As waves tear away at the coastline south of Timaru, a piece of South Canterbury sporting history could be at risk of crumbling into the sea. Timaru Courier reporter Chris Tobin looks back over its past.
Timaru’s Caledonian Ground was once acclaimed as the best cycling track and sports facility nationwide and the venue for one of the biggest annual sports events in the country.
That was a long time ago.
These days the cycling track is run down, cracked and in need of resurfacing, although the football pitch inside the track is in good shape and the Timaru Football Club values it as its home ground.
But the big crowds seen at Caledonian meetings in the past are a thing of the past.
Candidates disagree on Patiti Point
“Start putting in a rock wall” has been offered as a first step to deal with erosion at Patiti Point.
The suggestion was made at a mayoral candidates’ meeting hosted by Grey Power last week.
South end resident Bob Langrish expressed concern about the erosion and asked the candidates what they were going to do to protect the amenities in southern Timaru, such as the Caledonian Ground.
Mayoral candidate Kari Mohoao said he was disappointed with the Timaru District Council and Environment Canterbury’s response to the erosion question.
“They’re going to do a study of what we already know – it’s eroding.”
He said the cultural significance of the area was immeasurable and if he was elected mayor, a rock wall would be installed.
Gordon Handy asked why the Timaru District Council had not got hold of earthmoving contractor Gary Rooney.
“It could be done. Gary Rooney has created rock walls at the Waitaki River. Why haven’t we got anything?
“We’ve got the expertise and it wouldn’t cost a lot of money.”
A third mayoral candidate Nigel Bowen said a rock wall would not be cheap and if residents wanted a rock wall, increased rates could be the result.
Patiti Point was the site of a battle between early Maori from around Arowhenua and Timaru led by Te Wanahu against Maori from the North Island.
In 1837 Joseph Price, representative of Weller Brothers, New South Wales whalers, established a shore station at the point.
After 1874 a collection of more than 20 sod huts was established known as Peerless Town which provided free lodging to what a local paper called “some of the worst characters that ever infested Timaru.”
The settlement was razed on the orders of immigration officials and Patiti Point was used as a battery base for firing howitzers.
In 1884 land at the point was ploughed to establish the Caledonian Ground.
Each year during the “Cale’s” halcyon days from the 1890s through to the 1970s thousands converged on the venue for the South Canterbury Caledonian Sports event on New Year’s Day and January 2 to watch some of the best cyclists, wood-choppers, Highland dancers, pipers and athletes in the country.
As society changed and people found other ways to spend their leisure time the event lost popularity and around 2004, it ended.
But the event had had a glorious run.
In the early 1900s a newspaper report stated 12,000 packed out the ground for one of the two days of the meeting.
As Timaru’s population at the time was only about 10,000 it would seem many came from out of town to attend.
In 1994 the late Jack McKinnon, a Highland pipe band piper who attended more than 50 annual Caledonian sports meetings, recalled crowds of 15,000 were the norm. The biggest in his memory was in 1938, when 20,000 turned out to see the Grenadier Guards band from England perform.
Again, that equated to roughly the total population of Timaru at the time.
A local paper around this time commented: “No other New Zealand sports ground has attracted such a galaxy of talent.”
Cycling has been the main sport at the ground since its early days. From names little known now but big in their day such as George Sutherland, the Arnst brothers Jack and Dick, Maurice Randrup, “Honolulu” Jones and a couple of Irish amateur world champions, “Irish” Reynolds and “Plugger” Bill Martin, through to Phil O’Shea in the 1920s and Timaru’s Colin Ryan in the 1970s and 1980s, cycling has featured large at the ground.
In more recent times Ryan’s son Marc, a world champion team pursuit rider and Olympic medallist, and Shane Archbold, Commonwealth champion and Tour de France rider, raced at the track in their formative years.
The ground has had many other users as well. Marching competitions featured for a long time and bands DD Smash and The Chills played there.
While the “Cale’s” future is uncertain, few others around the country would be able to match its rich past.
1884: The South Canterbury Caledonian Society gains a lease on a tussock-covered portion of a military reserve at Patiti Point. The society paid spent over two years.
1885: The tussocks are removed and a rough 228m track is created for the first SC Caledonian Sports event, followed later by a clay-banked cycling track which is asphalted, making it the best cycling venue in New Zealand.
1921: Springboks beat South Canterbury 34-3.
1930: British Lions beat combined South Canterbury-Mid Canterbury-North Otago in fiery match; Lions captain says he was bitten in match and has bite marks to prove it.
1944: Caledonian Society hands the ground over to Timaru Borough Council, asks for well as the right to use ground rent free on New Year’s Day and January 2; council agrees.
1950: World champion sprint cyclist Dutchman Arie Van Vliet, West Indian Olympic 400m champion Arthur Wint and the first man to break four minutes for the mile, Roger Bannister, compete.
1962: Olympic champion Peter Snell runs 4min 1sec mile, shortly before breaking world record in Whanganui.
1968: The ground becomes home to the Timaru Football Club.