Harry Ell and the Summit Road

Henry George Ell, commonly known as Harry Ell, was a Christchurch City Councillor and a New Zealand member of Parliment. He is famous for his conservation work around Christchurch’s Port Hills, his advocacy for the Summit Road, and his construction of the Sign of the Takahe and other road houses along the Summit Road.

Entrance, Sign of the Takahe, Christchurch [ca. 1925], CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0025
Entrance, Sign of the Takahe, Christchurch [ca. 1925], CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0025
Without Harry Ell's vision of a Summit Road the scenic reserves of the Port Hills would have been lost to Canterbury, and the extensive use made of the Port Hills by Christchurch people today (walking, jogging, mountain-biking) would not be possible.

Early life

Harry Ell was born  in Christchurch probably on the 24th of September 1862. From 1881 to 1884 he was a member of the Armed Constabulary in Taranaki, serving at Parihaka. When he returned to Christchurch he worked in a variety of jobs, including some years as a printer for the Christchurch Press. On 10 January 1892 Harry married Adelaide Eleanor Gee in Christchurch.

Involvement in politics

From 1884 Harry Ell had become interested in politics. He stood for parliament unsuccessfully in 1896, but won a seat in 1899 as an independent liberal, working for changes in society to help the underprivileged. While in Parliament he supported moves to introduce the old age pension, and a range of educational changes such as physical education in schools and a school dental service.

He remained involved in local politics, and was on the Christchurch City Council from 1917 to 1919, when he stood for the Lyttelton electorate, which included the Port Hills. He was defeated and did not win a seat in Parliament again.

The Summit Road scheme

Sign of the Bellbird [1920?], CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0076
Sign of the Bellbird [1920?], CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0076
Harry Ell was very interested in New Zealand's natural heritage and endangered species. He believed that areas of New Zealand should be preserved for their scenic beauty, and that forests should be maintained near river headwaters to limit flooding further downstream where there was farming.

After his defeat in local politics, he spent most of his time on his Summit Road scheme. In 1900 Ell had been successful in stopping the closure of different tracks on the hills, and from then on he had worked towards setting up a network of scenic reserves along the Port Hills, connected by a specially built road and rest-houses at regular gaps for walkers to stop at.

The first scenic reserve was set up at Kennedy's Bush in 1906 with help from the government and public fund-raising. Three rest-houses were later built: the Sign of the Bellbird, the Sign of the Kiwi, and the Sign of the Packhorse.

Sign of the Kiwi, Port Hills, Christchurch, showing toll gates [ca. 1930]
Sign of the Kiwi, Port Hills, Christchurch, showing toll gates [ca. 1930], CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0078
By the 1930s there were a string of reserves along the proposed road line, which had been surveyed from Godley Head to the Pigeon Bay saddle, and large parts of the Port Hills section of the road had been built.

Harry Ell's last years were spent supervising the construction of the fourth rest-house, the Sign of the Takahe. Relief workers, known as Ell's Angels, and an expert carver, Mary Sophia Douglas, helped in this work. Ell died on 27 June 1934 in Christchurch.

The two-storyed building of the Sign of the Takahe was not finally completed until 1949.


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