At the start of an archaeological investigation we often consult historical documents to learn as much as we can about a site’s past. Such research can identify the buildings that were once present, the people associated with the site through land purchase and occupation, and the kinds of activities undertaken at the site. This helps us determine what kind of archaeological remains we can expect during excavation. Often the archaeology meets these expectations, although sometimes a site can completely surprise you.
The excavation of the Canterbury Club is a good example of an archaeological investigation in which the archaeological evidence did not quite match up with information gained from the documentary sources. This evidence was not contradictory. Instead it supplemented the documentary information and ended up providing us with a more multi-faceted interpretation of the site.
The Canterbury Club, on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Worcester Boulevard, was established for the professional gentlemen of Christchurch in the 1870s. Many noteworthy gentlemen of Victorian Christchurch were members and the building itself was considered to possess plenty of aesthetic and architectural merit (e.g. Press 20/12/1873: 2). The club, and the men associated with it, was therefore well documented in the formal histories of Christchurch and the gentlemen’s clubs of New Zealand. The club itself produced its own published history in the 1970s (Lamb 1972).
Here’s what the formal histories told us about the site. The Canterbury Club was a Victorian gentlemen’s club in the style of its English predecessors – institutions where men of wealth and status met socially and conducted business. By the mid 19th century these clubs had become an integral part of the upper and middle class British male lifestyle, reflecting the Victorian obsession with class (Manning 1991: 1). As a written history of another such club put it:
Having securely anchored his wife at home with a large family and at the same time established himself as ‘the master’ who could do no wrong, the Victorian husband would spend his leisure no longer in drinking to excess and gambling but in surroundings of luxury never excelled, where the house, the food, the wine and the service bore comparison with those found in any royal palace.
In 1856 the Christchurch Club was established on Latimer Square, providing a ‘house in town’ for Canterbury’s rural landowners. In contrast, the Canterbury Club was established by urban, professional gentlemen wanting a club that represented their own social sphere (Opus 2006). The 151 founding members purchased Town Section 403 and part Town Section 407 for their establishment, and the buildings were designed in ornate Italianate style by William Armson and Frederick Strouts. The main club buildings were completed in 1874 (a detailed description of the buildings appeared in the Press during construction and can be found here). The club’s service wing was located discretely behind the club and connected to it via a passageway, which was frequented by the club’s serving staff (Press 29/5/1873: 2). These included a cook/housekeeper, kitchen-, scullery- and house-maids, a steward, waiters, a barman and a billiard marker (Lamb 1972: 30). Once the buildings were finished they were furnished by local suppliers J. Ballantyne & Co and Morrow, Basset & Co (Lamb 1972: 23). The club’s crockery – white with a maroon band and a ‘Canterbury Club’ monogram – was ordered from London. The club was opened officially on 24 October 1874 with an inaugural dinner.
When excavation began at the Canterbury Club site it was expected that the archaeology would substantiate the information from the written sources. However, only one rubbish pit, containing a minimum number of 165 artefacts, appeared to be related to the club. Moreover, the artefacts recovered from this pit did not quite match up with the written descriptions.
The ceramic artefacts consisted of a mix of ware types. Two large whiteware basins fitted for indoor plumbing and manufactured by J. Tylor & Sons of London were the largest and most complete ceramic vessels recovered from the rubbish pit. Whiteware cups, saucers and plates were the most common vessel forms, but a stoneware bottle, a bone china cup and dyed-body tiles were also found. While cups, saucers and plates were identified in the assemblage, no other forms associated with food presentation and consumption, such as serving vessels, were found. However, variety was evident in the decorative transfer print patterns on these vessels. The ubiquitous Asiatic Pheasant print was identified on one of the vessels, but the basins were the two only vessels bearing the same pattern. No vessel recovered from the rubbish pit could be positively identified as part of the monogrammed set ordered from London for use in the club.
The faunal remains recovered from the pit also contrasted with written information about the type of fare served to club members. Lamb (1972: 26-27) states that goose, turkey, duck, rabbit, pheasant, hare and several types of fish were ordered from the local fishmonger and butcher and served up at the club. A maximum of four species were recovered from the pit – oyster, cow, sheep, and possibly pig. The meat cuts that could be identified – beef chuck, mutton leg and forequarter – were cuts typically used for boiling, mincing and roasting. There was no sign of the more exotic fare known to have been eaten at the club.
A pair of shoes, belonging to an adult male, was also recovered from the pit. These shoes were interesting because they were made with a combination of leather and canvas. It is possible that these were lighter summer shoes, or perhaps a poorer quality shoe than the full leather pieces often recovered from archaeological contexts in Christchurch. Another possibility, given the use of canvas, was that they were used as sports shoes.
Few glass artefacts were recovered from the pit, and this too was inconsistent with known consumption of alcohol by Club members.
The artefacts from the Canterbury Club rubbish pit did not simply reiterate the information in the written sources and so forced consideration of alternative interpretations. It’s possible that these artefacts represented the less formal side of club life and are the debris of run-of-the-mill activities. For example, the basins in the club bathrooms may have been deemed old-fashioned and discarded. Informal lunches, beverages and snacks may have been served on common dishes rather than the monogrammed crockery, which may have been reserved for formal occasions. Similarly, these meals may have consisted of plainer fare than that served on special occasions. A pair of worn sport shoes, forgotten by a Club member after a cricket match, may have been discarded after they went unclaimed. These are the kind of mundane details that do not make it into the formal histories.
It is also possible that the artefacts relate to the staff of the Canterbury Club rather than its members. The difference in status between members and staff could account for the common dishes and plain fare represented in the rubbish pit, assuming the staff ate separately. The staff would have been present at the club each day, as opposed to the more transient club members, and their everyday meal is unlikely to have consisted of exotic delicacies served on fancy crockery.
The archaeology of the Canterbury Club site highlights the way in which historical documents and archaeological excavation can supplement each other and result in a more multi-faceted understanding than could be reached by either research method alone. Whether the artefacts represented consumption by club members or staff (or both) they are evidence of the more mundane details of club life that were excluded from the formal histories. Details of daily life are often taken for granted and ignored in favour of more glamorous narratives. However, the artefacts of everyday activities are instantly recognisable even today, and forge a common bond between the past and the present. It is often through these artefacts, rather than the glamorous histories, that a strong connection with the site’s history is made.
Rosie Geary Nichol
Lamb, Robert C., (1972), The Canterbury Club 1872-1972: Centennial Notes. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd.
Hatton, J., 1890. Club-Land: London and Provincial. [online]. Available at: http://archive.org/details/cu31924077731317.
MacDonald, G. R., 1956. The Christchurch Club: A History. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd.
Opus International Consultants, 2006. Conservation Plan for the Canterbury Club, 129 Cambridge Terrace Christchurch. Unpublished report for the Canterbury Club.
Press. [online] Available at: <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.