The Beca Heritage Festival 2019 is currently on in Christchurch. There’s lots of interesting events being held, highlighting both the work being done in the heritage sector in Christchurch and providing opportunities to visit and interact with Christchurch’s heritage (see here for a full list). Last week we held an open office event, giving Christchurch residents an opportunity to check out our lab and listen to us talk about what we actually do as archaeologists working in Christchurch. As part of the open office night, we put on an exhibition telling the stories of three people we have encountered doing archaeology in Christchurch: Ada Wells, Henry and Elizabeth Watkins, and William Cuddon.
This fortnight on the blog, we’re going to share one of those stories, that of Henry and Elizabeth Watkins. Henry Green Watkins (b. 1829) and his wife Elizabeth Maria Watkins (b. 1837) arrived in New Zealand in 1857. Following a brief stint at the Thames goldfields and some time spent in Lyttelton, the couple settled in Akaroa where Henry opened a general store. The couple were drawn to Akaroa as Henry’s father, Dr. Daniel Watkins, his mother, Julia Watkins, and his five siblings were already living in the town.
Henry and Elizabeth appear to have had a happy and successful life in Akaroa. In 1871 they moved into what was later known as Holly Cottage, a ten-roomed house with orchard gardens and a stream to the north. They had at least 11 children: Henry William Daniel (b. 1854), Frank (b. 1860), Walter (b. 1862), Amy Florence (b. 1864), Ernest John (b. 1866), Marina Maude (b. 1868), Arthur Evelyn (b. 1870), Albert Nigel (b. 1872), Lillian Rosina (b. 1874, d. 1875), Elizabeth Constance (b. 1876), and Beatrice Lilian (b. 1878).
Along with his shop, located on Beach Road, Henry owned several blocks of land around the peninsula that he either leased or farmed, with the Watkins family well known for their orchards. Henry appears to have been an important figure in the fledgling town of Akaroa. He was elected as Akaroa’s second mayor, in office between 1877 and 1878, and during his term Farr’s bridge was constructed.
In 1879 Henry passed away, aged 50, leaving Elizabeth to care for their ten surviving children. Elizabeth not only raised her ten children (aged between one and 25 at time of their father’s passing) but continued to run the store and manage the blocks of land owned by the Watkins. Elizabeth was described as being “Of quiet and unobtrusive habits and of excellent business capacity, she had the knack, although in delicate health, of making her way in the world, and leaves behind her an unsullied reputation” (Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertisor 20.07.1894). In 1894, aged 57, Elizabeth passed away, having had a weak chest for several years prior. In her will she left her estate to her sons Henry William Daniel and Ernest John, on the provision that it be sold, and the profits divided amongst all of her children. The sale of the estate revealed she owned 788 acres of land in Akaroa and around Banks Peninsula and Little River, a sizeable sum of land which reflects the success her and her late husband had.
In October 2018, Underground Overground Archaeology monitored excavations at the site of Holly Cottage, where Elizabeth and Henry Watkins lived from 1871 until 1894. Unfortunately, Holly Cottage was demolished during the 20th century, and we’re yet to find a photograph of what the cottage looked like. During the excavations a large assemblage of artefacts was found, with over 2,000 artefacts recovered.
Most of these artefacts were found in what was interpreted to be an old creek bed, located just a few metres away from the modern stream. Unlike modern times where household refuse is collected by rubbish trucks, people living in the 19th century had to dispose of their rubbish by their own means. The most common way to do this was for people to dig a pit in their backyard and bury their rubbish. However, it would appear that the Watkins took advantage of the natural depression created by the old stream and threw their rubbish into the gully. Doing this saved the hassle of digging a pit, and the old creek bed was located far enough away from the cottage that the unpleasant smell of rubbish was unlikely to make its way inside the house.
The artefacts excavated from the old creek bed hinted at what the Watkins’ daily lives were like. They included food and beverage bottles, giving some insight into the meals Elizabeth was probably making for her family. The Watkins family appear to have made the most of Akaroa’s seaside location, with nearly 700 shells found, mostly oyster, cockle and pipi, along with kingfish bones. Worcestershire Sauce seems to have been a favourite, with 11 bottles of the sauce recovered. Several pharmaceutical bottles were discovered, many of which were patent medicines that promised to cure any kind of disease. These may have been purchased by Elizabeth in her later years to ease her chest pain. Also present were four bottles of Piesse and Lubin perfume, suggesting it was a favourite of Elizabeth’s.
What was most unusual about the artefact assemblage found in the creek bed, however, was the amount of complete or near-complete objects. These ranged from ceramic plates, platters and tureens to a glass decanter and basket, to two clothes irons and a cooking pot. Finding complete and near-complete items is relatively rare in the archaeological record, and it suggested that the items found in the old creek bed were not just day-to-day household rubbish. Following Elizabeth’s death in 1894, Holly Cottage was leased to Mr Joseph Barwick. It is possible that after her death her sons cleaned out the cottage, throwing away any of her possessions they did not want to keep. This would explain the presence of items such as the clothes irons, which were intended to last a lifetime, and gives us archaeologists a chance to see what the Watkins’ lives were like over 120 years later.