Happy birthday John R Godley

Last updated 05:00 29/05/2014

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OPINION: When the first four ships of the Canterbury Association arrived in Lyttelton in December 1850, John Robert Godley was there to meet them. His wife, Charlotte, recorded that Godley - regarded to this day as the "Founder of Canterbury" - didn't know whether to laugh or cry as the first settlers came ashore. She wrote, "I believe [he] ended by doing both".

Godley only lived here for 2 years, yet his influence on the fledgling colonial outpost was profound. Edward Gibbon Wakefield might have been the Canterbury Association's visionary, but Godley was its original pragmatist. That the settlement never achieved its ideal of a model Anglican colony was not Godley's fault, even if such a thing was ever thought desirable. He advocated for local self-determination, left to return to England in 1852 and he was prematurely dead from tuberculosis in 1861 at the age of 47. The city, in the end, became what it became without him.

His biographer, Gerald Hensley, noted that the people of Christchurch erected a statue to Godley in 1867 "and then forgot about him". That couldn't be true, if only because they were constantly reminded of Godley by controversy each time city officials tried to move the statue - and when they built a tramway stop in front of it, blocking the founding father's view. He at last returned to his rightful position in the centre of the Square in 1933 and, to this day, Godley is still regarded with affection, at least by the descendants of those pioneers. The sight of the statue, broken and fallen face-down, toppled by the earthquake of February 2011, somehow seemed emblematic of the tragedy that befell the city.

Today marks Godley's bicentenary, so it is fitting to pause and consider that we owe even the name of our city to Godley, who called it Christchurch after the Oxford college where he was educated. The rest is open to debate. Society's view of him, be it as a well-regarded and practical pioneer, or as an elitist and ethnocentric colonist, is likely to be determined by the mood of the times and the cultural filters of the people holding the opinion. But he was the first leader of the Pakeha settlement of Christchurch and deserves to be celebrated as such.

What he would make of Christchurch today is a moot point, and before we assume that he would weep for our broken city, we should understand that he was not considered a very sentimental man. Rather, he seemed to enjoy being considered the "notorious author of the great Canterbury failure" in his own era.

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Godley's inspiration is perhaps a message of optimism and promise - start from the bare ground and build something, whatever it is destined to become. Perhaps his proper legacy is that the city he founded has always worked to overcome its setbacks and disadvantages.

- The Press

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