Lyttelton is situated on the lower slopes of the Port Hills and around the shores of a cove on the northern side of Lyttelton Harbour, about 5 miles west of the heads. By road Lyttelton is 12 miles south-east of Christchurch via Summer and Evans Pass; and is 7 miles by rail via Lyttelton Tunnel. The business and industrial section extends around the foreshore of the port, while the residential area is on the hillsides above. There is also a residential suburb at Diamond Harbour, about 1½ miles south of the town, on the opposite shore of the harbour. The harbour basin is protected by moles extending from the western and eastern limits of the cove. It has also been improved by dredging and by foreshore reclamation. The chief industrial activities of the town are engineering, ship-repair work, boatbuilding, and clothing manufacture. There are several large wool, produce, and cool stores at the port, also a graving dock. The port is the southern terminus of the Wellington-Lyttelton inter-Island steamship service.
So far as is known, the first European visitor to the district was Captain Chase in the Pegasus in 1809. The first whaling ship, Antarctic, entered the inlet in 1830. By the middle 1830s whaling had become established around the southern shores between the heads and Purau Bay (2 miles southeast). Permanent settlement began in the district at Purau in 1843 when the Greenwood brothers took up land. They were succeeded by the Rhodes brothers in 1847. The Gebbies and Mansons, who had been with the Deans brothers at Riccarton since 1843, settled at the head of the harbour about 1845. In 1848 Captain Thomas, chief surveyor of the Canterbury Association, selected the site for the Canterbury Settlement's capital and port. Stokes, commander of the Acheron, then surveying the coasts of Banks Peninsula, confirmed the choice. In 1849, when the deed of purchase of the Port Cooper district was signed at the site of present Lyttelton, the few Maoris living there moved to their reserve at Rapaki (3 miles west). Thomas landed in the same year and prepared for the reception and accommodation of the settlers, while E. Jollie laid out the town. J. R. Godley, the association's agent, arrived in April 1850 to find that rapid progress had been made, the first four ships with immigrants arriving in December to find a township already in being. The first problem was communication with Christchurch which, on 24 December, had been declared the capital. A road via Evans Pass and Sumner was not completed until 1857. In the meantime the Bridle Path over the Port Hills was cut for pack horses and pedestrian traffic, and alternative transport was provided by sea via the Heathcote Estuary. By 1857 the export trade of Canterbury had developed and showed signs of increasing, but the new road, however, was considered unsatisfactory for heavy traffic. In that year Moorhouse announced plans for the construction of a railway tunnel through the Port Hills. The first sod of the tunnel was turned at Heathcote on 17 July 1861 and work commenced from both sides. The first train went through on 18 November 1867 and on 9 December the line from Christchurch was opened.
Early in 1877 the Lyttelton Harbour Board was constituted and the harbour facilities were rapidly improved. The working of the wharves is now under the control of the New Zealand Railways. Goods and cargo are shipped directly to railway wagons and hauled to Christchurch or other stations. A municipal council was established in 1862 to administer certain town affairs; in 1868 full borough status was achieved. By 1911, because all suitable land in the borough had been built on, the acquisition of an additional area at Diamond Harbour was proposed. The incorporation of this area in the borough and the establishment of a ferry service was authorised by statute in the same year. In 1955 the growing importance of the port led to statutory authority being granted for the construction of a road tunnel between Lyttelton and Christchurch. The opening ceremony was performed by the Governor-General, Sir Bernard Fergusson, on 27 February 1964. The inlet, now named Lyttelton Harbour, was called Port Cooper in the early 1830s after a partner of the firm of Cooper and Levy. It was shown as Port Victoria on Thomas's map of 1849, but in 1858 the official name became Port Lyttelton, given in honour of Lord Lyttelton, chairman of the Canterbury Association.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 3,681; 1956 census, 3,589; 1961 census, 3,403.
by Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.