On the right track: tramways archaeology in Christchurch

How did people get around Christchurch in the 19th century? People certainly walked, or rode, perhaps on a horse, or in a wheeled vehicle pulled by a horse, such as a dray, gig, hackney, or hansom. And let’s not forget that by the later 19th century many people were certainly racing around on bicycles . From early 1880 however, the people of Christchurch were given the option of travelling by tram. During the course of horizontal infrastructure rebuild we have come across lots of old tram lines, and in the process have become tramways archaeologists.

Trains versus trams

What’s the difference between a train and a tram? Both are flange wheeled vehicles that operate atop a permanent way  of iron rail: mostly it’s a question of scale. Trains are a heavy rail transportation system and trams are a light rail transportation system. Trains run on specially built lines that are always separate from other traffic, whereas trams run along lines (called tramways) that are built into public roads, a space they have to share with other traffic.

All the rage across the world in the 19th century, once trams finally arrived in Christchurch they proved to be a big hit. Before the Christchurch Tramway Board was formed in 1903 to municipalise, modernise, and electrify the network (the first electric trams ran in 1905), the tramways of 19th century Christchurch were owned and operated by private companies. The Canterbury Tramway Company was the first of these: formed in 1878, it opened its first passenger service in March 1880, and by the end of 1888 had 17 miles (more than 27 kilometres) of tramway in operation (Alexander 1985: 8).

Off the rails: rail types

Three different types of iron rail were used in the 19th century to carry Christchurch trams. Thin flat grooved rails were used in the early years – these were attached to longitudinal timber beams fastened to timber sleepers. This first type of rail (not surprisingly) wasn’t very robust – it cracked along the inside of the groove, and was soon replaced with other rail types (Anderson 1985: 29). Loubat’s grooved tramrail proved to be the best choice: with the flanges of the tram wheels running safely within the groove or ‘flangeway’ of the upper surface of the rail, Loubat’s rail could be easily set flush into the road surface where they didn’t pose such a hazard to other road users (except possibly unfortunate cyclists with narrow tires).


The three different types of rail that carried Christchurch trams in the 19th century. From left to right: the early flat grooved rail used by the Canterbury Tramway company, the flat bottomed Vignoles rail, and the Loubat grooved tram rail. Image: Anderson 1985: 29.

Mostly we have found Loubat’s grooved tramway rail in situ below Christchurch’s roads, though all the examples we have found so far have been associated with 20th century electric trams.

With the transition to electric trams all the tramlines of the private companies had to be replaced. Although the new electrics were of the standard gauge like their steam and horse powered predecessors, most of the tramlines were in poor condition, and the rail was too light to handle the much heavier electric tramcars, so had to be dug up and replaced. The standard method of tramway formation in the electric era involved bedding the sleepers on compacted shingle, and fixing the rails with big spike nails (Alexander 1986: 52). A good example of this was uncovered in 2012 on North Avon Road – you can read all about it here. From the 1920s this method was improved, with concrete being used instead of compacted shingle. Last week I spotted a fine example of this in the side of a sewer trench crossing Colombo Street.


An improved concrete tramway foundation of the 1920s period, as exposed in the side of a sewer trench crossing Colombo Street. It had some fine steel mesh reinforcing at a lower level. Image: H. Williams.

A later method involved completely embedding the rail in reinforced concrete (Alexander 1993: 78-79). We have come across lots of this type of tramway in the central city, just below the road surface. It’s easy to see why these tramways were simply covered over after the last of the trams stopped running in 1954, as removing them is lots of hard work!


A 20th century reinforced concrete tramway foundation, with the embedded Loubat grooved rail still in situ. Colombo Street, Sydenham. Image: H. Williams.

The tramway on Tuam Street

We have found the remnants of only one 19th century tramway. This was on Tuam Street, and formed part of the Canterbury Tramway Company’s Addington line, which opened to the public on 5 January 1882 (Star 5/1/1882: 2). Unlike most of the other 19th century tram routes, when the tramway network was electrified the Addington route was slightly altered, and Tuam Street bypassed. Because of this, remains of this 19th century tramline survived, unlike the lines of other routes that were dug up and relaid.

At three different locations on Tuam Street we found timber tramway sleepers, but sadly no rail. Presumably the well-worn rail was removed and scrapped, but it may have found another use. On Main Road near McCormacks Bay last year we looked at a trio of Vignoles rails exposed during road widening works. These had been embedded vertically in the ground, to support part of the seawall. We guess that these old rails had once been part of the adjacent roadway, where they carried the Sumner tram.


An alignment of old Vignoles type tram rails exposed on Main Road, McCormacks Bay during road widening works in February 2015. Image: H. Williams.


Close up of one of the well-worn and salt-spray corroded Vignoles type tram rails used to support the sea wall. The height of the rail is 116 mm, and you can see that the upper surface is well worn from contact with the tram wheel. Image: H. Williams.

Most of the sleepers of the Addington line had been removed; in over 300 metres of trenching on Tuam Street we found just eight sleepers, probably left there because their condition was too poor to justify their removal for reuse. Knowing that vast numbers of hardwood sleepers were being imported from Australia for our railway construction at the time (Press 8/9/1891:5), I was interested to learn that the timber was of a native species – rimu.


The remnants of two 19th century tramway sleepers of the Addington Line exposed on Tuam Street. They had been laid directly atop the sandy clay subsoil, rather than on top of any supporting ballast. Image: H. Williams.


An alignment of sleepers uncovered at the Tuam and Colombo Street intersection, laid not at right angles to the road, but on an angle, to carry the tram around the corner. Image: H. Williams.

There are so many social and cultural related tramway things that sadly we haven’t been able to touch upon in this week’s blog – such as the rules for riding a Christchurch tram in the 19th century (no playing musical instruments without the permission of the [tram!] conductor), or the saga of the council’s tramway hearse that never carried a single corpse and ended up a houseboat (Alexander 1983: 11).

Because of the context in which we have found these tramway features (located on public rather than private land) it’s been a different sort of archaeology than what we have been used to – representing one not of past peoples ‘in their place’, so to speak (be it in their former home, workplace, or backyard, the kind of contexts where we end up doing most of our archaeology), but of past peoples ‘between places’; neither here nor there but ‘on the way somewhere’ – a most ephemeral archaeology of people in transit, people in motion.


Although she rides the rails at Ferrymead, 134 ‘Kitty’, one of the eight Kitson steam tram motors imported by the Canterbury Tramway Company made a special trip back into town some years ago to blaze up a few laps on the city circuit. At left, Kitty leaves Cathedral Junction, October 2003, and at right, in the distance, the Invercargill Tramways No. 15 Birney electric tram, April 2015. Both trams were restored by the Tramway Historical Society. Image: D. Hinman (left) and H. Williams (right).

Thanks to Dave Hinman from the Tramway Historical Society for providing the photo of Kitty, and to Dr Rod Wallace for timber identification.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the Roads: the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1986. The Wire Web: the Christchurch Tramway Board & its early electric tramways, 1903-1920. Christchurch, N.Z: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1993. Tram to the Terminus: the Christchurch Tramway Board and its electric tramways 1921-54. Christchurch N.Z: A&M and Tramway Historical Society.

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

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


A breath of not-so-fresh air: archaeology and asbestos in Christchurch

When I first started studying to become an archaeologist, the dangers and difficulties of working with asbestos wasn’t really something that had ever crossed my mind. I knew what it was, in a vague sort of way, and that it was bad for you. That’s about it. After the earthquakes in Christchurch, however, as a result of our work on sites with asbestos contamination (especially the recording and monitoring of building demolition), we’ve all come to learn a lot more about it and how it can affect the process of an archaeological investigation or recording.

Recently, we were called to investigate the archaeology of a Christchurch site with asbestos ground contamination. The site was located in the central city, an area active from the earliest phases of European settlement in Christchurch, and was situated near several other sites where we’d discovered archaeological material in the past. The crew were bulking out the site in order to prepare for the foundations of a new building.  This meant (a) the large scale disturbance of asbestos and other soil contaminants; and (b) a high probability that archaeological features would be discovered.

Excavating a pit feature on site in full protective gear. Image: K. Bone.

Excavating archaeological features on an asbestos contaminated site in full protective gear. Image: K. Bone.

All of which culminated in the situation we found ourselves in a few weeks ago, kitted out head to toe in protective suits, gloves, gumboots and respirators, digging in the dirt under the relentless sun, trying to ignore the sweat condensing inside our masks and occasionally submerging our noses if we bent our heads the wrong way.

Such a glamourous job, this.

The consequences of a particularly muddy day on site. Image: K. Bone.

The consequences of a particularly muddy day on site. Image: K. Bone.

The site contained several archaeological features, from a large fill deposit and a circular brick-lined well to a deep pit filled with artefacts and timbers laid down at the base. Unfortunately for us, in this case, we found a LOT of artefact material in these features, presenting us with something of a problem. We lack the facilities here at Underground Overground to safely decontaminate material in our own lab (ideally, we would need a method of air control, as well as the ability to dispose of the material safely). The most obvious solution was to analyse the material on-site, a task that presented its own set of problems.

Some of the archaeological features excavated on site. Clockwise from top left: a circular brick well; archaeologists providing shade for the photographing of a pit feature with timbers at the base; large rectangular rubbish pit, half sectioned. Images: K. Bennett, J. Garland.

Some of the archaeological features excavated on site. Clockwise from top left: a circular brick well; archaeologists providing shade for the photographing of a pit feature with timbers at the base; large rectangular rubbish pit, half sectioned. Images: K. Bennett, J. Garland.

Ordinarily, our artefact analysis is carried out by one person who, after the material has been washed (when appropriate), sorts and identifies the individual artefacts to material, function, object form, manufacturing method and age, etc. That information is entered into a digital spreadsheet and most of the artefact assemblage is then photographed, using an SLR camera and light box set-up. It’s all very civilised.

Obviously, we couldn’t replicate this on site. Especially considering that everything we took onto the site – tools, cameras, containers, recording equipment – needed to be either washed down with high pressure hoses or thoroughly cleaned with wet wipes and/or water before we could take it away again. Everything. We were also under time pressure, to get all the archaeological investigation and artefact analysis completed while there was still room on the site for us to work.

We ended up with a team of two, an iPad, a camera and almost five thousand fragments of artefact material. Each feature assemblage was sorted, analysed and photographed, with one person doing the identification and photography and the other transcribing the information into a spreadsheet on the iPad. Anything that we thought was of archaeological significance and could be safely cleaned on site (washed and rinsed in clean water to remove every speck of dirt) was removed from the site and everything else disposed of then and there. This meant we were able to recover a large proportion of the ceramics, a fantastic collection of clay pipes and a small quantity of bottles. Leather shoes, textiles, metal artefacts, most of the bottles (which couldn’t be easily cleaned on site) and any things we felt it wasn’t safe to remove were left behind, after being carefully analysed.

Our artefact analysis station on site. Image: J. Garland.

Our artefact analysis station on site. Image: J. Garland.

We learned a few things about the process (and ourselves) along the way.

  • It’s really difficult to use a touch screen while wearing gloves, especially if the gloves are even the tiniest bit loose.
  • Respirators muffle the voice quite a bit, which may result in some interesting misunderstandings between the dictator and transcriber, not helped by loud machinery nearby. It’s really important to have two people familiar with the same artefact terminology to mitigate this as much as possible. We still ended up with some fairly hilarious mis-transcriptions.
  • Communication throughout the whole excavation was made more difficult by the respirators, actually, not just between the archaeologists on site but also between us and the machine operator and other crew working on the site.
  • Sunny days are the worst. Not only are they hellish to experience in suits and masks, the shadows cast by the light made artefact (and site) photography more difficult than it needed to be.
  • Tyvek protective suits probably weren’t made with archaeology in mind: however tough they are, they were still, on occasion, defeated by the sharp edges of artefacts as we were digging.
  • On a note specific to this one particular site: people have terrible taste in music and may, sadistically, play the same song ten times in a row if they feel like it. We happened to be working right next to the Dance-O-Mat (a usually awesome Christchurch landmark created by Gap Filler), which was not as conducive to our continued sanity as you might have thought.
  • Sneezing while wearing a respirator is a very bad idea. Seriously. Think about it.

We also found a lot of really cool things. From clay pipes shaped like soldiers, decorated with tragedy/comedy masks or functioning as temperance propaganda to elaborate ceramic teapots, beautifully patterned ceramics, unusual glass bottles and an 1835 half-crown, this was a site that contained a wide variety of material culture. We haven’t completed our research into the history of the site as yet, but many of the artefacts were manufactured between the 1840s and early 1870s, suggesting that they may have belonged to people living here in the earliest decades of the city’s European settlement.

Some of the clay pipes found on site, along with an 1835 half-crown, with the stamp of William IV, King of England. Note the super awesome tragedy/comedy pipe with the face that changed expression when looked at upside down. Image: J. Garland.

Some of the clay pipes found on site, along with an 1835 half-crown, with the stamp of William IV, King of England. Note the super awesome tragedy/comedy pipe with the face that changed expression when looked at upside down. Image: J. Garland.

The ceramics, particularly from the pit with timbers at the base, included several blue and white “romantic” landscape patterns and Asiatic motifs popular in the mid-late 19th century. Other artefacts, especially the bottles, were discovered to be products and brands that had been made since the early 19th century. We identified torpedo bottles from Schweppes, Pitt and Webb, all of whom were aerated water manufacturers established in the first few decades of the 1800s. Other artefacts included products made by ink manufacturers, druggists and perfumers all operating from a similar period of time onwards. Exactly when they were deposited remains unclear for the moment, but we’ll figure it out.

Selection of ceramic vessels and a Booth's gin bottle with a prunt or blob seal. Clockwise, left to right:

Selection of ceramic vessels and a Booth’s gin bottle with a prunt or blob seal. Clockwise, left to right: Asiatic patterned plate; Italian Buildings patterned plate; Delhi patterned saucer; Alma patterned plate; Dendritic mocha decorated jug; glass bottle with prunt, reading BOOTH & CO No 1 SUPERIOR GIN 55 COWCROSS; Statue patterned saucers. Image: J. Garland.

We do know that, later on in the site’s history, several health professionals lived on the site, including a doctor and a dentist. Dr William Deamer constructed a two-storey brick surgery on the site in 1865 (Canterbury Heritage), which stood until the early 20th century and some of the medicine related artefacts we found may have originally been used in his establishment. The well that we found, in particular, contained a small assemblage of artefacts that were almost exclusively pharmaceutical bottles, as well as an incised measuring jug that may have been used in the preparation of medicines.

Medical and pharmaceutical artefacts found in the well. Image: J. Garland.

Medical and pharmaceutical artefacts found in the well. Image: J. Garland.

All things considered, it’s a pretty fascinating site and assemblage. I will admit, it was a little bit sad to see so much of the physical material disposed of on site, but the most important thing is that we’ve preserved the information that material had to offer. This is what archaeology is about, after all, the insight and knowledge into the lives and behaviour of people that we gain from the material traces of those who came before us.

If it means suffering through sweaty protective suits and masks to do this, then we will, and gladly.

Jessie Garland


Canterbury Heritage, 2008. 1879 Christchurch Panorama. [online] Available at www.canterburyheritage.blogspot.co.nz.