaimed for cargo storage and a fish processing factory.
The port of Timaru saves exporters the cost of transporting products north to Lyttelton or south to Port Chalmers in Dunedin. But it handles only a small proportion of New Zealand’s seaborne international trade – 1.8% of exports and 0.7% of imports in 2001.
The changed coastline
The building of the harbour changed the coastline at Timaru dramatically. Shingle accumulated south of the harbour, and this new land was used for grain and wool stores and oil tanks. North of the harbour, sand piled up under the clay cliffs to form the beach of Caroline Bay.