Quarters and Quarantine: Immigrants’ barracks and quarantine depots in colonial Canterbury

Grant Hughes

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Quarters and Quarantine

Immigrants’ barracks and quarantine depots in colonial Canterbury

Grant Hughes


Immigrant’s barracks were first residences, albeit temporary, for thousands of immigrants into Canterbury in the second half of the nineteenth century, yet little is generally known about them. Not much was written at the time because of the position they occupied between the old life and the new and they were soon forgotten. Few who kept diaries or wrote reminiscences considered them worth mentioning.

Barracks were nothing new to some arrivals, similar facilities built in England to house migrants until their ships sailed, concentrating migrants in dock areas seen as a means to ensure full ships. It had also been found that when migrants were left to their own devices in the cities many, especially the more sought after classes, stayed in England. It’s uncertain when the first one was built in England but it may have been a development of those in New Zealand as one in Blackwall, London was not opened until 1874.

An account of the depot at Plymouth gave an impression of trying to keep spirits high, perhaps against individuals getting cold feet and not embarking. In addition to singing, card-playing and needlework there were mass religious services and speeches on such topics as ‘our mutual obligations’. The chief morale booster was the food, considered plentiful and good, typically roast beef or mutton. Some migrant commented that they hadn’t had so much beef since last Christmas. Holloway said that it was Sunday dinners every day of the week at the depot.

Comments varied, possibly according to the different backgrounds of individuals. G. Kimber at Plymouth about the same time described the food as dirty, badly handled and said he couldn’t eat it. Tea and bread served later that day ‘went down quite a comfort’. He described the reception as bad and they had to sleep in stalls with only one thin cotton rug as a covering. For decency’s sake he couldn’t undress and was still cold and couldn’t sleep. 

Discipline was relatively strict. Once, when migrants had been allowed to go into town, a few had returned drunk so all were confined to the depot until the boat sailed.

The importance of the barracks to immigrants was stated in 1862 – to provide favorable treatment and thereby create a favorable impression of the colony. The writer, George Joblin, considered that they were more important than ‘ministers and schoolmasters, cathedrals and churches, railroads and bridges’. He also said that while shipboard conditions were incompatible with ‘ decency and cleanliness’, and consequently with comfort and self respect, the fact that they were inescapable and the migrant was travelling hopefully meant that he submitted to them. Attitudes changed, however, on arrival in the colony and there was no justification for expecting immigrants to accept similar treatment in the barracks following their arrival. Justified or not, such conditions did exist.


Christchurch Area Barracks


Originally Port Cooper, Lyttelton was the first capital of the Canterbury settlement and remained its chief town for many years and, as the port through which migrants entered Canterbury, it was naturally the site of the first barracks.  Together with a number of other buildings, they were erected by builders brought in from Hobart for the purpose, twenty or thirty in number, who traveled by two vessels, the Rebecca and the Camilla and were led by James Johnstone. It was originally intended that the same gang build the barracks at Christchurch but that was not to be, in spite Captain Thomas (Chief Surveyor for the Canterbury Association) having described them as ‘a passable lot’. Indeed, when the Lyttelton barracks were finished in mid-1850 he wrote that he would send ‘the stuff’ to Sumner to be shipped up the Avon to Christchurch but barracks were not built there until 1859, and then by George Cliff. Apparently the reasons were  that Godley had arrived in 1850 and been critical of Thomas’s expenditure, and Torlesse had written the previous year that Thomas was showing signs of unfitness for his duties and that he was antagonizing people and attending to public works (which included the barracks), instead of extending the survey, the job for which he’d been employed. Thomas resigned in December 1850.

The buildings erected by Captain Thomas were described by him in a letter of 1850 and among those erected for the reception of immigrants were

four large emigration barracks holding from 200 to 300 people (nearly completed); kitchen and wash house, privies, well 44 feet deep, agent’s house, agent’s office, agent’s stable – all enclosed with fence and gates.


Location and arrangement of the buildings was documented in a contemporary drawing by William Fox and in Jollie’s 1849 map of Lyttelton. Conditions in the wooden, shingle-roofed buildings were spartan. Three years after completion Henriette Torlesse described one as a ‘long empty room’, ship’s beds being brought in and travel boxes used to make a dividing wall.

In August 1850 John Robert Godley said that with the two hotels in Lyttelton as well as the barracks that there would be useful temporary accommodation for a large body of settlers. It was not, however, enough for the settlers who arrived by the first four ships and while the barracks took all they could, with the arrival of the fourth vessel, Cressy, the single men had to move out to make room for the new arrivals. They erected tents and built sod huts at the rear of the barracks which were included in Fox’s sketch.

Built to hold 300 the barracks took 500, overcrowding partly due to some of the cabin passengers being permitted to stay, albeit without benefit of the week’s rations with which assisted immigrants were provided. 

Conditions on arrival were doubtless an anti-climax and a disappointment to the early colonists. One recalled that they had put on their best clothes in anticipation of arrival but began to cry when they learned there were only the barracks to go to (though someone else suggested there were tears because there were no shops).

Exclusive use of the Lyttelton buildings for immigrant accommodation was short-lived, though one unit performed the role for some years. As early as 1851 Godly wrote to the secretary of the Canterbury Association about using part of the complex as an educational institution for young gentlemen. Early that year a start was made on converting two of the buildings, one to house a public or grammar school, the other the collegiate. The school, run by Reverend Cotterill, subsequently became Christs College and had moved to Christchurch by 1852. The collegiate was the precursor of Canterbury University. Conditions in both institutions was primitive, wooden stools the only furniture.

Another of the buildings stood on what was, ironically, later the site of the British Hotel, fitted out as a temporary church and with the Reverend Dudley as minister. He recalled that great pride was lavished on the church, in which services were held morning and evening for eight years. In it were displayed a pair of brass candlesticks originally intended for the cathedral. Taken as indicative of high church views they offended some immigrants and were later removed. Sunday services were reportedly well attended.

Another of the barracks was converted to a reading and public room and may have been the one which Mrs. Whitmore recalled as having been called ‘the court house’ for many years. Diversification at Lyttelton was evidently a gradual process which went on around the transient population of the remaining barrack(s).

The short term nature of a stay in the barracks seems to have been the only thing that made it bearable but it doubtless suited authorities to keep it that way and move migrants through as quickly as possible. Conditions were cramped, with perhaps three people in a ten by twelve foot room which served as bedroom, dining room and kitchen and in which they also had to house their belongings. It was perhaps not surprising that one migrant complained that his sleep was disturbed by the fleas, which were ‘numerous and lively’.

A number of factors caused the decline of the Lyttelton depot. The barracks had been built by the Canterbury Association whose affairs Henry Sewell was appointed to wind up in 1853. The assets were transferred to the Provincial Government but the center of activity had moved to Christchurch which would have made maintaining barracks at Lyttelton an unattractive

proposition.  The Lyttelton barracks had been built to cope with large numbers of migrants arriving at one time, but numbers needed to make maintaining them a practical proposition did not occur again until the late 1850s and, had they not performed other functions, the barrack buildings would have been empty much of the time.


As a footnote, David Macmillan in ‘By-ways of a history of medicine’ wrote that in 1870 the Lyttelton hospital closed and that the last two patients and some equipment were transferred to the immigrants’ barracks. Presumably that was to empty buildings rather than a functioning unit, there being no evidence of a depot operating in Lyttelton as late as 1870/



Market Square


The barracks built in Market (later Victoria) Square were sometimes referred to as the ‘Christchurch depot’. Built about 1859 by George Cliff they were the first built by the Provincial Government and market a new era in immigrant accommodation.  Of wood with a shingled roof surmounted by a three-window elevation the barracks faced north, the rear being on Armagh Street where they adjoined the jail, sited on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Armagh Street. 


The building functioned as barracks for an uncertain length of time. It closed when the ‘old police depot’ opened. That building was occupied by the police in 1862 but when the first immigrants were accommodated wasn’t known.



The Market Square was subsequently occupied by the fire brigade and demolished when the service moved to new premises in Chester Street in 1876 and the area was later the site of a Paddy’s mill.





Barracks had been erected at Addington by December 1863 and Samuel Bealey declared the buildings erected on Rural Section 72 to be immigrant’s barracks within the terms of the ordinance passed in December of the previous year.


The depot at Addington was well situated to receive immigrants transported by rail from Lyttelton. Built to take up to 400, the buildings were arranged around a quadrangle and divided into accommodation for single men, single women and families.  The latter were housed in individual apartments and the single adults (anyone over twelve) were in 14-bed dormitories. Wash houses, bathrooms, day and dining rooms were all attached.


Until his retirement in 1892 Arthur Alfred Smith was the officer in charge at Addington and his wife matron. During the thirty years an estimated 20,000 immigrants passed through the depot.



The Old Police Depot


Te police depot on the north side of Armagh Street a little west of Madras Street was used to take migrants from Addington who had either stayed seven days without finding employment or who had been hired but not found other accommodation. Originally a ‘horse depot’ the building had cells for prisoners. In a letter to The Lyttelton Times in July 1874 “A New Chum’ complained that his quarters at Armagh Street had been a cell, the concession to his non-criminal status being the replacement of the barred door with a more conventional one. The cell was otherwise as it had last been occupied by prisoners, ‘choice compositions in both prose and verse’ still evident on the walls. ‘A New Chum’ went on to say


As my wife cannot read and is, like most of Eve’s daughters a little curious, she wanted to know what all the writing was about, so I had the pleasant task of pretending to read them to her, converting them into what scriptural texts I could remember, upon which she remarked ‘Dear me. I wonder what they locked the poor fellows up for, they must all have been religious.


Although accommodation in the barracks was free, immigrants were charged six shillings a week for a stay at the Armagh Street depot. This roused another correspondent to cry ‘shame’ and point out that at the time the rent for a three room brick house in England was only three shillings a week. He (or she) also suggested that the government build cottages to take the place of the depot.


It was unclear when the depot last housed new arrivals, but in 1884 the property passed from the Crown to the North Canterbury and Ashburton Charitable Aid Fund, who used it as a distribution centre for food and clothing during the depression of that decade. The building was occupied by police between 1862 and 1874.




The Barracks System


Accounts of various aspects of the workings of individual depots were written at various times and the overall picture of how the barracks operated was to some extent a composite which assumed that, broadly speaking , processes in one barracks were followed elsewhere (in the absence of evidence to the contrary).


The barracks were closely associated with the police in a number of ways including location, medical services and possibly staff. The Master at Addington was an ex-sergeant of police. In 1866 the annual salary of the Master and Matron was €160.


The depot was to provide free housing and food to immigrants and to aid them in finding employment and also to provide information which would be useful in establishing immigrants in Canterbury.


Regulations to govern the administration of the barracks and behavior of occupants were passed by the Provincial Government were passed in 1862. No one was allowed to communicate with the immigrants without the approval of depot authorities.


The day was strictly regulated. Residents had to rise at 6a.m. in summer, 7a.m. in winter, clean their compartment, empty slops and put bedding to air before compulsory muster at 8a.m. Lights-out was at 9p.m. when all had to be in their rooms. There were bans on swearing, smoking and drinking ‘to excess’. Perhaps not surprisingly they were unfavourably compared with boarding schools. Anyone who left the barracks was not re-admitted. According to an 1874 Lyttelton Times account of the barracks, in earlier years immigrants had been allowed to make trips into town but some had abused the privilege and it was withdrawn. In all probability ‘abuse’ equated to returning drunk. Christopher Holloway12 reported virtually the same occurrence in barracks in England. 


Food served in the barracks was almost universally considered good, but many of those who emigrated as assisted passengers in the 1870s were no strangers to hunger and conditions at the time in the south and east of England meant that a bread diet was the norm and meat a luxury13. Large numbers left from these areas for New Zealand.


In 1866 the weekly food ration per person was 450g each of meat (usually mutton), bread and potatoes, 15g tea, 60g sugar and 8g salt, the cost at the time marginally over a shilling (10 cents). The ration was the same as that for public hospital patients.  One settler wrote that he had boiled mutton and bread at the barracks and thought it the best [he] had ever tasted.22


 At Lyttelton in the early 1850s immigrants had to do their own cooking or pay to have it done, and had to buy bread from a local baker15 but, clearly, later mass immigration made these practices impractical.


Apart from social difficulties caused by crowding both aboard ship and in the barracks, there was an ever-present risk of contagious disease which spread rapidly in such conditions. An immigrant who stayed a few days at Addington in 1874 said that he’d not had his clothes off and, because of over-crowding he had to bed down on one of the mess room tables at night! 


The barracks shared a medical officer with other government institutions, including police, jail and lunatic asylum. Dr. John Coward, who held the post from 1866 for an unknown period was formerly the Christchurch area coroner.


Not until 1874 was provision made for the care of lying-in cases at Addington.


‘The conduct of immigrants both aboard ship and in the barracks following their arrival in Canterbury was a controversial subject in the mid-1860s, and was seen by some to be major problem at the time. Blame was attributed to the character of the single women, and at a public meeting held in 1868 a Mr. Cutler asserted that most of the single women imported were prostitutes. He called on those present to look at the scenes which took place at the immigration barracks, and then… say whether or not there was any excuse for a lone female who went astray in a strange land, without a home, without friends, without sympathy. These females were seduced, in many cases, by young vagabonds who were afterwards received into the houses of the high and mighty of the land.


Mr. Cutler acknowledged that his remarks would be unpalatable to many and that most of those for whom they were intended had left the platform


Other criticisms were mad of the character of the girls selected. In 1866 in the Lyttelton Times those who had arrived by one ship were described as ignorant depraved girls…picked up haphazard from the lowest haunts of infamy and vice. In response, the Immigration Agent claimed many of the women selected were ‘contaminated’ on the long voyage and that shipboard immorality could be prevented by the provision of a matron. He also said that these voyages scandalized by implication every woman who made them. Whatever the origins, the perceived scandal carried over into the immigrants’ barracks, and doubtless beyond. 


In defense of the procedure for selecting immigrants H.S.Selfe, English agent of the province, considered it ‘sheer folly’ that Canterbury could be sent shiploads of selected angels guaranteed against the possibility of failure, suggesting the cause of any problem to be a combination of the character of immigrants and the moral weakness of others in the crowding shipboard and in the barracks following arrival.


The agent had suggested in a letter to the Provincial Secretary in July 1863 that any corruption may have occurred at the Lyttelton depot where men and women too, with whom no young woman could be safely trusted, might be seen rambling at please about the promises.


The morality issue was undoubtedly the reason for statements in the pamphlet of information for intending emigrants19 and the Lyttelton Times article on the Addington depot, which stated that single men and women were on no account allowed to mix. The waiting rooms for employers were also segregated. The situation seemed farcical when the long voyage which preceded the stay in the barracks was considered.



It was also possible that the reputation of the ‘barracks’ suffered from association with that name. In a letter to the Lyttelton Tines (29th November 1862) George Joblin wrote

To the rural mind there is something repulsive in the term. They associate it with the idea of immorality, and are not slow in expressing their aversions and contempt at anything connected with it. The lady of high or low degree who frequents such a place or is often seen in its vicinity is generally regarded by them as being ‘no better than she should be’.




A major involvement of the barracks, at least from the 1870s on, was provision of opportunities for employment  of occupants. In the early 1860s it had been the practice for the agent in England to dispatch by the faster overland route lists of those who had sailed for the colony. When the vessel arrived prospective employers boarded and used the lists to target prospective employees. Those not employed could, if they wished, go to the barracks. At the time this was always the case for women, less so for men who readily found work on one of the public schemes then in progress.


By the mid 1870s the practice had changed, probably due to the large numbers of arrivals and the need that the government had perceived to oversea the hiring of immigrants because of problems in earlier years. Now immigrants were taken directly to Addington by train where they were allowed two clear days in which to do any domestic chores (washing, mending etc.) made necessary by the long sea voyage. On the third day the arrival of the immigrants and their readiness for work having been advertised in the newspaper, the depot was thrown open to employers.


The new system enabled the government to give immigrants an elementary education in the ways of the colony, especially the local conditions of employment, desirable because there had been instances of migrants holding out for unrealistically high rates of pay  having been misled about what to expect and ultimately being put our of the depot without employment.  As part of the education process lists of current wage rates for various occupations were displayed in all compartments of the barracks. At no stage did immigrants have any guarantee of employment.


The impression of the hiring process is of an animal market without the bidding. Prospective employers could apply to the immigration officer in advance of the arrival of a vessel and were allowed to select in order of application. The officer could refuse entry to the hiring room by anyone not known to him and not carrying a letter of introduction from a citizen of known good character


.During hiring the barracks master and matron were present to point out individuals they thought might satisfy particular requirements. In an institution which held up to 400 individuals who would have been there three or four days at most the task must have been perfunctory in most cases.


Waiting rooms were provided in which employers could interview immigrants. Those for individuals wanting to hire domestic servants (alias the single women) were attached to the barracks matron’s residence In the matter of employment the government emphasized the care that was taken to protect the interests of the immigrants, especially the unattached women. A Lyttelton Times account of the Addington depot said that every care [was] taken to see that engagements are ‘bona fide’ and that the persons who employ the immigrants, especially the single women, are reputable.


To some the practices of the immigration department were seen as over-protective. In a letter to the Lyttelton Times in January 1868 ‘Employer’ complained that barracks matrons were assisting migrants to find employers, rather than employers to find servants. They would not send servants where the living was rough and he also complained that the matron told servants that they need not stay in a job which didn’t suit them as they’d soon get another.


A separate ‘agreement room’ was provided in which engagements were arranged under supervision of an officer of the department. A record of each was kept and arrangements could be broken subject to a month’s notice from wither party.


To refuse any ‘reasonable’ offer of work supposedly meant instant dismissal from the barracks but in times of unemployment it’s hard to see people turning down job offers and in times of full employment other jobs would have been available. At any rate a maximum of five days board could have had very limited coercive power and the fact that all employment was virtually arranged on the basis of a month’s trial meant that there was little reason to turn it down. The regulation doubtless reflected the need to have accommodation available for passengers on the next immigrant vessel. In 1851 passengers arriving by the Castle Eden showed no signs of leaving the barracks and fending for themselves and, in an attempt to force them out, employers were asked not to hire any of them.


The immigration department may be thought somewhat inconsistent in the matter of employment, acknowledging the need to protect new arrivals yet allowing them such a short time in the barracks. Demand for space aside, the character of those administering the system strongly influenced how it was applied.  The system may have been mollified as a result of criticism in April 1863 when it was said that those who’d not been found work (and presumably been turned out of the barracks) were turning to crime.


Immigrants had to leave the depot even before starting their new jobs, but could go to the Old Police Depot, where they paid six shillings a week board and lodgings. In a letter to the paper one person complained that he’d been forced to leave late Saturday after getting a job he was to start on Monday. Regulations allowed a 48 hour grace period but, again, it seems application varied according to individual officers or demand for space at the time


Another issue was that of decentralization or setting up smaller depots away from centers of population, an idea proposed in 1873 by William Rolleston, Superintendant of Canterbury, who was concerned about the effects that disease could and did have in the barracks and the discontent that spread through them where work was not immediately obtainable.  He said that he had known a shipload infected with discontent by the relics of the previous shipload, who ought to have been draughted away.


Rolleston may also have been concerned with the problem of immorality among the immigrants, for in a mention to the Colonial Secretary he mentioned his disquiet about ‘other evils’ which arose from keeping large numbers of immigrants in centers of population.


Rolleston called tenders for the construction of a depot to house twenty families in Ashburton, of which the lowest was £1,950. He asked central government to pay half and emphasized that he considered it to be a matter of importance. They subsequently paid £750, but only after they’d tried unsuccessfully to get Rolleston to agree to house the immigrants in tents instead.


Although some of the rural barracks were purpose-built, many were adaptations of existing buildings.  In Oxford in 1879 German immigrants were housed in a hotel, unused because no licence had been granted. In centers of greater population a miscellany of buildings was used when pressure of numbers made it necessary. In rural areas cottages were sometimes used.


Rural barracks or cottages operated differently to those in the city. Immigrants could stay for extended periods for a small rental, these buildings apparently serving to help migrants settle in areas where there was otherwise no housing to move to.


These facilities also had their problems. In 1879 immigrants at Peress Town in Timaru were the subject of a court action. They were to pay rent of two shillings a week for cottages but caused the local government constant trouble through non-payment, residents convinced that they were entitled to free housing.  


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Quarters and Quarantine: Immigrants’ barracks and quarantine depots in colonial Canterbury by Grant Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License