Uncovering Victoria Square

In 1848, when the City of Christchurch was nothing but a design concept of the Canterbury Association back in London the idea of a ‘little slice of England’ (but half the world away) was born (Rice 2014, 9). Exactly how well this vision was realised on the ground is debatable, but to many, the city continues to possess an English identity, despite going on to be home to immigrants from across the globe (Cookson 2000, 13). The Association was formed with the purpose of creating a colony here in the Canterbury Region and had the somewhat romantic notion of building an Anglican community with a handpicked selection of English society (Rice 2014, 9). To some extent this was arguably achieved by the Association’s Chief Surveyor, Captain Joseph Thomas. A city constructed around a cathedral and college, a characteristic that seems very English to any Brit like myself, was created. To this very day, despite its recent changes, I can confirm that Christchurch is a place where any Brit can come and feel oddly at home even though they’re in a city quite literally the farthest from home they could possibly be. An enduring feat that Thomas would surely be proud of.

The task of surveying the town sites of Lyttleton, Sumner, and Christchurch was undertaken by Anglo-Irish lawyer Edward Jollie. It is in 1850 that we first see a mention of Victoria Square, or Market Place as it was originally named, inked on Jollie’s Black Map of Christchurch. Hailing from a British market town myself it’s easy to see why the square was incorporated into city plans. Such squares are a common feature in towns and cities across the UK and it’s understandable why Market Place became an important attribute of this new city. Not only would it immediately remind new immigrants and settlers of home, it would also come to benefit the city’s residents in a practical sense; here people would be able to sell their produce to one another and build the foundations of new businesses. From the city’s founding to present day the area has remained a public space and, although it has undergone a number of transformations, it has provided the people of Christchurch and visitors alike with a civic space for trade, socialising, and entertainment.

In spite of the area being set aside by the Association as a commercial area it wasn’t until 1853 that the proposed markets were actually held, when the rules and regulations were finally decided upon. As soon as the markets officially started however, Market Place began to flourish and quickly became a hub of activity for Cantabrians. During its history the square has been used for a range of activities and purposes. From animal pound to racehorse breeding and, at one time, a watering hole for visiting circus elephants! Such use of the area may have deviated from the traditional use for a market square but nonetheless provides an entertaining and unique history. The square was also utilised in a more normal manner:  butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, drapers, shoemakers and importers, wool and grain dealers, and builders all operated out of and around the outskirts of Market Place at some point (Rice 2014). The square was also home to immigration barracks, the police station, the first post office, and Market Hall at one point. Although hard to imagine now, the square was once a densely built up area filled with wooden structures.

The 1850s-1870s could safely be considered the ‘boom’ era in the commercial use of Market Place. Empty town sections were being snapped up following the 1870s wheat boom and it was then that all of the construction within the square took place as a result of an influx of civic and commercial activity (Rice 2014, 87). The initial wooden buildings built around the outskirts of the square were replaced by two-three storey buildings in brick, stone, stucco and slate by the late 1870s, a reflection of Christchurch’s rapid growth.

Elephants in the Avon! A rather bizarre sight when a visiting circus decided to let the elephants cool down in 1934. Press (17/01/1934: 16)

By the mid-1880s this commercial boom had almost run its course. Although shops and hotels remained around the outskirts of the square, the times were changing in Christchurch, with the growth of other commercial areas in the city. However, despite the commercial period of the square coming to an end, the 1880s would see the beginning of a new venture for Market Place with the installation of the steam and horse tram from 1880. The line bisected the square diagonally along Whatley Road (later Victoria Street) and was part of the Papanui Line. This line was the most heavily used and as a result would have kept the square busy, even when trade was declining. The tram would go on to be turned into an electric line and ran from 1905 until its closure in 1954. Victoria Street continued to be used through the square following the closure of the tram until 1988 when the entire square was pedestrianised (Rice 1987, 117).

A built up Market Place in 1862 looking north east. Image: CCL. File reference: CCL PhotoCD 16, IMG0003.

During this transition from a commercial to public space the recognisable features of the present day Victoria Square, such as the statues of Queen Victoria and Captain Cook as well as the recently refurbished Bowker Fountain, were installed. It was during this transformation at the turn of the 20th century, following the death of Queen Victoria, that Market Place was officially renamed Victoria Square.

The Papanui line ran through Victoria Square until it was decommissioned in the 1950s. Image: Alexander, 1993.

Victoria Square would go on to be redeveloped in the 1980s and, most recently, in 2017/2018 as part of the rebuild programme following the Canterbury earthquakes. During the most recent redevelopment archaeologists were able to gain new insights into the early days of the square, and broader life within Christchurch. Excavations revealed structural remains of the early infrastructure of Market Place and several rubbish pits, finding over 1100 artefact fragments. Many of these fragments would go on to help piece us together the early history of the square.

The assemblage recovered from Victoria Square consisted of a variety of artefacts including ceramic and glass, but, rather surprisingly, was predominantly made up of footwear. The sheer volume of shoes found during the recent works (117 shoes coming from one rubbish alone) was confusing for a time. The types of shoes found within the square varied greatly and would have belonged to men, women, and children. Following a little investigation it appeared that perhaps it wasn’t so odd that so many boots were being found: Yorkshire House at the Market Square was in fact having a “Great Clearing Sale. We know from newspaper advertisements that John Caygill was operating out of Market Place as an importer and manufacturer of footwear from 1864 (Lyttelton Time 16/08/1864: 1). Caygill later moved his premises to High Street in 1876 where he was advertised as selling ladies and children’s footwear (Lyttleton Times 20/05/1876). It is quite possible that a number of our shoes weren’t travelling very far before finding themselves in ground and may have been part of a mass disposal before moving premises, which would explain the quantity of shoes found.

John Caygill was advertising his shoe sale at Market Place and could very well be one of the sources of all our buried shoes. Star (8/11/1869: 2).

Some examples of the ankle boots recovered from Victoria Square. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Within this collection of footwear a number of rubber shoes were identified with maker’s marks. Because of these marks it was then possible to trace some of the companies and subsequently the origins of the shoes. One example of this is the North British Rubber Company, which originates from Edinburgh. Their shoes and boots were in production from 1856 until 1956 and they largely exported their products to other countries for a range of rubber needs and purposes including mechanical, engineering and agricultural uses (French 2006). Like fitting a puzzle together, it was possible to trace the origins of these small fragments of rubber to Scotland, 18,591km away. It’s quite possible that John Caygill was importing these very boots to sell in his store at the Market Place.

Footwear made by the North British Rubber Co. from Edinburgh. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A personal favourite find with origins in Scotland, like myself, is the clay pipe. While pipe fragments aren’t an unusual find on sites in Christchurch they’re always welcome, as they’re usually embossed with the company’s name and place of creation. It’s therefore possible to know a considerable amount about the object immediately after excavation, something that’s not always the case. In this case we can see that this clay pipe came from Edinburgh and was made by ‘THO.WHITE & CO’ translating into Thomas White & Co. who produced pipes from 1823 to 1876 (Bradley 2000: 117). As ‘home’ for me is just over an hour from Edinburgh I do get rather attached to my Scottish finds. Perhaps this is because I know that they’ve made a similar journey to myself to get here (although I’m guessing my air travel would have been a lot more comfortable than their sea voyage).

Another find from Scotland! The Thomas White and Co. smoking pipe. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Another interesting find was two Bell and Black matchboxes. Richard Bell originally began a match business in London in the 1830s and was later joined by Black (Anson 1983). Their matchboxes are found across sites in both New Zealand and Australia dating to the mid-late 19th century. What is particularly nice about these matchboxes, however, is that they later began to be produced in Wellington when a factory was opened in 1895. Their success story brought them on a journey from England to New Zealand, where the matches are produced to this day.

Two examples of Bell and Black matchboxes were found during recent excavations. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

One of the few examples of New Zealand made artefacts that were recovered during recent works is the J. M. & Co. bottle, which was found complete (a small victory for any archaeologist). The initials embossed refer to Joseph Milsom and his aerated water company. Several branches of the he Milsom family set up factories in Lyttelton and Christchurch during the 19th century, and according to the Wises Directory (1872-1873) Joseph Milsom and Co. was established in 1860.

The (whole!) Joseph Milsom aerated water bottle. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

All dateable artefacts recovered from the Victoria Square excavation can quite easily be associated with the early commercial ‘boom’ period of the Market Place (1850s-1870s). The majority of these findings also supported what we know about the strong export markets from England and Scotland, which supplied the colonies of Australia and New Zealand. In fact, only a few of the artefacts with maker’s marks recovered from the square were found to be made in New Zealand. While this is not unusual for the period it does provide us with an insight into what those early years must have been like for immigrants; everything they had once taken for granted as being easily accessible now had to be shipped from the other side of the world and this perhaps goes some way to putting into perspective how challenging life must have been. The challenges and risks businesses would have to take, with no guarantee of success, in order to import goods from Europe is an overwhelming thought.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, there has been and still is a lot going on in and around Victoria Square, which has always been a focal point of Christchurch. It’s somewhere that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working over the past year as it’s been given a new lease of life and putting all the puzzle pieces together to create a picture of early commercial Christchurch has been extremely rewarding. Although its role has changed over time the square has served the public of Christchurch since the city’s foundation. It is a place that has always been dear to people’s hearts and while we’ve been able to uncover a little of the past during the recent renovations, the square will continue in its role as a public space for future residents, as intended by Thomas and Jollie so long ago.

Kathy Davidson

References

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.

Anson, D., 1983. Typology and Seriation of Wax Vesta Tin Matchboxes from Central Otago: A New Method of Dating Historic Sites in New Zealand. [online] Available at http://nzarchaeology.org/cms/NZJA/Vol%205%201983/NZJA5.115-138Anson.pdf [Accessed November 2017]

Bradley, C., 2000. Smoking Pipes for the Archaeologist. In Karklins, K. (Ed.) Studies in Material Culture Research, p. 104-133. Society for Historical Archaeology, Pennsylvania.

Cookson, J., 2000, ‘Pilgrims’ Progress – Image, Identity and Myth in Christchurch in Southern Capital Christchurch Towards a City Biography 1850-2000, Canterbury University Press: Christchurch NZ.

Donaldson, B., Hume, G. and Costello, S., 1990. Antique Bottle and Containers of Christchurch and District. Christchurch Antique Bottles and Collectibles Club, Christchurch

Grace’s Guide, 2018. The North British Rubber Company. [online] Available at: https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/North_British_Rubber_Co [Accessed April 2018].

Rice, G., 2014, Victoria Square: Cradle of Christchurch. Canterbury University Press: Christchurch NZ.

Tasker, J., 1993. NZ Matches and Matchboxes. Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, Vol. 37. [online] Available at http://www.ohinemuri.org.nz/journals/65-journal-37-september-1993/1370-nz-matches-and-matchboxes [Accessed November 2017].

 

2 thoughts on “Uncovering Victoria Square

  1. A fascinating read, thanks!

    I was just wondering … I heard somewhere that the Victoria Square site was a market place for Maori in pre-European times. Do you know anything about this?

    • Hi Helen, thanks! I’ve really enjoyed working at Victoria Square so it was a joy to write about it.

      We know from traditions that the area was used by Māori for hundreds of years primarily as a food gathering area, and the kāinga at Victoria Square was named Puāri. While there’s no record of Victoria Square being used as a market place per se prior to European settlement there is evidence that local Maori used Victoria Square in the early 1850s to sell produce to the early Pākehā settlers.

      I was keeping my eyes peeled for any pre-European archaeology, but none was discovered during recent works.

      If you’re interested in learning more about Māori occupation of Christchurch and its surrounds, Ngāi Tahu’s Kā Huru Manu atlas is a great resource: http://www.kahurumanu.co.nz

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