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:

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: (accessed 14 December 2017).

Derby, M. 2013., ‘Camping’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: (accessed 14 December 2017).

Rice, G. 2011. ‘Epidemics – Epidemics, pandemics and disease control’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: (accessed 15 December 2017).

Swarbrick, N, 2013. ‘Holidays – Holiday accommodation’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand [online] Available at: (accessed 14 December 2017).




Long-drops from long ago

It’s something so mundane that it forms a part of our everyday lives and it’s as inescapable as death and taxes. Even though we spoke of it last week on the blog, it’s something people don’t often speak about and it’s something we all have a very private and personal relationship with. In fact, this topic harbors so much taboo that it’s widely considered impolite to discuss one’s poo. I’m sorry!

Our evasion of our natural bodily processes was probably not always the norm. The Romans gifted us the first predecessor of a plumbed “toilet” – which consisted of a flowing water channel over which a series of hollow seats were sometimes built. But the Romans didn’t break down any of the aforementioned taboo walls… (in a sense, because they never built any walls in their latrines anyway). Instead, their public toilets were a communal affair, where a one handled their daily task sitting alongside his neighbor. They shared not only their sounds, smells and over all experience, but they even shared the cleaning sponge stick – the ancestor of our disposable toilet paper (side note – this is where the phrase ‘don’t get the wrong end of the stick’ derives).

However, when considering the attitudes of our conservative Victorian ancestors, it’s not hard to imagine the air of confidentiality that surrounded their ‘bathroom’ visits. The emergence of this modern western concept of privacy and secrecy during these practices is probably largely due to the evolution of the latrine structure itself, which eventually developed from a hole dug in a field to an enclosed, single occupancy arrangement. In this secluded situation, outsiders don’t specifically know what is taking place during these intimate moments and society sort of lost the concept of what was considered normal bodily functions. As result, secrecy, euphemisms and comical deflection ensued. [Insert toilet humour here].

We’re going to dive into these messy issues today as we discuss this less than glamorous topic of the Victorian privies/long-drops we have found. Before the days of flushing toilets and hand sanitiser, the citizens of 19th century Christchurch usually took care of their “business” in outhouses in their backyards. These tended to be situated at the rear of their property, within convenient stumbling distance of the house for ease of night-time visits (Butcher & Smith 2010).

An archaeologist sitting in a cesspit. Image: H. Williams.

We’ve found quite a few of these features on Christchurch archaeological sites, and it appears that it wasn’t just private human waste that was being deposited down the loo. The plethora of rubbish we find in them is very similar to the refuse found in domestic rubbish pits, an indication that privies were also used as a place to discard normal household items like table ware dishes and broken glass bottles. What is not always immediately apparent is why privies were used as a garbage disposal shoot in every case. Our data seems to show that the Christchurch Victorians often filled in their long-drops with household refuse when they ceased to be used. It also seems very logical that in the possible haste that one can sometimes be under to relieve oneself, or while fumbling about with way too many layers of intricate Victorian clothing, something might accidentally drop from a pocket down the hatch. If this had happened to me, I personally wouldn’t have gone reaching into a long-drop to fish out any lost possessions. But as well as that, it’s possible that this dark (and conveniently open), hole in the ground offered an opportune receptacle to throw out the odd plate fragment that someone may have accidentally broken… perhaps wanting to hide the evidence from a mother or wife?

… But the evidence doesn’t always stay hidden. Us nosy archaeologists come snooping 150-odd years later and we don’t tend to mind getting our hands a little dirty (once this ‘matter’ has decomposed). We will find the things that have been dropped in deliberately, accidentally or sneakily, although we may not always be able to tell the difference.

A typical privy showing how these features look when first found, half sectioned and then fully removed. This one had timber at the base. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a typical example of an excavated long-drop. In this case, no structural features such as building foundations or post holes were found surrounding the privy, but it was almost certainly originally covered. The feature itself was roughly square in shape, and relatively deep when compared with the (much shallower) features that were found elsewhere on the section. This suggested that it was dug for a purpose (at this point we need not mention this purpose) other than rubbish disposal, a great example of a dis-used latrine that was filled in with refuse at a later date.

A collection of some of the unfortunate ceramic forms that had been dropped off down this loo. Image: J. Garland.

An archaeological deposit of toilet rubbish… or deposit of rubbish toilets? The image on the left shows an in situ deposit that was almost exclusively broken up sanitary ware (wash basins and toilet pans etc). The picture on the right is one of these fragments up close, which was made by Doulton and Co. ca. 1882-1891. This feature was found on the site inhabited by the Taylor and Oakley firm, who exhibited “toilet seats and other articles, painted and artistically decorated” at the Christchurch exhibition in 1884 (Star 12/1/1884: 4). It is likely that this assemblage represents broken or wasted stock from the commercial enterprise which had been deliberately smashed for easier disposal. Image: H.Williams and J. Garland.

Even if any of these forms represented broken items that had been hidden down the toilet, our finds aren’t getting anyone in trouble 150 years later. Where these clumsy individuals may have gotten caught out is when these privies were cleaned and emptied. Previous research on domestic archaeological sites the in U.S.A indicates that the typical life cycle of a privy included episodes of deposition and cleaning. The regularity of cleaning would depend on the rapidity of filling and this would naturally be related to the size of the privy, the number of users, and the kinds of deposition (Lee Decker 1994: 356). This research also suggests that some privies may have been filled in as short a time as six months, while other studies have suggested that the filling process extended over a period of several decades (Lee Decker 1994: 356). Such clean outs of privies may have been performed by a member of the household rather than a licensed ‘night soil man’ (Lee Decker 1994:356). Hamish Williams has discussed the night soil man on the blog before, – he told us that “the cargo of this fantastic public servant was collected from one’s property in the wee hours, carted away then dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch, a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood (Alexander 1985:11). This service cost a household seven pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).”

Recently, I had the privilege (?) of analysing an artefact assemblage that came from a very special (probable) privy in Central Christchurch. Shown below, this latrine was located on the property of Cyrus Davie and his family. Davie was an early European settler to Christchurch and was employed as the town surveyor in Christchurch’s infancy. The first family home on his section was constructed by 1855, and the long-drop or cesspit feature in question was conveniently located near the site of this dwelling. This likely privy feature was identified as such because privies/long-drops are generally narrow and deep, while cesspits are generally wider then they are deep (this one had properties of the latter but due to the extent of the earthworks planed on this site, it was not able to be excavated completely).

The stratigraphic profiles of the privy feature. Image: S. Dooley.

What’s extra exciting about this site is that we found two additional, irregularly shaped deposits of dark soil, containing artefacts that were ‘scat-tered’ everywhere. These deposits were located elsewhere on the section and were identified as probable deposits of night soil (human waste). The archaeological contexts and artefact similarities identified between these deposits and the privy feature suggested that they were temporally related and it’s likely that the two night soil deposits represented clean out waste from the long drop. We also found a Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token in one of these deposits. This may represent one of those items that were accidentally dropped down the throne, never to be seen again. After all, who actually wants to throw their money down the toilet?

One of the probable night soil deposits. The cross-section of the feature is shown on the left, and the feature after excavation is shown on the right. Image: P. Mitchell.

Wasted money… This Thomas Hide and Edward De Carle token was found in one of the night soil deposit features. It would have been used in lieu of normal currency (across the ditch), for this Melbourne Based grocery, wine and spirit merchants between 1857 and 1861 (Museums Victoria 2017). Image: J. Garland.

As mentioned, privy features are a type of deposit that can accumulate over a long period of time, but the artefacts from this example appeared to have been recovered from the same stratigraphic layer. The two night soil deposits were found in a relatively secure context – underneath another building on the property that were known to have been constructed by 1862. If these features do relate to a privy and the associated clean out deposits, the privy would have been conveniently located to the east of the main Davie house, while the privy clean out deposits would be located much further away from main house. This would have been preferable for smell and hygiene reasons.

So, while it seems most likely that this wealth of human excrement once belonged to the Davie family, they were not the only 19th century inhabitants of this section. For one short year, in 1881, the Davies leased their home to none other than Sir Julius Von Haast (the German explorer, geologist and the founder of Canterbury Museum). So maybe, just maybe, the archaeologists who excavated these features were privy to the private fecal matter of one of New Zealand’s most famous European settlers.

Chelsea Dickson




Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs [Online] Available at:

Garland, J., Webb, K. J., Haley, J. and Bone, K., 2015. The Music Centre, 150, 154 and 156 Armagh Street: Report on Archaeological Investigations, Vol. 1. Unpublished report for The Music Centre.

LeeDecker, C. H. 1994. Discard Behaviour on Domestic Historic Sites: Evaluation of Contexts for the Interpretation of Household Consumption Patterns. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 1(4): 345-375.

Museums Victoria Collections 2017. [online] Available at: [Accessed 09 October 2017].

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2016. Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct archaeological report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.

Finding out more, under the floor

Recently, Peter Mitchell, one of our building archaeology specialists, recorded a 19th century residential dwelling just on the edge of Christchurch’s Central City. This dwelling was similar in form and function to others we have seen in Canterbury – it was a square plan salt box cottage, made of weatherboard timber with a corrugated iron roof. During demolition, it became apparent there were at least four phases of construction in this building, with the first phase represented by a cottage with a two-room gable section at the front and a smaller single room gable kitchen/scullery at the rear (Mitchell 2017).

The salt box cottage, as it stood before prior to demolition. Image P. Mitchell.

Scale drawing of the south elevation of the salt box cottage with the hypothesised Phase 1 building marked by the dotted lines. Image: P. Mitchell.

After the house was recorded, it was demolished due to earthquake damage, and when 19th century houses are taken apart like this, we have a great opportunity to see what lies beneath them. Fortunately, for those of us who are into a bit of material culture, this often means artefacts!

With these types of ‘underfloor’ deposits, individual artefacts can often be spatially associated with the individual rooms under which they are found. This can be pretty interesting when the functions of the artefacts are related to the functions of these rooms – for instance, when one finds food remains and condiment bottles under the kitchen. We’ve posted about nice examples of this before on the blog, but things don’t always work out quite so conveniently. Original contexts aren’t always so clear when building alterations are made, when walls are moved and when room functions change. And, unfortunately, sometimes artefacts that are scattered on the ground surface also get accidentally moved around during demolition (by those pesky mechanical excavators, or by falling building materials). As a result, the artefacts can lose their original provenance information. Alas, this is what happened to the artefacts that were found under our salt box cottage. But all is not lost – we still recovered some cool artefacts from under this house which can add to our knowledge of Victorian domestic goods and tell us about the lives of the people who resided in this house back in the 19th century.

Artefacts found under the house following demolition.

As a general trend, underfloor contexts frequently provide a superior preservation situation to scatters of artefacts that are found under the ground. In many cases, the conditions underneath structures are relatively dry, and rubbish that is thrown, placed or lost under a building is largely safe from the taphonomic processes that affect artefacts in the ground. These processes vary depending on the context of those sub-surface deposits, but many of the factors – such as moisture, disturbance from foot or vehicle traffic, the chemical and biological composition of the soil – that weather and adversely affect artefacts underground are not so applicable to underfloor contexts. As a result, fragile artefacts like paper, textiles or leather, are often found underneath the floors of houses in relatively good condition (that is, if they haven’t been subject to flooding, mould and gnawing by cats and rodents). Artefact life is hard, no?

But despite these dangers, the cottage assemblage provided us with several interesting household vessels – by which I mean non-food related artefacts associated with the day to day activities of the cottage household. For example, we recovered the ‘chimney’ section of a glass oil or kerosene lamp (visible below). This vessel had a (very well preserved) Brendel and Loewig maker’s mark stamped in on the outside, which is exciting because this is a unique find in our Christchurch assemblages to date. The company initials were featured within a round starburst motif with the words “BALDUR BRENNER 20””added to the mark (Brenner translates to burner in German, and this section of the mark probably describes that size and lamp model). Further research on this company indicated that Brendel and Loewig were founded in 1861 in Berlin, by Otto Brendel and Carl Loewig, as a metal and paint shop. In addition to the bird cages (very niche?), washing bowls and kitchen utensils they made, they also made chandeliers, stall lanterns and oil lamps (which amounts to a very eclectic mix of specialties). They had several ownership changes but largely kept the company in the family until Otto’s son Erich became the sole owner from 1906 onwards. This company was so successful that it remains in operation under different ownership in Germany today (Designretter 2017).

Brendel and Loewig lamp.

An example of a similar German 20” “brenner” from Stoll, 1889 – a rival German lighting company. Image. This is what our lamp would have looked like when it was whole.

Not to be left out, we also recovered a bottle of Spooner’s Royal Navy Boot Dressing – this product was essentially boot polish, the remnants of which can still be seen in the bottom of the vessel if you look closely. Spooner’s were a Melbourne based company that made polish and dressings for leather products such as footwear and horse saddles etc. Similar bottles to this one have been found in several other New Zealand archaeological sites, in contexts dating between the 1890s until the 1910s.

Front and reverse of Spooner’s boot dressing bottle embossed with their maker’s mark. The tell-tale Spooner’s boot can be seen on the front of this vessel.

As you can see, Spooner and Co., had some interesting and inappropriate names for their boot polish colours… “Cobra” “Satin Blacking” and “Maori Gloss” are featured in this advertisement… Something tells us this wouldn’t be an item that would be stocked in today’s local supermarkets. Marlborough Express 20/2/1903: 3

This is also the site where we found the Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle from Massachusetts that we showed you a couple of weeks ago. At first glance, it seems like the previous owner of this product likely took some pride in their possessions – polishing their boots and lubricating their pocket watches.

Can’t get enough of that Ezra Kelley pocket watch oil.

So, who was this pocket watch sporting, shiny booted person who lived our salt box cottage? Unfortunately, historical records don’t provide us with a clear indication of a specific culprit – in fact, these artefacts were actually likely to have been deposited by more than one occupant of the cottage over an unknown period of time. One of the drawbacks of underfloor deposits is that they lack the closed, ‘discrete’ context of deposits like rubbish pits, the nature of which allows us to narrow down when assemblages were discarded and whether that deposition happened in one event (or, if there are layers in a pit, in several different events that can be dated). Instead, artefacts that are found underneath structures could have been discarded separately over an unknown period, anytime between the date of initial building construction and the date that they were found. This is often seen under historical buildings that have gaps between the wooden floorboards through which small artefacts could fall. Or alternatively, as in this case, it happens in structures that have gaps between the floor and foundations, where rubbish could have been deliberately thrown under the building or dragged under by animals. The reality is that not enough research has been carried out on underfloor assemblages to be sure how these types of assemblages are deposited and accumulated. But that doesn’t mean we are left completely in the dark – for the purposes of dating the assemblages that we find in these contexts, we can make calculated guesses, taking into account the manufacturing date ranges for the individual artefacts that we find. We can also further compare these dates with the construction phases of the associated buildings, suggesting when items are most likely to have been first deposited or subsequently moved around.

Our salt box cottage section has a long history of occupation starting from the early 1860s. Even before it was built, the site was home to an earlier residence and a retail store. The occupants of these buildings may have discarded their own rubbish or possessions on the land, and any such artefacts may still remain elsewhere on this site. However, due to the location that our artefact assemblage was found (directly underneath the floorboards of the cottage), it is likely that they would have been accidentally lost, or deliberately discarded by the occupants of this building, rather than the earlier ones. So when did this happen?

The cottage was built around 1875 by William Ellis Voller and it was inhabited by several individuals after him. Many of the artefacts have long ranging manufacturing dates which span the occupation period of multiple known residents of the cottage and this makes it is difficult to determine exactly who they might be associated with. Potential suspects included Voller himself, between at least 1875 and c. 1878, followed immediately by John Goodman. Goodman sold the property in 1890, at which time the house was in its second phase of construction, which we know because it was advertised in local newspapers as having four rooms (which was one more than the original three). Samuel Thomas Longley resided in the dwelling between 1890 and 1893, after which time he sold it to a widow, Mrs Eliza Ann Friedman. Friedman remained a resident until 1903, so it is likely to have been Eliza who deposited the Spooner’s boot polish. The same can’t be said for the rest of the assemblage though, which could have been associated with any of the previous occupants of the cottage.

An 1877 Map of Christchurch, showing a building present on William Voller’s section (outlined in red). Image: Strouts, 1877.

It’s in confusing times like these that it can be helpful to find a personal artefact that can be directly associated with different individuals, genders or ages – certainly, the presence of a child’s shoe and a possible wooden spinning top toy suggests that these artefacts would likely have been discarded by one of the occupants who had a young family – but no records of children at this property have been found to date.

Possessions of a nameless child.

Another mystery, another site, another day in the life of Underground Overground Archaeology. Until next time.

 Chelsea Dickson


Designretter 2017. Lighting Manufacturer from Germany: Brendel and Loewig [English Translation Online] Available at:



The spoils of oils

We all know that fish oil is great for our skin and hair but does the use of whale oil tickle your moral compass? It was utilised for many household purposes during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today we will take a look at a couple of men who made a big splash in the whale oil industry.

Not too long ago, a miniature vial was found in one of our artefact assemblages from Christchurch’s Central City. This vessel had “Ezra Kelley” embossed on the base, which we traced to a 19th century watchmaker from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ezra Kelley was a special fellow in the 19th century watchmaking and repairing scene, because he was the first maker to commercially use oil from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish (pilot whales) to lubricate watch mechanisms (Goodwin 2016). Prior to this, olive and vegetable oils were used instead. Oil extracted from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish had been used by carpenters to sharpen their tools without the risk of rust since 1816, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the sailor, Solomon Cook, sent the first batch of blackfish jaw oil to Kelley for testing (Goodwin 2016). Kelley found it superior to all other oils, as it didn’t congeal at low temperatures, nor did it rust brass, and its light and fine properties also gave it a low freezing point. This made it a suitable, year-round lubricant for delicate machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines (at a lower grade, sperm whale oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs; Goodwin 2016). In 1884, Kelley began selling this new oil (supplied by the Cook family), for a whopping US $5-$15 per gallon, which converts to around US $111 – $333 in today’s money (Goodwin 2016). As a comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, contains 42 gallons and sells for $90-$110 (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale oil was so expensive at this time due to supply and demand, but also for one other key reason – it’s lubrication properties were worth it (Cherrybalmz 2017).

Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle found in the Central City. Image: C. Dickson.

Sperm Sewing Oil! Also found in Christchurch Central City, this bottle probably contained a lower grade of whale oil than what Kelley made. Image: C. Dickson.

Just like a fine wine, Kelley’s oil improved with age. The processing of his blackfish oil included a two-year aging stage after the oil had been gently heated to remove excess water. Processors then spread the oil out into thin layers and slowly froze it, causing any solids to precipitate within it, which could be later strained through a cloth. The more competently this process was carried out, and the fresher the oil was, the better the grade of lubricant could be produced – the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F (-45.6 degrees Celsius; Cherrybalmz 2017). So, you could be cold, but you’d always know what time it is.

Ezra Kelley oil advertisement c. 1890. Image.

It seems that Kelley’s major failing was that his oil sold too profitably. All his success didn’t go unnoticed by the rival oil seller, William Foster Nye, who originally dealt in other oil types, like burning oils, castor oil and salad oil. After witnessing Kelley’s success, Nye subsequently developed a method for processing “fish jaw oil” – capitalising on Kelley’s discoveries and managing to secure a British distributor six months after his first advertisement. Having captured the British market, Nye was able to undercut his predecessor’s prices by offering large discounts to his customers and he was so successful at this that he managed to absorb Kelley’s business by 1896 (Zabawski 2017). Within the year, the new company was responsible for nine-tenths of the global supply of fish jaw oil raw materials and it ran a monopoly of the industry that would last until the decline of whaling during the next century (Nye 2017, Zabawski 2017). However, the end of whaling didn’t spell the end for Nye -the fish jaw oil continued to be sold into the 1970s, but the threat of whale extinction and the technological advances of synthetic oils ended the company’s reliance on blackfish/porpoises and the era of synthetic fluids began (Zabawski 2017). Due to their ability to adapt, the Nye oil company remains in operation today (Nye 2017).

Nye advertisement. Date unknown. Image.

‘Watching’ an 1886 whale massacre… Image: Attic Paper.

Massachusetts, where Kelley and Nye were both based, was once a hub for whale oil production. Specifically, New Bedford Massachusetts was such a busy whaling port that it was known as “The City That Lit the World” and, “The Whaling City”, because during the 19th century, it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut (Huntington 2009). This American whaling industry had a strong focus on spermaceti (the waxy oil found in the head of sperm whales), named after an initial misconception that the substance was the coagulated semen of sperm whales… Unfortunate naming aside, this oil type was commonly used in candle manufacture and in oil lamps when distilled – its natural properties produced bright, clear flames when burnt, without excess smoke (McNamara 2017).

As most Kiwis know, New Zealand was not exempt from what we now consider to be a barbaric industry. Eighteenth and 19th century whaling ships visited the waters around the country, and this natural resource began to be exploited off our coasts before New Zealand was even settled by Europeans. The industry began to decline here by the early 1840s, as over exploited whales became scarce and New Zealand’s new government imposed duties and port charges on whaling ships (Phillips 2006). Occasionally, American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, the last of which was probably the Charles W. Morgan, in 1894 (Phillips 2006). However, pilot whales to this day are notorious for stranding on our beaches, and beached whales continued to be used as a resource in the 20th century.

Cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales. New Zealand, 1911? Arthur James Northwood (1881-1949) Image.

Men boiling down blackfish blubber, Tokerau Beach. Taaffe, James Thomas Benjamin, d 1971: Photographs of the Far North district, Northland region. Ref: 1/2-026801-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23070974. Image. Date unknown.

Clearly, 18th and 19th century society didn’t share the modern distaste for the whaling industry. As you’ve seen, Kelley and Nye’s advertisements for their whale oil often pictured the graphic scenes depicting whales being caught and processed, and given how successful these companies were, this violence can’t have been a deterrent for sales. Herman Melville also provides us with insight into how revered whale products were – calling whale oil “as rare as the milk of queens” in his classic, Moby Dick, which was written in this era (Melville 1851). Essentially, the entire industry is a parallel to crude oil in today’s market, given the similarities in costs, peoples dependence on it and its range of applications.

These applications included not only lubrication and illumination, but also the manufacture of soaps, paint, varnish, margarine, and as a treatment for textiles and rope. “Whalebone” which was commonly found in corsets, was not actually what it describes – it was not bone, but baleen from whales (a form of keratin – the same material as human fingernails), and its purpose is to filter plankton into whales mouths. Baleen is strong but flexible (which are similar properties to that of plastic), and it was not only used in other attire like shirt collars and eyeglass frames, but also for buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes and umbrellas (Cherrybalmz 2017). It was also featured as a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs (Cherrybalmz 2017). To continue with the industry comparison, in 1891 a pound of ‘whalebone’ was worth up to US $7 – that’s nearly $200 per pound today! (Cherrybalmz 2017). In 1882, a single whale produced 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth of $11,200 – or roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and this was just from one animal! (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale teeth (or ivory) were also marketable to whalers, but these yielded smaller profits than whale oil. Teeth were regularly carved by whalers in a practice known as scrimshaw, and they often featured intricate designs and nautical themes. Such artefacts are now collectors’ items and museum pieces, providing historians with a glimpse into the whaling industry through the depictions rendered by those who drove it.

A New Zealand example of scrimshaw depicting the whaling ship ‘Pacific’ and compass points, which were formed by intersecting harpoons. The tooth is inscribed with “28th January 1860, Captain Sherburd”. The reverse is inscribed with a poem reading: “Sudden death to our best friends. Success to their killers long life to our Sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers.” This ship was reported in the Otago Daily Times as sinking on the 13th of February 1864 at Patterson’s inlet on Stewart Island in a heavy westerly gale. Image.

Thankfully, since the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century and the development of new technologies, most of the applications of whale oil have been replaced with superior products – margarine is now made with vegetable oil and lamps began to be filled with cleaner, less smelly, and cheaper kerosene. It was a relief to many in the 1920s when fashion moved away from women wearing corsets, but those who still want to add a little ‘boning’ support to a frock, now use plastic instead of baleen. The vocal anti-whaling sentiment is strong among New Zealanders today, and since 1978, whales within New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile (370 km) zone have been protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. A short time later, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. Cheers Greenpeace!

Chelsea Dickson



Cherrybalmz 2017. Gun lubricant history: Sperm whale oil. [online] available at:

Goodwin, P. 2016. Ezra Kelley Watch Oil [online] Available at:

Huntington, T. 2009. “Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town,” American Heritage.

McNamara, R. 2017. Whaling industry produced oil, candles, and household tools: whales were the raw materials for many useful objects In the 1800s. [Online] Available at:

Nye 2017. A History of Nye: The Beginning of Cilliam F. Nye Inc. [online] Available at:

Phillips, J. 2006. ‘Whaling – Ship-based whaling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (Accessed 14 September 2017)

Zabawski. E. 2017. Purposeful porpoise oil. [online] available at:



Winter is coming…

The chilly weather in Christchurch of late has many of us dreaming of glistening seas, white sand beaches and pina coladas. A while ago, “winter is coming” gags were being fired about among the many Game of Thrones fans, and it is very apparent that winter has indeed come to Christchurch this year. But before the days of heatpumps and rubber hot water bottles, there was a time when the hardy early settlers of Canterbury braved the wild winters of the second half of the 19th century, and they had to make do with their wits, woollies and inner warmth to survive the mid-year season.

Ok, that was the last one, I promise. Image.

We may think that our winter blast has been pretty chilly this year, but it’s nothing compared to the winters of 1862 and 1867. During such times, it was said that it wasn’t uncommon to see icicles clinging to a man’s moustache even in the middle of a fine day – a fine excuse to get rid of one’s moustache I would think (Grey River Argus, 17/7/1918: 2). It makes for an amusing image, but 1895 saw the bitterest winter in the 19th and most of the 20th century. This was the year that Lyttelton Harbour froze and Lake Alexandrina froze so thick that three hundred cattle were able to walk over the lake. A few people even died from being caught outside or drowning (Kuzma 2014). The animals fared the worst of it though, dogs died, frozen stiff in their kennels, and after all was said and done, it was estimated that 2 million sheep perished (Kuzma 2014). This was not only because the snow cover left them with no grass to eat, causing sheep to consume the wool off each other’s backs, but their wool also froze (often fixing them to the snow). This left them essentially ‘sheepsicles’ – some having between four and six inches of ice on their backs which enabled them to only move their heads up and down ‘like armadillos’ (Kuzma 2014, Otago Witness 4/7/1895: 23). Naturally, it wasn’t just the region’s farmers that were adversely affected by the storm – in Christchurch City, three inches fell in two hours one morning, leaving the streets a ‘slushy mess’ (Kuzma 2014). Approximately one hundred men were employed under the city’s Winter Work Fund to clear footpaths and crossings the next day, causing delays to tram services (one of which was derailed by the ice), and frozen pipes and pumps caused a nightmare for the city plumbers (Kuzma 2014).

Snow on Oxford Terrace, Christchurch, 1862. Image CCL. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0055. Obtained from the collection, and used with permission of, Christchurch City Libraries.

Riccarton Mill in a snowy July 1895. Image CCL File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0018. Obtained from the collection, and used with permission of, Christchurch City Libraries.

A tram runs into difficulties, at the corner of Colombo and Armagh Streets, when Christchurch was hit by snow. 1918? Image CCL File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0092. Obtained from the collection, and used with permission of, Christchurch City Libraries.

But winter didn’t always generate the doom and gloom of being trapped by snow and rising mutton prices, amplified by the decimation of the sheep population (North Otago Times 6/8/1895: 1). For many of us in the south, the snow season  also brings the excitement of winter sports and the same was true for our Cantabrian ancestors, who also partook. We have previously mentioned the 1930s ice skating rink near Mt Harper, and the remains of the 1885 Palace Skating Rink were also found in the Christchurch central city several years ago (ArchSite 2012). Scottish immigrants also introduced curling to the south of New Zealand in the 1860s, and the sport soon spread throughout the south. By 1900, there were nine clubs and we’re happy to say that these snowy sports weren’t exclusively enjoyed by men – there were also women’s curling teams by the 1890s (Swarbrick 2013). Unfortunately, we can’t talk 19th century about skiing here – the first attempt to establish skiing as a sport in New Zealand wasn’t made until 1909 when Captain Head and Lawrence Earle introduced skis to the guides at Mount Cook. It was more than ten years later that the first ski races took place in New Zealand (Snow Sports NZ). But hey, don’t let that stop you!

Skating In North Hagley Park, c.1945. Image: by Kete Site Admin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

With all these cold temperatures it’s unsurprising that 19th century winter made people feel a little ‘under the weather’ – just as an aside, this phrase did not always refer to feeling ill in the flu season. Originally it was a sailors term, meaning to feel seasick or to be adversely affected by bad weather. The phrase was initially ‘under the weather bow’ (the weather bow being the side upon which all the rotten weather is blowing). Interesting, no? Anyway, the people of Victorian Canterbury suffered from many health-related ailments. We can see this in the plethora of pharmaceutical bottles we find in archaeological assemblages and in the newspaper advertisements of the time. These bottles contained (often dubious) cure-all remedies for respiratory conditions. You may have come across some of these before on the blog, such as Baxter’s Lung Preserver, which was a local Christchurch product created in the 19th century and it’s still sold today. John Baxter started out as a young chemist in the 1860s and because pharmaceutical companies weren’t required to list the active ingredients in their products during the 19th century, we don’t know exactly what the Lung Preserver contained. Many other pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this lack of regulation and it’s probable that many of the cure-all remedies available to sick 19th century consumers were mainly alcohol based formulations. The advertisement below comes complete with testimonials from satisfied customers if you click on the article link.

Evening Post 29/8/1885: 2

Baxter’s Lung Preserver, Christchurch, bottle. Image: J. Garland.

Another respiratory remedy that we have covered here before is Wood’s Peppermint Cure. This product claimed to do largely the same thing as Baxter’s, in that it was said to cure coughs and colds. This one was associated with some more interesting advertisement angles, and seems to be endorsed by the gods? This stuff must have been good!

Inangahua Times 5/8/1897: 4. Wood’s Peppermint Cure. Image: C. Dickson.

It’s likely that people were more often “under the weather” during this time than is common today, due to the difference in sanitation and living standards. Flush toilets, sinks and baths didn’t become widespread in New Zealand until the 20th century, and it wasn’t until this time that the development of hydroelectricity provided the instant availability of hot water for personal and domestic cleaning (Pollock 2011). Houses themselves were less weather tight – we often find evidence of newspapers plugging drafts in 19th century Christchurch houses. The condition of some dwellings were so poor that it brought about the introduction of the first state houses for renters, firstly in 1906 and on a larger scale during the 1930s (Pollock 2011). But undeniably, the most beneficial introduction was the revolutionary antibiotics that were no-doubt more medically effective than an alcohol based cure-all remedy.

Although houses weren’t as cozy, the wily Cantabrians had their own in-house methods of keeping warm in the winter. You’re probably aware of the existence of bed warmers, which originally took the form of a metal container filled with hot coals, but I was interested to discover that hot water bottles are not a modern invention. Those of us who don’t have electric blankets probably still take advantage of the soft rubber models, but ceramic and copper examples were commonly used by our ancestors. These were naturally hot to the touch, so knitted hot water bottle cozies with drawstrings were employed to transport them from the kitchen to the bedroom… Does your Nana knit something similar? (Cook 2012). The hand warmer, for example, has been used worldwide for centuries, and is still used by skiers today. During the Victorian era, ladies sported heated miniature water bottles, tucked into their fur hand muffs for outdoor adventures. For the less wealthy, hot potatoes, coals or stones sufficed as an alternative (Cook 2012). The heating of such items was usually done in the fireplace – some bedrooms and reception rooms had these, but the kitchen fireplace was the often the focal point of the house and it was utilised as an evening gathering place for families to keep warm, talk and work on small tasks (Cook 2012).

From left: Copper hot water bottle, Doulton’s ceramic hot water bottle, bed warmer. Unfortunately, we haven’t found any examples of these in our Christchurch archaeological assemblages to date. Image.

One of the most important things to note is that the nature of 19th century work, society and dress kept the chills largely at bay. Beds were warmed by more bodies than we might be used to – so while it was typical for a couple to have a bed to themselves, the children often slept all together, separated by gender to provide more room… “there were three in the bed and the little one said…roll over?” (Cook 2012). The Victorians also performed more sweat inducing physical labour than we might be used to. Chopping wood, keeping animals, preparing food – even the most everyday chores, from childhood to old age, required more constant physical activity than they do for us (lazy?) modern folk. (Wilham 2009). Additionally, while Gumboots, Swandries, and Kathmandu down jackets revolutionised how we brave the elements in the 20th and 21st centuries, Victorians knew how to successfully bundle up by layering their clothing. Men wore long johns under their outfits and women sported layers of petticoats. Winter wardrobes were primarily made of wool and included coats, trousers, often a waistcoat and shirt and a felt hat. Oilskin raincoats, leggings and hats were also fashioned for wet conditions, making their outerwear (somewhat) impermeable to water (Labrum 2008). So, let it rain!

New Zealand Herald 28/8/1937: 2.

A woollen waistcoat found in Central Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Victorians spent their winter months. We hate to leave you out in the cold, but it’s nearly time to cozy up indoors for the weekend cause, baby, it’s cold outside!

Chelsea Dickson


ArchSite 2012. M35/731.

Cook T. 2012. Keeping Warm the Old Way. The Bologazine. [online] Available at:

Kuzma, J. 2014. The 1895 Snowstorm. Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network. [online] available at:

Labrum. B. 2008. ‘Rural clothing – Hats, footwear and oilskins’, [online] available at: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2017)

Pollock, K. 2011. ‘Public health – Healthy bodies’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] available at: (accessed 21 July 2017).

Swarbrick, N. 2013. ‘Ice sports – Curling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] available at: (accessed 21 July 2017).

Wilham P. 2009. Staying War: How the Victorians Did. [Online] Available at: