A tea cup as a symbol of political change

As a 90s baby millennial, Helen Clark was Prime Minister from the time I started primary school to the time I started high school. I grew up in a world where in the eyes of a child there was never any doubt that a woman could be Prime Minister, and that if I wanted to be Prime Minister when I grew up then I could be. For me, being a girl was never a limitation. I’m lucky that I was born in the 1990s. If I had been born in the 1890s, my opportunities, and likely my own beliefs about what I was capable of, would have been far more limited.

Nineteenth century sentiments surrounding the role of women in society seems simply outlandish today. Image: Wright 1902.

On this day, 125 years ago, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote. The success of the suffragettes was only the start of gaining equal political rights for women. It took until 1933 for the first woman to be elected as a Member of Parliament, until 1941 for women to have the right to sit on the Legislative Council and until 1997 for there to be a female Prime Minister (Ministry for Culture and Heritage 2018). Today 38 percent of our Members of Parliament are women, the highest number ever elected.

The 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage is an important marker in the campaign for women’s rights. It gives us an opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come as a society, but also to remember the women who campaigned for suffrage. One such woman was Ada Wells. Ada Wells was a prominent Christchurch suffragette, the first secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, the co-founder of the Canterbury Women’s Institute and the first woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council (Fogarty 1993). To put it simply, she was a bit of a bad-ass. Ada came to our attention as we recently excavated the property she was living at during the 1890s suffrage campaign. In celebration of the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we are dedicating this blog post to Ada Wells and will be discussing her life along with what we found of her in the archaeological record.

Ada was born as Ada Pike on the 29th of April 1863, in Shepherd’s Green, Oxfordshire, England (Fogarty 1993). When she was ten years old she travelled on Merope with her parents, three sisters and one brother, arriving in Lyttelton on the 31st October 1873. She attended Avonside School for two years before switching to Christchurch West School where she went on to work as a pupil-teacher between the ages of 14 and 18. Ada was naturally intelligent and had a great interest in languages and classics. In 1881 she was awarded a university junior scholarship and went on to complete the first stage of her BA at Canterbury College. From there she was employed briefly as an assistant teacher at Christchurch Girls High School (Fogarty 1993).

Photograph of Ada Wells taken circa 1910 by an unidentified photographer. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library .

When she was 20 years old Ada married organist Harry Wells. They went on to have three daughters and one son. Despite being a prominent Christchurch musician, Harry was a drunkard with a volatile temper and was unable to hold down a steady job (Fogarty 1993). Harry’s drinking meant Ada had to support the family, taking on teaching positions and accepting private patients for massage and healing. In the late 1880s Ada became involved with the suffragette movement. She had always held strong beliefs on women’s rights and the campaign allowed her to put those beliefs into action. Her organisational talents and passion for the cause meant she played a critical role in the success of the movement (Fogarty 1993).

Ada Wells’ signature on the 1893 Suffrage Petition.

For Ada, the 1893 suffrage campaign was only the start of a long life of campaigning. The year prior to women winning the vote she had founded the Canterbury Women’s Institute, of which she was president for many years. She became the first national secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1896, and in 1899 was elected to the Ashburton and North Canterbury United Charitable Aid Board (Fogarty 1993). She argued in favour of free kindergartens, universal access to secondary education, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, as well as the reform of local government, the charitable aid system and prisons. In 1917 she became the first woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council (Fogarty 1993).

National Council of Woman, Christchurch, 1896. Ada is the woman seated on the floor on the left. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Ada passed away in 1933, ending a life time of fighting for women’s rights. Her role in the success of suffragette movement cannot be over-stated. Philippa Fogarty (1993) says it best when she writes, “She played a pivotal role in the advancement of women and was a tireless campaigner in the fight for women’s equality and economic independence…Wells’s contribution to Christchurch, especially in the interests of women and children, was invaluable and sadly is often overlooked.”

Between 1892 and 1898, Ada and Harry Wells were living at a property on Mays Road. During our excavations at the property we uncovered three features containing artefacts which were likely deposited by the family. These features were all rubbish deposits. The assemblage was notable in that it was dominated by ceramic artefacts, many of which could be refitted.

Broseley patterned tea ware vessels. Image: C. Watson.

Asiatic Pheasants patterned table wares and serving wares. Image: C. Watson.

Top Row: Pompadour patterned plate, Bo’ness Daisy Chain patterned side plate. Bottom row: Madras patterned plate, European porcelain can, Frightened Ducklings patterned pitcher (Frightened Ducklings is an excellent pattern choice as who wouldn’t want to look at baby ducklings being attacked by giant flying insects while eating dinner). Image: C. Watson.

These ceramic artefacts were vessels connected to taking tea or eating food, with many of the tea serving vessels decorating in the Broseley pattern, and many of the dining vessels decorated in the Asiatic Pheasants and Pompadour patterns. This suggests to us that the Wells family, presumably Ada specifically, were using sets of vessels rather than mismatched pieces when serving tea or food. Having ceramic sets in fashionable patterns was just one of the many components of keeping a good house in Victorian era New Zealand. Ada was no doubt often entertaining guests at her house as part of her campaigning efforts, and likely put in special effort to portray the image she kept a good house so as not to let her critics argue that her life in politics was at the detriment of her role as a mother and wife. Whilst we can’t know for sure, the completeness of many of the vessels suggests they were thrown away intact. The 1890s was a particularly successful period for Ada, and it may be that during this time she purchased new sets, throwing away the older ones.

Harry Wells’ drinking was likely a strong motivator for Ada in her political work. Women in the nineteenth century were tied to their husbands, even if their husbands were abusive. Domestic abuse was a strong motivator for women to join reform movements, with many involved in both the temperance movement and the suffragette movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union united the causes and many suffragettes were also supporters of temperance. We found alcohol bottles in the Wells’ assemblage, suggesting that despite Ada’s efforts politically, Harry probably still consumed alcohol at home. Interestingly though, these bottles were all smaller pint sizes. It is possible that Harry was purchasing alcohol in smaller bottles, which were easier to conceal, and was only consuming alcohol at home on the sly. Alternatively, the bottles may not have held alcohol at all, and could have been reused for a completely different substance as was sometimes done in nineteenth century bottle reuse.

Alcohol bottles found at Ada and Harry Wells’ property. Image: C. Watson.

Along with all her work politically, Ada was also a mother. Ada’s role as a mother was seen in the archaeology through the presence of children’s toys. The doll’s head we found at the property was unique in that it had an additional piece of ceramic inlaid inside the head to give the appearance of teeth. The detail of the teeth would indicate that it was probably a rather lovely doll with lots of unique features. However, in its current state, with the missing eyes and sharp pointed teeth, it looks rather terrifying.

What was once likely someone’s treasured toy now resembles something out of a horror movie. Image: C. Watson.

Ada Well was a strong activist for women’s rights, and her work, along with the work of her fellow suffragettes, helped to shape society to how it is today. I think it can be quite easy to be complacent about how much society has changed in the past 125 years. So much of the Victorian material culture we deal with is instantly recognisable to us. We see artefacts like plates, bottles, tea cups, and instantly know what they are because they are objects we use every day. There is a danger to that instant recognition, as we associate the objects with how we would use them and in doing so can forget there would have been different uses for objects, and different social customs surrounding that use. It also easy to forget that people had agency and were not passively constrained to their position in society. Ada Wells and her fellow suffragettes were active agents in changing the role of women in society, using and manipulating material culture in the process of doing so. Are Ada Wells’ teacups simply vessels used to serve tea in? Or, are they symbols of political change, sipped from during meetings discussing how to change the lives of New Zealand women for the better?

Suffrage 125 reminds us that nineteenth century New Zealand was a vastly different place to modern New Zealand. The work of suffragettes such as Ada Wells helped to change the role of women in society, a role which is still changing and being re-defined today.

Clara Watson

References

Fogarty, P. 1993. ‘Wells, Ada’ in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara- the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Available: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2w11/wells-ada (accessed 19 September 2018).

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2018. Women’s Suffrage Milestones. Available: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/suffrage-milestones (accessed 19 September 2018).

New Zealand. General Assembly Library. National Council of Women, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-041798-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22694035.

Photograph of Ada Wells from Woman Today magazine. Ref: 1/2-C-016534-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22728937.

Wright, Henry Charles Clarke. 1902. Notice to epicene women. Electioneering women are requested not to call here. 12706-Alex Ferguson, Printer, Wellington. Available: http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=24361&l=en.

 

Odds and ends

A selection of the most interesting bits and pieces we’ve been working with recently here in Christchurch.

This gorgeous ceramic vessel is an 1850s-1860s chamber pot, found on a site just outside the central city. It’s decorated with the imaginatively named “Cattle Scenery” pattern, featuring, …well, cows. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

What’s known as a ‘bent’ clay smoking pipe (referring to the curve, or ‘bend’ of the stem, with the mark ‘SQUATTER’S / OWN’ impressed on the side. The other side of stem has the mark ‘SYDNEY’. Squatter’s own pipes are a little bit of a mystery – identical pipes to this one have been found on other sites here in Christchurch and in Auckland, while variations (Squatter’s Own Budgeree) have been found in several locations in Australia. The budgeree pipes are often decorated with scenes featuring Aboriginal and European figures, while the ones found in New Zealand (so far) appear to be plain. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Another beautiful ceramic vessel. This time, it’s a saucer decorated with the pattern ‘Dresden Vignette’ and made by William Smith and Co. between 1825 and 1855. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Marbles! So many marbles! Several of the sites we’ve been working on lately have had different marbles in the assemblages. We’ve got German glass swirl marbles (top row and third from the left in the second row), ‘commie’ marbles (far right of third and fourth rows), onionskin marbles (far right of second row), Bennington, or glazed ceramic marbles (second from left in third row), pipe clay marbles (second from left in fourth row), and porcelain marbles with fine banded decoration (far left in third row). Phew. Did you get all of that? Some of them have been heavily used (might have been a child’s favourite marble, who knows!), while others are in pretty good condition. I think my favourite is probably the onionskin: it’s got a great name, and the colours are fantastic. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, M. L. Bernabeu.

A serving dish or tureen lid decorated with the Wild Rose pattern, a decorative motif that depicts the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay (near Oxford, England) and was extremely popular in the 1830s-1850s period. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

This is easily the coolest thing we’ve found in a while. These stemware drinking glasses were coloured using uranium diuranate, which creates the distinctive yellow colour seen in the image to the right. But (wait for it), when you put them under a blacklight, they glow green with the light of a thousand superhero origin stories. Or alien colour schemes. Take your pick. Image: J. Garland.

It’s Friday afternoon, how about a wee tipple of gin? This fragment is from a labelled bottle of Nolet’s finest Dutch geneva. Nolet’s was established in Holland in the late 17th century by Johannes Nolet and is still in operation today. It’s the first label of its kind that we’ve found in Christchurch. Image: C. Dickson.

The ‘Grecian’ pattern, with the potter’s initials J. T. There are several different pattern variations known as ‘Grecian’ or that incorporate Greek and/or neo-classical themes into their motifs. Image: C. Dickson.

Another elaborately decorated saucer, this time displaying the Neva pattern. Confusingly for us, this is not the only 19th century ceramic pattern found under the name of ‘Neva’. This example was made by Thomas Bevington (1877 until 1891). Image: J. Garland.

How’s your reading comprehension? Up to 1870s standards? We found these pages from ‘The Royal Readers’, first published in the early 1870s, inside the walls of a schoolhouse in Governors Bay. Image: J. Garland.

The expressions on the faces of Victorian dolls never fail to amuse me. Image: C. Dickson.

Also found in the walls of the Governors Bay school house, this excerpt from ‘The School Journal.’ If you look closely you can see the typewritten words “Governors Bay, Lyttelton” in the bottom right of the fragment. Image: J. Garland.

And last, but not least, this wonderfully labelled wine bottle was identified as Champagne Vineyard Cognac, ‘Boutelleau Manager’. It appears to have been a well regarded product, if that extract from 1877 is to be believed. The bottle was found on the same Lyttelton site as the gin bottle shown above – someone had good taste! Image: C. Dickson.

Jessie Garland

All dolled up

To many people they’re simply a nostalgic throwback to childhood. To some, they’re treasures to be collected and curated. To others, they’re objects of horror, a sentiment encouraged by tv, films and a particular island in Mexico. To archaeologists, they’re the remnants of long lost childhoods, a personal and sometimes poignant reminder of the children that came before us. They make visible an aspect of life in the past that is so often hidden, in both the archaeological and historical records.

They’re also cute and creepy by turns. The following are some of our favourites from Christchurch. Enjoy!

This one seems disappointed.

The porcelain head of an infant in a bonnet, with painted cheeks and hair and a disappointed expression. Which is disconcerting on a baby. That face says to me “did you really just do that?” (left), “I can’t believe you just did that” (right). Image: J. Garland.

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This one, on the other hand, is disapproving. A lot of Victorian dolls seem to me to be either disappointed or disapproving. Which either says something about the Victorians or something about me. Let’s not go there. The rouged cheeks on this particular head are a common feature (see some of the examples below), although these ones are more than usually pronounced. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

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A small boy, raising his face to the heavens and pleading… for his lost innocence? The whereabouts of his lower body? For someone to please, please take the bib off?  This one is probably one of the creepiest doll artefacts we’ve found (picture it emerging from the earth, seriously), but it’s an unusual example of a clearly male doll. Most of the dolls we find are either recognisably female or figurines of babies too young to differentiate between. Also, his upper lip makes him look a little bit like he has a moustache. Image: J. Garland.

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I get ‘unimpressed’ from this one. She was found on the site of a 19th century hotel (the Zetland Arms) on Lichfield Street, meaning that she may have originally belonged to a child visiting the hotel or the child of one of the hotel keepers. This particular doll is also likely to have been manufactured in Germany, as many dolls were during the latter half of the 19th century. Image: J. Garland.

This particularly shapely calf comes with a lovely little ankle boot.

This particularly shapely dismembered calf comes with a lovely little ankle boot, painted on over the glaze. Limbs like this one were often attached to a fabric body, tied using the groove you can see just below the top of the leg. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I love this one. She looks like a soothsayer.

I love this one. She looks like a soothsayer. A smirking soothsayer. She definitely knows something that you don’t. And her hair is amazing. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

I find this one unsettling. One of my colleagues thinks it's adorable. You be the judge. If you look closely you can see that the baby is holding a rattle

I find this one unsettling. One of my colleagues thinks it’s adorable. You be the judge. If you look closely you can see that the baby is holding a rattle in one hand and there’s the edge of a quilt or blanket visible in the bottom right corner. The whole thing forms the lid to a small porcelain container of some sort, perhaps one that contained something associated with children or infants. Image: J. Garland.

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The always wonderful, yet completely awful Frozen Charlotte or ‘pudding doll’, named after the ballad about a girl who went out in the cold without a coat and froze to death… Image: J. Garland.

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One thing that I find really interesting to note with dolls is the various different hairstyles they showcase. Much as we do today, the Victorians reflected changing fashions and social ideals in the toys and figurines they made for their children. Image: J. Garland.

More often than you might think, we just get a torso. Or an arm. A foot. A disconcerting remnant of somebody's once beloved toy. Sometimes, when struck by a combination of melancholy and melodrama, I find myself thinking 'archaeology: it's all just lost and broken things' and that sentiment never seems more apt than when you're looking at a bunch of broken dolls. Image: J. Garland.

More often than you might think, we just get a torso. Or an arm. A foot. A disconcerting remnant of somebody’s once beloved toy. Sometimes, when struck by a combination of melancholy and melodrama, I find myself thinking ‘archaeology: it’s all just lost and broken things’ and that sentiment never seems more apt than when you’re looking at a bunch of broken dolls. Image: J. Garland.

Then again, sometimes you get the head of a figurine wearing a fantastic

Then again, sometimes you come across the porcelain head of a a man in a very fine hat, and it’s a different story altogether. Image: J. Garland.

Jessie Garland