The Victorian Christchurch Child

Childhood. We all had one. Whether we remember it vaguely or with clarity, we all passed through this phase of life. As infants we shook that baby rattle with all our might or nursed that pacifier until our eyes closed and we dreamed of a faraway land. As we got older the toys became larger and more creative: teddy bears with a squeak in the stomach or crayons that ended up strewn across the house or even on the walls. We all remember the Barbie dolls and the G.I. Joes, or the Barbie dolls with crew cuts to make them look like G.I. Joes. Or even that first day of school where you were accompanied by your very own yellow Bananas in Pyjamas lunch box. This period of one’s life, although so fundamental in how we mature as adults, is often forgotten. This is also true of the Victorian Christchurch child.

As a result of the February 2011 earthquake and the subsequent rebuild, a number of artefacts related to the years of childhood have been excavated. This collection of artefacts provide us not only a rare glimpse into the lives of the Victorian Christchurch child but is now allowing us to establish how different artefacts relate to different stages of a child’s life.

A selection of children’s artefacts. Image G. Jackson.

A selection of children’s artefacts. Image G. Jackson.

Archaeological investigations regarding children in their first few years of life have often been restricted to analysis of infant mortality or mortuary practices and rarely touch on their lived experiences (and even historical documents are not much more helpful: simply looking up ‘Christchurch Child’ on Papers Past was a challenge, for almost all searches came up with child mortality stories). The sites that have been excavated across Christchurch provide an opportunity to catalogue this brief but important time in one’s life.

Infant-related artefacts are largely related to a baby’s health. These include health-benefiting bone marrow, baby powders and medicinal disinfectants designed to prevent against illness. The largest number of artefacts relating to the infant years, however, are glass feeder bottles and ceramic feeder lids.

baby bottle2

S. Maw, Son and Thompson baby feeder. Image: L. Davies.

rounded bottle

S. Maw, Son and Thompson baby feeder. Image: L. Davies.









One such item was even named the ‘murder‘ feeder, due to the difficulty of cleaning the lid. Such hygiene-related difficulties meant that baby easily fell ill, but this problem may have been counteracted by disinfectants, medicines or simple homemade remedies (some of which have a recommended child’s dosage).


Left: Mather’s ceramic baby feeder (Image: L. Davies). Right: Advertisement emphasising the need to clean the baby’s bottle (Otago Witness 15/02/1879).


The development and emergence of the Victorian Christchurch citizen, as with any society, was shaped by what was taught to children. A common theme that has emerged from the material culture of Christchurch are the children’s cups and plates bearing educational-themed images, which can increase imagination and creativity but also conveyed moral messages.


Jack and Jill nursery rhyme on a cup. Image: L. Davies.

Nursery rhymes, playful one-liners and intense moral teachings have all been found on china in our Christchurch assemblages. Nursery rhymes or a simple play on words to create a small story are used as a subtle tool to stimulate the imagination and intellectual growth. Children learn language through the repetition of syllables and words, often repeating what a parent said (Bishop and Curtis 2001: 5). And with moral messages buried in the phrases, children also learnt socially acceptable behaviour. In a fun way, that is.


One plate found is an ‘ABC’ plate, named for the alphabet written around the outer edge of the plate. These ABC plates were a product of the teachings of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Yes, that Benjamin Franklin. During the 19th century, a series of plates were sold bearing philosophical teachings from his Poor Richard’s Almanack. Our particular plate bears the phrase  “Fly pleasures, and they’ll follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift, now I have a sheep and cow, everybody bids me good morrow”. It means those who work hard are rewarded in comfort, plenty and respect i.e. that leisure comes to those who work hard.


Fragment of a Dr. Benjamin Franklin ABC plate. Image: L. Davies.

This phase of nursery rhymes and moral themes was a precursor to schooling days. Prior to the Education Act of 1877 education or schooling for children was not compulsory. In 1877 the Education Act made it compulsory and free for children aged between 5 and 13 to attend school (Walrond 2012).

This did not extend to secondary education and it was not until 1901 that the secondary education was addressed. A law passed at this time stated that only children who passed a competency exam would be allowed entry into secondary school. It is suggested that even those children who may have passed the competency exams would have still left school at this age to work, and why would they go to school when they were another pair of hands to help put food on the table (Walrond 2012)? The artefacts associated with this period of a child’s life are slate pencils and boards. Some boards have ruled lines on one side for writing and grid lines on the reverse side for mathematics.

Slate pencils. Image: L. Davies

Slate pencils. Image: L. Davies


A grid (left) and lined (right) slate board. Image: L. Davies

A large quantity of toys have been found throughout sites across Christchurch and are indicative of the subtle ways in which social mores were constructed.

'Frozen Charlotte' doll. Image J. Garland

‘Frozen Charlotte’ doll. Image J. Garland.

Girls were presented with dolls and tea sets, confirming their domestic role in the Victorian world, whereas boys played with tin soldiers and marbles, items associated with competition and manliness. It is during this period, when toys are introduced, that we begin to see gender differentiation in the archaeology of childhood. Girls are the most visible at this time with few artefacts that can be unequivocally associated with boys. This is in contrast to adulthood, when men are generally more visible in the archaeological record than women,as so many of our blog posts indicate.

Toy horse. Image K. Bone

Toy horse. Image K. Bone.

Toy tea set. Image. G. Jackson

Toy tea set. Image. G. Jackson.


Clay and glass marble. Clay marbles were also called 'commies' as they were a cheap version of marbles and were very common..

Clay and glass marble. Clay marbles were also called ‘commies’ as they were a cheap version of marbles and were very common. Image: K. Bone.

The number of artefacts relating to children found during demolitions and the rebuild of Christchurch has allowed a chronological understanding of the emergence of the Victorian Christchurch child. The infant stage is predominantly represented by feeding bottles, health-benefiting foods and disinfectants. This suggests that in the first few years of life there is no differentiation of gender but an emphasis on raising a healthy child. The following stage, prior to schooling, is also not gendered and includes developing the imagination with rhymes and moral themes. This non-gendered childhood changes with the school years, with girls in particular taking a visible role. The presence of tea sets and dolls emphasise their role in society and society’s expectations of their later life, with themes of domesticity and civility. The recent excavations have significantly developed our understanding of the Victorian Christchurch child and the ongoing investigations will continue to contribute to our understanding of this period, these children and their lived experiences, so watch this space…

Kim Bone


Bishop, J. C. and Curtis, M., 2001. Introduction. In:  J. C. Bishop and M. Curtis, eds. 2001. Play Today in the Primary School Playground: Life, Learn and Creativity. Open University Press, Buckingham, pp. 1-19.

Otago Witness. [online] Available at:

Walrond, C., 2012. Teenagers and youth – defining teenagers as a group.[online] Available at: [Accessed 10 October 2013].

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