Christ's College Big School

33 Rolleston Avenue, Christchurch

  • Christ's College Big School.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Pam Wilson.
  • Additions to Big School, designed by Sir Miles Warren, 1989.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Pam Wilson, 1997.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 48 Date Entered 7th April 1983


Extent of List Entry

Extent of Registration is the land described as part of Pt Res 25 (CT CB436/70), Canterbury Land District, and the building known as Christ's College Big School thereon.

City/District Council

Christchurch City


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Pt Res 25 (CT CB436/70), Canterbury Land District

Location description

West side of Christ's College quadrangle. Between Hare Memorial Library and Corfe and Condells' House


Christ's College began in April 1851 as the Collegiate Grammar School, run from two rooms at the immigration barracks at Lyttelton. The Canterbury Association, the group formed in England to colonise Canterbury, had planned for such a school before its ships left England, stating that it was to be based on 'the great Grammar Schools of England'. It is now the oldest and one of the most prestigious private boys' schools in New Zealand.

In 1852 Collegiate Grammar moved to Christchurch and by 1857 was established on its current grounds adjacent to Hagley Park. The buildings of the school were laid out around a quadrangle following the English tradition, and were initially built in timber. Between 1855 and 1862 the roll increased by 50 pupils and new schoolrooms were required. James Edward FitzGerald (1818 - 1896) proffered architectural plans for the school building he had drawn up in Britain in 1850 as part of the Canterbury Association's preparations for coming to New Zealand. FitzGerald is more commonly remembered as the first Superintendent of Canterbury and as a runholder, journalist, and politician. He took a strong interest in the development of the architecture of Christchurch, but Big School appears to be the only building he designed.

FitzGerald's building was simple and rectangular in plan, with a large and sharply pitched roof, intended to cope with the frequent and heavy snowfalls expected in the south. It was built in stone, with a timber ceiling, slate roof and leaded windows. (The ornamental bands on the roof in different coloured slates may have been added in 1896.) FitzGerald later wrote of the building: 'It was never part of any large plan. The only idea was to impress on the youngsters of that day that massive strength, stability and simplicity of character were the lessons it read to them', all virtues traditionally taught by the public schools of England.

The whole school was taught in the building, with classes partitioned off by curtains. The interior was gloomy, as the windows were whitewashed over. The interior was panelled in 1900 and in 1910 panelling was continued around the west side as a South African (Boer) War memorial.

As other classrooms were built throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Big School was used less for teaching. However it continued to be used for assemblies, concerts and speeches as well as evening preparation. It was used for assembling the boys before chapel until the late 1930s when the still-growing roll made the building too small. During the Second World War it was used as a gymnasium, as the school's regular gymnasium had been commandeered by the Army. Later it was used for badminton and drama rehearsals. While the College Chapel was being reconstructed in 1955 - 1957, Big School served as a builders' storeroom. In 1958 it was modified for use as the College library, as the Hare Memorial Library had by then become too small. In 1970 further modifications included a mezzanine floor, extra shelves, a librarian's room and a long dormer window.

In 1989 the building was substantially extended to the west by the addition of five gabled wings, which run at right angles to the original building. Sir Miles Warren was the architect. The interior panelling was reused and copied in the new section. The view of the building from the quadrangle remained the same.

Big School may be the oldest educational building in New Zealand still in use for educational purposes. It is significant as part of the history of the Canterbury Association, being designed by the Association's emigration agent, FitzGerald, prior to the colonists' departure for New Zealand. It illustrates the planning that was put into the establishment of Canterbury, albeit based upon a bleak notion of the province's climate. It shows too, the determination of the Association to replicate England in a new country. The building is an important part of the College's complex of buildings, which forms a significant part of the Gothic Revival townscape of Rolleston Avenue. The 1989 extensions complement the original building and were award-winning in their own right.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

FitzGerald, James Edward

James Edward Fitzgerald (1818 - 1896) is more commonly remembered as the first Superintendent of Canterbury. He was also a runholder, journalist, and politician. He designed the Big School at Christ's College in England in 1850, before the Canterbury Association arrived in New Zealand, and this appears to have been his only foray into architecture.

Warren, Sir Miles

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1863 -

1989 -
Addition to west by Sir Miles Warren

Completion Date

17th September 2001

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Hamilton, 1991

Don Hamilton, The Buildings of Christ's College 1850 - 1990, Christchurch, 1991

pp.12 - 14

Hamilton, 1996

Don Hamilton, College!: A history of Christ's College, Christchurch, 1996

Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.