Artefact stories: 19th century chemists and other subjects…

Today’s blog was inspired by three pharmaceutical bottles that aroused my curiosity and gave me the perfect excuse to talk about a few 19th century chemists in Christchurch…

I came across the first small glass fragment in an assemblage from a late 19th century domestic site in the north Christchurch. I know, the fragment is tiny and the embossing is well-worn down, almost to the point of illegibility, but I could still make out a few letters: TOWN…, PHY… and CHRISTCHURCH. These provided me with my first clues in the tale of discovery I’m sharing with you today…

If you look closely, you can just make out the letters. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

My first thought, given this partial evidence, was that this small fragment was part of a bottle of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla, a remedy we often find in Christchurch assemblages. It was advertised as a blood purifier and cure for general health in newspapers of the time, first introduced by Samuel Townsend in 1839. Although the name is similar, as you can see, it turns out that Dr Samuel Townsend was not the man we were looking for…

Left: Townsend’s Sarsaparilla (Image: Jessie Garland). Right: Press 31-10-1902: 7. Oh wow! If you are a woman with headache and feeling weak muscle, Townsend’s Sarsaparilla is the solution! If you are a man suffering the same symptoms, sorry!

Then, a little bit later on, I still had that tiny shard of glass fresh in my mind when archaeology presented me with the perfect opening in the case of this mysterious manufacturer. On a bottle from another archaeological site, this time in Lyttelton, I found the full inscription: DR J.H. TOWNEND CRYSTAL PALACE BUILDINGS CHRISTCHURCH. At this point, I was fairly certain that I had found him! Mystery solved!

On the left we can see the Dr Townend’s bottle. On the right, there is detail of the base, where we can see who the bottle was made by, through the initials Y. G. Co. This company, known as the York Flint Glass Company, was established by Joseph Spence in 1835 and continued in production until at least 1930. They were known for their high-quality glass bottles and jars for soft drinks as well as food containers and medicines. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Dr Joseph Henry Townend was a 19th century Christchurch doctor, who was born in England and first arrived in Lyttelton in charge of immigrant health on board the ship ‘Rakaia’ in 1874. One year later, he came back to New Zealand on the ‘White Rose’, with his brother William, and established his business in the Crystal Palace Buildings, where he remained until his death in 1902 (Star 11/07/1902: 3). He became one of the most popular physicians in Canterbury in the 19th century and some of the bottles used to hold his remedies made their way into the archaeological record to be found a century and a half later. My tiny mysterious fragment would have originally been part of a bottle marked ‘DR J. H. TOWNEND / CONSULTING PHYSICIAN / CHRISTCHURCH’.

View down Colombo Street toward the Port Hills. Right: Market (Victoria) Square. Left: Crystal Palace Building. Christchurch, ca. 1870. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.

You’d think that would be end of it, no? But, like some kind of stalker from beyond the grave, Townend seems to follow me through my working life, since, not long after this, another Townend’s bottle turned up! This example (I promise you that it is the last one!), although still incomplete, clearly read: TOWNEND CHEMIST CHRISTCHURCH. From this, I was led to William, Joseph Townend’s brother, who worked as a chemist in partnership with his brother here in Christchurch.

Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A bit of historical sleuthing later, I discovered that William Townend, in addition to his pharmaceutical activities, had quite a few interesting episodes in his life (and yes, I do love this historical gossip, but only a little…).

Left: portrait of William Potter Townend. Right: Cinnamon Cure advertisement

William Potter Townend arrived in Christchurch with his brother Joseph Henry in 1875 and ran the Townend’s Chemist and Druggist Store from the Crystal Palace Building on Colombo Street well into the 20th century. He made a variety of medicines to treat common diseases, like his famous ‘Cinnamon Cure’ for throat and lung ailments, ‘Townend’s Bilious and Liver pill’, children’s teething powders and personal grooming products such as the ‘Antipityninne’ or ‘Townend’s Sulphur’ hair restorers. (Riley 2011).

However, his story deviates somewhat in the 1870s. On the 20th of May 1876, William was charged with the manslaughter of a baby born from Amelia Isaac, whom he had attended in the absence of his brother. The details are a bit grisly, but suffice to say that the baby died because of his assistance. Consequently, the Supreme Court condemned him to six months of imprisonment for the incompetent practice of medicine. The case had a huge social impact and more than 5000 thousand people signed a petition praying for his release. What a popular man! Certainly, the scale of this petition is something, given the offence with which he was charged…

And then, if being charged with manslaughter wasn’t problematic enough, William was also charged – along with his colleague George Bonnington – with the offence of selling poison to a man who died after purchasing laudanum. In this case, he had to pay a fine, quite a soft punishment, I guess…

Press 13/07/1877: 2. Quite the mulit-faceted man, Mr Towned. As well as practicing pharmacy and medicine, however badly, William was active in Christchurch society. He was a member of the Christchurch Musical Society, playing the contralto and singing with ‘much expression and sweetness’… Maybe singing was his secret talent? Who knows!

The manslaughter charge is interesting, not just because of the petition and social context of the crime, but also because it provides an example of a man doing what was usually considered women’s work. Generally, midwives in the 19th century were mostly married women who worked autonomously. The majority of the births during the 19th and early 20 centuries took place in the home. Although it was a difficult part of women’s role, it was also a natural part of their lives (Stojanovic 2010). Infant mortality was a serious problem and measures like regulating the midwifery practice, providing education, creating a midwifery register and improving maternity care were methods used to reduce that high rate.

Let’s come back to the artefacts, shall we? The archaeological record provides us with material evidence of several chemists based in Christchurch during the 19th century along with Mr William Potter Townend. Sometimes, as with the Townend fragments, these bottles can give us valuable information about the glass and the product manufacturers. We can also be the luckiest archaeologists in the world and figure out the exact contents of the bottle when the label or embossing is present. Here’s a few examples…

Probably the most famous one! Bonnington’s Irish Moss was used for the cure of respiratory ailments and was still in production until the 1970s. George Bonnington began his business in Christchurch in 1872. Image: J. Garland.

John Berry’s premises were located at Colombo Street in the late 19th century and remained there well into the 20th century. He advertises his ‘miraculous corn salve’ which, apparently, painlessly removes corns, bunions. (New Zealand Times 7/06/1893: 2) and other products as ‘Florolia’ (New Zealand Times 10/04/1894), Hair Lotion for children, Fruit Syrups (Press 29/11/1897: 1), Berry’s Indigestion Cure, Berry’s Rheumatic and Gout Remedy (Press 23/02/1898: 1) or Berry’s Killkorn (Press 2/04/1898: 10). He was also appointed as the agent for Wellington and District for the treatment of Female Complaints (Evening Post 28/04/1896: 3).

John Baxter was also a chemist in Christchurch from 1870 onwards. He patented his Lung Preserver in c. 1889, advertised as a remedy for influenza, coughs & colds etc. Image: J. Garland.

Finally, I can’t finish without sharing my latest discovery with you, drawn, again, from my particular obsession with women and gender, you know…

Who’s this? Elizabeth Robinson, the first woman chemist registered in New Zealand. She was working as a chemist and druggist from as early as 1872, before which time she was helping her husband Richard in the Joseph Arthur Cooke Pharmacy in Cashel Street. When her husband died in 1872, she became the owner of the chemist’s shop, running the business until 1886 and registering as a chemist on the 28th of June 1881 (Shaw 1998: 27). As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to finding at least one of her bottles…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu


Christchurch City Libraries [online] Available at:

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Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at

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Riley, W. (2011). Cinnamon Cures and Cosmetic Connections. [online] Available at

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Solomons, H. and Riley, W. 2017. Lost Christchurch. Remembering our Lost Heritage. [online] Available at:

Star [online]. Available at