Alexander Lean, 1824 – 1893

Mount Hutt: an old up-country homestead
Mount Hutt : an old up-country homestead [189-], CCL Photo Collection 22, Img02302
Alexander Lean was an early Christchurch resident who failed as a farmer but made an impact on the city with his architectural skills, and involvement in music and territorial soldiering. He encouraged his fellow pioneers to become patriotic and cultured citizens.

Sheep-farmer and architect

In 1851, Alexander Lean, architect, arrived in Lyttelton, on the Fatima, with his wife, Clara, and substantial capital. He built Riverlaw in Heathcote Valley and held runs at Rakaia, his favourite being Mount Hutt. A failure at farming in spite of the boom years, Lean was bankrupt by 1865. He then went to work for the Provincial Council as an architect and clerk of works.

The old Supreme Court building, Christchurch
The old Supreme Court building, Christchurch [ca. 1930], CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0039
In Christchurch, Lean designed the Gothic-style Supreme Court building. Completed in the prosperous 1870s, the structure was criticised for draughtiness and poor acoustics. Its pinnacles and towers were eventually stripped away in the 1980s, the destruction of the ‘Great Hall’ being one of the city’s worst acts of cultural vandalism 1.

The Volunteers

Gazetted lieutenant of the Canterbury Engineer Volunteers in 1865, Lean became district commander in 1882, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He fought bureaucratic indifference to obtain a capitation grant, revived Easter encampments and held field days to familiarise the Volunteers with the sea-line from Kaiapoi to Port Levy. Eventually the enthusiasm and efficiency of the rank-and-file was such that this first line of defence would have acquitted itself well against an invasion by the Russian bear. (Invasion by the Russians was a common fear in the 1880s).

Public life

Alexander Lean was heavily involved in other aspects of public life. He was a visiting justice to Sunnyside Asylum, trying  to help those confined there. He was Secretary to the Christchurch Domains Board, and shared his knowledge of tree-planting to make Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens more attractive.

He was called on to arrange civic functions with varying success. In 1869, he had organised the Provincial Council Chambers ball for Queen Victoria’s son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. It was not Lean’s fault that the duke’s host, Clarendon Hotel publican, George Oram, assaulted the artist, J.C. St. Quentin; nor that the randy young royal danced with a woman of ill-repute known as ‘the Mermaid’. In 1886 he helped arrange the luncheon for naval expert, Admiral Tryon.


Lean was a violinist and sang in the Liedertafel. His favourite pastime was to gather friends for an afternoon of chamber music. In 1871 he established the city’s first orchestral society. Three years later, the list of members included most of the city’s leading  performers, there was an extensive musical library and a sum in hand for current expenses 2. The symphonic repertoire had not yet been widely accepted into the concert life of Britain; Lean argued, nevertheless, that the symphony should be the raison d’etre of his Antipodean group. He conducted more than 40 symphonies and overtures by Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Gluck and Weber. Sometimes there were subscriber only concerts; at other times all were welcome.

One critic argued that, if the society contented itself with producing one great work at each concert, filling up with lighter music, avoiding even the appearance of the severe, their treasury would fill better3. Many found Lean’s programmes, and his admission prices, too heavy. In 1878, the society folded.


The Volunteers, probably the North Canterbury Rifle Battalion
The Volunteers, probably the North Canterbury Rifle Battalion [ca. 1905], CCL PhotoCD 18, IMG0040
Clara Lean died in 1885. Of the couple’s 13 children, five had died in infancy.

The colonel’s last years were spent in the company of four unmarried daughters. On 20 November 1893, in High Street, Alexander Lean, 69, collapsed and died. His son-in-law, Dr. Henry Prins stated that death was the result of a long-standing heart complaint. Constable Henry Slater, who appropriately was a fellow Volunteer, carried the body to the deceased’s home.

The funeral was a grand Victorian affair. Flags flew at half-mast, the Cathedral bells tolled, the Garrison Band played the Dead March, a huge crowd gathered and the prosperous ensured that they were named in the list of mourners. Four black horses drew the gun-carriage which carried the coffin, the colonel’s old white charger coming behind. Volunteer corps led and followed the hearse. At the Riccarton Cemetery, trooper C.F. Turner played Lean’s favourite, the andante from Beethoven’s B flat trio, and Chopin’s Funeral March.


Books & theses


  • ‘Prince Alfred in Canterbury,’ Star, 24 April 1869 p 2
  • ‘Orchestral Society’, Star, 2 May 1872 p 2
  • ‘Orchestral society’, Star, 9 May 1873 p 4
  • ‘Orchestral Society ’, Star, 6 January 1874 p. 2
  • ‘Concert’, Star, 14 January 1876 p 2
  • ‘Obituary: Colonel Lean’, Star, 20 November 1893 p 3
  • ‘Funeral of Colonel Lean’, Star, 23 November 1893 p 3


Brian W. Pritchard, Lean, Alexander – Biography, from the Dictionary of New Zealand biography; Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.


Burke Manuscript, Christchurch City Libraries


  1. Canterbury Heritage: Christchurch 1880: Canterbury Provincial Council & Supreme Court buildings
  2. ‘Orchestral society’, Star, 6 January 1874, page 2.
  3. ‘Concert’, Star, 14 January 1876, page 2.
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