From Staffordshire pottery to American made glass-ware, we’ve come across artefacts from all over the world on archaeological sites here in Christchurch. This prevalence of internationally made artefacts, and what it means for the city’s history, is something that’s come up frequently in previous posts on this blog. Today’s post continues to discuss that theme, albeit from a slightly different perspective – that of the importer.
Over the last little while, we’ve been looking at the artefact assemblage from a site in the central city that was associated with a bonded store from the 1860s onwards. Bonded stores (also known as bonded warehouses) were buildings in which goods could be stored and remain exempt from customs duties. They were usually used to store goods and bulk merchandise until they were distributed for retail, at which time those duties and taxes would have to be paid.
We found numerous archaeological features (mostly rubbish pits) on the site, almost all of which contained artefacts. Many of these rubbish pits contained a large number of alcohol bottles. This is not particularly unusual. What is unusual is that within each feature most of the alcohol bottles were identical and almost all of the bottle tops found were still sealed – with cork, wire seal and metal capsule.
One rubbish pit contained a total of 130 artefacts (in 454 fragments), 126 of which were black beer bottles. Although the bottles were broken, the tops and bases were almost equal in number. More significantly, all of those black beer bottles were still sealed, or found in association with their corks and capsule seals, and every single seal bore the distinctive trademarks of J & R Tennent’s Pale Ale, brewed at the Wellpark Brewery, Scotland. Most of the capsules were also stamped with the mark of Betts & Co, the company who patented and manufactured this type of metal capsule seal for bottles. Similarly trademarked bottle capsules have been found at other 1860s-1880s sites throughout New Zealand, although not in such large quantities (Petchey and Innanchai 2012).
John and Robert Tennent were Glaswegian brewers and bottlers who began operating in the 1770s. Their business continued to be run by their descendants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, right up until the present day (Petchey and Innanchai 2012). By the end of the 19th century they were increasingly known for the quality of their beer and were a relatively large presence in the export market for bottled beer throughout the English speaking world (Hughes 2006). In Christchurch, Tennent’s Pale Ale was sold in large quantities from the 1850s onwards by a number of Christchurch merchants such as Robert Symington, Charles Wesley Turner (my great great grandfather!), Longden & Le Cren, Robert Wilkin & Co, and Tonks, Norton & Co, among others (Lyttelton Times 6/11/1852: 3, 12/8/1865: 1; Star 22/10/1869: 4; Press 18/9/1879: 3,14/1/1891: 8).
A second rubbish pit at the site contained a similar assemblage: 125 artefacts, 88 of which were identical dark green beer bottles. Like the Tennent bottles, almost all of these were still sealed or found in association with metal capsules, wire seals and corks. Unfortunately, the seals from this feature weren’t in the best condition: only eight of them could be definitively identified to the bottler, T. B. Hall & Co, Liverpool. It seems likely, however, given the similarity of the bottles (a handful of which still had the remnants of T. B. & Hall labels on the glass), that all 88 were originally T. B. Hall & Co products.
T. B. Hall refers to Thomas Bird Hall, who operated an export bottling company in Liverpool in the latter half of the 19th century. The company became well known for their ‘Boar’s Head’ brand, which we see on the bottles found in Christchurch. They started bottling beer under this brand in 1874, much of which was exported to British colonies, including Australia and New Zealand. They bottled a range of beers, spirits and liqueurs, including the well-known Bass and Guinness ales and stouts (Hughes 2006: 131). We have evidence for the brand being sold in Christchurch from at least 1878 until the late 1890s (Press 22/4/1878: 2; Press 23/10/1899: 4).
Interestingly, during the excavation of this rubbish pit, it was noted that most of the bottles were complete, but cracked, while they were still in the ground. Many of them fell apart as they were lifted out, suggesting that they had broken or cracked from the impact of being thrown – complete and still sealed – into the pit.
As archaeologists, we’re used to finding old or broken artefacts in archaeological assemblages – objects that have clearly been used and discarded, due to damage, age, changes in fashion or simply because they’ve reached the end of their uselife. The fact that two rubbish pits at this site contain artefacts that have clearly not been used and, in one case, were complete when they were discarded, indicates that there must be another reason for their disposal.
Given the association of the site with a bonded store, it seems likely that these bottles were originally imported and stored at the warehouse with the intention of being distributed to local retailers and consumers. The question then remains: why were they thrown out? There are numerous potential answers to this, from damages incurred during transport to a bad quality batch of beer, a lack of demand or old, unsaleable stock. Bottled beer was a hell of a lot more unpredictable – both in quality and preservation – during the 19th century than it is now, and it wasn’t uncommon for batches to go bad, or simply be bad.
It’s easy to forget, in this age of air freight and controlled temperatures, that these goods had to come a very long way in relatively difficult conditions in order to reach our shores (and our stomachs) in the 19th century. British export beers travelled to colonies like Australia and New Zealand by ship, a journey that could take anything upwards of 100 days (by clipper, the fastest non-steam powered ship at the time). These voyages often encountered rough seas and extreme temperatures, both of which could damage cargoes of bottled beer (Hughes 2006). High temperatures (when sailing through the tropics, for example) could cause the beer itself to go off: sometimes, if it caused rapid fermentation, the bottles would explode (my personal favourite). On top of the sea voyage, of course, the bottles had to survive loading and unloading as well as transport over rough roads to their final destination. It’s hardly surprising that breakages occurred!
There were also issues with supply and demand: agents in New Zealand would have been ordering the stock well in advance (remember, 100 days or more to get here), based on predicted demand. If their predictions were wrong, products might not sell and be left, instead, to age to the point where they were both undrinkable and unsaleable, and had to be discarded. All of which leads to rubbish pits such as these, containing the physical casualties and failures of the 19th century import/export trade.
Analysis of this site is continuing but, as you can see from the small part of it that I’ve discussed here, it has the potential to provide us with a window into the realities of the goods trade in Christchurch – internationally and locally. It’s also an excellent example of the importance of archaeological context in the interpretation of artefacts and archaeological features. Just one of these bottles, out of context, wouldn’t have nearly such an interesting story to tell.
Colonist. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Hughes, David. 2006. “A Bottle of Guiness Please”: the Colourful History of Guiness. Phimboy: Berkshire, England.
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Nayton, G., 1992. Applying frontier theory to a Western Australian site: the problem of chronological control. Australasian Historical Archaeology 10: 75-91.
Petchey, P. and Innanchai, J., 2012. Bottle top capsules in New Zealand historic archaeological sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 3 (2): 1-16.
Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz