Up in smoke: Christchurch Destructor

At the turn of the 20th century, Christchurch’s rubbish disposal underwent a fiery transformation.

After 50 years of settlement, Christchurch was facing a rubbish crisis that was starting to get people worried. The council’s weekly kerbside rubbish collection service, which had been around for 14 years, was working well, but all the rubbish dumps were filling up fast (Lyttelton Times 23/7/1886: 4). The biggest city dump was located out of town in the sand hills near New Brighton. Thanks to all the fish heads, food scraps, and other tasty morsels that were being dumped here on a regular basis, this dump was also home to a large rat population. In early 1900 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney, Australia. There was a genuine fear that if just one infected stowaway rat made it ashore to Christchurch, it could easily infect all the other rats and then everyone would be doomed (Press 26/2/1900: 4). If the dump rats got infected with the plague, and then they migrated into town pied piper style, then it would be game over man, game over.

On a Victoria Street site some time ago I found two pits filled entirely with rat bones, evidence of a local rat eradication program. There were the remains of 34 rats in one pit and 21 in the other. Both images: Hamish Williams.

Attempts had been made at various times to reduce the bulk of all of the rubbish at the dump, and bring down the resident rat population by setting the dump ablaze. It sort of worked, but not very well, and eventually these fires had to be put out (as best as they could) because the smoke was a nuisance. Dump rats would even be implicated in starting dump fires, the little buggers. Rats burrowed through all the mountains of rubbish, and in doing so created little air vents that helped reignite the smouldering remains of earlier dump fires (Press 17/4/1900:6). Nice one dump rats.

Fire was seen as the solution to Christchurch’s rubbish problem, but it wasn’t just a case of starting larger fires at the dump and letting them burn for longer. What Christchurch needed was a machine that was able to burn all the city rubbish in a much more controlled fashion, at higher temperatures, and for longer periods of time. What the city needed, and what the city later got, was THE DESTRUCTOR. Problem solved.

‘Destructors’ were the name given by English municipal engineers of the 19th century to big furnaces that were designed specifically for incinerating all different types of urban rubbish on an industrial scale (Moore 1898). Instead of getting rid of rubbish by carting it away and dumping it, rubbish would be burnt to a crisp in a Destructor, and in doing so would be transformed into a product that was then much less of a problem to deal with, and one that could even prove useful. I think Wellington was the first city in the country to get a Destructor, in 1889 (Press 11/5/1889: 6). Christchurch got its Destructor in 1902. Auckland got one in 1905. Auckland’s Muncipal Destructor building still stands.

Schematic of a late 19th century Destructor furnace. Burn it up, little man, and keep shovelling! Image: Moore 1898.

The Christchurch City Council ordered its destructor from the English engineering firm Meldrum Brothers in August 1900 (Press 28/8/1900: 3). It was a ‘six celled Beaman and Deas’ Destructor that was capable of incinerating both rubbish and night soil. Under normal operating conditions, each of the six cells of the furnace was capable of burning up to 24 tonnes of unsorted rubbish a day (Star 28/8/1900: 1). Because of all the smoke and stench it would produce, the Council had difficulty finding a suitable place to put it. Eventually, they decided to put it right in the middle of town, close to the corner of Manchester and Armagh Streets, a stone’s throw away from what is now the Margaret Mahy Playground.  With much pomp and ceremony, the Destructor was officially opened on the 30th of May 1902 (Press 31/5/1902: 5).

A 1920 aerial photo of central Christchurch. Can you spot the Destructor? It’s the one with the smokiest chimney of course. Image: reproduced courtesy of Christchurch City Libraries: CCL Photo CD 3, IMG0026.

After some 36 years of service, the Destructor burnt its last load of rubbish on 14 April 1938 (Press 14/4/1938: 8). The council then went back to dumping rubbish, though by now this was carried out in a much more organised and sanitary manner. With greater emphasis paid to covering the rubbish immediately after it was dumped, there were now thankfully fewer problems with the dump rats. When the destructor building and its massive brick chimney was demolished the following year, the city lost an iconic landmark of a building, though few would mourn the loss of the Destructor (Press 10/2/1939: 12). Its chimney was the tallest in town, but apart from the odd times when it was out of action and undergoing repairs, it blazed up a cloud of dirty filthy smoke pretty much 24/7.

The chimney was demolished entirely by hand, quite an achievement. Image: Press 8/4/1939: 21.

The Destructor was a cleverly designed furnace. Although it needed a good amount of coal to get the fires up to temperature, once it got going, little additional input of coal was typically required to keep the fires burning – rubbish would be the main source of fuel. Before being tipped into the furnace, the rubbish was usually raked over and given some form of a preliminary sort-through. All sorts of things ended up at the Destructor, but thankfully not all of it ended up in the flames. Some things, like scrap metal and rags, could be separated out for recycling. A pair of frightened kittens that a stoker found tied up in a paper bag one time were saved from certain death, but other animals were not so lucky. Stray dogs and unwanted feral cats sometimes ended up on top of the sacrificial pyre, these poor creatures drowned beforehand in a well reserved exclusively for this grisly purpose (Press 23/8/1905: 8). Large quantities of fish waste from city fish markets proved somewhat tricky to burn. Wet and slimy, incinerating this kind of waste consumed more coal and as such cost the council lots of money. Later they decided that all this fish waste would be better disposed of by carting it out of town where it could be recycled into agricultural fertiliser. This saved the Council up to 35 tonnes of coal per year (Press 16/7/1932: 16). Nice.

Must have been a hot and sweaty job feeding the Destructor, that’s probably why this fella is wearing a towel round his shoulders, so he could easily mop the sweat from his brow. Image: Press 10/7/1932: 17 .

The Destructor didn’t just incinerate rubbish and dead animals, it was a multi-purpose machine that was also the city’s first power plant. From 1903 the destructor’s steam boilers powered generators that produced electricity for the local grid: the power of rubbish lit the city streets at night (Press 1/8/1903: 7). From 1908, exhaust gases from the destructor were piped underground to heat the neighbouring Tepid Baths (Christchurch’s first indoor public swimming pool). In this way rubbish enabled people to backstroke and breaststroke in heated comfort all year round. The waste by-product produced by the Destructor, called clinker, was not left to go to waste either, but proved to be a valuable and useful material in building city roads.

Destructor clinker! Image: Hamish Williams.

I first came to know of clinker after being called out to a SCIRT job on Eastern Terrace, when a layer of the stuff was found by a crew replacing a broken stormwater pipe. It was a real eureka moment for me when I worked out exactly what it was. By 1928, more than 4800 tonnes of the stuff were produced annually, and almost all of it was put to good use by the council in building and repairing city streets (Galbraith 1928). As later SCIRT works confirmed, this clinker fill was laid down all over the place, mostly as a road formation base course, particularly in locations where the underlying natural substrate was ‘peaty and soft’ (Galbraith 1928).

Road formation related stratigraphy, as was exposed in the side of a SCIRT pipe trench in Beckenham. The layer of Destructor clinker is the dirty brown looking layer at the bottom, capped by two layers of modern hard fill. Image: Hamish Williams.

Depending on what it had been before it was fed into and thus transformed by the Destructor, clinker proved to be often quite variable in appearance. Sometimes the clinker was very glassy, black and shiny, (reminding me of meteorites, not dissimilar to the one found by this lucky young fella) and sometimes it was a dirty brown rusty colour (from all the half burnt iron nails and bits of tin cans). More often than not both types of clinker had little inclusions of semi-melted bits of bottle glass and twice vitrified ceramic sherds in it, a strange sight indeed. We didn’t find too much clinker underneath central city streets, but we did find it in the central city around the banks of the Avon/Ōtākaro River. It was found in abundance below those suburban roadways that flank the Heathcote/ Ōpāwaho River. The silty riverside suburbs of Beckenham, St Martins, and Opawa proved to be serious clinker hotspots!

A chunk of Destructor clinker. This one came from a thick clinker layer exposed during excavations for the construction of the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial wall. Clinker had been used to build up the south bank of the Ōtākaro/Avon River as part of early 20th century river landscape improvement works. Close by on the opposite bank we also found (at shallow depth) crushed clinker footpaths. Image: Hamish Williams.

We mostly found Destructor clinker on the road reserve – public land – and where we found it, we usually didn’t find any 19th century rubbish. However, in those few places where we did find 20th century clinker and 19th century rubbish in close proximity, the 19th century artefacts were always found at a lower stratigraphic level. Because we know that Destructor clinker was only produced between 1902 and 1938, this stuff has proved very super helpful for dating archaeological deposits, especially when we find it on private property (curiously it has turned up a couple of times in backyard rubbish pits). Why throw away a bit of rubbish clinker? I guess maybe someone picked a bit of it up from somewhere thinking it was a rare and valuable meteorite, then realised it was just a bit of old burnt rubbish and chucked it away. Just a guess. Any thoughts?

Maybe because the story of the Destructor is a bit steampunk, or maybe because it reminds me about how persistent the people of the past were in finding solutions to the environmental problems that they faced, I find the whole story of the Destructor very fascinating. I like thinking about how resourceful the local council was more than 100 years ago, recycling what they could, and transforming what they couldn’t recycle into something that could be reused in a practical way, while powering the city in the process. Reduce, reuse, recycle – this modern mantra that we all should live by is certainly nothing new.

Hamish Williams

References

Galbraith, A.R. 1928. Report on the Reconstruction and Maintenance of the City Highways and Bridges. Wellington N.Z: Witcombe & Tombs.

Moore, E.C. 1898. Sanitary Engineering: a Practical Treatise. London: B.T. Batsford.

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

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

Winter is coming…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evening Post 29/8/1885: 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand Herald 28/8/1937: 2.

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

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

Chelsea Dickson

References

ArchSite 2012. M35/731.

Cook T. 2012. Keeping Warm the Old Way. The Bologazine. [online] Available at: http://www.theblogazine.com/2012/12/keeping-warm-the-old-way/.

Kuzma, J. 2014. The 1895 Snowstorm. Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network. [online] available at: https://environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/2014/03/the-1895-snowstorm/

Labrum. B. 2008. ‘Rural clothing – Hats, footwear and oilskins’, [online] available at: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-clothing/page-3 (accessed 21 July 2017)

Pollock, K. 2011. ‘Public health – Healthy bodies’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-health/page-4 (accessed 21 July 2017).

Swarbrick, N. 2013. ‘Ice sports – Curling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ice-sports/page-1 (accessed 21 July 2017).

Wilham P. 2009. Staying War: How the Victorians Did. [Online] Available at: http://victorianantiquitiesanddesign.blogspot.co.nz/2009/01/staying-warm-how-victorians-did-it.html.

Under the rocks and stones there is water underground

Living in Christchurch, I am grateful for many things, especially the quality of the tap water.  In Christchurch we are very lucky because our tap water is of such purity that it doesn’t need to be treated with chlorine like many cities have to, which means it tastes so good [never fear – the Council closely monitors quality]. Christchurch’s water is so pure because it comes not from river, stream, or desalination plant, but is sourced from natural underground reservoirs called aquifers – water saturated geological substrata that lie at great depth beneath the city. The story of Christchurch water is an interesting one and lately in the office we’ve been talking a lot about the subject, especially after the recent discoveries of some fascinating old wells in the central city. So, grab a glass of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen and stick around for a taste of what we have learnt about water supply in 19th century Christchurch from archaeology.

The first brick well of 2017. Well, can you feel the excitement? Image: Angel Trendafilov.

Christchurch was quite unusual compared to most other cities as the local council built a sewerage system (this was completed in late 1882) long before it laid on a high pressure piped water supply (works began on this in 1909). Historically it’s usually the other way round – first comes water then comes the sewers, if both of these weren’t constructed at the same time. Part of the reason for this was the fact that Christchurch was built on a swamp next to a river, so finding water was not a particularly difficult task for early settlers.

As things typically are on a swamp, you don’t have to dig very deep to hit the water table, so shallow wells were reasonably commonplace in the first few decades of the settlement. We have found a good number of these shallow wells – mostly of a circular shape, with an average diameter of 900 mm and lined with bricks. The depth of those has varied somewhat. The shallowest we have found was only 1.6 m deep, and the deepest went down more than 3 m. Often however we don’t get to excavate them in their entirety, either because of safety considerations, or because the depth of the excavation means that the bottoms of these features can stay in situ.

This brick lined well took the top prize for best well of 2016, SCIRT found it when they were laying a new sewer mains in Richmond. The bricks that lined the upper part of the well were missing – salvaged for reuse we reckon. Image: Hamish Williams.

On a Lichfield Street site we found a well that was lined not with bricks but with two wooden barrels stacked atop each other. At the bottom of this barrel well was a large block of porous limestone – we reckon this functioned as a water filter. We can only guess how effective this was.

The barrel lined well – the timber staves were very well preserved. At left is the outside of both barrels, and at right after we sectioned it, showing the fill inside. Unlike a lot of infilled wells, this one didn’t contain very many artefacts. Both image: Hamish Williams.

The bottom of the barrel well was filled with fine grey silt not dissimilar to liquefaction silt- was this well abandoned because it silted up as a result of a 19th century earthquake event? Hamish still ponders this – but he will probably never ever know for certain because Underground Overground Archaeology’s flux capacitor is broken. Image: Hamish Williams.

The problem with shallow wells was that they got easily contaminated – many people got crook and some even died from drinking sewage contaminated water. To some extent this problem was overcome by the council banning long drops/privys and their subsurface cesspits, and later with the construction of a proper sewer system, but mostly it was the geological discovery of the artesian aquifer system below the city. Because these artesian aquifers were located super deep, there was a much lesser risk of their becoming contaminated.

When the groundwater in an aquifer is under pressure greater than the pressure that exists at ground level, these waters are called artesians. If the geology is just right, these waters rise up naturally through cracks in the ground to surface as springs. In fact, the source of the Ōtākaro/Avon River and its tributary streams are artesian springs. In addition to fracturing many underground water pipes, the earthquakes also fractured the ground in many places, which allowed new artesian springs to rise to the surface. A well drilling frenzy to tap these artesian aquifers struck the city in the 1860s. By January 1872 a total of 654 artesian wells in the city had been sunk – both on private property and in the street by the council for public use (Weeber 2000: 11). By the late 1870s the water level in the uppermost aquifer, into which most of these earlier wells were sunk, was starting to decline (Lyttelton Times 17/10/1879:6). Once gushers, many of these artesian wells (often also called  ‘tube wells’) were fast becoming tricklers, necessitating the increased adoption of pumps, or the drilling of new wells to tap deeper and more reliable aquifers.

Old artesian wells are reasonably common finds on archaeological sites about the city and typically take the form of small diameter iron pipes sticking out the ground. The tops of these are often surrounded by larger diameter glazed earthenware pipes, which served as well casings or reservoir chambers to which hand pumps or taps would have sometimes been fitted. Often it’s hard to tell conclusively whether artesian wells of this form are 19th century or not. There is often very little difference in form between 19th and 20th century artesians, and, because water mains were only laid on incrementally throughout the city in the early 20th century, the sinking of artesian wells in people’s backyards continued in some places well into the 1950s. I will always remember the first artesian I found on a site. Disturbance from the digger brought forth a small trickle of tepid water (I remember it was a bloody freezing winters day and the artesian waters that came up out the ground were steaming). Left unchecked over the weekend, this artesian trickle transformed the excavation into a small lake, much to the delight of the local ducks.

A ‘dead’ artesian uncovered on a central city site. Image: Hamish Williams.

An old ‘live’ artesian well – left unchecked and unattended, this one flooded the excavation over the weekend. By the time this photo was taken, half the water has been pumped out. Can you spot the high tide mark? Image: Hamish Williams.

Not long ago we found a brick well on a site that had an artesian pipe sticking out the middle of it, and close by, another artesian pipe sticking out of an adjacent rubbish pit. We interpreted these two artesian pipes as possible evidence of the 19th century decline of the uppermost aquifer that most of the early artesians tapped. The brick well was early – maybe 1860s (we could tell this from the bricks) so we are pretty confident that the brick well came first. Whether because the water in this well dried up or the water got fouled, it at some stage thereafter was filled in, before an artesian well was sunk down through the middle of it. Later on we suspect that the water from the artesian started to decline, so a second artesian was sunk next to it, probably to a deeper level in order to tap a more reliable aquifer. What do you think about our interpretation?

At left, rubbish pit, and at right, brick lined well. Image: Hamish Williams.

The rubbish pit and well after being sectioned, exposing the artesian pipes that had been sunk through both these features at a later date. Image: Hamish Williams.

I suppose that the story of how the people of early Christchurch got their water, and how this changed over time is a bit like life. In the beginning things are often easy, you don’t have to work too hard to get what you are looking for – you can find what sustains you just by scratching away at the surface a little. Sometimes however things inevitably change, (often as a result of external factors) so you have to adapt, give up on the old way of doing things and adopt new methods. Start afresh by digging a bit deeper – it can be hard going at first, but the rewards are worth it. When things change again, you just got to dig a little deeper once more, but second time around its always a little easier. Because, like a Zen master, we have learnt from previous experience that by going deeper within, while at the same time being grateful for what nature provides, you can always find a way.

Hamish Williams

 

References

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/>

Weeber, J. 2000. Watering Christchurch: The story of well drilling and water suppy in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Environment Canterbury.

And when I get that feeling…

In the lyrics to his hit 1982 song, Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye cries out (in smooth and sultry tones, really) for a remedy that will relieve his mind, restore his emotional stability, stop the “blue teardrops” falling and calm the sea “stormin’ inside of me.” It may surprise you to discover that, amazingly and with only a tiny bit of artistic license (well, sort of), this song works rather well as an allegory for Victorian attitudes to sex. Yep, you heard me. Particularly if you listen to them the day after reading an 1840s-1860s treatise on sexual health, impotence and general quackery (do not recommend for the squeamish…). It’s the last lines, usually faded out past the point of hearing in recorded versions, that really clinch it: “please don’t procrastinate,” he sings softly, “it’s not good to masturbate.”

Bet you didn’t know about that line did you.

I realise that this foray into 1980s R & B and/or the (surprisingly very graphic) world of Victorian sexual health is somewhat out of character for this blog, but do bear with us, dear reader. Let us take you on a journey down the rabbit hole to a side of 19th century life not often talked about, and definitely not often found archaeologically.

It all began a few weeks ago, with the discovery of a relatively unassuming pharmaceutical bottle in an assemblage from the 1870s-1880s. Plain in form and resembling the many tinctures of cough medicine, pain killers, oils and blood purifiers we commonly find on Victorian sites, the bottle was also embossed with an unusual product name: Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. The name references Syria, which at the time had both exotic and biblical connotations that were exploited by medical entrepreneurs, as well as an earlier well-known remedy called Solomon’s Balm of Gilead (which itself references biblical healing…; Helfand 1989). The product, as it turns out, was a patent medicine primarily advertised as a remedy for three things: syphilis, gonorrhea and sexual impotence. Specifically:

THE CORDIAL BALM OF SYRIACUM is a gentle stimulant and renovator of the impaired functions of life, and is exclusively directed to the cure of such complaints as arise from the disorganization of the Generative System, whether constitutional or acquired, loss of sexual power, and debility arising from syphilis; and is calculated to afford decided relief to those who by early indulgence in solitary habits have weakened the powers of their system, and fallen into a state of chronic debility, by which the constitution is left in a deplorable state…The consequences arising from this dangerous practice are not confined to its pure physical result, but branch to moral ones; leading the excited, deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error – into a gradual and total degradation of manhood…How many at eighteen receive the impression of the seeds of syphilitic disease itself? The consequences of which travel out of the ordinary tract of bodily ailment, covering the frame with disgusting evidences of its ruthless nature, and impregnating the wholesome stream of life with mortal poison; conveying into families the seeds of disunion and unhappiness; undermining domestic harmony; and striking at the very soul of human intercourse.”

-The Cambrian, 9/09/1843, p. 1

Yikes. Various advertisements for the balm in the 1850s and 1860s claimed that it was a “never-failing remedy for Spermatorrhoea”, “loss of manly power”, “obstinate gleet[1]”, “tic-dolereaux” and “the prostration and languor produced by sojourning in the colonies or hot climates” (New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6). It, apparently, also “favoured the reproduction of the semen and strengthened at the same time the secretory vessels and the resevoirs” and “removed radically all the affections of the genital parts in both sexes; substituting vigour for impotence, and fecundity in place of barrenness” (Perry and Perry 1841). All of which is a lot for one little remedy to do. Although it was apparently “adapted for both sexes”, it is worth noting that most of the advertisements targeted men. When female complaints were discussed, the most attention was paid to the illnesses and dangers of menopause (or, as described at the time, “the turn of life”) and the “safe conduct” promised by the use of the Balm of Syriacum (Perry and Perry 1841: 62).

Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum bottle, found in Christchurch. Image: Chelsea Dickson.

The actual contents of the balm are unknown, although it may have contained origanum syriacum, which was believed to have blood purifying abilities (Watson 2013: 90). Other similar products, such as the Balm of Gilead, are believed to have contained nothing more than “a few spices and herbs dissolved in a substantial percentage of fine old French brandy” (Helfand 1989: 155). As such, while they may have made the patient feel better for a little while – or  as one person puts it, mistake “the frenzy of inebriation for the natural glow of renovated health” – they are unlikely to have achieved any of the lofty goals outlined in their advertisements (Wilson 2008).

Advertisement for Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. Note the long litany of ailments it will allegedly relieve. Image: New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6.

The balm was made and sold by R. & L. Perry, London ‘surgeons’ who made quite a name for themselves as specialists in sexual health, specifically the treatment of impotence and the clap. They were self-described consulting surgeons and medical men who “feel that we are not exceeding the limits of truth, or transgressing the bounds of professional etiquette, in asserting that our mode of practice…has been productive of the happiest and most successful results in the treatment of sexual debility in both sexes” (Perry and Perry 1841: vi). In this statement, they were supported by a multitude of (somewhat similar) testimonials from patients who listed, in sometimes excruciating detail, the symptoms and maladies of which they had been cured. In truth, however, they were quacks.

Quackery – animal magnetism, as it happens – in action, c. 1780. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A good part of what we know about the Perrys and their medical beliefs comes from their book The Silent Friend[2], a treatise on onanism (masturbation) and its consequences, such as impotence, as well as venereal and syphilitic diseases. The Silent Friend contained in its many pages of flowery language, a 65 page long diatribe against “solitary indulgence”, constant advertisements for the Balm of Syriacum and other medicines, numerous descriptions of the symptoms and manifestations of gonorrhea and syphilis, and several disturbing recommendations for the treatment of said venereal diseases. I think my favourite might be the injection of a mixture of lead sulphate (toxic), zinc sulphate, rose water (inexplicably) and opium into sensitive areas. Kids, do not try this at home…

Although the graphic detail of both disease and treatment is morbidly fascinating, it’s the fixation of the authors on the dangers of onanism that I find particularly curious.The Perrys were of the opinion that masturbation not only destroyed the health and mind of the individual, it was a danger to “the welfare of the empire” due to the ways it destroyed man’s emotional, moral and procreative abilities and passed those same debilities on to any children such a sufferer might manage to have. Interestingly, this was a fear that was shared among many in Victorian society: it had become more and more widespread in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century, quack doctors like R. & L. Perry were perpetuating and exploiting the fear and shame associated with masturbation, including the notion that it was responsible for impotence. The list of things caused by such self-indulgence is long and contains a wide range of physical, mental and moral symptoms, to the point where almost any failing of a man or his character could be blamed on his own weakness (oddly enough, no reference is made by the Perrys to women suffering from this particular problem…)

This man is apparently suffering from too much solitary indulgence. “He less resembled a living creature than a corpse; lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench, almost incapable of motion, a watery palish blood issued from the nose, his tongue was frightfully swelled, and saliva constantly flowed from his mouth.” Image: The Silent Friend, p. 32.

Sufferers of this terrible malady reported, among other things too graphic to include, that (and do keep in mind those Marvin Gaye lyrics…):

  • “the powers of the mind were much weakened, my judgment had lost its solidity, my head was confused and subject to frequent swimmings”
  • “he often shed tears involuntarily, and a quantity of corrosive pus continually issued from the corners of his eyes”
  • “my spirits greatly depressed, so that at times I could scarcely refrain from sighing and involuntary weeping”
  • “a disordered stomach, dry consumptive cough, weakness in the voice, hoarseness, shortness of breath on the least exercise”

In general, the various treatments for onanism, as well as the ubiquitously suggested Balm of Syriacum, of course, are just as horrifying as those suggested for venereal diseases. Potential cures ranged from cauterizations and blisterings of the penis (yikes, again) to the application of camphor to the genitals, the use of a ‘curative belt’ which sent shocks of electricity through one’s groin, and that old favourite, arsenic (McLaren 2007: 134). Also, specifically in the case of onanism and impotence, matrimony was recommended. The Perrys were strong advocates, surprisingly given our usual impression of Victorians, for a healthy sex life, but only within the confines of marriage. Marriage, and procreation, were after all, the purpose of human existence.

On marriage. Image: The Silent Friend, p. 129.

There’s something of a curious juxtaposition here, I think, between the repressed sexuality and morals of Victorian society and the quackery that very much played on the fears and habits exacerbated by social silence on the subject of sex. It’s visible in the lack of discussion around such matters in daily life and the utter relish with which books like The Silent Friend describe, in extraordinarily graphic terms, the consequences of ‘bad’ sexual habits. I started this post with Marvin Gaye and a tongue in cheek reading of a beloved song (sorry, everyone), but as I’ve written it, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how much the social censorship, shame and plain old lack of information encouraged the spread of venereal disease and general ill health in the Victorian era (and our own, as it happens, don’t think we’re past this yet). Society created a vacuum into which so-called doctors like R. & L. Perry could step with alacrity and success, virtually unchallenged[3], to both exploit those unspoken fears and spread their own misinformation, in horrendous and alarming detail. Some things are better talked about, as it turns out, than hidden under the bed.

In the words of another (maybe less beloved song), let’s talk about sex, people. And always avoid treatments and doctors that recommend injecting lead sulphate into your genitals. If you’ve learned anything from this blog, let it be that.

Jessie Garland

[1] One anecdote recounted the curing of an obstinate gleet “by the injection of punch, a remedy suggested in a convivial moment; another time by green tea” (Perry and Perry 1841).

[2] The full title is, in fact, The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Which is really quite a mouthful. I definitely do not recommend looking up gleets, strictures or whites unless you’re sure you want to know. And gonorrhoea, for that matter.

[3] There were some who did challenge these ideas and practices, I just haven’t had a chance to really talk about them.

References

Helfand, W. H., 1989. President’s Address: Samuel Solomon and The Cordial Balm of Gilead. In Pharmacy in History, Vol. 31(4), pp. 151-159.

McLaren, A., 2007. Impotence: A Cultural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Perry, R. and Perry, L., 1841. The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Self published. [online] Available at: https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=i1t1p2YRahcC&dq=the+silent+friend&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Ritz, D., 2010. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Omnibus Press, London.

Watson, L., 2013. Tom Tiddler’s Ground: Irregular Medical Practitioners and Male Sexual Problems in New Zealand, 1858-1908. In Medical History, Vol. 57(4), p. 537-558. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3865952/#fnr16 

Wilson, B., 2008. Decency and Disorder: the Age of Cant 1789-1837. Faber and Faber.

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