A little more Lyttelton history

During recent earthquake repairs at a residential property on well-known Sumner Road in Lyttelton, our archaeologists uncovered a small assemblage of artefacts that represented everyday Victorian household items. At first glance these appeared a somewhat ordinary – but when Lydia Mearns (one of our historic researchers), delved deeper into the history of this domestic house site, she uncovered the history of a local couple who experienced their share of turbulent times during the late 19th century.

A selection of the domestic artefacts found at this site. A (from left): dinner plate, clay pipe, transfer printed plate. B: leather shoes. C: pharmaceutical bottle with “W” embossed on the base (we aren’t too sure who made this one), wide mouth pickle bottle, aerated water bottle – made by J. F. Wyatt, Lyttelton, between 1889 and 1835 (Donaldson: 1991: 266-267). W.D. and H.O. Wills cigarette tin lid (this tobacco company was known by this name from 1830 onwards; Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences 2017). Image: C. Dickson.

The young settlers, Robert Flett and his wife, Isabella Gaudie Flett, emigrated from the Scottish Orkney Islands in 1863 and arrived in Lyttelton on board the Tiptree (Sun 3/12/1915: 11). The couple initially settled on land that they purchased in Hawkhurst Road, and during the late 1860s, they began to accumulate residential sections on Sumner Road. By 1874, they had purchased two neighbouring town sections –  one to live on, and the other to keep as an investment. The first record of their occupation of Sumner Road was in 1872, and this placed the Fletts as residents on the section that was adjacent to our archaeological site. This is where the couple would spend most of their time for the next few decades (H. Wise & Co. 1872-1884).

Detail from a photograph taken between 1876 and the early 1880s showing a number of small cottages present along the Sumner Road in the vicinity of our site. Image: Bradley, c.1876-1880.

Robert Flett was a ship’s carpenter, who went into partnership with a fellow named Peter Loutitt, in the construction and operation of a patent slipway on Dampier’s Bay Road. From this slipway, the pair launched and repaired many ships in the Lyttelton Port, and their company name featured heavily in the local newspapers throughout the 1860s as a common place to fix up one’s boat (Globe 16/6/1875: 3; Press 25/9/1872: 3; Star 17/2/1869: 2). However, despite its popularity, the specific location of this slipway is not exactly known – articles mention that it was situated near the gasworks and “near the bathing sheds” on Norwich Quay and an approximation of what we’ve deemed as its most likely location (based on this description), is shown below.

1860s plan of the western Lyttelton Port showing the approximate future location of Robert Flett’s patent slipway near the gasworks and the “bathing shed” (Lyttelton Times 25/9/1872: 2Sun 3/12/1915: 11). Image: Rice 2004: 28.

During their time in Lyttelton together, Robert and Isabella featured in the local newspapers several times. Most of these reports weren’t happy ones, as things began to go wrong for the couple a few years after they started buying their properties. They experienced great loss when Robert’s brother, ship Captain William Flett, died a tragic death in 1873. He drowned ten miles of Godley Head on a voyage from Picton, then Isabella’s father also died three years later (back home in the Orkney  Islands), at age 78 (Press 31/12/1873: 2; Lyttelton Times 14/12/1896: 2). Through all of this, the Fletts were also experiencing some trying times socially. Robert Flett’s acquaintances described him as “an inoffensive quiet man”, who had a “frank and cheerful disposition, and [was] much esteemed by all who knew him (Press 21/8/1890: 4).” But despite his this, his character was called into question in court when he was charged with assaulting one of his former tenants in 1867, with whom he had had many grievances (Lyttelton Times 15/2/1867: 2).

Isabella is documented as experiencing her own petty troubles, with her incessant letter writing battles with the local drainage board over the drainage of their properties, the retaining walls and the maintenance of the Sumner Road street frontage (Press 2/4/1890: 3, 4/12/1894: 6; Star 23/2/1886: 3, 9/3/1886: 3). The tone and quantity of this correspondence suggests that she wasn’t very popular with these local bodies. She’s also recorded offering a reward for her lost, precious heart shaped greenstone brooch in 1875 (Globe 9/9/1875: 2). It was lucky that she didn’t lose more one day in 1890, as a sketchy door to door salesman arrived on her doorstep one afternoon peddling his wares. Isabella purchased an album of views from him, but this was immediately after he allegedly broke in and entered a neighbouring house and stole eight pounds from a pocketbook (Press 24/2/1890: 3). Close call.

Some ink bottles found on the property. With this much ink, one can write many letters… to drainage boards etc… Image: C. Dickson.

Despite all their major and minor personal troubles, the Fletts were managed to amass themselves a tidy little property empire in Lyttelton by the end of the 1880s. Their tenant seeking efforts were well recorded in local newspaper advertisements, and the article below shows just how well they were doing by 1889, with no less than seven properties to Robert’s name! (Star 29/2/1888: 3).

The Flett estate for sale! This advertisement of their seven house mini property empire notes Robert Flett’s intention to sell up and leave the colony… for good? (Star 2/3/1889: 4). The property business seems to have been going swimmingly, as they were all let to good tenants.

Perhaps having not found the perfect buyers for all of their properties, Robert and Isabella left Lyttelton in April 1890 to visit their hometown of Birsay, Orkney Islands (without selling their empire). However, the events surrounding their departure are a little strange – the above advertisement seems to suggests that it was Robert’s intention to emigrate back to Orkney permanently. He even held an auction at their Sumner Road home in March of 1890, in an attempt to sell all of their household furniture as “he was leaving for England.” (Press 18/3/1890: 8). But despite these attempts to sell up, it was later reported that the Fletts were merely holidaying in the Scottish Isles? I suppose one way of financing your summer holiday would be to sell everything you own… but it seems a little short-sighted, don’t you think?

Whether it was Fletts intention to emigrate back to Orkney for good or just to holiday, we will never know for certain. But during their time in Scotland, tragedy struck again for their family when Robert fell off a cliff to his death! (Archives New Zealand, 1891; Star 20/8/1890: 3). The events surrounding his fall were also a little unusual… like something out of  a dramatic movie scene. Local news reports of the incident depict Robert dangling over a cliff in an attempt to reach a lost gun. How Robert managed to lose his firearm off the edge of a cliff face isn’t known – he had gone out shooting alone early that morning, and an unnamed witness had spied him on a nearby beach fetching a boat hook to snag the gun from wherever it had fallen. But the coastal winds were probably blowing hard that day – Robert was not seen falling off the cliff but he also wasn’t ever seen again. His body was not even able to be found after the accident due to a fierce storm that hit the next day, which caused the loss of even more lives in the sea below.

The tragic story of Mr Flett’s death… and some other tragic deaths (Star 20/8/1890: 3). It seems Isabelle Flett was still avidly penning letters at this time.

The unfortunate Mrs Flett, now a widow, returned to Lyttelton alone, where she had no other family. Perhaps she preferred to change her immigration plans and go back to where she and her late husband had enjoyed success together in their property development schemes, especially now that her father was no longer home in Scotland? The Sumner Road properties remained in her ownership until her death in 1915, and the 1907 Lyttelton Valuation Roll, indicated that Mrs Flett had four houses on Sumner Road that year (Sun 3/12/1915: 11). The age of these houses was recorded as being between 30 and 50 years old at this time and this provides a construction date for the four dwellings between 1857 and 1877 – proving them to be the same legacy left by Robert to Isabella (Archives New Zealand, 1878: 80). The map of Lyttelton drawn by J R Williams in 1910 shows the footprint of the four houses on Mrs Flett’s land, including a dwelling at the modern address of our Sumner Road archaeological site (Figure 4). This dwelling does not have the same footprint as the extant building on this section so it must have been demolished sometime in the 20th century.

Detail from 1910 map of Lyttelton showing the land owned by Mrs Flett on the Sumner Road (outlined in red) and showing the footprint of a cottage present on our section (outlined in blue). Image: Williams, 1910.

This probably happened around 1917, when the trustees of Mrs Flett’s estate, Thomas Taylor and Andrew Kirk, advertised for the removal of “three cottages fronting the Sumner Road”, in January 1917 (Star 27/1/1917: 4). A few days after this, the advertisement was taken out in the newspaper because one of the dwellings previously owned by Mrs Flett had burnt down before it could be removed (Star 6/1/1917: 10). The rest of the cottages also appear to have been removed later that year as there are no residents recorded in the 1918 street directories on the land previously owned by the Fletts (H. Wise & Co. 1918: 567).

Detail from a photograph of the Sumner Road taken between 1919 and 1925, showing a new house on the section where the artefacts were found (indicated with red arrow), while the location of adjacent site where the Flett’s once lived is vacant (indicated with a blue arrow). Image: Anon, c.1919-1925.

As the small assemblage of artefacts that were found at this site were located within the boundaries of the neighbouring section to the Flett’s, it’s probable that they were dropped or thrown away by one of their tenants. The manufacturing dates of the artefacts we showed you at the start of this post suggest that this tenant was most likely Edward James Norris (who we know very little about). But regardless of this gap in the historical record, we were able to stumble across this intriguing narrative about Mr and Mrs Flett and their story in the early history of Lyttelton.   

Chelsea Dickson

References

Anon, c.1919-1925. Lyttelton wharves, Canterbury, showing harbour, ships, houses and buildings. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, 1/1-009876-G Available at: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/29946642 [Accessed October 2017].

Archives New Zealand, 1891. Probate, Robert Flett Lyttelton Christchurch, Canterbury. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch Regional Office, CAHX-2989-CH171-65-CH2083/1891. Available at < https://familysearch.org/ > [Accessed October 2017].

Bradley, c.1876-1880s. Overlooking Port Lyttelton and Township. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, PAColl-6407-57. Available at: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23220714 [Accessed October 2017].

Donaldson, B., Hume, G. and Costello, S., 1990. Antique Bottle and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch Antique Bottles and Collectibles Club, Christchurch.

H. Wises & Co. 1866-1954 [online]. Available at http://home.ancestry.com.au/.

Rice. G. 2004. Lyttelton: Port and Town. An Illustrated History.

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. 2017. Metal cigarette tin used in Antarctica 2017, Museum of Applied Arts &amp; Sciences. [online] Available at: https://collection.maas.museum/object/257736. Accessed 20 November 2017.

 

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

References

Ancestry, 2006-2016. [online] Available at www.ancestry.com.au.  

Christchurch City Libraries, 2016. Christchurch Street and Place Names. [online] Available at www.my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/christchurch-place-names/.

Papers Past. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.