Spirits, skittles and a stolen goose: the life and times of the Caversham Hotel

John Bent leaned over and grabbed the goose. There was a whole flock of them in the street—surely one wouldn’t be missed? It was 11pm, and he had been drinking heavily all night. In his muddled state it seemed like a good idea. “Leave it alone,” his mate Edward Banks warned him. He too was drunk. But Bent ignored him, and the two men walked off with the bird. From his seat in the Caversham Hotel, Robert Hallam saw all this happen, and he told Smith, the hotel’s proprietor, that one of his geese was being nicked. This was not the first time the hotel had lost one of its flock. They were worth 8 shillings each, and Smith was determined not to lose another one. He rushed outside and called to Bent to drop the goose, who, in his panic, threw it over a fence. The next day, Constable Jeffreys paid Bent a visit. Bent said that he knew nothing about the matter but, so that no further bother had to be made, offered to pay for the goose. The constable was not interested in Bent’s simple solution and instead charged him with theft. He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment (Lyttelton Times 6/5/1868: 2).

During the nineteenth century, hotels were gathering places for the community and sites for a variety of events, and the Caversham Hotel was no exception. As expected, the local newspapers were filled with stories of drunken and disorderly behaviour and the occasional petty theft, but the hotel was also a recreational place for many people to enjoy a meal and some entertainment, as well as a home for others. Its walls witnessed the everyday life of its visitors and residents. The theft of Smith’s goose in 1868 is just one of an infinite number of small stories that make up the history of the Caversham Hotel.

When John Franklin Smart opened Caversham House (as it was then called) on the corner of Madras and St Asaph streets in 1852, that part of Christchurch was the edge of the struggling new settlement, but by the time the hotel closed in 1910, it had been engulfed by the growing city. Smart’s choice of that area was strategic, and he was able to take advantage of traffic passing in and out of Christchurch. As soon as the hotel opened, he advertised in the Lyttelton Times:

Lyttelton Times 21/2/1852: 1.

Lyttelton Times 21/2/1852: 1.

In 1862 John Townsend Parkinson, the new proprietor of the hotel, remodelled and enlarged the building, renaming his premises the Caversham Hotel (Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1). It seemed to have been a good year for Parkinson. On Anniversary Day (originally held in December), he was “feeling desirous of giving his friends and the public an opportunity of enjoying themselves” and set up games of quoits, greasy pole (climbing a greased pole), jumping in sacks and donkey racing in the paddocks adjoining the hotel (Lyttelton Times 13/12/1862: 5).

Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1.

Lyttelton Times 12/7/1862: 1.

In February 1863, Parkinson’s good feelings had changed, and he poisoned himself with strychnine. Poor business decisions as well as the recent hotel work had put him deeply into debt. Several days before his death, the hotel’s barman noticed that Parkinson seemed to be inattentive and disordered. To Parkinson’s wife, who knew nothing about his financial difficulties, he appeared to be in a cheerful mood. When he heard that news of his debt had been published in a report, he sent an advertisement to the Standard offering a reward of £20 for delivery of the “scoundrel” who had written it. The next morning, he decided to take his own life. Soon after swallowing the strychnine, the barman found him on his bed in a seizure. The doctor was called, but the poison had taken its effect and Parkinson died (Lyttelton Times 7/2/1863: 4).

After Parkinson’s death, John Franklin Smart took over the hotel again, and by the end of 1863, Thomas Howes had taken up its management (Press 23/7/1863: 5; Lyttelton Times 14/3/1863: 6). The next year, the hotel was put up for sale:

The main amusement of the Caversham Hotel, like other licensed hotels, was the bar. Over nearly 60 years, the hotel sold a range of wines, ales and spirits. As luck would have it, a few artefacts were found at this site which reflected this drinking culture. These were commonly found bottle types which would have contained beer, wine and gin. As is typical of hotel sites (where patrons dined as well as drank), a serving tureen, salad oil bottles and wide mouth jars which may have contained other condiments or food were also uncovered. The most exciting find was a large flagon that may have once provided cider, beer or water to the hotel guests (Oswald et al. 1982: 74). The flagon was largely intact, and was made by Stephen Green Imperial Pottery Factory, in Lambeth, between 1820 and 1858 (Godden 1991: 289). What was unusual about this vessel was the maker’s mark – it contained the phrase “glass lined inside.” Now lining the inside of a hefty ceramic beverage container with fragile glass didn’t seem like a smart idea to me – but luckily it mustn’t have to Stephen Green either – the phrase actually refers to the glaze of the vessel. Specifically, when the outer vessel was salt-glazed, the inside was glazed with liquid prior to firing (Wood 2014: 102).

A selection of the artefacts found – from left: black beer bottle, salad oil bottle, wide mouth jar and tureen. Image: C. Dickson.

A selection of the artefacts found – from left: black beer bottle, salad oil bottle, wide mouth jar and tureen. Image: C. Dickson.

Stephen Green flagon with maker's mark. Image: C. Dickson.

Stephen Green flagon with maker’s mark. Image: C. Dickson.

This flagon was extra cool because its manufacturing date supported our idea that these artefacts were likely to have been thrown away into an open roadside drain, and accumulated over time. This accumulation would have happened between the formation of St Asaph Street in the 1850s and the laying of the adjacent lateral wastewater pipeline in 1882 – this pipeline forms part of a broader network of waste water pipes dating to the 1880s in central Christchurch. Much of this network is still present and in use today. In fact, last year we uncovered another section of this earthenware pipeline which had a manufacturer’s mark revealing that the Christchurch Drainage Board imported the city’s sewage pipes from Scotland, rather than being locally sourced (ArchSite 2015).

In addition to being an accommodation house and pub, the Caversham Hotel provided games such as billiards and skittles, an early form of bowling that dates back to ancient times and is the forerunner of today’s 10-pin bowling. Its association with pubs and good times is summed up in the expression ‘Life isn’t all beer and skittles’. The game could be played outside on a lawn or inside in an alley and was seen as a working-class amusement that often included gambling (Lyttelton Times 20/6/1865: 6). The Caversham Hotel was one of a handful of establishments that had an indoor alley, and it was the scene of several petty crimes in the 1870s. In 1874 Joseph Hannan stole a purse, pipe and about £5 from Charles Oliver, who had fallen asleep on a bench in the alley, and in 1877 Richard Coleman was found guilty of taking a coat from a table (Star 19/6/1874: 2 and 12/3/1877: 2). During the 1880s the hotel also had an outdoor skittle ground, which was the site of several competitive matches during the decade (Star 31/1/1885: 2).

“A New Game for Ladies: A ‘Skittles’ Competition in Berlin”. Image: The Graphic, 18/8/1900.

“A New Game for Ladies: A ‘Skittles’ Competition in Berlin”. Image: The Graphic, 18/8/1900.

 In 1882, owner Edward Ravenhill had the ageing hotel rebuilt in brick (Press 16/5/1882: 4). Fifteen years later, in 1897, the hotel was again in need of repairs, and Ravenhill had the building pulled down and rebuilt on the site with “all modern conveniences” and “every comfort” (Press 11/11/1897: 8). The furniture and effects from the old hotel were sold at auction, and they included, among other things, a billiard table, two pianos, bedsteads, washstands, mats and carpets, 50 Australian chairs, Japanese chairs, kitchen utensils, 50 pictures and even “stuffed birds in cases” (Star 7/8/1897: 5).

The new Caversham Hotel in 1898. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 13, IMG0021.

The new Caversham Hotel in 1898. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 13, IMG0021.

During the demolition work, an 1815 copy of Volume VI of A Select British Theatre was found, reportedly in excellent condition and “quite as good as when it was first issued” (Press 7/6/1897: 5). It contained five plays adapted for the theatre by John Philip Kemble. Who owned this volume? A theatre lover who stayed at the hotel? A university student who stopped in for a drink one night? A thief who hid the book to avoid the constable? The history of the book will remain a mystery, but it shows how diverse life at the hotel was.

Title page for A Select British Theatre from a copy held in the Princeton University Library.

Title page for A Select British Theatre from a copy held in the Princeton University Library.

Ravenhill’s new hotel did not last long.  In 1910 the building was sold at auction in sections for removal, ending its 58-year history. The auction lots included a two-roomed cottage measuring 22 by 16 feet, 35 doors with frames, iron of all sizes, tiled grates, mantelpieces, pipes, boilers, shelving, gates, signposts and timber of every description (Press 7/2/1910: 12).

Jill Haley and Chelsea Dickson

References:

ArchSite, 2015. M35/1353. New Zealand Archaeological Association.

Godden, G., 1991. Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks. Crown Publishers, New York.

Lyttelton Times [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

Oswald, A., Hildyard, R. J. C. & Hughes, R., G. 1982. English Brown Stoneware 1670-1900. Faber and Faber Limited., London.

Press [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed August 2016].

Wood, F., L., 2014. The World of British Stoneware: It’s History, Manufacture and Wares. Troubador Publishing Ltd.

Odds and ends

A selection of recent discoveries for your perusal, complete with flippant commentary (as per usual). Enjoy!

cool plate thing

This rather dramatic pattern is called Andalusia and, as the name might suggest, features a Spanish scene with figures praying in the foreground and vignettes around the border. Someone has even helpfully coloured in the highlights with paint (a technique known as ‘clobbering’, an excellent term) to add to the drama of the whole thing. Image: C. Dickson.

lamp

The glass reservoir from an oil lamp, we think, made from bright cobalt blue glass. Quite the unusual artefact, this one. Image: G. Jackson.

dancing people

There are many possible captions to this image decorating the inside of a teacup. I’d like to think that they’re dancing, two people flitting their way across the room without a care in the world. Then again, she could also be about to faint (there is a slight sense of imbalance to her body language), as he prepares to catch her (there is also a sense of concern in his body language). You be the judge. Image: G. Jackson.

majolica

A majolica decorated dinner plate, a style that needs dark wood panelling and candle-lit interiors to properly appreciate the aesthetic, I think. Think great dark Gothic rooms with taxidermied decoration, high ceilings and undercurrents of tragedy. Image: G. Jackson.

floating temple

This pattern, known as ‘Grecian’, depicts what seems to be a floating building in the background and a temple precariously perched on a rocky precipice. European scenes like this one (and the Andalusia one above) were particularly popular during the mid-19th century, playing a ‘slightly exotic’ European counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscapes and architecture. Image: C. Dickson.

fell over

In which a person in a hat seems to have fallen over. Image: J. Garland.

water filter

This seemingly dull and utilitarian bit of ceramic is, in fact, the filter from a ceramic water filter, made by the firm of J. Lipscombe and Co., London. Ceramic water filters were an ingenious invention created in the 1830s in England to combat the water contamination problem they were facing. It worked by filtering water through a porous ceramic disc or filter, which removed the worst of the dirt and contaminants contained within. Incredibly, such filters are still used in some parts of the world today. Image: G. Jackson.

cool stoneware jar thing

Just a cool stoneware jar made by Hill and Jones, of Jewry Street, London. Image: J. Garland.

Curtis and co.

Curtis and Co. were Lyttelton based soda water manufacturers, in business from the mid-1890s until the early 20th century. We excavated the site of their aerated water factory recently, and found a number of their bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes. Image: J. Garland.

chamber pot

A chamber pot decorated with interesting architecture. Check out those crenellations. Image: J. Garland.

belt buckle

A brass belt buckle found in the central city. We’re unsure whether or not the 1866 impressed on the top line is an indication of date or simply a batch or manufacturer’s number. It would be great if it was the former. Image: C. Dickson.

tubes

And, lastly, tubes and pipettes and ampules and other instruments of scientific discovery. These are pretty cool and very rare, part of a much larger assemblage of similar objects that we’re looking forward to investigating. Image: J. Garland.

 

 

A century of good old country living (or the archaeology of an old farm house)

In 1874 this modest two-storey farm house was built on the outskirts of Christchurch. It’s not the sort of house we normally see in Christchurch, in part because of its age, but also because it was built as a farm house, not as a town house (as it were). Fortunately for us, there had been very little modifications to the house since it was built, giving us a great insight into (farm) houses of this period.

North elevation

North elevation. The windows were installed in the 1970s, but retained the dimensions of the original double-pane sash windows. The porch over the front door was added during the late 1980s. Image: F. Bradley.

While the layout of the house was fairly typical of what we see from the 1880s on in Christchurch (the front door opened into a central hallway, which led to the parlour, master bedroom and kitchen), but the form of the dwelling was not – the house was a saltbox cottage, rather than a Victorian villa. This form of cottage was the norm in the earliest days of European settlement in Christchurch, but had evolved into the villa in the 1880s. The late 1860s and 1870s seem to represent a transitional period between the two styles, with both forms of house being built.

Inside, the house was as plain and simple as its exterior. The rooms were of modest dimensions and most of the downstairs rooms were lined with rough-sawn rimu boards and an exposed match-lined ceiling. The traditional moulded door architraves and skirting boards were much narrower than those found in villas, as were the skirting boards – and only the public rooms (the hall, parlour and the master bedroom) had moulded skirtings: the private rooms had skirting boards with a very rudimentary rectangular profile.

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The back bedroom, showing the match-lined ceiling and narrow door architraves. Image: F. Bradley.

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The rough-sawn timber boards lining the walls in the back bedroom. Image: F. Bradley.

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The skirting boards. Left: unusually narrow traditional skirtings in the hall. Right: rudimentary rectangular skirtings in the back bedroom. Image: F. Bradley.

Upstairs, the rooms economically occupied the roof space.

Cross-section

Cross-section of the dwelling, looking east. Image: F. Bradley.

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Dangerously steep staircase, leading to the upstairs bedrooms. Image: F. Bradley.

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One of the bedrooms upstairs, showing the exposed rafters. Image: F. Bradley.

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Earlier wallpaper discovered in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Image: F. Bradley.

We found a bunch of artefacts underneath the floorboards of three rooms – the kitchen and two of the original bedrooms – in the house. Underfloor deposits are always interesting and, at the same time, extremely frustrating. Because they accumulate over time, whether thrown or swept under the house from the outside or lost through the floorboards, these deposits often have longer date ranges than the rubbish pit assemblages we usually deal with. They also have better preservation than rubbish pit assemblages a lot of the time, which is cool. It means we get to see a lot of things we don’t normally see, like labelled cans and bottles, well-preserved footwear, fabric and paper and, of course, the odd mummified cat.

The frustrating thing, however, is that because of that long date range, it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to associate the objects we find under a house with the occupants of that house. If, as is the case with this site, the material ranges in date from the 1860s until the 1940s, we have no idea which of the people who lived in that house over that 80 year period might have owned and used them. There is also, thanks to that whole good preservation thing, a tonne of dust, bones with skin or tissue on them (gross) and other icky things. Underfloor deposits make me sneeze a lot. I definitely find this frustrating.

The under-floor deposit uncovered under the original kitchen. The area under this room contained the largest number of artefacts from the site. Image: F. Bradley.

Feature-4-metal-for-web

Some of the artefacts found under the kitchen, including an Edmond’s baking powder tin, a pot or kettle handle and two pennies, from 1945 and 1946. How many of you know that Edmond’s baking powder was created in 1879 in Christchurch? Good old Thomas John Edmonds. Image: J. Garland.

Feature 4 glass 1

Some of the glass artefacts found underneath the kitchen. There’s a labelled hock or Rhine bottle at the top, which would have originally contained German wine. The wide mouth jar on the black background is from the Macleans Pickle and Preserving Company, another Christchurch-based producer. Macleans were established in 1882, formed out of the award winning pickle manufacturing business run by A. H. Maclean prior to that date. They made pickled walnuts. Pickled walnuts! Why would you do that to walnuts. The bottles at the bottom of the image are a labelled salad oil bottle, a Mellor and Co. worcestershire sauce bottle and a J. Whittington aerated water bottle. Whittington was another Christchurch-based manufacturer, with the bottle dating to the late 1890s. Image: J. Garland.

Feature 7 metal

More tins! These were found under one of the bedrooms and were identified from the labels as a tin of Poliflor wax (top two images) and an unidentified brand of cut cake tobacco (bottom image). Poliflor was a New Zealand-made product (lot of that in this assemblage), advertised in the 1920s as a polishing wax for furniture, floors, tiles and leather goods. Image: J. Garland.

for blog

Another small selection of artefacts found under one of the bedrooms. The large champagne looking bottle here is one of my favourites, because the label identifies it as a product of the Crown Brewery in Christchurch. The Crown Brewery is one of Christchurch earliest institutions, established in 1854 by William May. It changed hands several times over the decades, with this bottle probably dating to the period post-1870 .We almost never find examples of Christchurch, or even New Zealand, brewed beers in the archaeological record because the labels just don’t survive, so this one is an excellent find. The stoneware cap at the top is from a Kempthorne and Prosser New Zealand Drug Company jar or crock, referring to the well-known Dunedin firm, and the flask in the bottom right corner has a seal identifying it as Scotch Whisky, from the Distiller’s Company, Edinburgh, Scotland. Mmm, whisky. Image: J. Garland.

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Presented without comment. Image: J. Garland.

Francesca Bradley and Jessie Garland

The bitter waters of archaeology

This week on the blog, we delve – or dive, even (sorry, I can already tell you that this post will be filled with water puns) – into the bitter waters of the 19th century, by which I mean mineral and healing waters, not some kind of allegorical reference to a difficult period of the past. This watery submersion (sorry, can’t help myself) came about following the discovery of an unusual bottle in a recent assemblage that turned out to have originally contained German mineral water, exported from a small town called Friedrichshall to New Zealand from the 1870s onwards. It’s not the first example of German mineral water we’ve come across here in Christchurch and well, it got me thinking. And researching. Basically, I fell down the well (see what I did there?) into the world of healing waters and haven’t quite surfaced since.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

The concept of water, specifically mineral water, as an elixir of health has been around for centuries – millennia, even. We’ve all heard stories of springs and pools that could miraculously cure the sick and restore the health of the ailing, in both the historical and fictional worlds. The notion of water – or rather, the ‘waters’ of certain places – as more than just a necessity of survival, as a life-giving (or life preserving) force is so prevalent in our collective psyche that it trickles through our pop culture, past (Jane Austen springs to mind) and present (Pirates of the Caribbean’s fountain of youth, for example).

During our period of study – the 19th and early 20th centuries – there are numerous references to springs, wells, pools, aquifers and other bodies of water with healing properties, sometimes bordering on the magical. The healing waters of Bath were, thanks to the Romans and Miss Austen, among many others, well-known for their alleged ability to cure anything from leprosy to rheumatism. There were several locations on the continent, including Royat in France, Pistyan in ‘Czecho-Slovakia’, Marienbad in Bohemia, Vichy in France, and Salsomaggiore in Lombardy. In California, the town of Carlsbad (not quite Carlsberg, as I thought for a while) was named after a famous Bohemian spa following the discovery of mineral water there in the 1880s. In Scotland, the well of St Maelrubha in Loch Maree, Ross-shire, “was credited with the wonderful powers of curing the insane” and, in possibly my favourite example, there was a pub in London that offered eye lotion made from the healing water in the cellar along with the normal beers and spirits. Apparently, the water contained high levels of zinc, which may have been “soothing to the eye.”

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image:

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image: Auckland Star 9/12/1932: 13.

New Zealand has its own tradition of healing waters, of course, the most famous of which is the thermal springs and waters at Rotorua. Other places in the country home to the miraculous springs of good health included Te Aroha, Puriri, and Waiwera. Dunedin soda water manufacturers the Thomson brothers also took advantage of the country’s natural resources and sold Wai-Rongoa (healing water), “the celebrated mineral water from the famed North Taeri Springs” during the early 20th century. Christchurch apparently tried to have healing waters, but the so-called mineral waters of Heathcote turned out just to be water. Nice try, Heathcote.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and Waiwera.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and the Waiwera Hot Springs. Image: Grey River Argus 21/09/1909: 4 and New Zealand Herald 15/05/1875: 4.

Archaeologically, here in Christchurch, the use of and belief in healing waters is represented through the bottled ‘bitter waters’ and ‘seltzer waters’ imported from Europe – like the Friedrichshall bottle – that survive in the archaeological record. To date, interestingly, all of the examples we’ve found have been German or Hungarian. We’ve mentioned the Nassau selter water bottles before on the blog, stoneware bottles that contained the waters of the Ober and Nieder Selters of Nassau, a Duchy (prior to 1866) and town in Imperial Prussia (after annexation in 1866). As well as these, and the aforementioned Friedrichshall bottle, we’ve also found examples of Hunyadi Janos, a Hungarian export which contained the waters of a spring in Ofen and was advertised as a medicinal remedy. Interestingly, both the Friedrichshall and Hunyadi products are referred to as ‘bitter waters’, marketed primarily as relief for constipation, obstruction of the bowels and congestions. Even more interestingly, Friedrichshall bitter waters also claimed that by “banishing lassitude and melancholy, [it] renders occupation a pleasure instead of labour”, while Hunyadi Janos was apparently “especially efficacious” in the treatment of obesity. So, you know, good to know.

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Images:

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Neither of these were supposed to taste very good, although I did find one advertisement that described the taste of bitter waters as “peculiarly pleasant”, which sounds like advertising speak if I ever heard it. Images: J. Garland (top left) Underground Overground (top right) and New Zealand Herald 2/11/1906: 2.

As a side note, searching for ‘bitter waters’ in old newspapers certainly brought home the melodrama of the 19th century. In addition to the actual products I was searching for, the phrase seems to have been something of a favourite among Victorian writers. Just a few of the examples I found included the bitter waters of sectarian intolerance, adversity, defeat, controversy, science (the bitter waters of science! Oh, science), national humiliation, penury, existence (existentialism was alive and well in the 1800s, apparently), class prejudices, tyranny and “the bitter waters of the cup of sorrow”, which seems excessively depressing.

Anyway, moving on. Back to the bitter waters of health. There’s two main things I find interesting about these Victorian healing waters. One is that, unlike so many of the other ‘medicinal’ remedies we’ve talked about here on the blog, the alleged health benefits of these mineral waters were not – and are not – wholly unfounded. They’re unlikely to have immediately cured rheumatism or leprosy through bathing (although there may have been other benefits, like the invigoration of muscles in warm water, relaxation etc.), but the ingestion of mineral waters may in fact have had some merit. I can’t speak for the specifics – presumably, mineral water didn’t really cure obesity or ‘render occupation a pleasure’ all by itself – but it’s fairly well established that certain minerals are an important part of human health and nutrition. Certainly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t just quacks advocating for their use (I’m not a health professional and am leery of saying anything wrong here, can you tell?).

The second thing is the apparent scepticism with which these claims of healing waters were treated which, again, runs contrary to so many of the weird and wonderful products we’ve talked about here before. There’s numerous instances of waters being tested to determine the levels of minerals present and compared to various sources around the world. If they didn’t contain the acceptable levels of minerals, they were publicly outed as ‘just water’ (Heathcote, definitely looking at you). It’s telling that the truly reputable mineral waters of the 19th century are all derived from springs and wells in areas where the geological characteristics of the surrounding land have made possible the absorption of minerals and salts into the very waters of the earth, so to speak. Like little old geothermal New Zealand or Hungary and Germany, apparently, if we’re looking just at Christchurch’s archaeological record.

It's not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image:

It’s not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image: Patea Mail 21/04/1881: 4.

There’s so many things about this whole notion of healing waters that is fascinating to me and I can’t quite articulate all of them (I guess I still haven’t really surfaced from that well I mentioned at the beginning). Not just the physical properties of the waters themselves, but the things they tell us about our view of ‘health’ – I’m thinking here about emphasis placed on characteristics like ‘purity’ and descriptors like ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ ‘cool’ and ‘clean’ – and the ways that view of health has changed and endured over the centuries. Even here and now, we might scoff at the notion of ‘healing waters’, and I imagine very few of you would go and buy a bottle of mineral water to stave off constipation, but water is still intrinsically associated with health and some waters are still considered better – healthier – than others. New Zealand spring water, for example, is marketed in part through its connection to the idea of this country as clean, green, pure and natural: in other words, healthy. In that regard, at least, we’re just following in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Jessie Garland

The fascist punishment: a foul taste used for foul purposes

It’s made from plant seeds named for their resemblance to a tick and has been known through history as the ‘golden nectar of nausea’ and the ‘fascist punishment’, among other things. When combined with chlorine, it forms a “a substance of horny character” (immature as I am, I may have laughed at that) and its taste has been commonly described as repulsive. We find the distinctive cobalt blue bottles it used to come in on 19th and early 20th century sites throughout Christchurch, where it was used to traumatise young children in the name of good health for decades.

Got it yet?

I am, of course, talking about castor oil, the scourge of the bowels (apparently), lubricator of flying machines and converter of communists (I’ll explain later, it’s kind of awful). Castor oil, which comes from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century, and was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries for a plethora of things, some of them more dubious than others.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. Image: J. Garland.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. As well as a laxative and purgative, castor oil was used to prevent flies from landing around children’s eyes, as a way of preventing gun powder from getting wet, as a perfume base and a beauty product (with the slogan ‘Feed your face with castor oil!) and as a lubricant for early flying machines. it was surprisingly versatile. Image: J. Garland.

Primarily, it was used for personal health care, mostly advertised as a laxative and/or purgative for cases of constipation and diarrhoea, over eating or general digestive problems. One specific account describes it as “a medicament for putting the internal economy in order after bouts of overeating,” which is just the most delightful turn of phrase. It was often given to young babies, especially earlier in the 19th century, although this was later discouraged as an unnecessary and occasionally dangerous thing to do (there are several accounts of babies or young children dying as a result of the wrongful administration of castor oil, usually due to reactions with other substances). It wasn’t particularly dangerous for adults, unless there were other health complications, although there were some cases of people dying after mistaking acid or caustic disinfectants like Lysol for castor oil (yikes).

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

A very very high number of the articles and advertisements for castor oil were concerned with the taste. Some described it as repulsive, some as sickening. One writer even used the phrase “the smooth, mucilaginous, euphorbiaceous, nauseous castor oil” which manages to both be technically accurate (translated as ‘sticky nausea inducing oil from the Euphorbiaciae taxa of plants’) and convey an almost onomatopoeic sense of revulsion. Needless to say, there are numerous recommendations on how to disguise the taste, both for yourself and any unsuspecting victims (usually children) you might have.

Among the recommended ways of hiding the taste of castor oil are: mixing it with scrambled eggs; ‘floating’ it on milk; putting it in lemonade; orange juice or other citrus flavours; hiding it in candy (this seems particularly cruel); and mixing it with cocoa to form ‘castor oil chocolate’ (which sounds awful, to be honest). The chocolate is particularly interesting, thanks to one account of a court case in Christchurch in which a local chemist was prosecuted for selling a product labelled castor oil chocolate that actually contained mostly phenolpthalen, a weak acid also used as a laxative. So, yeah, laxative chocolates. Who knew. Also still a thing, apparently.

Castor oil taste

Top: Even Tom hated the taste of castor oil. Image: Tom and Jerry Cartoon “Baby Puss” 1943. Bottom: 1928 joke about disguising the taste of castor oil. Image: Evening Post 23/03/1924: 21.

Apparently, a lot of these methods didn’t actually do a whole lot to disguise the taste of the oil. Neither did the ‘tasteless’ castor oils advertised actually manage to do what they claimed. Castor oil continued to taste bad enough that the taking of it was considered a punishment, especially by children. In fact, it was administered as a punishment, and this is where it gets interesting. And political. And a bit sinister. Because castor oil wasn’t just given as a punishment to school children (which is bad enough, when you think about the laxative properties…) but, particularly during the 20th century, was also forcibly given or used as a threat against adults – specifically and most commonly by fascists.

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in methods by which to punish school children. Image: Auckland Star 7/06/1884: 4.

The first mention I found of this was a notice in the newspaper stating that several men had been imprisoned for “administering castor oil to communists,” which seemed a bit weird but kind of funny. Then I read some more and, yeah, not so funny. Castor oil was used by the Fascisti in 1920s and 1930s Italy to punish dissenters, subversives and enemies of fascism, basically by holding them down and forcing them to suffer from uncontrollable diarrhoea that could last for days. It served the purpose of exerting control over individuals, humiliating them and immobilising them, or at least restricting their movement (Strange History 2014). “Castor oil cudgels” became so synonymous with Mussolini and the Italian fascists that George Bernard Shaw had to write a defense of fascism in 1937 to explicitly state that the success of the ideology wasn’t just due to the use of castor oil.

In which a fascist Pinnochio forces

In which a fascist Pinocchio forces castor oil down the throat of a communist. Image via Overland Journal.

The use of castor oil in this way was adopted by other extremist political groups during the first half of the 20th century. The Nazis used it as a threat against newspaper editors who might consider attacking them in print; royalists in France used it in combination with tar to attack anti-royalist deputies; fascists in England used in an assault on a journalist; secret police in Cuba allegedly forced newspaper staff to drink it at gunpoint in 1934 to “forestall revolutionary outbreak” and it was used by the rebels in Spain in the late 1930s. It was, as it turns out, an exceedingly common tool of political punishment.

nazis and castor oil

In which the Nazis use castor oil to threaten the freedom of the press. Image: Auckland Star 5/11/1930: 7.

You can actually sort of see the beginnings of the use of castor oil in this way during the earlier 19th century: although not explicitly used as it was in the 20th century, it’s mentioned occasionally as a kind of social purgative, playing on the perceived purgative and laxative qualities of the product and applying them to society or sub-sets of society in general. One account talks about administering castor oil to the entire Department of Public Works, another of using it to “sweep away the all highly paid noodles and useless sinecurists” in the Railway Department. Another example attempted to solve the drunk ‘problem’ in America by offering drunkards a choice of castor oil or gaol (which kind of seems like a non-choice to me, but I guess not). The same principle was applied in Italy again during the 1920s, where it was less of a choice and more of a ‘if we catch you drunk, we will forcibly feed you castor oil to sober you up, totally for the good of society.’

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image:

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image: Press 1/12/1936: 11.

Now, there’s no evidence to suggest that the castor oil bottles we find in Christchurch were used for anything outside their health or mechanical-related functions, but it does make you think about a whole field of things our archaeological experience doesn’t usually touch on. I spent a while wondering if the use of castor oil as a political punishment was equivalent to the New Zealand trend of throwing random things at politicians, but I don’t think it is. It’s far more insidious than that, far too related to those characteristics of ‘purging’ – and not just because of the association with fascism and the abuses of Mussolini and Hitler. It’s the subversion of a household product – of the function of a household product – into a tool for social oppression and control. Proof that anything can become an instrument of torture (not to put too fine a word on it) if you add enough violence and a dash of radical ideology. It’s been over half a century since this particular form of that was popular, but don’t tell me that the thought’s not still a bit terrifying.

(I tried to think of a way to end this on a lighter note and get us back to the chocolate flavoured drugs and ‘substance of horny character’, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sorry. Blame fascism.)

Jessie Garland.

References:

Strange History, 2014. Mussolini’s Secret Weapon: Castor Oil. In Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. [online] Available at: www.strangehistory.net. 

Tiso, G., 2014. Making real a fascist puppet. In Overland. [online] Available at: www.overland.org.au.