We have published previously on the importance of buildings, be they residential or commercial, as an artefact in understanding 19th century culture in New Zealand. While it’s easy to overlook the humble cottage as a source of archaeological data, houses are a snapshot that capture not only information about the person who constructed the building, their wealth and social standing for example, but also provide a glimpse of the larger economy in which the house was built. However, buildings go beyond that, and by investigating alterations we can make a profile of the people who lived there and track technological and stylistic changes through time.
Towards the end of last year, we were contracted to investigate and record a farmstead in Halswell. At the time of recording it was the location of a heavily modified Victorian ‘L-plan’ cottage and several outbuildings. Historical research for the Halswell area is notoriously difficult due to a general lack of sources, although we did know from land records and a valuation issued in 1905 that the farm had been purchased by Cornelius Murphy in 1871, and that the house was standing on the property by at least c.1881.
What made the property special is that the house had remained the home of the murphy family until recently, being passed down through the generations.
From the outset the house appeared to be a standard 19th century cottage that had been heavily modified in the 20th century. Most of the wall linings, original skirtings and cornices, and ceilings had been replaced. A large section of the original timber floor of Room 10 was missing (see the above floor plan for room numbers). Even the original sash windows had been replaced with timber framed casement windows. At least three large extensions had also been made in the 20th century.
But by peeling back the layers, the original house started coming to the surface. Cuts in the weatherboards on the northwest elevation suggested the original house was much shorter. Weatherboards were discovered behind the wall lining on the northeast wall of Room 6. A fireplace had been removed in Room 3. At least two walls had been removed in Room 10, one of which would have originally formed a hallway between Rooms 10 and 1. Cut marks in the weatherboards on the northeast elevation suggest a door had been removed from between the two windows under the veranda.
A little bit of deconstruction work revealed even more treasures. A covered over window frame was revealed in the northeast wall of Room 9 (the wall separating Room 9 from 10) confirming that this was the original back wall of the house. A covered over door frame was also present in this wall.
Removal of the floorboards in Room 9 revealed that the floor sat on stone piles and brick piles. The piles were marked ‘B’ (a marked used by John Brightling 1880-c. 1898) suggesting this was a 19th century room, although, as it had covered over an original window, Room 9 must have been a 19th century alteration to the house!
Then removal of the wallpaper in Room 1 revealed a hidden door in the northwest wall!
What is likely the original wallpaper was also revealed. This had probably been preserved under the original architraves.
So now we had a house with at least one removed hallway, and a bedroom with two doors….
More secrets were revealed during the demolition. The original gable roof line was made visible above the southeast wall of Room 1. The demolition of the back-to-back fireplaces in Rooms 1 and 10 revealed that the fireplace of Room 10 had originally been a very tall 1.2 m. Big enough for a cooking range perhaps?
The bricks for this fireplace were marked ‘RS’ – a mark used by Royse, Stead and Co. between 1875 – c.1882.
The completed demolition revealed the that Rooms 1, 2, 3, 4, 10 and part of 9 (mentioned above) had been constructed on stone piles, suggesting the they were all 19th century constructions. Can any more information be pulled from the foundations? Yes! Luckily the concrete foundation that had supported the original fireplace in Room 3 was still in situ, and still had a layer of bricks affixed to it.
The bricks were marked ‘B’, suggesting that rooms 3, 4 and part of 9 were contemporary constructions.
Putting all the information together, we can piece together the life history of the house.
The building had begun life as a simple box cottage, constructed by Cornelius Murphy between 1871 and 1881. The house had four rooms. Room 1 was probably a living room, while Room 10 was likely to have been two bedrooms and a kitchen. The small stature of the house probably reflects the financial means of Cornelius as his farm was just starting out.
A decade after the farm was established the Murphy family had become relatively well off, and the little house was no longer suitable for the family. The house was extended between 1880 and 1900 with the addition of Rooms 3 ,4 and 9. Room 9 was a reasonable size and probably became the kitchen. The extensions would forgo the tongue and groove panel and wallpaper wall linings of the original house and would instead use more expensive (and higher status) lath and plaster.
Further additions to the house could be dated using aerial photography (Canterbury Maps n.d.). The house was extended again in the early 20th century with the addition of Rooms 5 and 6 before 1944 (which included indoor toilet facilities). Rooms 7 and 8 were added, and Room 9 was extended, between 1980-1984. This added a modern bathroom and kitchen. Finally Room 11, a conservatory, was added in the 1990s.
But this is just the beginning of the story this house has to tell. Makers marks found on the roofing iron, timber, nail, and brick samples collected during the demolition, wallpaper patterns, and analysis of wall linings will all provide vital information that will inform us about the choices made by Cornelius in the construction of his home, and of the wider economy that played a part in the construction of the building.
And all this is before we get to the analysis of the outbuildings and other archaeology found on the site.