Born at Ilam Hall, Staffordshire, England, John Charles Watts-Russell and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Canterbury on the Sir George Seymour in 1850. A chronic asthmatic he was hoping for improved health in a different climate. He was supposedly the richest man among the Canterbury pilgrims and on arrival bought land in Lyttelton, 22,000 acres near the Deans’ station at Homebush, and a 500 acre block at Riccarton (cost £3.00 an acre) which he named "Ilam" after his birthplace. On this block he built a cob house which he leased together with the land, to a Mr John Carleton. The property was bounded by what are now known as Riccarton, Waimairi and Clyde Roads and the Waimairi Stream.
In 1856 Watts-Russell visited England and returned in 1858 with 20,000 bricks with which he had a home built on the Ilam property. In due course he moved into the two-storey house built on a brick foundation, the largest private residence in Canterbury at the time, and set about entertaining on a grand scale. Something of the splendour of Ilam in its earliest years was recorded by Lady Barker, the author of "Station Life in NZ" who described it as the most charming place she had then seen with the Avon winding through the grounds laid out in English fashion.
Watts-Russell served on the Canterbury Provincial Council and the Legislative Council. However he was more interested in sheep and horses than politics and was one of the first Canterury runholders to go in for sheep farming as distinct from agricultural farming. In association with another settler - Alfred Richard Creyke, the son of the vicar of Okeover, in England - Watts-Russell was largely instrumental in building up the Canterbury flock. Their work had far-reaching effects on the N.Z. economy.
A disastrous mistake was the introduction of rabbits to Canterbury, even encouraged by the planting of five acres of buckwheat as feed for them.
In 1866 Watts-Russell sold most of his property and returned to England, returning to NZ in 1871 where he died four years later aged 49 years. He was buried in St Peters Churchyard, Upper Riccarton where his grave can be seen today.
Mrs Watts-Russell was remarried to A.R. Creyke and the Ilam land was subdivided in 1880. Subsequent owners of the Ilam property were Leonard Harper, "Ready Money" Robinson, Patrick Campbell and G.D. Greenwood. In 1911 the house was burnt down. Later Edgar Stead rebuilt the house and sold the property to the University of Canterbury. He planted the well-known azalea and rhododendron garden and his home is now the University of Canterbury Staff Club.
- Living with the past: historical buildings of the Waimairi District. Christchurch, NZ: Waimairi District Council, 1988
- Storer, Audrey. Light and life : the memorial stained glass and some notable graves of St Peter’s, Upper Riccarton, Christchurch, New Zealand. Lincoln, NZ: Te Waihora Press, 1990.