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


“The New Zealand Dream”

When Edward Gibbon Wakefield developed his theory of colonisation in c.1827 (while imprisoned for abducting a young woman) he envisioned for New Zealand the formation of an idealised English rural society, in which all hard-working labourers could aspire to rural land ownership on a modest scale. Within this society the ideal form of ‘landownership’ was to be owning a small self-sufficient farm, while urban properties were to be viewed as simply embarkation points for the countryside. This aspiration for land ownership would eventually become known as “The New Zealand Dream” (Ferguson, 1994: 8, 14; McAloon, 2008). With property values in Christchurch having recently achieved their strongest  monthly growth rate in 17 years, making the possibility of achieving this dream difficult for many first home buyers, we thought it might be opportune to take a look at the theory of Christchurch property value and ownership at the time of the founding of the Canterbury settlement in 1850, and how changing views of landownership during the 19th century altered the “Dream”, from rural aspirations to today’s suburban utopia.

Wakefield theorised that one of the key factors to achieving the ideal colonial settlement was the price at which land was to be sold to settlers. He believed that where land was given for free or sold too cheaply (such as was the case in the Australian colonies) there resulted in too many self-sufficient landowners and not enough labourers to work for wages. But if the price was too high, then only the wealthy would be able to afford land and labourers could never aspire to become landowners. To achieve his goal of a society of small independent rural landowners, Wakefield proposed that the price of land should be fixed at a value that was high enough to provide sufficient revenue to fund the emigration of labourers to a colony, but low enough that industrious labourers could aspire to become landowners after four or fives years work (Webb, 1965: 143).

It was upon the principals of Wakefield’s theory of colonisation that the Canterbury Association founded the Canterbury settlement in 1850. When the Canterbury Association announced their terms of purchase for land in the new settlement in April 1850, their proposal reflected Wakefield’s vision for modest land prices. Land prices were set at £3 per acre for rural allotments (which began at 50 acres) and £12 per quarter-acre for town allotments in Christchurch or Lyttelton. However, the Association’s selected immigrants were entitled to select a 50-acre allotment of rural land and an urban allotment in either of the townships for the combined price of £150. On the eve of the departure of the first Canterbury settlers to New Zealand in September 1850, 143 people had purchased land orders in the new settlement. Together these 143 land purchasers had bought 13,150 acres of rural land, 132 acres of town land, and had obtained the right to lease an additional 65,750 acres of pasturage. Although this was less land than the Association had projected selling, they actively congratulated themselves on the belief that the majority of the land that had been sold was purchased by those intending to settle in the colony, and not by land speculators who were intending to only make a profit off it (Webb, 1965: 168-169).

The Canterbury Association’s advertisement for working-class emigration to Canterbury in 1849

The first four Association ships arrived at Lyttelton between the 16th and 27th December 1850, bringing with them about 800 settlers to the new colony. The process of selecting the rural and town land that they had already paid for was not scheduled to take place until the colonists had been in the new settlement for three months. This provision was intended to allow the colonists time to survey the topography and farming possibilities of the Canterbury plains before making their selection. The downside of this provision was that the colonists could not begin the process of building their new permanent homes until they had made their selection of land. In the meantime, a few of the settlers chose to stay in their cabins on board the Association’s ships (which remained in port for three weeks while unloading their cargo), while others were forced to build temporary accommodation, such as tents, V huts, or other makeshift shelters in the townships. In preparation for the arrival of the colonists however, the Association did construct immigration barracks in Lyttelton, which could temporarily house between 300-400 immigrants (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; Schrader, 2012).

For many of the Canterbury pilgrims, the inability to take possession of their land and build permanent dwellings proved difficult, as they did not want to waste their limited resources and capital on temporary arrangements. At the first meeting of the Canterbury Land Purchasers (held on 20th December 1850 before the fourth Association ship, The Cressy, had even arrived in port) the settlers informed the Association’s representative, John Godley, of their desire to immediately begin the land selection process. Godley consented to a compromised outcome, in which the settlers could immediately begin selecting their town allotments, but still had to wait until the allocated time to select their rural allotments. The settlers agreed, and the selection of town allotments began quickly to allow the settlers to leave their temporary accommodations and begin developing their own properties (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 6).

Lithograph of J. Durey’s 1851 painting of the bricks landing site on the Avon River showing the first settlement within Christchurch city.

Unlike Wakefield’s vision of a rural society, it was therefore the town sections and not the rural properties that were first eagerly developed for occupation by the Canterbury pilgrims. Although the selection of town sections in Lyttelton appears to have been initially favored, by mid-January there was a shift in preference to the selection of town sections located in the settlement’s capital, Christchurch. The Lyttelton Times noted that “there can be no doubt but that the capital of the district will be rapidly peopled, and the town land acquire a considerable value” (Lyttelton Times, 18/1/1851: 5). Right from the beginning of the settlement, Canterbury town land was seen as a valuable and desired commodity.

The agricultural labourers that had immigrated to Canterbury in the hope of working their way into land ownership, were in a particularly difficult position during the first months of the settlement, as there were no agricultural labouring positions available for them until the selection of rural land took place. While those settlers with land purchase orders made their selection of town lands and moved onto their new properties, those settlers who did not initially have the capital to invest in land remained in the immigration barracks or their temporary makeshift shelters. However, for those non-landed settlers who did not want to stay in the makeshift accommodations for a prolonged period of time, there soon emerged an attractive alternative in the form of leasehold properties. In the second issue of the Lyttelton Times (issued on the 18th January 1851 just one month after the arrival of the first Association ship) there were already advertisements announcing town sections in Christchurch available for lease (Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 1). These leasehold sections offered the non-landed settler an opportunity to construct for themselves more permanent dwellings/commercial buildings (like their landed counterparts) without having to outlay the cost of purchasing a town section. The Lyttelton Times indicates that leasehold sections in Lyttelton were particularly popular, noting that “tenants at good rents still continue to come forward for the town lands of Lyttelton”, with sections along the commercial hub of Norwich Quay letting for 15 shillings per foot frontage (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; 18/1/1851: 5). Alternative rented accommodation was also soon to be found in the form of hotels, which began to be constructed in Lyttelton in early January and in Christchurch in early March (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; 8/3/1851: 5).

Advertisement in the Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 1 announcing town sections in Christchurch available for lease.

Until farmhand positions were available, some of the agricultural labourers joined their urban wage-earning counterparts in looking to the towns to obtain a source of income (particularly those who needed to pay for their newly rented accommodations). For many, this meant working on the Canterbury Association’s public works or helping their fellow settlers to construct their new homes. The towns therefore became the main center for both employment and residential activities.

Advertisement in the Lyttelton Times 25/1/1851: 1 from a labourer seeking contracts to help build settler houses in Christchurch and Lyttelton.

The selection of rural land had finally begun by early February 1851 (Lyttleton Times, 1/2/1851: 3). This gave the opportunity for the landowning setters to depart Christchurch and Lyttelton for their new country estates and begin turning their fields into production. As the land selection process progressed, Godley noted that “Each purchaser seems convinced that he himself had secured the best allotment of all; but the most satisfactory feature is that nearly the whole body have selected their land within a circle of four or five miles in diameter” (Webb, 1965: 177-178). This suggests that while some of the settlers may have looked forward to removing from the two townships to the country, the location of their selections being in such close proximity to the towns indicates that they were still intimately connection with the development of the towns. It is also not true that all of the rural sections selected by the first body of colonists were intended for rural development, as the very first rural section selected, Rural Section No. 1 (located on the northern boundary of the town of Lyttelton),  was taken up by the trustees of Christ’s College and  almost immediately opened up for residential development.  The Lyttelton Times noted in early February 1851 that “almost the whole of which has been applied for at high rents for building purpose” (Lyttelton Times, 1/2/1851: 3).

Although Wakefield had envisioned for New Zealand the formation of an idealised English rural society, his theory faltered on economic reality (McAloon, 2008). Life in the country was hard and the cost of bringing land into production was high. Although the large pastoral farms managed to make good profits, the profits of the smaller agricultural farms proved less lucrative. For agricultural labourers, work was generally seasonal with long periods of unemployment. This proved most difficult during the periods of economic downturn in the 1870s and 1880s, when periods of unemployment brought widespread distress. During this time, the landless gravitated to the towns where there was a greater variety of housing options and at least some hope of relief in the form of charitable aid. The population of the towns grew rapidly during the 1870s and 1880s, with the population of Christchurch growing from 7,931 in 1871, to 13,425 in 1878 (Ferguson, 1994: 15, 19). This population growth is evident in the comparison of maps of the city of Christchurch drawn in 1862 and 1877, which shows a significant increase in the number and density of buildings constructed in the township over this fifteen-year period.

Detail from Fooks’ 1862 map of Christchurch showing just two buildings present on the town block bound by Armagh, Gloucester, Barbadoes, and Madras Streets.

Detail from Strouts’ 1877 map of Christchurch showing a significant increase in the number of buildings present on the town block bound by Armagh, Gloucester, Barbadoes, and Madras Streets.

For the poorer classes of society, the towns offered a greater variation in the security of rental tenures than what was generally available in the country, with house leases being offered by yearly, monthly, fortnightly, or weekly agreements, or public lodging houses or rooms for board being offered on daily agreements. These short-term rental or lodging agreements offered a great deal more flexibility than living with a mortgage, as those on a daily, weekly or fortnightly tenancy could shift quickly to another location when employment opportunities arose, and could tailor the quality of the housing to fit uncertain incomes. There were, however, very few renting and lodging regulations during this period, and those laws that were in place tended to favour the landlord over the tenant. This meant that tenants were not always completely secure in their tenements, though some protections did come into effect later in the century such as The Lodgers’ Goods Protection Act 1880, which limited the power of landlords to take their tenant’s property in lieu of arrears of rent (Ferguson, 1994: 36, 47). Unfortunately, this system of short-term and informal rental agreements makes it very difficult for historical researchers to ascertain who was occupying certain properties during the 19th century, as the names of tenants were not always formally recorded in the Canterbury Deeds Books – this is particularly frustrating when trying to work out who might be associated with archaeological assemblages.

This burgeoning rental market in the 19th century allowed those landowners with a little capital to invest in housing. Town settlers would buy all or part of a town section and build a house for themselves, and then they could rent out rooms in their homes to lodgers, or if they had enough capital, they could build a second or third house which they could sell or rent to others (Ferguson, 1994: 47). While in Wakefield’s vision of rural utopia the rural property symbolised a reward for labour with the land as a source of income; for town-dwellers it was the house itself that came to be a major source of income (Ferguson, 1994: 35). Unfortunately, there was very little regulation regarding the construction of buildings in Christchurch and Lyttelton. City builders claimed that regulations inhibited growth, and Municipal governments (often the same people) tended to agree and so placed few restrictions on urban land use. Builders placed houses awkwardly on sites, with no guarantee of street access, water supply, or effective sewerage systems. As cities grew and land became scarcer, lanes and alleys were driven through the backs of properties and lined with poorly constructed cottages for workers. These soon became over-crowded and squalid, with rubbish and effluent festering in city streets and a rising death toll from diseases such as typhoid (Schrader, 2007). Some small attempts were made to address these issues, such as the Public Health Act 1872, which set up Local Boards of Health to monitor and improve health in their areas. Although they attempted to control overcrowding and to have filthy houses cleansed and whitewashed, the Act did not set housing standards and did not provide powers of enforcement.

The six terrace houses outlined on the map were constructed by John Ponsford in ca. 1876 as investment properties that were leased out.

While the living conditions of some of the town dwellers devolved into squalid and unsanitary conditions, for others the towns became a source of wealth and advancement and a profitable alternative from the hardships of rural settlement. A wealthy industrial and mercantile class therefore began to develop in the towns. Although traditionally, manufacturers and tradesmen would live next to their businesses in the central city (with their workers living in poorer housing nearby), during the 1880s more and more of the affluent town-dwellers began to move their homes away from the older centres of the town to the periphery. As the city slums continued to grow, many politicians and reformers began to fear that the increasing number of slum-dwellers would have a bad effect on the respectable town workers who ought to be pursuing that rural vision. As a solution, they looked to the example set by the wealthy mercantile class, and they began to rework the rural vision into a new suburban dream, one not just for the affluent but for respectable skilled workers as well. If labourers could not become rural landowners, the next best life they could aspire to was to own a home in a respectable suburb. Speculators began to buy up the rural lands adjoining the townships and promote the subdivision of land into suburban settlements (Ferguson, 1994: 24-25, 29-31; Press, 24/2/1882: 2). In this way the “New Zealand Dream”, which Wakefield originally imagined to be owning one’s own self-sufficient farm, was transformed into the desire for a suburban settlement near-to but not within the city’s main commercial centers. City planners continued to promote the classification of separate commercial and residential areas throughout the 20th century – and for many this idea of the “New Zealand Dream” as owning a slice of suburban utopia persists today.

Lydia Mearns


Ferguson, G., 1994. Building the New Zealand Dream. Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press Limited.

McAloon, J., 2008. ‘Land ownership’. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/land-ownership/print> Accessed February 2021.

Schrader, B., 2007. ‘State housing’, New Zealand Geographic. Issue 086 (July-August). [online] Available at: <https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/state-housing> Accessed February 2021.

Schrader, Ben, 2012. Housing. In: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/housing/print> Accessed February 2021.

Webb, L.C., 1965. Section III – The Canterbury Association and its Settlement. In: J. Hight and C.R. Straubel, eds., A History of Canterbury, Volume 1. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs.


Two paths on the way home

Mountains cannot be surmounted except by winding paths.    

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Port Hills may not be mountains as such, but they formed a formidable barrier for the first European Settlers. Of course, Māori had a number of well-established trails across the landscape prior to European settlement. Many of these paths were used by European settlers and take the form of many of the landmarks and main roads of our modern city. While there are many paths taken by European settlers in the mid-19th century, two of the most important are the Bridle Path and the Sumner Road.

The history of these two paths is intertwined. When Captain Joseph Thomas selected the sites of Lyttelton and Christchurch on behalf of the Canterbury Association in 1849, he was faced with the difficult task of establishing a navigable path between the new port and township. After much deliberation, the route selected ran from the eastern end of the Lyttelton township along the Tapuaeharuru cliffs into Sumner. Due to the lack of local labour, Captain Thomas initially brought 120 Māori workmen from the North Island to cut the wide track from Lyttleton to Sumner using pick and shovel. The workmen cut an initial bridle path out towards Officers Point, filling up gullies as they went along. The toughest part of the construction was the section of road above what is today the Cashin Quay breakwater, where the workmen had to blast through solid rock to form a pathway. This was a monumental task which took a significant amount of time to accomplish, and the area came to be known as the “Sticking Point”. A review of accounts of the work carried out on the Sumner Road between 1849 and 1851 suggests that £4,730 was spent on the heavy excavation work and £360 was spend on forming the line, while a further £405 was spent on constructing retaining walls and £83 spent on drainage (Lyttelton Times, 16/5/1855: 9). This suggests that not only were the workmen blasting through the stone and forming up the line of the road, but they were also constructing drains and retaining walls.

By March 1850 Thomas had spent all of the £20,000 that the Canterbury Association had allocated for public works. When John Robert Godley arrived in April 1850, the depleted state of the funds forced him to suspend all but maintenance work on the Sumner Road (Ogilvie, 2009: 33-34). Although work had been halted on the Sumner Road, the anticipated arrival of the Canterbury Pilgrims at the end of 1850, meant there was still an urgent need to provide access to Christchurch and the plains.

As a temporary measure, Captain Thomas decided to improve the small track on the western end of the Lyttelton township, beginning at Ticehurst Road and leading up over the hills into the Heathcote Valley. With a budget of just £300, a work gang of 70 European and Māori workmen, a hastily constructed the path up the long spur and down into the valley. This track quickly became known as “The Bridle Path” (Amodeo, 2001: 152-153; Ogilvie, 2009: 34, 105; Height and Straubel, 1965: 122-123; Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 6)

The Bridle Path became a flurry of activity as the majority of the newly arrived immigrants disembarked and travelled over the Port Hills into Christchurch. Most accounts of the path at this time express dissatisfaction with the rough, hastily cut track. Edward Ward, who had arrived in Lyttelton on board the Charlotte Jane, indicated that “The little tract, which formed a sort of bay between the spurs of the hills, was of most irregular quality” (Ogilvie, 2009: 123). The steep gradient of the path meant that the majority of the trip had to be taken on foot with horses being dismounted and led over the steep summit. For most of the immigrants this meant carrying their possessions on their backs, though regular communication between port and plain by means of pack horses was established in January 1851 (Height and Straubel, 1965: 184; Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 5). The Canterbury Association appear to have continued to undertake some improvements to the Bridle Path during the first few years of the fledging settlement. Although the full extent of these works is not clear, in August 1852 a Mr Thompson was able to successfully drive the first empty two-horse dray over the Bridle Path (Lyttelton Times 1/2/1851: 3, 29/1/1851: 5, 12/4/1851: 2, 21/8/1852: 7, 10). Despite the success of Thompson’s inaugural cart trip, the path was still considered too dangerous for more than foot traffic and the occasional horse (Lyttelton Times 7/1/1854: 8, 16/5/1855: 6; Press 23/5/1914: 8).

By the end of 1864 the road board had spent £332 14s in maintaining and upgrading the Bridle Path (Press 5/1/1865: 3). The Heathcote Road Board continued to maintain and upgrade the Bridle Path for the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century (Lyttelton Times 6/1/1876: 1, 2/2/1882: 1, 13/3/1883: 1, 23/3/1886: 1, 30/9/1902: 6; Press 5/9/1872: 3, 9/5/1891: 3, 8/6/1896: 6, 14/2/1903: 9; Star 20/3/1874: 2, 28/4/1877: 2). The path remains a highly popular walking track today, although largely for more recreational uses. If you’re a pretty fit individual it could be a way to avoid that morning commute.

Going back to the Sumner Road, following the passing of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852, the newly formed Canterbury Provincial Council took over the authority for the formation and maintenance of the roads throughout Canterbury. The Council’s Ordinance of 1854 established a Lyttelton and Christchurch Road Commission to determine the best means of communication between the sea port and the interior. The commissioners confirmed that, despite the cost, the route via Evans Pass and Sumner which had initially been selected by Captain Thomas in 1849 was indeed the best option. However, they also determined that the portion of the line extending between Polhil’s Bay and Evans Pass should be constructed on a lower elevation (Lyttelton Times, 22/4/1854: 14). This new line of road was surveyed to the east of the original line in 1855 (Lyttelton Times, 12/11/1866: 3). This line of road is today known as the Old Sumner Road.

It took a further three years for the Provincial Council to form the Sumner Road from Lyttelton to Christchurch into a navigable path. During this time, the residents of Lyttelton appear to have become exasperated with the council’s efforts, for under their own volition they utilised prison labour to improve the drainage of part of the Sumner Road by installing necessary culverts and gratings (Lyttelton Times, 16/8/1856: 6, 12/11/1856: 7). The road was officially opened on Monday 24 August 1857 (Lyttelton Times, 26/8/1857: 4). Despite the success of the inaugural trip, it proved a perilous endeavour which indicated that the provincial council would have to undertake further works and invest more money before the road could be considered complete to a standard to allow carts to safety navigate (Lyttelton Times, 5/9/1857: 1, 9/1/1858: 4). By the end of the decade cart traffic along the road was steadily increasing (Lyttelton Times, 29/10/1859: 3).

As motorcar traffic increased after the turn of the century it became necessary to remove the dangerous zig-zag corners at Evan’s Pass by blasting a new straighter route. In 1913, it was decided that this new route was to extend from Captain Thomas’s original line of the Sumner Road (Press, 19/9/1913: 4). It was at this time that the line of road that had been laid out on the lower elevation on the advice of the Lyttelton and Christchurch Road Commission in 1854 (now known as the old Sumner Road) was abandoned. The new Sumner Road route to the summit was completed in 1916 (Ogilvie, 2009: 36).

Aerial imagery from 1925-1929 showing the diversion of Sumner Road. Old Sumner Road is visible as the lower road in the image. Image: Canterbury Maps, 2020.

After the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquakes, the Sumner Road was badly damaged, with tonnes of rock falling on the road. A massive repair project took place from 2015/2016 to 2019, and the original 19th century portion of the road, from Lyttelton to the start of the 1916 route, was monitored by an archaeologist. Excavations for the repairs of the road and retaining walls exposed larger sections of infilling using crushed and whole red scoria rock. Given the historic references to the infilling of gullies, it seems likely that locally sourced rock, much of it likely from the blasting of the rock for the roadway, was used for this purpose.

Rocks on the road as seen during a site visit before the repair works in 2016. Image: K. Webb.

The excavation behind one of the 20th century retaining walls. The red scoria fill recorded in this area is visible on the left and across the excavation area. Image: M. Hickey.

Interestingly, at least two drains constructed within the 19th century portion of Sumner Road had been constructed with locally cut and shaped red scoria blocks. Supporting this are newspapers references, including one mentioning the services of a mason to repair a drain after it was damaged by a cart (Press, 10/4/1872: 3). The use of this material is not unusual within the context of Lyttelton, as we have also found that an early drain (built in 1857) located within the Gaol complex was also constructed of red scoria. The drains found on Sumner Road were square with large red scoria blocks cut on the inner, top, base and side surfaces, but left uncut and rough on the outer sides. The use of these drains was evident as the base stones had well worn grooves cut by the water trickling through over time.

Looking down on the top of one of the drains. Image: M. Hickey.

Looking through the remainder of the red scoria drain while still in situ. Image: M. Hickey.

Rockfall remains a risk in some surrounding areas of the Bridle Path, but the path was used by a number of people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake as both Sumner Road and the tunnel were closed. Recent works on the path for service renewal exposed a number of different stone and clay based track and fill layers. However, given the popularity and age of the track, the track was subject to many upgrades and repairs over time so these layers could be attributed to any phase of activity occurring in the 19th or 20th century. While we might not have too many subsurface finds that tell us about the settlers who used the track, the track itself is a recorded archaeological site and is a visible reminder of the challenge posed by the Port Hills.

The Bridle Path in 2020. Image: J. Whitmore.

A 20th century culvert with stone and clay fill around, and natural clay beneath. Image: M. Hickey.

By Megan Hickey and Lydia Mearns.


Amodeo, C., 2001. Forgotten Forty-niners: Being an account of the Men & Women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: The Caxton Press.

Height, J. and Straubel, C.R. eds., 1965. A History of Canterbury. Volume 1: T ed. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs.

Lyttelton Times, 1851-1914. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

New Zealander, 1845-1866. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Ogilvie, G., 2009. The Port Hills of Christchurch. Christchurch, N.Z.: Philips & King.

Press, 1861-1945. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

Star, 1868-1920. [online] Available at: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/.

The Archaeology of The Arts Centre

Last week on the blog we gave a brief history of the Arts Centre. Following on from that, today we’re going to be having a look at the archaeology of the site. This blog is related to our exhibition Art of Archaeology on now at the Arts Centre as part of the Christchurch Heritage Festival. If you haven’t already been, then head down to the Boys High building and see some of the artefacts found during the archaeological monitoring of earthquake repair works at the Arts Centre! The exhibition is on until the 8th of November.

As a historic area that was occupied in the nineteenth century (see last week’s blog for more info on that), The Arts Centre meets Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga’s definition of an archaeological site- a place associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand. The 2014 Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act protects all New Zealand archaeological sites and states that an archaeological authority is needed if a site is to be modified or destroyed. Because of this, archaeologists from Underground Overground Archaeology have worked alongside contractors to monitor the repair works, recording any archaeology and recovering any artefacts found during the works.

Most of the earthworks we’ve monitored have been minor. They include things like digging new footings for repairing building foundations or trenching for installing new services. The nature of these types of earthworks means that if you love photographs of deep excavation units with beautifully excavated features and nice clean stratigraphic profiles then you’re going to be out of luck!

Having said that, there’s something pretty cool about a digger inside a building- it just looks so out of place! Image: Megan Hickey.

Repairing foundations in the engineering building. This was too tight a spot to get the digger in, so the contractors are excavating by hand. Image: Julia Hughes.

Love a trench! This one is outside the biology and physics buildings. Image: Julia Hughes.

We found a variety of things from the different earthworks that we monitored. In the dry cavities between the walls and floors of the buildings we found many well-preserved paper artefacts including some relating to the university and a rather extensive collection of cigarette boxes!

Paper artefacts found within the buildings from the Arts Centre. Top left is The Elements. The Elements is attributed to the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid and is thought to have been originally published in ca. 300 BC. The textbook is arguably the most famous mathematics book ever to be written and was considered a fundamental text for students in the nineteenth century. This copy was well-loved, with calculations written in pencil on the back page of the book. Top right is an invitation to the 1955 Arts Ball. Middle and bottom rows are just some of the many cigarette and match boxes that we found- Capstan seems to have been a favourite though: Images: Emma Warwick, Clara Watson.

Throughout the site we found lots of nineteenth century artefact scatter. These were small fragments of artefacts located within the layers of the site’s stratigraphy, with no association to specific deposits or features. It is highly likely that this scatter represents the everyday objects that were used by the residents of the site before the Canterbury College was built on the site (see last week’s blog for more info). These artefacts were probably originally deposited in rubbish pits, like we normally find on domestic sites, but the construction of the university likely disturbed and re-deposited the material, creating the layer of artefact scatter that we then found during our archaeological monitoring.

A small glimpse of the nineteenth century artefact scatter that we found in the various trenches we monitored across the site. As you can see, most of the artefacts are heavily fragmented with only a small portion of the original vessel remaining intact. Image: Emma Warwick

The most exciting thing that we found, at least in my opinion, is Feature 1. It might just look like a humble rubbish pit, but this feature was filled with scientific glass ware and was located near the location of the Old Tin Shed.

Feature 1 after it was first exposed by the digger. Image: Peter Mitchell.

Feature 1 during excavation. Some of the test tubes found in the feature can be seen in the centre of the pit. Image: Peter Mitchell.

While the gothic stone buildings may be the legacy of Canterbury College, the first university building was constructed from corrugated iron and known colloquially as the Old Tin Shed. Professors had arrived in Christchurch in the mid-1870s, prior to the construction of the first buildings, and were teaching out of temporary accommodations. The arrival of the new professor of chemistry, Alexander William Bickerton, created a need for a laboratory, and the Old Tin Shed provided the solution. Built in 1876/77, the Old Tin Shed was reminiscent of a rustic farm building.

The Old Tin Shed, a very different style of building to the gothic ones surrounding it. The foundations we found matched up with the footprint of the building. Image: University of Canterbury.

Despite being intended as a temporary solution, the Old Tin Shed remained standing for 40 years until 1916, when it was demolished, and the present-day North Quad was created. It was thought that the building was completely demolished, but during our excavations in the North Quad we found regularly spaced brick features that we think might have been piles from the building’s foundations.

Brick piles from the Old Tin Shed building, uncovered during excavations in the North Quad. Image: J. Hughes.

Ernest Rutherford, famous for splitting the atom and winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908, would have undertaken experiments in the Old Tin Shed during his years of study at Canterbury College. And it’s possible that the scientific glass ware that we found may have been used by Rutherford in his experiments!

A small selection of the many fragments of science glass found in the feature. All up we recovered 167 fragments of scientific glass ware from the feature, representing over 100 test tubes, beakers and ampoules. We’ve chosen not to clean the scientific glass ware so that residue analysis remains a possibility for future research on the assemblage. Image: Clara Watson.

.Thanks to The Arts Centre for collaborating with us to produce this exhibition, and to Christchurch City Council for providing funding. As archaeologists we spend most of our time uncovering stories from the past, so it’s great to have opportunities like Heritage Festival to share them with the general public.

Clara Watson

The Arts Centre

The annual Christchurch Heritage Festival is currently taking place and this year we’ve partnered with The Arts Centre to produce an exhibition showcasing some of the artefacts found during archaeological monitoring of the earthquake repair works at The Arts Centre. The exhibition is located upstairs in the Boys High building and is on until the 8th of November. As well as cool and unusual artefacts, we also have a children’s table set up with fun activities for the kids! If you’re based in and around Christchurch, then we’d love to see you come down and explore!

Keeping with the theme of our Heritage Festival exhibition, this week and next week we’re going to be looking at The Arts Centre on the blog. This week we’ll go over the history of the site and next week we’ll take a closer look at the archaeology and what we’ve found.

Our exhibition at The Arts Centre! Image: C. Watson.

While The Arts Centre is best known for the Gothic Revival buildings that were built as part of the Canterbury College, the site was occupied long before that. Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe and later Ngāi Tahu used the network of swamps and waterways of the Christchurch area as mahinga kai/food gathering places, and as temporary resting spots along kā ara tawhito/traditional travel routes. Several kāinga or pā were also located in the central Christchurch area, including the nearby Ōtautahi, which remains a Māori name for the city.

Ōtautahi, before the modern city of Christchurch was built. Image: Maclure, Macdonald & Macgregor, Lith, London. Lyttelton, Published by Martin G. Heywood, [ca 1855]. Ref: D-001-032. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23051035

In 1848, Henry Kemp organised the sale of land from Ngāi Tahu to the British crown, in what was known as Kemp’s Deed. Following this, the land was subdivided by Edward Jolie in 1850 into town sections. The land the Arts Centre now occupies consisted of 22 town sections bordered by Worcester Boulevard, Rolleston Ave, Hereford Street and Montreal Street. This land was not initially intended to be the site of a university but was instead offered for sale to private landowners.

British settlers arriving in Christchurch via Lyttelton purchased the town sections and built houses on them from the 1850s into the 1880s. These settlers included a farmer, chaplain, builder, lawyer, surveyor, saddler, accountant, carpenter and a “gentleman”, along with their families. By 1877, 23 houses and out-buildings had been constructed on the site.

The site of what would become the Arts Centre in 1877. The town sections are numbered in red whilst the black shows the buildings that were located on the site when the map was created. Image: Strouts 1877.

One of the more interesting settlers living at the site was the Reverend Henry Torlesse. Rev. Torlesse purchased four of the town sections bordering Worcester Boulevard in January 1864. Torlesse arrived in Lyttelton on board the Minerva in 1853 to join his brother on his farm in Rangiora. He was ordained in Christchurch in 1859. Rev. Torlesse worked briefly in Okains Bay, where he set up a successful school, before he took up the position of chaplain in Christchurch for the local gaol, hospital, and lunatic asylum in 1864, which likely spurred his purchase of the central town sections on which he built his house. As well as his work as a chaplain, Rev. Torlesse taught lessons in Latin and English to pupils that boarded in his residence on Worcester Boulevard. Torlesse’s private schooling was the first use of the site as a place of education. Rev. Torlesse, along with others, also established a woman’s refuge on corner of Hereford Street and Rolleston Ave. During Torlesse’s work as chaplain he came across many destitute women, who were often driven into prostitution, and he saw the need for the establishment of a women’s refuge in the city. A building for the women’s refuge was constructed on the site by December 1864, and the refuge operated from that building until 1876 when it moved to a different premise elsewhere in the city.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any images of the block from this period, but no doubt the street would have looked something like this. This photo shows Armagh Street looking west to Hagley Park, with Deans Bush visible in the background. Image: Barker, Alfred Charles (Dr), 1819-1873. Armagh Street, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-022719-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22343733.

Following Rev. Torlesse’s death in 1870, the trustees of his estate sold the land to William Rolleston, Superintendent of Canterbury, in October 1873 for the site of a college and for other educational purposes. The idea of establishing a college dated back to the beginning of the Canterbury settlement in 1848, with 47 of the original 53 members of the Canterbury Association being alumni from either Cambridge or Oxford University and wishing to set up a similar institute in Christchurch. It was not until 1871 that the Canterbury Collegiate Union, formed by trustees of the Canterbury Museum and Christ’s College, became formally affiliated with the University of New Zealand and begun offering classes, temporarily held in Christ’s College’s classrooms.

In January 1874, Benjamin Mountfort was awarded the contract to design the first buildings for the new college, with the first stone building (The Clock Tower), opened in 1877. The buildings were designed in the High Victorian Collegiate Gothic style using basalt from the Port Hills and limestone from Oamaru. Between 1876 and 1926 the Canterbury College purchased and built on the rest of the town sections on the block. Christchurch Girls and Boys High Schools, opened in 1878 and 1881, were constructed to prepare students for higher levels of study, whilst later buildings connected to specific fields of study were built over the next four decades.

Canterbury College in 1880. The Canterbury Museum can be seen as well (along with an excellent penny farthing) Image: Canterbury University College and Canterbury Museum, Christchurch. Foxley Norris album. Ref: PA1-q-094-103. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22897824

In 1957 the University of Canterbury, as it was now officially called, begun the move to Ilam, which provided a bigger site for the expanding university. By the 1970s, the university had left the site and the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust officially became the owner. The Arts Centre provided a space for Christchurch creatives for around 35 years, until the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes severely damaged the historic buildings.

Next week on the blog we’ll be taking a look at the archaeology of the Arts Centre, in the meant time head down and check out the exhibition for yourself!

Clara Watson


This brief history of the Arts Centre was written using information from Strange, G. 1994. The Arts Centre of Christchurch: Then and Now. Clerestory Press, Christchurch.