The chilly weather in Christchurch of late has many of us dreaming of glistening seas, white sand beaches and pina coladas. A while ago, “winter is coming” gags were being fired about among the many Game of Thrones fans, and it is very apparent that winter has indeed come to Christchurch this year. But before the days of heatpumps and rubber hot water bottles, there was a time when the hardy early settlers of Canterbury braved the wild winters of the second half of the 19th century, and they had to make do with their wits, woollies and inner warmth to survive the mid-year season.
We may think that our winter blast has been pretty chilly this year, but it’s nothing compared to the winters of 1862 and 1867. During such times, it was said that it wasn’t uncommon to see icicles clinging to a man’s moustache even in the middle of a fine day – a fine excuse to get rid of one’s moustache I would think (Grey River Argus, 17/7/1918: 2). It makes for an amusing image, but 1895 saw the bitterest winter in the 19th and most of the 20th century. This was the year that Lyttelton Harbour froze and Lake Alexandrina froze so thick that three hundred cattle were able to walk over the lake. A few people even died from being caught outside or drowning (Kuzma 2014). The animals fared the worst of it though, dogs died, frozen stiff in their kennels, and after all was said and done, it was estimated that 2 million sheep perished (Kuzma 2014). This was not only because the snow cover left them with no grass to eat, causing sheep to consume the wool off each other’s backs, but their wool also froze (often fixing them to the snow). This left them essentially ‘sheepsicles’ – some having between four and six inches of ice on their backs which enabled them to only move their heads up and down ‘like armadillos’ (Kuzma 2014, Otago Witness 4/7/1895: 23). Naturally, it wasn’t just the region’s farmers that were adversely affected by the storm – in Christchurch City, three inches fell in two hours one morning, leaving the streets a ‘slushy mess’ (Kuzma 2014). Approximately one hundred men were employed under the city’s Winter Work Fund to clear footpaths and crossings the next day, causing delays to tram services (one of which was derailed by the ice), and frozen pipes and pumps caused a nightmare for the city plumbers (Kuzma 2014).
But winter didn’t always generate the doom and gloom of being trapped by snow and rising mutton prices, amplified by the decimation of the sheep population (North Otago Times 6/8/1895: 1). For many of us in the south, the snow season also brings the excitement of winter sports and the same was true for our Cantabrian ancestors, who also partook. We have previously mentioned the 1930s ice skating rink near Mt Harper, and the remains of the 1885 Palace Skating Rink were also found in the Christchurch central city several years ago (ArchSite 2012). Scottish immigrants also introduced curling to the south of New Zealand in the 1860s, and the sport soon spread throughout the south. By 1900, there were nine clubs and we’re happy to say that these snowy sports weren’t exclusively enjoyed by men – there were also women’s curling teams by the 1890s (Swarbrick 2013). Unfortunately, we can’t talk 19th century about skiing here – the first attempt to establish skiing as a sport in New Zealand wasn’t made until 1909 when Captain Head and Lawrence Earle introduced skis to the guides at Mount Cook. It was more than ten years later that the first ski races took place in New Zealand (Snow Sports NZ). But hey, don’t let that stop you!
With all these cold temperatures it’s unsurprising that 19th century winter made people feel a little ‘under the weather’ – just as an aside, this phrase did not always refer to feeling ill in the flu season. Originally it was a sailors term, meaning to feel seasick or to be adversely affected by bad weather. The phrase was initially ‘under the weather bow’ (the weather bow being the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing). Interesting, no? Anyway, the people of Victorian Canterbury suffered from many health-related ailments. We can see this in the plethora of pharmaceutical bottles we find in archaeological assemblages and in the newspaper advertisements of the time. These bottles contained (often dubious) cure-all remedies for respiratory conditions. You may have come across some of these before on the blog, such as Baxter’s Lung Preserver, which was a local Christchurch product created in the 19th century and it’s still sold today. John Baxter started out as a young chemist in the 1860s and because pharmaceutical companies weren’t required to list the active ingredients in their products during the 19th century, we don’t know exactly what the Lung Preserver contained. Many other pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this lack of regulation and it’s probable that many of the cure-all remedies available to sick 19th century consumers were mainly alcohol based formulations. The advertisement below comes complete with testimonials from satisfied customers if you click on the article link.
Another respiratory remedy that we have covered here before is Wood’s Peppermint Cure. This product claimed to do largely the same thing as Baxter’s, in that it was said to cure coughs and colds. This one was associated with some more interesting advertisement angles, and seems to be endorsed by the gods? This stuff must have been good!
It’s likely that people were more often “under the weather” during this time than is common today, due to the difference in sanitation and living standards. Flush toilets, sinks and baths didn’t become widespread in New Zealand until the 20th century, and it wasn’t until this time that the development of hydroelectricity provided the instant availability of hot water for personal and domestic cleaning (Pollock 2011). Houses themselves were less weather tight – we often find evidence of newspapers plugging drafts in 19th century Christchurch houses. The condition of some dwellings were so poor that it brought about the introduction of the first state houses for renters, firstly in 1906 and on a larger scale during the 1930s (Pollock 2011). But undeniably, the most beneficial introduction was the revolutionary antibiotics that were no-doubt more medically effective than an alcohol based cure-all remedy.
Although houses weren’t as cozy, the wily Cantabrians had their own in-house methods of keeping warm in the winter. You’re probably aware of the existence of bed warmers, which originally took the form of a metal container filled with hot coals, but I was interested to discover that hot water bottles are not a modern invention. Those of us who don’t have electric blankets probably still take advantage of the soft rubber models, but ceramic and copper examples were commonly used by our ancestors. These were naturally hot to the touch, so knitted hot water bottle cozies with drawstrings were employed to transport them from the kitchen to the bedroom… Does your Nana knit something similar? (Cook 2012). The hand warmer, for example, has been used worldwide for centuries, and is still used by skiers today. During the Victorian era, ladies sported heated miniature water bottles, tucked into their fur hand muffs for outdoor adventures. For the less wealthy, hot potatoes, coals or stones sufficed as an alternative (Cook 2012). The heating of such items was usually done in the fireplace – some bedrooms and reception rooms had these, but the kitchen fireplace was the often the focal point of the house and it was utilised as an evening gathering place for families to keep warm, talk and work on small tasks (Cook 2012).
One of the most important things to note is that the nature of 19th century work, society and dress kept the chills largely at bay. Beds were warmed by more bodies than we might be used to – so while it was typical for a couple to have a bed to themselves, the children often slept all together, separated by gender to provide more room… “there were three in the bed and the little one said…roll over?” (Cook 2012). The Victorians also performed more sweat inducing physical labour than we might be used to. Chopping wood, keeping animals, preparing food – even the most everyday chores, from childhood to old age, required more constant physical activity than they do for us (lazy?) modern folk. (Wilham 2009). Additionally, while Gumboots, Swandries, and Kathmandu down jackets revolutionised how we brave the elements in the 20th and 21st centuries, Victorians knew how to successfully bundle up by layering their clothing. Men wore long johns under their outfits and women sported layers of petticoats. Winter wardrobes were primarily made of wool and included coats, trousers, often a waistcoat and shirt and a felt hat. Oilskin raincoats, leggings and hats were also fashioned for wet conditions, making their outerwear (somewhat) impermeable to water (Labrum 2008). So, let it rain!
Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Victorians spent their winter months. We hate to leave you out in the cold, but it’s nearly time to cozy up indoors for the weekend cause, baby, it’s cold outside!
ArchSite 2012. M35/731.
Cook T. 2012. Keeping Warm the Old Way. The Bologazine. [online] Available at: http://www.theblogazine.com/2012/12/keeping-warm-the-old-way/.
Kuzma, J. 2014. The 1895 Snowstorm. Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network. [online] available at: https://environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/2014/03/the-1895-snowstorm/
Labrum. B. 2008. ‘Rural clothing – Hats, footwear and oilskins’, [online] available at: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-clothing/page-3 (accessed 21 July 2017)
Pollock, K. 2011. ‘Public health – Healthy bodies’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-health/page-4 (accessed 21 July 2017).
Swarbrick, N. 2013. ‘Ice sports – Curling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ice-sports/page-1 (accessed 21 July 2017).
Wilham P. 2009. Staying War: How the Victorians Did. [Online] Available at: http://victorianantiquitiesanddesign.blogspot.co.nz/2009/01/staying-warm-how-victorians-did-it.html.