– Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days, 1857
It’s hard to picture what many of Christchurch’s buildings looked like before the earthquake. For many locals the torn down remains of a building or an empty lot remind them of a favourite hangout, a birthday or even the best burgers in town. The archaeology that has been excavated and collected from these sites and buildings provides evidence of earlier and equally personal stories and events, proving these buildings were full of life for over a century. One example of this is the Oxford Hotel, also known as the Oxford Family Hotel, the Oxford Victualling Co. and latterly as the Oxford on Avon.
The Oxford Hotel was located on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Colombo Street and was one of the city’s older hotels. Originally established as a boarding house by Antill and Sarah Adley in 1860 or 1861, the hotel gained a licence to sell alcohol in 1862 and began operating as a pub as well as a boarding house. It was at this time that the establishment was renamed the Oxford Family Hotel (Greenaway 2007: 14). Adley had proprietorship of the hotel until his retirement in 1873 (The Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1903) and continued to own the land and lease it out until 1903 (Christchurch Deeds Index C1 c.1853: 616). The hotel lease was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Dann in 1875, who transferred the lease to Mr. Bately, who rebuilt the building in 1883 (this was the building that stood until the earthquake; Star 5/6/1883: 3). What we found from the archaeological data and historical records is that this building not only acted as a hotel but as a central hub for the wider community, which was not uncommon for 19th century hotels in New Zealand.
The hotel was nice and close to Victoria Square, first known as Market Square and a centre of activity in early Christchurch. This must have been good for business and it allowed the hotel to cater to the wider community, hosting meetings and events, acting as a morgue or emergency room in some cases (Press 15/4/1879: 2; Star 4/2/1890: 3), and all the while supplying cheap alcohol from the pub. During Dann’s operation of the hotel he offered membership to a skittle alley and often hosted skittle and quoit tournaments. Mail and messages could be left at the Oxford by or for patrons (Star 28/4/1869: 3), so it functioned as a post office too. Most importantly, though, the Oxford Hotel was a pub: Dann’s advertisements in the local newspapers constantly mentioned the array of spirits available, with an emphasis on the cheap prices.
Of the 925 glass artefacts recovered from the site, 395 were black beer bottles, 196 were wine bottles and another 99 were other liquor or spirit bottles. There were also 52 porter or stout bottles. Sounds like a lot of alcohol, right? Think again. To put it into context, even if only one bottle of alcohol were drunk a day, this would represent little more than two year’s drinking. So where did all the other bottles go, then? Well, the Avon River was conveniently close…
A number of smoking pipes were also found, confirming that the combination of alcohol and tobacco was just as common in the 19th century as it is today. Many of the pipes were made by Charles Crop, a manufacturer from London whose pipes have been found on hotel and residential sites in both New Zealand and Australia (Brassey 1991: 30; Macready et al. 1990: 57). Tantalisingly, the embossing on some of the pipe stems hints at the origins of some of the smokers: “QUEENSLANDER” and “LACHLANDER”. Perhaps the smoker purchased these as a reminder of home.