Canterbury is a province and a region on the eastern side of the South Island. It is bounded to the west by the Southern Alps, and to the east by the Pacific Ocean. The coastline consists mostly of the long sweep of the Canterbury Bight — 135 km from Banks Peninsula to Timaru.




Mount Cavendish


Cooper’s Knob


Pigeon Bay

Arthur’s Pass

Rakaia River


Mount Hutt

Hamner Springs

International Antarctic Centre

Lewis Pass

Ram Paddock Road

Heathstock Road

(The bight was once known as Ninety Mile Beach, and its 84 miles (135 km) was a truer reflection of that name than the 60-mile (96 km) beach on the western side of the top of the Northland Peninsula which now carries the name.)

The region is based on the Canterbury Plains, an area of merged river deltas, 193 km in length from north to south, and about 65 km at its widest point. The Plains are by far the largest stretch of flat land in NZ.


At the northern and southern ends, the plains undulate into rolling downs. The largest rivers, which traverse the land and carry run-off from the mountains and foothills to the west, are the Waimakariri, the Rakaia, the Ashburton, the Rangitata and the Waitaki. The region is sub-divided into North, Central and South Canterbury.

The province was named after the Canterbury Association formed in England in 1848 with the purpose of organising an idealised Anglican settlement in NZ. The association’s members included two archbishops, five bishops, assorted peers and baronets, and its name came from the chief primatial see of the Anglican Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury was the president of the association.

The original European settlers arrived early in the 1840s, although whalers had been visiting before that. The Europeans found fewer than 1,000 Maori in the whole region, most of them in the bays of Banks Peninsula, at Kaiapoi, Temuka and Waimate. A period of fierce raiding by tribes from the North Island earlier in the century had reduced the population sharply. This absence of Maori and the huge stretches of native tussock land suitable for immediate adaptation to the kind of pastoral farming immigrants had known in the northern temperate zone made Canterbury an attractive settlement area. It was constituted a province in 1853 within the boundaries of the Hurunui River to the north and the Waitaki River to the south, and from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Tasman Sea on the western side of the Southern Alps. At that time almost all the European population was settled either on Banks Peninsula or near the present site of Christchurch. During the 1860s gold was discovered on the western side of the Alps and government from Christchurch being impracticable, Westland County was formed in 1868 as a self-governing region.

Once the pastoral potential of the Canterbury Plains had been recognised, men and sheep arrived literally in droves, some from Australia following a serious drought there at the turn of the decade into the 1850s. By 1855 all the flat land had been taken up, and five years later men and sheep had moved on to the high country of the alpine foothills. Canterbury has lived off sheep, grain and mixed farming ever since. It is served by Christchurch International Airport at Harewood, a suburb of Christchurch, and by the seaport at Lyttelton, and a railway that runs from Picton in the north to Invercargill.