The Antigua Boat Sheds have a part in Christchurch’s early history that goes back over 130 years.
In 1882, two boat builders of Lyttleton, Messrs Albert Shaw and J.T. Tidd, erected large boat sheds on the Avon River by the Antigua Street Bridge. An illustrated guide to Christchurch, published in 1885, highlights the facilities for boating that were offered there:
“The sheds are the most complete in the colony. They have a landing stage with a frontage of 200 feet to the river, ladies’ waiting room and gentlemen’s dressing room, and besides all these easily house the 38 boats, accommodating from one to 15 persons each, the 16 canoes double and single, and 250 pairs of sculls and oars…”
In 1887, Mr Shaw became the sole proprietor of the Antigua Boat Sheds, having dissolved the partnership with Mr Tidd.
The boatsheds were taken over by Samuel Anstey of Fendalton in November 1896.
In The Press of 1902 and 1903, Anstey advertised that he had “70 well-built boats to choose from” and also a “photographic room for the use of visitors”. Scores of his glass-plate negatives remained in an attic above the Boat Sheds until they were transferred to the Canterbury Public Library.
Fire broke out in the Antigua Boat Sheds at about 6am on May 14, 1907. It had a good hold when the fire brigade arrived, and already half the roof on the eastern end of the sheds was falling in. Only half the building and half of the 70-or-so boats it contained were saved. In the sheds there was a stove – above which timber for making boats was steamed – and it was thought at the time that it was there that the fire had originated.
At this time there were a second (previously existing) set of boat sheds in existence on the Cambridge terrace side of the Avon River, just below the Montreal Street Bridge. Their proprietor was Mr W. Aitken, who had erected them in 1875. This was after having been granted permission to do so by the City Council, on condition he paid a ground rent of £5 (per annum!) and was not to charge more than a shilling an hour for the use of his boats. Sadly a devastating fire, lit by two arsonists, completely destroyed the Montreal Street Boat Sheds on August 3rd 1929. From then onwards, the only boatsheds within easy reach of the Botanic Gardens have been those at Antigua Street.
The late W.S. Dini became the proprietor of the Boat Sheds for 30 years from 1948 to 1978. It has been said that there was a touch of the Mediterranean boatman about him.
To a journalist who interviewed him in January 1960 he was able to show 77 colourful modern canoes made of moulded plastic reinforced with fiberglass – they were made on the premises. Obviously these boats were quite different to those used at the time of the boat shed opening.
During Mr Dini’s tenure In May 1964, the City Council gave its approval to a scheme that would realign Antigua Street and link it with Rolleston Avenue by a traffic bridge over the Avon. The proposal was not received with public enthusiasm and was finally abandoned, with the result that the quiet serenity of the river precinct near the hospital, public gardens and the Boat Sheds was left undisturbed.
Maurice & Diane Phipps bought the boat sheds in 1978. Then in 1986, the business was taken over by their daughter Sally and her husband Mike Jones, who continue to run the business today, clocking up their 25th anniversary in December of 2011.
In the same year of course, Christchurch experienced the devastating earthquake of the 22nd of February. The Boat Sheds had its fair share of breakages inside the café. However, apart from the deck which suffered minor damage, the rest of the old building survived due to recent renovation and strengthening work, happily becoming one of the relatively few historic buildings in Christchurch to escape largely unscathed.
Today the boat sheds operate as a family business with a strong sense of integrity and tradition. They continue to provide visitors with the chance to experience the enjoyment of kayak, canoe and rowboat hire on the Avon, just as they did when they first opened in the 19th century.