The Big House in a little town

The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the challenges faced by any new colony is what to do with the non-conformists, renegades, and criminals. The ideal, of course, is that your new paradise will be carefully designed to have eliminated these undesirable elements. The reality, however, is far from the ideal. The first lock-up in the Canterbury (consisting of three blockhouses) was located in Akaroa, a significant distance away from the growing towns of Christchurch and Lyttelton (Gee 1975: 5). These blockhouses appear to have been used until John Godley arrived on the scene in April 1850 and was appointed as the resident magistrate of Lyttelton (Gee 1875: 7). With his appointment, the location of the lock-ups/gaols moved to the fledgling port-town instead. The earliest gaols in Lyttelton were improvised and, for some enterprising fellows, rather portable. One particularly slapstick story of a runaway gaol involves some opportunistic pranking by the future gaol warden, Edward Seagar:

One night the prisoners in the lock-up, a flimsy, A-frame construction, took up the floor boards, lifted the building and walked away with it. Seagar arranged ropes and stakes in such a way that the escapees unknowingly headed towards the police station further down the hill (Young 2014).

The landing of passengers from the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy, and Sir George Seymour in Lyttelton c. 1850. Plenty of open space for pranks. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The landing of passengers from the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy, and Sir George Seymour in Lyttelton c. 1850. Plenty of open space for pranks. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The first permanent gaol buildings in the settlement were constructed between 1851 and c.1857-1861 on Oxford Street, using both hired and prison labour (Gee 1975: 8, 10). Later buildings followed the design of B. W. Mountfort, who also designed the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum (Heritage New Zealand 2016). The decision to construct a gaol in a small town like Lyttelton may seem odd to us today, but the reasoning was fairly straightforward. Lyttelton was the bigger town at the time and the new buildings replaced the earlier makeshift prisons near the contemporary police station and court (Gee 1975: 10).

The Lyttelton Gaol, date unknown. Image: Cyclopedia Company Limited 1903. A later image of the gaol c. 1900 can be viewed here.

The Lyttelton Gaol, date unknown. Image: Cyclopedia Company Limited 1903. A later image of the gaol c. 1900 can be viewed here.

Early conditions in this gaol, according to some commentators, had something of a Dickensian feel:

The early days were those of the cat [of nine tails whip] and the triangle, of the 70lb dragging irons, the days of scanty clothing, poor food, the days when the warder was king (Gee 1975: 2).

Others have argued that, in light of the standards at the time, the treatment of the prisoners was not quite as cruel as it may seem to us today (Gee 1975: 10). Conditions were hampered by one major issue which arose in this early period – the swelling gaol population. This population growth was exacerbated by the incarceration of debtors and the mentally ill. The housing of the mentally ill at the gaol was particularly concerning to many (Young 2014). The young townships of Lyttelton and Christchurch simply did not have the facilities to deal with these patients at the time. To their credit, it was intended that the patients be housed in the new Christchurch Hospital, until there was a furore in response to this plan (Gee 1975: 35). The population pressures eased with the construction of Sunnyside Asylum in 1863, and the opening of the prison in Addington in the 1870s (Gee 1975: 30, 87).

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

Part of the Addington Prison complex, c. 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons. The prison is now a backpackers.

Part of the Addington Prison complex, c. 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons. The prison is now a backpackers.

The position of the gaol within town life is quite interesting. As illustrated in the image above, the large Gothic style buildings were quite a dominating feature of the town. In addition to this, the prisoners were involved with a number of town works (discussed further below) and services which ensured a high public presence (Heritage New Zealand 2016). These services included a printing shop, a laundrette for the Lyttelton Hospital and Orphanage and the Immigration Department, and a baking contract for the orphanage (Gee 1975: 17). However, one comment from a resident regarding the communities’ view of the gaol (made after the demolition of the gaol in the 1920s) is particularly telling:

We never thought about the gaol.  We just knew it was there and that was it. But many people couldn’t have been pleased about it because there are few photographs of it and no paintings as far as I have found (C. Fletcher in Gee 1975: 87).

A rather macabre aspect of the prison, which feels particularly repugnant to us today, is that between 1868 and 1918 seven men convicted of murder were executed at the gaol. This was an aspect of the gaol that was a source of curiosity for some of the younger residents, but of dread for most. One resident stated: “In a little place like Lyttelton the knowledge of an impending execution used to hang like a pall over the whole town” (I. Gray in Gee 1975: 47). It is quite a stretch for me to imagine a community continuing with their daily lives in the anticipation of such an event. Executions appear to have been so entrenched in the town’s psyche that despite the fact that the bell did not toll for the last execution in 1918, many residents insist they remember it ringing (Gee 1975: 47).

A poem by Basil Dowling. The role of the hangman was a necessary part of the justice system, which carried a heavy stigma for the men who did the job. There are a number of cases where officers had to smuggle the hangman in to avoid the curiosity and/or anger of the general public.

A poem by Basil Dowling. The role of the hangman was a necessary part of the justice system, but carried a heavy stigma for the men who did the job. There are a number of cases where officers had to smuggle the hangman in on the eve of the execution to avoid the curiosity and/or anger of the general public.

The archaeological legacy of the prison and prisoners remain visible in many aspects of the town today. All that remains of the gaol itself are concrete retaining walls, a small block of cells, pedestrian pathways and concrete steps. These remains are an important archaeological site, particularly as they are demonstrative of some of the earliest use of concrete in New Zealand (Heritage New Zealand 2016).

The remaining cells and concrete walls of the prison. Image: A. Bulovic, 2013 Peeling Back History.

The remaining cells and concrete walls of the prison. Image: A. Bulovic, 2013 Peeling Back History.

However, we can also see the influence of the gaol on the Lyttelton settlement through other features of the town. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour were part of gangs put to work on public works, such as road formation and retaining wall construction. In particular, the red volcanic retaining walls constructed during this period have been described as a distinctive part of the townscape. Unfortunately, as with much of Lyttelton’s heritage, a number of these walls have been repaired or replaced after the damage from the earthquakes.

Earthquake damaged walls at the corner of Coleridge Terrace and Dublin Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2015.

Earthquake damaged walls at the corner of Coleridge Terrace and Dublin Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2015.

 The newly constructed concrete wall on Sumner Road, with partial re-facing using the volcanic stone from the demolished wall. The re-facing will occur on as many of the key retaining walls across the town, as funding allows. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The newly constructed concrete wall on Sumner Road, with partial re-facing using the volcanic stone from the demolished wall. The re-facing will occur on as many of the key retaining walls across the town as funding allows. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

A collapsed wall at 61 St Davids Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

A collapsed wall at 61 St Davids Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The same wall after deconstruction and reconstruction work (all completed by hand). Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The same wall after deconstruction and reconstruction work (all completed by hand). Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The port also benefited from convict labour in the form of reclamation construction and wharf building (Gee 1975: 17). Another notable site of works is the fortifications at Ripapa Island, which were constructed in the 1860s and 1870s by the Hard Labour Gang and were even used to house some prisoners (Gee 1975: 22). Prisoners housed on the island reportedly included members of the Parihaka resistance movement in Taranaki in 1880s (Donna R 2014). These men are remembered today during a service on the 5th of November each year and a memorial at Rapaki (Lyttelton Community House Trust 2013).

In many ways, the Lyttelton Gaol was a product of its time; the morality of Victorian Britain, the realities of a new colonial land and the challenges of a growing society. However, the legacy of the gaol should not be limited to a grim spectre of past principles. Prisoners made a considerable contribution to the development of the town through the construction of infrastructure. Despite the recent changes to the townscape, the influence of the gaol remains a visible part of Lyttelton’s heritage.

Megan Hickey


Gee, D. 1975. The Devil’s Own Brigade: A History of the Lyttelton Gaol 1860-1920. Wellington: Millwood Press Ltd.

The heady nature of pseudo-science

One of the most interesting things about being an archaeologist or a historian is seeing the development of ideas and knowledge throughout the ages. We are reminded, time and time again, that the ideas and theories that we consider primitive or even ridiculous in hindsight were the cutting edge of scientific enquiry or social theory at the time. It follows that at least some of the things we consider to be cutting edge here and now will be primitive or ridiculous to our children and grandchildren in the decades to come.


Comparative physiognomy. One of the more, uh, interesting theories humans have come up with. Image: J. Redfield 1852, Public Domain Review.

At the same time, it is easy to see the foundations of our current knowledge base and thinking in those same primitive or ridiculous ideas. Every theory or discovery that was later proven to be wrong or misapplied was still, in fact, part of a conversation – a social, philosophical and scientific discourse – that came to inform our understanding of the world in the present day. They either provided the building blocks for the development of an idea (the four humours of the body to miasma theory to germ theory, for example); a point of contention which forced the development of a more accurate theory; or used approaches and ideas that later proved to be useful, even if they were misapplied at the time. From geocentrism, the four elements of all matter (earth, fire, wind, water…heart! Oh wait…) and Copernican astronomy to the miraculous cough curing properties of heroin, our history is littered with theories and ideas that were wrong, but without which our current knowledge base would not be what it is.

One such subject – and the thing that got me thinking about this in the first place – is the now much maligned science of phrenology, a subject brought to our attention a while back by the discovery of a crumpled up poster inside the walls of a 19th century house in Christchurch. The poster depicted the head of a man in profile, with the skull divided into a quilt of small images, numbered and labelled with various character traits, including sublimity (“conception of the grand, awful and endless”), mirthfulness (“wit”), causality (“desire to know the why and wherefore of things”) and alimentiveness (“appetite”). Above this arresting image, a headline read “Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar.”

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace. Image: J. Garland.

The Phrenological Head of Charles Peace, The Burglar, 1879. Image: J. Garland.

As it turns out, Charles Peace was quite the well-known figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes’ master of disguise and Catwoman (this is not at all an accurate description, but it amuses me). His fame – or infamy – was on par with what we now attribute to Jack the Ripper or Bonnie and Clyde and his story has all the elements of a great melodrama (which, indeed, it became later on). A cat burglar with a limp who “could scale a wall like a fly”, the “man with many faces”, a master of disguise who “could change his face in a moment”, the “prince of housebreakers”, betrayed by his mistress after a daring near-escape from the police, having evaded the police as a wanted man for years. It’s a blockbuster in the making. Probably starring Peter Sellers (or the current equivalent – Steve Carrell?).

Peace was a Sheffield-born criminal executed in 1879 for two murders and a long, long list of burglaries committed during his adult life. Having plied his thieving trade in Sheffield and its environs during the 1860s and 1870s, he shot the husband of a couple that he had befriended and fled to Peckham, London. There, he continued to rob the houses of the wealthy, while living under a pseudonym (and under the very noses of Scotland Yard). He was arrested in 1878 after an altercation with police during a robbery, and eventually hanged (Auckland Star 14/05/1932: 3).

charles peace joke

Image: Cromwell Argus 20/05/1918: 7.

Contemporary and later newspapers described him as the “cleverest burglar that ever lived”, a figure so famous that “even Dick Turpin could not hold a candle to him” (Alexandra Herald and Central Otago Gazette 4/12/1929:1). He became the subject of waxworks, of crime fiction, a stage play (which outraged society by depicting his hanging on stage, carried out by an actual retired executioner) and increasingly outrageous and dramatised depictions and characterisations in popular culture. One 1930s newspaper, for example, said of him “Peace is shown as he was, a dwarf of phenomenal strength, a colossal braggart, repulsive in mind and body and a perfect burglar.” Another went even further and called him “almost a monkey of a man…an unrestrained savage.” More interestingly, from the perspective of our phrenological head, is an article that equates his prominent ears and “head of enormous size”, with his criminal proclivities.


“Peace’s greatest asset…was an immense lower jaw which he could manipulate at will.” Image: Dunstan Times 14/03/1927: 7.

And this is the thing. It is no wonder that, notorious as he was, Charles Peace became the subject of phrenological investigation. The science of phrenology, particularly in its heyday, was often associated with criminals and criminal behaviours, used in an attempt to make sense of why certain people did such unreasonable things – and perhaps, to impose an order on a world that didn’t always seem to make a whole lot of sense.

The ‘science’ was first ‘discovered’ in the late 18th century, by Franz Joseph Gall, a German neuroanatomist and physiologist. It was based on the premise that the various personality traits of a person corresponded to different parts of their brains, the size and shape of which could be ‘read’ in the bumps and indents of their skull. While ultimately discredited, Gall’s theories influenced the development of neurological science as we know it today, particularly when it comes to different parts of the brain being used for different functions (not a neuroscientist – am hoping I’ve paraphrased this correctly!).

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A description of the science of phrenology, as told in a lecture in 1865. Image: North Otago Times 20/07/1865: 3.

(On a side note, I had great plans to apply the phrenological model to our office full of archaeologists in an attempt to determine the most criminal amongst us. However, as it turns out, practicing the science of phrenology involves feeling for the bumps and cavities of a person’s skull with your palms and fingertips, which seemed like it would cross a boundary from which there is no going back. We’re all friends here, but there’s a line, right?)


The various phrenological organs and how to find them. A full how-to of phrenology is available here, if you feel like trying it out on yourself/someone whose scalp you’re comfortable exploring. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Phrenology was most popular during the mid-19th century, but continued to be given credence by a small fringe of society through into the early 20th century. During the height of its popularity in various parts of the world, it was applied to criminal proceedings – both to understand the criminal defendant and to be assured of the character of the jurors, recommended to ladies as a subject of study that would ensure happiness in marriage and suggested as a way to “determine what should be restrained, what cultivated and the pursuit of in life best adapted” in children. One account even has it used to determine which of a lady’s suitors she ought to marry. It was also, in its most infamous applications, used to reinforce racial stereotypes, equating negative cultural and behavioural traits with physical – and racial – appearance. Essentially reducing human people, cultures and personalities to bumps on a skull.


This one cracks me up. Image: Vaught’s Practical Character Reader (1902).

In New Zealand, phrenology makes an appearance here and there throughout the 19th century, with varying degrees of sincerity and skepticism. French naturalist and phrenologist, Pierre-Marie Dumoutier, for example, took four casts of Māori heads during his travels with Durmont d’Urville around the country in 1840, adding them to a collection of phrenological busts of indigenous peoples that he later displayed in Paris (photographic portraits of two of those busts, of rangatira Takatahara and Piuraki, are currently on display in the Christchurch Art Gallery). Several phrenological professors and consultants were active throughout the country, including in Christchurch, throughout the latter half of the century (sometimes these consultants also offered palmistry readings and séances, for what it’s worth). Demonstrations using “a large collection of the sculls of murderers, bushrangers, Maoris and notorious and eminent characters” were incredibly popular. And phrenological assessments of criminals and famous figures continued to turn up in popular culture well into the early 20th century.


An 1891 phrenological chart of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand. Image: Auckland Libraries.

At the same time, in the 1840s and 1850s, jokes about the empty skulls of those who believed in phrenology and long arguments over the merits of the ‘science’ were being published in New Zealand newspapers. The lectures of a vocal and eminent phrenologist, Mr A. S. Hamilton, were treated and reviewed with a healthy degree of skepticism (and an appreciation for the appeal of spectacle) in the 1860s. In the 1870s, demonstrations of phrenology also included lectures on mesmerism, palmistry and electrical psychology. By the 1890s and early 1900s – both in New Zealand and throughout the rest of the world – it seems to have been more of a novelty than a science.


Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 31/03/1843: 3.

There’s this great argument printed in the letters to the editor of the Colonist in the 1850s about the merits of phrenology as a science that really brings home the weird juxtaposition of ideas that it encapsulated in the subject. Because the arguments made in favour of it ring just as true to a modern scientific mind as those made against.

For example: “Phrenology depends neither on speculation nor on theory…it is essentially the science of observation, like chemistry and botany. It was discovered by observing facts, was perfected by comparison and induction, and every man with sufficient capacity may with his own eyes, test and verify its truth.” – Colonist 9/02/1858: 3.

It’s just that as far as the application of phrenology went, those arguments simply weren’t true. Rather than being a ‘science of observation, like chemistry and botany’, it was actually a system of flawed assumptions and correlations, used to perpetuate a very narrow perspective of character and personality that failed to account for the effects of experience, cultural background, social upbringing and any of the other myriad factors that make a person who they are. Whoops, got a bit ranty there.

Enough said. Image:

Enough said. Image: Colonist 29/01/1858: 3.

The truth is, as an anthropologist and an archaeologist, phrenology both intrigues and terrifies me. Intrigues, because it is ultimately about understanding people, about trying to understand why and how people work. Because the analytical approach that it incorporates also forms the foundation of much of what I do as an artefact analyst, what so many analysts and scientists do (even little social scientists like us). But terrifies, because it is also so narrow, so rigid, so structural that it fails to employ the holistic approach necessary to truly understand a person – or, in our case, a culture or society. It sees correlation as cause, takes something – character – that is the result of a myriad of factors and experiences and distills it down to a series of boxes to check.

But it is, ultimately, part of that progression of ideas and knowledge that I talked about at the beginning of the post (remember that, doesn’t that seem like ages ago?). Call it a pathway, a tree, a foundation, whichever analogy or metaphor suits – however much of a misstep it was (and it really, really was), phrenology had its part to play in this ongoing human struggle to – and, ironically, I believe the definition of phrenological causality sums it up best – “understand the why and wherefore of things.”

Jessie Garland

References and Acknowledgements

Jeremy Habberfield-Short, for excavating and sharing his excellent discoveries.

Anecdotes from the appraisalists

Call us appraisalists, historical researchers, or even cyber archaeologists. Most of our day consists of using a wide variety of historical material to pull together the histories of sites around Canterbury (and to make sure those archaeologists in the field are digging in the right spot). It is only a matter of time in the course of our research before we come across some unusual and quirky stories in Christchurch’s history. Some of these stories from the early times of Christchurch stay with us, and we are often heard exclaiming about some exploit of the early colonists in our office.

So today we thought we would share a couple of the not so successful exploits of the early settlers of Christchurch. We enjoyed the research and hope to post more of these stories later in the year (on a lighter note maybe?)

A poor remittance – the life and times of Horatio Parkes
Horatio John Parkes was the cousin of British diplomat based in China, Sir Henry (Harry) Parkes. Horatio was a ‘remittance man’ (Christchurch City Libraries 2016: 7–8). Those who were identified as receivers of a remittance were often immigrants to British colonies financially supported by family back home. Reasons for this support varied from those wishing to seek their fortune, establishing a base for family to follow, or safety from personal tribulations such as legal or family troubles. In Horatio’s case we think the latter applies as he was shipped out on one of the four first ships, the ‘Sir George Seymour’, in 1850. Horatio was supported by his cousin, and lived on a section purchased for him in Christchurch called the ‘Grange’. Part of this section would eventually be sold to the government for the ‘Roimata Settlement’ which now forms part of Woolston today (Christchurch City Libraries 2016: 7–8).

Horatio is first mentioned in the local papers in 1853 for escaping with his life in the swollen Selwyn River in 1853. Sadly, however, is also noted that the very expensive horse and dray that he was borrowing were swept away (Lyttelton Times 7/5/1853:6). Over the course of the next thirty years Horatio would appear in the local magistrate’s courts for drunkenness, a tussle in a pub, unlicensed dogs, and even supported a friend in court when his ducks were unlawfully shot (Lyttelton Times 25/2/1860:4; Star 27/1/1886:3; Press 29/7/1889:3).

It seems that for all intents and purposes Horatio was a good guy who, unlike some remittance men, wanted to live a simple quiet life. Unfortunately for him, his run of bad luck (and possibly bad decision making) all came to a head in 1897 with a tragic death and an arrest for murder!

‘The Woolston Homicide’ took place in January 1897. Michael (or Patrick, newspapers were conflicting in the name) Ryan had been released from gaol months prior with nowhere to stay. As the story goes, Horatio allowed Ryan to stay a couple of nights, but it seems that Ryan outstayed his welcome. It is noted in one newspaper that Ryan used to arrive home drunk and abusive. On the night in question, Ryan assaulted Horatio with an axe. Horatio then managed to wrangle the axe from Ryan and responded with two blows of the axe, killing Ryan. Horatio maintained it was self-defence and at the age of 71 was charged for murder and, later, manslaughter (Waikato Argus 23/1/1897:2; Star 22/1/1897:3; Timaru Herald 25/1/1897:3). The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide and the Grand Jury at the Supreme Court threw out the bill against him. Horatio died 25 June 1898, aged 73, and is buried in the Woolston cemetery (New Zealand, Cemetery Records [Woolston] 1898Star 27/6/1898:1). Not much was recorded after this incident, apart from the Public Trust and the settlement of his estate in 1898 (Press 16/7/1898:10).

So, just remember that tucked away somewhere in the suburb of Woolston is the site of an unfortunate murder of circumstance. It could be said that bad luck followed Horatio Parkes to the ends of earth, or maybe just the outer reaches of the British colonies.

Waikato Argus 23-1-1897 pg2

Figure 1. Waikato Argus 23/1/1897:2

The severed hand – a mysterious case
On 16 December 1885, the Godfrey brothers, Elisha and Frederick, discovered a severed hand whilst fishing at Taylors Mistake (Star 17/12/1885: 3). This discovery precipitated one of the most widely reported and sensationalised criminal cases in 19th century New Zealand. Inquest into the severed left hand began the following day, and the gold strap and buckle ring found upon one of the fingers identified the owner as Arthur Robert Howard (Press 18/12/1885).

It was reported that on 10 October 1885 Howard had gone for a swim at the Sumner beach and had drowned. His clothes were found neatly folded on the beach the following day (Evening Post 19/12/1885: 2). His wife, Mrs Sarah Howard, soon sought to make an insurance claim. However, the insurance companies were suspicious of a mechanic who earned £150 per annum but whose life was insured for £2,400. They refused to pay without proof of his death. Mrs Howard quickly advertised a £50 reward for the retrieval of his body (Figure 2).

$50 Reward

Figure 2. Star 13/10/1885: 2

Little was heard of the case again until two months later when the severed hand was discovered. The Sumner area was relentlessly searched for Howard’s body, all to no avail (Star 19/12/1885: 3). The police were soon suspicious of the convenient discovery of the hand. To begin with, the hand showed little of the signs of decomposition which would be expected for a hand floating in the ocean for nearly two months. When medical experts were brought in to examine the limb, little consensus could be met as to the cause of the hand’s severance. Some believed the hand showed signs of being severed by a shark, while others noted blows which looked to be created by a sharp instrument. Other examiners even questioned the sex of the hand, believing it to look quite feminine (Press 22/12/1885: 3). The gold ring found on one of the fingers had the letters “A. H.” engraved on the inside, further identifying Arthur Howard as its owner. However, when jewelers examined the ring, they noted that the rough burrs around the engraving indicated it was done within the last fortnight and, while done with a sharp instrument, it was not made with an engravers tool (Press 23/12/1885: 3). On 21 December Elisha and Frederick were arrested for conspiracy to defraud the insurance companies (Star 21/12/1885: 2). Mrs Howard’s arrest soon followed (West Coast Times 23/12/1885: 3).

The case was further sensationalised when the supposedly dead Mr Howard was arrested in Petone, just outside of Wellington on 4 January, 1886 (Press 5/1/1886: 3). Mr Howard’s story was soon uncovered. Following the faking of his own death in October 1885, Howard had removed to Waitapi in the Wairarapa district, where he worked on the Cameron’s station under the pseudonym of “Watts”. In December he moved to Wellington, where he donned a dark wig and mustache and went by the name of “John Watson” (Press 6/1/1886: 3). Howard also wore a black glove on his right hand, with gutta percha stuffed in the inside of the thumb to disguise the missing appendage he lost while fighting in Mexico (New Zealand Herald 8/1/1886: 5; Press 15/1/1886: 3). When Mr Howard was arrested his trunk was searched and a secret drawer containing a plethora of wigs and pigments to assist in forming disguises was found (Star 8/1/1886: 4).

On April 8, 1886, Mr and Mrs Howard, along with the Godley brothers, appeared before the supreme court in Christchurch. Arthur Howard was convicted of attempting insurance fraud. He received the maximum penalty of two years in jail. Mrs Howard and the Godleys, however, were acquitted (Press 8/04/1886: 2). Despite a number of graves being exhumed in in the Christchurch, Wairarapa and Wellington area, no handless body was found (Southland Times 22/1/1886: 2). The owner of the hand that was found on the beach remains unidentified to this day.

The story of the severed hand created a sensation throughout New Zealand. Companies jumped on the band wagon of the media hype and used the case as a means of advertising their products (Figure 3). People even complained that unless an article was headed “Severed Hand” no one would even read it (Star 18/1/1886: 3). Even before the case reached the supreme court, advertisements for a copy of “The Severed Hand: A full account of the Howard Mystery” appeared in the Star, complete with illustrations of all the conspirators (Star 29/1/1886: 2). This tale continues to intrigue readers today, with many readers still wondering whose hand it was…

point the finger

Figure 3. Star 21/1/1886: 2

Lydia Mearns and Annthalina Gibson


Ancestry, 2006-2016. [online] Available at  

Christchurch City Libraries, 2016. Christchurch Street and Place Names. [online] Available at

Papers Past. [online] Available at

Black deeds in Draper Street

Today, through the wonders of archaeology and Papers Past, we bring you the story of Charles Henry Cox, a man whose crime has been buried – literally – for over 100 years. But let’s not get too carried away. As crimes go, it wasn’t such a serious one. And probably largely victimless, as it doesn’t seem to have been terribly successful.

Before we found Cox’s little rubbish pit, we didn’t have a sense of who he was or what he was like. He wasn’t like some of the other men we’ve featured here, who were frequently written about in the paper and were probably quite well known about town. But he was someone who – like so many of us – wanted to get ahead, financially and/or socially. This was in the mid-1880s, so he may have lost his job in the depression that was affecting so much of the country at the time, and it may have been this that forced him to turn to crime. Or maybe he just thought he’d hit upon a cunning get-rich-quick scheme.

Cox wasn’t that badly off in the first place, though. He had sufficient money to buy himself and his family a block of land (where we found the incriminating evidence) in Richmond in 1885 and he took out a mortgage against it that same year, possibly to build a house on the land (LINZ 1885).

Now, here’s where it gets a bit confusing, so pay close attention.

The section Charles bought in 1885 was on a street known by a variety of names until the 1940s, when it became Harvey Terrace. It was known as Salisbury Street and Windsor Terrace and possibly – just possibly – as Draper Street (CCL 2013: 39; LINZ 1885). The possibility that it was known as Draper Street is important, because newspaper advertisements tell us that Cox lived on Draper Street (e.g. Star 29/1/1886: 2, Star 23/1/1896: 3). Even if Cox didn’t live on the section he bought in 1885, Draper Street was literally just around the corner and the archaeology tells us that he was definitely using the section on what is now Harvey Terrace. He owned this section until at least 1911 and newspapers place him and his wife – who was constantly advertising for servants (e.g. Star 29/1/1886: 2Star 23/1/1896: 3) – on Draper Street from 1885 until at least 1900.

Mrs Cox advertising for a servant, 1900 (Star 5/3/1900: 3).

Mrs Cox advertising for a servant, 1900 (Star 5/3/1900: 3).

So what did we find? Well, at first glance it was an odd but seemingly innocuous rubbish pit that contained a large number of shoe polish bottles. A minimum number of 110 artefacts were found in the pit, over half of which were shoe polish bottles. There were two types of these bottles: the standard stoneware blacking bottles and glass bottles embossed with “HAUTHAWAY’S PEERLESS GLOSS”. This was a shoe polish made by Charles Hauthaway in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, from 1852 (Hauthaway Corporation n.d.). It was advertised for sale in New Zealand from at least 1879 until at least 1894 and claimed to be “a necessity in every family” (New Zealand Herald 19/6/1879: 4, Ellesmere Guardian 22/8/1896: 1).

Two stoneware blacking bottles. Image: K. Bone.

Two stoneware blacking bottles. Image: K. Bone.

 Two Hauthaway's Peerless Gloss bottles. Image: K. Bone.

Two Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss bottles. Image: K. Bone.

At first we thought that maybe there’d been a shoe shop on the site – but there were no shoes in the rubbish pit. So then we thought, maybe it was just a general store of some sort? But the other artefacts from the feature didn’t suggest that. Then we found an advertisement for “Cox’s Pioneer Gloss”, which was being sold wholesale by the manufacturer from Draper Street from October 1886 to January 1887 (Press 30/10/1886: 1, Star 10/1/1887: 1). We didn’t find any evidence that Cox was selling anything else from Draper Street, such as other brands of shoe polish.

 Advertisement for Cox's Pioneer Gloss (Press 30/10/1886: 1).

Advertisement for Cox’s Pioneer Gloss (Press 30/10/1886: 1).

 The advertisement that Cox placed in the Star (Star 10/12/1886: 4).

The advertisement that Cox placed in the Star (Star 10/12/1886: 4).

The stash of blacking and shoe polish bottles found at the site suggests that Cox’s Pioneer Gloss was not a product that Cox had developed, but that Cox was on-selling Hauthaway’s product in a different container (such as the stoneware blacking bottles, which were not associated with any particular brand). It is also possible that Cox was blending the no-brand blacking and Hauthaway’s shoe polish to make something slightly different. Maybe Cox’s product contained other ingredients as well, but no evidence was found to suggest this. Searches to find the recipe for Cox’s patent were unsuccessful – it is quite likely that Cox never patented his product, but that this was simply an advertising ploy.

Cox’s illicit venture was not a long-lived one, which suggests that he lost money on the scheme, and certainly didn’t make the profits he’d no doubt hoped for. There’s no evidence in the historical record to suggest that he was found out. No doubt the bottles – and other artefacts – were buried early in 1887, in the hope that no would ever know. He didn’t count on archaeology though.

Katharine Watson


Christchurch City Libraries, 2013. Christchurch street names: H. [online] Available at: <>.

Ellesmere Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed April 2013].

Hauthaway Corporation, n.d. History. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 21/8/2013].

LINZ, 1885. CB79/259, Canterbury. Landonline.

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Otago Witness. [online]. Available at:

Press. [online]. Available at:

Star. [online]. Available at: