Class, wealth & power

The challenge for this week’s blog was to consider class and buildings – more specifically: houses. When I decided to write this post, I thought it’d be relatively straightforward – I have a really interesting house to tell you about, and it definitely has something to say about social stratification. But I’ve started writing this about four times now, and each time it’s beaten me, because I’m struggling to understand and outline what this house says about class. As Jessie outlined in our last post, class is tricky. And the more you look at it, the harder it seems to get. To echo our last post further, we just don’t understand class in 19th century Christchurch well enough yet to begin to try and interpret very real objects in relation to this slippery, ephemeral concept.

 North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.

North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.

Let’s start with the basics. I think we can all agree that social stratification is readily apparent in houses today. It was no different in 19th century Christchurch. But what sort of social stratification are we actually seeing? Class is only one means by which society is stratified. The two other primary means are power and wealth, both of which are easier to define than class – and can clearly be related to class, and/or each other. Power can be social power, or economic, political, financial or even the power of celebrity. At its most simplistic level, wealth relates to how much money you have, and can also include the value of your assets. I’m sure economists and accountants have much finer, more nuanced ways of defining this concept, but we’ll stick with the obvious for now.

Of these three concepts, it seems to me that wealth is easiest to examine through tangible objects (whether the china you buy or the house you live in). It’s still not that simple, though: you might not choose to spend your money on material goods, preferring instead to travel, or to invest for the future, or to donate to charity. Or you could live on credit, living beyond your means to maintain a facade of wealth (possibly for status-related reasons). Different things, after all, are important to different people.

When it comes to houses and interpreting the wealth of the occupant, there are some other factors that need to be considered. Did the occupant build this house for themselves? Or did they buy a house that someone else built? Or are they a tenant? And if this last is the case, is it an indication of a relative lack of wealth, of an inability to generate sufficient income to pay a deposit? New Zealand society today places a high value on owning your own house, but was this always the case? I don’t know too much about the housing market in 19th century Christchurch, in terms of what sort of deposit was required and/or what the mortgage rates were – this isn’t to say this research hasn’t been carried out, just that there hasn’t been time to look into this for this post.

The house I’m going to tell you about today was built as a rental property, but would eventually be occupied by someone who owned it. The house was in the northeast corner of the area bounded by the four avenues, and was built in the early-mid 1880s. It was a rather lovely little house. It was a single-storey bay villa, with a decorative barge board and a finial on the gable end (as an aside, we don’t often see these things on the 19th century villas we record, possibly because they get removed during the 20th century), and a verandah next to this. The bay had a decorative bay window with a pair of sash windows in it and the front door had both fan and sidelights, and there was another pair of sash windows next to this. In keeping with the fashion of the times, this facade was clad in rusticated weatherboards.

 Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.

Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.

Already, these components would have told the visitor to the house something about its occupants. The key things were the fashionable rusticated weatherboards; the double – rather than triple – sash windows; the decorative features; and the narrowness of the facade, indicating a relatively small building (this was no quarter-acre section). Based on what we’ve seen elsewhere in Christchurch, I think that these would’ve told the visitor that someone ‘respectable’ lived here, someone who could afford the niceties of life, but who also lived modestly, whether through choice or circumstance – and I cannot stress strongly enough that these are suppositions, untested hypotheses, and should not be taken as truths.

When the visitor opened the front door, they would have seen a ‘properly’ laid out Victorian home (regrettably, we know nothing about the furnishings, furniture or bric-a-brac the occupants used to decorate this house – another problem when examining status via a house). Straight ahead was an arch (with lovely plaster consoles) that separated the public and private spaces. Between the front door and the arch, there was a door to the master bedroom, where you could stow your coat while visiting and, to the left, the parlour or front room, where the visitor would have been entertained.

 Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.

Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.

Most visitors probably never went into the ‘private’ part, and thus never knew what was in there. So they wouldn’t have known that, while there were ceiling roses in the parlour and master bedroom, there were none in the rooms in the rear of the house. In addition, the height of the skirting boards reduced behind that arch and so did the thickness of the doors. And there were plinth blocks in front of the arch, but none to the rear. Plinth blocks aren’t even something we find in homes that we think belong to the moderately or the comfortably well-off – I think of plinth blocks as being restricted to the homes of the truly wealthy. We don’t see them often. There might have been other differences, too, but these were the ones that were still evident in 2013. Of course, the visitor could well have suspected these differences, given the image presented by the house’s facade, and because these differences between public and private spaces were not uncommon in Victorian villas. But the reality is that, in houses of this size (and in a house with ‘only’ pairs of sash windows on its street-facing facade), I wouldn’t have expected these differences, because we don’t often see them in small houses – which could be a problem of survival.

 Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: the plinth block in the parlour. Image: L. Tremlett.

Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: a plinth block at the base of the door between the parlour and the hall. Image: L. Tremlett.

The first occupant of this house was a Mrs Sarah Gault, a dressmaker who lived there from 1886 until 1889. Mrs Gault was Irish. She arrived in New Zealand in 1883, with her father Davis Black, other members of her paternal family and an Alexander Gault (Press 23/4/1883: 2, 9/6/1890: 4) – husband, brother-in-law, son? It’s not been possible to work out so far. Mrs Gault set up her dress-making business in Fitzgerald Avenue, operating from her home, a common practice for dressmakers in the 19th century (Malthus 1992, Star 21/4/1884: 4). A year later she moved into the house in question here, and continued to operate her business from home (Star 3/11/1885: 4). In the Wises Post Office directories (sort of like the White Pages, listing who lived at what address), she was listed as the only occupant of the house in question – this doesn’t mean that she was the only occupant, but it does mean that she was the chief breadwinner, and possibly that there wasn’t a man living at the house (as the male of the house was typically listed in the directories). In 1889, Sarah Gault moved elsewhere in the city, and continued to run her business from home (Star 10/9/1889: 2).

Mrs Gault’s trade meant that she would have received her clients at home, measuring and fitting them in her parlour (Malthus 1992). In her line of work, image may have been very important, depending on the type of clientele she wished to attract. The ceiling roses and plinth blocks, and the barge boards and finial, may have conveyed to her clients that, although she lived in a small house, she understood how one was ‘supposed’ to live and even – this could be quite a stretch – that she was ‘respectable’, often held to be a terribly middle class characteristic. (But to me those plinth blocks suggest something more than middle class.) These features may also indicate the type of client she wished to attract.

So maybe you can tell something about class by looking at a building? While this building doesn’t say much to me about power (at least, not in a simple, immediately obvious way – it might be possible to extract some more subtle readings of power), it may say something about the relative wealth of its occupants: it suggests to me that Mrs Gault was doing reasonably well, business-wise, as this is unlikely to have been cheapest rental around – but maybe it was a financial stretch for her, and she chose it because of the image it conveyed to her clients? It’d be interesting to know about the house she moved to next, and why she moved there. Certainly, there’s nothing in the newspapers to suggest that she was in financial difficulties. What I’ve outlined is a theory only, though, it’s an untested hypothesis, and the next houses we record may prove all of this completely wrong. But I guess that’s the joy of doing research: you develop a theory, you test it, you see what you learn. And slowly, slowly, you maybe begin to understand.

Katharine Watson, Luke Tremlett & Rosie Geary Nichol


Malthus, J., 1992. Dressmakers in nineteenth century New Zealand. In Brookes, B., Macdonald, C. and Tennant, M. (eds). Women in History 2: Essays on women in New Zealand. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Press. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Stay classy, Christchurch

Class is a complicated concept, historically and in the present day. It’s difficult to define, somewhat ephemeral, and yet so clearly there in our societies and our cultures. For better or for worse, social stratification has been part of human life for a really long time now and it shows, in our material culture, in our buildings and in our landscapes.

As a consequence, class, much like gender, is visible in the archaeological record, although not without a whole lot of complications (as is always the way, really). If there’s anything I’ve learned while I’ve been researching this (other than how idiotically ambitious it was to try and write about class in a short blog post), it’s that class is one of those concepts that depends.

To start with, it depends on how we’re interpreting it, and on what kind of ideas and experiences we’re using to make sense of it. It’s very easy, when interpreting and talking about concepts like class, to project our own present day ideas back onto past societies, because they’re the frame of reference we’re working from. I know that our discussions about class here in the office over the past week have constantly touched on class as we understand it now, especially as we tried to untangle our thoughts about what it is and how it’s represented in our material culture.

It also depends on how we’re defining it: are we talking about a part of society which shares similar socio-economic characteristics – i.e. income, social values, social behaviour, consumer choices – or are we talking about a part of society explicitly defined by the way it contrasts with other parts of society. After all, the ‘lower classes’ are only so-called because of how they differ from the ‘middle classes’ and the ‘upper classes’, aren’t they?

A 'definition' of middle class from 1896. Image: Star

A ‘definition’ of middle class from 1896. Image: Star 18/07/1896: 3

Typically, from a characteristics perspective in Western society (and I’m being really general here), upper class denotes inherited family prestige and/or great wealth; middle class tends to refer to a combination of ‘white collar’ professions, comfortable incomes, a certain level of education and/or social manners; and lower or working class to blue collar jobs, lower end incomes, lower levels of education, etc. We’re certainly used to hearing these kinds of class definitions for Victorian society, if not for our own.  Even as I’m writing this, though, I find myself disagreeing, thinking of exceptions, of variations within these definitions. How accurate, how universal are these distinctions? I end up with more questions than answers (and more than a little brain melting).

It depends on how we’re looking at it. From an archaeological perspective, we interpret individual and group behaviour and activities through the physical remnants of people’s lives. This includes intangible concepts like class, which are represented in the things people buy and use and the differences in those things between separate social groups. These differences could be stylistic, they could be cost or value based, they could be functional. If we’re using ceramics, we could look at the differences in decorative techniques and patterns between households, the differences in the types and forms of teawares and tablewares that people owned, or the relative cost of those different objects.

 Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Image: C. Dickson.

Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Ceramics like these can offer insights on the social status of their owners, through the variety of forms present, the decorative techniques and patterns used and the relative value of the vessels. Image: C. Dickson.

For example, archaeological studies elsewhere in the world have associated plain or minimally decorated tea and dinner sets with middle class Victorian households, for whom they’re not just aesthetically pleasing, but associated with ideals of gentility, domesticity and a kind of conformity with the fashions and ideals of their neighbours (Fitts 1991). Other studies have looked at the different types of ceramic vessels people owned: the more variety of types – i.e. the more elaborate and specialised the dinner set – the better off the household might be (Brooks 2002). Even more studies have looked at the relative cost of certain types of ceramic, to see if they might correspond to differences in the social status of households (Miller 1991). There’s always a danger here, though, of making broad, uncritical assumptions about social status or beliefs from artefacts (i.e. we have plain ceramics, therefore we have a middle class household). It definitely helps to have a good historical record for the site or assemblage:  the more historical context we have, the more we can use material culture to explore how people navigated and dealt with social classes, rather than just using it to identify a certain class.

A bone china jug from Christchurch, with sprigged decoration. Bone china, particularly plain or minimally decorated examples, have been considered characteristic of the middle classes elsewhere in the world (Fitts). Unfortunately, we don't yet know how this applies to a Christchurch context. Image: C. Dickson.

A bone china jug from Christchurch, with sprigged decoration. Bone china, particularly plain or minimally decorated examples, have been considered characteristic of the middle classes elsewhere in the world (Fitts 1991), and a reflection of certain middle class values, like domesticity, virtue and modesty. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how this applies to a Christchurch context. Image: C. Dickson.

Context is hugely important when it comes to questions like this. More than anything else, I think, our understanding of social class depends on where and when we’re looking at it. Class is quite a fluid concept and reflects the various social, economic and cultural processes of different times and places. The characteristics of the different social classes in Christchurch, for example, are not the same as the characteristics of those classes in London, or even America, although they may be influenced by them. They’re not even the same as other cities in New Zealand. We’re operating in a very different social and historical context here: different background, different population demographic, different physical, social and economic environment. It’s been said that Christchurch’s upper class, or ‘elite’, was smaller and far more fluid than its British counterpart: here, the upper classes included professionals (lawyers, business owners, etc) who would elsewhere have been considered middle class (McAloon 2000: 193-221). It’s also likely that the so-called middle class of the city was larger than elsewhere and, again, more varied. Although, really, it’s hard to say.

You have to ask then, how did the idiosyncrasies (economic, political, cultural) of Christchurch society affect the definitions of classes in the city? Did it make the differences between what would elsewhere be considered the lower class and the middle classes less pronounced? Was there more mobility between the social classes here than elsewhere? Did people back then actively consider themselves to be middle or upper or lower class or are we just giving them our own labels? Were distinctions in the material culture of different social classes more or less obvious than in, say, England? And most of all, can we see this in the archaeological record?

The answer to the last one is yes, probably, but it’s going to take a while. At this stage, we haven’t excavated enough sites with known class contexts to make any meaningful interpretations of social status in 19th century Christchurch. Before we can start to explore how people in different social groups were using material culture we need to look a bit more at what those different social groups were and how we might be able to associate them with certain types of artefacts. And that requires lots of archaeological sites with good historical records, and the time to compare them all. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and certainly something we’re working on.

As of now, we really only have a few very, very preliminary observations on social status in Christchurch. We’ve noticed that a lot of the residential sites we’re digging up here have very similar artefact assemblages: this might reflect a less pronounced class distinction in the city, the prevalence of one particular social class (the middle) here, or that the material culture of Victorian Christchurch is just too uniform to be a good indicator of class. Alternatively, it might just reflect the sample of sites we’ve excavated so far. We certainly haven’t noticed the kinds of patterns here that have been commented on elsewhere: there’s not been much of a prevalence of plain ceramics here, or contrasts between assemblages with a wide variety of forms and those with just a few types. We have noticed some interesting correlations between the styles of buildings and the social positions or professions of their occupants, especially when it comes to the contrast between the public and private spaces within houses (next week’s post!). It’ll be intriguing to see how these observations change as time goes on and we gather more data. No matter what, it should be interesting!

Jessie Garland


Brandon, J. C., 2009. A North American perspective on race and class in historical archaeology. In Majewsk, T. and Gaimster, D., eds. International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, pp. 3-16. Springer, New York.

Brooks, A., 2002. The cloud of unknowing: towards an international comparative analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century ceramics. Australasian Historical Archaeology 20: 48-57.

Fitts, R., 1991. The archaeology of middle-class domesticity and gentility in Victorian Brooklyn. Historical Archaeology 33(1): 39-62

McAloon, J., 2000. The Christchurch elite. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G., eds). Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography, 1850-2000., pp. 193-221. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Miller, G.,1991. A revised set of CC index values for classification and economic scaling of English ceramics from 1787 to 1880. Historical Archaeology 25(l): l-25.

These boots are made for walking… in 19th century Christchurch.

In present-day Christchurch we might be finding the road a little uneven at the moment with our potholes and repair patches, but what was the situation like for our early settlers? The terrain was different for one thing: envision dirty, dusty unpaved roads, attempting to balance in the mud whilst holding one’s skirts and wearing a shoe with a 30 mm sole waist (sounds uncomfortable!).

Figure 1. Straight last shoe with 30 mm sole waist. Image: C. Dickson.

Straight last shoe with 30 mm sole waist. Image: C. Dickson.

Unsurprisingly, the footwear that we are uncovering from this time seems to be suitable for dealing with the harsher terrain of colonial living – our assemblages usually contain more sturdily manufactured shoes, such as those with added hobnails for grip, or heel rands and metal plates to aid stability and strength.

Figure 2. Footwear with hob nailing, and heel with rand (bottom right). Image: C. Dickson; Jessie Garland.

Footwear with hob nailing, and heel with rand (bottom right). Image: C. Dickson, J. Garland.

More delicate (as well as the hard-wearing) examples are advertised for sale in local 19th century newspaper advertisements, so the comparative abundance of sturdy shoes in our assemblages could indicate that more fragile shoes were either a less popular choice for the perils of colonial living, were repaired lots, or simply did not survive as well in the archaeological record.

For an artefact made from a relatively soft material, we have actually recovered a surprisingly large number of leather shoes, particularly underneath the floorboards of 19th century houses. We have also unearthed possible sites of footwear manufacture or repair.


Figure 3. Feature containing leather shoe cut outs. Image: H. Williams.

Feature containing leather shoe cut outs. Image: H. Williams.

So what information can we derive from these shoes? We know that some methods of constructing shoes were more labour intensive and produced better quality products than others, thus making those shoes more expensive to manufacture. So we can make some judgements about the possible status of the wearer and the kinds of occasions for which they may have worn them. Also, more generally, different sizes and shapes can simply indicate the presence of women or children, who are often less visible in the archaeological and historical records.

But, as is generally the case with many artefacts, extracting precise dating evidence from footwear can be difficult. There have been some suggestions that it’s possible to date footwear based on stylistic trends. For example, square toed shoes became more rounded after the 1870s and the introduction of automatic shoe manufacture lead to the return of high heels to woman’s fashion in the late 1880s (Anderson 1968: 59, Stevens 2005: 17; Anderson 1968: 59). However, many archaeologists argue that style and changing fashions alone do not provide enough evidence to date footwear (Anderson 1986: 64).

Figure 4. High heeled shoe. Image: C. Dickson.

High heeled shoe. Image: C. Dickson.


Goodyear welted shoe. Image: C. Dickson.

Goodyear welted shoe. Image: C. Dickson.

Though not without its own pitfalls, the analysis of footwear construction techniques can provide a better indication of age than style can. For instance, a shoe manufactured with the Goodyear welt technique tells us that this shoe could not have been manufactured before 1875, following the development of Charles Goodyear Jr’s revolutionary technique. This technique was an automatic sewing method using a curved needle to attach the upper shoe leather to a unique ridge on the bottom of the insole. This new method prevented the usual wear and tear of stitches on the top of the insole typically made by the wearer’s foot (Anderson 1968: 61). The introduction of adhesives for sole attachment in the early 20th century and the use of rubber for waterproofing on shoe soles can also provide us with a terminus post quem date, after Charles Goodyear Jr’s father discovered the vulcanisation of rubber (perhaps Goodyear was the Victorian equivalent of Jimmy Choo?). Rubber began to be utilised in the waterproofing of footwear in the mid 19th century, though complete rubber heels did not appear before 1895.

Other useful dating indicators are the peak popularities of footwear manufacture techniques, the standardisation of shoe sizing and the use of straight lasts (for shoes with indistinguishable lefts and rights) until 1860 (Anderson 1968: 59). But as dating by style or technique is related largely to manufacturer choice, it’s preferable to date shoes in relation to their context, and other artefacts with more definitive manufacture or deposition dates.

Explaining the history and our interpretation of shoe construction techniques is (hopefully) interesting, but how do we as archaeologists identify them? Of all of the common artefact types that we examine, shoe analysis is fraught with the most peril. This is largely because the identification of manufacture techniques is so subjective. For instance, what appears to be a diamond hole to one person (which is often all that remains of a shoe that has been attached with wooden pegs) can look like a stitch hole to someone else.

We won’t bore you with all of the details, but at a basic level, we are distinguishing between handmade and machine made shoes by analysing the stitches or nails on the sole. Handmade shoes tend to have nail or stitch holes that are more irregularly sized and spaced than their machine made counterparts. Other features we look out for are the tell-tale ridge on the underside of an insole (characteristic of the Goodyear welt technique mentioned above) and identifying any residue of nails, stitches, pegs (or the shape of the holes that they have left), in order to determine how the shoe soles have been attached to the upper leather. We compare this with the location of these holes to distinguish between various techniques such as welting, the turn shoe method and the blake technique (Anderson 1968).

Blucher boot with repair patch on toe (the pair to this boot did not have a patch). Image: C. Dickson.

Blucher boot with repair patch on toe (the pair to this boot did not have a patch). Image: C. Dickson.

So if they’re inaccurate to date and subjective to identify, then what’s so great about shoes as artefacts? In my opinion, they’re often more visually impressive, and arguably more interesting than the usual fragment of transfer printed ceramic or black beer bottle. But most importantly, they are a more personal item that can provide additional information about the individual wearer. Potential examples of this are wear patterns on heels, from which we can ascertain that a wearer may have had an unusual walking style, or from a repaired shoe we could speculate that someone could have fixed a shoe, out of personal attachment to a much loved, well-worn favourite, or merely because of economic necessity.

Chelsea Dickson


Anderson, A., 1968. The archaeology of mass-produced footwear. Historical Archaeology 2: 56-65.

Press. [online] Available at: Accessed August 2014.

Stevens, S. and Ordonez, M., 2005. Fashionable and work shoes from a nineteenth century Boston Privy. Historical Archaeology 39 (4): 9-25.