Most of the work I do as a buildings archaeologist focuses on the humble 19th century cottage. These types of buildings, their construction methods and materials have become well trod territory in post-earthquake Christchurch, meaning we now have a fair picture of many of their occupant’s wealth and social standings, and how this changed through time. This story typically features a humble cottage growing up to be an, at least semi-respectable, middle-class villa – perhaps a reasonable aspiration for any house. Less often does one have the opportunity to explore the houses of the wealthy and elites of Christchurch society in the colonial period.
Recently we were contracted to investigate one such building in Fendalton, a house known as Lismore Lodge, that was notable for its association with the prominent early Christchurch Stoddart family, and then one very interesting Christchurch personality: the broadcaster, philologist, academic, mountaineer and botanist, Professor Arnold Wall CBE.
Lismore Lodge, a formidable establishment as it might seem, was, architecturally speaking, a restrained affair. It seemed sure of itself, not suffering from an identity crisis like so many late Victorian houses with the ‘battle of the styles’ that raged throughout the 19th century between the gothic and the classical. The fenestration consisted of sash windows on both levels, with the first story having faux shutters attached. Relatively few decorative embellishments adorned the house, although those that were present included fretwork around the veranda, some classical mouldings around the bay window, and brackets attached to the cornice, under the roof’s eaves.
One of the main tasks as a building archaeologist is to understand the phases of a building’s construction, and this is sometimes difficult prior to demolition, especially when much of the framing is concealed. We knew a few things from historical research:
- The homestead was built within a year and was completed by September 1880.
- After Mark Stoddart’s death, his wife Anne was no longer living on the property from 1886 and it was leased in 1901 by Arnold Wall, who went on to formally purchase the premises from Stoddart in 1907.
- As was commonly the case with large dwellings from this period, Lismore Lodge was converted to flats in 1936.
From the outset, slight irregularities in the layout of the building suggested the house had undergone some expansion in the early 20th century. However, unlike less ambitious constructions, large wooden houses can conceal their growth so that later additions are less obvious to identify, as their elements are often materially and stylistically coherent and seamlessly integrated.
With the building’s phasing unclear from the outside, the next recourse a buildings archaeologist has is to look at the floorboards, interior walls and ceilings. Often differences in construction will indicate a house’s growth, but in this case it proved difficult because of the uniform use lath and plaster.
So far, so good, and all this before one has had a chance to look at the foundations to get a clear picture of the building’s development phases. It was at this stage that something rather interesting happened – the barrels!
There were nine barrel shaped piles in total, two of which still had their wooden casings intact. Each barrel was approximately 750 mm x 450 mm wide and was used as the foundations for Room 4. It is typical for most 19th century houses in Christchurch to employ stone footings as foundations, with these usually basalt or ‘bluestone’ sourced from Halswell Quarry. Larger 19th century houses will often have concrete foundations or composite concrete with stone piles in the centre, but it is quite unusual to see a concrete barrel employed as a pile in a large house. This is typically only seen in the early 20th century with concrete filled kerosene or paint tins used as piles.
There are two interesting questions about these barrels:
- Why were they employed in a high-status building, instead of the consistent use of formwork concrete foundation that is seen elsewhere?
- Where did they come from?
The first question is difficult to answer. We can take it for granted that the form work foundation and the concrete barrels were poured together during the first phase of the building’s development, as evidenced by the same rough aggregate and use of scoria rock as a filler. The barrel is of a fixed height that matches the formwork foundation. Could there have been problems in procuring enough barrels to complete the foundation? Or was this a stop-gap measure to speed up the construction of the foundation? This will warrant some further thought, though I feel the evidence is inconclusive either way.
The second question is more intriguing, though less relevant to the construction of the villa. It was first necessary to work out what kind of cask we have here. The ‘cask system’ was heavily codified by the late 19th century and resembles champagne bottles in their novel nomenclature. At the time of recording, I could remember very few cask types. One was a faint recollection of a Robert Frost poem from an English class called Directive, from which I figured it was just about large enough for a small child to put their head into:
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal.
Of being watched from forty cellar holes,
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
And of course, who could forget the famous feats of the beer barrel bombers and their beer runs to supply our boys much need respite during the days of the Normandy invasion in WWII.
We have a few interesting characters in our line-up. There were at least 14 standard types of cask, ranging from the diminutive Firkin to largest capacity Tun cask, and taking a cursory look over the list one cannot fail to note such appellations as the hefty sized ‘Hogshead’ and the salaciously named ‘Butt cask’.
Given the dimensions of the cask and the use of (Area=length x π r2) what we appear to have here is a 53.1 L, object close enough to the 50L Quarter cask.
The next task was to investigate the likely provenance of the Quarter casks imported into New Zealand. Besides alcohol, casks had a variety of possible contents. From meat and gunpowder to paint, nails and tallow. A brief overview of the Lyttleton Times’ shipping news between the periods of 1860-80 indicated that the “qr.-cask” was used exclusively for alcohol, including wine, whisky, gin, brandy, port, rum, and sherry. So ubiquitous was this association that by the 1880s shipping news simply referred to “qr.-cask” as a synonym for a barrel of booze.
So, how did these casks get under the house of the Fendalton nouvelle riche? Being the hardworking, and presumably dour, Scots that the Stoddart family was, I would be surprised if they they had reason to keep nine casks, and there seems to be little evidence of imports being their line of business. So perhaps this was simply a cost and time saving measure by the builders. Unfortunately, we don’t have the surviving contract of works to clear this issue up, so it will remain a mystery for now, but the most simple solution is that the barrels were surplus from a local hotel or commercial business that were sold to the contractors. Nonetheless, it remains a unique find in the context of building foundations in colonial era Christchurch.