It came as a bit of a surprise when over 1000 fragments of broken stoneware jars were unearthed at an otherwise ordinary Christchurch archaeological site.
But there, sitting under some old petrol tanks, was Christchurch history waiting to be found.What made this very large assemblage more interesting was the clear warning emblazoned along the base of some of the examples: “PERSONS DETAINING, MISAPPROPRIATING OR TRADING WITH THIS JAR ARE LIABLE TO BE PROSECUTED”.
Initial research for this address, located along Worcester Street, had not returned much information. An 1877 map showed the section was empty but there were buildings on the surrounding land. We know that in the early 20th century the lot was owned by Henry Thomas Joynt Thacker, a “colourful”
mayor of Christchurch (LINZ 1911; Rice 2012). A resident for the street number used today, however, could not be found, with only the adjacent street numbers mentioned. Enter archaeology. After the ceramics had been thoroughly cleaned, the name ‘Sharpe Bros’ appeared, printed or impressed in different fonts and of varying quality. This narrowed research down from any time in Christchurch’s historical record to the time between 1908 and 1914, when the Sharpe brothers, cordial manufacturers, had a factory one number down from the site in question.
The Sharpe brothers hailed from England, with the eldest brother John Sharpe moving to warmer climes to improve his health in 1900. After joining his brother Percy, who had immigrated to New Zealand earlier, the two opened the first Sharpe Brothers cordial factory in Dunedin in 1903. Apparently not ones to waste time, by the end of 1905 Sharpe Brothers manufacturers could be found in Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Sydney (Sharpe 1992). The two brothers were prohibitionists and prided themselves on their non-intoxicating drink. The Sharpe Brothers operated in New Zealand until the final branch in New Plymouth closed its doors in 1981 (Wellington Antique Bottle & Collectables Club 2003).
The rather intimidating warning found on some of the fragments made sense now, too. The Sharpe Brothers, like most manufacturers of one-gallon stoneware jars, saw the large vessels as loans and these were not purchased when you bought the drink that the jar contained. A look at old newspapers from around New Zealand showed that the Sharpe Brothers just as frequently advertised their goods as they printed warnings that asked for their one-gallon bottles to be returned. The jars were a key component of the early Sharpe Brothers company. These jars were not only what they sold their product in (until the 1930s) but the names impressed on the front showed ownership and were a form of advertising (Sharpe 1992). But were jars returned? And if they were, were they re-used? How long were the jars used for? And what did they do with all the old jars?
Well, there are at least five different types of Sharpe Brothers one-gallon jars recovered from the site. Some were made by Doulton and Co. from London and another was made by P. Hutson and Co. from Wellington. Some had handles pre-dating John Sharpe’s patented wire handle in 1904 (Sharpe 1992), and some were decorated with taps and displayed the medals Sharpe Brothers were awarded at the 1906-1907 New Zealand International Exhibition.
Even though the company had been operating in Christchurch since 1905 the section wasn’t used by the brothers until 1908, therefore the presence of the handled jar forms from before the 1904 wire handle patent indicate that jars could be in rotation for a number of years. This is further evidenced by the presence of the jars made by Doulton & Co., which could have been the jars ordered from England in 1905 (Press 20/4/1905). The two manufacturers and different styles present means that rather than discarding an old design when a new one was introduced, Sharpe Brothers probably used the old jars until they broke. The mass grave of these old ceramic vessels suggests that when the jars broke, they were tossed into a hole out the back of the property. Though the density of the deposit could indicate that the old jars were used as foundations. In the Sydney branch the old unwanted Sharpe Brothers jars were broken and used in foundations when the focus shifted to crown seal bottles (Sharpe 1992). It could also be that in Christchurch the old bottles were kept to the side to be repurposed later and in 1914, when the factory moved to Armagh Street, they decided to dispose of all old stock instead of moving it to the new premises.
Amongst all the Sharpe Brothers jars was a single example of a Ballin Brothers ginger beer bottle. Was it accidentally returned to the wrong place? Or was it a rebellious act of drinking the competition at work?
We never know what artefacts, if any, lie beneath the ground. But that’s the point. Archaeology can not only point us in the right direction to research a site’s history but can add depth, insights and evidence about the day-to-day workings of an influential New Zealand business. It may not always seem like it but it’s important to remember that fragments of broken, dirty, petrol-covered jars from a company whose motto read “Cleanliness and Quality combined” are as much a part of Christchurch’s history as carefully preserved papers.
Cyclopedia Company Limited, 1905. Otago and Southland Provincial Districts: Cordial Manufacturers. [online] Available at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc04Cycl-t1-body1-d2-d30-d11.html#n329.
LINZ, 1911. CB211/72, Canterbury. Landonline.
Press. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.
Rice, G. W., 2012. Thacker, Henry Thomas Joynt – Thacker, Henry Thomas Joynt. [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/3t28/thacker-henry-thomas-joynt.
Sharpe, D., 1992. Remember That Heavenly Ginger Beer? A History of Sharpe Bros. Impact Printing: Melbourne.
Thames Star. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast.
Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directories. [microfiche] Held at Christchurch City Libraries.
Wellington Antique Bottle & Collectables Club., 2003. Sharpe Bros. [online] Available at http://www.wellingtonantiquebottles.org.nz/companies/sharpe.shtml.