Well Well Well

In early 2022 when I was asked if I would be keen to lead the dig at an aerated water factory site, I was pretty fizzed. It’s not every day that you get to work on this type of archaeological site, and having the chance to dive into the archaeology of a specific industry is always a good time – at least in my books. As you’ll see, our St Asaph Street site did not disappoint, and it certainly turned into quite the big job, with a total of 78 archaeological features being identified. For those interested in some quick stats we found 22 rubbish pits, five wells, two earthenware pipelines, an area of hydrocarbon staining (yuck), and a whole lot of post holes and piles. Together all of these features build up a brilliant picture of what happened at the site during the 19th and early 20th century. Today I’ll be focusing on wells and discussing what the five wells from our site can tell us.

If you want to get super technical, there are three basic methods of constructing a drinking well: dug, driven, and drilled. Dug is pretty self-explanatory, driven involves smacking a pipe into the ground, and drilled involves the use of specific drilling machinery. We see wells of all different shapes and sizes within the archaeological record here in Christchurch, and throughout wider New Zealand.

Most people would easily recognise the classic brick lined well. Typically, these beauties appear on our earlier Christchurch sites, as well sinking technology sharpened up in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

A yellow brick well found in central Christchurch. It was originally full of artefacts. Note the artesian on the left interior.

Sometimes we find unlined wells, although I’m not convinced these would be that great with Christchurch’s soft silty base. I know our Dunedin and Southland teams find these a bit more than us.

An unlined well uncovered in Invercargill. Photo courtesy of the Invers team.

Timber or barrel lined wells pop up from time to time.

A barrel lined well found by Hamish back in 2017 – what a cool find!

Less common, but still quite funky, are tube wells – a type of well made from a vertical earthenware pipe, easily comparable to the warp pipes in Super Mario.

Neda’s tube well and adjacent artesian (left), and Mario on a warp pipe/tube well (right). I see no difference.

But overall, the most common type of well we encounter is the trusty artesian. Artesian wells are long metal pipes sunk into the ground that tap into Christchurch’s underlying aquifer systems. Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, we find wells within wells. If you want to learn more about wells in general and Christchurch’s underlying aquifers, check out a blog written by our comrade Hamish here.

Three wells are better than one? The gorgeous well-inception uncovered at the Convention Centre.

Christchurch didn’t have a piped water supply until 1909, so settlers needed their own well to access fresh water. Given Christchurch’s swampy and riverine environment, they didn’t have to dig too deep to reach the pure underlying waters. This accessibility and quality is largely why Canterbury proved to be a popular location for aerated water factories. Between 1883 and 1923 there were more aerated water factories in Christchurch than Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin combined, and it was said that in Canterbury there was a factory every 20 miles (Robson, 1995: 44). With all of this in mind, it comes as no surprise that we found five wells at our site.

The first artesian well (Feature 21) identified on site was actually found in the centre of a fairly large, and somewhat soggy, rubbish pit. These two features were located to the immediate west of the aerated water factory building, as outlined in the 1877 plan of the property. A convenient location, likely easily accessible through a side door. In contrast, these features fall within the boundary of the 1884 factory buildings (remember how Henry Joseph Milsom started the construction of new and extensive factory buildings in 1884) as shown in an 1899 survey plan. This indicates that our first artesian well relates to the earlier phase of the factory and was likely abandoned around 1884.

The large rubbish pit in which our first artesian well was found. Featuring Hamish in the background.

The exposed artesian well in the centre of the fully excavated rubbish pit. Featuring Tristan in the background.

Site plan showing the locations of artesian wells (light blue) and the brick-lined well (dark blue) in relation to building footprints. These are shown over the 1877 Strouts Map (underlying with infilled building footprints) and an 1899 survey plan (outline and dotted infill). In this plan we can see the location of Feature 21 to the immediate west of the 1877 factory building footprint, but within the footprint of the 1884 factory, which led us to identify that the well was probably abandonned in 1884 when the factory extension took place.

Analysis of the artefacts recovered from within the rubbish pit also support the abandonment of the well in this mid-1880s period, as they were determined to have a terminus post quem (earliest possible deposition date) of 1876. The location of the artesian in the centre of the rubbish pit is no coincidence. It is very likely that the formal cut of the surrounding rubbish pit represents a removed reservoir, tank, or structural base. If such a structure was removed, the remaining void would be ideal for an opportunistic rubbish pit, especially if you were undergoing renovations. As the recovered artefacts were commercial, relating to factory waste rather than domestic refuse, this seems pretty likely.

An artesian well with concrete reservoir trough, South Pasadena USA c. 1884. Source: University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society: calisphere.org/item/c381877653c774457691a8b6a3e95cc6/.

Interestingly, a series of circular post holes were arranged around our first well and its rubbish pit. I reckon these post holes represent one of three things.

  1. The footprints of the mechanical rig used to sink the well.
  2. The framing of a pump or rig feature, used to draw more water, possibly indicating things were drying up .
  3. A shelter or roof structure, not marked on the survey plan.

Without contemporary descriptions or photographs, it is difficult to determine what exactly these post holes truly represent. But we can say that they are evidence for some related structure or activity. So, it seems there are more to artesian wells that just a pipe in the ground.

Circular post holes surrounding our first artesian well and associated rubbish pit.

An example of a deep well sinking operation in Christchurch c. 1920. Image: [Artesian well sunk by McClure & Clemence, 31 Horatio Street, Christchurch]. Marks, J M fl 1905 :Photographs of Christchurch and environs, 1890s-1910s. Ref: 1/1-000456-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23243245

An advertisement in the 1879 Southern Province Almanac (p. 102). Note the “wind-power pump for raising water”.

The next two artesian wells (Feature 19 and Feature 20) uncovered, were found quite close together. These two wells were identified at the immediate rear (south) of the 1884 factory building, as shown on the 1899 survey plan. So, we can safely assume these two wells relate to that mid-1880s expansion and refurbishment of the factory. With the two wells being adjacent, it is likely that one was a replacement, tapping into a deeper aquifer as the former well ran dry. Grouped wells have been observed elsewhere in Christchurch, showing that people preferred to maintain the same function of a space within a backyard or property – likely for accessibility and convenience.

Our second artesian well (Feature 19). Note the cap on the top of the pipe, which helpfully stopped the site from flooding (a common occurence when a digger bucket hits an artesian pipe that often leads to much malaise for the contractors).

Our third artesian well (Feature 21) with the top part removed.

Unlike our first well, these next two artesian wells do not appear to have had a reservoir or tank, at least not one built into the ground. They also had no adjacent post holes to indicate supportive or installation structures. Some artefacts were recovered from around our second artesian well (Feature 19). The artefact deposit was less formal and less artefact dense than the one associated with our first well, and it was interpreted as relating to the removal of the upper portion of the second well during its capping and abandonment.

The last artesian well (Feature 39) was found on the eastern side of the site, somewhat away from the location of the various factory buildings. This makes me think that this well wasn’t associated with the factory, as it would be inefficient to carry water over by bucket and there was no evidence for a subsurface pipe to the factory footprint. I also wondered if it could represent a water trough for horses, however, the stables were located to the north, so this seems unlikely. Instead, it seems more likely that this well was installed in the early 20th century and utilised by Grummit White and Co who purchased the eastern half of the site in 1903.

What did I say- this is a  typical view of an artesian well once uncovered by a digger. Sometimes we don’t even see the pipe without wading into the pooling water.

Only one brick lined well (Feature 22) was found at our site and it was located to the south of our factory buildings in close proximity to a small two-bedroom cottage. This small cottage was built in c. 1862 by a Mr J. Flemming, who owned the eastern side of our site before it was purchased by the Milsom’s in the 1870s. It seems to have been a rental during Mr Flemming’s ownership but was likely utilised as workers accommodation following the Milsom purchase.

Excavation of the well found it was backfilled with sterile fill, and there were no artefacts in the fill at all (I was quite disappointed!). However, the bricks making up the well provided information of their own. The sample brick collected had a bulge on its face, within the frog. This bulge was interpreted as being evidence of a manufacture error, and possibly represented where an air pocket had formed in the brick while firing. It is likely that the brick was sold as a ‘second’ as a result of this. The letters “F R” were stamped on the brick’s frog. While the brick manufacturer using these initials is not known, they appear to have been active during the early-mid 1860s. Based on the age and location, we can safely say this well relates to the occupants of our wee cottage and that it wasn’t installed by the Milsom’s. While this well doesn’t directly relate to our factory, it does show a division of domestic vs commercial space within our site. It also shows change over time in relation to site activity and well technology and use.

Our only brick lined well uncovered at St Asaph Street.

Who doesn’t love a side profile of a well – gorgeous!

The “FR” stamped brick recovered from our lined well.

While wells are a pretty common archaeological feature here in Christchurch, and it might seem a bit self-evident that an aerated water factory would need its own water supply, the morphology and location of the wells on our St Asaph Street site is able to provide us with information on the aerated water industry and the growth and development of Milsom and Mace’s factory. An artesian well might just be a pipe in the ground, but the water that flowed through it would have been carbonated and, in some cases, flavoured, and then used to fill thousands of bottles with soda water that were enjoyed across the district, meaning that they were a pretty key component to Christchurch’s aerated water industry.

Just like that my wells have run dry. So, check in again next time when we will discuss the findings from our numerous rubbish pits. With both domestic and commercial rubbish pits found on site, we have some fascinating findings and interpretations to share. And finally, it wouldn’t be an aerated water factory without bottles – see you in two weeks.

Alana Kelly


Robson, P. E. W., 1995. A History of the Aerated Water Industry in New Zealand 1845-1986. New Zealand Soft Drink Manufacturer’s Association and AGM Publishing Ltd., Wellington.



2 thoughts on “Well Well Well

    • Hi Ross, thanks for your comment. From the building recording that we’ve done following the earthquakes, we know that the FR bricks were used in the construction of the Occidental Hotel (built 1861), the stone chamber of the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings (built 1864-1865), the Christchurch Club (built 1860-1862), and Shand’s Emporium (built 1860), so we know that the brick manufacturer was operating during the 1860-1865 period and earlier than those manufacturers that you’ve suggested. Just as an aside, while the Bickler website can be a good starting point for researching Canterbury brick manufacturers, I’d fact check anything on there using additional sources as some of the information is definitely incorrect.

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