Keys to the City

Did you ever wonder where the concept of locking things up came from? The reality of human nature seems to be that ever since people have owned things that are deemed valuable, they need to be protected from theft. Not to mention the need for personal protection – locking yourself in away from harm, or locking away those things or people that have been deemed unsafe to others.

 

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it is thought that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans developed mechanical locks independently from each other – highlighting the collective unconscious need to protect one’s valuables and person from this unseemly side of human nature. The idea evolved from the use of simple knots to detect if anyone had attempted to tamper with a locked place, and as time went on, locks made from wood and metal were developed and the security that they provided increased (History of Keys 2016).

Alexander the Great 'unlocks?' the Gordian knot. Image

Alexander the Great unlocks? the Gordian Knot. Image: Rugs 4.

 

We find several types of locks in the work that we carry out in Christchurch. Door locks from the pre-1900 houses that we record, and padlocks from excavations of pre-1900 material. The concept of a padlock is a great one! We have the Chinese from about 1000 BC to thank for the invention of a portable apparatus, the size and uses of which are so versatile that we can lock all manner of things up and away. The idea travelled to Europe via trade with the Romans several centuries later and the heart cast type became popular for locking up railway cars and controls, as they were durable in dirty and freezing conditions (History of Keys 2016).  These days we’re not just using them for railroads – they work well to secure static latches that have been fixed to the outside of a door or cupboard to keep it closed, or on the inside of a door to lock yourself in a room. How convenient! Latch and lock types that work well for this are hasp latches, and sliding bolt locks – the kind you might use on your garden shed, or on a public locker.

A hasp latch (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

A hasp latch (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

A sliding bolt is a bar which can be attached to a door and slid into a catch on the door frame to hold a door closed (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

A sliding bolt is a bar which can be attached to a door and slid into a catch on the door frame to hold a door closed (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

Padlocks consist of an enclosed body (housing), and curved bar (shackle) that is passed through a loop and secured (Priess 2002: 79). The housing shapes can vary, being symmetrical or asymmetrical, and some had key hole covers. These covers were originally attached with hinges, which were later replaced by pivoted examples. These keyhole covers can also offer additional dating and origin information as they were often stamped with maker’s marks. A popular mark was “VR”, after Queen Victoria during her reign 1837-1901 (Priess 2002: 81). Padlocks are a lock type which have been favoured historically for their flexibility, and because they are simple to make, with few working parts. But on the flip side, their simple structure means they are also easy to break open (Priess 2002: 82).

Cast iron padlock from an archaeological deposit west of the central city.

Cast iron padlock from an archaeological deposit west of the central city.

Door locks are more complicated in manufacture and form. The idea is simple – “A lock is any key-operated device attached to a door and equipped with a bolt or other member to keep the door closed” (Butter 1968: 163). But the 19th century saw many innovations in door lock technology. The most notable were the changes in material used – from wrought iron to cast iron, brass or steel, when it began to be economically viable (Priess 2002: 92).

Wooden and wrought iron rim lock. Image: K. Webb.

Wooden and wrought iron rim lock. Image: K. Webb.

Without delving into the tedious technical details – the locks that were available in the 19th century consisted of two main types – ones that are attached to the surface of the door and ones that are placed into a cavity that has been cut into the door. The surface locks consist of ‘stock locks’ and ‘rim locks’ and the cut locks are ‘flush locks’ (which were cut into the surface of the door) and ‘mortise locks’ (cut into the edge of the door).

 

These types are easily distinguished as the surface locks have their strike plates attached to the surface of one side of the adjacent wall, and the strike plates of a mortise or flush lock are placed within the door jamb. Also, only the front plate of the housing (lock cover) is visible with these mortise and flush locks. Sounds simple? Not always – lock reuse can make identification and dating of locks complicated, as broken locks were often replaced with new types.  Wrought iron examples could also be fixed and reworked into other things (Priess 2002: 92). Darn those thrifty Victorians!

 

Of the types mentioned above, rim locks and mortise locks are commonly found on the doors of Christchurch houses that were built during the 19th century. Some examples that some of our buildings archaeologists have found are pictured below.

Rim lock from a central city house. Image: P. Mitchell.

Rim lock from a central city house. Image: P. Mitchell.

 Mortise lock in situ and mortise lock close-up. Images: J. Garland and P. Mitchell.

Mortise lock in situ and mortise lock close-up. Images: J. Garland and P. Mitchell.

Mortise locks were more labour intensive to install than rim locks, as the mortise cavity in the door had to be cut. This lock type didn’t become popular until the late 19th century for this reason. But by the beginning of the 20th century mortise locks formed a major portion of the locks offered by prominent lock companies like Yale and Towne, and Sargent and Company (Priess 2002: 99). Flush locks are more commonly seen on furniture or closets, as they are inserted into the interior surface of a door or draw, and they are usually out of sight when the draw or door is closed (Priess 2002: 90).

 

The works of a few of the same lock makers are seen over and over again in our local examples – particularly the makers James Carpenter, Willenhall, England and H.&. T. Vaughan Standard Works, Willenhall (P. Mitchell and K. Webb, pers. comm.). Carpenter’s No. 60 patented lock was mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago, and this lock type was so popular that the design was counterfeited by rival lock-makers (Switzer 2013).

Jason Carpenter No. 60 rim lock and maker’s mark. The strike plate is shaped like a key! This maker was popular from the 1840s until the early 20th century (Sydney Living Museum 2016). Image: K. Webb.

Jason Carpenter No. 60 rim lock and maker’s mark. The strike plate is shaped like a key! This maker was popular from the 1840s until the early 20th century (Sydney Living Museum 2016). Image: K. Webb.

H. & T. Vaughan lock maker's mark. This company was founded in 1856, and was later responsible for the invention of the cylinder pin tumbler lock in 1910 – the easy self-locking kind which are still commonly used today (Evans 2002). Image: K. Webb.

H. & T. Vaughan lock maker’s mark. This company was founded in 1856, and was later responsible for the invention of the cylinder pin tumbler lock in 1910 – the easy self-locking kind which are still commonly used today (Evans 2002). Image: K. Webb.

So we have talked about the locks, what about the keys? They’ve enabled us to take better control of our locks and make them more exclusive as only the key holder can operate them. The first of their kind were made with wooden pins, but we can credit the Romans again for the production of metal keys – the strength of the material made it possible to make keys smaller than before and hence, more potable (History of Keys 2016). We find keys less commonly in the archaeological record, as it’s likely that the 19th century owners of these keys did not often discard them on purpose – the abundance of advertisements for locksmiths in 19th century Canterbury newspapers suggests that the skill of breaking locks was one in demand.

 

And who were these lock breakers behind the scenes? If you lost your key or if something went wrong with one of your locks, you’d need someone to pick it, break it, or blow it up (if you’re that desperate). Locksmiths seem to have been ‘a jack of all trades’ in New Zealand during the 1800s – they often moonlighted as plumbers, engineers, guns smiths, tinsmiths, bell hangers and gas fitters to name a few (Star 29/09/1873: 3). They appear to not only have had varied careers, but also exciting ones – among the many instances of getting called out on false alarm missions (having to open safes that were never locked, or even closed in the first place (Star 23/10/1897: 2). There were also many examples of locksmiths being the first called to the scene of a crime (often murders) to break through a locked door (Temuka Leader 16/12/1882: 3). They were also commonly called in as expert witnesses at court trials to prove if locks had been tampered with – a sort of 19th century forensics expert (Star 4/04/1900: 3). I’ve LOCKED in an example of one of these turbulent tales – it may be the craziest story I have ever read in the New Zealand newspapers – so I’ll leave it with you. Until next time.

Temuka Leader 5/5/1883: 3

Temuka Leader 5/5/1883: 3

By Chelsea Dickson

References

 

Butter, F. J. 1968 An Encyclopaedia of Locks and Builders Hardware. Josiah Parkes, WillenhaIl, England.

Evans, J. 2002. A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers. [online] Available at: http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/Museum/locks/gazetteer/gazv.htm

History of Keys 2016 [online] http://www.historyofkeys.com/ [Accessed July 2016]

Press, P. J. 2000 ‘Historic Door Hardware’ in Karklins, K. 2000. (Ed) Studies in Material Culture Research.

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]

Switzer, R., R. 2013. The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Temuka Leader [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]

The Big House in a little town

The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the challenges faced by any new colony is what to do with the non-conformists, renegades, and criminals. The ideal, of course, is that your new paradise will be carefully designed to have eliminated these undesirable elements. The reality, however, is far from the ideal. The first lock-up in the Canterbury (consisting of three blockhouses) was located in Akaroa, a significant distance away from the growing towns of Christchurch and Lyttelton (Gee 1975: 5). These blockhouses appear to have been used until John Godley arrived on the scene in April 1850 and was appointed as the resident magistrate of Lyttelton (Gee 1875: 7). With his appointment, the location of the lock-ups/gaols moved to the fledgling port-town instead. The earliest gaols in Lyttelton were improvised and, for some enterprising fellows, rather portable. One particularly slapstick story of a runaway gaol involves some opportunistic pranking by the future gaol warden, Edward Seagar:

One night the prisoners in the lock-up, a flimsy, A-frame construction, took up the floor boards, lifted the building and walked away with it. Seagar arranged ropes and stakes in such a way that the escapees unknowingly headed towards the police station further down the hill (Young 2014).

The landing of passengers from the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy, and Sir George Seymour in Lyttelton c. 1850. Plenty of open space for pranks. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The landing of passengers from the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy, and Sir George Seymour in Lyttelton c. 1850. Plenty of open space for pranks. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The first permanent gaol buildings in the settlement were constructed between 1851 and c.1857-1861 on Oxford Street, using both hired and prison labour (Gee 1975: 8, 10). Later buildings followed the design of B. W. Mountfort, who also designed the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum (Heritage New Zealand 2016). The decision to construct a gaol in a small town like Lyttelton may seem odd to us today, but the reasoning was fairly straightforward. Lyttelton was the bigger town at the time and the new buildings replaced the earlier makeshift prisons near the contemporary police station and court (Gee 1975: 10).

The Lyttelton Gaol, date unknown. Image: Cyclopedia Company Limited 1903. A later image of the gaol c. 1900 can be viewed here.

The Lyttelton Gaol, date unknown. Image: Cyclopedia Company Limited 1903. A later image of the gaol c. 1900 can be viewed here.

Early conditions in this gaol, according to some commentators, had something of a Dickensian feel:

The early days were those of the cat [of nine tails whip] and the triangle, of the 70lb dragging irons, the days of scanty clothing, poor food, the days when the warder was king (Gee 1975: 2).

Others have argued that, in light of the standards at the time, the treatment of the prisoners was not quite as cruel as it may seem to us today (Gee 1975: 10). Conditions were hampered by one major issue which arose in this early period – the swelling gaol population. This population growth was exacerbated by the incarceration of debtors and the mentally ill. The housing of the mentally ill at the gaol was particularly concerning to many (Young 2014). The young townships of Lyttelton and Christchurch simply did not have the facilities to deal with these patients at the time. To their credit, it was intended that the patients be housed in the new Christchurch Hospital, until there was a furore in response to this plan (Gee 1975: 35). The population pressures eased with the construction of Sunnyside Asylum in 1863, and the opening of the prison in Addington in the 1870s (Gee 1975: 30, 87).

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

Part of the Addington Prison complex, c. 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons. The prison is now a backpackers.

Part of the Addington Prison complex, c. 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons. The prison is now a backpackers.

The position of the gaol within town life is quite interesting. As illustrated in the image above, the large Gothic style buildings were quite a dominating feature of the town. In addition to this, the prisoners were involved with a number of town works (discussed further below) and services which ensured a high public presence (Heritage New Zealand 2016). These services included a printing shop, a laundrette for the Lyttelton Hospital and Orphanage and the Immigration Department, and a baking contract for the orphanage (Gee 1975: 17). However, one comment from a resident regarding the communities’ view of the gaol (made after the demolition of the gaol in the 1920s) is particularly telling:

We never thought about the gaol.  We just knew it was there and that was it. But many people couldn’t have been pleased about it because there are few photographs of it and no paintings as far as I have found (C. Fletcher in Gee 1975: 87).

A rather macabre aspect of the prison, which feels particularly repugnant to us today, is that between 1868 and 1918 seven men convicted of murder were executed at the gaol. This was an aspect of the gaol that was a source of curiosity for some of the younger residents, but of dread for most. One resident stated: “In a little place like Lyttelton the knowledge of an impending execution used to hang like a pall over the whole town” (I. Gray in Gee 1975: 47). It is quite a stretch for me to imagine a community continuing with their daily lives in the anticipation of such an event. Executions appear to have been so entrenched in the town’s psyche that despite the fact that the bell did not toll for the last execution in 1918, many residents insist they remember it ringing (Gee 1975: 47).

A poem by Basil Dowling. The role of the hangman was a necessary part of the justice system, which carried a heavy stigma for the men who did the job. There are a number of cases where officers had to smuggle the hangman in to avoid the curiosity and/or anger of the general public.

A poem by Basil Dowling. The role of the hangman was a necessary part of the justice system, but carried a heavy stigma for the men who did the job. There are a number of cases where officers had to smuggle the hangman in on the eve of the execution to avoid the curiosity and/or anger of the general public.

The archaeological legacy of the prison and prisoners remain visible in many aspects of the town today. All that remains of the gaol itself are concrete retaining walls, a small block of cells, pedestrian pathways and concrete steps. These remains are an important archaeological site, particularly as they are demonstrative of some of the earliest use of concrete in New Zealand (Heritage New Zealand 2016).

The remaining cells and concrete walls of the prison. Image: A. Bulovic, 2013 Peeling Back History.

The remaining cells and concrete walls of the prison. Image: A. Bulovic, 2013 Peeling Back History.

However, we can also see the influence of the gaol on the Lyttelton settlement through other features of the town. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour were part of gangs put to work on public works, such as road formation and retaining wall construction. In particular, the red volcanic retaining walls constructed during this period have been described as a distinctive part of the townscape. Unfortunately, as with much of Lyttelton’s heritage, a number of these walls have been repaired or replaced after the damage from the earthquakes.

Earthquake damaged walls at the corner of Coleridge Terrace and Dublin Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2015.

Earthquake damaged walls at the corner of Coleridge Terrace and Dublin Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2015.

 The newly constructed concrete wall on Sumner Road, with partial re-facing using the volcanic stone from the demolished wall. The re-facing will occur on as many of the key retaining walls across the town, as funding allows. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The newly constructed concrete wall on Sumner Road, with partial re-facing using the volcanic stone from the demolished wall. The re-facing will occur on as many of the key retaining walls across the town as funding allows. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

A collapsed wall at 61 St Davids Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

A collapsed wall at 61 St Davids Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The same wall after deconstruction and reconstruction work (all completed by hand). Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The same wall after deconstruction and reconstruction work (all completed by hand). Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The port also benefited from convict labour in the form of reclamation construction and wharf building (Gee 1975: 17). Another notable site of works is the fortifications at Ripapa Island, which were constructed in the 1860s and 1870s by the Hard Labour Gang and were even used to house some prisoners (Gee 1975: 22). Prisoners housed on the island reportedly included members of the Parihaka resistance movement in Taranaki in 1880s (Donna R 2014). These men are remembered today during a service on the 5th of November each year and a memorial at Rapaki (Lyttelton Community House Trust 2013).

In many ways, the Lyttelton Gaol was a product of its time; the morality of Victorian Britain, the realities of a new colonial land and the challenges of a growing society. However, the legacy of the gaol should not be limited to a grim spectre of past principles. Prisoners made a considerable contribution to the development of the town through the construction of infrastructure. Despite the recent changes to the townscape, the influence of the gaol remains a visible part of Lyttelton’s heritage.

Megan Hickey

References

Gee, D. 1975. The Devil’s Own Brigade: A History of the Lyttelton Gaol 1860-1920. Wellington: Millwood Press Ltd.

“A healthy mind and human happiness”

Here in New Zealand, we like to think ourselves as a nation of outdoor enthusiasts, always off tramping, kayaking, mountain biking, etc. But it wasn’t always thus. Our love affair with the outdoors began in the mid-late 19th century and was part of a movement seen throughout much of the western world, as people began to use their increased leisure time – and the wonders of the railways – to explore the world around them. This isn’t the time to dwell on the other factors that led to this movement, but there were a number of spurs, including increasing industrialisation and urbanisation (both of which were linked to an increasing awareness that the natural environment was threatened by these processes), and the rise of the middle class.

Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

This post continues the theme of exploring Christchurch’s hinterland and, somewhat more explicitly than the other posts in the series, documents some of the factors that led to New Zealand’s increasing engagement with the outdoors in the early-mid 20th century. The exploration, development and use of Aoraki and Kura Tāwhiti were both related to this theme but in many ways, Locke Stream Hut epitomises it. It’s also an intriguing example of attempted social engineering, and the development of our network of back country huts and tracks. The hut lies (as its name suggests) on Locke Stream, on the true left of the Taramakau River, just below Harper Pass.

Location map. Image: Google.

Location map. Image: Google.

Like Aoraki and Kura Tāwhiti, Māori were here long before Pākehā. The area was used particularly by Māori from Tai Poutini as a trail when travelling via Harper Pass with pounamu (Brailsford 1996: 99). Well-known 19th century Māori journeys across the pass include parties fleeing up the Hurunui River and over Harper Pass to Tai Poutini following the Ngāti Toa raid on Kaiapoi pā in 1832 (Pascoe 1955). And Māori were instrumental in the Pākehā ‘discovery’ of the route to the West Coast via Harper Pass. Many gold miners would subsequently use this route, until it was superseded by the Arthurs Pass route, after which it seems to have been little used by Pākehā. The route would return to prominence (of a sort) in the early-mid 20th century.

The kitchen/dining area, Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

The kitchen/dining area, Locke Stream Hut. Image: K. Watson.

Pākehā exploration of the outdoors was initially led by the elite (as seen at Aoraki), as they had both the time and money to make the long journeys required. By the early-mid 20th century, New Zealand had developed to the point where tourism had spread beyond the preserve of the wealthy few. The development of the railway network had a significant part to play in this, as did legislation enshrining the 40 hour week, passed in 1936. Now not only were people able to reach the outdoors easily, they also had a weekend in which to be able to explore further afield. Histories of outdoor pursuits in New Zealand give a sense of the sheer unbridled joy that the young men and women who took advantage of these opportunities found in them – try the wonderful Shelter from the Storm or any of the histories of club ski-fields (I’m sure Tramping covers this too, but unfortunately I’ve not read it yet).

One of the wonderful spikes used in the construction of the hut. Image: K. Watson.

One of the wonderful spikes used in the construction of the hut. Image: K. Watson.

At the same time that weekends became real and official, one William Parry – known as Bill – was becoming increasingly concerned about the health and fitness of New Zealanders (he was also quite big on vegetarianism, too). Parry was a member of the Labour government during the Depression (as well as being one of the founding members of the Labour Party) and, from 1935, Minister of Internal Affairs (Gustafson 2012). He used this position to tackle his concerns about the nation’s health and well-being, arranging a conference in August 1937 to discuss ways “to judiciously guide the people in the wiser use of the increased leisure time at their disposal.” (AJHR 1938 H22). Amongst other things, the conference concluded that physical fitness and recreation were vital for “a healthy mind and human happiness” (AJHR 1938 H22). As a result, the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act was passed in November 1937, which led to the establishment of the Department of Internal Affairs’ Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch and the National Council of Physical Welfare and Recreation (AJHR 1938 H22).

The hand-adzed timber framework. Image: K. Watson.

The hand-adzed timber framework. Image: K. Watson.

The newly established Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch set about encouraging ‘group travel’ (which sounds a bit like my idea of hell) – which it defined as low-cost and low-stress recreational activity by groups in the natural environment, a policy that had apparently been very successful elsewhere in the world (AJHR 1939 H22). The Branch decided that mountain tracks – “quiet pathways into the country where people could rest from the noise and bustle of the modern city” (EP 28/12/1944) – were the ideal destination for group travel. But many existing tracks were deemed to be unsuitable for this low-cost low-stress travel, being overcrowded, too expensive and/or too arduous (none of which would be good for your stress levels). The Branch felt its duty was to “provide recreation for New Zealand people on the lower levels of income, people who would be pleased with a less luxurious and much less expensive track system that young workers can afford…to reduce the cost while easing the degree of exertion and increasing the comfort.” (EP 28/12/1944). And from this grew the Mountain Huts and Tracks programme, which led to the reopening of the Harper track, and the construction of Locke Stream Hut (along with several other huts). The other track opened up as a result of this programme was the Tararua track.

The Harper Pass track was re-cut in 1939-40, with the plan being that there were would be five huts on it. Huts No. 1 (Lake Taylor Hut) and 2 (Lake Sumner Hut) were extant by early 1940 (AJHR 1940 H22). Hut No. 4 – Locke Stream Hut – was built shortly afterwards, with some of the materials packed in by horse and the timbers cut on site. Which means that the hut has fabulous hand-adzed tōtara floor slabs, which are a thing of beauty. It’s also got a timber framework (kawaka and tōtara) and, respecting the sensibilities of the era, a central common area with two bunkrooms either side, one for men and one for women (no longer enforced!). As is typical of back country huts all over New Zealand, it’s clad in corrugated iron (original) – less typically, it’s lined with ply (not original). All in all, the hut is a wonderful example of the use of traditional construction methods and consequently, full of character. I highly recommend a visit!

The rather fabulous floorboards! Image: K. Watson.

The rather fabulous floorboards! Image: K. Watson.

If you do decide to visit the hut, stop and think for a moment about the social and political processes that led to its construction. And put aside thoughts about a paternalistic government to reflect on the freedom experienced by those who took advantage of these opportunities during the early-mid 20th century. Because, for many of those who did, it wasn’t just an opportunity to escape the city, it was also – in many cases – an opportunity to escape their elders, and some of the social norms of the day. I’m not suggesting that people went completely crazy (although I’m sure some must have), but there’s a wonderful sense of freedom that permeates social histories of outdoor activities during this period.

Katharine Watson & Rosie Geary Nichol

(& with thanks to the Department of Conservation, who funded this work)

References

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. [online] Available at: www.atojs.natlib.govt.nz.

Brailsford, B., 1996. Greenstone Trails: The Maori and pounamu. Stoneprint Press, Hamilton.

Evening Post. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Gustafson, B., 2012. Parry, William Edward – Parry, William Edward. [online] Available at: www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3p12/parry-william-edward.

Pascoe, J., 1955. The Maori and the mountains. Te Ao Hou: The New World No.12. Held in DOC file on Locke Stream Hut.

The heady nature of pseudo-science

One of the most interesting things about being an archaeologist or a historian is seeing the development of ideas and knowledge throughout the ages. We are reminded, time and time again, that the ideas and theories that we consider primitive or even ridiculous in hindsight were the cutting edge of scientific enquiry or social theory at the time. It follows that at least some of the things we consider to be cutting edge here and now will be primitive or ridiculous to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come.

comparativephysi00redf_0067

Comparative physiognomy. One of the more, uh, interesting theories humans have come up with. Image: J. Redfield 1852, Public Domain Review.

At the same time, it is easy to see the foundations of our current knowledge base and thinking in those same primitive or ridiculous ideas. Every theory or discovery that was later proven to be wrong or misapplied was still, in fact, part of a conversation – a social, philosophical and scientific discourse – that came to inform our understanding of the world in the present day. They either provided the building blocks for the development of an idea (the four humours of the body to miasma theory to germ theory, for example); a point of contention which forced the development of a more accurate theory; or used approaches and ideas that later proved to be useful, even if they were misapplied at the time. From geocentrism, the four elements of all matter (earth, fire, wind, water…heart! Oh wait…) and Copernican astronomy to the miraculous cough curing properties of heroin, our history is littered with theories and ideas that were wrong, but without which our current knowledge base would not be what it is.

One such subject – and the thing that got me thinking about this in the first place – is the now much maligned science of phrenology, a subject brought to our attention a while back by the discovery of a crumpled up poster inside the walls of a 19th century house in Christchurch. The poster depicted the head of a man in profile, with the skull divided into a quilt of small images, numbered and labelled with various character traits, including sublimity (“conception of the grand, awful and endless”), mirthfulness (“wit”), causality (“desire to know the why and wherefore of things”) and alimentiveness (“appetite”). Above this arresting image, a headline read “Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar.”

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace. Image: J. Garland.

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar, 1879. Image: J. Garland.

As it turns out, Charles Peace was quite the well-known figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes’ master of disguise and Catwoman (this is not at all an accurate description, but it amuses me). His fame – or infamy – was on par with what we now attribute to Jack the Ripper or Bonnie and Clyde and his story has all the elements of a great melodrama (which, indeed, it became later on). A cat burglar with a limp who “could scale a wall like a fly”, the “man with many faces”, a master of disguise who “could change his face in a moment”, the “prince of housebreakers”, betrayed by his mistress after a daring near-escape from the police, having evaded the police as a wanted man for years. It’s a blockbuster in the making. Probably starring Peter Sellers (or the current equivalent – Steve Carrell?).

Peace was a Sheffield-born criminal executed in 1879 for two murders and a long, long list of burglaries committed during his adult life. Having plied his thieving trade in Sheffield and its environs during the 1860s and 1870s, he shot the husband of a couple that he had befriended and fled to Peckham, London. There, he continued to rob the houses of the wealthy, while living under a pseudonym (and under the very noses of Scotland Yard). He was arrested in 1878 after an altercation with police during a robbery, and eventually hanged (Auckland Star 14/05/1932: 3).

charles peace joke

Image: Cromwell Argus 20/05/1918: 7.

Contemporary and later newspapers described him as the “cleverest burglar that ever lived”, a figure so famous that “even Dick Turpin could not hold a candle to him” (Alexandra Herald and Central Otago Gazette 4/12/1929:1). He became the subject of waxworks, of crime fiction, a stage play (which outraged society by depicting his hanging on stage, carried out by an actual retired executioner) and increasingly outrageous and dramatised depictions and characterisations in popular culture. One 1930s newspaper, for example, said of him “Peace is shown as he was, a dwarf of phenomenal strength, a colossal braggart, repulsive in mind and body and a perfect burglar.” Another went even further and called him “almost a monkey of a man…an unrestrained savage.” More interestingly, from the perspective of our phrenological head, is an article that equates his prominent ears and “head of enormous size”, with his criminal proclivities.

cropped

“Peace’s greatest asset…was an immense lower jaw which he could manipulate at will.” Image: Dunstan Times 14/03/1927: 7.

And this is the thing. It is no wonder that, notorious as he was, Charles Peace became the subject of phrenological investigation. The science of phrenology, particularly in its heyday, was often associated with criminals and criminal behaviours, used in an attempt to make sense of why certain people did such unreasonable things – and perhaps, to impose an order on a world that didn’t always seem to make a whole lot of sense.

The ‘science’ was first ‘discovered’ in the late 18th century, by Franz Joseph Gall, a German neuroanatomist and physiologist. It was based on the premise that the various personality traits of a person corresponded to different parts of their brains, the size and shape of which could be ‘read’ in the bumps and indents of their skull. While ultimately discredited, Gall’s theories influenced the development of neurological science as we know it today, particularly when it comes to different parts of the brain being used for different functions (not a neuroscientist – am hoping I’ve paraphrased this correctly!).

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A description of the science of phrenology, as told in a lecture in 1865. Image: North Otago Times 20/07/1865: 3.

(On a side note, I had great plans to apply the phrenological model to our office full of archaeologists in an attempt to determine the most criminal amongst us. However, as it turns out, practicing the science of phrenology involves feeling for the bumps and cavities of a person’s skull with your palms and fingertips, which seemed like it would cross a boundary from which there is no going back. We’re all friends here, but there’s a line, right?)

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The various phrenological organs and how to find them. A full how-to of phrenology is available here, if you feel like trying it out on yourself/someone whose scalp you’re comfortable exploring. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Phrenology was most popular during the mid-19th century, but continued to be given credence by a small fringe of society through into the early 20th century. During the height of its popularity in various parts of the world, it was applied to criminal proceedings – both to understand the criminal defendant and to be assured of the character of the jurors, recommended to ladies as a subject of study that would ensure happiness in marriage and suggested as a way to “determine what should be restrained, what cultivated and the pursuit of in life best adapted” in children. One account even has it used to determine which of a lady’s suitors she ought to marry. It was also, in its most infamous applications, used to reinforce racial stereotypes, equating negative cultural and behavioural traits with physical – and racial – appearance. Essentially reducing human people, cultures and personalities to bumps on a skull.

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This one cracks me up. Image: Vaught’s Practical Character Reader (1902).

In New Zealand, phrenology makes an appearance here and there throughout the 19th century, with varying degrees of sincerity and skepticism. French naturalist and phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, for example, took four casts of Māori heads during his travels with Durmont d’Urville around the country in 1840, adding them to a collection of phrenological busts of indigenous peoples that he later displayed in Paris (photographic portraits of two of those busts, of rangatira Takatahara and Piuraki, are currently on display in the Christchurch Art Gallery). Several phrenological professors and consultants were active throughout the country, including in Christchurch, throughout the latter half of the century (sometimes these consultants also offered palmistry readings and séances, for what it’s worth). Demonstrations using “a large collection of the sculls of murderers, bushrangers, Maoris and notorious and eminent characters” were incredibly popular. And phrenological assessments of criminals and famous figures continued to turn up in popular culture well into the early 20th century.

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An 1891 phrenological chart of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand. Image: Auckland Libraries.

At the same time, in the 1840s and 1850s, jokes about the empty skulls of those who believed in phrenology and long arguments over the merits of the ‘science’ were being published in New Zealand newspapers. The lectures of a vocal and eminent phrenologist, Mr A. S. Hamilton, were treated and reviewed with a healthy degree of skepticism (and an appreciation for the appeal of spectacle) in the 1860s. In the 1870s, demonstrations of phrenology also included lectures on mesmerism, palmistry and electrical psychology. By the 1890s and early 1900s – both in New Zealand and throughout the rest of the world – it seems to have been more of a novelty than a science.

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Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 31/03/1843: 3.

There’s this great argument printed in the letters to the editor of the Colonist in the 1850s about the merits of phrenology as a science that really brings home the weird juxtaposition of ideas that it encapsulated in the subject. Because the arguments made in favour of it ring just as true to a modern scientific mind as those made against.

For example: “Phrenology depends neither on speculation nor on theory…it is essentially the science of observation, like chemistry and botany. It was discovered by observing facts, was perfected by comparison and induction, and every man with sufficient capacity may with his own eyes, test and verify its truth.” – Colonist 9/02/1858: 3.

It’s just that as far as the application of phrenology went, those arguments simply weren’t true. Rather than being a ‘science of observation, like chemistry and botany’, it was actually a system of flawed assumptions and correlations, used to perpetuate a very narrow perspective of character and personality that failed to account for the effects of experience, cultural background, social upbringing and any of the other myriad factors that make a person who they are. Whoops, got a bit ranty there.

Enough said. Image:

Enough said. Image: Colonist 29/01/1858: 3.

The truth is, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist, phrenology both intrigues and terrifies me. Intrigues, because it is ultimately about understanding people, about trying to understand why and how people work. Because the analytical approach that it incorporates also forms the foundation of much of what I do as an artefact analyst, what so many analysts and scientists do (even little social scientists like us). But terrifies, because it is also so narrow, so rigid, so structural that it fails to employ the holistic approach necessary to truly understand a person – or, in our case, a culture or society. It sees correlation as cause, takes something – character – that is the result of a myriad of factors and experiences and distills it down to a series of boxes to check.

But it is, ultimately, part of that progression of ideas and knowledge that I talked about at the beginning of the post (remember that, doesn’t that seem like ages ago?). Call it a pathway, a tree, a foundation, whichever analogy or metaphor suits – however much of a misstep it was (and it really, really was), phrenology had its part to play in this ongoing human struggle to – and, ironically, I believe the definition of phrenological causality sums it up best – “understand the why and wherefore of things.”

Jessie Garland

References and Acknowledgements

Jeremy Habberfield-Short, for excavating and sharing his excellent discoveries.

The Langlois Eteveneaux cottage, Akaroa

The Langlois Etevenaux cottage, built in c. 1843, as it stands in 2016. The cottage is one of the oldest buildings in Canterbury and the only building constructed by French colonists that still stands in Akaroa. Image: L. Tremlett.

The Langlois Eteveneaux cottage, built in c. 1843, as it stands today. The cottage is one of the oldest buildings in Canterbury and the only building constructed by French colonists that still stands in Akaroa. Image: L. Tremlett.

The front door to the cottage. Note the ventilation grate partly hidden behind the front step and the arrow decoration in the transom above the door. Image: L. Tremlett.

The front door to the cottage. Note the ventilation grate partly hidden behind the front step and the arrow decoration in the transom above the door. Image: L. Tremlett.

Langlois Etevenaux cottage

A close up of the arrow detail in the transom. “Enter here”, perhaps? Image: L. Tremlett.

One of the two original exterior windows, with an inward opening casement. In our humble opinion, this is a superior example of a casement window. Again, note the arrow motif above the window itself. Image: L. Tremlett.

One of the two original exterior windows, with an inward opening casement. In our humble opinion, this is a superior example of a casement window. Again, note the arrow motif above the window itself. Image: L. Tremlett.

Close up of the arrows above the window. Look at the detail in the fletching! Image: L. Tremlett.

Close up of the arrows above the window. Look at the detail in the fletching! Image: L. Tremlett.

A close up of the decorative lion’s head found above the window. Image: L. Tremlett.

A close up of the decorative lion’s head found above the window. Image: L. Tremlett.

Decorative corbels beneath the sill of the same exterior window. Image: L. Tremlett.

Decorative corbels beneath the sill of the same exterior window. Image: L. Tremlett.

The window from the interior, set off by floral wallpaper and a shining autumn day. Image: L. Tremlett.

The window from the interior, set off by floral wallpaper and a shining autumn day. Image: L. Tremlett.

Looking out, with Akaroa beautifully framed in the background – the view from this cottage for at least the last century. Image: L. Tremlett.

Looking out, with Akaroa beautifully framed in the background – the view from this cottage for at least the last century. Image: L. Tremlett.

Hinges! This is a barrel door hinge from a door in the southern part of the cottage – it’s a type of hinge rarely seen in other Canterbury cottages, especially with the shaped ends. Image: L. Tremlett.

Hinges! This is a barrel door hinge from a door in the southern part of the cottage – it’s a type of hinge rarely seen in other Canterbury cottages, especially with the shaped ends. Image: L. Tremlett.

Another rare hinge! This one is known as an ‘HL’ hinge, with plain ends – also unusual in Canterbury cottages we’ve seen to date. Image: L. Tremlett.

Another rare hinge! This one is known as an ‘HL’ hinge, with plain ends – also unusual in Canterbury cottages we’ve seen to date. Image: L. Tremlett.

So, this is particularly cool. It’s the front door lock to the cottage, but if you look closely you’ll see that the door lock, key hole and escutcheon are upside down. On top of this, the hinge strike plate is shaped like a key, just to keep it all in theme. Image: L. Tremlett.

So, this is particularly cool. It’s the front door lock to the cottage, but if you look closely you’ll see that the door lock, key hole and escutcheon are upside down. On top of this, the hinge strike plate is shaped like a key, just to keep it all in theme. Image: L. Tremlett.

The maker’s mark on the front door lock. It reads “No. 60, Jas. Carpenter, Patentee” on the lower half with the British crest on the upper half. James Carpenter was a well-known locksmith based in Willenhall, England, from the late 18th century until his death in 1844 (his business continued after his death under the name of Carpenter and Tildesley). The No. 60 was a famous patent of Carpenter’s, patented in 1830 and popular around the world, including in the United States. Such locks are often found on buildings constructed in the 1830s and 1840s (Garvin 2001: 84), so that fits! Image: L. Tremlett.

The maker’s mark on the front door lock. It reads “No. 60, Jas. Carpenter, Patentee” on the lower half with the British crest on the upper half. James Carpenter was a well-known locksmith based in Willenhall, England, from the late 18th century until his death in 1844 (his business continued after his death under the name of Carpenter and Tildesley). The No. 60 was a famous patent of Carpenter’s, patented in 1830 and popular around the world, including in the United States. Such locks are often found on buildings constructed in the 1830s and 1840s (Garvin 2001: 84), so that fits! Image: L. Tremlett.

Lastly, an image of the cottage in the 1960s, before it was repainted. The timber pilasters which frame the door and windows are an interesting stylistic feature originating from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture – a nice compliment to the Louis-Phillipe style of furniture with which the cottage was furnished. Image: L. Tremlett.

Lastly, an image of the cottage in the 1960s, before it was repainted. The timber pilasters which frame the door and windows are an interesting stylistic feature originating from Ancient Greek and Roman architecture – a nice compliment to the Louis-Phillippe style of furniture with which the cottage was furnished. Image: L. Tremlett.

Jessie Garland and Luke Tremlett

References and acknowledgements

Christchurch City Council.

Garvin, J., 2001. A Building History of Northern New England. University Press of New England, New Hampshire.

Insight Unlimited.