A local Lyttelton landmark lives on

This week on the blog, we look at what we found beneath a local landmark in the community of Lyttelton: the newly refurbished Albion Square.

Refurbished Albion Square, Lyttelton. Image: Christchurch City Council.

Refurbished Albion Square, Lyttelton. Image: Christchurch City Council.

The Albion Square, on the corner of London and Canterbury streets, is home of the Lyttelton War Memorial Cenotaph. It also acts as a community focal point, and is a testament to the recovery of the port town. However, the longer-standing residents of Lyttelton may recall that this was also once the site of the square’s namesake: the historic Albion Hotel.

We can trace the establishment of the first hotel at this site to 1858, when local merchant John Collier was granted a liquor licence, transforming his grocery store into the Albion Hotel. A year later he added a saddle horses for hire business to the rear of the hotel. An 1862 advertisement in the Lyttelton Times, for the lease of the hotel provides the first known description of Collier’s hotel:

The premises consist of a commodious bar, bar parlour, dining and sitting rooms, with 15 bedrooms, making up 24 beds; also skittle ground and outhouses. This establishment has for the last three years, been favoured with the support of the settlers of the Peninsula particularly.

Lyttelton Times 1/11/1862: 6.

A map of Lyttelton drawn in the 1860s shows the Albion Hotel fronting London Street. Two smaller buildings are shown to the rear of the hotel. These probably represent the outhouses and stables mentioned in newspaper sources (Lyttelton Times 8/1/1859: 5, 1/11/1862: 2).

Detail of an 1860s map of Lyttelton showing structures extant along London Street at the time. Albion  Hotel section outlined in red. Image: Rice 2004: 28.

Detail of an 1860s map of Lyttelton showing structures extant along London Street at the time. Albion Hotel section outlined in red. Image: Rice 2004: 28.

Collier was fortunate that his hotel survived the Lyttelton fire of 1870, which destroyed much of the Lyttelton central business district. In 1881, the original building was sold and removed from the site (Press 14/1/1881: 4). The sale advertisement described the old building as:

Covered with slates, and contains a large quantity of timber and bricks while the intended replacement was a stylish brick edifice to be substituted in its place, whenever the ancient hostelry is removed.

Press 21/1/1881: 2.

Later in 1881 the stables behind the hotel caught fire (Press 22/8/1881: 2). Little damage was done, but the resulting newspaper item indicates the stables were constructed from galvanised iron. The new Albion Hotel continued operating into the 20th century and can be seen in a photograph taken in 1911.  In 1943 a new façade was added to the building (Burgess 2009).

A 1911 photograph showing the Albion Hotel on the corner of London Street and Canterbury Street. Image: Burgess 2009.

A 1911 photograph showing the Albion Hotel on the corner of London Street and Canterbury Street. Image: Burgess 2009.

Over the course of the 19th century, the Albion Hotel and horse for hire business had at least 17 proprietors between them, and more still after the turn of the century. This high turnover complicated the task of attributing the artefacts recovered from the site to a specific individual. The dateable artefacts that were recovered from the site all post-date 1857, confirming that the assemblage was associated with the Albion Hotel. However, serval discreet archaeological features may have been deposited at different times.  The deposition dates of these features range from 1861 to the late 19th century. It is possible that the piece of salvaged roofing slate may have been part of the original Albion Hotel which was removed from the site in 1881 (Press 21/1/1881: 2).

An aerated water bottle manufactured by T. Raine between 1861 and 1871. Image: C. Dickson.

An aerated water bottle manufactured by T. Raine between 1861 and 1871. Image: C. Dickson.

The archaeological material that was recovered was found in a series of rubbish pits, located mainly toward the rear of the hotel site. From this evidence it is apparent that the back of the section was seen as a convenient location to dispose of the breakages and detritus associated with the day-to-day operation of the Albion Hotel. It is possible that the proprietors of the hotel may have deposited waste into these rubbish pits to avoid rubbish collection costs.

The rubbish pits contained combinations of artefacts that are signatures of 19th century hotel sites, such as alcohol bottles, matching serving ware sets and food remains. The alcohol bottles consisted mainly of black beers, though wine bottles, case gin bottles, spirit-shaped bottles and matching glass tumblers were also present. The contents of these bottles cannot be confirmed, as specific alcohol bottle shapes were commonly re-used for alternative purposes. However, it is probable that beer, wine, gin and other spirits were being served at the Albion Hotel. These vessels are also likely to only represent a fraction of the alcohol that was served. The presence of disposable clay pipes with use-wear indicates that the hotel patrons were also smoking at this site.

Rubbish pit feature consisting largely of broken 19th century alcohol bottles. Scale is in 200 mm increments. Image: M. Carter.

Rubbish pit feature consisting largely of broken 19th century alcohol bottles. Scale is in 200 mm increments. Image: M. Carter.

Stem of a clay smoking pipe manufactured by Charles Crop, London between 1856 to c.1891. Image: C. Dickson.

Stem of a clay smoking pipe manufactured by Charles Crop, London between 1856 to c.1891. Image: C. Dickson.

The matching decorative patterns that were found on ceramic tableware and servingware sets are representative of a standardised material culture, and this fashion can be associated with the Victorian idea of social respectability (Samford 1997). It is possible that this servingware is an indication that food was served at the hotel. However, there was a notable absence of condiment bottles from this site. This is unusual, as condiment bottles are typically abundant in 19th century hotel sites.

Fragments of platter and dinner plate set decorated with under-graze transfer print technique. Image C. Dickson.

Fragments of platter and dinner plate set decorated with under-graze transfer print technique. Image C. Dickson.

A number of animal bones with butchery marks were also recovered, the most common of which were cuts of lamb and mutton leg. It is probable that these cuts were being served to the patrons of the Albion Hotel. Shellfish, including oyster, rock oyster, cockle and cat’s eye were also recovered. These are all species that were locally available. There is a notable absence of fish and bird remains from the faunal assemblage. This is unusual, as 19th century hotels have been found to be more likely to serve fish and bird than private houses (Watson 2000).

A newspaper advertisement indicates that the Albion Hotel had rooms at the back that were for the owner’s family (Press 9/5/1882: 3). While both commercial and domestic items were recovered from this site, there appears to be a lack of domestic items that are typically associated with family homes. With the exception of chamber pots, this may be because hotel guests would bring these personal items with them during their visits, and would be unlikely to leave them at the hotel to be discarded.

The Albion Hotel artefact assemblage is comparable to other 19th hotel assemblages in Christchurch, such as the Oxford-on-Avon Hotel and the Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel. All three sites yielded large quantities of alcohol bottles, with black beer bottles being the most prominent. Glass servingware and matching decorative ceramic servingware sets were also present at all sites: the Asiatic Pheasants pattern was dominant at the Oxford-on-Avon, and Willow pattern was well represented at the Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel, while the Albion Hotel appears to have had sets of Willow and unidentified sponged and leaf tableware sets. Unlike Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel, no evidence that could be associated with the neighbouring stables (such as horseshoes) was recovered from this site, despite the fact that the saddled horse for hire business appears to have been long-running at this address.

Matching sponged teacup and saucer set. Image: C. Dickson.

Matching sponged teacup and saucer set. Image: C. Dickson.

By combining the historical and archaeological information from the Albion Hotel site, the activities of those who lived there was revealed to show the use and modification of the section over time. This assemblage has shed light on the operation of a 19th century hotel in Lyttelton, and the provision of food and drink in this context. This site is also comparable to other 19th century hotels within Christchurch, and has the potential to add to our general understanding of similar establishments in the area. This analysis has salvaged a snapshot of one of Lyttelton’s historic watering holes, adding to the charisma of the vibrant entertainment hub of modern Lyttelton.

 Chelsea Dickson


Burgess, R., 2009. Registration Report for Historic a Area: Lyttelton Township Historic Area (Vol. 2). Unpublished report for New Zealand Historic Places trust Pouhere Toanga.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed July 2014].

Press. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed July 2014].

Rice, G., 2004. Lyttelton: Port and town. An illustrated history. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Watson, K., 2000. A land of plenty? Unpublished Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Otago.

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: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/heritage/cemeteries/barbadoes/barbadoesstreetcemetery.pdf [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: <http://www.thepeerage.com/p44788.htm> [Accessed June 2014].

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: <www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>. Accessed April 2014.

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

In which the emanation of effluvia is offensive to one’s senses

Continuing on from last week’s blog, today’s post takes a look (or a sniff, if you will) at the aromas of everyday life inside a Victorian house. Smell is such an intrinsic part of human life, yet so fleeting that it can only be experienced directly in the present moment. The smells of the past, as Hamish mentioned last week, are only available to us indirectly, through written descriptions and the power of our imagination (itself based upon our own past olfactory experiences).

As far as the 19th century is concerned, many of the everyday scents and aromas experienced by people in Christchurch would still be familiar to us, even now. Others, however, have faded from daily life during the intervening decades as household products and technologies have gradually been replaced by modern, odourless, alternatives.

A lovely brass candlestick (used by Colonel mustard in the library, perhaps...). We think that the pieces of fabric stuck to the metal are just the remnants of the wrapping it was thrown out in, rather than a functional or decorative part of the candlestick itself. There's even a candle stub still visible inside the holder, near the base. Image: J. Garland

A brass candlestick found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland

The smell of lighting, for example, is something that wouldn’t even register as a household smell now. Yet, in the 19th century, everything that produced light (with the exception of the sun, of course) – candles, kerosene lamps, gas lamps, wood or coal fires – would also have produced a smell.  Some of these have featured on the blog before, in the form of candle sticks and fireplaces found on Christchurch sites, but we’ve not really considered them in the context of their smell before.

Many of the fireplaces we’ve come across would not have ‘drawn’ well, meaning there would often have been coal or wood smoke in the room while they were lit. Kerosene lamps were notorious for their smell, to the point that advertisers made an effort to emphasise the less ‘distasteful’ smell of their own products (Wairarapa Daily Times 7/2/1913: 7). Candles were made from a variety of materials, from cheap tallow to spermaceti (a wax found in sperm whales) and paraffin wax, some of which gave off distinctive smells and some of which did not. Even ‘odourless’ candles, though, such as ‘sperm candles’, would still have contributed to the scents of the household through the smell of the wick as it was extinguished, or matches as it was lit.

Advertisements for household lighting and heat

Advertisements for household lighting and heat. Left to right: advertisement for gas lighting, which avoids the “soot, smell and sadness” of other lighting methods (Northern Advocate 6/8/1920: 4); advertisement for Apollo Sperm Candles (Evening Post 8/8/1903: 15); advertisement for clean Shell kerosene heaters (Wairarapa Daily Times 7/2/1913:7)

Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless 'super-cabbage'. Image:

Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless ‘super-cabbage’. Image: New Zealand Herald 21/5/1935: 4.

On the other hand, the smell of cooking – and food, in general – is one that we’re used to today, although perhaps not to the same extremes as in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  As well as the smell of coal ranges or cooking fires, people during the period seem to have been particularly concerned with the aromas of cooked vegetables and meat permeating through the house (Ashburton Guardian 31/3/1900: 4). Newspapers from the time are full of advice on how to prevent the smell of cooking from spreading, with noticeable emphasis on the smell of cooking cabbage, onion and other boiled green vegetables (North Otago Times 20/12/1906: 1New Zealand Herald 5/07/1930:7). Of course, some of the cooking smells of the time must have been more palatable than others: the aroma of fresh bread or baking, for example, is unlikely to have provoked such negativity.

Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images:

Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images: Evening Post 21/4/1939: 6Ashburton Guardian 31/3/1900: 4New Zealand Herald 7/9/1929: 7

However, food smells wouldn’t have been limited to cooking. Without the refrigeration that we have today, even the storage of food in a house would have generated a variety of smells – some good (spices, perhaps) and some bad. We talked about a few of the foodstuffs that we’ve found on sites in Christchurch a little while ago. Some of these – the anchovy paste, for example – probably smelled quite pungent to start with, let alone after they’d been sitting in unrefrigerated storage for any length of time. In fact, many of the food-related artefacts we find, from vinegar bottles to Bovril to jars of ground cheese, would have had fairly distinctive aromas that we tend to forget about when we’re looking at them.

An Anchovy Paste jar found in Christchurch and accompanying recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

An anchovy paste jar found in Christchurch, and recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the household smells of then and now is, as it was with the smells of the outside world, related to the management of human waste, sanitation and personal hygiene. Last week, Hamish mentioned one site with a crudely made drain, which might have contributed to the smell of the sewer travelling up the pipe and into a house. We don’t know how common an occurrence this might have been in 19th century Christchurch, but we do know that the smell of human waste would have been a strong presence in houses anyway, thanks to the use of chamber pots – a multitude of which have been found on sites in the city.

Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.

Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.

For many 19th century households, the toilet (or privy) would have been located outside, separate from the main house or attached to the rear of the dwelling (Butcher & Smith 2010). While this set-up would have been fine for use during the day, chamber pots were common household items for use during the night, when it was too cold or too dark to stumble outside to the privy. Even when emptied frequently, the smell must have been fairly pervasive and less than pleasant.

An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant and de-odouriser. Image:

An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant. Image: Southland Times 3/6/1870: 3

However, there were a number of methods and products available in the 19th century to combat the more unpleasant household smells, products that would have themselves contributed to the overall aromatic signature of the Victorian Christchurch home. Examples of 19th and early 20th century cleaning products from Christchurch sites have featured here on the blog before. All of these would have provided a fairly strong assault on the nostrils, particularly the disinfectants like Kerol, Lysol and Jeyes Fluid (New Zealand Herald 22/1/1912: 8). Other methods of preventing ‘noxious odours’ in the home included the cooking tips mentioned above, the careful placement of flowers or floral scented sachets (lavender or rose, usually; New Zealand Herald 26/10/1912: 6), or the use of coffee as a “powerful means…of rendering animal and vegetable effluvia innocuous” (Southland Times 3/6/1870: 3).



Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images:  Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.

Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images: Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.

Sadly, due to the constraints of space, in this post I’ve really only touched on the plethora of smells that would have defined a household in the 19th century. I’ve not mentioned the smell of the building itself (wallpapers, particular types of timber, the damp; Bruce Herald 23/10/1872: 9) or the smell of household animals or pets or many of the other scented household products (for better or for worse) that would have been in use (Evening Post 20/2/1930: 7). Not to mention the personal smells created by people themselves, from the smell of their clothing (washed and unwashed), the smell of leather shoes, individual perfumes or lack thereof, the smell of a person’s hair (which may have been washed with beetle juices!) or the soap that they used.

There are so many individual scents that make up the olfactory experience of our daily lives that it can be difficult to imagine that experience as a whole in the past, to combine all of the smells we’ve mentioned, this week and last, into an idea of what it was like to breathe in deeply in 19th century Christchurch. It can also be difficult to separate out the various smells that contribute to our own experience, especially the ones we’re so used to that we barely notice them anymore. You have to wonder if perhaps it was a bit like that for people in the 19th century as well: perhaps, so many of these smells were so common that they hardly registered in day to day life. For us, though, even imagining such smells has the power to make that daily life – those past scenes and experiences – more real, in a way that few other senses do.

Jessie Garland


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Bruce Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

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

Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

North Otago Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Southland Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

“A few filthy features”

As archaeologists we almost exclusively describe and interpret the physical evidence of past human activity in visual terms, through maps, photos, and descriptions of what the archaeological features or artefacts look like. Although this makes perfect sense, lately I’ve come to ask myself:

“Okay, so if this is what life in 19th century Christchurch looked like, what on earth does this tell me about what life in 19th century Christchurch smelled like?”

Unfortunately, we can only learn about the smells of the past indirectly through archaeology. Smells are not physical things that can be dug up and most don’t stick around for very long anyways. The smells of times past have long since been replaced by the smells of the present.

Historical records such as 19th century newspaper accounts, however, point to a number of different urban smells that were nothing short of offensive in the extreme for both local authorities and the general public.  And, despite the best efforts of those authorities, many such smells simply refused to go away.

In this week’s blog, for your eye-watering olfactory pleasure, I present you with a ‘few filthy features’, bringing the 19th century alive in all its ‘stink and glory’. Enjoy!

Drains and sewers

Before the Christchurch Drainage Board was established in 1876, the Christchurch City Council and other local authorities dug a number of drains and ditches, and built culverts, sewers, and roadside channels to remove stagnant and polluted surface waters. Draining mostly into the Avon and Heathcote rivers, these conduits were never intended to carry sewage and other offensive matter, although they inevitably did.


A newspaper clipping from the …., outlining local legislation on the disposal or rubbish and waste in city drains. Image: Press 01/04/1871: 3

The gently flowing Avon soon became an open sewer by proxy. As one observer noted, it “oozed a mass of putrid and decaying animal and vegetable matter” (Star 21/11/1872: 3).

Box culvert Image: H. Williams

Part of an 1870s timber culvert found underneath Ferry Road. Image: H. Williams.

We have found some evidence of these early drainage conduits, such as a boxed timber culvert that carried the Ferry Road drainage ditch beneath Ferry Road (above), and early pipe drains, which were crudely constructed by modern standards. One such pipe drain, found on Oxford Terrace, was laid on a flat gradient, meaning that the filth and water it once carried can’t ever have been able to drain away freely (a factor that no doubt contributed to its eventual silting up). Worse still was a crudely made and un-trapped connecting house drain, which may well have resulted in the sewer stink travelling up this drain and entering the house. Yuck!

Image: H. Williams

An earthenware pipe drain sewer with an un-trapped house connection, and sediment build-up found inside. Image: H. Williams.

By 1882 the Drainage Board had helped to remove some of the sewage stink from Christchurch through the construction of a sewerage system that carried waste eastwards out of town towards the estuary, and stormwater via a separate network of sewers into the rivers. Many of these sewers, of brick and concrete construction, have been relined and are still in use today. We also know that for some disgruntled 19th century ratepayers, the sewers, and the Drainage Board itself, carried with it the reek of corruption. Although he never publically admitted it, the Drainage Board’s Engineer Mr Charles Napier Bell was accused of profiteering from a 5% commission on all the earthenware sewer pipes the Board was importing from Britain (Wilson 1989: 18).

One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.

One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.


Despite the expansion of the sewer network, many households did not connect to the sewers and instead continued the medieval practice of using backyard latrines/privies with subsurface cesspits for disposing of their bodily wastes. Typically unlined, these cesspits were directly implicated in the transmission of fatal water borne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery, with seepage contaminating the groundwater of nearby wells. Emptied by hand (before they were later abandoned and filled in with rubbish, much to the excitement of us archaeologists), ‘night soil’ was carted away and dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch,  a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood  (Alexander 1985:11).

We have excavated a surprisingly small number of cesspits in Christchurch, the deepest of which was 1.8 m deep. The bottom of this deep cesspit was stained a light tan colour and was of a puggy, sticky consistency, which we have interpreted as the residues of decomposed poo. Layers of ash, and a white powdery substance (probably lime) found within one of these pits may represent deodorising agents.

Julia sitting in the cesspit feature she just excavated. Image: H. Williams.

Julia digging out a cesspit feature in the Christchurch CBD. Image: H. Williams.

Rubbish and rats

As we have mentioned before on the blog, rubbish disposal was a continual problem in early Christchurch. Although in some areas the council did operate a household rubbish collection system in the 19th century, and employed ‘scavengers’ to clean the streets of rubbish and horse poo on a semi-regular basis, many households continued to dig pits in their backyards for disposing of their rubbish, or simply dumped it out of sight under the house or on a vacant section, thereby avoiding the collection fee.

With particularly large rubbish pits, I have always wondered to what extent they may have smelled bad, as they were filled up over time with the household’s food and kitchen scraps and other offensive organic wastes, left to putrefy in the summer sun. To date, we have not found any clear evidence of layers of dirt or sand dumped in pits in Christchurch that would have helped to minimise any bad smells. Pits may have been covered in some way, however, perhaps with lengths of timber or sheet metal, which would have helped to suppress any nasty smell, and we hope, have kept the rats out.

With all the filth and rubbish in, around, and underneath Christchurch buildings, it is not difficult to imagine how easily a population of rats could get out of control. Many a subfloor space in built-up Christchurch may have sheltered a rat family or two, safe out of the cold and with a ready supply of food scraps about to sustain them.

By 1900 the rodent menace reached a crisis point, as civic authorities prepared for the coming of the plague, which had appeared in New South Wales and threatened to spread to New Zealand on infected stowaway rats (Star 27/2/1900: 2). Although the plague never arrived in Christchurch, the threat contributed to a greater awareness about the dangers of filth, and the eradication of urban rat populations.

Advertisement for O'Kearney's rat poison. Image:

Advertisement for O’Kearney’s rat poison. Image: Star 06/11/1888: 2

A wide variety of strychnine, phosphorus, and arsenic-based rodent poisons were available from chemists to deal with rat infestations. Because they were implicated in a number of suicides and murders across the country, after 1895 purchase of these products required a signed declaration from a Justice of the Peace as to their intended purpose, as well as the payment of a government fee (Press 23/10/1895: 4).

At a site on Victoria Street we found two pit features like nothing we have ever seen before, features we have interpreted as archaeological evidence of 19th century rodent eradication activity. This took the form of two hand dug pits, each of which contained only rat bones – the remains of 34 rats in one pit and 21 in the other.

Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.

Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.

Whether both these pits were dug, filled, and covered over in the same day we will never know, nor what stinky state of decomposition these rat corpses may have been in when buried, nor whether these rats succumbed to poison, traps, or the resident tabby cat. What both these rat bone features do tell us, however, is that at the end of the day, it was the people of Christchurch who not only through their individual actions or inaction contributed to the filth and the stink, but were ultimately also the individual agents of change who helped play their part in cleaning it up. Such is the sweet retrospective smell of history.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Press.  [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.

A lot of old rubbish!

…this yard being kept in a disreputable state, there are no cinder pits in proper places to throw the refuse of cooking and things in general, as at home, so old bones, vegetable remains, scrapings of plates, cinders, tea leaves, every conceivable thing is flung anywhere over these yards…

From Taken In by “Hopeful”, 1887.

Imagine that you live in 1860s Christchurch. Although it’s officially a city, there’s not much here that’s like the cities of Europe. The roads aren’t paved – in fact, most of them have hardly been formed. Your house is wooden, rather than being stone or brick. There’s no running water, and nothing to speak of in the way of drains between your house and the street. There are rubbish collection services, but only within the four avenues and you have to pay for them yourself. Fortunately, though, there’s a lot more space than back home. So, instead of paying the night-soil man or the town scavenger(s), you can just bury your rubbish in your backyard, throw it under your house (or even out the back door, if you don’t care too much about the smells and ‘nuisances’) or toss it into the Avon River.

This post is a bit different from others we’ve written to date. It’s the first in an occasional series that looks at the process of archaeology, and the factors that we consider before we interpret a site, or a particular artefact. In this case, it’s rubbish, because that’s largely what we find. When we find rubbish, we have to think about what was deposited, where and how was it deposited and why. When it was deposited is pretty important too, but we’ll look at that in another post. This post only provides the briefest of overviews over rubbish disposal practices, but it’ll give you an idea of how we think about these things.

 The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).

The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).

From 1863, the disposal of waste within the area bounded by Bealey Avenue, Fitzgerald Avenue, Hagley Park and Moorhouse Avenue  was regulated by the Christchurch City Council (the council was formed in 1862). The council set aside a rubbish dump very early on in the piece (Press 5/4/1862: 3), but it was not until January 1864 that the council contracted the Hadfield brothers to collect “refuse, slops, etc”, and instructed the Inspector of Nuisances “to cause the dry rubbish and ashes in every house or yard to be placed in bins provided for that purpose, the same to be conveniently accessible to the contractor at stated periods for removal, and to see that this authority be exercised within the cess-pan district…” (Lyttelton Times 28/1/1864: 5). It had been decided late the previous year that the council would recover the cost of this service directly from ratepayers, although subsequent council reports suggest that this was sometimes difficult (Press 25/11/1863: 3).

 An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).

An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).

While an official report in early 1865 suggested that this system was working well (Press 12/1/1865: 4), there were also reports of rubbish not being collected or people failing to pay for the service and people sweeping rubbish into gutters (Press 22/3/1865: 2, Lyttelton Times 28/3/1865: 3). A year later it was noted that “The Committee thought it desirable to make inquiries as to the removal of ashes and other dry rubbish, but they do not find that any systematic plan has been adopted in the manner or time of removal, nor as to the description of removal.” (Press 21/3/1866: 2). Whether or not any changes followed this report is not known but it is clear that there was a system of removal of rubbish in place in 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2). After 1870, there’s not much information about rubbish collection in the council reports in the newspapers, although in 1871 it became illegal to throw rubbish into “any public sewer or drain”, suggesting that this was a problem (Press 1/4/1871: 4).

 Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).

Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).

 Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).

Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).

Charging for rubbish collection continued until at least the late 1870s (Press 11/4/1878: 2). By 1886 the fee for this service seems to have been taken from rates (it wasn’t possible to work out exactly when this change took place; Star 9/3/1886: 4).

Even though rubbish in Christchurch could be collected from your property by at least 1864 (and it appears to have been a legal requirement that rubbish was removed from your property), archaeology tells us that families and businesses continued to dispose of their rubbish themselves throughout the 19th century (as a number of the posts on this blog illustrate).

A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.

A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.

So how did people do this? Mostly, they buried their rubbish it in purpose-dug pits, which were sometimes lined with tins – this may have been to prevent noxious material leaching into the city’s water. Because there are no soil or sand layers in these pits, we know that people weren’t throwing dirt or sand into the pit (which would have helped stop those noxious odours). The pits may have been covered is some way, which would also have reduced the odours – and the rodents – and  stopped loose sand or soil blowing into the pit. No physical evidence of such a cover has been found to date. Elsewhere in New Zealand, people threw their rubbish into abandoned privies or wells, but we’ve not found any examples of this in Christchurch so far.

 An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.

An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.

Some people were evidently too lazy to dig a pit and simply threw  the rubbish under their house (archaeologists call this an ‘under-floor accumulation’ (Butcher and Smith 2010)), while others took advantage of neighbouring sections that weren’t occupied and buried their rubbish there – nasty! The rubbish we’ve found at the Theatre Royal may be the result of this sort of activity. And apparently sometimes people just threw their rubbish out their back door or in a pile in the backyard (a surface accumulation or surface layer). That’s what the quote at the start of this post is referring – it’s from a book written by a young woman who was rather disillusioned by 1880s Christchurch (Hopeful 1974).

1890-11-20_8 Press

The Papanui Bone Mill produced ‘bonedust’ (a fertiliser) from bones (Press 20/11/1890: 8).

Like us today, the residents of Victorian Christchurch threw out items that were beyond repair or had fallen out of fashion. But fashions changed a lot less quickly then than they do today and there was a whole lot less packaging than there is now. And people rarely threw out objects of monetary value, such as jewellery or watches. There was also reuse, particularly of bottles, and bones leftover from meals were often collected and turned into ‘bonedust’ (a form of fertiliser). People tended not to throw out complete or unbroken objects – it’s rare that we find something that’s not broken, and in many cases we only find one fragment from a given plate or bottle. When we do find complete or nearly complete artefacts, we start to think a bit harder about why someone might have thrown something like that out, and that’s when the out-of-fashion argument can come into play.

 A nearly complete plate that someone threw out. Photo: J. Garland.

A nearly complete plate that someone threw out, possibly because it was no longer in fashion. Photo: J. Garland.

These are just some of the things we have to take into account before we interpret an artefact or assemblage, and before we can get to the heart of what archaeology’s about: people.

Katharine Watson


Butcher, M. and Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 53-61.

Hopeful (pseudonym), 1974 [1887]. Taken In: Being a sketch of New Zealand life. Capper Press, Christchurch.

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

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

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