And yet, she persisted

Many of you will already know that Christchurch has a fascinating political history, from labour movements to radical social reform to the campaign for women’s suffrage. It is to my eternal disappointment that this “great ferment of ideas”, as Jim McAloon calls it, is almost invisible in the archaeological record – even more so when, as it was in many cases, this history of socio-political reform linked with the lives and actions of Christchurch’s women. We’ve talked before on the blog about how difficult it can be to see gender in the archaeological record and, more specifically, how difficult it can be to see women, who are often defined by the occupation, class, economic status and social profiles of the men in their lives. Yet, every now and then, we find ourselves in an exception to that rule. For example…

May I introduce the inimitable Mrs Fanny Cole, prohibitionist, staunch agitator for women’s rights and all round formidable woman.

Fanny Cole sits at the front right of this photograph – she’s the commanding woman with the no-nonsense expression on her face and the gavel in her lap. Image: Otago Witness, “Delegates attending the NZWCTU’s national convention in Dunedin, 1912,” Voices Against War, accessed August 11, 2017.

Mrs Cole (or shall we call her Fanny?) lived at a house on River Road, in Avonside, with her husband, Herbert, during the late 19th century. She was the daughter of Charles and Fanny Holder, Methodist preachers and activists, and first arrived in New Zealand in 1880. She married Herbert Cole in 1884 and, by 1893, they had purchased a section on River Road, on which they built their house.

(Herbert was a commercial agent and staunch prohibitionist himself, but as this is a blog about Fanny, not Herbert, we shall leave it at that.)

The Cole’s house on River Road, as it was in 2014. Image: K. Webb.

We first ran across Fanny Cole when we recorded her house on River Road. The house was a fairly standard late 19th century villa, nothing unusual or fancy about it. A few ceiling roses, a few extensions, weatherboards and sash windows, a modest house for a woman, her husband and her children.

An archaeological drawing of the south elevation (or front) of the house. Image: K. Webb.

From the back, you can see the extensions and modifications that occurred over the years. Image: K. Webb.

Ceiling roses and hidden wallpaper gems. Image: K. Webb.

Case windows and the reflection of an archaeologist in her natural habitat. Image: K. Webb.

However, while recording the house and monitoring the demolition, we found a few things – bits of ceramic, a knife handle, a poster for Goofy’s dance review. Among these, found in the rafters of the attic space, was a small, yet intriguing piece of card. On one side were the partial printed details of a lecture and, on the other, a handwritten appointment reminder for something in New Brighton or Burwood on Friday at 7.15 pm and the stamp of the W. C. T. U., Christchurch, 129 Manchester Street.

The rafters of the attic space, where the ticket was found. Image: K. Webb.

The card, with the stamp of the W. C. T. U and handwritten appointment on one side, and the details of an event on the other. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

The W. C. T. U. stands for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organisation that was established in Christchurch in 1885 to combat the evils of drink in Victorian New Zealand, but which became a vehicle for the promotion of social reform and, not least, for the voices of women. Most notably, one of the earliest members – and national presidents – of the organisation was Kate Sheppard, and it was through the machinery of the W. C. T. U. that much of the campaigning for women’s suffrage in the late 1880s and early 1890s was carried out. This was an organisation of strong women, who believed that alcohol was destroying society, that something needed to be done about it and, that if no-one else would do it, they would break down the gender barriers to do it themselves. From there, really, there was no stopping them. Or, perhaps I should say, us.

We’re not entirely sure what the appointment in New Brighton at 7.15 pm on Friday happened to be, but the rest of that tiny piece of card – well, that’s another story. After a bit of sleuthing we discovered that the lecture referred to on the back of the card is likely to have been one in a series of lectures given by the Reverend Leonard M. Isitt at the Theatre Royal in 1894, along with a talk by William Lloyd Garrison “hero and slave liberator.” The Reverend Isitt was an active politician and labour leaning member of parliament in the early 1900s, a strong proponent of the temperance movement and a close friend of the Coles.

Advertisement for a lecture by the Reverend L. M. Isitt on the 4 December, 1894. Image: Poverty Bay Herald, 1/12/1894: 3. 

However, it was the W. C. T. U. that really intrigued us. As it turns out not only was Fanny Cole a prohibitionist and active member of the W. C. T. U. (inherited in some part from her activist Methodist parents, do you think?), she was, by 1897, the national W. C. T. U. secretary (Kate Sheppard was president) and, by 1904, the president of the Christchurch branch. By 1906, she was the national president for the union. And it is in this role, and through this association, that history – and archaeology – can hear her voice. And not just her voice – her political voice. Because, let me tell you, she did not hold back.

Fanny Cole’s signature on the 1893 women’s suffrage petition presented to parliament by John Hall. Image: Archives New Zealand.

She was vocal, as one would expect from the president of a temperance union, on the subject of alcohol, from publicly taking the ‘liquor party’ to task for stealing a W. C. T. U. globe tableau to employing graphic and dramatic rhetoric against the liquor sellers and their ‘no license’ agenda. In 1899, for example, she said (and I could not make this up):

“The term innocent can scarcely be applied to designate those men and women whose hands are red with the blood of hundreds and thousands slain ruthlessly by the liquor traffic. You say that those who vote for no license would do evil that good many come. That is not true. But the publicans and brewers are working evil all the time so that they may live.”

Press, 28/11/1899: 2.

Extracts from Fanny Cole’s letter to the editor on the ‘no license’ question in 1899. Image: Press, 28/11/1899, p. 2.

She, and the rest of the W. C. T. U., railed against what they considered the cause of harm to women, children and society. They took on everyone, from liquor sellers to the Sports Protection League (which I did not know was a thing – did anyone else know that was a thing?). As history tells us, theirs was a campaign that never quite succeeded in New Zealand – it was defeated by a vote margin of just over 4% in 1911, a measly 1% in 1919 and an incredible 0.3 of a % later that same year (New Zealand History). Individual districts of the country voted to ‘go dry’, meaning alcohol licenses were not issued for those areas, but New Zealand as a whole never did adopt prohibition.

Extract from Fanny Cole’s letter to the editor on the evils of the alcohol trade in 1899. Image: Press 28/11/1899 p. 2.

The temperance movement was not the only poker that the W. C. T. U. – and Fanny Cole – had in the fire, however. They dedicated themselves to matters of social reform outside the sphere of prohibition. For example, in the early 1900s, they sallied forth on the subject of prison reform – specifically, as it affected female prisoners. Fanny and her fellow members advocated for women to be ‘endowed the with powers of justices of the peace’ in order to act as official visitors to prisons, arguing that female prisoners should be better treated, that they should have women doctors and that, rather than men, women attendants should have charge of “violent or incorrigible female prisoners”.

On the subject of women in prisons. Image: Star 29/11/1897: 2.

In 1910, she and Miss M. B. Lovell Smith signed a public letter to the Honourable Dr Findlay (Minister of Justice at the time), criticising his proposed solutions to the problem of venereal disease, or, as the newspapers called it, “the black plague, peril to the country.” Their letter argued that instead of the reforms Dr Findlay was proposing (which included compulsory examinations and reporting for prostitutes, but not their male customers; McAloon 2000), that emphasis should be placed on providing treatment that didn’t also carry with it the fear of being reported to other authorities. They also argued strongly for the education of young people in schools on the subject of sex, venereal disease and their own bodies – a suggestion that is still controversial in some sectors of New Zealand and in some parts of the world (America comes to mind here…). I remember discovering for the first time that the radical and feminist women of Christchurch were actively campaigning for their economic and sexual independence as early as the turn of the 20th century – largely because, some days, it seems like we are still fighting for this.

“This department suggests that the Education Department of New Zealand should procure the services of specialists to educate the young people in our schools and universities by means of scientific teaching concerning the function of their bodies, the dangers consequent on the misuse of them and the value of healthful self-control.”

Evening Post, 5/09/1910: 8.

Throughout, no matter which areas of social reform she was pushing (and no matter what we think of those reforms now), Fanny was advocating for the necessity of women’s involvement, at all levels of the process. Whether it was women acting as officials in prisons, women making themselves heard in matters of health and education, or women sitting on the boards of aid foundations, she was actively and vocally doing what she could. I think possibly my favourite example was her prediction that, not too far off in the future, there would be women legislators, many of whom “will be far more capable than some of the men now in the House.”

You’ll be pleased to know, Fanny, that we’ve had two women Prime Ministers and currently have a woman Leader of the Opposition….Image: Taranaki Daily News, 12/03/1908, p.2.

Perhaps, nowhere is this unrelenting and forthright emphasis on the rights and position of women in society more obvious than in 1910, when she co-signed a furious letter to the Premier of England regarding the treatment of British suffragettes, and in 1912, when her remarks on the subject were printed in the paper. In both, she cites the shame the Empire endured from conduct of the British government and the total illogicality of keeping women out of the electoral process. Her remarks on the subject were blunt and to the point, questioning the condemnation of women who employed methods less violent than those used by men in their fight for enfranchisement, questioning the progressive credentials of men who cannot see the potential for social reform in politically active women, and condemning “indelible stain on the British Government” left by their actions against the British suffragettes. In her words (and I encourage you to read the full thing):

“We learn, in fact, that the consideration theoretically promised to all his Majesty’s subjects is not extended to women, who are thus shown to be on the footing of serfs in the eyes of his Majesty’s Government… Can anyone fail to draw the obvious inference. Nowhere on earth can the interests of women be safeguarded where Parliament is not as fully responsible to women as to men.”

Grey River Argus, 7/05/1910: 7. 

Remarks on the position of those fighting for women’s suffrage in Britain. Image: Otago Witness 20/03/1912, p. 63. 

Fanny Cole died on the 25th of May, 1913 at the age of 52, while national president of the W. C. T. U. Her funeral was attended by the Mayor of Christchurch, local and national politicians and members of the W. C. T. U. from all over the country. Her eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Leonard M. Isitt, M. P., the ticket to whose 1894 lecture we found in the rafters of her house more than a century later.

Jessie Garland


McAloon, J., 2000. Radical Christchurch. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G. (Eds.), Southern Capital, Christchurch: Towards A City Biography, 1850-2000. 

The fascist punishment: a foul taste used for foul purposes

It’s made from plant seeds named for their resemblance to a tick and has been known through history as the ‘golden nectar of nausea’ and the ‘fascist punishment’, among other things. When combined with chlorine, it forms a “a substance of horny character” (immature as I am, I may have laughed at that) and its taste has been commonly described as repulsive. We find the distinctive cobalt blue bottles it used to come in on 19th and early 20th century sites throughout Christchurch, where it was used to traumatise young children in the name of good health for decades.

Got it yet?

I am, of course, talking about castor oil, the scourge of the bowels (apparently), lubricator of flying machines and converter of communists (I’ll explain later, it’s kind of awful). Castor oil, which comes from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century, and was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries for a plethora of things, some of them more dubious than others.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. Image: J. Garland.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. As well as a laxative and purgative, castor oil was used to prevent flies from landing around children’s eyes, as a way of preventing gun powder from getting wet, as a perfume base and a beauty product (with the slogan ‘Feed your face with castor oil!) and as a lubricant for early flying machines. it was surprisingly versatile. Image: J. Garland.

Primarily, it was used for personal health care, mostly advertised as a laxative and/or purgative for cases of constipation and diarrhoea, over eating or general digestive problems. One specific account describes it as “a medicament for putting the internal economy in order after bouts of overeating,” which is just the most delightful turn of phrase. It was often given to young babies, especially earlier in the 19th century, although this was later discouraged as an unnecessary and occasionally dangerous thing to do (there are several accounts of babies or young children dying as a result of the wrongful administration of castor oil, usually due to reactions with other substances). It wasn’t particularly dangerous for adults, unless there were other health complications, although there were some cases of people dying after mistaking acid or caustic disinfectants like Lysol for castor oil (yikes).

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

A very very high number of the articles and advertisements for castor oil were concerned with the taste. Some described it as repulsive, some as sickening. One writer even used the phrase “the smooth, mucilaginous, euphorbiaceous, nauseous castor oil” which manages to both be technically accurate (translated as ‘sticky nausea inducing oil from the Euphorbiaciae taxa of plants’) and convey an almost onomatopoeic sense of revulsion. Needless to say, there are numerous recommendations on how to disguise the taste, both for yourself and any unsuspecting victims (usually children) you might have.

Among the recommended ways of hiding the taste of castor oil are: mixing it with scrambled eggs; ‘floating’ it on milk; putting it in lemonade; orange juice or other citrus flavours; hiding it in candy (this seems particularly cruel); and mixing it with cocoa to form ‘castor oil chocolate’ (which sounds awful, to be honest). The chocolate is particularly interesting, thanks to one account of a court case in Christchurch in which a local chemist was prosecuted for selling a product labelled castor oil chocolate that actually contained mostly phenolpthalen, a weak acid also used as a laxative. So, yeah, laxative chocolates. Who knew. Also still a thing, apparently.

Castor oil taste

Top: Even Tom hated the taste of castor oil. Image: Tom and Jerry Cartoon “Baby Puss” 1943. Bottom: 1928 joke about disguising the taste of castor oil. Image: Evening Post 23/03/1924: 21.

Apparently, a lot of these methods didn’t actually do a whole lot to disguise the taste of the oil. Neither did the ‘tasteless’ castor oils advertised actually manage to do what they claimed. Castor oil continued to taste bad enough that the taking of it was considered a punishment, especially by children. In fact, it was administered as a punishment, and this is where it gets interesting. And political. And a bit sinister. Because castor oil wasn’t just given as a punishment to school children (which is bad enough, when you think about the laxative properties…) but, particularly during the 20th century, was also forcibly given or used as a threat against adults – specifically and most commonly by fascists.

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in methods by which to punish school children. Image: Auckland Star 7/06/1884: 4.

The first mention I found of this was a notice in the newspaper stating that several men had been imprisoned for “administering castor oil to communists,” which seemed a bit weird but kind of funny. Then I read some more and, yeah, not so funny. Castor oil was used by the Fascisti in 1920s and 1930s Italy to punish dissenters, subversives and enemies of fascism, basically by holding them down and forcing them to suffer from uncontrollable diarrhoea that could last for days. It served the purpose of exerting control over individuals, humiliating them and immobilising them, or at least restricting their movement (Strange History 2014). “Castor oil cudgels” became so synonymous with Mussolini and the Italian fascists that George Bernard Shaw had to write a defense of fascism in 1937 to explicitly state that the success of the ideology wasn’t just due to the use of castor oil.

In which a fascist Pinnochio forces

In which a fascist Pinocchio forces castor oil down the throat of a communist. Image via Overland Journal.

The use of castor oil in this way was adopted by other extremist political groups during the first half of the 20th century. The Nazis used it as a threat against newspaper editors who might consider attacking them in print; royalists in France used it in combination with tar to attack anti-royalist deputies; fascists in England used in an assault on a journalist; secret police in Cuba allegedly forced newspaper staff to drink it at gunpoint in 1934 to “forestall revolutionary outbreak” and it was used by the rebels in Spain in the late 1930s. It was, as it turns out, an exceedingly common tool of political punishment.

nazis and castor oil

In which the Nazis use castor oil to threaten the freedom of the press. Image: Auckland Star 5/11/1930: 7.

You can actually sort of see the beginnings of the use of castor oil in this way during the earlier 19th century: although not explicitly used as it was in the 20th century, it’s mentioned occasionally as a kind of social purgative, playing on the perceived purgative and laxative qualities of the product and applying them to society or sub-sets of society in general. One account talks about administering castor oil to the entire Department of Public Works, another of using it to “sweep away the all highly paid noodles and useless sinecurists” in the Railway Department. Another example attempted to solve the drunk ‘problem’ in America by offering drunkards a choice of castor oil or gaol (which kind of seems like a non-choice to me, but I guess not). The same principle was applied in Italy again during the 1920s, where it was less of a choice and more of a ‘if we catch you drunk, we will forcibly feed you castor oil to sober you up, totally for the good of society.’

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image:

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image: Press 1/12/1936: 11.

Now, there’s no evidence to suggest that the castor oil bottles we find in Christchurch were used for anything outside their health or mechanical-related functions, but it does make you think about a whole field of things our archaeological experience doesn’t usually touch on. I spent a while wondering if the use of castor oil as a political punishment was equivalent to the New Zealand trend of throwing random things at politicians, but I don’t think it is. It’s far more insidious than that, far too related to those characteristics of ‘purging’ – and not just because of the association with fascism and the abuses of Mussolini and Hitler. It’s the subversion of a household product – of the function of a household product – into a tool for social oppression and control. Proof that anything can become an instrument of torture (not to put too fine a word on it) if you add enough violence and a dash of radical ideology. It’s been over half a century since this particular form of that was popular, but don’t tell me that the thought’s not still a bit terrifying.

(I tried to think of a way to end this on a lighter note and get us back to the chocolate flavoured drugs and ‘substance of horny character’, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sorry. Blame fascism.)

Jessie Garland.


Strange History, 2014. Mussolini’s Secret Weapon: Castor Oil. In Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. [online] Available at: 

Tiso, G., 2014. Making real a fascist puppet. In Overland. [online] Available at: