Class, wealth & power

The challenge for this week’s blog was to consider class and buildings – more specifically: houses. When I decided to write this post, I thought it’d be relatively straightforward – I have a really interesting house to tell you about, and it definitely has something to say about social stratification. But I’ve started writing this about four times now, and each time it’s beaten me, because I’m struggling to understand and outline what this house says about class. As Jessie outlined in our last post, class is tricky. And the more you look at it, the harder it seems to get. To echo our last post further, we just don’t understand class in 19th century Christchurch well enough yet to begin to try and interpret very real objects in relation to this slippery, ephemeral concept.

 North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.

North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.

Let’s start with the basics. I think we can all agree that social stratification is readily apparent in houses today. It was no different in 19th century Christchurch. But what sort of social stratification are we actually seeing? Class is only one means by which society is stratified. The two other primary means are power and wealth, both of which are easier to define than class – and can clearly be related to class, and/or each other. Power can be social power, or economic, political, financial or even the power of celebrity. At its most simplistic level, wealth relates to how much money you have, and can also include the value of your assets. I’m sure economists and accountants have much finer, more nuanced ways of defining this concept, but we’ll stick with the obvious for now.

Of these three concepts, it seems to me that wealth is easiest to examine through tangible objects (whether the china you buy or the house you live in). It’s still not that simple, though: you might not choose to spend your money on material goods, preferring instead to travel, or to invest for the future, or to donate to charity. Or you could live on credit, living beyond your means to maintain a facade of wealth (possibly for status-related reasons). Different things, after all, are important to different people.

When it comes to houses and interpreting the wealth of the occupant, there are some other factors that need to be considered. Did the occupant build this house for themselves? Or did they buy a house that someone else built? Or are they a tenant? And if this last is the case, is it an indication of a relative lack of wealth, of an inability to generate sufficient income to pay a deposit? New Zealand society today places a high value on owning your own house, but was this always the case? I don’t know too much about the housing market in 19th century Christchurch, in terms of what sort of deposit was required and/or what the mortgage rates were – this isn’t to say this research hasn’t been carried out, just that there hasn’t been time to look into this for this post.

The house I’m going to tell you about today was built as a rental property, but would eventually be occupied by someone who owned it. The house was in the northeast corner of the area bounded by the four avenues, and was built in the early-mid 1880s. It was a rather lovely little house. It was a single-storey bay villa, with a decorative barge board and a finial on the gable end (as an aside, we don’t often see these things on the 19th century villas we record, possibly because they get removed during the 20th century), and a verandah next to this. The bay had a decorative bay window with a pair of sash windows in it and the front door had both fan and sidelights, and there was another pair of sash windows next to this. In keeping with the fashion of the times, this facade was clad in rusticated weatherboards.

 Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.

Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.

Already, these components would have told the visitor to the house something about its occupants. The key things were the fashionable rusticated weatherboards; the double – rather than triple – sash windows; the decorative features; and the narrowness of the facade, indicating a relatively small building (this was no quarter-acre section). Based on what we’ve seen elsewhere in Christchurch, I think that these would’ve told the visitor that someone ‘respectable’ lived here, someone who could afford the niceties of life, but who also lived modestly, whether through choice or circumstance – and I cannot stress strongly enough that these are suppositions, untested hypotheses, and should not be taken as truths.

When the visitor opened the front door, they would have seen a ‘properly’ laid out Victorian home (regrettably, we know nothing about the furnishings, furniture or bric-a-brac the occupants used to decorate this house – another problem when examining status via a house). Straight ahead was an arch (with lovely plaster consoles) that separated the public and private spaces. Between the front door and the arch, there was a door to the master bedroom, where you could stow your coat while visiting and, to the left, the parlour or front room, where the visitor would have been entertained.

 Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.

Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.

Most visitors probably never went into the ‘private’ part, and thus never knew what was in there. So they wouldn’t have known that, while there were ceiling roses in the parlour and master bedroom, there were none in the rooms in the rear of the house. In addition, the height of the skirting boards reduced behind that arch and so did the thickness of the doors. And there were plinth blocks in front of the arch, but none to the rear. Plinth blocks aren’t even something we find in homes that we think belong to the moderately or the comfortably well-off – I think of plinth blocks as being restricted to the homes of the truly wealthy. We don’t see them often. There might have been other differences, too, but these were the ones that were still evident in 2013. Of course, the visitor could well have suspected these differences, given the image presented by the house’s facade, and because these differences between public and private spaces were not uncommon in Victorian villas. But the reality is that, in houses of this size (and in a house with ‘only’ pairs of sash windows on its street-facing facade), I wouldn’t have expected these differences, because we don’t often see them in small houses – which could be a problem of survival.

 Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: the plinth block in the parlour. Image: L. Tremlett.

Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: a plinth block at the base of the door between the parlour and the hall. Image: L. Tremlett.

The first occupant of this house was a Mrs Sarah Gault, a dressmaker who lived there from 1886 until 1889. Mrs Gault was Irish. She arrived in New Zealand in 1883, with her father Davis Black, other members of her paternal family and an Alexander Gault (Press 23/4/1883: 2, 9/6/1890: 4) – husband, brother-in-law, son? It’s not been possible to work out so far. Mrs Gault set up her dress-making business in Fitzgerald Avenue, operating from her home, a common practice for dressmakers in the 19th century (Malthus 1992, Star 21/4/1884: 4). A year later she moved into the house in question here, and continued to operate her business from home (Star 3/11/1885: 4). In the Wises Post Office directories (sort of like the White Pages, listing who lived at what address), she was listed as the only occupant of the house in question – this doesn’t mean that she was the only occupant, but it does mean that she was the chief breadwinner, and possibly that there wasn’t a man living at the house (as the male of the house was typically listed in the directories). In 1889, Sarah Gault moved elsewhere in the city, and continued to run her business from home (Star 10/9/1889: 2).

Mrs Gault’s trade meant that she would have received her clients at home, measuring and fitting them in her parlour (Malthus 1992). In her line of work, image may have been very important, depending on the type of clientele she wished to attract. The ceiling roses and plinth blocks, and the barge boards and finial, may have conveyed to her clients that, although she lived in a small house, she understood how one was ‘supposed’ to live and even – this could be quite a stretch – that she was ‘respectable’, often held to be a terribly middle class characteristic. (But to me those plinth blocks suggest something more than middle class.) These features may also indicate the type of client she wished to attract.

So maybe you can tell something about class by looking at a building? While this building doesn’t say much to me about power (at least, not in a simple, immediately obvious way – it might be possible to extract some more subtle readings of power), it may say something about the relative wealth of its occupants: it suggests to me that Mrs Gault was doing reasonably well, business-wise, as this is unlikely to have been cheapest rental around – but maybe it was a financial stretch for her, and she chose it because of the image it conveyed to her clients? It’d be interesting to know about the house she moved to next, and why she moved there. Certainly, there’s nothing in the newspapers to suggest that she was in financial difficulties. What I’ve outlined is a theory only, though, it’s an untested hypothesis, and the next houses we record may prove all of this completely wrong. But I guess that’s the joy of doing research: you develop a theory, you test it, you see what you learn. And slowly, slowly, you maybe begin to understand.

Katharine Watson, Luke Tremlett & Rosie Geary Nichol


Malthus, J., 1992. Dressmakers in nineteenth century New Zealand. In Brookes, B., Macdonald, C. and Tennant, M. (eds). Women in History 2: Essays on women in New Zealand. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Press. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Stay classy, Christchurch

Class is a complicated concept, historically and in the present day. It’s difficult to define, somewhat ephemeral, and yet so clearly there in our societies and our cultures. For better or for worse, social stratification has been part of human life for a really long time now and it shows, in our material culture, in our buildings and in our landscapes.

As a consequence, class, much like gender, is visible in the archaeological record, although not without a whole lot of complications (as is always the way, really). If there’s anything I’ve learned while I’ve been researching this (other than how idiotically ambitious it was to try and write about class in a short blog post), it’s that class is one of those concepts that depends.

To start with, it depends on how we’re interpreting it, and on what kind of ideas and experiences we’re using to make sense of it. It’s very easy, when interpreting and talking about concepts like class, to project our own present day ideas back onto past societies, because they’re the frame of reference we’re working from. I know that our discussions about class here in the office over the past week have constantly touched on class as we understand it now, especially as we tried to untangle our thoughts about what it is and how it’s represented in our material culture.

It also depends on how we’re defining it: are we talking about a part of society which shares similar socio-economic characteristics – i.e. income, social values, social behaviour, consumer choices – or are we talking about a part of society explicitly defined by the way it contrasts with other parts of society. After all, the ‘lower classes’ are only so-called because of how they differ from the ‘middle classes’ and the ‘upper classes’, aren’t they?

A 'definition' of middle class from 1896. Image: Star

A ‘definition’ of middle class from 1896. Image: Star 18/07/1896: 3

Typically, from a characteristics perspective in Western society (and I’m being really general here), upper class denotes inherited family prestige and/or great wealth; middle class tends to refer to a combination of ‘white collar’ professions, comfortable incomes, a certain level of education and/or social manners; and lower or working class to blue collar jobs, lower end incomes, lower levels of education, etc. We’re certainly used to hearing these kinds of class definitions for Victorian society, if not for our own.  Even as I’m writing this, though, I find myself disagreeing, thinking of exceptions, of variations within these definitions. How accurate, how universal are these distinctions? I end up with more questions than answers (and more than a little brain melting).

It depends on how we’re looking at it. From an archaeological perspective, we interpret individual and group behaviour and activities through the physical remnants of people’s lives. This includes intangible concepts like class, which are represented in the things people buy and use and the differences in those things between separate social groups. These differences could be stylistic, they could be cost or value based, they could be functional. If we’re using ceramics, we could look at the differences in decorative techniques and patterns between households, the differences in the types and forms of teawares and tablewares that people owned, or the relative cost of those different objects.

 Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Image: C. Dickson.

Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Ceramics like these can offer insights on the social status of their owners, through the variety of forms present, the decorative techniques and patterns used and the relative value of the vessels. Image: C. Dickson.

For example, archaeological studies elsewhere in the world have associated plain or minimally decorated tea and dinner sets with middle class Victorian households, for whom they’re not just aesthetically pleasing, but associated with ideals of gentility, domesticity and a kind of conformity with the fashions and ideals of their neighbours (Fitts 1991). Other studies have looked at the different types of ceramic vessels people owned: the more variety of types – i.e. the more elaborate and specialised the dinner set – the better off the household might be (Brooks 2002). Even more studies have looked at the relative cost of certain types of ceramic, to see if they might correspond to differences in the social status of households (Miller 1991). There’s always a danger here, though, of making broad, uncritical assumptions about social status or beliefs from artefacts (i.e. we have plain ceramics, therefore we have a middle class household). It definitely helps to have a good historical record for the site or assemblage:  the more historical context we have, the more we can use material culture to explore how people navigated and dealt with social classes, rather than just using it to identify a certain class.

A bone china jug from Christchurch, with sprigged decoration. Bone china, particularly plain or minimally decorated examples, have been considered characteristic of the middle classes elsewhere in the world (Fitts). Unfortunately, we don't yet know how this applies to a Christchurch context. Image: C. Dickson.

A bone china jug from Christchurch, with sprigged decoration. Bone china, particularly plain or minimally decorated examples, have been considered characteristic of the middle classes elsewhere in the world (Fitts 1991), and a reflection of certain middle class values, like domesticity, virtue and modesty. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how this applies to a Christchurch context. Image: C. Dickson.

Context is hugely important when it comes to questions like this. More than anything else, I think, our understanding of social class depends on where and when we’re looking at it. Class is quite a fluid concept and reflects the various social, economic and cultural processes of different times and places. The characteristics of the different social classes in Christchurch, for example, are not the same as the characteristics of those classes in London, or even America, although they may be influenced by them. They’re not even the same as other cities in New Zealand. We’re operating in a very different social and historical context here: different background, different population demographic, different physical, social and economic environment. It’s been said that Christchurch’s upper class, or ‘elite’, was smaller and far more fluid than its British counterpart: here, the upper classes included professionals (lawyers, business owners, etc) who would elsewhere have been considered middle class (McAloon 2000: 193-221). It’s also likely that the so-called middle class of the city was larger than elsewhere and, again, more varied. Although, really, it’s hard to say.

You have to ask then, how did the idiosyncrasies (economic, political, cultural) of Christchurch society affect the definitions of classes in the city? Did it make the differences between what would elsewhere be considered the lower class and the middle classes less pronounced? Was there more mobility between the social classes here than elsewhere? Did people back then actively consider themselves to be middle or upper or lower class or are we just giving them our own labels? Were distinctions in the material culture of different social classes more or less obvious than in, say, England? And most of all, can we see this in the archaeological record?

The answer to the last one is yes, probably, but it’s going to take a while. At this stage, we haven’t excavated enough sites with known class contexts to make any meaningful interpretations of social status in 19th century Christchurch. Before we can start to explore how people in different social groups were using material culture we need to look a bit more at what those different social groups were and how we might be able to associate them with certain types of artefacts. And that requires lots of archaeological sites with good historical records, and the time to compare them all. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and certainly something we’re working on.

As of now, we really only have a few very, very preliminary observations on social status in Christchurch. We’ve noticed that a lot of the residential sites we’re digging up here have very similar artefact assemblages: this might reflect a less pronounced class distinction in the city, the prevalence of one particular social class (the middle) here, or that the material culture of Victorian Christchurch is just too uniform to be a good indicator of class. Alternatively, it might just reflect the sample of sites we’ve excavated so far. We certainly haven’t noticed the kinds of patterns here that have been commented on elsewhere: there’s not been much of a prevalence of plain ceramics here, or contrasts between assemblages with a wide variety of forms and those with just a few types. We have noticed some interesting correlations between the styles of buildings and the social positions or professions of their occupants, especially when it comes to the contrast between the public and private spaces within houses (next week’s post!). It’ll be intriguing to see how these observations change as time goes on and we gather more data. No matter what, it should be interesting!

Jessie Garland


Brandon, J. C., 2009. A North American perspective on race and class in historical archaeology. In Majewsk, T. and Gaimster, D., eds. International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, pp. 3-16. Springer, New York.

Brooks, A., 2002. The cloud of unknowing: towards an international comparative analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century ceramics. Australasian Historical Archaeology 20: 48-57.

Fitts, R., 1991. The archaeology of middle-class domesticity and gentility in Victorian Brooklyn. Historical Archaeology 33(1): 39-62

McAloon, J., 2000. The Christchurch elite. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G., eds). Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a City Biography, 1850-2000., pp. 193-221. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Miller, G.,1991. A revised set of CC index values for classification and economic scaling of English ceramics from 1787 to 1880. Historical Archaeology 25(l): l-25.

In which breakfast is discussed and many pictures of food are shown

Breakfast. In this day and age it can consist of anything from a cup of coffee or a piece of toast to a full fry up. We eat it on the run (guilty!), over the newspaper (or smartphone, increasingly), at the table, in a café, in front of the television or at work. Often, we don’t eat it at all. We are told that it’s the most important meal of the day, yet for those of us who do eat breakfast, it can sometimes feel more like a chore, a meal without much variety (how many of you eat the same thing every morning?) and undeserving of much time or effort (except in the weekends!). Modern living often means that we don’t have the time, money or energy to devote to elaborate meals in the morning. In this, as with so much of what and how we eat, our breakfasts are a product of our social, cultural and economic environment as much as they are an indication of our personal tastes.

The breakfast of archaeologists. A snapshot of the different breakfasts eaten by the office today, some at home, some in the car and some at work.

The breakfast of archaeologists. A snapshot of the different breakfasts eaten by the office today, some at home, some in the car and some at work.

It was no different in the past. The history of breakfast in the Victorian era is a study in contrasts between the recommended or encouraged bill of fare and the realities of individual or household wealth and time, much like today, really (White 1994: 4-16). Cookbooks like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) and The Breakfast Book (1865) suggest a massive range of appropriate breakfast foods, ranging from elaborate dishes like game pies, curries and devilled bones (ew!) to more recognisable fare such as porridge, eggs, bacon, bread and marmalade. One 1884 book, Breakfast Dishes for Every Morning of Three Months, suggests a Sunday breakfast menu of: fried skate and shrimp sauce, curried pigs feet, breakfast cakes, potted anchovy (so much ew!), devilled hot meat, hot buttered toast and jam.

Pie for breakfast anyone? Image:

Pie for breakfast anyone? Image: Wikimedia Commons

Other records, however, indicate that most households stuck to simpler meals for their breakfast, often including a combination of bacon, sausages or mutton chops, eggs, bread, porridge, cocoa, coffee and tea. Some families ate rehashed leftovers from the day before, hot or cold (White 1994: 20). One historian writes that Victorian cookery authors objected to this simplicity and were constantly encouraging their readers to “choose more than bacon and eggs” (White 1994: 9). Which, frankly, makes me empathise more with the readers than the authors. Bacon and eggs is a perfectly acceptable choice.

Bacon! And eggs! Good choice Victorians. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

Bacon! And eggs! Good choice Victorians. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever the contrast between the suggested ingredients for a Victorian breakfast and the realities of the meal, there definitely seems to be a greater emphasis on savoury breakfast foods during the 19th century, and a greater quantity of food consumed in the morning than is eaten today. Contemporary accounts emphasise the importance of a good breakfast (although then, as now, people skipped it altogether; Timaru Herald 25/11/1876:3, Star 12/07/1871: 3, 23/11/1898: 1).  Many of the accounts of 19th century breakfasts include meat of some kind, from bacon to fish. Cakes are mentioned, as are spreads like marmalade, and fruits, but sweeter foods seem to be far less common than their savoury counterparts (Oxford Observer 19/04/1892:4, White 1994: 9-20).

Perhaps the most glaring difference between then and now is the absence of cereal which, in the form that we know it today, wasn’t invented until the late 19th and early 20th century. As a strange, yet interesting aside, Cornflakes, created by the Kellogg brothers in the 1890s, were used as an anti-libido food by John Harvey Kellogg, who believed firmly in sexual abstinence and spent a substantial part of his life trying to get people to stop wanting sex (Kellogg 1888). Something to think about next time you eat cornflakes, huh?

Cornflakes and John Harvey Kellogg, a man with, ahem, interesting ideas about breakfast food. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cornflakes and John Harvey Kellogg, a man with, ahem, interesting ideas about breakfast food. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologically, evidence for the nature of breakfast foods and rituals is scarce. Many of the objects involved in the meal, such as teacups, saucers, plates and serving dishes, are not specifically breakfast related, but representative of food service and consumption in general. As we’ve discussed before, our evidence for food types in the past is limited by what survives in the archaeological record, specifically items like bones, shells and embossed or labelled food containers. Even then, if the historical accounts are anything to go by, much of what we do recover may not be attributable to a certain meal: mutton chops are a prime example. It’s interesting to think about this from a modern perspective, as well: how much of what we eat for breakfast is exclusively breakfast food? Would a future archaeologist be able to determine your breakfast ritual from the foods and objects you use?

That’s not to say that breakfast is invisible in the archaeological record. Occasionally, we do come across items that, if not exclusively breakfast related, do have a much, much higher probability of being used or eaten during the morning meal. Eggs, for example, seem to have been one of the absolute staples of the Victorian breakfast menu, whether poached, fried, boiled or scrambled (Star 12/07/1871:3). We’ve found several egg cups during excavations in Christchurch, some of them better made than others, which would have been used at the breakfast table to eat boiled eggs (sadly, evidence of fried, poached and scrambled eggs is slightly harder to come by…). According to contemporary sources, how a person took their boiled eggs ‘betrayed’ their nationality (Star 17/04/1897: 3): a quick survey of the office tells me that we’ve got people of French habits, English habits and the not mentioned method of “peeling the egg and just eating it.”

Eggcups found on an archaeological site in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Egg cups found on an archaeological site in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Another breakfast food that we’ve found evidence for is marmalade, which seems to have been both a slightly higher class of breakfast food in some places as well as a particularly Scottish one (Star 13/05/1899: 7, White 1994: 20). In a survey of breakfast fare amongst different classes of Victorian families in Britain, it was the servant-owning families (household incomes over 26 shillings a week) who included marmalade as part of their morning meal, although it’s unclear how this applied to New Zealand. Marmalade was also a Scottish product, (likely) originating in Dundee in the late 18th century, and eventually becoming a characteristic of the Scottish breakfast (Star 13/05/1899: 7). It was also, apparently, the cause of religious fights and a title of nobility in 1850s Haiti, along with other “dignities of the jam-pot.” Who knew.

Keiller & Sons marmalade jar. Image: J. Garland.

Keiller & Sons marmalade jar. The first commercially produced brand of marmalade was made by Keiller & Sons in the late 18th century. The story goes that James Keiller’s wife, Janet, experimented with an over-ripe cargo of Seville oranges that had arrived in Dundee Harbour, eventually turning them into marmalade. Image: J. Garland.

It’s a curious thing, food. So basic and yet, so complicated. One of the most interesting things to think about, I find, in regard to breakfast and how it has changed over the last century and a half is how those changes reflect transformations in our cultures and societies. Why do we eat what we do and how we do? What does it say about our lives, about the world around us? Food is never just sustenance, not really. The ritual (or non-ritual, as the case may be) of eating, the foods we eat, even the packaging of that food, is all tied into a much wider representation of who we are and how we behave, collectively and individually.

Jessie Garland


Kellogg, J. H., 1888. “Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects.” In Plain Facts for Old and Young. Ayer Publishing. [online] Available at Project Gutenberg

Oxford Observer. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Timaru Herald. [online] Available at

White, E., 1994. First things first: the great British breakfast. In C. A. Wilson, ed. Luncheon, Nuncheon and Other Meals: Eating with the Victorians. Sutton Publishing Ltd.

Gender matters

Gender matters. And it’s complicated, which is why writing this blog post has been particularly difficult. Why is it so complicated, from an archaeological standpoint? Well, let me try and explain.

Historical archaeology developed as a discipline in the mid-20th century and, at that time, its practitioners made all sorts of sweeping generalisations about the position of women – and other minorities – in the past (as many archaeologists at the time did, regardless of their period of expertise, and as I’m doing now). For the so-called historic period, these assumptions revolved around women as mother and domestic helpmeet, with no roles outside this, little value placed on this role, little recognition that maybe women wanted more than this and little room for any agency on the part of women.

Times have changed, and society now sees gender – and gender roles – quite differently. Historical archaeologists are no exception to this change. We now see considerable value in the role of women in the 19th century and are able to make far more nuanced interpretations about their lives and experiences.

For all this, women are still frustratingly elusive in the archaeological record. There are some artefacts that definitely indicate the presence of a woman at a site, such as a woman’s shoes, clothing or jewellery. It might be possible to use a perfume bottle to definitely link a woman to a site, or perhaps some specific medicines. The presence of girls might be able to be identified through dolls, but boys could just as easily have played with dolls. And anyway, these artefacts do little more than reinforce those gender stereotypes we’ve moved away from. They tell us that there was a woman at the site, and maybe she wore perfume. Or maybe someone gave her some perfume that she didn’t like. Who knows?

But if you’ve got a site that you know was almost exclusively occupied by women for over 40 years, that’s a whole different matter. Especially when that site was occupied by the same family for that period, which is pretty unusual in central Christchurch, regardless of the genders involved.

The site in question was that of Violet Cottage. Even the name sounds feminine, right? Well, that’s how it was known when Dr Thomas Moore – and his family – were living there. The Moore family had bought land in Canterbury in 1850, and emigrated the following year (Greenaway 2007, Lundy 2014). They settled at Charteris Bay initially, before moving to Violet Cottage. Unfortunately for Dr Moore, he only lived at the cottage for two or three years before his untimely death in 1860 (Lyttelton Times 15/2/1860: 4). Following his death, members of his family remained at  the cottage until the 20th century (H Wise and Co 1911). This included Mrs Elizabeth Moore, and the children: Elizabeth, Alice, Thomas, Jane, Ellen, Annie and Emma (H Wise & Co 1878-1979, Lundy 2014). Elizabeth lived at Violet Cottage until her death in 1887 and two of her daughters – Annie and Emma – continued to live at the cottage until the 20th century. We’ve not been able to identify how the women supported themselves after Thomas senior’s death, but there is some evidence to suggest that they had income from property near Violet Cottage (Hughes et al. 2014: 4).

 Violet Cottage, 1881. Image: Andersen 1949: 430.

Violet Cottage, 1881. Image: Andersen 1949: 430.

What we found at the site was perhaps surprising: there was nothing about the assemblage we recovered that suggested the artefacts were deposited by a predominantly female household. Or even that there were women living at the site: no women’s clothing, perfume bottles or shoes. Nothing specifically female at all. This is perhaps not surprising, given that we probably only recovered a fraction of the material culture discarded by the site’s occupants over the more than 40 years they lived there.

We found a fairly generic Victorian Christchurch domestic assemblage, with one exception. We only found three rubbish pits at the site, and one of these features contained almost nothing but alcohol bottles: 134 of the 146 artefacts we recovered from the feature probably contained alcohol (long-time followers of the blog will know that bottles were frequently re-used in 19th century New Zealand and may not have contained the contents suggested by their form). There was nothing about the rubbish pit that suggested the bottles had been deposited over a number of years, and the pit was probably filled over a relatively short period of time. So someone at the site may have been doing a lot of drinking – or it’s possible that the good doctor was using the alcohol for medical purposes.

 Just two of the many alcohol bottles recovered from a rubbish pit at Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

Just two of the many alcohol bottles recovered from a rubbish pit at Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

Most of the remainder of the artefacts recovered from the site were either ceramics or animal bones (i.e. food waste from the Moores’ meals). The ceramics included a range of serving wares that suggested a well-to-do middle class establishment. There was a tureen, a platter, a milk jug and dinner plates, as well as more utilitarian items, such as chamber pots, a colander and a rather fabulous wash basin. There was only one tea cup, one saucer and no teapots – while that may not seem that interesting, archaeologists have often identified the presence and role of women on 19th century archaeological sites through the ritual of afternoon tea, and the material remains of that ritual. There was some evidence, however, to suggest a matching set of sprigged ware – and this may have been a tea set, as the items from this set were a milk jug, a saucer and a side plate.

 Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Image: C. Dickson.

Ceramics from Violet Cottage. Clockwise from top left: a tureen, a Fibre-decorated side plate, the base of a serving dish and a colander. Image: C. Dickson.

 Fragments of sprigged porcelain recovered from Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

Fragments of sprigged porcelain recovered from Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

The animal bones tell us that the Moores were eating mutton and beef, with a preference for mutton, and a range of both cheap and expensive cuts present – beef cheek anyone? The cuts of mutton were from both the forequarter (or shoulder) and the leg, with the latter suggesting the consumption of roast mutton. In amongst all this evidence for food and its consumption, it is perhaps surprising that no condiment containers were recovered from the site – no vinegars, salad oils or pickles.

 A wash basin decorated with the Magnolia pattern, found at Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

A wash basin decorated with the Magnolia pattern, found at Violet Cottage. Image: C. Dickson.

The artefact from the site that I found most evocative was a porcelain platter, made by Spode, and decorated with a blue floral pattern. The interesting thing about this platter was that the maker’s mark indicated that it was made between c.1805 and 1830 (The Potteries 2008). That means that it was made before the Moores arrived in New Zealand, and that the Moores are very likely to have brought it with them from England, and kept it carefully and safely throughout their travels. For the family, this piece of china may have provided a direct and tangible link between the life they left behind in England and their new life here on the other side of the globe.

 A Spode platter, made between c.1805 and 1830 (The Potteries 2008). Image: C. Dickson.

A Spode platter, made between c.1805 and 1830 (The Potteries 2008). Image: C. Dickson.

We can’t relate this artefact to gender (at least, not without making a whole lot of assumptions that don’t sit comfortably), but it does tell us about the sort of items that new colonists – of a certain class – brought with them for their new lives, and their expectations of those lives: I don’t imagine that the holds of migrant ships were packed with Spode platters or ashets… This platter suggests that the Moore family expected to dine well, and possibly even to entertain, and to maintain certain standards in their new home.

Our experience at this site confirms that gender – and gender roles – can be difficult to explore archaeologically. But the question is an important one and needs to be considered carefully at any archaeological site, rather than simply making assumptions about the role of women in 19th century Christchurch.

Katharine Watson, Chelsea Dickson & Julia Hughes


Andersen, J. C., 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson and Williams Ltd, Christchurch.

Greenaway, R. L. N., 2007. Barbadoes Street Cemetery Tour. [online] Available at: [Accessed June 2014].

H. Wise & Co., 1878-1979. Wises New Zealand Post Office Directories. Dunedin: H. Wise & Co.

Hughes, J., Dickson, C. and Geary Nichol, R., 2014. 89 Chester Street East, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for Hawkins Ltd.

Jacobson, H. C., 1914. Tales of Banks Peninsula. Akaroa: Akaroa Mail Office.

Lundy, D., 2014. Dr. Thomas Richard Moore. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed June 2014].

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: <>. Accessed April 2014.

The Potteries, 2008. A-Z of Stoke-on-Trent Potters. [online] Available at:

A humble home

Today’s post presents the story of William Bowen, a prominent Christchurch builder, as told by his residence at 441 Madras Street. Archaeologists recorded this building using building archaeology techniques before and during its post-earthquake demolition. 441 Madras Street was initially numbered 9 and then 13 Madras Street before the Christchurch’s street addresses were reorganised in 1911.

William and Ellen Bowen emigrated from Birmingham in 1873 and settled in Christchurch (Macdonald Dictionary of Canterbury Biography B604). William plied his trade as a carpenter in the city over the next decade. In 1891 William and Ellen purchased an empty section on the St Albans extension of Madras Street (LINZ 1891). Here William constructed the house that became the Bowen family home.

The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.

The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.

Over the next 18 years William developed a very successful construction business in Christchurch, becoming one of the city’s foremost builders. As well as his St Albans residence, William owned large premises on Kilmore Street in the central city from which he operated his construction business (Press 2/3/1910). William worked on many major building projects in Christchurch. Some of these became well-known buildings of 19th century Christchurch, such as the Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street (Press 2/1/1907) and Warners Hotel in Cathedral Square (Press 12/7/1900). William was also very active in the building industry’s political scene, being the director of the Industrial Building Society (Press 21/5/1897) and president of the Builders and Contractors Association of Canterbury (Press 29/7/1906). He also seems to have enjoyed participating in Christchurch’s social and recreational clubs. William was vice-president of the Christchurch Amateur Rowing Club (Press 3/9/1904) and a member of the Canterbury Automobile club, for which he drove a ‘French car’ in their Easter rally (Press 8/4/1904).

William Bowen's professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).

William Bowen’s professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).

William also dabbled in property development. The year after they purchased 441 Madras Street William and Ellen Bowen bought the neighbouring property at 443 Madras Street and built a house there before selling it in 1896, presumably for a profit (LINZ 1890). This building was also recorded by archaeologists before it was demolished.

William Bowen died in 1909 (Star 8/10/1909). At the time of his death he owned another house and section at 483 Madras Street and two more undeveloped sections on Madras Street near Canon Street (Press  8/12/1910). The auction of his estate in 1912 provides an insight into his lifestyle through the list of chattels.

Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).

Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).

In contrast to his thriving professional and social life, the archaeological investigation of his house at 441 Madras Street revealed a surprisingly modest residence. The Bowens purchased 441 Madras Street at a time when the outskirts of Christchurch were rapidly developing their suburban character. William Bowen, with his residential life in St Albans and large business premises in the inner city, was typical of the movement towards separation of work and living space that was becoming increasingly common as the city of Christchurch grew and developed.

The section at 441 Madras Street was originally larger than it is today, with room for stables, a carriage shed and a motor shed (perhaps used to house the French car’ that William drove in the 1904 Automobile Club rally). However, the house itself, with eight rooms, was surprisingly modest for a man of means with a large family. In contrast, John Cracroft Wilson built himself an 11-roomed house in Cashmere for his family of three (in the 1850s). Bowen’s house was a single-storey weatherboard villa typical of those constructed in late 19th century New Zealand and, like most villas, was formulaic in design. The house was situated on the street front, with a verandah on its front elevation. A central hall ran the length of the house, with rooms opening off to either side.

Floorplan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.

Floor plan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.

No overt indications of conspicuous display were identified in the house. One might have expected a man such as William Bowen to have had a two-storey house, with ornate decorations, such as stained glass and cast iron work, on its exterior. The only stained glass around the front entrance of 441 Madras Street was installed in the 1980s. However, several decorative features were recorded inside. These included a mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door, a moulded plaster hallway arch, and several ornate ceiling roses and picture rails. These features are not unusual in late 19th century Christchurch houses, and are particularly common in houses occupied by the respectable middle-class.

Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.

Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.

The house had five fireplaces, four of which remained in their original condition. These fireplaces had moulded timber surrounds and were decorated with embossed patterns or colourful painted tiles. One fireplace was of particular interest. Along with decorative tiles, the fireplace had embossed panels emblazoned with the words ‘The Congo’ and the head of a mustachioed man flanked by two lions. This man was identified as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American journalist and explorer famous for uttering “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” upon discovering the missionary in Tanzania in 1871. Stanley had a long and complicated association with the Congo region, one that has subsequently been approached with criticism (Driver 1991). It is not clear why Stanley’s head was considered appropriate decoration for a suburban fireplace in Christchurch. Perhaps it was created in celebration of his feats of exploration. Or perhaps it was produced by a fireplace manufacturer named for the Congo. At the height of his popularity, Stanley’s image was used to sell “everything from soap to Bovril” (Driver 1991: 134).

Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.

Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.

The historical sources depict William Bowen as an extremely industrious and successful tradesman, active in both professional and social organisations. He was not only employed on major construction projects, but dabbled in property development and was presumably wealthy. The archaeological examination of his residence adds a new dimension to this image. While a comfortable residence, 441 Madras Street was more modest than what could have been expected of a prominent tradesman with a large family. It is possible that the house was built before the height of William’s success, and the family did not feel the need to change it. Alternatively, the residence could be attributed to William’s personal taste, and presumably that of his family, and may have been related to his religious faith.

William Bowen was a member of the Methodist (Wesleyan) church, and prominent in Methodist affairs in Christchurch. Several contemporary newspaper items indicate that both William and Ellen were active members of the St Albans Crescent Road Wesleyan Church (Press 1/5/1897) and that William was president of the Wesleyan Sunday School Union (Press 8/12/1900). The Methodist church emphasised discipline and social responsibility (Shoebridge 2012), and their religious affiliation no doubt influenced the Bowens’ lifestyle, including the house William built for his family on Madras Street.

Rosie Geary Nichol


Driver, F., 1991. Henry Morton Stanley and his Critics: Geography, Exploration and Empire. Past and Present 133: 134-166.

LINZ, 1890. Certificate of title, CB144/91. Landonline.

LINZ, 1891. Certificate of title, CB147/38. Landonline.

Press. [online] Available at:

Shoebridge, T., 2012. Methodist Church. [online] Available at:

Star. [online] Available at: