I’m sure as the schooner ‘Ballet’ sailed down the east coast of the Middle (South) Island, William Deans leaned against the deck railing and watched the passing coastline with great interest. He was aboard Captain Edward Daniell’s schooner as an approved stow-away and he held great hopes for what he might find down on the Port Cooper (Canterbury) Plains.
Or so the historians have guessed.
No one can really say for sure how William Deans made his way down south from Port Nicholson (Wellington) in August 1841 but this theory seems most likely. Port Nicholson had proved to be a great disappointment and held no future for this aspiring Scottish landowner/farmer.
Captain Daniell made no mention of William Deans in his report – dated 2nd October 1841 – to New Zealand Company owner Edward Gibbon Wakefield, but why would he? If William did come down with the ‘Ballet’, it had nothing to do with Captain Daniell’s business but came to make his own conclusion about the plains and assure a future for his own dreams…and he liked what he saw.
We know the William fitted in another trip down before the big move in February 1843, voyaging down from Port Nicholson aboard the ‘Richmond’ with the Hays, Sinclairs, Gebbies and the Mansons families. Before all that though, William managed to meet a man who would change the course of the Deans’ lives forever. His name was Jimmy Robinson Clough.
Jimmy had been living at Akaroa since the early 1830’s. He had been an English Whaler who fell in love with a local Maori woman so he jumped ship and married her. By the time he came to meet William Deans in 1841, he knew the region more than just ‘quite well’. In fact, Jimmy is regarded as the first European to ever travel down the Avon. When William shared his dreams with Jimmy, Jimmy stated that he knew just the piece of land. He would take him there so William could see it for himself. The area of land was named Putaringamotu, meaning ‘the place of an echo’.
And so it came to pass that William Deans, Jimmy Robinson Clough and George Duppa travelled around the Bays of Ohikaparuparu (Sumner) in a Whaler’s boat and crossed the (Sumner) bar into the Waipātiki – the low waters that we know as the Avon Heathcote Estuary. They sailed north-west through the Estuary and travelled up the Ōtākaro (Avon River) as far as they could before it became too boggy. Then they transferred into a canoe and continued up at Ōtākaro – sometimes using the surrounding flax and toi toi to pull their canoe along – to where the Christchurch Public Hospital is now. There William climbed up on the shoulders of his companions and saw Putaringamotu; amazed at the 50 acres of giantantic Woodlands (Deans Bush which is only 13 acres today) that stood high over the vast plains. He was reported as saying “This will do. I will make this my home.”
And this is how we came to have the suburb of Riccarton today. It was Christmas Day 1848 with the Canterbury Association surveyors at their table that the Deans renamed their farm from Putaringamotu to Riccarton and requested renaming the Ōtākaro to the Avon River.
So by the time the surveyors arrived from 1848 onwards, with the Deans being the only settlers on the Plains, it makes sense that the entry to the estuary became known on the early maps as Deans Entrance or Deans Head. The Avon and the Heathcote Rivers were the main transport system across the plains in those days. Of course the Deans did everything they could to assist the surveyors so maybe, the naming of this important place was an honorary thing too. This term did not last.
The Avon Heathcote Estuary is the largest semi enclosed estuary in Canterbury. It is 8km squared and a maximum, 1.4 metres deep in places. At its lowest, only 15% of its water covers the mudflats.
An Estuary is where fresh and salt water mix and a sand or gravel bar protect the low waters from strong sea currents and waves. The Heathcote River flows in from the south-west and the Avon from the north-west. The Avon Heathcote Estuary is internationally recognised as an important coastal wetland for migratory birds.
This painting was made by Frank Nicoll and is of Sumner during the 1950’s.
Note with the photo of Deans Head, the Avon River in the northern edge of the estuary. Here, this beautiful river that begins as a humble creek in Avonhead – Head of the Avon – ends its journey.