Anyone in the office will tell you that I have a keen interest in military history, especially anything related to the World War 2 period. I like my airplanes, yes (hats off to the de Havilland Mosquito, that twin engine plywood wonder) but I’m also a big fan of tanks. Last week I officially added to my bucket list a visit to the Tank Museum in Bovington. Camp Bovington in Dorset is the birthplace of the tank, and Camp Bovington’s Tank Museum has on display the largest collection of tanks in the world. One day I will make that pilgrimage…
I’ve been thinking about armoured vehicles a little more than usual recently. Perhaps this has been because some large construction sites that I’ve worked on lately have felt a bit like urban battlegrounds, bustling with big machines, and complete with all the smoke, dust, noise, and chaos of an urban war zone set against a ruinous backdrop of a half demolished/half rebuilt city. Reminiscent of that time in 1942 when I stood with my comrades in defence of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory? Hmm, maybe only just a little.
After an epic binge on David Fletcher’s Tank Chats last week, I decided that a blogpost about my two favourite Christchurch tanks was long overdue. First though, a few fast facts about tanks. The tank as we know it was developed in 1915 as an experimental weapon to break the stalemate of the trenches on the Western Front (Lest we forget). The Brits were the first to put the tank into battle, at the Somme in September 1916, where it had some success. The first British tank was called ‘Little Willy’. Little Willy was soon replaced by ‘Big Willy’ (the rhomboid shaped Mark 1) because Little Willy wasn’t long enough to cross trenches (sometimes it seems, size IS everything). Tanks were not actually developed by the Army, as one would naturally assume, but by the Navy, and they called them ‘Landships’. To throw the Boche off the scent, a less descriptive name was adopted as a security measure – tanks. The name stuck. Water tanks as a war winning wonder weapon? Yeah right! Codewords always work in wartime.
Of course, not all tanks are weapons of war, and the tanks that have popped up in Christchurch’s archaeological record in recent times were not designed and built to serve as offensive weapons, though they certainly did play a part in fighting different sorts of battles. So, let me tell you about two of my favourite Christchurch tanks.
The Fire Tank
I had my first run in with one of the city’s fire tanks in a trench on Manchester Street in July 2015, when SCIRT were digging up the road to lay a new water mains pipe. It was well concealed at shallow depth below the road surface, and at first glance I was a little intimidated by its immense size – it was nearly 40 metres long!
The fire tank on Manchester Street was one of six built by the City Council in 1885 for the fire brigade so they could better wage war against fire. Fire was a serious and recurrent threat to Christchurch in the early years, because so many buildings were of timber construction and they often stood so close to each other. A small fire in one building could very quickly turn into an inferno capable of destroying a whole city block. Because the council did not begin works on developing a high pressure piped water supply system until 1909, at first the fire brigade had to make do fighting the flames with water they got from local wells, or with what could be pumped directly from the Avon River. This was a less than satisfactory arrangement, especially when wells were dry, artesians yielded only a trickle, or worse still, if fires broke out at some distance from the river, and the fire brigade’s hoses weren’t long enough.
Each of the six tanks built in 1885 had a capacity of 25,000 gallons (approximately 114,000 litres) and were capable of supplying water over a radius of 1000 feet (305 metres). Each tank cost £300 to build, and each were served by their own artesian wells (Press 31/12/1884:2). Just completed, in September 1885 the Manchester Street tank was the lucky tank selected for official testing. It was calculated that the steam powered pumps of the brigade’s two fire engines ‘Deluge’ and ‘Extinguisher’ would be able to drain the entire tank in just over 33 minutes, however they managed to empty it in 31 minutes – quite an impressive achievement (Star 23/9/1885:2, Star 29/9/1885:3). In the following years the underground tanks proved to be an efficient weapon that saved people and property, however they sometimes had a tendency to overflow through their manhole access covers, of which there was one at each end (Press 12/1/1886:2). Even after the fire tanks were to some extent made obsolete – when the high pressure water reticulation network was finally laid on – these underground fire tanks were not forgotten or destroyed, but were retained, held back in ‘strategic reserve’, just in case.
Well built, the fire tank had an arched roof and brick walls three layers thick, with an internal width of 2.2 metres and a height of 1.8 metres. Despite the efforts of two pumps, it was not possible to remove all of the water from the tank, which had its crown arch broken out so the new water mains pipe could be laid right through its entire length. It was difficult to investigate this feature because of all the water, and because this tank was technically a confined space, our access was restricted on safety grounds. Tanks sure can be dangerous for archaeologists!
The fire tank stands out as a favourite tank of mine not just because of its impressive size, but also because, like many of the 19th century structural features about the city that we have been lucky enough to investigate, it had been built entirely by hand, brick by brick. Furthermore, these bricks had been laid in a bloody great big deep trench that had been dug by hand, in a part of the city where there are elevated groundwater levels. Build a massive underground water tank in a swamp? Best of British to you mate!
Much smaller than the fire tank, the ship tank was uncovered earlier this year at shallow depth in what was originally the backyard of the Occidental Hotel. This 4 ft cubic tank of mild steel had been buried in the ground for use, we strongly suspect, as a cesspit. When the hotel was connected to the city’s newly completed sewer system in 1882, the tank was filled in, mostly with bricks and other building debris that we reckon came from the demolition of the back part of the hotel.
In amongst the fill of the tank, we found a large cast-iron lid of 480 mm diameter that provided confirmation for us that this old steel tank was in fact a repurposed ship tank, made by John Bellamy’s tank works in Millwall, London. From the 1850s these riveted steel boxes with tight fitting circular lids began, in increasing numbers, to replace wooden barrels for the transport of drinking water and other perishable items in the holds of ships. Ship tanks have been found in numerous 19th century archaeological contexts across the world. In Australia, ship tanks were cleverly adapted for other uses, including rainwater tanks, sheep dips, eucalyptus oil stills and water troughs (Pearson 1992). A John Bellamy tank of identical form has also been found at Lusitania Bay on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, where it is suspected to have been used for the storage of penguin oil, of all things.
It’s hard to say which Christchurch tank is actually my favourite of the two, both have their charms. I think that if I had to choose just one though, I would have to choose the ship tank. Why? Because the ship tank that we found behind the hotel demonstrates adaptive reuse – something that archaeologists always have to consider when making interpretations about things from the past. Over their lifetime, artefacts both big and small can be modified to serve different functions, and these modifications can reflect different owners, ideas, and changing circumstances (among an infinite number of other possible things). An impervious steel tank built for the storage of water was later modified for the purpose of storing poo, well before the completion of Christchurch’s sewerage system meant that on site poo storage was no longer necessary. On top of this, the tank ended its use-life as a convenient place for dumping rubbish. In a similar vein I suppose, the modified ship tank reminds me of different kind of Christchurch tank –the Bob Semple Tank. If the perceived threat of Japanese invasion at the outbreak of World War 2 makes you think about how you can defend New Zealand’s shores when your Home Defence force has no tanks, all you need to do is modify, arm, and armour up a bunch of old Public Works Department D8 caterpillar tractors in a most Monty Python-esque fashion in the local railway workshop. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t have any standardised design blueprints, or if you don’t even know whether it will work. If the enemy don’t arrive, and your underpowered, under-armoured, silly looking impractical tractor tanks end up being the target of public ridicule, hey, you can always find another use for them, you can always change them back.
Pearson, M. 1992. From Ship to the Bush: Ship Tanks in Australia. Australasian Historical Archaeology 10(1) 22-29.
Phillips, T., 2010. Always Ready: Christchurch Fire Brigade: 1860-2010. Christchurch: New Zealand Fire Service, Transalpine Fire Region.
Press [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Star [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz