Early Christchurch women, breaking the rules: the exhibition.

The ideal Victorian woman

In Victorian society, a woman was to be meek, mild, virtuous and peaceful (Whiteside 2007). She was expected to marry and have children. She would stay at home, looking after her children and her husband and keeping the house perfectly. Public affairs were men’s matters, although a woman might engage in charitable or other social works, but nothing that could in any way be construed as ‘masculine’. She was selfless – everyone else always came first. She certainly wasn’t involved in politics, and nor did she run a business. At least, that was the theory!

Left: M Heslop & Co (Christchurch) fl 1870s: Portrait of unidentified man, woman and child. Ref: PA2-2063. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23056667. Right: well, it would be an alternative middle class family! Image: Observer 14/11/1903.

In fact, this standard was mostly applied to middle class women, and it seems to have been much less unusual for working class women to, well, work. But there were middle class women who broke these ‘rules’ of Victorian society too, in a range of ways. Discovering the lives of a number of these women in 19th century Christchurch – and our fascination with their ‘hidden’ lives – has led us to curate an exhibition: Women breaking the rules. You can see the physical display at Rewind at Ferrymead Heritage Park on Sunday 14 October, and also follow these women’s stories online via our Instagram exhibition @womenbreakingtherules.

Designed by A. Gibson.

But regardless of class, women were always defined in relation to the men in their life, whether father, brother or husband. So, being a spinster could be difficult and challenging. Much as we might not like it in this day in age, men provided often critical financial security for the women in their lives, particularly in a world where there was no pension or unemployment benefit, let alone a domestic purposes benefit. In fact, there was no state support of any kind in New Zealand until the end of the 19th century, and the poor were reliant on charities for support.

Unlike spinsters, widows seem to have had far more freedom and to have been more ‘respectable’ than unmarried women. While their situation might have been financially difficult, the range of jobs society approved of them taking on was broader than the range available for single women. And widows – as in some of the stories here – often ended up running their husband’s businesses, meaning they took on a variety of professions (Bishop 2012).

Women and work

Yes, women did work in the Victorian era! And not just as domestic servants – although this was far and way the most common occupation for women. In fact, some women ran businesses of their own. The jobs that women took on, though, and even many of the businesses they ran, tended to involve caring, or to be domestic in character. Jobs like teaching or nursing were both acceptable for middle class women (Bishop 2012).

Working class women could take on quite a range of work: dressmaker, needlework, hotelkeeping, storekeeping, confectionary, haberdashery, drapery and so on. Women could also earn money by taking in boarders, doing laundry or by looking after other women’s children. And let’s not ignore that they could be prostitutes. These were all ways of earning money that might fly under the radar and not be recorded officially (Bishop 2012).

Just relaxing under a tree, along with other women, working in the seaside or the countryside, riding a horse… working women and classy ones, all sort of women depicted through the artefacts! Image: J. Garland, C. Watson and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Telling women’s stories

As regular readers of the blog will know, researching the lives of most people who lived in 19th century New Zealand is tricky – official records can be patchy or may not even exist (Minchinton 2017). People only turned up in the newspapers if they were famous, got in trouble or were advertising for servants, leasing or selling properties. Unless someone has a really unusual name, you often can’t be certain you’re researching the right person.

Mary Portelli, the antithesis of the Victorian ideal, a woman in endless trouble! Images. Right: Star 29/05/1895: 3. Left: Southland Times 20/09/1906: 2.

Studying women’s lives is even harder. For one thing, they changed their surname when they married. Then, they were often referred to only as Mrs…, without their first name, or including their husband’s name instead – for example, Mrs L. J. Smith. Women who ran businesses often traded under their husband’s name, or didn’t advertise at all (Bishop 2012). And, in general, women’s activities meant they didn’t end up in the newspaper.

The branded china L. J. Smith – and presumably Elizabeth, L. J. Smith’s wife – used at events he organised as caterer. Image: C. Dickson.

Despite these difficulties, archaeology and history reveal the lives of six Christchurch women who, in one way or another, broke the rules of late 19th and early 20th century society: Fanny Cole, prohibitionist; Elizabeth Robinson, chemist; Sarah Gault, dressmaker; Elizabeth Smith, caterer; Caroline Rantin, timber and coal merchant; and Mary Portelli, woman in trouble.

There are no Māori women in this exhibition, unfortunately, because we’ve not found any record of Māori women living in 19th century Christchurch. This isn’t to say that they weren’t, just that we’ve not found them yet. If you want to learn more, we highly recommend checking out the book He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century.

Why are these women important?

These six women were not the only exceptional ones who broke the rules. It turns out that there were many more women pushing the boundaries of Victorian society than we initially expected. The six women we’ve featured in this exhibition serve to highlight the lives and occupations of all these women, along with their concerns and daily battles and how they struggled against what was accepted and respectable (Whiteside 2007), whilst working within the confines of the ideals of that time. But slowly, slowly, pushing these boundaries would come to change society as a whole. So, let’s look at the archaeology and the historical record and bring women into the picture!

This exhibition is a joint production between Underground Overground Archaeology and the Christchurch Archaeology Project.

Katharine Watson and Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References 

Bishop, Catherine, 2012. “Commerce Was a Woman: Women in Business in Colonial Sydney and Wellington.” PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Minchinton, Barbara, 2017. “’Prostitutes’ and ‘lodgers’ in Little Lon: construction a list of occupiers in nineteenth-century Melbourne”. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 35, pp. 64-70.

Whiteside, Heidi, 2017. “’We Shall Be Respectable’: Women and Representations of Respectability in Lyttelton 1851-1893”. MA thesis, University of Canterbury.

Discovering Christchurch’s Classical past

Being a Roman archaeologist by trade, wherever I go in the world I seem to sniff out some classical antiquities. Some call it a talent, some call it an obsession (I’ll leave that to you to decide…). There’s something about the ancient civilisations that get me really excited and if I’ve had a tough day on a muddy site in the freezing cold New Zealand winter I go home and grab my copy of Tacitus (or watch an episode of the BBC’s ‘Rome’ –  it’s all about balance, right?) to remind me why I fell in love with archaeology.

Me, sat outside my idea of heaven: Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome. Sometimes watching Gladiator suffices though. Image: Colin Davidson.

I was exceptionally lucky to grow up right next to Hadrian’s Wall in the North East of England, so I’ve been surrounded by classical influences my entire life. This is quite likely why I wanted to go on to study it at a higher level. When I was studying Roman archaeology at Newcastle University I actually got to dig on Hadrian’s Wall a few times, so I count myself very fortunate. Moving to the opposite side of the world (literally), I have encountered a very different type of archaeology, which I love experiencing in equal measure. But I need my classical fix. Que the Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re about to.

Hadrian’s Wall; once the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and keeping out those uncivilised Scots (sorry Dad). Image: Creative Commons

Now Christchurch wouldn’t be the first place I would think of when I’m wistfully daydreaming of Ancient Rome or Athens but I was wrong (shocking, I know). The University of Canterbury offers an outstanding opportunity to get up close to artefacts from the Ancient World in the form of the Teece Museum, now located in the UC Arts Building in the CBD. While visiting the museum is free, donations are strongly recommended – not only because we need to keep funding our arts and heritage sectors (I won’t start ranting, don’t worry), but because the museum itself has its origins in just that activity; donating. The James Logie Collection came from a single donor, Miss Marion Steven, in 1957. And from here the story of classical antiquities in Christchurch has grown. The collection was the ‘brainchild’ of UC Classics staff member Marion Steven (pictured below, exploring Rome a bit like myself), whose passion for Greek pottery provided the foundation for the Logie Collection. She taught at the University between 1944 and 1977 and married James Logie, Registrar of the College from 1950 until his death in 1956. The collection was established as a tribute to her husband and since then has been a commemoration to both James and Marion.

Miss Marion Steven, Rome, c.1970. Image: Copyright UC.

The story of classical antiquities in Christchurch is, however, fairly different to most places. When the 6.2 magnitude 2011 Canterbury Earthquake struck, artefacts literally jumped and turned (apparently the CCTV footage is quite something). The quakes resulted in around three quarters of the collection being damaged, but (luckily) there was no water or fire damage. If there had been, I would be telling a very different story right now. What astounds me the most about Christchurch in general are the positive perspectives that people have taken from the rebuild process, and meeting with Terri Elder (the collection’s curator who joined the team post-quake), provided me with yet another example of this. What we often don’t think about when visiting museums is the stuff that’s kept in storage. Only a small proportion of a collection is shown at any time. New exhibitions are always being put together and the artefacts that aren’t currently on display are kept in storage. Whilst the earthquake caused major issues for collection, they’ve taken the time to learn from what happened and make improvements to the storage alongside the repair of the artefacts, many of which had historic repairs that were not up to current conservatory standards.

Storage units for museums and archives are usually  large rolling units (seen below).This rolling design allows you to open one ‘corridor’ at a time and therefore doesn’t waste space in between shelves (like  a library for example). While this method is a necessity to save valuable space, I’m sure you’ll agree that  rolling units with valuable objects and earthquakes don’t really mix. While no significant damage happened to the collection that was in storage, lessons were nonetheless learnt. These lessons resulted in modifications to the storage, such as the straps across the shelves which are designed to catch and stop the boxes from falling to the floor in the event of another quake. In addition, the units all lock into place when you open them to prevent users becoming trapped between the units.

The storage units with the post-earthquake modifications. Image: Copyright UC.

As an immediate reaction following the quake, the collection was to be packed away in its entirety. This, which could be perceived as a step backwards, oddly turned into a positive for the museum as it meant that schools visiting the collection in the period after the quakes got to handle the collection because it was in storage rather than on display behind a glass case. The collection began to be used in a more hands-on manner, which makes the artefacts (as well as the time period they came from) more real and vibrant to those learning about them.  There’s often a perception that artefacts in museums aren’t to be handled, and while that’s true for the pieces on display in cases, artefacts are constantly  handled when curators, researchers and archaeologists are learning more about them.

Another positive taken from this situation was the opportunity to remove historic repairs that weren’t up to scratch, which often included staples and discoloured glues. Since these original repairs had been done, the conservation industry has moved forward in leaps and bounds. The new repairs (an example of can be seen below) are all reversible. Now that’s pretty neat. And yes, the artefacts have suffered more fractures during the recent quake but in my humble opinion these new fractures are a new addition  to the story; it was once whole, then lost and forgotten (and likely broken), then found by archaeologists (or collectors), repaired and put on display, and then caught up in the Canterbury Quakes. This is just another stepping stone in the life of an artefact.

Conservator at work on a dog mosaic. Image: Copyright UC.

Before and after treatment of a black-figure lip cup. Image: JLMC 1.53, Copyright UC.

If improvements to the storage and artefacts weren’t enough, the space in which we can now see the collection has had an upgrade too! Pictured below, the space at UC Arts Building now features cases fixed to the wall, with thick safety glass. The cases in the middle are moveable, but there are latches throughout the space that they can be attached to, so with every changing exhibition the space changes but remains safe. Within every case each artefact has a unique mount inside, invisible to the museum visitor, but designed hold the item steady in the event of more earthquakes. None of this was in place prior to 2011, so you’re able to see (or at least visualise) how hard Terri and the team have worked to make the space safe and useable.

Interior view of the Teece Museum gallery. Image: Copyright UC. Photographer Duncan Shaw Brown.

I may be a tad bias, but I think we’re exceptionally lucky to have a collection such as this in Christchurch and, with it now being housed within the CBD, there’s really no excuse not to go along and have a look for yourself. The Teece Museum of Classical Antiquities is located on Level 1 of the UC Arts city building (Old Chemistry) at 3 Hereford Street, in the historic Christchurch Arts Centre. The museum is open to the public Wednesday through to Sunday from 11am to 3pm. See you there!

 

Contact the museum:

Email: teecemuseum@canterbury.ac.nz

Facebook: www.facebook.com/teecemuseum/

Instagram: www.instagram.com/teecemusem/

 

Special thanks to Terri Elder and the Teece Museum for their help in making this blog post possible.

Kathy Davidson