Under the ground, over the ground and under the floor

Underfloor deposits are as exasperating as they are exciting. Exasperating because the context is not particularly secure: objects usually accumulate under a house over time (thrown or swept from the outside, lost or dropped between the floorboards, dragged in by wind, animals or as result of construction activities). However, every cloud has a silver lining and underfloor deposits are also exciting. The dry conditions under the houses help preserve different types of artefacts to those found in the ground. As a result, underfloor deposits give us the chance to deal with well-preserved and unusual goods, which increases our knowledge about Victorian domestic culture. Always a good thing.

It can also be difficult to associate the objects from underfloor deposits with the people who used to live in the house (the artefacts usually represent a wide range of material culture, from the mid-19th century to the 20th century), unless we happen across a site where the archaeological and historical record are miraculously in alignment. In the case I’m going to talk about today, that alignment happened thanks to personal items that the occupants had lost beneath the floors of their house.

Site prior to the removal of foundations, looking east. Heaps of artefacts were found under the floor of a house in Sydenham during the works related to the demolition, foundation removal and site clearance. Image: J. Hughes.

A huge number of artefacts were scattered across the ground under the back four rooms of the house. We don’t know exactly when the house was built – all the available evidence suggests that it was during the late 19th century, but we do know that it was subsequently renovated. This means that this material may have accumulated over time under the original building and the subsequent renovations during this period. We also know that one particular family – the Rantin family – are known to have lived in this part of Southampton Street from 1883 until the mid-20th century (Press, 20/10/1896; Press 11/02/1933: 22).

James and Caroline Rantin celebrated their silver wedding in their house at Southampton Street in 1896. About 50 people were invited and derived from the description, it looks like a big social event! (Press 20/10/1896).

Overall, the assemblage was typical of a domestic context, including bottles, tea and table wares, animal bones and other stuff related to household activities, personal grooming and garments. As well as illustrating affairs of daily life, all genders and ages are present in this assemblage: men, women, children! Fantastic!

A common ‘twirly’ salad oil bottle, but unusual because of the label. WARDELL BROS & Co TEA, COFFEE AND SPICES MERCHANTS CHRISTCHURCH, DUNEDIN & WELLINGTON were three brothers: John, William, Thomas and Henry Wardell, grocers and provision merchants. Their business was established in 1887 in Christchurch, while the Wellington branch was opened in 1893. They also had a Dunedin branch, although the dates for this are unclear (The Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1897). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

This castor oil bottle has a paper label that probably represented  C. and E. Morton (sons of the well-known J. T Morton company). This was originally a Scottish firm, founded in Aberdeen in 1849. By the 1860s Morton was a general provider and stocked a wide range of foodstuffs such as cheese, confectionery, corn, preserved provisions, sauces, vinegar and salt, but also apparel, books, soap and candles. Charles and Edward Morton took over their father’s company after his death in 1898 (Petchey and Innanchai 2012: 9; Graces Guide 2017). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Bay Rum was a refreshing and invigorating tonic for the hair – this particular example was manufactured and sold by Henry Arthur Papprill. His remedies were widely advertised on New Zealand newspaper during the second decade of the 20th century (Star 10/11/1913: 2; Press 6/8/1925: 6). Although primarily marketed as a hair product, Bay Rum was also used for other personal grooming issues, from skin beautification to the relief of tired feet (Bruce Herald 29/11/1898). A bit of concern about personal care and beauty, I’m guessing… Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

We’ve showed you this splendid example of recycling before on the blog. This ‘Greys’ cigarette box has been cut and reused as a shopping list, a better purpose than its original function by the way! A range of items can be read: butter, sugar, eggs, biscuits, soda, cornflour, cookies, jellies, fruit… Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Not just an affordable and simple pipe, but also one with a story to it. This smoking pipe commemorates 60 years of Victoria’s reign in 1897, while the mark refers to John McPhee, a Dunedin pipe maker from a family of Scottish pipe manufacturers. John McPhee started to make clay tobacco pipes in Dunedin around 1890 until 1908 (White 2016: 27). The McPhees appear to have been the first New Zealand clay pipe makers (White 2016: 27-28). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Anchor button. It was two-piece dome with an embossed fouled (as in, the rope twisted around it) anchor and a separate shank. It is likely to have been a cuff button, possibly associated with a navy uniform. Rather than being stitched onto the coat or jacket, these buttons were attached by a split pin, facilitating removal for cleaning, or a change of season (Lindbergh 1999: 52). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Yarn, a bobbin, an unidentified piece of fabric and one shell button were also found under the house. Spinning, sewing, mending and remaking garments, as well as marking sheets, towels, and other linens was a regular component of household work done or overseen by women (Beaudry 2006: 5). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A perfect complement. This handbag made of leather with a metal closure and decorative stitching. Trendy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries or perhaps, just a choice according to the personal taste. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

MATHER’S INFANTS FEEDING BOTTLE LONDON MANCHESTER. This type of baby feeder was known as ‘murder’ feeder, due to the difficulty of cleaning the lid. Hygiene and related difficulties were counteracted by disinfectants, medicines or even homemade remedies (Otago Witness 15/02/1879). During the 19th century, artificial feeding became extremely popular, in part to address the lack of wet nurses. The discoveries of Pasteur and the subsequent techniques for sterilising feeding bottles improved the sanitary risks associated with artificial feeding. The use of feeding bottles became widespread: they were initially made from pewter, tin plate, earthenware and porcelain, with glass bottles gradually becoming popular from the latter decades of the 19th century onwards (Alimentarium 2016). Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

So far, we have a selection of cool and interesting objects. However, we don’t yet have any direct association with the Rantin family. So, let’s demonstrate why this underfloor deposit is special.

First of all, the association of the assemblage with Rantin family is clearly evident from the appearance of the name of James Rantin on a few artefacts relating to his business and occupation as timber merchant like the bill and rebate book exposed below. His wife Caroline was the ‘executrix’ of the business until 1907, when her sons Thomas James and William Rantin took over the company as timber and coal merchants, under the name Rantin Bros (Press 3/12/1907: 1).

Top left: bill dating to July 1903 and addressed by post to James Rantin from the coal, firewood and general merchants, George McClatchie and Co. Bottom left: J. Rantin’s rebate book dating from 1897 to 1898. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu. Right: Press 3/12/1907:1.

Even more intriguingly, what looks like a baseball set was also found under the house, consisting of a rubber ball and a wooden bat. This is not a common find in Christchurch archaeological sites per se, making them quite interesting artefacts just by themselves. However, a name was also written on the bat… To be honest, the name is illegible, we only figured out the surname. This was enough though, as the visible word read ‘Ratin’. The ‘n’ lacks, but we are pretty sure that it’s just an innocent bad spelling made by a child.

Baseball was played in Christchurch during the late 19th century (Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016). In fact, there were two baseball clubs in Christchurch by 1889, with the aim of providing a winter sport for cricketers who did not want to play rugby. In the early 20th century the interest in baseball was revived due to the Canadian visitors to the New Zealand International Exhibition in 1906, 1907, 1909 and 1910 (Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016). In addition, this baseball set is cool and valuable as indicates the presence of children on this site. Through play, young children were taught roles that would be important in later life. For example, emphasis on sport was particularly important for boys, who were expected to exercise their rougher instincts through play, so that they were able to behave respectably in the company of women. Girls were usually given dolls instead, in an effort to encourage maternal instincts (Prangnell and Quirck 2009: 42).

Top left: a detail of the surname Ra[n]tin written on the bat. Rubber ball with the world map engraved on it and the wooden baseball bat. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

What else do we need as archaeologists? Nothing at all! No mysteries this time. The Rantin family’s belongings accumulated under this house for decades, and it is these lost things that tell us about their lives. At this stage, we know that James and Caroline Rantin had children. And yes, their sons and daughters were Thomas James, William, Elizabeth, Emily and Caroline. A few other conclusions can be also drawn about Rantin Family. For instance, there is a possible association with the navy derived from the anchor button (or just a special affection for naval emblems). Perhaps Thomas James or William, both of whom were Canterbury soldiers during the First World War (Star 11/12/1918: 5; Otago Daily Times 12/01/1917: 3). A particular passion for the monarchy or a royalist attitude is suggested by the presence of a pipe celebrating Queen Victoria’s reign (not unusual for this period), which otherwise makes evident the habit of smoking. Products like Bay Rum show a concern for hair care and maintenance, or perhaps for the appearance in front of the judgmental eyes of society. From mundane affairs to personal traits, this is an excellent example of life in a Christchurch house back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Either way, the discovery of this assemblage was a fortunate day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. A piece of cake! Thanks to the fascinating underfloor archaeology indeed…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Alimentarium, 2016 [online] Available at https://www.alimentarium.org [Accessed March 2018].

Beaudry, M.C., 2006. Findings the material culture of needlework and sewing. Yale University Press. New Haven, London.

Bruce Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Lindbergh, J., 1999. Buttoning Down Archaeology. Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 17: 50-57.

Otago Witness [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Petchey, P. and Innanchai, J., 2012. Bottle Top Capsules in New Zealand Historic Archaeological Sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology, Vol.3: 1-16.

Prangnell, J. and Quirk, K., 2009. Growing up on the Australian Goldfields. Historical Archaelogy, Vol. 43: 38-49.

Press [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2018].

Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, 2016 [online] Available at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en [Accessed March 2018].

White, S., 2016. The McPhees, New Zealand’s First Clay Pipemakers. Archaeology in New Zealand. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Vol.59, No 3: 10-28.

The changing face of a 19th century farmstead

We have published previously on the importance of buildings, be they residential or commercial, as an artefact in understanding 19th century culture in New Zealand. While it’s easy to overlook the humble cottage as a source of archaeological data, houses are a snapshot that capture not only information about the person who constructed the building, their wealth and social standing for example, but also provide a glimpse of the larger economy in which the house was built. However, buildings go beyond that, and by investigating alterations we can make a profile of the people who lived there and track technological and stylistic changes through time.

Towards the end of last year, we were contracted to investigate and record a farmstead in Halswell. At the time of recording it was the location of a heavily modified Victorian ‘L-plan’ cottage and several outbuildings. Historical research for the Halswell area is notoriously difficult due to a general lack of sources, although we did know from land records and a valuation issued in 1905 that the farm had been purchased by Cornelius Murphy in 1871, and that the house was standing on the property by at least c.1881.

What made the property special is that the house had remained the home of the murphy family until recently, being passed down through the generations.

Northeast elevation of the cottage.

Plan of the house as it was prior to demolition.

From the outset the house appeared to be a standard 19th century cottage that had been heavily modified in the 20th century. Most of the wall linings, original skirtings and cornices, and ceilings had been replaced. A large section of the original timber floor of Room 10 was missing (see the above floor plan for room numbers). Even the original sash windows had been replaced with timber framed casement windows. At least three large extensions had also been made in the 20th century.

But by peeling back the layers, the original house started coming to the surface. Cuts in the weatherboards on the northwest elevation suggested the original house was much shorter. Weatherboards were discovered behind the wall lining on the northeast wall of Room 6. A fireplace had been removed in Room 3. At least two walls had been removed in Room 10, one of which would have originally formed a hallway between Rooms 10 and 1. Cut marks in the weatherboards on the northeast elevation suggest a door had been removed from between the two windows under the veranda.

Northwest elevation of the house. The red arrow indicates cut marks in the weatherboards that correspond with the back wall of Room 10.

Cut marks in the weather boards highlighted in the above image.

Original weatherboards exposed in the northeast elevation of Room 6 (the back wall of Room 4).

Southwest elevation of Room 3. A brick fireplace had been removed and replaced with an electric heater.

Room 10 looking north. Note that a wall has been removed separating what probably would have been two bedrooms.

Marks on the floorboards in Room 10 show where a wall once ran. (The wall to the right is Room 1).

A little bit of deconstruction work revealed even more treasures. A covered over window frame was revealed in the northeast wall of Room 9 (the wall separating Room 9 from 10) confirming that this was the original back wall of the house. A covered over door frame was also present in this wall.

A covered over window frame revealed in Room 9.

Covered over door frame in Room 9 that originally gave access to Room 10.

Plan of the house with the (known) removed walls, doors and window indicated in red.

Removal of the floorboards in Room 9 revealed that the floor sat on stone piles and brick piles. The piles were marked ‘B’ (a marked used by John Brightling 1880-c. 1898) suggesting this was a 19th century room, although, as it had covered over an original window,  Room 9 must have been a 19th century alteration to the house!

The removal of the floorboards in Room 9 revealed stone and brick piles.

A red brick used as a pile. The brick was marked ‘B’ suggesting this was a 19th century addition.

Then removal of the wallpaper in Room 1 revealed a hidden door in the northwest wall!

Covered over door in room 1 – an idea of the original layout of the house is taking shape.

What is likely the original wallpaper was also revealed. This had probably been preserved under the original architraves.

The original wallpaper of Room 1.

So now we had a house with at least one removed hallway, and a bedroom with two doors….

More secrets were revealed during the demolition. The original gable roof line was made visible above the southeast wall of Room 1. The demolition of the back-to-back fireplaces in Rooms 1 and 10 revealed that the fireplace of Room 10 had originally been a very tall 1.2 m. Big enough for a cooking range perhaps?

Demolition of the house revealed the original gable roof structure above the southeast wall of room 1, indicating that this was the original outside wall of the house.

Fireplace in Room 10 as it looked prior to the demolition.

The fireplace revealed behind the 20th century facade. The fireplace was originally arched, and about 1.2 m tall.

The bricks for this fireplace were marked ‘RS’ – a mark used by Royse, Stead and Co. between 1875 – c.1882.

‘RS’ stamped brick taken form the chimney of the fireplaces in Rooms 1 and 10.

The completed demolition revealed the that Rooms 1, 2, 3, 4, 10 and part of 9 (mentioned above) had been constructed on stone piles, suggesting the they were all 19th century constructions. Can any more information be pulled from the foundations? Yes! Luckily the concrete foundation that had supported the original fireplace in Room 3 was still in situ, and still had a layer of bricks affixed to it.

Foundations of the house, looking west.

A row of stone piles that ran under the southeast walls of Rooms 1 and 10. Looking southwest.

Foundation of the fireplace that originally sat in Room 3. Looking southeast.

Red brick from the above fireplace foundation. While faint, the letter B can be made out.

The bricks were marked ‘B’, suggesting that rooms 3, 4 and part of 9 were contemporary constructions.

Putting all the information together, we can piece together the life history of the house.

The building had begun life as a simple box cottage, constructed by Cornelius Murphy between 1871 and 1881. The house had four rooms. Room 1 was probably a living room, while Room 10 was likely to have been two bedrooms and a kitchen. The small stature of the house probably reflects the financial means of Cornelius as his farm was just starting out.

Approximate plan of the original house constructed by Cornelius Murphy. Not depicted – an unknown number of windows that couldn’t be identified during the recording.

A decade after the farm was established the Murphy family had become relatively well off, and the little house was no longer suitable for the family. The house was extended between 1880 and 1900 with the addition of Rooms 3 ,4 and 9. Room 9 was a reasonable size and probably became the kitchen. The extensions would forgo the tongue and groove panel and wallpaper wall linings of the original house and would instead use more expensive (and higher status) lath and plaster.

The house at it probably appeared after the extensions in c.1880-1898.

Further additions to the house could be dated using aerial photography (Canterbury Maps n.d.). The house was extended again in the early 20th century with the addition of Rooms 5 and 6 before 1944  (which included indoor toilet facilities). Rooms 7 and 8 were added, and Room 9 was extended, between 1980-1984. This added a modern bathroom and kitchen. Finally Room 11, a conservatory, was added in the 1990s.

But this is just the beginning of the story this house has to tell. Makers marks found on the roofing iron, timber, nail, and brick samples collected during the demolition, wallpaper patterns, and analysis of wall linings will all provide vital information that will inform us about the choices made by Cornelius in the construction of his home, and of the wider economy that played a part in the construction of the building.

And all this is before we get to the analysis of the outbuildings and other archaeology found on the site.

2017: The year that was

Yet another year gone! It’s been a strange one, out there in the world, but here at Underground Overground it’s been a year of excavation, discoveries, stories and all things archaeological.

In the proper spirit of history, let’s take a look back at the archaeological year that was…

We dug some holes and, in true archaeological fashion, sat in them. Image: Hamish Williams.

We found some things. This archaeological treasure trove was discovered on Colombo Street, on a site linked to early (1860s) shops. This brick-lined feature was, as you can see, chock-full of artefacts, most of which were concentrated at the top of the feature, indicating that there were at least two deposition events. The material from this site is still keeping us busy…Image: Angel Trendafilov.

At times, the archaeology got a bit topsy-turvy. Or, as one Facebook commenter was witty enough to suggest, a bit tipsy-turvy. Image: Hamish Williams.

Well, would you look at that. Image: Hamish Williams.

We got a bit bogged down at times…
This waterlogged cellar was an unexpected find on Colombo Street, with several artefacts – including shoes – found in association. Image: Shana Dooley.

We drew some things. Image: Hamish Williams.\

We got really excited about this 1880s brick kiln. Image: Matt Hennessey.

We even found a secret door.  Image: Matt Hennessey.

Out at the Lyttelton Port, excavations revealed the remains of a hidden piece of maritime infrastructure, thought to be part of the No 1. Breastworks structure first constructed c. 1879-1882. Image: Megan Hickey.

Stepping ashore in Lyttelton, we came across the oldest drain of the year.  This unusual pointy roofed flat bottomed stone drain was built by the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1857 to drain the Lyttelton Gaol and is still in use today. Parts of it were replaced by a brick barrel drain in the 1870s, but this particular section wasn’t, as by this time it had a substantial gaol building built atop of it (the fellas in the top image are standing on its concrete foundation). There is a local legend that some prisoners attempted a Steve McQueen style great escape through this drain back in the day, but we couldn’t find any supporting documentary evidence. Images: Hamish Williams (top) and John Walter, Christchurch City Council (bottom).

We were lucky enough to do a lot of work out in Akaroa this year, including research into the 1840s blockhouse in German Bay, this replica model of which was built for the 1906-1907 International Exhibition in Christchurch.  The replica may look a lot like a chook-house, but the full-sized versions were built as fortified retreats for the early settlers after the departure of the Navy. Image: Buckland, Jessie Lillian, 1878-1939. Claude Jean-Baptiste Eteveneaux standing next to a model of a blockhouse, Akaroa, Canterbury – Photograph taken by Jessie Buckland. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/2-040963-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/29945245.

Easily the best historical gem for this year (in my humble opinion), found in the deeds index. Image: LINZ.

The year was remarkable for the number of fancy things found, from this rather gaudy looking lustre vase to…

…to these flash looking tobacco pipes. Image: Jessie Garland.

There were trade tokens aplenty. Image: Jessie Garland.

And Edwardian board games! Image: Maiden Built Ltd.

And nested paua shell! So much paua shell. Image: Megan Hickey.

Along with a plethora of other things. This is just a tiny selection of the artefacts we’ve found this year. From temperance tickets and snuff jars, to Russian Bears Grease, Lyttelton water, steam ship transfer prints and, of course, Old Tom gin. Image: Jessie Garland.

We made an exhibition of ourselves at times, from the displays at South Library and Christ’s College for Archaeology Week to the opening of the new Christchurch and Emergency Services Precinct building. Images: Chelsea Dickson and Jessie Garland.

Some of the crew (the sketchy characters) even found themselves featuring in the story of Ōtautahi. We highly recommend checking these creative hoardings out, either in person or through the website. Image: Felicity Jane Powell.

So, from those of us at Underground Overground this year, here’s hoping you all have a fantastic Christmas and new year break. See you next year!


Life’s a beach

It’s that time of year again, the summer season is upon us, and this year has really has brought the heat! With much of the country sweltering in the late 20s and early 30s lately, it’s made us appreciate the modern conveniences of air conditioning and short sleeves. As discussed in the blog post we did about winter earlier this year, there was a time when the people of Christchurch had to brave the seasonal extremes of climate without our handy newfangled innovations. But it wasn’t all about sunburn, droughts and overheating, the people of historic Canterbury managed to find plenty of ways to enjoy themselves in the warmer months, so grab yourselves a chilled beverage and let’s explore the recreational history of Canterbury’s summers together.

As ever, the beach was a popular holiday choice for many sun lovers. Christchurch has a few great ones to choose from, and below is a picture of a scene that might be familiar to some of you. It’s the Sumner settlement in 1900, where you can see many visitors enjoying the sunshine and crowding in the streets. It looks like it would be hot work in all those layers of clothing!

Sumner in 1900: already a favourite holiday resort. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0096.

The children of the province were particularly taken with the summer months. The generally accepted Victorian ideal of childhood was that good children were well presented, “should be seen and not heard”, and self-discipline was encouraged in all things. But as a reprieve, the beach provided the perfect location for a children’s play area, where they had the opportunity to be as noisy as they wished within the expansive outdoors on offer. The images below depict children enjoying the beaches around the turn of the 20th century, but we know that these same localities had been used for similar recreation during the 19th century. Local newspapers report on annual Sunday school beachside picnics and donkey rides for both children and the unfortunate inmates of the Sunnyside Asylum (Star 21/2/1898: 2).

Some more Sumner land marks that might be recognisable. Children padding near the pier at Cave Rock, Sumner beach, decorated for a summer carnival, Christchurch [1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0053.

Swimmers in the surf, possibly at a Wellington beach [ca. 1900] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0010.

Very adorable! Children taking donkey rides on Sumner beach, Christchurch [ca. 1905] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0019.

With the increase in seaside visitors, the safety of those enjoying the water eventually came to be monitored. 1911 saw the establishment of the Sumner Royal Surf and Lifesaving Club, and the organisation constructed their first pavilion on Sumner Beach in 1913. Before this time, a lifeboat had been formally purchased for local aquatic emergencies in 1894, but it was deemed inadequate and was updated in 1898. However, this new boat still proved still insufficient to save the life of aeronaut, Captain Lorraine, who drowned the following summer, during a tragically failed hot air balloon display for the people of Sumner (Boyd 2009-2010: 16-17; Marlborough Express 3/11/1899: 3).

A demonstration of artificial respiration at the opening of the lifesaving season: team lined up behind the reel. [4 Dec. 1926] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0056.

For many Cantabrians, winter is to snow, what snow is to skiing, and similarly, the raising of temperatures in the region spelled the perfect chance to get involved with some extra-curricular sporting activities. It’s generally accepted that surfing first originated in Hawaii, and was recorded by Joseph Banks during Captain Cook’s first visit to Tahiti. But we all know that the sport (or “art form” as the Hawaiians viewed it), didn’t stay isolated in the Polynesian Islands. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate any historic images of locals riding the waves at Sumner and Taylor’s Mistake as they do now, but the photo below suggests that people were taking part in New Zealand by at least around 1910.

A man surfing, possibly at a Wellington beach [ca. 1910] Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0011.

The value that the European settlers placed on team sports was much greater than their regard for individual ones, due to their associations with the Victorian ideals of self-discipline and conformity over individualism (Boyd 2009-2010: 13). This made summertime team sports like rowing and sailing coveted pastimes. Between 1860 and 1866, the first Christchurch and interprovincial rowing regattas took place in the McCormack’s Bay estuary and the Union and Avon clubs had sheds built in the area. However, due to the problems caused by the sandbars in the estuary, these regattas were moved to Lake Forsyth by 1888 (Boyd 2009-2010: 13-14).

The Christchurch Sailing Club was formally established in the mid-19th century and such sporting ventures also proved to be an enjoyable summer pastime for those more affluent and outdoorsy residents of Christchurch. The tramway from Christchurch to Sumner (constructed in 1888), provided convenient transport from the sweltering city to the Sumner beachside and the McCormack’s Bay Estuary – despite sewage disposal issues in the area (which sometimes saw the overflow of septic tanks resulting in raw sewage visibly floating in the estuary), this area was described as an “ideal playground for aquatic sportsmen” (Boyd 2009-2010: 13; Lyttelton Times 16/8/1888: 3).  New Brighton also formally established their own sailing club in 1890 – their opening day entailed a festive and exotic celebration of a boat procession covered in Chinese lanterns, complete with fireworks and general revelry and merriment (Boyd 2009-2010: 13-14).

Yachts of the Christchurch Sailing Club fleet under sail near the pier at Cave Rock, Sumner [1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 14 IMG0054.

Summer sailing wasn’t only reserved for the wealthy. If one replaced a yacht with a steamer they could take a holiday excursion to beautiful destinations on the Christchurch Peninsula. Jaunts like these were available to the masses for the Canterbury Anniversary of European settlement (December 16). This day was a holiday for many and the tickets for this expedition were “moderately priced” – this made the excursions accessible to many citizens and the newspapers correctly predicted that “a large number of people will avail themselves of the opportunity for a day of recreation on the peninsula” (Lyttelton Times 11/12/1861: 4). These steamers annually carried with them picnic lunches, bands and shooting parties to act as entertainment in the day’s celebrations.

An advertisement for the excursion. Image: Lyttelton Times 12/12/1860: 5.

One didn’t need to leave the city to take part in summer recreational activities. For those who stayed on shore in Christchurch City for anniversary day, there was always a game of cricket or other outdoor sports to be had, including trotting and rifle matches (Lyttelton Times 17/12/1862: 4; 27/12/1864: 4). We kiwis love our sports after all! Additionally, the annual horticultural show was not to be missed, and “The Garden City” had its fair share of outdoor spaces to enjoy. Business ventures like Mr. Kohler’s Hotel and Pleasure Gardens offered a variety of outdoor pursuits, including swimming baths, a maze and displays of “ancient armour and weapons of warfare” I wish they were still open!

Is cricket your whole world? A very interestingly decorated cricket bat and ball that we found on an archaeological site in the Christchurch Central City. The ball has clearly been well worn around the Northern Hemisphere… Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Summertime recreation presented in a tidy package at Kohler’s Garden’s (formerly Taylor’s Gardens and was located near the intersection of what is now Hagley Avenue and Waller terrace). Image: Press 9/11/1865: 1).

We’ve talked about annual Christmas dos before on the blog, and just like now, summertime brought a welcome reprieve for some lucky workers in the form of an annual staff function – this often took the form of a company picnic. But these weren’t limited to workplace festivities, the ‘picnic season’ was utilised by many for fundraising events and it spanned the entire summer season and then some (from November through to May). This also included a several public or holidays like The Prince of Wales’s birthday (November 9), Canterbury Anniversary, Christmas and New Year. Public holidays were exceptionally popular for community picnics, with most people having a break from work without the conflict of Sabbaths schedules, and the city even put on extra trains at such times to transport revel makers to more exotic locations (Clayworth 2013).

A garden party held to aid the Christchurch Hospital Lady Visitors’ funds [17 Nov. 1910]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0053.

For those who wanted to escape the city for more than just the day, there were some other options. Holidaying in the “great kiwi batch” among beautiful New Zealand localities was an idea that reached peak popularity in the 1940s to 1960. These structures were inexpensive to erect, as they were often constructed with salvaged materials (Bennett 2014). However, baches first started popping up during the late 19th century, and they were simple structures, like the one shown below. (Swarbrick 2013). Similarly, camping became widely popular in the 20th century, but was first introduced during the 19th century. At this time, hunters, shepherds and very early settlers camped in the open air, under the stars for lack of better accommodation options, but recreational camping by New Zealand’s wealthy classes is recorded near the turn of the century. In 1907, one of our most famous authors, Katherine Mansfield, embarked on a six-week long summer camping trip in the central North Island. She and her group of friends explored the area in horse-drawn wagons and they slept in tents (Derby 2013).

Chopping wood for the fire at a holiday bach [ca. 1900]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0063.

Putting the billy on at a holiday bach [ca. 1900]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 13, IMG0065.

As much as playing at the beach and hanging at the family batch is a great way to spend warm leisurely days, we should also touch on the discomfort that was sometimes felt by those who couldn’t escape the hot dusty streets of the city, or by local farmers for whom the lack of rain brought crippling droughts. We all know Canterbury to be a relatively dry region, but sometimes the high temperatures brought with it real hardships. Admittedly, the drought of 1878 was felt worse in Australia, but the lowland areas of Canterbury received half their normal rainfall that year and, as a result, grain yields were so low that it was not economic to reap the crop (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 16/4/1878: 2; Burton and Peoples 2008: 6).

During the early years of European settlement, the annual elevated temperatures also brought with them the ravages of fever and disease, including malaria (Press 16/11/1864: 2). 1875 saw a typhoid fever epidemic in New Zealand, and 323 town and city dwellers perished (Rice 2011). Christchurch citizens were some of the worst sufferers, the death rate being 2.27 per 1000 people, the next highest being Auckland at 1.79 per 1000 (Globe 21/12/1876: 2). Newspaper reports indicate that people were aware of the heat being a factor in the spreading of disease, along with defective sewerage systems (of course! Lyttelton Times 22/5/1875: 3; Globe 4/12/1876: 3). This was also during the era that people began to voice their ideas about germ theory, although at this time, the Christchurch District Health Board maintained that the typhoid outbreak arose from miasma, and “would soon go away” (Globe 16/1/1865: 3; 4/12/1876: 3). The “south drain” of Christchurch took the blame for the spreading of the disease by miasma, and residents of the day believed that “every hot day of hot summer weather adds to the number of victims and helps swell the death rate” (Globe 21/12/1876: 2).

She’s thinking about it in 1916! Auckland Star 5/2/1816: 2.

To leave you on a sunnier note – the lighter side of deadly epidemics… Observer 23/5/1914: 11.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Chelsea Dickson


Bennett, K. 2014. Rich Pickings: Abandoned vessel material reuse on Rangitoto Island, New Zealand. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Maritime Archaeology. Department of Archaeology. Flinders University of South Australia.

Boyd. F. 2009-2010. A Recreational and Social History of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary. A report prepared for Lincoln University (Faculty of Environment, Society and Design. Summer Scholarship, 2009/2010, Environment Canterbury, the Avon-Heathcote Estuary. Ihutai Trust and the Tertiary Commission. [online] Available at: https://researcharchive.lincoln.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10182/2404/Avon_Heathcote_estuary.pdf?sequence=1.

Burton, R. and Peoples, S. 2008. Learning from past adaptations to extreme climatic events: A case study of drought Part B: Literature Review MAF Policy – Climate Change CC MAF- POL 2008 – 17 (124-3) Climate Change ‘Plan of Action’ Research Programme 2007/2008. AgResearch Ltd for The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Clayworth, P.  ‘Picnics and barbecues – Family and community picnics, 1800s to 1920s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [Online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/picnics-and-barbecues/page-1 (accessed 14 December 2017).

Derby, M. 2013., ‘Camping’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at:  http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/camping (accessed 14 December 2017).

Rice, G. 2011. ‘Epidemics – Epidemics, pandemics and disease control’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/epidemics/page-1 (accessed 15 December 2017).

Swarbrick, N, 2013. ‘Holidays – Holiday accommodation’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/holidays/page-5 (accessed 14 December 2017).




A little more Lyttelton history

During recent earthquake repairs at a residential property on well-known Sumner Road in Lyttelton, our archaeologists uncovered a small assemblage of artefacts that represented everyday Victorian household items. At first glance these appeared a somewhat ordinary – but when Lydia Mearns (one of our historic researchers), delved deeper into the history of this domestic house site, she uncovered the history of a local couple who experienced their share of turbulent times during the late 19th century.

A selection of the domestic artefacts found at this site. A (from left): dinner plate, clay pipe, transfer printed plate. B: leather shoes. C: pharmaceutical bottle with “W” embossed on the base (we aren’t too sure who made this one), wide mouth pickle bottle, aerated water bottle – made by J. F. Wyatt, Lyttelton, between 1889 and 1835 (Donaldson: 1991: 266-267). W.D. and H.O. Wills cigarette tin lid (this tobacco company was known by this name from 1830 onwards; Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences 2017). Image: C. Dickson.

The young settlers, Robert Flett and his wife, Isabella Gaudie Flett, emigrated from the Scottish Orkney Islands in 1863 and arrived in Lyttelton on board the Tiptree (Sun 3/12/1915: 11). The couple initially settled on land that they purchased in Hawkhurst Road, and during the late 1860s, they began to accumulate residential sections on Sumner Road. By 1874, they had purchased two neighbouring town sections –  one to live on, and the other to keep as an investment. The first record of their occupation of Sumner Road was in 1872, and this placed the Fletts as residents on the section that was adjacent to our archaeological site. This is where the couple would spend most of their time for the next few decades (H. Wise & Co. 1872-1884).

Detail from a photograph taken between 1876 and the early 1880s showing a number of small cottages present along the Sumner Road in the vicinity of our site. Image: Bradley, c.1876-1880.

Robert Flett was a ship’s carpenter, who went into partnership with a fellow named Peter Loutitt, in the construction and operation of a patent slipway on Dampier’s Bay Road. From this slipway, the pair launched and repaired many ships in the Lyttelton Port, and their company name featured heavily in the local newspapers throughout the 1860s as a common place to fix up one’s boat (Globe 16/6/1875: 3; Press 25/9/1872: 3; Star 17/2/1869: 2). However, despite its popularity, the specific location of this slipway is not exactly known – articles mention that it was situated near the gasworks and “near the bathing sheds” on Norwich Quay and an approximation of what we’ve deemed as its most likely location (based on this description), is shown below.

1860s plan of the western Lyttelton Port showing the approximate future location of Robert Flett’s patent slipway near the gasworks and the “bathing shed” (Lyttelton Times 25/9/1872: 2Sun 3/12/1915: 11). Image: Rice 2004: 28.

During their time in Lyttelton together, Robert and Isabella featured in the local newspapers several times. Most of these reports weren’t happy ones, as things began to go wrong for the couple a few years after they started buying their properties. They experienced great loss when Robert’s brother, ship Captain William Flett, died a tragic death in 1873. He drowned ten miles of Godley Head on a voyage from Picton, then Isabella’s father also died three years later (back home in the Orkney  Islands), at age 78 (Press 31/12/1873: 2; Lyttelton Times 14/12/1896: 2). Through all of this, the Fletts were also experiencing some trying times socially. Robert Flett’s acquaintances described him as “an inoffensive quiet man”, who had a “frank and cheerful disposition, and [was] much esteemed by all who knew him (Press 21/8/1890: 4).” But despite his this, his character was called into question in court when he was charged with assaulting one of his former tenants in 1867, with whom he had had many grievances (Lyttelton Times 15/2/1867: 2).

Isabella is documented as experiencing her own petty troubles, with her incessant letter writing battles with the local drainage board over the drainage of their properties, the retaining walls and the maintenance of the Sumner Road street frontage (Press 2/4/1890: 3, 4/12/1894: 6; Star 23/2/1886: 3, 9/3/1886: 3). The tone and quantity of this correspondence suggests that she wasn’t very popular with these local bodies. She’s also recorded offering a reward for her lost, precious heart shaped greenstone brooch in 1875 (Globe 9/9/1875: 2). It was lucky that she didn’t lose more one day in 1890, as a sketchy door to door salesman arrived on her doorstep one afternoon peddling his wares. Isabella purchased an album of views from him, but this was immediately after he allegedly broke in and entered a neighbouring house and stole eight pounds from a pocketbook (Press 24/2/1890: 3). Close call.

Some ink bottles found on the property. With this much ink, one can write many letters… to drainage boards etc… Image: C. Dickson.

Despite all their major and minor personal troubles, the Fletts were managed to amass themselves a tidy little property empire in Lyttelton by the end of the 1880s. Their tenant seeking efforts were well recorded in local newspaper advertisements, and the article below shows just how well they were doing by 1889, with no less than seven properties to Robert’s name! (Star 29/2/1888: 3).

The Flett estate for sale! This advertisement of their seven house mini property empire notes Robert Flett’s intention to sell up and leave the colony… for good? (Star 2/3/1889: 4). The property business seems to have been going swimmingly, as they were all let to good tenants.

Perhaps having not found the perfect buyers for all of their properties, Robert and Isabella left Lyttelton in April 1890 to visit their hometown of Birsay, Orkney Islands (without selling their empire). However, the events surrounding their departure are a little strange – the above advertisement seems to suggests that it was Robert’s intention to emigrate back to Orkney permanently. He even held an auction at their Sumner Road home in March of 1890, in an attempt to sell all of their household furniture as “he was leaving for England.” (Press 18/3/1890: 8). But despite these attempts to sell up, it was later reported that the Fletts were merely holidaying in the Scottish Isles? I suppose one way of financing your summer holiday would be to sell everything you own… but it seems a little short-sighted, don’t you think?

Whether it was Fletts intention to emigrate back to Orkney for good or just to holiday, we will never know for certain. But during their time in Scotland, tragedy struck again for their family when Robert fell off a cliff to his death! (Archives New Zealand, 1891; Star 20/8/1890: 3). The events surrounding his fall were also a little unusual… like something out of  a dramatic movie scene. Local news reports of the incident depict Robert dangling over a cliff in an attempt to reach a lost gun. How Robert managed to lose his firearm off the edge of a cliff face isn’t known – he had gone out shooting alone early that morning, and an unnamed witness had spied him on a nearby beach fetching a boat hook to snag the gun from wherever it had fallen. But the coastal winds were probably blowing hard that day – Robert was not seen falling off the cliff but he also wasn’t ever seen again. His body was not even able to be found after the accident due to a fierce storm that hit the next day, which caused the loss of even more lives in the sea below.

The tragic story of Mr Flett’s death… and some other tragic deaths (Star 20/8/1890: 3). It seems Isabelle Flett was still avidly penning letters at this time.

The unfortunate Mrs Flett, now a widow, returned to Lyttelton alone, where she had no other family. Perhaps she preferred to change her immigration plans and go back to where she and her late husband had enjoyed success together in their property development schemes, especially now that her father was no longer home in Scotland? The Sumner Road properties remained in her ownership until her death in 1915, and the 1907 Lyttelton Valuation Roll, indicated that Mrs Flett had four houses on Sumner Road that year (Sun 3/12/1915: 11). The age of these houses was recorded as being between 30 and 50 years old at this time and this provides a construction date for the four dwellings between 1857 and 1877 – proving them to be the same legacy left by Robert to Isabella (Archives New Zealand, 1878: 80). The map of Lyttelton drawn by J R Williams in 1910 shows the footprint of the four houses on Mrs Flett’s land, including a dwelling at the modern address of our Sumner Road archaeological site (Figure 4). This dwelling does not have the same footprint as the extant building on this section so it must have been demolished sometime in the 20th century.

Detail from 1910 map of Lyttelton showing the land owned by Mrs Flett on the Sumner Road (outlined in red) and showing the footprint of a cottage present on our section (outlined in blue). Image: Williams, 1910.

This probably happened around 1917, when the trustees of Mrs Flett’s estate, Thomas Taylor and Andrew Kirk, advertised for the removal of “three cottages fronting the Sumner Road”, in January 1917 (Star 27/1/1917: 4). A few days after this, the advertisement was taken out in the newspaper because one of the dwellings previously owned by Mrs Flett had burnt down before it could be removed (Star 6/1/1917: 10). The rest of the cottages also appear to have been removed later that year as there are no residents recorded in the 1918 street directories on the land previously owned by the Fletts (H. Wise & Co. 1918: 567).

Detail from a photograph of the Sumner Road taken between 1919 and 1925, showing a new house on the section where the artefacts were found (indicated with red arrow), while the location of adjacent site where the Flett’s once lived is vacant (indicated with a blue arrow). Image: Anon, c.1919-1925.

As the small assemblage of artefacts that were found at this site were located within the boundaries of the neighbouring section to the Flett’s, it’s probable that they were dropped or thrown away by one of their tenants. The manufacturing dates of the artefacts we showed you at the start of this post suggest that this tenant was most likely Edward James Norris (who we know very little about). But regardless of this gap in the historical record, we were able to stumble across this intriguing narrative about Mr and Mrs Flett and their story in the early history of Lyttelton.   

Chelsea Dickson


Anon, c.1919-1925. Lyttelton wharves, Canterbury, showing harbour, ships, houses and buildings. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, 1/1-009876-G Available at: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/29946642 [Accessed October 2017].

Archives New Zealand, 1891. Probate, Robert Flett Lyttelton Christchurch, Canterbury. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch Regional Office, CAHX-2989-CH171-65-CH2083/1891. Available at < https://familysearch.org/ > [Accessed October 2017].

Bradley, c.1876-1880s. Overlooking Port Lyttelton and Township. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, PAColl-6407-57. Available at: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23220714 [Accessed October 2017].

Donaldson, B., Hume, G. and Costello, S., 1990. Antique Bottle and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch Antique Bottles and Collectibles Club, Christchurch.

H. Wises & Co. 1866-1954 [online]. Available at http://home.ancestry.com.au/.

Rice. G. 2004. Lyttelton: Port and Town. An Illustrated History.

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. 2017. Metal cigarette tin used in Antarctica 2017, Museum of Applied Arts &amp; Sciences. [online] Available at: https://collection.maas.museum/object/257736. Accessed 20 November 2017.