A tale of two suburbs: the story (and the man) behind the naming of Sydenham and Waltham

Should you have been so fortunate, while wandering the streets of 1860s Christchurch, to find yourself north of the square, you may have come across an establishment bearing the name of Sydenham House and containing within its walls all manner of treasures. Stepping inside, you would have been surrounded by an elegant assortment of glass and china, exotic oranges, lemons and pineapples and a few choice canaries, fowls and prize-winning birds of all kinds. You may even have caught a glimpse of the proprietor, Mr Charles Prince, a man of excellent taste and education and the eventual, unintentional, inspiration for the naming of two of Christchurch’s southern suburbs.

Colombo Street between Gloucester and Armagh in 1882. Sydenham house would have stood in the block on the left of the image, between the Golden Fleece hotel and Gloucester Street. Image:

Colombo Street between Gloucester and Armagh in 1882. Sydenham House would have stood in the block on the left of the image, between the Golden Fleece Hotel and Gloucester Street. Image: Burton Brothers, via Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0050.

We first came across the story of Charles Prince and Sydenham House earlier in the year, when we found an artefact – a double handled serving bowl – from Sydenham House on a site elsewhere in the central city. It was found blocks away from the actual location of the china shop (between Armagh and Gloucester on Colombo Street), and the bowl was marked with the name of the manufacturer (Copeland), a pattern registration diamond (with a registration date of 17th or 27th September 1861) and a banner bearing the words “Sydenham House, Christchurch, C. Prince”. As we researched the bowl and the maker’s mark, we found ourselves unravelling the tale of Charles Prince, a shopkeeper, bird importer and teacher who had a hand in naming the Christchurch suburbs of Waltham and Sydenham, through his residence and business respectively.

This piece is particularly interesting, marked as it is with 'Sydenham House, Christchurch' on the base, along with the name of the manufacturer (Copeland) and pattern registration diamond. Image: J. Garland.

The handled serving bowl bearing the mark of Sydenham House. The registration diamond indicates that this pattern was registered in 1861 (R in the top corner), on the 17th or 27th (number in the right corner) of September (D in the left corner). The pottery manufacturer, Copeland, was in business from 1847 until well into the 20th century (The Potteries 2014). Image: J. Garland.

Charles Prince arrived in Christchurch in 1858 on the Zelandia, having previously been the principal of the Classical School of Westbury East in St Kilda and the master of Grays Grammar School in England (Christchurch City Libraries 2014). On or soon after his arrival in New Zealand, he appears to have formed one half of the partnership of Prince and Dawes, with a man named Edmund Marriott Dawes, although this was broken in 1861 (Lyttelton Times 24/04/1861: 8). Sydenham House was in operation from at least 1860, and Prince continued as proprietor of the shop until 1867, when he went bankrupt and the business was sold (Christchurch City Libraries 2014; Lyttelton Times 2/04/1867: 2).

Prince also continued his calling as a schoolmaster, filling the role of master of the Christchurch Commercial School in the 1860s in addition to founding the private Christchurch Commercial Academy in 1860, with the intention of “embracing every branch of a sound English and Commercial education” (Lyttelton Times 8/09/1860: 1). Until his bankruptcy in 1867, he also lived in a large – twelve roomed! – house known as Waltham House, “pleasantly situated in Colombo Street south, within a mile of the Town Belt (Moorhouse Ave)” (Lyttelton Times 9/03/1867: 3). The size of the house alone suggests that he was a relatively successful and affluent man – at least until he went bankrupt.


Advertisement for birds and dogs sold at Sydenham House in 1864. Image: Lyttelton Times 10/09/1864:6.

He was known, not only as an educator and a retailer of assorted finery, but also as an importer and keeper of prize-winning birds (Press 10/09/1866: 2, Lyttelton Times 10/09/1866: 2). Many of the advertisements for Sydenham House and mentions of Charles Prince in contemporary newspapers make reference to his birds, some of which won prizes at local A & P shows (my favourites are the excellently named dorking fowls!). After he went bankrupt in 1867, Prince ended up on the West Coast, where he remained traceable in the newspapers of the time due to his occupation as a schoolmaster and, amusingly, to his reputation as a bird fancier, with one article stating that he has “become prominent by his expenditure and taste in the purchase of poultry” (Grey River Argus 15/03/1873: 2, 13/05/1873: 3). Another West Coast newspaper recounted an incident in which he ran afoul of some erstwhile avian burglars who allegedly absconded with a pair of ‘Bramah’ chickens (although the article does also suggest that the birds might just have run away…; Grey River Argus 4/11/1872: 2).

However, bird burglars aside, it’s Charles Prince’s time in Christchurch that is most of interest to us today, specifically his time as proprietor of Sydenham House and resident of Waltham House. Sydenham House is described in contemporary accounts as a building “containing eight rooms, a coach house, stables, a shop and store” and was sandwiched between G. Coate’s watchmaking and jewellery store and Miss Phillip’s drapery (Lyttelton Times 16/04/1867: 6). As well as birds (and dogs!) the store appears to have sold all manner of goods, from fancy glass wares (including cake shades, decanters and custard glasses) to all manner of china (“breakfast, tea, dinner, dessert and toilet services”) and household accoutrements (candlesticks, lamps and toilet boxes; Lyttelton Times 28/09/1861: 510/09/1862: 6). He also sold local and exotic delicacies, from “Canterbury grown walnuts” to pineapples, which can’t have been a common foodstuff in 19th century Christchurch (Lyttelton Times 22/03/1862: 5, 23/04/1862: 5).

Advertisement for Sydenham House from

Advertisement for Sydenham House from 1862, listing all kinds of treasures for sale. Image: Lyttelton Times 10/09/1862: 6.

The establishment also functioned as a boarding house,  with a variety of tenants, including a French teacher, a writing teacher and a professor of phrenology (Lyttelton Times 30/01/1866: 3, 15/09/1866: 1, 14/02/1867: 7). This last, Mr A. S. Hamilton, was available for consultation at Sydenham House, describing himself as “twenty eight years [a] Practical Phrenologist in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and the Australian Colonies… [who] may be consulted [for] delineations of characters and advice for direction, correction and profitable application of the mental powers” (Lyttelton Times 14/02/1867: 7). I’m not sure of the efficacy of Mr Hamilton’s advice, but I know that I could definitely use some help with the “profitable application of the mental powers” this morning…

Colombo Street between Armagh and Gloucester in the 1880s. Sydenham House would originally have stood on the right hand side of the image, about a third of the way along the block. Image:

Colombo Street between Armagh and Gloucester in the 1880s. Sydenham House would have stood on the right hand side of the image, about a third of the way along the block. Image: F. A. Coxhead, via Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0010.

Several advertisements for Sydenham House in the Press in 1863 and 1864 are of particular interest, as they mention Prince’s intention to take orders for dinner, tea and breakfast services etc. from England, all of which could be marked with the crest, initials or “other distinctive badge” of the purchaser, if they wished (Press 12/09/1863: 122/10/1864: 6). These advertisements not only provide a tangible connection between our artefact and the historical record, but also a possible one between Charles Prince and the story of John George Ruddenklau, mayor,  proprietor of the City Hotel and the subject of one of our blog posts last year. J. G. Ruddenklau’s role in Christchurch’s early decades was also brought to our attention through a few personalised ceramic artefacts we found that were, coincidentally, decorated with exactly the same pattern as the Sydenham House bowl, along with Ruddenklau’s initials and the mark of the City Hotel. The latter was founded in 1864 and run by Ruddenklau until 1869: it’s not implausible to think that J. G. Ruddenklau might have ordered personalised china through Charles Prince in 1864 for his newly established hotel.

Fragments of a saucer, teacup and mask jug, decorated with the City Hotel pattern and the initials J. G. R.

Fragments of a saucer, teacup and mask jug, decorated with the same pattern as the Sydenham House bowl, the initials J. G. R and the name ‘City Hotel’. Image: J. Garland.

This notion of connectedness seems to be something of a theme with this artefact, and this story. It’s been fascinating, actually, researching Charles Prince and finding all of these connections – direct and indirect – between his life and business in Christchurch and other people, places and things in the city – both then and now. Initially, when I deciphered the mark on the bowl I thought that the Sydenham House mentioned must have been named after the suburb and was probably located in that general vicinity. As it turns out, it was the other way around: it seems to have been due to the fond recollections of Charles Prince’s china shop by a man named Charles Ellison that ‘Sydenham’ was first used for the local borough council in 1876 and, eventually, the actual neighbourhood south of Moorhouse Avenue (Christchurch City Libraries 2014).

Christchurch south

A view of Christchurch South, including the suburb now known as Sydenham. Image: Geoff Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons.

A similar connection is evident for Prince’s residence, Waltham House, which played a comparably crucial yet indirect role in the naming of Waltham (of special note to those of us at Underground Overground, as our offices are in Waltham). In 1866 a group of people placed an advertisement in the Press stating that a meeting of residents at that house had unanimously decided that the neighbourhood “of Colombo Street south and the Gasworks road, leading to Wilson’s bridge” should be called Waltham (Press 26/10/1866: 1). A letter to the editor placed four days later decried it as a hoax, and offensive to the “modest and rather retiring disposition of that gentleman” (although there doesn’t seem to be any word on it from the man himself; Lyttelton Times 30/10/1866: 3). Still, the name seems to have stuck and Charles Prince, teacher and shop owner, through no fault or intention of his own, left an indelible mark on the city of Christchurch. A reminder, perhaps, that sometimes our legacies aren’t always ours to determine?

We talk about six degrees of separation (two at most in New Zealand, right?), but sometimes I think we forget that it doesn’t just apply to people in the here and now – that it doesn’t just apply to people, full stop. Increasingly, as we uncover more and more of Christchurch’s past, literally and metaphorically, we’re finding connections between the lives of the city’s inhabitants in the objects, places and moments in time where their stories cross over. These things, these tangible connections between people, are the physical embodiment of the ever increasing network of human interaction that’s built the world we live in today. It’s incredibly cool to see those connections in Christchurch’s archaeological record and the role they played in shaping the city we see around us today.

Jessie Garland


Christchurch City Libraries, 2014. [online] Available at www.christchurchcitylibraries.com

Grey River Argus. [online] Available at www.paperspast,natlib.govt.nz.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast,natlib.govt.nz.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast,natlib.govt.nz.

Put this in your pipe and smoke it!

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting interview on Radio New Zealand with historian Jock Phillips, on the history of tobacco use in New Zealand. In the interview, Jock talked about the ways in which people consumed tobacco in the past, the types of people smoking tobacco at different points in New Zealand’s history and the rituals that surrounded the habit. One of the things he touched on was the use of the clay tobacco pipe as the method of choice for most smokers during the 19th century, whether in social situations or in the privacy of the home.

Clay smoking pipes are relatively common finds on 19th century archaeological sites here in Christchurch, although, given the prevalence of smoking in 19th century society and the ease with which the pipes were discarded after use, it’s surprising that we don’t find more of them. Clay pipes were, on the whole, cheap and easily obtained, although some of the more elaborately decorated pipes would have been more expensive and, consequently, less disposable. Many of the cheaper, plainer pipes may have been used only once before being discarded, particularly in certain contexts: hotels and taverns, for example, used to provide disposable clay pipes for their customers to use and throw away while on the premises (Phillips 2014).

Broken pipes

The pipes found on archaeological sites are usually broken, often at the stem of the pipe, and their bowls blackened from use. Some of these have ‘bites’ at the ends of the stems, in the form of raised ridges or glazed sections where the smoker put the pipe in their mouth. Sometimes, there are teeth marks at the end of broken stems, suggesting that the stems were cut and the pipes reused until they were no longer useable. Occasionally, however, we do find unused pipes, indicating that they may have been broken before they could have been smoked. Image: J. Garland.

Clay pipes are one of my favourite kinds of artefacts and a big part of that, I think, is due to the elaborate styles of decoration we sometimes find. They’re just so cool. Most of the pipes we find are plain, made from white clay, with no decoration on the bowl, but others are moulded and sculpted in fantastic ways. We’ve found fish head pipes; bowls as eggs cradled in the talons of an eagle; effigy pipes sculpted to look like skulls and caricatures; basket pipes; pipes with steam-ships and trains on them; military pipes; naval pipes and, notably, a pipe with the figure of a woman riding side-saddle along the stem.

A selection of clay pipes found in Christchurch. Clockwise from the top left: fish head pipe bowl; talon pipe; pipe decorated with the insignia of the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers; basket pipe; effigy pipe from three sides; pipe decorated with a ship and anchor. Image: J. Garland.

A selection of clay pipes found in Christchurch. Clockwise from top left: fish head pipe bowl; talon pipe; pipe decorated with the insignia of the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers; basket pipe; effigy pipe from three sides; pipe decorated with a ship and anchor. Image: J. Garland.

Like most decorated objects, there’s information in the decorative styles of these pipes – fashions that can be dated to period of popularity, references to events or figures or organisations that can tell us something about Victorian society and the culture of pipe smoking. Many of the pipes are also marked with the initials or names of their manufacturers, identifying pipe makers in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, Manchester or Sydney (among other places), who shipped their goods to New Zealand.

Scotland and England had particularly strong export markets, supplying clay smoking pipes to the colonies in Australia and New Zealand during the Victorian era (Gojak and Stuart 1999, Sudbury 2006). Certain manufacturers – Thomas White, Charles Crop and Duncan McDougall, for example – are frequently represented amongst pipe fragments found here and in Australia. Other pipes may have been made on the continent, particularly in France, where there was also a strong clay pipe manufacturing industry, but, as yet, we’ve not found any recognisably French pipes in Christchurch (Ayto 2002).

Possibly the coolest pipe we've found in Christchurch.

Possibly the coolest pipe we’ve found in Christchurch. A person would look completely badass smoking this. Skull pipes similar to this one have been identified as French in origin (the French industry specialised in ‘figurals’ and portrait pipes), although there is no way of telling if this particular example was made in France. Image: J. Garland.

We’ve also found pipes with local connections, marked with the names of Christchurch retailers and merchants. Pipes with the names of Cathedral Square retailers Twentyman & Cousin and coffee, flax and chicory merchants the Trent Brothers were both found on central city sites earlier in the year. It seems likely that these companies ordered pipes from overseas, branded with their own names, to be sold in their stores or as part of their merchandise. Similarly, in Australia, we know of at least one Sydney tobacconist – Hugh Dixon – who also sold clay pipes bearing his name.

Two clay pipes marked with the names of local Christchurch retailers. Image: J. Garland.

Two clay pipes marked with the names of local Christchurch retailers. Image: J. Garland.

These pipes are found in a range of contexts, some of which can add to or confirm our knowledge about the rituals of pipe smoking in 19th century Christchurch, as well as the methods by which they were imported and sold in the city. We find pipes in domestic assemblages, pipes that would have been smoked by the residents of those households (probably the men – as far as we know, pipe smoking was an almost exclusively male thing amongst European settlers). Smoking was a common habit in Victorian society, particularly in the home. There are numerous articles and advertisements surrounding both the rituals or practice of smoking and the pipes used in the process (Daily Southern Cross 23/04/1852: 1, Evening Post 6/08/1872: 2 Star 10/03/1892:10, Taranaki Herald 2/10/1909: 6, Thames Star 5/02/1892:1).

One thing I found interesting, actually, while researching this, was the number of articles discussing tobacco smoking that referred to the health issues associated with it – good and bad. The most astonishing, I think, was an article from 1867 which decried tobacco as a poison that “benumbs the brain, extinguishes the memory, brings on giddiness, and finally engenders those horrible diseases, cancer in the mouth, and softening of the spinal marrow” (New Zealand Herald 17/12/1867: 5). We tend to think of health concerns with tobacco as a modern phenomenon: clearly, they were not.

 “Tobacco, says Michelet, has killed kissing; it has done more, it has closed the drawing room…The increasing consumption of tobacco is frightful, children ten years of age already smoke. It is time to think of a remedy, tobacco is a poison – a slow one if you will – but certainly a poison, for it benumbs the brain, extinguishes the memory, brings on giddiness, and finally engenders those horrible diseases, cancer in the mouth and softening of the spinal marrow. In concert with its comrade alcohol, it ravages the organisation and dwarfs the species. Tobacco injures the human race, not only physically but morally. It strikes thought with atrophy, and paralyses action; with every whiff of tobacco a man exhales a virtue, or an energy. Germany smokes and dreams; Spain smokes and sleeps; Turkey, who has been smoking these last three hundred years, has no longer strength to stand on her legs.” – New Zealand Herald 17/12/1867: 5

The ritual of smoking in the home has some interesting accompaniments: for example, Victorian literature often speaks of the ‘smoking room’, as a room in a house (presumably a middle – upper class house), specifically set aside for the males of the household to use for smoking (Phillips 2014). We’ve only identified one house with a smoking room in Canterbury (near Ashburton) and then, only because we had the plans for the house that labelled the room accordingly. Without those plans, it’s difficult to know which room in a house may have been used as a smoking room, if one existed at all.

We also find pipes on hotel sites, as I mentioned above, where they may be evidence for the social side of pipe smoking (much like ‘social’ smokers today, perhaps, who smoke only when they drink), or simply an indication of the provision of ‘home comforts’ to hotel guests. Interestingly, one of the pipes found on the site of the Zetland Arms hotel here in Christchurch was not a cheap, disposable example, but one of the most elaborately decorated clay pipes we’ve come across. It was unused, so perhaps it was ornamental, displayed above the bar or used as a display to advertise other pipes or tobacco sold on the premises. It seems a waste, if this was the case: one would look completely awesome (or possibly a little pretentious?) smoking that pipe.

Elaborately decorated pipe with a female figure riding sidesaddle along the stem. Sadly, her head went missing somewhere along the way. Image: J. Garland.

Elaborately decorated pipe with a female figure riding sidesaddle along the stem and an alternative use for a clay pipe in social situations. Sadly, the lady’s head went missing somewhere along the way. Image: J. Garland and Auckland Star 19/11/1936: 26.

On one notable site, we even found a large collection of broken and unused clay pipes, all decorated with either a steam ship or a traction engine design. It turned out that the site had originally been occupied by a grocer, and the pipes were probably damaged or unwanted stock that had been disposed of on-site (Watson et al. 2012). As we can see from these pipes, and the Twentyman and Cousin and Trent Brothers examples, smoking paraphernalia was sold by a range of different merchants and retailers, not just tobacconists (although tobacconist’s shops did exist in Christchurch: Lyttelton Times 18/04/1867: 1).

A concentration of unused clay pipes found on the site of a grocer's business. Image: M. Hennessey.

A concentration of unused clay pipes found on the site of a grocer’s business. Image: M. Hennessey.

It’s interesting, I think, that such a small artefact can provide evidence for or be a part of so many different aspects of society and life in the 19th century. Clay pipes can represent everything from international connections between New Zealand and the rest of the world to local businesses and business owners. They can shed light on contemporary styles and symbolism, on social rituals, on gendered activities, on class, on the beginnings of disposable consumerism. They were intrinsically linked with individual health, good and bad, even a hundred and fifty years ago. In America, pipes even played a part in the workings of the justice system, and, in one of my absolute favourite articles on the subject, pipe smoking is condemned as the murderer of romance, the cause of moral injury and the instigator of national apathy.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: sometimes it’s the smallest things that tell us the tallest tales.

Jessie Garland


Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Ayto, E. G., 2002. Clay Tobacco Pipes. Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire.

Daily Southern Cross. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Gojak, D. and Stuart, I., 1999. The Potential for the Study of Clay Tobacco Pipes from Australian Sites. Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 17: 38-49.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Phillips, J., 2014. Pundit: Life and Times of the Long White Cloud. Radio New Zealand, aired 15/09/2014. [online] Available at www.radionz.co.nz

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Sudbury, J., 2006. Historic Clay Tobacco Pipe Studies, Volume 1. Phytolith Press, Oklahoma.

Taranaki Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Thames Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz 

Watson, K., Carter, M., and Hennessey, M., 2012. 134 Hereford Street, Christchurch: report on archaeological monitoring. Unpublished report for CERA.

No poo in the sewers, please…

In previous blog posts we’ve touched upon the smells of 19th century Christchurch and how, in the absence of an organised sewerage and rubbish disposal system, early Christchurch was, at the best of times, a dirty old town. Inadequate drainage was a persistent problem, accosting the senses of citizens on a daily basis. Following the formation of the Christchurch Drainage Board in 1875, and the development of an engineering solution, a sewerage system was eventually constructed in the city. Once this became fully operational in September 1882, it could be considered by the standards of the day to be one of the finest in the world.

During the course of SCIRT infrastructure projects out and about in the central city, we’ve been able to get up close and personal with 19th century Christchurch’s drainage system. We’ve learnt a great deal: about how the system was built, how it functioned, and how this system expanded and changed over time. It’s also got us thinking about path dependency as we have been able to observe it in the archaeological record. The way that our city’s drainage infrastructure was designed and built more than 130 years ago is having a direct impact on the how we are able to go about repairing it in the present day.

Waiting at a bus stop last week, I got into a conversation with a fellow commuter about what I do for a living and what I’ve been finding looking at the city’s old sewers. “Found any old poo?” “No old poo, mate”, I replied. “What about Ninja Turtles?” “Only crocodiles, sorry.” “Any idea about who flushed the first Christchurch poo?” I told him that I haven’t yet found any historical documents about that kind of thing. As I boarded the bus, I got to thinking about the subterranean city: about the hidden horizontal infrastructure that, in an abstract kind of way, can be seen as an extension of our bodies (our digestive systems at least!), and about 19th century discard behaviours of the most private and personal kind. Which begs the question, how did Christchurch get its first flush toilets, and what did this mean in the transformation of early Christchurch?


Drainspotting: St Asaph St sewer selfie. Image: H. Williams.

The poo, the water closet, and the big “Drainage Question”

We have learnt from historical records that the citizens of 19th century Christchurch were scared about putting poo down the sewers.

The Drainage Board’s first consulting engineer was John Carruthers, who presented the first design for sewerage system to the city council in January 1877 (Wilson 1989:17). He advocated construction of a combined sewer system, which would see wastewater and stormwater conveyed eastwards out of town to an estuary outfall (Star 29/1/1877:2). Carruthers strongly recommended allowing water closets to be connected to the sewers, but noted that:

I do not go so far as to recommend their compulsory use at present, as I have little doubt they will, if allowed, very soon be generally used for the sake of their healthfulness, decency, and cleanlinessthe primary object of sewers is not to carry water closet dejecta, but to remove household water after it has been used and fouled. It is obviously a matter of the first importance to get rid of this filthy water, and underground sewers form the basic vehicle for carrying it away…”
 – Star 29/1/1877:2

The Board accepted Carruthers’ scheme, though without any public consultation and without an official stance as to whether water closets would or should be adopted, whether sewers were the right place for ‘closet dejecta’ or whether their installation should be made compulsory once the system had been completed. Frenzied public meetings were held wherein ratepayers, engineers, and medical men debated “The Drainage Question” in filthy detail (Press 16/2/1877:2, 3/3/1877:1).

Of chief concern was sewage contamination at the estuary outfall, sewer blockages that would generate poisonous gases, and inadequacies in the local water supply for flushing. Backyard artesian wells across the district that were looked to for flushing purposes were already beginning to dry up (Press 3/3/1877:1). Unhappy with Carruthers’ plan, at the ratepayer’s suggestion William Clark was made the Drainage Board’s new consulting engineer, and by April 1878 had revised the original plans, presenting the board with a comprehensive report, Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

The key point of Clark’s scheme, which was approved in May 1878, was that wastewater flows were to be admitted into the sewers, but were to be kept separate from stormwater at all costs. A pumping station was to be built on land the Board owned on Mathesons Road, which would pump the city’s sewerage eastwards out of town, where a sewage farm was to be established on the sandhills. Here the sewage would be irrigated over the paddocks, fertilising the soil (Clark 1878:6-12). Construction of the sewage tank underneath the pumping station progressed slowly, on account of the unstable, quicksand-like subsoil, and the many baby eels “about the thickness of a man’s finger” that continually clogged the fans of the groundwater pumping apparatus (Star 16/7/1879:3).


Central Christchurch, showing the original drainage district area, and the extent of the sewerage system as completed by September 1882. Image: after Wilson (1989).

Available historical records do not specify where or when the first water closet was installed and the first filth flushed, but it must have been by late 1882, once the last of the earthenware pipe sewers to receive the private house connections had been laid (Star 10/1/1882:3). The completion of the system, however, did not result in properties becoming connected straight away. Landowners had to pay for a private connection to be made to the sewer, as well as satisfy the board that these private drains were properly laid, the water closet was of an approved type, was properly located and ventilated, and had a sufficient water supply for flushing purposes (Press 21/10/1882:2). Because of installation costs, many households may have initially only made a house connection to the sewer for the removal of kitchen ‘slop water’, and would have continued to use their chamber pots, backyard long drops, dry earth closets, and the regular nocturnal services of the ‘night soil’ man. Clark thought that his estimated 2 pounds 10 shillings cost for constructing a ‘water privie’ of his own design would be affordable for households over the long term, considering that the night soil man was already costing them 7 pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).

In 1884 Christchurch had 293 water closets, by 1901 this number had jumped to 1915 (Wilson 1989:29).

300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made

300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made. Image: H. Williams.

We have found out by looking at some 19th century private connections into the 1882 St Asaph Street sewer that there was great variation in how these 100mm diameter earthenware pipe drains were installed. Some were fully haunched in concrete as a protective measure, others were simply laid down into the natural sandy clay subsoil and then backfilled with the same. Individual pipes were mostly bonded with rigid cement mortar joints,but we did find evidence for a more ‘flexible’ bonding agent on one drain: this was a sticky, sulphurous, coal tar. From impressed manufacturers marks on these pipes we have learned that these were all manufactured locally. The larger diameter sewer mains on the other hand were all imported, these were made in Scotland at James Binnie’s Gartcosh Fireclay Works.

Tar joint

Drain joint bonded with tar. Image: H. Williams.

Pumping and flushing
By late 1882 the Drainage Board had exhausted most of their funds on pipe laying; what was left in the budget was to be spent on pumping and flushing.

The pumping station on the corner of Mathesons Road and Tuam Street ceased pumping the city’s sewage in 1957, by which time the drainage system had greatly expanded in size and a new pumping station on Pages Road had taken over. The original pump-house building still stands, (albeit without its fine brick chimney) as one of the few visible above ground components of the city’s 19th century sewerage system, and is a Cat 2 registered historic place. Currently a recycled building materials yard, it’s also a good place to go if you are looking to buy a second hand toilet or wash basin…

 The Christchurch Drainage Board's first wastewater pumping station as it stands today.

The Christchurch Drainage Board’s first wastewater pumping station as it stands today. Image: Paul Willyams, Wikimedia Commons.

As well as pumping, the Drainage Board was also involved heavily in the business of flushing. Brick ‘flushing tanks’ were built at various points along the sewer lines, and the regular flushing of the sewers ensured that no ‘closet dejecta’ or foreign solids was given any chance to settle: sewerage was to be kept moving through the sewers at all costs. These tanks were supplied with water from the board’s own wells, which were sunk all over the place. When Christchurch finally got a high pressure water supply turned on in 1909, these tanks were connected up to this new supply, thus preventing any ‘back flow’ from the sewers potentially contaminating the groundwater aquifers (Wilson 1989:26).

 A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the 'H' bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes.

A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the ‘H’ bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes. Image: H. Williams.

Past and future sewers

Although a number of Christchurch’s 19th century sewer lines were damaged in the earthquakes, and have since been dug up and replaced, some have been decommissioned and remain in situ deep underground, to perhaps to one day be investigated by archaeologists in the distant future. Other sewers, which may have cracked a little but have not been vertically displaced, have been relined. This non-invasive rehabilitation technique should ensure that these ancestral central city sewers can remain operational for perhaps another 130 years or more.

Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.

Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.

There can be no doubt that the sewerage system transformed 19th century Christchurch in so many ways, though for different reasons the system would have benefited some more than others. It reduced the mortality rate by removing problematic disease causing ‘dejecta’, and in doing so made the urban environment a safer, cleaner and we suspect, a much better smelling place. Parallel with changes to the physical environment, the sewerage system also brought about changes in peoples behaviour. The people of Christchurch could now flush, provided they were lucky enough to have a water closet, which makes us think again about archaeology and status. In today’s modern world we all take flush toilets for granted, but when they first appeared in 19th century Christchurch I’m sure that they must have been a real novelty! For first time users, would the water closet experience have been scary, or exciting? Pondering this question, I couldn’t help but think it perhaps best summed up by Tom Lehrer:

“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” 

And whatever you do, don’t forget to wash your hands.

Hamish Williams


Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs. Christchurch: The Times.

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

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

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch: Christchurch Drainage Board.