Elixirs, Ointments and Tonics: Medicine in Nineteenth Century Christchurch

As part of the New Zealand Archaeology Week, Clara recently gave a talk entitled, Elixirs, Ointments and Tonics: Medicine in Nineteenth Century Christchurch. This talk was part of the event, Beneath Our Feet: Archaeological Stories of Place. The talks from this event were recorded by Plains FM and are available as a podcast here (Clara’s talk starts at 23 minutes). This blog post provides the images and captions from Clara’s talk for anyone who wasn’t able to attend the event but is still interested in listening to the talk.

Tonight I’m going to be speaking about what I’d say is probably my favourite site that I’ve worked on in Christchurch. It was the site of a 19th century doctor’s house and surgery, and at the site we found a large assemblage of medicine bottles and other medical equipment.

This is the Pegasus Arms building. It’s one of the oldest still standing buildings in Christchurch, with the first part of the house constructed in 1852, The story I’m going to tell you tonight begins here in 1853, when Dr Burrell Parkerson purchased the property and the surrounding town sections. Image: NZHPT Field Record Form Collection.

Dr Parkerson was the first of several doctors to live at the site. Pictured here is Dr. John William Smith Coward, who lived at the site between 1862 and 1881. I believe that most of the artefacts that we found at the site likely date to Coward’s period, but more on that soon. Image: Roy Holderness. 

Here’s our site in 1862, when Dr Coward purchased the site from Dr Fisher. The doctors owned the three sections outlined in blue, with the house, which is now known as the Pegasus Arms, located in the north east corner of the site. The shaded red area is the area that we excavated, which you can see is to the immediate west of the house. Image: Fooks, 1862.

In 1869, Dr Coward undertook renovations to the property, constructing an adjoining surgery and consulting room. We can see that extension on the 1877 Strouts map, which shows the western part of the doctor’s surgery was located within our site. The house continued to be occupied by doctors until 1903, when Dr Moorhouse built a new residence on the corner of Antigua Street and Oxford Tce. Moorhouse removed the consulting room and surgery from the old house and attached it to his new house. Image: Strouts, 1877.

Looking at the building we can see the side door that would have led to the consulting room and surgery, and while we were excavating we found bricks that were likely either from the surgery’s foundations, or the landscaping surrounding it.

Now this is my favourite site I’ve worked on for a few reasons. The first is to do with the actual archaeology of the site. At the site we found a gully running east to west through the middle of the site. As many of you may know, Christchurch was built on a swamp. The Avon River flows diagonally through the centre of Christchurch, and leading onto it were gullies, which are shown here on the 1850 map by these grey lines. These gullies were natural depressions created by the river. Some may have always held water that flowed into the Avon, others might have only filled with water when it rained or the river was in flood. Image: Jollie, 1850.

Here’s our site in 1850. We can see the gully running west from the Avon, through our site, and out onto Antigua Street.

And here’s our gully as we were excavating it. This is at the base of the gully, which you can see was distinguished by a dark grey silt that cut through the natural buff-yellow silt of the site.

And this is a cross-section of the gully. You can see how the gully has a sloping, U-shaped base, and that it has lots of different layers of fill building it up. Artefacts were found in these upper layers, roughly 500 to 800 mm below the modern site surface.

From commentaries in Christchurch newspapers we know that as early as 1863 the landowners surrounding this section of gully and the council were talking about filling it in. And we also know from these commentaries, along with other excavations we’ve done on different sections of gully in Christchurch, that while some sections of gully were infilled with clean fill, household rubbish and waste was also dumped in them. In 1879 Dr Powell, the Health Officer for Christchurch, wrote a damning report on the public health risk that these gullies posed. The rubbish that was dumped in them created a breeding ground for disease, and Powell noted a pattern where those that lived closest to the gully regularly were ill with diphtheria and typhoid, including, somewhat ironically, the children of Dr Coward and the grandchildren of Dr Parkerson.

Most of the artefacts we found deposited in the gully pre-dated Dr Powell’s 1879 report, suggesting that those neighbouring it heeded the warning and stopped disposing their rubbish into the gully. Which leads me to the next aspect of the site that I find so interesting: the artefacts that we found. Unlike other gullies that we’ve excavated before, where pharmaceutical bottles made up around 5-6% of the total glass assemblage, 39% of the glass artefacts found in this gully were medicine bottles. In addition to those, another deposit of artefacts was found at the site, outside of the gully’s footprint, and 91% of the glass artefacts from this deposit were pharmaceutical bottles.

The pharmaceutical bottles found at the site included large storage carboys, that would have been used to store bulk medicinal products in.

Smaller round, oval, rectangular and octagonal pharmaceutical bottles were present, along with round and square vials. These were likely used for both storing products in, and also for dispensing medicine to patients.

Two bottles had numbers incised on them- no doubt done by the doctor to distinguish between the contents of the otherwise identical bottles. It’s likely that most of the bottles would have probably had paper labels. But unfortunately these don’t survive particularly well being buried for 150 years.

We also found shop rounds. These were bottles that were used by chemists to display products in their windows or behind their counter, but our doctor was likely using them for storage. These were quite cool as we don’t see them very much on our usual domestic sites.

We also found several other medical related artefacts. These included three conical measures with the measurements incised on in fluid ounces, a glass stirring rod, the plunger from a glass syringe, a plain bowl that was likely used in the doctor’s surgery, two different infusion pots, one that was almost complete and another that was represented only by the lid, and the corner of what we believe is likely a pill tile. The infusion pot is probably my favourite artefact from the site, just because I’ve never seen anything like it before. It was designed with an internal lip, about where the top of the handle starts, that a lid with perforated holes would site on. The jug was filled with hot water and medicinal products were placed on the lid to infuse into the water.

These artefacts all provide an insight into healthcare in Christchurch in the 1860s and 1870s. The doctors who lived at the site played an important role in 19th century Christchurch. They treated patients in the consulting room and surgery attached to the house, at the hospital, located just down the road, and they also did house visits to their patients. In addition to that, they were medical officers for public institutions like the asylum and prison, and even acted as the coroner for the city.

Which leads me to my final reason for why I find the site so interesting, what happens when we compare it to a typical domestic assemblage. Many of the sites we excavate were the sites of 19th century houses, meaning we have a good understanding on the objects and products that people were using and consuming in 19th century Christchurch. Several of the artefacts we found at the site were unique. I’ve never found conical measures, infusion pots, and glass syringes on a domestic site before. Others were unusual- I’ve seen the large storage carboys before, but I wouldn’t say they were common. However, some of the pharmaceutical bottles are common. These were the vials, and the oval, octagonal, and rectangular pharmaceutical bottles, that the doctors would have dispensed medicine in. We find these bottle styles relatively often in our domestic assemblages, indicating that people were visiting either the doctor or a pharmacist and having medicine prescribed to them.

But what we find at our domestic sites as well, that we didn’t find at all at our doctor’s site, are patent medicine bottles. The lack of any real regulation on medicines in the 19th century led to the growth of patent medicines. These were often advertised as what we refer to as a cure-all product- meaning that you name a symptom and this medicine will be able to cure it. Some were simple herbal remedies, others contained more eye-raising ingredients, such as alcohol, cocaine, and opium. The medicine was patented by the doctor or chemist who created it, and was generally sold in a bottle that was embossed with the products name to ensure its legitimacy.

The epitome of patent medicines, at least in my opinion, was Holloway’s ointment. Holloway’s ointment claimed to cure, and I hope you’re ready for this, bad legs, bad breasts, burns, bunions, bite of mosquito and sandflies, scalds, chilblains, cancers, elephantiasis, fistulas, gout, glandular swellings, lumbago, piles, rheumatism, sore-throats, sore-heads, scurvy, tumours, ulcers, yaws, rheumatism, sore nipples, old wounds, bronchitis, coughs, colds, and all skin diseases. Studies done on the ointment have showed that it was a herbal ointment made up of aloe, rhubarb root and ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, saffron, glaubers salt and potassium sulphate and that any healing effect was probably little more than placebo.

That we find these patent medicines from England and America, as well as locally produced patent medicines like Bonnington’s Irish Moss, at our domestic sites, shows that the residents of Christchurch were consuming a wide range of medical substances and that they were purchasing both medicines that were prescribed by doctors and chemists, as well as choosing to look to the likes of patent medicines to cure their illnesses- perhaps reflecting the quality of medicine in the 19th century, which was in the process of developing the scientific practices it has today.

If you’re interested in seeing the artefacts that I’ve spoken about tonight for yourself, then I urge you to head on down to the South Library where the artefacts will be on display for the entirety of Archaeoloy Week.

And finally, if you’re interested in seeing more Christchurch archaeology content, Underground Overground Archaeology have facebook and Instagram accounts that we regularly share finds on, and a WordPress blog with more detailed posts- so definitely check those out if you haven’t already.

If you’re reading this and it’s May 2021, then the artefacts are still on display at the South Library- so definitely go and check them out in person!

Clara Watson


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.