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.

Touring the past

It seems almost expected now that many of us will go on semi-frequent overseas jaunts and visit the spectacular local scenery that New Zealand has to offer. However, most of us probably don’t often think about when these destinations became tourist hotspots, or what holidays were like for the early settler “tourists” of New Zealand. Tourism was definitely not something that was initially available to all economic classes and it isn’t something we can easily identify in the archaeological record (click here to see an earlier post about early tourist souvenirs). However, even though the archaeology of a broad concept like tourism might be scarce, we sometimes find physical evidence of things located more on the periphery of tourism. But more about that next week – today we will take a look at how written records and images of destinations and transport links can give us an idea of how some lucky (or plucky) Victorians explored their new home in Aotearoa.

As previously mentioned on the blog, the desire to take a break from colonial city life was probably felt by many of Christchurch’s early inhabitants. The high temperatures of summer and the inadequate sanitation in Christchurch increased heath concerns and diseases. Day excursions out of the city were popular from the 1870s and summertime public holiday expeditions from the central city to the nearby beaches were made readily available to many city folks with the introduction of the tram system. Steam and horse trams were used from 1882, but electric trams made travel more efficient between 1905 and 1954 (after which time buses replaced them on the city routes; Christchurch City Libraries). The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw grandiose train stations being erected around the country to link more destinations together, while (perhaps more importantly), also improving transport routes for goods and trade.

Construction of the electrical tramways in Christchurch [1905]. Laying the lines in High Street. Image: CCL File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0046.

The Temuka railway station [1908]. Designed by George Troup (1863-1941), who was at the time Chief Draughtsman for New Zealand Railways, it was built in 1906. It no longer exists. Image: CCL File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0013

And here’s a similar looking version in Kaiapoi…

Kaiapoi railway station [1908]. Built in 1904, it shows the features, such as porches, turrets and lattice windows, typical to its designer, George Troup (1863-1941). Only one third of the building now remains. Image: CCL File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0014.

A larger quantity of New Zealanders began to obtain more leisure time by the 1920s. Increased wages and the introduction of shorter working weeks gave many workers more of an opportunity to explore New Zealand’s exceptionally beautiful surroundings. With this came the hey-day of rail tourism in the 1920s and 1930s. It was at this time that New Zealanders were quoted as being “the greatest travellers in the world” by Wellington’s Evening Post (Ministry for Culture and Heritage; Evening Post 24/09/1923: 6). The statistics backed up such claims, stating that 21,000 of these “travel minded New Zealanders”  were carried as passengers on trains in the Wellington District alone, during the 1936 Easter period (Evening Post 15/4/1936: 11).

However, even before the boom in the early 20th century, tourism was present here. Some of our ancestors got to witness a few things that we didn’t, namely, what was arguably our best natural scenic attraction – the Pink and White Terraces at Lake Rotomahana. These were located in the ‘hot spot’ of Rotorua and were a must-visit destination for the visitors to New Zealand (or those who could afford it), prior to their destruction by the volcanic eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886. The local Tūhourangi people were heavily involved with the tourist industry here, protecting the terraces from vandals, and providing food, transport and accommodation for visitors (McClure 2010). But this wasn’t smooth sailing – government intervention stifled Māori initiatives with levies and local Māori also had no interest being personal tourist attractions, as shown when the government constructed a model village to depict Māori lifestyle in 1903 (McClure 2010).

Group of tourists on the White Terraces, circa early 1880s (prior to the 1886 Mount Tarawera Eruption). Photograph taken by Charles S. Spencer. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference Number: PAColl-6075-58.

When travelling west from Christchurch, Aoraki/Mount Cook was the gem of the Mackenzie Country and the first Hermitage Hotel was constructed there in 1895. The mountain had been ascended for the first time the previous year, but the hotel accommodation improved visitor comfort and accessibility to the slopes. This paved the way for more tourists and future mountaineers, some of whom travelled from as far as Great Britain and the continent for the climb (Press 15/2/1896: 7). Amateur photographers were noted among such climbing parties, attracted by the “new and unique series of views” (Press 15/2/1896: 7). Women were also getting in on the action – photographs on display at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch inspired Sydney local, Emmeline Freda Du Faur, to be the first woman to scale the peak. Her 1919 climb was the fastest to that date (Langton 1996). You can learn a great deal more about the early tourism and the archaeology associated with Aoraki/Mount Cook here on one of our previous blogs.

The Hanmer Hot Springs Tea House [1905]. It opened on 21 Nov. 1904 and in the 1904/05 season earned £108. It was a popular and pleasant resort in all weathers. Image: CCL: File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0002.

Satisfied customers in 1914 (Fielding Star 4/2/1914: 2).

When travelling west from Christchurch, Aoraki/Mount Cook was the gem of the Mackenzie Country and the first Hermitage Hotel was constructed there in 1895. The mountain had been ascended for the first time the previous year, but the hotel accommodation improved visitor comfort and accessibility to the slopes. This paved the way for more tourists and future mountaineers, some of whom travelled from as far as Great Britain and the continent for the climb (Press 15/2/1896: 7). Amateur photographers were noted among such climbing parties, attracted by the “new and unique series of views” (Press 15/2/1896: 7). Women were also getting in on the action – photographs on display at the New Zealand International Exhibition in Christchurch inspired Sydney local, Emmeline Freda Du Faur, to be the first woman to scale the peak. Her 1919 climb was the fastest to that date (Langton 1996). You can learn a great deal more about the early tourism and the archaeology associated with Aoraki/Mount Cook here on one of our previous blogs.

Mt. Cook and the old Hermitage before it was destroyed by flooding in 1913
[ca. 1910]. The original hotel is pictured. This was a 13-roomed house built of cob and completed in 1895. It was situated at the foot of the Mueller Glacier and accommodated about 30 guests. A cage took tourists across the Hooker River to the Tasman glacier. The hotel was damaged by flood in January 1913, and two months later was destroyed beyond repair by a second flood (Press 4/4/1913:4. The Hermitage Mount Cook centennial 1884-1984). Image and caption: CCL File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img00344.

In 1901 the control of the Hermitage Accommodation House passed to the newly formed Dept. of Tourist and Health Resorts. The 1904/05 season saw 175 visitors and earned £924 pounds. Photograph taken 1905 Image: CCL File Reference CCL PhotoCD 9, IMG0001.

The intrepid kiwi travel spirit is widely felt in our modern society. This ardent idea was clearly passed down through the generations from early pioneers who travelled to the other side of the world to make new homes for themselves. That being said, for the intrepid Victorian traveller, Fiordland must have seemed the most remote and sensational place to visit and it was frequently was – by explorers, hunters, prospectors, sealers and whalers ever since Captain Cook moored in Dusky Sound during 1773. Premier Julius Vogel introduced the New Zealand Forests Bill in 1874, recognising our forest resources as finite and although it didn’t happen until 1952 Fiordland National Park is now New Zealand’s largest conservation area. However, it wasn’t until the end of the 1880s that scientists became concerned that hunting, the introduction of predators, pests and deforestation having a negative impact on our native flora and fauna (Ministry for Culture and Heritage). The caption in the 1884 photograph below says it all: “tourists” make up a hunting party in Dusky Sound – note the woman among them who braving the elements of sun or rain.

Tourists in small boats hunting in Wet Jacket Arm, Dusky Sound, Fiordland [ca. Jan. 1884]. Burton Bros. Image: CCL, File Reference: CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0006.

Of course, New Zealand pioneer travellers weren’t always confined to their new shores. Their initial journey from Great Britain to the colony was long – 75 to 120 days in a mid-19th century sailing ship, but this was shortened to about 40 days by the 1890s following the introduction of steamers to the British-New Zealand route (Wilson 2005). The faster passage made returning to Great Britain and the continent feasible for an extended period of time or for “the season.” Historically, this was a social time when the leaders of fashionable society returned to London from the country or abroad, including many young women seeking marriage prospects. Local newspaper excerpts from the late Victorian era to the Georgian era record snippets of the comings and goings of the wealthier elite, naming where and with whom they were visiting (Otago Daily Times 10/1/1913 2; Marlborough Express 18/8/1919: 8: Bay of Plenty Times 10/8/1927: Press 13/3/1928: 10). Colonists also took the opportunity to return to their homeland to visit the family they had left behind – such as the Lyttelton couple we met recently on the blog. This tragic story started with a holiday visiting family in the Orkney Islands and ended with a fatal fall from a cliff leaving only a widow to return to Lyttelton alone  (Star 20/8/1890: 3).

But on a nicer note to end – although us modern kiwis may have missed out on the wonder of the Pink and White Terraces, there is still plenty of natural beauty left for us to enjoy. The spectacular landscapes of New Zealand have been commented often in historic newspapers (Otago Daily Times 10/1/1913 2). They have also thankfully been preserved for us through conservation efforts such as Premier Richard Seddon’s 1903 Scenery Preservation Act – his vision for which saw our land not just as an economic resource but a place that had scenic, scientific and historic value (Ministry for Culture and Heritage).

Asked about the South Island on the map he is showing to the American travel agency heads, the government official dismisses it with a yawn. Scales, Sydney Ernest, 1916-2003: That? – nothing there but scenery. Otago Daily Times, 14 January 1954. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library: Reference Number: A-311-4-003.

Tune in next week for the next instalment of the historic tourist industry where we take a look at the archaeological evidence of possible tourist accommodation – specifically hotels and boarding houses.

Safe travels everyone!


Chelsea Dickson


Langton, G. 1996. ‘Du Faur, Emmeline Freda’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996, updated December, 2005. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3d17/du-faur-emmeline-freda (accessed 2 February 2018).

McClure, M. 2010. ‘Tourist industry – Māori entrepreneurs in Rotorua’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tourist-industry/page-2 (accessed 31 January 2018)

Wilson, J. 2005. ‘The voyage out – Early steamers’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/the-voyage-out/page-6 (accessed 1 February 2018).

Wilson, J. 2006. ‘Canterbury places – Hanmer and Lewis Pass’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/canterbury-places/page-3 (accessed 1 February 2018).

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.