Of all the house sections in all the world, ‘The Smiths’ had to walk into mine. Between 1897 and 1899, that is…
Today on the blog I’ll refrain from making jokes about ‘Brangelina’ and the 2004 movie that shares its name with this post (especially regarding news of their coincidentally timed divorce). Instead, I’ll tell you a tale about the trials, tribulations and triumphs that I experienced recently, while researching the history of a family with the most gloriously common name – Smith. You will also get a peek at how we carry out some of our historic research.
Smith has been the most common surname in New Zealand and England since the 19th century. So it wasn’t surprising that it was a difficult task to find information on the family of Smiths who owned a house section in Strowan between 1897 and 1899. Large deposits of domestic rubbish were found on this site, and they contained artefacts that were dated from 1897 onwards. This house section only had one previous owner, and he was known to be living in another area of Christchurch at the time, so it seemed logical that the Smiths could have deposited this rubbish.
The information that we had about the Smiths was available from the certificate of title for this land parcel, and was limited to their names and occupation (Many Anne Smith, the wife of Henry William Smith (carrier)). Now this would normally be sufficient information for us to determine if this couple lived on this section at the time that they owned it, as they would usually be listed in the Wises Post Office Directories and/or the New Zealand Electoral Roll. In this instance, no one with the last name Smith was recorded to be living on or owning a section on the appropriate street in Strowan at this time, nor was there any mention of them in the newspapers – so it would be easy to assume that this rubbish pit must have been made by a later 20th century occupant of this site.
This being said, the rubbish deposits in question contained large quantities of artefacts – many with dateable manufacturers’ marks, and many which could be dated by the techniques used to make them. As no maker’s mark was later than 1897 and no machine made glass bottles were present (machine made bottles began to be produced in the first decade of the 20th century), it seemed more likely that these rubbish pits were filled in the 19th century.
So who could have thrown out the rubbish? The neighbouring sections surrounding this land parcel were not purchased until the 20th century, and the land wasn’t located in the highly populated central city – so it also seemed unlikely that this rubbish was deposited here by people who lived in the area. Our section was not located near the corner of an adjacent road, so it seemed unlikely that our residents would use another road for access…
However, the resources that we have available for this type of research were compiled during the 19th century when recording methods were not always reliable or consistent. As such, we do sometimes come across errors and missing information. A closer look at the postal records of an adjacent road provided a very welcome “Henry Smith (carrier)” as a resident of an unnumbered house in the relevant block along Strowan Road, despite the fact that our modern road (Lloyd Street) had been created more than a decade before! I won’t bore you with too many further details, but the situation became much more complicated from here, and involved making maps showing where all of the residents listed on both of these roads lived (for the next decade). This can be confusing, because the houses are unnumbered, and not all the houses are always listed – so the method involves chasing consistent occupation of unnumbered houses. Tricky right? (To add to the headache, there were about five mistakes in post office directory over this period, and the residents of Lloyd Street were listed on Lloyd Street some years, and Strowan Road other years). Needless to say, complicated and time consuming, but highly rewarding when the pieces (or people) fall into place (yay!). The situation resulted in evidence of consistent occupation of our section by the Smiths from 1897, and then two more families in early 20th century. Too easy?
Little personal information was available about Henry William Smith, apart from where he resided before and after he lived in Strowan, and the fact that he worked as a carrier in Christchurch in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, he gave evidence at a court case regarding an eviction dispute – he had helped an evicted shop owner move her soiled, rain drenched goods, after her landlord took the roof off her shop! Nice guy. Mary Anne’s occupation is recorded as a housewife carrying out domestic duties at this time.
In 1900, Annie and Robert Meynell purchased the property. Robert was a local contractor who cleaned rivers and drains and was wounded in WW1 (Sun 27/06/1917: 3). The Meynells had a similarly uneventful representation in the local newspapers during their lifetimes, but they leased the house for a couple of years to a character with a much more colourful past. Raphael Portelli (whose antics we have come across before), was a fishmonger who appeared in Christchurch court many times in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was charged with a flurry of misdemeanours, including, but not limited to: public drunkenness, using obscene language (Star 19/10/1892: 3), cruely ill-using a horse (Star 26/07/1899: 3), assault, and breaking a window (Star 13/06/1900: 3), driving a cart after sunset without lights 17/04/1901: 3), being drunk while driving a horse and cart (Press 17/07/1901: 3), crashing his cart into someone else’s deliberately (coincidentally, this was the cart of Peter Thompson, who had previously charged him with assault Star 22/05/1902: 3). His ten-year-old son was even charged with stealing a tricycle (Star 18/06/1896: 3). Imagine how that getaway must have gone!
Ordinarily, it would be safe to assume that any of these residents could have deposited our assemblage, due to the time lag between the manufacture and the deposition of an artefact. However, this assemblage contained a group of artefacts which became a lot more exciting upon realising the Smiths lived here…
You may remember a matching ceramic tea set we posted on our page back in January – It featured the monogram of a mysterious caterer that appeared to have two different initials and the ability to run his business posthumously? This tea set was found on our section.
On further inspection, it appeared that one of the two similar sets of initials on these matching tea sets was a mistake. The correct monogram printed on these ceramics can be attributed to Leo Josephus Smith, who was a well-regarded caterer in Christchurch from 1891 to his death in 1897. He catered everything from balls and Lodge functions to school picnics, and – that’s right – he also had the last name SMITH! We have covered the fact that Smith represents a common surname, but it seems like too much of a coincidence that these artefacts turned up on a section occupied by someone with the same last name, during a contemporary time. The likely explanation is that Leo and Henry were brothers – we know from Leo’s obituary that he was the seventh son of Mr W. H. Smith, who arrived in Christchurch “with the pilgrims” (Star 25/10/1897: 4). Henry’s initials match those of Leo’s father’s and it is possible that he was given his father’s names. As the catering business appears to have continued after Leo’s death in 1897, it is possible that Henry and Mary Anne were involved in the continued operation of the business. This is supported by an advertisement in the Press in 1898 which names H. W. Smith as the caterer for a 40-year anniversary picnic of the ship Zealandia (Press 28/09/1898). It turns out that the Zealandia had a William Smith as steerage passenger (Lyttelton Times 22/09/1858: 4). It sounds a lot like this passenger was their father!
And so we come to the end of this historical journey. I hope you’ve shared my excitement about this site – it’s pretty unusual to find an artefact with someone’s name on it, and even more uncommon to have a connection between this person and the occupant of the site where it was found. What’s also cool is that fragments of this tea set were recovered from several rubbish pits at this site – which means that we can assume that they were all deposited at roughly the same time. In this instance, this can only have happened during the three years that the Smiths lived on the section – which is a small window of time in the grand scheme of archaeology!
Donaldson, B., Hume, G. and Costello, S., 1990. Antique Bottle and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch Antique Bottles and Collectibles Club, Christchurch.