Pipe Shed

South Belt, Methven

  • Pipe Shed, Methven. 1998.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: M Hanrahan.
  • Pipe Shed, Methven. 1998. View of the Pipe Shed from the south-west.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: M Hanrahan.
  • Pipe Shed, Methven. 1998. The Pipe Shed from the south-east.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: M Hanrahan.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7593 Date Entered 14th April 2005


Extent of List Entry

Part of the land in Certificate of Title CB 31F/1192 and the building, fittings and fixtures thereon. The registration applies to the Pipe Shed and a five metre curtilage.

City/District Council

Ashburton District


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Pt Lot 2 DP 48204 (CT CB31F/1192), Canterbury Land District

Location description

South-western corner of South Belt and Ashburton-Rakaia Gorge Road (State Highway 77)


Irrigation was a matter of prime concern on the Canterbury Plains where farm production was restricted because of lack of water. After many years of experimentation on small scale systems a huge project was agreed to in 1936. Across the inland reaches of the plains from the Rangitata River to the Rakaia, water was to be transported in an open race so that it could be drawn off for the irrigation of farmland. At Highgate on the Rakaia River the flow was used to generate Hydro Electric power. During the 1930s depression the Rangitata Diversion Races (RDR) scheme was part of government's action for New Zealand's economic development and it also provided work for the unemployed.

The Pipe Shed consists of one of the giant concrete pipes made for the grand RDR irrigation and hydro power scheme (1937-45). Pipes like this were constructed to siphon water around the impinging foothills and under the intervening waterways. They were remarkable for their construction and size, the largest made in the southern hemisphere at the time.

The shed, built in 1940 on the site of the Public Works Department's headquarters and the workers' accommodation camp at Methven was needed a secure place to store explosives. The required storage place was formed from available items. The twelve feet (3.65 metres) diameter pipe was set on a concrete foundation slab that was a pre-cast control gate for the water race and timber wedges were added to keep the cylindrical structure stable. With concrete ends added to enclose the space and a timber internal floor inserted, a secure storage area was created.

On what was once a bustling area with a large number of buildings associated with the RDR scheme this is the only remaining item. Because the c. 800 pipes used in the diversion race are not visible the Pipe Shed is an indication of the whole project as an engineering accomplishment. The Pipe Shed is also an unusual example of adaptive reuse; no other buildings constructed of pipes are known.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Pipe Shed represents the very significant Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR), an innovative irrigation system which allowed water to be diverted across a third of Mid-Canterbury's farmland. It is the sole remnant of the construction years of the RDR scheme and can be seen as a memorial to this pioneering work and the people who designed and built it.

The RDR system was a milestone in this country's agricultural history and the prototype of large-scale irrigation schemes in New Zealand. Prior to the institution of this project, schemes had been small-scale and experimental. It was the largest engineering project and also the largest Public Works Scheme at the time. It is closely associated with the 1930s depression and government activities to improve economic development and alleviate the unemployment situation. After an initial beginning in 1937 when unemployed labourers used picks and shovels, Bob Semple authorised the importation of massive earth moving machinery larger than anything previously seen in New Zealand.

The Pipe Shed represents the scientific research which underpinned the planning of the RDR. Since the nineteenth century research and experiments were undertaken into the systems and benefits of irrigating the dry Canterbury plains. This work over the years by individuals and organisations climaxed with the decision in 1936 to construct the RDR scheme.

The technological aspects of the RDR and the Pipe Shed are of very special significance. The RDR was skilfully planned and designed by Thomas Beck, the Public Works Department's engineer, who was able to overcome the difficulties posed by intervening rivers and unstable hillsides. The construction methods using specially imported machinery were an innovation for the time. The concrete pipes were an equally outstanding feature because of their large dimensions, method of casting and construction from reinforced concrete. The Pipe Shed provides an accessible and visible example of the components used in this remarkable project.


(There are interesting social values associated with the RDR scheme itself- the impact of the 1930s depression on New Zealand, the life of the unemployed workers who first laboured here, the experiences of those who were accommodated in the various camps established for families and the impact these camps had on small farming communities. These have only an indirect connection with the Pipe Shed.)

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Pipe Shed represents the construction of the Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) which brought water from the river to water the dry land of the Ashburton district. It is the only remaining building on what was the site of the Public Works Department's Headquarters for the area and the camp for project workers. Irrigation was necessary to farm the Canterbury Plains which often had insufficient summer rainfall and it was usual for there to be a significant drought every six years. Irrigation of the land around Ashburton began by the mid-1860s with trials and experiments carried out from 1878. The major scheme, begun in 1937 which this structure represents, was not only a giant step forward for agriculture in this region, it was also a model for other farming areas in New Zealand.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

Bob Semple, the dynamic and flamboyant Minister of Public Works in the 1936-49 Labour Government, was closely associated with the irrigation scheme. In particular the pipes that were used, as demonstrated by the Pipe Shed, are inseparably linked with him because of the widely publicised photo from 1940 where he is pictured inside one of the first such pipes alongside his Ministerial Wolseley. (photograph, p.20)

The RDR scheme is associated with the 1930s depression. The desire to create work programmes for the unemployed was a factor which encouraged the scheme's planning and implementation with many hundreds of people working here.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The Pipe Shed has the potential to provide knowledge about the RDR construction as it is an example of the no longer visible components used in the race's construction.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for, the place

There is general understanding of the Pipe Shed's history and wide recognition of the significance and the benefits that have accrued from the construction of the RDR. It is appreciated because of the major impact the RDR has had on the district's land development and the area's overall social and cultural systems can also be linked to irrigation and this particular component of the system.

All farmers who use the RDR appreciate the association of the Pipe Shed with the RDR's construction. The Methven Historical Society placed a plaque on the structure to inform visitors of its history, the Ashburton District Council has identified it as a heritage item and the NZHPT's Ashburton Branch Committee nominated it for registration.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The building is situated in Methven, a rapidly expanding ski-field town and is adjacent to a large tourist hotel. It has potential for educating tourists about a major aspect of New Zealand's agricultural history. The Methven Historical Society has attached a small interpretation panel to the building, which draws people's attention to it because of its unusual shape. A more detailed interpretation panel could further educate the public.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

The pipe from which the shed is formed is an example of the largest concrete pipes made in the southern hemisphere at the time and also some of the earliest pre-cast structures. The Pipe Shed illustrates the technological accomplishment of the entire RDR scheme.

It is also an example of the typical New Zealand "number eight fencing wire" approach to a need, by making use of what was at hand. A place to securely store explosives was needed at Methven and so a pipe, possibly one that was considered less than perfect for the main construction purposes, was placed on a foundation made from a spare pre-cast concrete control gate. It was a simple matter to then enclose the ends and provide a level internal floor.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

The structure can be read as a feature which is symbolic of the RDR scheme and commemorates those who lived in the Public Works camps and worked on the construction.

If registered it has the potential to be more highly regarded by the community as an icon, especially by those who benefit from the RDR. (Parallels can be drawn with the Brunner industrial site which is now viewed by many visitors as a place commemorating those killed in the Brunner Mine disaster, 1896)

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Pipe Shed has many aspects which make it a very rare and unusual structure. Cylindrical buildings are unusual in themselves, as are buildings made from pre-cast concrete in 1940. The association with this large scale irrigation scheme distinguishes the structure and it is a visible record of the hidden pipes made to carry water under rivers and around hills. It is a structure which could not be replicated as no surviving original pipes are available.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The Pipe Shed is a feature of the wider historical Methven landscape. The town has been changing over recent years from a rural centre into a tourist mecca and is being divested of its earlier character. The association with the farming dominance of the past created a layer of character which is being obliterated, apart from a few elements such as the Pipe Shed.

The Pipe Shed and the site on which it stands are a part of the wider RDR development - the nearby race itself, its associated power stations and other structures, as well as the various Public Works camp and depot sites.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Public Works Department

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Agriculture is without a doubt the major industry responsible for the development of New Zealand. Irrigation ranks extremely highly among all the advances which have taken place in New Zealand's farming history, the only comparable examples being the introduction of the tractor in 1904 and of aerial topdressing after World War Two. The Pipe Shed at Methven stands as a representative of the Rangitata-Rakaia Diversion Race (RDR), a huge irrigation scheme begun in 1937, which when completed in 1945, provided water to 500 farms, covering 64,000 hectares or 32% of Mid-Canterbury. The RDR was not the first irrigation scheme on the dry plains, but it remains the most significant and one of the largest.

The Canterbury Plains, an extensive area of flat land in the middle of the South Island, crossed by braided rivers, has proved both potentially valuable but difficult to farm. Water, either the lack of it, or ironically too much of it, has been a major problem for farmers in the area. From the mid-1860s some individual land owners diverted water from the rivers for their farms and households. Charles Reed is thought to be the first person to build a system of open water races, taking water from the Ashburton River over five miles to Westfield . A public meeting in 1878 asked the Ashburton County Council to irrigate the land between the Rakaia and Ashburton Rivers. Although this did not occur for nearly seventy years, the Council did provide a system of water races, designed by their engineer, William Baxter and constructed between 1880 and 1881. The initial race running from an intake at Pudding Hill to Dundas proved highly successful and is still operational. Over the next two years, water races were constructed throughout the Rakaia-Ashburton Plains and Baxter also designed water races, taking water from the South Ashburton River to provide water to the plains south of Ashburton. These water races were primarily to provide drinking water for stock, not to irrigate the land for crops . In order to provide enough water for crops the races and intakes would have had to be made larger, control systems introduced and all of this was expensive. By 1894 the Ashburton County Council had constructed 1050 miles (1690 kilometres) of water race and by 1915 there was 1800 miles (2900 kilometres) wending throughout the county, providing water to 586,000 acres (237,150 hectares) .

A trial irrigation scheme was begun in 1887-1888 at Wakanui between Ashburton and the coast where the land was dry, shingly and barren. Half the land was irrigated and although it proved to be a wet season, there was still a clear difference in the quality of the clover and oats grown on the irrigated part. Baxter continued to push for a council-organised irrigation scheme, and, again, individual landowners experimented with their own irrigation. Around 1900 the government was also approached about subsidising irrigation schemes but nothing substantial occurred until the 1930s when the Lands & Survey Department, which had acquired farmland in the Ashburton area, began experimenting with irrigation in conjunction with the D.S.I.R, the Department of Agriculture and the Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln. The farm also provided work for the unemployed during the 1930s and from 1932 was used to demonstrate the benefits and methods of irrigation. Water for this farm was provided via a county water race. The results of these experiments showed that irrigated land increased all crop yields and could carry five to six lambs per acre, whereas no stock could be carried on non-irrigated land. This encouraged further more ambitious plans to be made to water greater areas of the Ashburton plains .


In 1936 the Ashburton-Lyndhurst irrigation scheme began. Fed from the South Ashburton River it was to provide 125 miles (201 kilometres) of irrigation race constructed by men from a Public Works Department camp established at Winchmore. At the end of that same year government approval was given for the RDR and work started on 2nd April, 1937. This was the largest engineering project ever undertaken in New Zealand at the time, and its statistics are still impressive today. An intake at Klondyke in the Rangitata Gorge directed water through a 42 mile canal (67 kilometres) north across the plains to discharge into the Rakaia River at Highbank. Water is drawn off from this main open race and irrigates around 420,000 acres (167,000 hectares.) The Ashburton-Lyndhurst scheme was eventually linked to the RDR and it also supplied the hydro station erected at Highbank ensuring the water could be used to provide power during the winter when demand for irrigation would be low. The RDR was planned to provide work for around 200 unemployed men, an important consideration for the government during the 1930s .

Work began with pick, shovel and wheelbarrow wielded by men on the dole. Later, with the influence of Bob Semple (1873-1955), Minister of Public Works in the 1936-49 Labour Government, the scheme was noted for its use of heavy earth moving machinery and the huge concrete pipes needed to carry the water along the 1,100 foot (335 metres) contour, under rivers and streams and around hills. Semple is remembered for making the dramatic gesture of driving one of the huge new machines over a wheelbarrow to symbolise the change to mechanism .

Work was delayed because of the Second World War, which redirected the manpower and led to a shortage of materials . However, water finally ran from the Rangitata to the Rakaia in October 1944, and the system was formally opened on 16 June 1945. It fed three irrigation schemes, the Mayfield-Hinds, Valetta - Tinwald and the Ashburton-Lyndhurst, all fully operational by the 1950s.

Experiments in irrigation continued after the government purchased land at Winchmore in 1946 and established an Irrigation Research Station to investigate the best systems for water application as well as the most suitable crops. The RDR continues to supply water to around one third of the farmed land in Mid Canterbury. The scheme has enabled diversification in farming, from sheep and wheat to dairying, mixed cropping, horticulture and deer by the 1970s .

The engineer who prepared the plan and was in charge initially was the Public Works Department's Thomas George Gordon Beck (1900-1948). Beck had spent two years from 1931-1933, studying irrigation, drainage and river control overseas, primarily in the United States. In 1940 he was transferred to become District Engineer, Christchurch and in 1942 he moved to Wellington as Acting Inspecting Engineer, eventually becoming Deputy Commissioner of Works from July 1946. He is particularly noted for his engineering work in Mid-Canterbury, where his expertise in drainage, irrigation and river control was vital for the various schemes established there during the 1930s-1940s.


It was necessary for the RDR to cross seven rivers or streams, as well as negotiating a particularly unstable piece of land around Surrey Hills. Large siphons were created to carry the water underground. The siphons were made from huge concrete pipes constructed at an outdoor factory and workshop established at The Birches, near the Surrey Hills in 1940.

Two sizes of round pre-cast, reinforced concrete pipes were made. For the Ashburton River crossings there were pipes eleven feet (3.65 metres) in diameter, nine inches (228 mm) thick and weighing 18 tons (18.288 tonnes.) Pipes twelve feet (3.65 metres) in diameter and the same length were required for the one and a half miles (2.4 kilometres) around the Surrey Hills and these had 10 inch (254 mm) thick shells and weighed 28 tons (28.450 tonnes.) They were strengthened and joined by steel cylinders, made in Temuka, which were welded to the steel reinforcing in the concrete. It took one man eight hours to weld a single joint. Special machinery had to be imported and erected to be able to move the pipes. Contemporary newspaper reports made much of the fact that these were the largest pipes to be constructed in New Zealand and some of the largest in the world. Larger pipes had only been used in the United States, as part of the Colorado River scheme, where some of the pipes were 12ft 8inches in diameter and also the Boston water supply where some of the pipes were 6 inches bigger than those used at Surrey Hills.

The pipes were constructed by concrete being poured into moulds and left to set for two days. They were then steam-cured and lifted and placed on a bed of sand where they stayed for another fortnight being sprayed with water to finish the curing process. At this time there were 24 pouring bases established at the 'factory'. Cranes were used to lift the pipe moulds and the steel reinforcing cages while specially constructed gantries moved the 28 ton (28.450 tonnes) pipes themselves. Eight of the giant pipes were made at the factory each day, each using 90 bags of cement and huge reinforcing cages.

The first pipe of the Surrey Hills siphon was laid on Saturday 19 October 1940 and was an occasion for great celebration. Around 400 people turned up to the ceremony, and Bob Semple, Minister of Works, indulged his genius for publicity by posing with his Wolseley car inside the pipe, to demonstrate its size. (Attached, p.20)


The land on which the Pipe Shed stands belonged to the Mount Hutt Roads Board from 1879 although a certificate of title was only issued in 1881. Known as Section 142 it was once part of Rural Section 24548, a rural section delineated as part of the original survey of the township. The role of the Roads Board was taken over in 1939 by the Ashburton County which had held title to the land since 1881.

The Public Works Department established a number of accommodation camps and work depots for the project throughout the region, one of these being on the former Roads Board land at Methven. The Pipe Shed explosives store (1940) was one of the facilities at the Methven work depot. An administration office was also established at Methven in 1940 after a re-organisation of the irrigation work had created the need for a Public Works headquarters for the district. The Council owned land was seen as suitable for the purpose because it was close to the railway and had both water and sewerage services available. A mutually agreeable lease arrangement was reached. The Methven office controlled all of the Mid-Canterbury irrigations schemes and staff from Christchurch and Temuka were transferred there.

By 1955 the Public Works Department transferred their staff into Ashburton and the lease of the Methven land was terminated on 11 July 1957. At this date the site was described as cleared of all buildings except those purchased by the Council in 1956 and three further buildings purchased by members of the public. None of these remain on the site. In 1985 some of the original land was subdivided and sold leaving the current section Lot 2 DP 48204. When local bodies were amalgamated in 1989 the land became the property of the Ashburton District Council.

From this date the Pipe Shed building has been used for storage by the council or by others with council authority. It is centrally located on land which the council currently has no use for and its future is uncertain.

In terms of rarity, the Pipe Shed is an unusual example of adaptive reuse; the traditional kiwi propensity to 'make do' and utilize whatever materials are to hand. There are no known examples of buildings being constructed of concrete pipes elsewhere in New Zealand.

Physical Description

The Pipe Shed is made from one of the large circular concrete pipes made for the Rangitata Diversion Race (RDR) scheme in 1940. It is twelve feet in diameter (3.65 metres) and it is twelve feet long. It is lying on its side and both ends are closed with concrete walls four inches (c.100mm) thick. A timber floor provides a level internal base. There are timber louvered vents high in each end and a wooden door with a high step is in the eastern end. A freestanding flight of concrete steps and small landing gives access to the door. The Pipe Shed rests on a concrete foundation slab which was pre-cast for uses as one of the control gates for the race system. It is slightly cracked and broken, possibly through the impact of stock grazing around it, and the wooden wedges which stop the shed rolling from its base have decayed to some extent. The timber door has also suffered some damage and needs repair.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1940 - 1940

Construction Details

Concrete, with timber floor.

Completion Date

1st October 2004

Report Written By

Pam Wilson

Information Sources

Archives New Zealand (Dun)

Archives New Zealand (Dunedin)

DAIG D316 77b 'Irrigation Cantebury Methven-Ashburton area'; DAIG D316 49a WS6/25[1A] 'Rangitata Diversion Race Structures 1940-1943'.

Britten, 1991

Rosemary Britten, 'Between the Wind and the Water: Ashburton County Council 1876-1989', Ashburton 1991

Cant, 2001

Garth Cant & Russell Kirkpatrick, eds., Rural Canterbury: Celebrating its History, Wellington, 2001

Hopkinson, 1997

Glenys Hopkinson, 'Water Put to Work. A History of the Rangitata Diversion Race', Ashburton 1997

Noonan, 1975

Rosslyn J. Noonan, By Design: A Brief History of the Public Works Department Ministry of Works 1870-1970, Wellington, 1975

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.

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.