An enthusiastic naturalist and visionary, Harry Ell worked tirelessly to develop reserves and ensure their preservation in the face of expanding settlement.
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Henry George Ell was born on a farm in Halswell, Christchurch, in 1862 and spent much of his youth exploring Kennedy's Bush. After leaving school at the age of 15 Harry worked in a variety of roles ranging from museum attendant to printer at the Christchurch Press. From 1884 Harry became involved in politics. He served as Member of Parliament from 1899 to 1919 and as a Christchurch City Councillor. His concern for the diminishing native bush in New Zealand set him on a course that would lead to the foundation of New Zealand's first scenic reserves. Read more about Harry Ell.(external link)
Energetic and tenacious, Harry Ell was known in the political arena for his radical policy proposals and was a champion for not only the environment but for dental nurses in schools, pensions and mental health awareness. Already having played a significant role in stopping the closure of a number of Port Hills tracks in 1900 and in the passing of the Scenery Preservation Bill in 1903, his interest in New Zealand's natural heritage, plants and ecology eventually lead to the vision of a Summit Road to connect tracks and reserves between Christchurch and Akaroa.
Twenty hectares (49 acres) of Kennedy's Bush became New Zealand's first scenic reserve in 1906 and by the early 1930s a series of reserves in the Port Hills totalling over 200 hectares (500 acres) had been obtained through gifts and purchases. The Summit Road's construction began in 1908 in the hope that it would provide pedestrian and eventually vehicle access to the reserves and walking tracks in the Port Hills. Harry Ell was a major employer during the depression of the 1920s and 1930s with over 1000 men working on his Summit Road. The final section of the road to be completed was in 1938 between Dyers Pass Road and Evans Pass.
Intended to sit along the Summit Road, 14 rest houses were proposed to provide refreshments to those exploring the Port Hills scenic reserves. In the end, four were built: Sign of the Bellbird (1914), Sign of the Kiwi (1916), Sign of the Packhorse(external link) (1916 to 17) and Sign of the Takahe (1918 to 1948). The Sign of the Packhorse is managed by the Department of Conservation and is scheduled as a Highly Significant heritage item in the district plan. Read the Christchurch City Council’s Statement of Significance(external link).
Three of the rest houses, Bellbird, Kiwi and Packhorse, were designed by prominent architect Samuel Hurst Seager. All three were built from local stone and reflect the arts and crafts style in the way they blend with the natural landscape.
Sign of the Bellbird operated as a caretaker's cottage and tearoom and was even used as a post office and a telephone bureau for some time. Today, it provides welcome shelter to walkers. Sign of the Packhorse maintains its original use as a rest house and is currently managed as a historic tramping hut by the Department of Conservation. Sign of the Kiwi originally operated as a toll house and a tearoom and today is a popular cafe and information centre.
The fourth rest house, Sign of the Takahe, began construction in 1918 and was envisioned to be the finest of them all. The stunning two story Gothic-style building was designed by J G Collins to be a fitting entrance to the Summit Road scheme. Although the building wasn't completed until 1949, well after Harry's death, a section opened in 1920 and served as the Tram Terminus rest house and tearoom. In more recent years it has been a restaurant and function room and will return to that use once earthquake strengthening and repairs are completed.
The Summit Road has become the main access from Christchurch to the Port Hills. Since completion, Sunday afternoon drives and walks in the hills have become a major recreational pursuit for residents and visitors alike. In 1948 the modern Summit Road Society(external link) was founded by Harry Ell's grandson John Jameson and the Society's efforts continue to enhance, preserve and protect the nature, beauty and character of the Port Hills for future generations.
In November 2016, the spirit of Harry Ell's vision was honoured with the opening of Te Ara Pataka(external link), or the Summit Walkway, by the Rod Donald Trust(external link) and the Department of Conservation(external link). This 35-kilometre signposted track links Gebbies Pass in Lyttelton to Hilltop Tavern above Akaroa and takes two and a half days to complete.
Be sure to visit the Harry Ell Walkway in Victoria Park for a short walk encompassing stunning scenery and native plantings.