‘Is your breathing embarrassed?’

Many of you will probably have heard of Baxter’s Lung Preserver, a local Christchurch product created in the 19th century and still sold today. Bottles of Baxter’s, with the name of the product embossed on the sides, are common finds on late 19th century sites throughout Christchurch.

A 19th century bottle of Baxter's Lung Preserver found at a site in central Christchurch.

A 19th century bottle of Baxter’s Lung Preserver found at a site in central Christchurch. Image: Jessie Garland.

As far as we know, the product originated in the late 1860s in Christchurch as the brainchild of a man named John Baxter, who set himself up as a chemist in the young city. The actual start date of the business is a bit unclear, as we have one advertisement from 1884 that claims over 25 years of operation (suggesting a date of 1859; Taranaki Herald 1/02/1884: 4) and another from 1939 that claims a 75 year history (suggesting a date of 1864; Evening Post 16/10/1939: 13). The 1864 date seems more likely, since we know that John Baxter died in 1895 at the age of 49 (Star 14/09/1895: 4), meaning he was born in 1846. It’s a little unlikely that a 13 year old would start a pharmaceutical business, but an 18 year old doing so isn’t quite so much of a stretch.

Advertisement for Baxter's Lung Preserver from 1939.

Advertisement for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Evening Post 16/10/1939: 13). 

Whatever the start date, it’s clear that by the 1870s, Baxter was well established in Christchurch, with premises on Cashel Street in something called ‘Medical Hall’ (Star 13/08/1875: 4) as well as on the corner of Victoria and Durham Street. The business continued at the Victoria Street address well into the 20th century, with his sons taking over after Baxter’s death in 1895 (Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1903).

Advertisement for Professor Brown's herbal remedies, sold at Baxter's Chemist, Christchurch.

Advertisement for Professor Brown’s herbal remedies, sold at Baxter’s chemist, Christchurch (Press 17/04/1885: 4).

Like George Bonnington, John Baxter became well known for his own creations, and also sold products created by other chemists. Along with his lung preserver, Baxter advertised Baxter’s Anti-Neuralgic ‘magic pills’, Compound Quinine Pills, cures for indigestion and remedies for liver complaints. He was also known to stock herbal remedies and ointments from a Professor O. P. Brown, as well as non-pharmaceutical objects like the 1885 Shakespearian Almanac and various other things (Press 17/04/1885: 4).

Like so many pharmaceutical remedies of the late 1800s, Baxter’s was often advertised in local newspapers using testimonials from apparently satisfied clients. Just a quick scroll through 19th century newspapers from all over the country brings up countless enthusiastic letters and quotes from “faculty, clergy and others” who claimed that Baxter’s Lung Preserver had cured them of their ills and succeeded where other remedies had failed (Press 04/08/1873: 2).

Testimonials for Baxter's Lung Preserver, Press 4/10/1883.

Testimonials for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Press 4/10/1883).

Other advertisements played on concerns of the time and offered to cure a range of complaints, most of which were respiratory illnesses or problems – cough, colds, bronchitis, congestion of the lungs. My personal favourite offers Baxter’s Lung Preserver as a remedy for “embarrassed breathing” as well as the more common respiratory problems (Evening Post 29/01/1887: 2).

Advertisement for Baxter's Lung Preserver.

Advertisement for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Evening Post 29/01/1887: 2).

We’re not sure exactly how effective Baxter’s Lung Preserver would have been at curing the things it claimed to fix, since we don’t know exactly what was in it. The modern version, still sold today, uses the active ingredient ipecacuanha (a Brazilian plant used as an expectorant and emetic; API Consumer Brands 2013), but we have no way of knowing if this is the same as the Victorian recipe. Some anecdotal information suggests that it might have had a high alcoholic content, which would be in line with many of the other patent medicines of the time, especially those directed at coughs and colds.

Whatever its ingredients, it’s clear from the wealth of historical information and archaeological finds, that Baxter’s Lung Preserver was a hugely popular product, not just in Christchurch, but throughout New Zealand. It’s a testament to Baxter’s legacy and the tenacity of his products that his business lasted so long after his death and his products continue to be sold in shops today.

Jessie Garland


API Consumer Brands. 2013. [online] Available at <http://www.api.net.nz/brands/consumer-division/baxters-range>.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District]. 1903. [online] Available at <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/>.

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

Manawatu Standard. [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>.

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

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

The house that Thomas built

I’d like you to meet the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher, a devout Wesleyan whose ill-health – preacher’s throat, no less – unfortunately prevented him from preaching for some time. He arrived in New Zealand in 1857 and promptly set himself up in business in Christchurch (apparently he arrived with quite a lot of money, and made even more – but don’t say I told you). Since his arrival in Christchurch, he’s devoted himself to worthy activities – a founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a minister for the Wesleyan church, and he’s even preached for the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians from time to time. Such a religious chap. It’s 1885 now, and he’s 79 and he’s slowing and settling into his retirement, during which he and his wife Sarah would love to spend as much time as possible with their ever-increasing family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (of whom there will be 36 by 1890; Press 13/1/1890: 5). Such a fortunate man! Colonial life has been so good to him!

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of Thomas or Sarah Fisher, but until the earthquakes, we had two buildings that Thomas was intimately associated with, both of which we recorded. Many of you will be familiar with the Fisher building, one of the central city’s most prominent 19th century buildings. But you’re probably less familiar with Cotswold House, the house the Fishers built in Parlane Street (then Clifton Street).

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher's business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher’s business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

Thomas Fisher set up shop on the corner of High and Hereford streets in c.1860, establishing a grocery shop there. By the late 1870s, Thomas’s son William had joined the business, and they built new premises, designed by no less an architect than William Armson. Clearly, the rumours of wealth were more than just rumours…

The resulting building was a glorious Venetian Gothic number, as suited the prosperous businessman in the years before Commercial Classicism became the style du jour. Built in brick with limestone detailing, it occupied its corner site well. This was a three-storey building, with a stone-lined basement underneath. The numerous limestone carvings drew on nature for inspiration (echoing some of the themes in last week’s post). The underside of the veranda was pressed tin and the veranda brackets were an excellent example of Victorian excess.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

But what about Richard and Sarah Thomas’s house? It was built in 1885, but we don’t know who the architect was (not Armson, as he’d died in 1883). Thomas and Sarah’s new house was a bay villa. Although it looked relatively plain, after studying the building, I am left with the sense that it was richly decorated, but in a calm, restrained way. There was little in the way of Victorian excess here, with the exception of the cast iron fretwork around the veranda. The richness came in the little details: the corbels, the pediments, the angle-stops, the panels under the windows, the porthole-style ventilation holes. Small details, well executed.

It was big. About 16 rooms (although the newspaper advertisements said 11 or 12, but apparently some rooms just don’t count). With seven bedrooms. Why did a retired couple need seven bedrooms? I guess there were all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come and stay. And there must have been at least one servant, although all the bedrooms were generously sized, and all had fireplaces.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

Most of the original decorative features inside the house were long gone when we recorded it, but some fireplaces remained, as did skirting boards, a ceiling rose and some cornices. The original fireplaces weren’t those from very best rooms, but there was one from the breakfast room and two in the upstairs bedrooms. And the interesting thing about these was that they matched – not just each other, but also the external decoration. Oh, the one from the breakfast room was a bit fancier, but all three were of the same basic design, and they matched the corbels on the exterior. Not immediately obvious, but it’s these small things that matter. We all know that Victorians were fairly over-the-top by our interior decorating standards, and often every fireplace in the house was different. Not in this case. Maybe it was cheaper to buy a bulk lot, but I prefer to think that the Fishers were paying close attention to the decoration of their home, and ensuring a consistency of design throughout.

The first floor, upside down. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The first floor, upside down. The tongue & groove floorboards are at the bottom, with the insulation boards above, running between the joists & supported by fillets. Photo: M. Hennessey.

There’s just one other detail about the house I’d like to draw your attention to: the floor of the upper storey was sound-proofed. Yep, that’s right. We’ve only seen this in two other 19th century buildings in Christchurch, and they were both commercial. Not a common thing to do then. So why did the Fishers go to the trouble of sound-proofing their home? Good question. Maybe it was those hordes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, creating a ruckus upstairs and disturbing the genteel entertainments of the Reverend and Mrs Fisher.

Two buildings representing the two different faces of the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher. The central city business, designed to catch the eye and draw the customer in, reflecting the successful businessman. The suburban residence, presenting a restrained, genteel façade, reflecting the refined tastes of the Wesleyan minister and his wife.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Cotswold House to William Bowen’s house, featured a few weeks back.)

Katharine Watson


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

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

‘An ornament and a credit to the city’

Illustrated Australian News (Melbourne), Wednesday 26 January 1876 page 13

An engraving of the Christchurch Normal School soon after it was constructed. Image: Illustrated Australian News26/1/1876:13.

The former Christchurch Normal School was one of the city’s significant architectural landmarks. Built from stone in the gothic revival style, the building occupied a prominent position at the corner of Cranmer Square. The school was commissioned by the Canterbury Provincial Council and completed in 1875. An extension was made along Montreal Street in 1879 to accommodate a kindergarten and training department. You may have passed this building many times and admired the beautiful carving around the doors and windows but never really thought about how the building was constructed and why the building looked the way it did.


The Kilmore Street wing of the Normal School prior to the earthquakes. Image: Kete Christchurch.


A page from a field notebook that forms part of the written record of the Normal School. This page describes the types of windows at the Normal School. Image K. Webb

The Normal School building suffered severe damage from both the September and February earthquakes. Prior to its demolition in October 2012 the building was recorded by archaeologists. This week’s post takes a brief look at the Normal School building, and some of the results from our investigation of the building from an archaeological point of view.

Examination of a building using archaeological methods has the potential to reveal significant evidence relating to the history of New Zealand and may provide information that cannot be obtained through other means. Four different techniques were used to record the Normal School building; these included the creation of extensive drawn, written and photographic records as well as sampling building fabric for analysis and curation.

The foundations of the Normal School were made from Portland cement concrete and were up to 1.5 m deep and 1.2 m wide. The walls were built from basalt stone from the Halswell Quarry, here in Christchurch. Limestone, probably from a North Canterbury quarry, was used to dress the windows and doorways as well as for the cornices, string courses and copings. During demolition of the building a relatively large number of mason’s marks were observed on carved stones from around the windows and doorways. The marks were on the joint beds and non-visible faces of the stones. 


Some of the stonemason’s marks found on stones from the Normal School building. Image: K. Webb.

Stonemason marks were used for a variety of reasons; as well as identifying individual masons, they were also used to identify masons working under a particular master or workshop and also may have been specific to the building site. Marks were also used to identify how stones fitted together, as shown in this video. Therefore, the marks may not be unique to individual masons, making it difficult to trace masons from one site to another. The use of mason’s marks during the 19th century was probably a revival of medieval traditions and they are still used today by masons who wish to continue the tradition (Alexander 2008). It is unusual to find stonemason’s marks on 19th century buildings in Christchurch, let alone so many different ones.


Drawing of one of the turrets decorating the roof of the Normal School. This drawing is part of a series drawn in 1972. The plans are held at Archives New Zealand.

There were a number of turrets along the ridge of the roof of the Normal School. These were decorative and also formed part of a complex ventilation system in the building. The wooden arch-shaped louvres in the turrets allowed the egress of stale air through the ceiling of the first floor, while fresh air was brought into the building through a system of clay pipes built in to the buttresses that supported the exterior walls. There were also a number of ventilation grates in the south and west exterior walls. The cast iron grates were highly decorative and allowed air flow in the space between the ground floor ceiling and the first floor.


Some of the decorative cast iron ventilation grates found on the south and west walls of the school. Image: K. Webb.

Good ventilation was a matter of some importance in the design of the Normal School building. This concern was demonstrated by a discussion held by Board of Education in 1878 with regard to the lack of ventilation in the existing school school buildings despite the multiple ventilation systems already installed. The poor drainage of the grounds was also a common complaint made by parents of the school children (Star 13/7/1877: 3). We don’t know whether or not this problem was solved .

Ventilation - BOARDS OF EDUCATION. Star , Issue 3158, 23 May 1878, Page 3

Report on a meeting of the Board of Education regarding ventilation at the Normal School. Star, 23/5/1878:3.

When the building was extended to accommodate a kindergarten and training department the style of the addition was quite different from the original building. The carving around the windows and doors was less ornate than in the original structure, although small finely carved spherical label stops and bosses were used to decorate the window sills and arches. Each of these carvings had a different design, usually in the form of a cluster of leaves or flowers as well as birds and critters.


Some of the carved label stops and bosses from the kindergarten extension at the Normal School. Image: K. Webb.


The Montreal Street wing of the Normal School showing the difference in appearance of the original building on the right and the 1879 extension on the left. Image: Dalman Architecture.

Several cost saving measures were employed in the construction of the extension, in addition to the simplicity of the carving. The internal walls were constructed from brick, a cheaper alternative to the stone used for the internal walls in the original part of the building. This also meant that the foundations could be less substantial than those for the original building, and therefore use less concrete. There were no fireplaces in the new kindergarten. Instead, it was heated by a system of pipes that carried heated water throughout the building, so only one boiler needed to be fuelled rather than several fires. So, while no expense was spared in the first phase of construction of the Normal School (a total of £14,269 was spent on the building, not including furnishings), the kindergarten extension was built as cheaply as possible, costing less than £2,700 to build (Star 17/12/1873:3; Press 6/6/1879:3).

Unlike the personal stories of individuals and their families that are told through archaeological investigation of a house, the establishment of a normal school in Christchurch highlights the importance of education within the colony during the 1870s and the preference to train teachers here rather than import trained teachers from the homeland; a normal school was also opened in Dunedin the same year as the Christchurch Normal School. Along with documentary evidence the building can tell us what the key concerns of the Board of Education were when the building was designed, for example construction cost, ventilation, heating and drainage.

This post was just a brief excursion into the Christchurch Normal School, the full archaeological report will be available to view on Quake Studies when it is completed.

Kirsa Webb


Alexander, J. S., 2008. ‘Masons’ Marks and the Working Practices of Medieval Stone Masons’, in P.S. Barnwell and Arnold Pacey, (eds) Who Built Beverley Minster?. [online] Available at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/arthistory/research/staffinterests/ja/masonsmarks/

Archives New Zealand, 1973. CALW CH166 8/14 AC 5222 Christchurch Normal School – Spire base and chimney details. Christchurch Regional Office.

Christchurch City Council, 1982. The Architectural Heritage of Christchurch: 1. The Normal School. Christchurch City Council, Town Planning Division. [online] Available at: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Publications/ChristchurchCityCouncil/ArchitecturalHeritage/NormalSchool/

Illustrated Australian News. [online] Available at: http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/page/5729910?zoomLevel=1

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

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

Inside an asylum

Bedlam. That’s how most people think of 19th century hospitals for the mentally unwell. The phrase ‘lunatic asylums’ – which was how such institutions were known at the time – doesn’t conjure up much better images. But what if the situation were quite different? What if, instead of the mentally unwell being chained up, never visited and hidden from sight, the patients of the mid-19th century were instead treated with respect and kindness, interacted with the broader community through plays and dances, gardened, participated in trades and were never restrained and rarely treated with medicines?

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. Image:  Te Papa O.034082.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

In fact, this is what many mid-late 19th century asylums aimed for. The treatment of patients at this time was based on a philosophy known as ‘moral management’ and, fortunately for Christchurch residents, one Edward Seager, first superintendent of Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, was a strong supporter of this philosophy. The four principles that underlay the philosophy were:

  • patients should not be restrained but should instead be supervised;
  • patients should be classified according to the degree of insanity and their stage of recovery, both during the day and at night;
  • patients should be given the opportunity to participate in activities and employment; and
  • patients should have the opportunity to participate in exercise (Piddock 2001, 2004).

In many ways, the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum – now Hillmorton Hospital – epitomised these principles in its early years. The hospital was established in 1863, and the complex expanded throughout the 19th century, with a number of the buildings designed in the Gothic revival style by Benjamin Mountfort. The hospital grounds were large enough to include a farm (initially, at least), gardens, airing yards and numerous workshops for practising trades. Patients resident at Sunnyside worked in the grounds and workshops, exercised in the airing yards and took part in a range of social activities, including cricket, church services, plays and weekly (later fortnightly) dances. The public were encouraged to attend many of these events. This focus on entertainment and engagement with the broader community seems to have fallen off with Seager’s departure, and as the number of patients in the asylum increased (Seager 1987).

An inspector's comments after visiting Sunnyside in 1875 (AJHR 1875 H2:5).

An inspector’s comments after visiting Sunnyside in 1875 (AJHR 1875 H2:5).

In spite of the best efforts of Seager, later superintendents, and the asylum inspectors, the archaeology of the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum revealed that the reality lay somewhere between the horrors of Bedlam and the ideal of moral management.

Microsoft Word - Report

A gravel path with brick edges in east airing courts. Image: K. Watson.

Documentary records reveal a range of details about the asylum. Plans tell us that the grounds of the asylum were landscaped with sinuous paths (and the archaeology confirmed this). There is little mention of medication in the records, but detailed descriptions of patient classification systems and the employment and entertainment opportunities they were provided with. What the documentary evidence does not highlight is the degree of separation between staff and patients, nor does it provide much detail about how patients rebelled against the institution. Archaeology, however, does.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum china. Image: K. Watson.

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum china. Image: K. Watson.

During the 19th century, the separation between ‘us’ (the staff and, by association, ‘normal’ people)  and ‘them’ (the patients) was reinforced by forming the male airing courts so that the staff outside looked down on the patients inside. While this would have made monitoring patients’ behaviour easier, it also reinforced the differences between the staff and patients and ensured that both were fully aware of these differences. The staff – and possibly visitors – were also separated from the patients in the airing courts through substantial brick and cast iron fences. At meals, the use of branded asylum china reinforced to patients their position as ‘lunatics’ and, consequently, both their position in society and their ‘difference’ from the rest of society.

The toilet block, with an enclosed drain to the left and the open drain to the right. Image: K. Watson.

The toilet block in the East Wing airing courts, with an enclosed drain to the left and the open drain to the right. Image: K. Watson.

Further evidence that the patients were seen as different, and thus could be treated differently – and, significantly, could be treated badly – was found in the airing courts associated with the East Wing. These airing courts, which were used by male patients, had an open drain running around the inside of the courts. Built to promote drainage, the open drain also carried waste from the toilet block through the airing courts. While sanitary conditions in 19th century New Zealand might not always have met our 20th century standards, these drains were built in the late 1890s and were deliberately built as open drains carrying raw sewerage – they were not the result of ad hoc development. Such a situation would have been regarded as unacceptable in any public space, but was somehow acceptable at the asylum, a product, perhaps, of how the patients were seen and how different they were believed to be.

Some of the buttons, with a Hobday button is in the centre. Image: K. Watson.

Some of the buttons, with a Hobday button in the centre. Image: K. Watson.

Evidence of rebellion against the institution, and all that it entailed, was found in the male airing courts, where two features containing artefacts were found. The small artefacts recovered from these features, including spectacle frames, buttons, food remains, and ceramic and glass fragments, were almost certainly deposited there by the patients. The nature of these artefacts suggests that they were unlikely to have been the personal possessions of the patients but were probably items owned by the asylum (the spectacles may be an exception). Thus, it seems likely that these items were stolen from the asylum, perhaps as a small act of rebellion. Petty theft would have been a means of expressing dissatisfaction with a diagnosis of insanity, the living conditions, the staff and the asylum itself.

While some of the archaeological remains confirmed that the practices of moral management were adhered to at Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, others indicate that this was only part of the story. Those details of life at Sunnyside revealed by the excavation but discussed in little detail in the official reports were, unsurprisingly, the less pleasant elements. Further, the degree to which patients were seen as being different or abnormal is not revealed in the official reports. The archaeology of the asylum, however, has revealed these attitudes, and the small acts of rebellion by the patients against the asylum, these attitudes and their position in society. In so doing, the archaeology of Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum has given the patients at the asylum a voice, albeit a small one.

Katharine Watson


Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives. [online] Available at: <http://atojs.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/atojs>.

Piddock, S., 2001. Convicts and the free: Nineteenth century lunatic asylums in South Australia and Tasmania (1830-1883). Australasian Historical Archaeology 19:84-96.

Piddock, S., 2004. Possibilities and realities: South Australia’s asylums in the 19th century. Australian Psychiatry 12(2): 172-175.

Seager, M., 1987. Edward William Seager: Pioneer of mental health. The Heritage Press, Waikanae.