The sad story of the secret staircase

The thing about being a buildings archaeologist is that even though some houses might look the same, the story of their occupants and occupation is always different. These stories of occupation are not always revealed in the archaeology of the buildings themselves, and are usually unearthed by our team of historians. When recording a house in the central city, we were confronted with a building that was most intriguing from a buildings archaeology perspective and had a sad story to match.

A house with a sad secret. Image: P. Mitchell.

What made the house different was a ‘secret staircase’ located in the kitchen wall. From a buildings archaeology point of view this staircase didn’t appear to be an original feature, as its installation meant that one of the rooms in the house was unusable. Nor did it appear to have been used for some time, as the floorboards had been replaced where the stairs had once exited on the second floor, and the wall in the second-floor room where a doorway associated with the stairs had been located had been relined in the late 19th century. So why was it there?

A cupboard in the wall? Image: P. Mitchell.

Perhaps. Image: P. Mitchell.

Or perhaps not. Image: P. Mitchell.

There be stairs. Image: P. Mitchell.

The floor of the nursery looks a bit suspicious. Image: P. Mitchell.

Archaeological investigation. Image: P. Mitchell.

More questions than answers. Image: P. Mitchell.

The difference in wall lining is a clue. Image: P. Mitchell.

The other side of the wall. The upright timber is a clue. Image: P. Mitchell.

This notch in the upright timber indicates that it was part of a door frame. Image: P. Mitchell.

With various holes cut in the wall the picture becomes clearer. The red dotted line outlines the doorway. Image: P. Mitchell.

Historian Chelsea Dickson was tasked with uncovering the story of the construction and occupation of the house. What she discovered, and how it meshed with the buildings archaeology, is related below in the ‘Sad Story of the Secret Staircase.’

When Henry Wilkinson, a cobbler and shoe merchant, purchased the relevant land parcel from Cyrus Davie in 1872 he was looking to build a home for himself and his family. His wife Anna Maria, two daughters Laura (the eldest) and Louisa, and his son James Walter were no doubt looking forward to the prospect of living in a brand new home close (but not too close) to town, with the river nearby and Linwood East School just a short walk up Barbadoes Street.

Building started soon after the section was purchased, and the house was complete and the family had moved in by December 1872. Unfortunately, the reason we know that Henry and his family were in occupation of the house at the time is because of the funeral notice for the middle child, Louisa, who passed away in the house aged 7½ (Press 2/12/1872). This tragedy was followed 18 days later when the youngest child, James Walter, passed away aged 4 years (Press 20/12/1872).

By September 1873 Anna Maria had also passed away, aged 37, leaving only Henry and Laura at the house.

In 1874 Henry advertised the four front rooms of the dwelling to let as “the front apartments, four rooms, for a respectable family, of three to four adults, next to Mrs Cyrus Davie’s” (Lyttelton Times 9/4/1874: 4). In order for the tenants to access the kitchen, which was located in the rear of the building, Henry had a staircase built into the wall between the kitchen and the parlour, which provided access from the front upstairs bedroom to the kitchen.

This is the ‘secret staircase’.

Presumably the secret staircase went out of use when Henry ceased letting out the front four rooms of his house, probably in 1875 when he married Annie Martha Griffiths, and hopefully lived happily ever after.

Peter Mitchell


LINZ, 1850. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A – Town sections and town reserves register.

LINZ, 1860. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A/S 1 – Subdivisions of town reserves register. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at [Accessed May 2017].

Press. [online] Available at [Accessed May 2017].

So far, yet so close…

As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…

As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…

Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.

To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.

So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!

The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.

Evening Star 12/06/1883.

Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!

Recreation of a prehistoric settlement. Image: M. A. Salvatierra.

I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.

Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!

A range of food related material, comparing prehistoric (black background) and 19th century (white background) from Spain and Christchurch sites respectively: bone spoon/silver spoon, bowl with incised decoration/green transfer printed bowl, polished jug/Bristol glazed jug and serving dish with geometric decoration/moulded serving dish. Images: Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia, Museo Arqueologico Regional de Madrid, J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?

Children’s artefacts. On the right, an articulated doll made of ivory recovered from a children’s burial from Paleocristian site of Tarragona (Spain) dating to 3rd or 4th century AD. Remnants of fabric were also visible on it, indicating that these dolls wore clothes, as 19th century porcelain dolls recovered from Christchurch sites do. On the left, there are some miniature ceramic vessels from el Cerro de la Encina (Monachil, Granada, Spain) dating to the Bronze Age between 3rd and 1st millennium BC. They were recovered from a children’s burial as well. Below those, there is a toy tea set and a children’s cup found in Christchurch. Images: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona, Underground Overground Archaeology, J. Garland, M.A. Blanco and G. Jackson.

So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!

What a curious scene that’s shown in these images! Do you notice the similarities and difference between them? Domestic activities are shown as awful tasks in both pictures. As a difference, the re-creation on top depicts a relaxed man, who is smoking and reading a race car magazine, while his stressed woman is cooking and holding the baby, with the other children surrounding her. It might be the traditional atmosphere in a 19th century household context. However, the female and masculine roles are reversed in the bottom picture. Here, the domestic activities are presented as the apocalypse for men, and they cannot manage the situation. Top image: The Observer 14/03/1891. Bottom image: New Zealand Mail 29/09/1893.

So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!

Images: Underground Overground Archaeology and El Periodico Villena.

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu


GEA. Cultura Material e identidad social en la Prehistoria Reciente en el Sur de la Peninsula Iberica. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Gonzalez Marcen, P., Monton-Subias, M. and Picazo, M., 2008. ‘Towards an archaeology of maintenance activities’. In Monton-Subias, S. and Sanchez-Romero, S., 2008 (ed.) Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. BAR International Series 1862.

Museo Arqueologico Regional. Comunidad de Madrid. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8/05/2017].

Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona [online] Available at: [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Past Women. Material Culture of Women. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Sanchez Romero, M., 2008. ‘Childhood and the Construction of Gender Identities through Material Culture’. Childhood in the Past 1, 17-37.

Symonds, J., 2007. Table Settings. The Material Culture and Social Context of Dinning, AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, United Kingdom.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.


Ironing out the creases

Sometimes we come across such a spectacular artefact, that we are inspired to look a little deeper into the historical industry from which it was used. The discovery of a charcoal clothes iron got me thinking about the domestic lives of 19th century women, and the ironing industry in colonial New Zealand.

During my research for this blog post, I found countless newspaper advertisements for laundry soaps, starches, ironing stoves and laundress services, as well as reports brimming with derivatives of “while the lady of the house was in the other room ironing…” The amount of time and sweat that went into this industry is a far cry from the afterthought that we largely give ironing today. If you’re anything like me, you avoid wearing easily wrinkled linen, and unless it’s a special occasion, your t-shirt or blouse is lucky to a get a last minute iron over with the hair straightener you were just using on your hair (this is the most convenient addition to laundry technology in the 21st century, in my opinion).

A quick office survey confirmed that we here at Underground Overground Archaeology do not habitually iron our sheets or our ‘high vis’. Instead, we save this indulgence for important events, such as a legitimate special occasion, helping to dry damp clothes, ironing pant cuffs so they don’t fall down (for the vertically challenged among us), and many of us can recount the distant memory of pressing pleats into our school uniform kilts on Sunday nights. How did this industry lose such importance you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that when we take a look at the previous generation, my mother saved ironing for her hair in the 70s, and my father let his shirts blow dry in the wind. This being the case, perhaps the ‘un-domestication’ of Generation X isn’t to blame (in this instance) for the loss of an old tradition.

What struck me about the difference between our modern attitudes toward ironing and that of our predecessors was how commonplace it was for a 19th century woman to be spending her day performing this back-breaking labour. Ironing was such an important skill, that little girls would be given miniature flat irons as gifts and taught ironing “and other necessary skills” in convent school (New Zealand Tablet 23/12/1881: 11). The number of ironing stoves and mangles that I found advertised for sale in local newspapers during the 19th century illustrates their mainstream popularity. The task had to be completed weekly, and for 19th century housewives or servants, it was customary for the entirety of Monday to be taken up by washing and drying laundry, while the whole of Tuesday was reserved for ironing it (Poverty Bay Herald 3/4/1879: 2). The chore was so familiar that I found many articles toting advice about timesaving ironing techniques (e.g. Otago Witness 22/1/ 1876: 19). My favourite tip, and the most realistic, was to simply stop ironing things… The sensible woman who wrote this article suggests hanging the laundry out to dry in the wind and ignoring the bed linen, nightclothes, tablecloths and napkins. Alternatively, another recommended that ironing energy should be saved for children’s aprons and shirt cuffs (Bruce Herald 9/6/1876: 3).

By now, you might be forming the impression that ironing in the 19th century was quite labor-intensive. In fact, the task was so arduous that we see housewives complaining constantly of their heavy and time-consuming burden in local newspapers, and there is even a story of one woman obtaining a doctor’s certificate to prevent her from doing too much ironing (Wairarapa Standard 23/12/1875: 2). Victorian ironing was not only backbreaking; it also came with its share of health risks – there was the danger involved with using gas-fuelled irons, or the first electric irons (patented in 1882), which were not temperature controlled by thermostats until the 1920s (Gretton 2016). Having said this, the first electric irons were not commonly used. They were not only dangerous, but most Victorian households did not have electricity, and if they did, it was common to only use electricity in the evenings for lighting.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

During the 19th century, the most common type of iron used was called a flat iron, otherwise known as a sad iron (commonly thought to be called sad, due to the negative attitudes that its use invoked, though ‘sad’ is actually an old English ‘solid’; Gretton 2016). Sad irons required an intricate system of heating and rotation. Several heavy flat irons were heated on a special iron stove, and sometimes heat tested by holding a hot iron near one’s cheek (you would not catch me doing this). It was used until it cooled down, then returned to the stove and replaced with one of its hotter counterparts (the phrase “to have many irons in the fire” derives from this practice). These irons were heavy and hot, and the system required special skill and experience. Several improvements were made during the second half of the 19th century in order to streamline the process. These included a sad iron that was pointed at both ends, so one could iron in either direction. There was also the addition was a detachable wooden handle, which helped prevent the burning of the user (Figure 1). These patents were granted to a housewife named Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1870 (Ladd 2014).

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 19/9/1916: 6.

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 17/9/1916: 6

The specific iron that started this enquiry was not the type that was heated on an iron stove. It was called a box iron or charcoal iron, which had a built in, hinged, chamber to store hot coals or other fuels so the iron would stay hotter for longer (Figure 2). A tool with such characteristics would not have to be replaced on the ironing stove, making the job a whole lot more efficient. However, this technology was not without its drawbacks, as the coal made the task of ironing a smoky one, which sometimes left residual ash or odour on freshly cleaned fabrics (heartbreaking). This type of iron required a chimney or spout-like opening, to insert a bellows into or to produce a sufficient draft to stoke the coals when swung back and forth (Gretton 2016). This particular model was manufactured by Jabez and John Whitehouse, Victoria, Tipton, as illustrated by the maker’s mark on its gilded copper heat shield (Figure 3). This English company owned the Phoenix Foundry on Castle Street, Tipton, and produced cast iron goods from the late 19th century until the 1920s (Powerhouse Museum 2016). It is unclear whether this specific iron was used commercially or domestically, but its operator would have had to eat their Wheat-bix, as it weighs a whopping 4 kilograms! If Garfield were a 19th century domestic housewife, I bet that he would have hated Tuesdays!

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

As mentioned, we can’t be certain whether this iron was used in a domestic house or a commercial laundry. If this was used as a commercial iron, let us have a look at what this industry was like locally during the 1900s. Comparatively, while we think nothing of dropping our badly stained or trickier to wash garments at a dry cleaner, or if we are especially lazy or busy, we drop all of our soiled goods or ‘bachelor bundles’ at a ‘fluff & fold’ (regrettably, I couldn’t find fun 19th century comparative terms for these). The demand for large scale laundries is alluded to in 1842, in a (presumably fictitious) newspaper report describing American girls attaching hot irons to their feet and skating over garments (New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3).

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Additionally, 19th century newspapers present countless advertisements for private laundresses, illustrating a viable business opportunity for women in Victorian society. In fact, the gift of a mangle to a widow at the wake of her deceased husband was a common occurrence (Ladd 2016). On a larger scale, full-size commercial laundries appear to have been common in New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century (Evening Post 24/11/1876: 2, Otago Daily Times 10/04/1876: 5, Star 24/08/1880: 2; 19/05/1881: 4).

Below is an advertisement and price list from 1880 for a new steam laundry in Christchurch (Figure 5). The article boasts about a new ironing machine that will polish collars and cuffs like new and promises that no article will be damaged by the process! As in the domestic sphere, it is likely that it was women who would have been operating these laundry machines. This same article advertises the skills of a French laundress. The small number of women who were in paid employment in New Zealand during the 19th century (a fifth of women over fifteen in 1874 and less than a quarter by 1891) were working in factories, domestic service, tailoring and shop work (Else 2012). No doubt some of these women were employed as laundresses.

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Whether or not a fatigued housewife or servant, or an overworked and underpaid laundress used this iron, we can assume that it was used to successfully press its share of garments. While the finished product of freshly starched and wrinkle-free linen is not the social necessity it once was, it was a fun artefact to research and I hope the original iron’s 19th century owner thought that the finished result of their labour was worth their toil.

Chelsea Dickson


Bruce Herald [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Else. A., 2012. Gender inequalities – Paid employment, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016].

Gretton., L. 2016. ‘A History of ironing.’ Old & Interesting. [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016.

Hawera & Normanby Star [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Ladd, M. 2014. ‘Historical Treasure: Mrs. Potts’ sad iron.’ Tribune-Star. [online] Available at: [Accessed January 2016]. 

New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

New Zealand Tablet [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Otago Witness [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Poverty Bay Herald [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Star [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].

Powerhouse Museum, 2016. Collections [online] Available at: Accessed January 2016].

Wairarapa Standard [online] Available at [Accessed January 2016].



The dilapidatedly grand villa

This week we are treating you to a photographic tale of the life of a Cantabrian abode. Come with us now on a journey through time and space, to the wonderful world of dilapidated Victorian villas…


Between 1904 and 1905 Mr. Andrew McNeil Paterson, a salesman, built this rather grand residence. In its former glory the house had a total of eight rooms, including a scullery, pantry and bathroom. Image: Kirsa Webb.


Mr. Paterson’s dining room with faceted bay windows. Image: Kirsa Webb.


Detail of decorative cornice in the dining room. Image: Kirsa Webb.


The perforated ceiling rose in the dining room. Perforated ceiling roses helped ventilate rooms with fireplaces. This one was the most decorative ceiling rose that remained in the villa. Image: Peter Mitchell.


The turret bay window of the drawing room. The door on the left led to the modern addition of a bathroom, where the original verandah would have run. Image: Kirsa Webb.


Detail of unperforated ceiling rose in drawing room. Image: Peter Mitchell.


Original perforated ceiling rose in the hallway. Image: Peter Mitchell.


Ornate cornice detail of the original hallway. Image: Kirsa Webb.


Detail of a perforated ceiling rose in a bedroom, which was significantly smaller than the other remaining ceiling roses in the house. Image: Peter Mitchell.

Despite its grandiose design, Mr. Paterson soon grew tired of the villa and sold the house just four years later. Over the next couple of decades the dwelling was home to a collection of different occupants. However, as was common practice in Christchurch during the Depression, this ornate villa was eventually divided up into a jigsaw puzzle of single bedroom flats.


2011 plan of Mr. Paterson’s former residence divided into four flats. Image: Francesca Bradley.

And it was this jigsaw of four derelict flats Underground Overground Archaeology had to piece together to bring you the story of Mr. Andrew McNeil Paterson and his once grandiose residence.

Francesca Bradley

Patterns of succession

When we are recording a standing structure we might be lucky enough to discover wallpaper hidden behind plasterboard or tucked under skirtings. In some houses we can find layers of wallpaper, each revealing a stylistic period. While many of the patterns and styles may be out of favour today, these ‘paper hangings’ and their application offer an insight about previous occupants and how they lived.

Wallpaper in New Zealand during the 1820s and 1830s was a rare thing. Many dwellings were often crudely constructed from pit sawn timber and were, at best, lined with canvas or sacking. By the 1840s wallpaper production in England had been mechanised. As the population grew in New Zealand wallpaper became readily available for many as a way to make a basic dwelling homely. Local newspapers started to advertise paper hangings at the general goods store, from the latest ship to have arrived in port.

Advertisement for paper hangings. New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser,  3 February 1843.

Advertisement for paper hangings. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 3/2/1843.

In the early 1850s in Lyttelton and Christchurch, merchants would advertise in the newspapers and from records we can see firms such as Tippetts, Silk & Heywood, Longden & Le Cren and J Ballard of Lyttelton, all selling wallpaper (Lyttelton Times 1851). By the 1860s we start to see specialised trades advertised, and it is these painters and decorators who advertise papers and scrim. Samuel’s Paper Hanging Depot in Gloucester Street, Christchurch, is a frequent advertiser (Press 21/1/1863).

Advertisements for paper hangings. Press, 21 January 1863

Advertisements for paper hangings. Image: Press 21/1/1863.

Wallpaper was used not only for its decorative effect but also had a functional purpose: to stop draughts coming through walls. This application of wallpaper had varied success. Some pasted it directly to the sarking, which, even with taping, split the paper with the natural board movement. So the practice of sticking wallpaper to calico, canvas or newspaper developed. Newspapers and magazines were also used for decorative effect as wallpaper, people favouring the illustrated pages of publications. When recording properties these early reminders are often in the linings of cupboards or wardrobes while the walls of the room have updated coverings. If people had read Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge (1980) they might not have been subjected to their wallpaper cracking and would have been able to avoid choosing poisonous wallpaper…

Brett, H. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge. 1883. Image: NZ Museums.

Brett, H. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge, first published in 1883. Image: NZ Museums.

To be fair, Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge was not published until 1883, so the early settlers could be forgiven for their experimentation with whatever materials were to hand.  Brett’s guide is a compendium of practical advice drawn from the experiences of early colonists, resulting in a cyclopedia of guidance for new settlers to New Zealand (Brett and Thompson 1980).

We are particularly interested in the advice it offers on paperhanging, as it provides an insight into how the wallpaper examples we are finding were hung. Brett’s advised that hessian scrim should be tacked tightly to the walls in preparation for the wallpaper. Old newspaper was often used as a lining paper too. The ‘size’ was mixed with water and heated by the fire before application, improving the adhesiveness of the paper. Old flour and water could be used as an alternative and was mixed with alum or glue (Brett and Thompson 1980).

Example of newspaper lining and hessian scrim. Scrim became common use in the mid to late 19th Century. Image: L.Tremelett.

Example of newspaper lining and hessian scrim. Scrim became common in the mid to late 19th century. Image: L. Tremlett.

In my research on wallpaper I found that the type of paper used depended on the room’s function. In wealthier homes, private areas of the house such as the back bedrooms had small floral patterns. The public areas of the home, such as the hallway, parlour and master bedroom, would have the best wallpapers and sometimes a match-lined dado. Marble and satin patterns were also a popular choice in these rooms. Poorer dwellings had sarking with lining and wallpaper.

Brett’s practical advice on wallpaper also came with a health warning. Sounds ominous, but wallpaper has been credited as a silent killer in the home. Contributor to the cyclopedia, John Agnell, listed the warning as No.17 on his list of Health Maxims for the Home. It was to avoid arsenical wallpapers (Brett and Thompson 1980). Green flocked wallpaper (‘flocked’ was a process where finely chopped wool was applied to wet varnish and brushed to reveal the pattern) was the worst as the dusty flock was rubbed, shaken or even flaked off the walls, creating a ‘toxic air’. The green paint was commonly known as Scheele’s Green (acidic copper arsenite) and its successor Paris Green (copper(II) acetoarsenite; Wikipedia 2014). While exactly how toxic these wallpapers were is not known, much has been written about the inclusion of these green pigments in foods and clothing with dire consequences. If toxic wallpaper was not enough, tar paint and white lead paint were also used in early homes, particularly around windows and bargeboards. The Victorian period of innovation led to a few toxic mistakes but by the end of the 19th century an emphasis on cleanliness would see the introduction of ‘sanitary’ wall finishes.

By the 1900’s the impact of sanitary practices start to see wallpaper fall out of favour. Distemper is a chalk based paint originally used in some wallpaper printing. This particular advert endorsed by the Christchurch Hospital Board extolls the virtues of the paint being more ‘artistic’ than wallpaper. Advertisements for distemper paint. Press, 14 July 1900.

By the 1900s the impact of new sanitary practices started to see wallpaper fall out of favour. Distemper is a chalk-based paint originally used in some wallpaper printing. This particular advert – endorsed by the Christchurch Hospital Board – extols the virtues of the paint being more ‘artistic’ than wallpaper. Image: Press 14/7/1900.

So what types of wallpaper have we discovered in our recording and assessments? Well, it varies. Things to take into account when trying to identify wallpaper are: age of the structure, the function of the room, how many layers of paper are there? What is the base layer? Is it newspaper, scrim, calico, canvas or lining paper? Is the wall lined with rough-sawn sarking, match-lining or lath and plaster?

With the wallpaper things to check are: is it French or English? Most wallpaper in New Zealand during the 19th century was from England, which was known for its mechanised production and variety. French wallpaper was known for its quality and consistency in design. English wallpaper measured 21 inches wide and 12 yards long and French wallpaper measured 18 inches wide and 9 1/2 yards long. Other things to look for are: tax stamps on the back of the paper (wallpaper in England was taxed until 1861; Brett and Thompson 1980), maker’s names on the selvedge and the style of the pattern – does it fit into a definite period or manufacturing process? When we answer these questions and put them together with the history of the building, we start to understand the type of lifestyle the building’s occupants had and what their tastes were when it came to interior decor!

Breakdown of papers found in a Christchurch dwelling. Image: L.Tremelett.

Breakdown of papers found in a Christchurch dwelling. 1) Light blue floral abstract motif, vertical design; 2) Yellow/white/grey abstract floral pattern; 3) Purple abstract tree motif, light purple background; 4) Brown abstract flowers with dark red flowers; 5) Red checkered pattern with linear embroidery wreath-like motifs; 6) Brown abstract design; 7) Distinct curved and shaded floral design; 8) Newspaper from 1887 and 1888; 9) Hessian scrim. Image: L. Tremlett.

Cracroft House, Christchurch
This property was owned by John Cracroft Wilson. We have mentioned this gentleman on a number of occasions in our posts. The property was built in 1854 and, while fairly simple in design and construction materials, it did have 11 rooms! Both papers below have a similar application method and it is possible that Wilson’s son brought both papers back from overseas in the 1870s.

This floral paper was pasted directly onto the sarking as well as being pasted onto what seems to be lining paper rather than scrim. Floral pattern is highly ornate and has a base pattern as well. This trellised style of floral paper was very popular throughout the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

This floral paper was pasted directly onto the sarking as well as being pasted onto what seems to be lining paper rather than scrim. The floral pattern is ornate and has a base pattern as well. This trellised style of floral paper was very popular throughout the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Highly ornate style of paper here, a possible Anglo-japanese style. The Great Game records that the wallpaper shown here is French in origin and is thought to have been brought to New Zealand about 1870 by the son of Sir John Cracroft Wilson and was discovered in 1982 during alterations, indicating that the cubbyholes had been sealed for some time. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Highly ornate style of paper here, a possible Anglo-Japanese style. The Great Game  records that this wallpaper is French in origin and is thought to have been brought to New Zealand about 1870 by the son of Sir John Cracroft Wilson. It was discovered in 1982 during alterations, indicating that the cubbyholes had been sealed for some time (Anon. 1990). Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Message in a bottle house
We have also mentioned this property before, the paper maché dado is very impressive and was preserved behind the plasterboard. It is commonly known as anaglypta (Anaglypta 2014), among other names. This embossed style of paper was designed in 1877 to be durable and easily painted. It protected the lower part of the wall from furniture. Lincrusta is a similar product made from linseed oil and wood flour (Lincrusta 2014). It has a deeper relief and is more brittle than anaglypta but can be painted and gilded.

Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch. Image: K.Webb.

Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch. Image: K.Webb.

It has been very hard to keep the word count down on this post as the history of wallpaper is a very interesting topic! In peeling back the layers we get a unique insight into a dwelling’s past occupants. While belongings may be long gone wallpaper reveals information about their interior decoration, wealth and influences.

Annthalina Gibson


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Anon, 1990. The Great Game: Girl Peace Scouts and Girl Guides of Canterbury Province from 1908. The Girl Guides Association, Canterbury.

Brett, H. and Thomson, W.L. eds.,1980. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge. 3rd ed. Christchurch: Capper.

Hoskins, L. eds. 1994. The Papered Wall, History, Pattern, Technique. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York.

Lincrusta. [online] Available at

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at

McCarthy, C., 2009. Domestic Wallpaper in New Zealand, A Literature Survey. Victoria University: Wellington.

McCarthy, C., 2011. Before Official Statistics, Fabrications. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 20 (1), pp.96-119.

New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser. [online] Available at

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Petersen, A.K.C., 2001. New Zealanders at Home. A Cultural History of Domestic Interiors 1814-1914. University of Otago Press: Dunedin.

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