Canals through the swamp

If you walk along the Avon River by Cashel Street you might catch a glimpse of the small gondolas taking their fares for a leisurely punt through the city and botanical gardens. Today this attraction is aimed largely at tourists, but during the 19th century Christchurch’s rivers were frequented by many bathers, rowers, and small crafts conveying goods and people. While these activities were mainly confined to the natural channels of the Heathcote and Avon Rivers and their estuary, this blog aims to discuss an early proposal, fashioned during the very foundation of the city, which would have seen Christchurch transformed into a Venice-like city with a thriving water-based system of transportation and communication: the Christchurch canal scheme.

Photograph of the Canterbury rowing club on the Avon River in c.909

In the later 1840s Captain Joseph Thomas was appointed by the Canterbury Association to prepare a 1,000,000 acre master map of the proposed Canterbury Block. In addition, Captain Thomas was also given a budget of £20,000 to undertake important infrastructure works such as the forming of arterial roads and port facilities, and to construct necessary public buildings such as immigration barracks, warehouses and offices in preparation for the arrival of the Canterbury settlers. Together with his survey team, Captain Thomas travelled to New Zealand on board the new 548-ton barque, Bernicia, between July and October 1848. Following their arrival in Canterbury, the surveyors got to work creating triangulation and topographical maps of the land (Amodeo, 2003).

Initially the site of Canterbury’s capital city was to be located at Te Rapu [Teddington] at the head of the bay. It was thought that this site’s proximity to the harbour would allow port facilities to be located within the capital township. However, the Canterbury Association’s elitist scheme of settlement was based on a rural work force supporting a gentry and small aristocracy, which meant the chief town also needed to be in close proximity to suitable farmland. Teddington may have been close to the harbour, but the clay hillside was found to be a poor foundation for largescale construction and there was insufficient pastural land nearby to support a large rural population.

Aerial image showing the location of Teddington at the head of the bay.

With the reluctant permission of both Governor Grey and Bishop Selwyn, Captain Thomas was allowed to personally select an alternate site for Canterbury’s capital city. Despite having his choice of any site on the broad open plains, Captain Thomas ultimately selected a site in the swamplands at the base of the Port Hills, at the place formerly designated as “Stratford” adjoining the Avon River. One of the main influences on Captain Thomas’ decision appears to have been the proximity to the Deans family farm at Pūtarikamotu (Riccarton) which they had been farming since December 1842. The Deans’ orchard, vegetable garden, sheep and cattle pastures, and fields of oats, barley, and potatoes had not only provided the survey parties with much of their initial supplies, but also proved to Captain Thomas the viability of agricultural pursuits in the area.

Detail from Captain Thomas’ 1849 Sketch Map of the Country intended for the settlement of Canterbury, showing the proposed location of the city of Christchurch at what is now Teddington.

Captain Thomas’ selected site has been a source of contentious debate ever since. Siting Christchurch in the middle of a swamp bisected by meandering rivers and creeks was to have a complicating effect on the drainage and sanitation of the city, and would result in decades of debate, planning, and feats of engineering to overcome. But a more urgent issue plaguing Captain Thomas was the difficult task of establishing ready communication between the port town at Lyttelton and the capital township on the plains.

Captain Thomas considered the proximity of the Ōtākaro/Avon River to the city as not only a natural outfall for drainage, but he purposefully sited Christchurch on it’s banks with the view of utilising the river’s channel as a natural highway for the conveying of goods to the city. It is no coincidence that the site known as “The Bricks” was included within the city’s boundaries. The Bricks was a site on the banks of the Avon (near the intersection of Barbadoes Street and Oxford Terrace) which is believed to have been the highest point upstream for boats to navigate. The name was established in 1843 when the Deans unloaded their cargo of chimney bricks at the site (Kete Christchurch, 2017). Captain Thomas appears to have envisioned The Bricks as the capital’s river port to which goods and people could be conveyed from the estuary to the city.

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

While the Avon was initially favoured for river transportation, the deeper tidal waters of the Heathcote River eventually attracted more trade (Lyttelton Times, 13/3/1852: 5). Captain Thomas had initially seemed to dismiss the Heathcote River in his original plan as being too swampy, winding, and narrow (in its upper reaches at least), and so its navigability had not been properly established. This was likely on the advice of assistant surveyor Samuel Hewlings, who had been tasked in late September 1849 to conduct a topographical survey of the Heathcote River and had found the experience miserable (Amodeo, 2003). However, it was not long after the arrival of the Canterbury settlers that small European craft began to make their way up the Heathcote’s waters. By December 1851, C. Bishop and G. Gould had formed the Christchurch Conveyance Company and constructed the Heathcote’s first wharf upstream of the Estuary, known as Christchurch Quay, just north of where the Radley Bridge now stands and where the Heathcote runs close to Ferry Road (Penney, 1982: 14). 19th century photographs show a number of small craft making their way through the Heathcote’s waters.

Photograph taken by the Burton Brother’s Studio in c.1880 showing a ship sailing through the waters of the Heathcote River.

The natural rivers do not appear to have been the only waterways intended to be utilised for communication and conveying merchandise. 19th century plans of the city show three long straight pathways surveyed between the natural waterways and labelled as “Canal Reserves”. Today these three canal reserves are known as Linwood Avenue, Marshlands Road, and Sparks Road. Had these canal reserves been developed into waterways they would have formed an uninterrupted conduit connecting the Halswell River, Heathcote River, Avon-Heathcote Estuary, Avon River, Styx River, and even as far north as the Waimakariri River.

Map of the Christchurch and Sumner Survey Districts in 1892, showing the natural waterways (indicated in dark blue) connected by the three proposed canals (indicated in light blue).

Despite Captain Thomas’ apparent vision for a Capital city bisected by water-highways, during the early years of the settlement there does not appear to have been any serious contemplation of forming the canal reserves into waterways. One major hinderance to developing largescale shipping enterprises within the city was the shoaling, shifting river bar at the Sumner entrance, which was extremely hazardous for coastal vessels attempting to enter or leave the Avon-Heathcote estuary. Within the first two decades of the settlement, over thirty vessels foundered or were completely wrecked on the Sumner Bar (Penney, 1982: 25). When reporting on the state of the Sumner Bar in 1855, Canterbury provincial engineer Edward Dobson concluded that:

The Sumner Bar is not safe for vessels of upwards of fifty tons under canvass alone. With a steam tug vessels drawing nine feet water may be taken with perfect safety to a little above the Shag Rock at Sumner, but no further. The Avon is only fit for a barge navigation. The Heathcote, being a tidal navigation, may be so improved as to allow any vessel that can cross the bar to come up to Christchurch Quay (Lyttelton Times, 7/11/1855: 3-5).

Although Dobson’s report concluded that the Heathcote River had potential for improved river shipping enterprises, the opening of the Christchurch-Lyttelton railway tunnel in 1867 solved much of the port and city’s communication problems, and so the necessity of undertaking largescale estuary works to expand river communication was not deemed essential.

Whilst the works to form the Christchurch canals were not undertaken, the idea persisted through the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the major proponents of the scheme in the 1870s was John Sigismund Jacobsen, a Marine and Civil Engineer, who suggested a plan “to make a canal from the estuary to the Town belt east, 60ft wide at top, 40ft wide at bottom, with a depth of 15ft 6in at the belt, with proper wharves for vessels, silting pits so adjusted that they could receive the whole drainage of the city and suburbs” (Lyttelton Times, 15/10/1872: 3). It was at the turn of the century, however, that the Lyttelton Harbour Board more seriously contemplated the formation of a Christchurch canal from Sumner to Woolston or Linwood (Lyttelton Times, 31/5/1904: 4; 12/8/1904: 2). The engineer to the board, Cyrus J. R. Williams, reported on costs, feasibility and advisability of constructing the two canal options in December 1905 (Lyttelton Times, 14/12/1905: 2). Although there was significant support for the scheme at the time, ultimately it was decided to expend the funds on improvements to the Lyttelton Harbour instead, and the idea never seemed to gain serious consideration again (Lyttelton Times, 22/12/1905: 3). In retrospect this decision was probably for the best, as such a development would have had irrevocable ecological and environmental consequences for the Heathcote-Avon estuary, but it is very interesting to contemplate what Christchurch would be like today if the Canal Reserves been formed into waterways during the 19th century.

Lydia Mearns


Amodeo, C., 2003. 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.

Penney, S.W., 1982. The Estuary of Christchurch: A History of the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, its communities, clubs, controversies and contributions. Penney Ash Publications.


Ceiling Roses I Have Seen

One of my favourite features of a pre-1900 building is the beautiful ceiling rose. Ceiling roses are often found in ‘public’ rooms in Victorian homes – usually in the parlour and dining room. But sometimes, if the original owners were that way inclined, they can also be found in the private master bedroom. The material used to create ceiling roses were either plaster, timber or pressed metal and they can be found in a range of different sizes. The primary function of the ceiling rose, other than providing another decorative element to a room, was ventilation. Perforated ceiling roses are commonly found in rooms that had fireplaces to help with ventilation. That’s not to say that the Victorians didn’t also have unperforated ceiling roses for no useful function other than the elegance it displays to guests, because they sure did! Nowadays, when exploring a pre-1900 dwelling, you will likely see the ceiling rose repurposed for modern times – with a light fixture hanging from the centre of the ceiling rose.

The following images include some of the best examples we have come across while recording the built heritage of Christchurch.

This is the first ceiling rose of three found in a building built in 1892. This small ceiling rose was in the front entrance of the dwelling. It is a perforated ceiling rose with moderate decoration. Simple, but catches the eye when you enter. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Next up in the same 1892 dwelling was this beautiful large ceiling rose in what would have been the parlour. The perforated ceiling rose is highly decorative with leaves and flowers. It was one of the largest ceiling roses I have come across, at 1.5 m wide! Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

Last, and certainly not least, for the 1892 dwelling is this small plain ceiling rose found in a small back room. It still functioned as ‘ventilation’, being perforated, but does not have the grand look of the previous ceiling roses. The owners clearly were not expecting guests to visit this back room. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This medium sized perforated ceiling rose was the only one found in an 1880s house with a school room attached. While ceiling roses are often removed over time due to modification or updating ceilings, no evidence could be found to suggest there were any other ceiling roses in the building. The interesting thing about this ceiling rose was that it was installed in the school room attached to the main building. So not the typical show-off your fancy plaster features to your guests that you expect from the Victorians. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This has to be one of my favourite ceiling roses that I have come across. This perforated ceiling rose was found in a building built in 1898. It has a beautiful leaf and flower motif with small stars in the middle with a larger star surrounding the inner circle. The 20th century occupants of the site also must have thought it was beautiful, as they haven’t modified it into a lighting feature, leaving it in its spectacular original form. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield

Now for something a little more abstract. This ceiling rose also came from a dwelling built in 1898 (but not the same building as the previous!) This ceiling rose is very different compared to the previous ones I have shown you. It is not perforated in the middle, instead the ventilation comes from between the decoration at the edge of the ceiling rose. It might be hard to see it in the photo, but there are four vases in the centre of the ceiling rose that have bouquets of flowers. Leaves and flowers, as you can see in this blog post, are very common motifs for ceiling roses. Image: Jamie-Lee Hearfield.

This ceiling rose, and the following two ceiling roses, come from a building built in 1880 that sadly was demolished before my time at the company. However, the photos of them live on! The above ceiling rose has a beautiful leaf design and sneakily hides the ventilation underneath the raised leaves. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

This next ceiling rose is a lot smaller than the previous one but is still highly decorative with a leaf design. The ventilation is also a lot more obvious in this ceiling rose. I appreciate that the owner at the time decided to put the new light fixture next to the ceiling rose instead of through it. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Another smaller ceiling rose from the same 1880 dwelling. This design is a lot simpler than the last two. It has a flower in the middle and what would have been six leaves surrounding the flower. Now only three of the leaves remain, which could be due to the plaster not lasting the test of time or the leaves being damaged while the light fixture was added. The middle of the ceiling rose is perforated underneath the small leaf design. Image: Annthalina Gibson, Kirsa Webb.

Jamie-Lee Hearfield



70 years of quarantine: the archaeology of Ōtamahua/Quail Island

Today Aotearoa continues to take tentative steps back into level 2 of the Covid-19 response, so you might think it strange that I would be voluntarily stepping back into quarantine. But we’re the stepping back into the history – all  figurative-like – of Ōtamahua/Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour, which acted as a quarantine station throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. For an archaeology nerd, Ōtamahua has such an interesting range of history and archaeology. It’s been a mahinga kai and/or nohoanga, quarry site, a quarantine station for immigrants and animals, a leper’s colony, farmland, ship’s graveyard, and is now managed by the Department of Conservation. There’s a lot of history to Ōtamahua, so strap in, this is going to be a big(ish) one.

Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour with Ōtamahua/Quail Island in the centre. Image: Jessie Garland.

Ōtamahua has a long history, its name meaning “the place where children collected seabird eggs”. Another name, Te Kawakawa, refers to the pepper tree which grew there (Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020). There are several recorded archaeological sites on the island that attest to Ngāi Tahu, and earlier Māori groups’ long history in the area. A beautiful pou named Te Hamo o Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, made by the Whakaraupō Carving Centre was recently erected on the island by Ngāti Wheke.

Te Hamo o Tū Te Rakiwhānoa. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

Ōtamahua, and the smaller Aua/King Billy Island off to the southwest have both been quarried for basalt by Māori and Pākehā, the latter for stone building blocks, and the former for the manufacture of adzes and other tools. The island also boasts one of my favourite kinds of Māori archaeological features: a fish trap! Though it may look like a boring old circle of stones in the tide, these sites are pretty rare. The engineering principles are simple and effective: fish come in at high tide and get stuck inside the circle when it recedes. In the words of our endemic poets: “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [numbers of fish] inside begin to grow”.

I love a good fish trap. Image from Trotter and McCulloch, 2000.

The use of Quail Island for quarantine of either animals or people starts as early as 1855, when it was set apart as a quarantine ground for diseased sheep (Lyttelton Times, 19/9/2855: 6). The idea of quarantine is pretty familiar to New Zealanders (especially in this day and ), not just for folks coming from overseas who might be sick, but also for animals. During the late 19th century, European colonisers were doing a whole-scale transformation of Aotearoa to European-style agriculture, and then as now, New Zealanders took steps to protect lives, industry and livelihoods from harm from viruses and infectious disease. The use of Quail Island as a place for quarantine would sit alongside its farming history for the next century, including its use as a place to quarantine animals for several Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1929 (Mclean, 2013).

If you asked me to come up with a satirical 19th century bureaucratic job, I would come up with “Inspector of Sheep”. Source: Lyttelton Times, 19/9/2855: 6

A reconstructed kennel (the foundations are original) in which dogs were quarantined as part of Antarctic expeditions. Source: Mclean, 2013.

Group including Robert Falcon Scott, with Mongolian ponies, on Quail Island. Ref: 1/2-031141-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23184103

Same here, Antarctic pony, same here.

Initially, shipboard isolation was the only method of preventing transmission of disease on the long journey to New Zealand, but due to increasing numbers of immigrants, and insufficient facilities, this came to be considered ineffective, and the need for large quarantine stations was recognised (Kelly, 2018). Although there were also several mainland quarantine stations, islands were considered perfect spots for quarantine; water on all sides helps maintain the level of isolation one requires to prevent transmission of illnesses, and only truly unhinged individuals would dare swim or even paddle board across the harbour, in defiance of a perfectly natural and not at all phobic distrust of large bodies of water.

Ed. Removed for space, the story of the leprosy patient who escaped Quail Island across the water, reappearing in Charteris Bay in disguise as an Invercargill clergyman. Source: New Zealand Herald, 12/1/1925: 6.

In 1874, the Canterbury Provincial Council bought the land on Quail Island, and a quarantine station was set up, to replace the existing station at Ripapa Island and Camp Bay, which was considered overcrowded (Star, 8/8/1874: 2; Lyttelton Times, 9/10/1874: 2; Globe, 9/10/1874: 3). All the major cities had a wee island they could put freshly-minted residents on for a bit to counteract the transmission-friendly tight and unhygienic quarters of a long ship journey. Wellington had Matiu/Somes Island, Auckland had Motuihe Island, Dunedin had the creatively named “Quarantine Island” (Kamaautaurua), and Christchurch had Quail Island, all of which were in use by the 1870s (Kelly, 2018). Lots of remains from the quarantine station remain on the island: piles and other foundations from many of the former quarantine buildings, stone retaining walls (built by prisoners from Lyttelton jail) and terrace relating to the initial reshaping of the hillsides for construction, and the Skiers Beach barracks building, built in 1875, and one of only two 19th century quarantine buildings remaining in New Zealand.

The quarantine station men’s barracks, built in 1874. Image: Annthalina Gibson.

A stone retaining wall, likely built by prisoners of the Lyttelton Gaol (Trotter and McCulloch, 2000). See here for more on these prisoners who built Lyttelton. Image: Annthalina Gibson.

Detail from 1907 survey plan (SO 4813) on Quail Island showing the buildings within the South Bay area. The layout of the quarantine station reflects partially the requirements of the station, but also the social mores of the time, with separate quarters for men and women. Image: LINZ 1907.

Skiers Beach, looking northeast, showing some of the quarantine station buildings in 1906, including, from left to right, the caretakers cottage, barracks, cookhouse, barracks and the single men’s cookhouse at the extreme right at Whakamaru Beach. Image: Weekly Press from Jackson, 2006, p. 30.

In November 2019, three of our team (Angel, Jo, and I) visited Quail Island to undertake some excavation on the terrace bearing the quarantine station’s cookhouse. It was a real privilege to be part of the project, and we stayed in the newly done up DOC hut, which is a nice, early-20th century cottage that housed the caretaker for the Department of Agriculture’s animal quarantine station.

Angel gives Jo a makeshift tarot reading during our stay.

During the works, Angel found a penny dating to 1873, a year before the station was built. It’s very unlikely the coin was lost and deposited the same year it was minted, but it’s a nice coincidence. Artefact photo: Clara Watson.

On the cookhouse terrace, we found archaeological remains of the cookhouse terrace building itself, including stone piles, fragments of metal sheeting, the remains of some metal containers that might have been associated with the kitchen. There was also evidence for a shell paving layer that went right around the building.

Artefacts from the quarantine station, including a lead fishing weight (top right), keg tap (centre), and domestic pigeon bones (bottom right). Image: Clara Watson, Jessie Garland.

Among the finds were the bones of the introduced domestic pigeon, which are very rare finds in New Zealand archaeology. We couldn’t find any specific historical evidence for pigeons being kept or quarantined on the island, so it’s not quite clear what this particular bird’s story was, or if it was just a rogue pigeon that ended up in the pot.

In 1906, the quarantine station was repurposed for a different form of isolation. Will Vallance was diagnosed with leprosy at Christchurch Hospital, and was put in quarantine on the island. The station had seen less use for quarantining immigrants over the recent years, as most infectious cases were being treated in mainland hospitals, and now saw its second life of quarantine as a leper colony. Author and historian Benjamin Kingsbury says that although leprosy was only mildly contagious, it was probably more stigmatised than any other disease. If you are interested in the lives of the inhabitants, and their treatment, I strongly recommend these two stories on the Spinoff by Benjamin Kingsbury, who has written a book on the subject. After a year on the island, a small hut was built to house Vallance, who had previously been living alone in the much larger barracks. Having spent a few university summers nigh-alone in a large, typically-thriving hall of residence, I could see how that could be a lonely (and spooky) experience. A few more huts would be built between 1907 and 1924 to house further leprosy patients, totalling nine (Kingsbury, 2019, 2020). In 1924, the Mt Herbert County Council proposed the removal of the leper station, the given reason primarily the ongoing shared use of the island to quarantine stock, and that “importers of valuable stock do so with “a feeling that should not exist” (Press, 15/4/1924: 9). The eight remaining leprosy patients were transferred the next year to Fiji, far from the homes and contacts they knew (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It seems callous that a feeling of discomfort (largely unwarranted and self-inflicted) held by those looking over their economic investments should be put above the lives of human beings, those suffering from a chronic disease, but that was the world of the 1920s.

In 2002, archaeologist Michael Trotter, together with DOC and the Catholic Cathedral College of Christchurch undertook an excavation of one of the hut sites associated with the leper station, in order to construct the replica present on the hillside today. The excavation revealed the bricks of a fallen chimney (classic Christchurch), but little evidence of burning, suggesting that at least this hut was largely taken off site rather than burnt, as mentioned in the local newspapers at the time. The underfloor deposit hinted at the creature comforts enjoyed by the isolated patients: glass marbles from aerated drink bottles, thin glass likely originating from pictures, and a tin for holding  and mixing watercolour paints (Trotter and McCulloch, 2004). It’s not a bad view out over the harbour from the huts that housed the leprosy patients, after all.

Plan of the leprosy station hut excavated in 2002. Source: Trotter and McCulloch, 2004.

The east side of the island is also home to a nationally significant ship graveyard, where the hulks of 13 ships were intentionally scuttled between 1902 and 1951. If you’ve not been, it’s definitely worth a visit. Low tide reveals the skeletons of steamships, barques, and so on, as they seem to slowly rise from the still waters of Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour. In the words of our endemic poets “tide rolls in, tide rolls out, let the [shipwrecks] inside begin to [emerge from the harbour]”.

The ‘dissenters’ ship’s graveyard had to be placed somewhere else. Can’t have ships intermingling after death. Image: Tristan Wadsworth.

One of the great things about Ōtamahua/Quail Island is that so much of its heritage is visible from just the short walk around the island. I’m looking forward to getting back, next chance I get. Stay safe out there peeps, and take care of each other.




Further reading

The ghosts of Quail Island

He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ

The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago

Bittersweet existence for the dogs of Antarctica



Globe [online]. Available:

Jackson, P.J., 2006. Ōtamahua/Quail Island – A Link With The Past. 2nd ed. (r ed. Christchurch: Ōtamahua Quail Island Restoration Trust.

Kelly, A., 2018. Third Time’s the Charm: An Investigation into the Quarantine Landscape of Lyttelton Harbour. Archaeology in New Zealand, 61(2), pp.41–50.

Kingsbury, B., 2019. He is unclean; he shall dwell alone: A sad and startling story of leprosy in NZ. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <> [Accessed 15 May 2020].

Kingsbury, B., 2020. The cruelty – and small kindnesses – of quarantine 100 years ago. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020].

LINZ, 1907. SO 4813, Canterbury. Landonline.

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available:

Mclean, G., 2013. Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour (1875). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020].

National Libraries [online]. Group including Robert Falcon Scott, with Mongolian ponies, on Quail Island. Ref: 1/2-031141-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. [Accessed 12 May 2020].

New Zealand Herald [online]. Available:

Press [online]. Available:

Star [online]. Available:

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020. Ngāi Tahu Atlas. Kā Huru Manu. Available online: <> [Accessed 12 May 2020]

Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2000. Archaeological and historical sites of Quail Island and King Billy Island, Lyttelton Harbour, Canterbury. Report for the Canterbury Conservancy, Department of Conservation.

Trotter, M. and McCulloch, B., 2004. Archaeological Excavation of a Quarantine Station Hut Site on Quail Island, Lyttelton Harbour. Unpublished report for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Gardens on a Plate

For some of us, that title may have conjured up childhood memories of making ‘sand-saucer’ gardens for the local flower show or ‘pet and garden’ day at school. But I’ve actually something different in mind.

We have found quite a few 19th  century ceramic vessels from around Christchurch featuring botanical motifs, either of specific flowers and plants, or of plant-heavy scenery. So today I’m going to tiptoe through the tulips of floral abandon, and track down some of the botanical wonders that 19th century Christchurch had on their sideboards.

This splendid platter is an example of idealised ‘Romantic’ scenery, featuring an assortment of pretty plants. I suspect horticultural accuracy was not top of the list of requirements for creating this type of pattern, so some educated guesswork is needed (especially without the help of flower colours) to identify some of these plants. Around the border, I see roses (both single and double flowered blooms with thorned stems), maybe zinnias (in 1858 the first double flowered types were bought to the UK from India), some small and rather stylized blooms that are possibly forget-me-nots (symbolic of remembrance and sometimes of freemasonry) or daisies. The central scene has a couple of elegant trees, a fern or two, some more roses, perhaps a chrysanthemum or marigold, and an assortment of flowering shrubbery. The tree on the left appears to have flowers and the one on the right fruit, with neither in proportion to the size of the tree or identifiable as a particular species so perhaps these are just ‘wish-list’ expressions of what ought to be in the ideal garden. Image: C. Watson.

We are going to see a few roses today. While roses have been grown as decorative plants for centuries, it was not until the late 1700s and early 1800s that the China Rose and the Tea Rose were introduced to Europe, which led to the development of the modern, repeat-flowering type of rose. There was an explosion of cultivars onto the market and roses became one of the most popular garden plants.

For something completely different, this plate features a fruit-laden grape vine. The grape is another plant not native to the UK (Wikipedia tells me that the Romans were the culprits here. The English climate was not ideal for this temperate to subtropical-origin vine, so the wider use of the heated glasshouse in the 19th century was a boon for those trying to produce grapes for eating or wine. The grape has a rich symbolic history, being associated with both the Greek god Dionysus (and the Roman Bacchus), and as a Christian symbol for Jesus Christ, from the scriptural quote “I am the true vine” (John 15:1). Was this design symbolic of something, or purely decorative in intent? Image: C. Watson.

This elegant design appears to feature lilies at first glance. The flower by itself looks very much like a Tigerlily or Daylily, but the leaves are clearly not those of a lily (lilies have narrow pointed strap-like leaves). They aren’t Hibiscus flowers either. There is some resemblance to Rhododendron occidentale (western azalea) from North America, (first described in the 19th century, with seed being sent to the UK in 1850) as pictured below ). What do you think? Do you recognise it as something else? Or is it an artistic concoction of the flowers of one species with the leaves of another? The other more instantly recognisable plant shown on this plate is the acanthus, common in classical decorative motifs, from Greek Corinthian capitals on pillars, to wrought iron work, to 1875 William Morris wallpaper patterns. Also known as Bears Breeches, the plant has many uses in herbal and traditional medicine, including treating asthma, arthritis, leprosy and snake bites! Image: C. Watson.

Rhododendron occidentale or western azalea flowers. Image: W. Gibbs.

This plate features the Asiatic Pheasants pattern. Frequently mentioned on the blog in previous posts, the history of the Asiatic Pheasant pattern is best summarised as following: “It is likely that the design originated with Ralph Hall of Swan Bank Pottery, Tunstall, Staffordshire, who was active from 1822 to 1849. Hall’s Pheasant appears to have been printed mainly and perhaps exclusively in black. Soon other potters began to produce Asiatic Pheasants, printed almost invariably in pale blue. Podmore Walker and Co. of Well Street, Tunstall, Staffordshire commenced business in 1834 and were early producers of Asiatic Pheasants and subsequently claimed to be the originators of Asiatic Pheasants. In 1853 they took over the Ralph Hall factory. By 1880 Asiatic Pheasants was the most popular pattern of all, toppling Willow pattern from the top spot” (Lovers of Blue and White).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               So, what about the plants?  Roses are clearly featured here, both single and double-flowered forms with thorny stems.  Around the rim, at the 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock positions is a flower with a prominent carpel in the centre, maybe a passionfruit flower or possibly hibiscus. The passionfruit was rather exotic in the 19th century and became popular during the Victorian era, with many hybrids created from the winged-stem passion flower (P. alata) and the blue passion flower (P. caerulea). The flower has been given a strong Christian symbolism, which may have made it a popular design feature. Image: C. Watson.

The base of this cup is decorated with an elegant flowering plant, likely some sort of bulbous plant (based on the leaf shape and growth), possibly a snowflake, snowdrop, lily of the valley, scilla or Spanish bluebell. Without the clues of colour or more detail, it’s difficult to say for sure, but it is still rather pretty. Image: C. Watson.

This pair of handsome transfer printed and clobbered plates looks to me like a celebration of autumn. The gold-painted and gold-veined leaves are falling loose around a couple of types of flowers. Both the flower and leaf shape of the smaller flowers look very much like chrysanthemum, though the larger flowers with prominent veining are less easily identifiable. They could be another form of chrysanthemum or daisy, but I’m going to say they are flowers of the Tree Dahlia, a quite spectacular autumn-flowering plant introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Image: C. Watson.

This scene is of a couple of men hard at work in a garden. It could represent gardeners at ‘home’, planting out the exotic plants bought back from some far-flung locale by explorers or plant hunters. It could equally be viewed as settlers in a new land, freshly off one of the ships in the background, busily clearing land in order to plant out the cherished plants (seen in the pots to the right) they bought with them from ‘home’. There is a spade and watering can visible in the foreground and the figure on the left is carrying a bare-rooted tree or shrub (more clearly seen in the original print). The pattern refers to one of Dr Benjamin Franklin’s maxims, specifically his maxim “industry needs not wish, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting, there are no gains without pains, then help hands for I have no lands” (Riley 1991:275). The illustration was taken from 24 scenes of town and country life illustrating Franklin’s Lessons for the young and the old, on industry, temperance, frugality &c by Robert Drighton, published by Bowles and Carver, London in 1795 (Riley 1991: 270). Image: C. Watson. 

The 19th century in the UK was a golden era of gardening, and in particular of hothouse and exotic flower cultivation. Plant hunters were romping around the globe, many sponsored by wealthy patrons, finding, recording and returning with specimens of plants previously unknown to the western world.  Add to that the development from 1847 of methods to create larger pieces of plate glass, and better glazing and construction methods, and the Victorian-era glasshouse and conservatory was born. Here wealthy families grew the rare and exotic, or at least their gardening staff did, and showed them off to their friends (in a sort of botanical keeping up with the Jones’s). At the same time the middle classes had increasing leisure time and some spare cash, and those aspiring to a bit of societal climbing looked to grow some of the exotic offerings now available. Anything that survived in lower light levels, smoky rooms and cooler temperatures but still looked exotic became especially popular .Aspidistra, Hoya and the Parlour Palm were all introduced to the UK in early/mid 1800s. At the same time, deliberate selective breeding of ‘decorative’ plants became more widespread.

The citizens of Christchurch were equally keen on their gardens. The Christchurch Horticultural Society was established in 1861, and by 1863 were holding flower shows open to the public. (Press 01/12/1863: 2).In 1866 the Society took formal possession of the ground that would become the Botanic Gardens (Press 11/09/1866: 2).  By 1866 H. G. Burnell, Seed Merchant of Cashel St, was advertising 1000 varieties of flower seeds for sale (Press 31/08/1866:1) .  In the same year, there was an auction of “60 large specimen plants in full bloom, being fuchsias, petunias etc”, on the day after the flower show. (Press 01/03/1866).

There were at least three commercial plant nurseries advertising in the Press during the 1860s.  Grove Nursery, which sold, amongst other plants, a “choice collection of green-house plants, always on sale from England” (Press 17/05/1862: 7).  Woodburn Nursey (W. Hislop) who at various times advertised “upwards of one million hedge plants” (Press 01/06/1861: 7), carrot, turnip and parsnip seeds (Press 12/10/1861: 7) and an auction of “about 300 very choice Greenhouse Plants (including fuchsias, camellias, amaryllis, mimosa, cuphea, farfugium &…. other plants adapted for Greenhouse and window culture)” (Press 25/02/1863: 3).   And lastly, Christchurch Nursery, (W. Wilson) which sold a large variety of plants and seeds including “Cerrus (sic) Deodara seed recently collected to order in the Himalaya Mountains” (Press 04/01/1862:8), over a dozen different types of fruit trees (including mulberries and figs), rhubarb, asparagus, and many species of ornamental trees, shrubs and hedging plants (including including privet, gorse and broom!) (Press 14/06/1862: 8). It’s clear that gardening was a popular activity in Christchurch. There were even gardens open to the public for picnicking and other activities, such as Taylor’s (later Kohler’s) pleasure gardens and maze (in the area of the current Hagley High School). Formally opened to the public on 2 February 1862, it was described at the time as being “well laid out in grass plats (sic), flower borders, shrubberies, and an extensive maze, the first of its kind in the colony” (Lyttelton Times 28/12/1861: 5).

At the same time greenhouses were being constructed locally. Frederick Jenkins of City Steam Saw Mills, Planing, Joinery and Moulding Works  advertised that he was “prepared to supply the trade with first-class goods……greenhouses, hothouses and conservatories, on the most improved principles” (Press 26/03/1863: 6). When larger houses and estates were advertised for sale, greenhouses were regularly listed as part of the equipment. In 1864 Albourne Lodge a “large and beautifully situated house” had a greenhouse listed as one of the out-buildings (Press 13/12/1864:3).  When the Ilam homestead was advertised for let in 1862 a “greenhouse, well heated and stocked with vines” was listed as one of the assets (Press 05/07/1862:5).

But what if you couldn’t manage to keep any of these fancy or exotic plants, or to visit the locales from whence they came?  Well, why not have them on your crockery instead!

Wendy Gibbs


Lyttelton Times [online]. Available:

Press [online]. Available:

Riley, N. 1991. Gifts For Good Children: The History of Children’s China, Part 1, 1790-1890. Somerset: Richard Dennis.





Creating a New Normal

This week New Zealand entered its third week of the Covid-19 lockdown, and one of the phrases being thrown around a lot is creating a ‘new normal’. The idea of a ‘new normal’ gives a sense that life, whether for better or worse, is going to change permanently. The feelings of nervousness and slight dread of the unknown created by the phrase are possibly similar to what 19th century colonists felt on their journey to New Zealand when they thought about the new life awaiting them.

We tend to use the word ‘new’ a lot when describing change. How often have you read a paragraph talking about New Zealand (or literally any other colony) and it included the phrase ‘new life’. “In the 1870s, the government helped thousands of British people start a new life in New Zealand”. “Many British families packed their bags and boarded ships to start a new life in a land they had never seen on the other side of the world”. “They tackled the new life, however, with a kind of proud glee”. I used it as well in the first paragraph of this blog, it’s hard not to.

When we describe something as new, we’re making a comparison, even if that’s not specifically stated. By referring to settlers starting a ‘new life’ in New Zealand, we’re acknowledging that their life in New Zealand was different to their life in Britain (or wherever they came from). This seems obvious. England in the 19th century was a country that had been occupied for thousands of years. That length of occupation leads to a lot of stuff. I’m using the excellent word ‘stuff’ because I want to make something that’s complicated (and could turn into a long tangent) simple. By stuff I’m essentially referring to the buildings, people, animals, houses, cemeteries, roads, paddocks, etc, that make a place instantly familiar; the landscape (to use a better word), or culture (to use an even better, and probably correct term). But we’re going to run with stuff because it really embodies talking about complicated theoretical concepts in a very vague way.

Even if you’ve never been to England, you could probably guess that this photo is from England. That’s because the brick terraced housing is so instantly recognisable to us as being part of the ‘English landscape’. It’s part of the stuff that makes England, England. Image: : Wikimedia Commons.

By the 19th century, New Zealand had been occupied for just under a thousand years and had all the same stuff that England had. There were whare, nuinga, ika, urupā, huarahi, mahinga kai etc (translation done using Māori Dictionary). It’s just that the stuff in New Zealand was different to the stuff in England, and wasn’t instantly recognisable to the English settlers as being stuff, and is what leads to the idea that settlers were colonising an “empty landscape”, which wasn’t actually the case.

Settlers arriving into New Zealand in the 1840s and 1850s were faced with, what appeared to them to be, a blank slate. And in response to that, British settlers created a ‘new normal’. That is, they took their stuff from England and recreated it in New Zealand.

Remember that first image where I said that brick terraced housing was quintessentially English, this block of houses in on Durham Street South. Image: Google Street View.

We can see that very clearly from a landscape perspective. Christchurch was a planned city, with a grid system revolving around a central square. Early public buildings emulated styles that were popular in England, that would have been familiar to settlers, and efforts were made to reference Britain in the design of public spaces. Just look at the street names in Christchurch. Most of the streets in the centre city were named after places in England- a clear example of settlers bringing their stuff with them.

Who needs to leave the house when there’s Google Maps. Sometimes on my daily walks I stroll alongside the Avon, which always reminds me of quaint English villages. Image: Google Street View.

The River Avon in Stratford Upon Avon. When we walk around our parks and rivers it’s easy to forget that they’re not ‘natural’. The trees and grass that line their banks, even the fish that swim in them, were all introduced deliberately by British settlers to modify the natural landscape of Aotearoa into the familiar natural landscape of Britain. Image:Google Street View.

The Avon River in 1860. Not the quaint stream with grass lined banks and mature Willow trees that we’re used to. Photographs like this really reinforce the landscape modification that took place with British settlement. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Gothic Revival style is cool. Its use in New Zealand in the 19th century is a reflection of what was fashionable at the time, but I think on a deeper level speaks to the actions of English settlers bringing their stuff with them. Building medieval style buildings in a country that never experienced the medieval period creates a sense of history and connection to the landscape that British settlers probably missed. Image: Google Street View. 

We can see stuff in the physical landscape around us. But we can also see it through the things that the settlers brought with them. New Zealand had strong trade links with Australia, Britain and the rest of the world from the 1850s and whilst settlers from this period may have been entering a foreign country, they weren’t doing it with the same level of complete isolation that earlier visitors faced. If you were living in New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century, then you were probably relying on local Māori for survival. By the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in urban centres like Christchurch, that wasn’t the case.

If I was to pick a quintessentially British product from the artefacts we recover, then Lea and Perrins would be it. We find Worcestershire Sauce bottles in most of our domestic assemblages, and more often than not they’re Lea and Perrins. The connection of the product to England is clear just from the name- Worcestershire Sauce after Worcester, the place it was invented. But also, in what the product was used for- cooking. Food is one of the most overt symbols of culture and Lea and Perrins bottles are able to represent the cuisine that British settlers brought with them. Image: C. Watson.

It seems strange that a plate inspired by 18th century Chinese porcelain is a symbol of British culture in the 19th century, yet if you were to ask me what ceramic pattern is the most British then I probably would say Willow. Perhaps it’s not so much the pattern, but the idea of English transfer ware that seems quintessentially British. The majority of ceramic vessels coming into New Zealand were made in the Staffordshire region of England, meaning that people living in New Zealand were able to keep using things that were familiar to them. Image: C. Watson.

And, of course, what could be more British than a pot of tea. Image: C. Watson.

I could keep posting photos of artefacts, because really the vast majority of things we find are British stuff. Even when we have artefacts that speak to local colonial activities, they’re often referencing British things. An easy example of this is aerated water bottles. We find aerated water bottles all the time that have local Christchurch manufacturers’ names on them. Yet the bottles were imported from England and the aerated water produced and bottled using machinery invented in England, so really, they suggest that settlers continued to produce British stuff that was familiar to them, it’s just not taking place in Britain.

This idea, that cultures have stuff and that they take that stuff with them when they move around, is nothing new. It’s basically the bread and butter of archaeology. Archaeologists around the globe, studying hundreds of different cultures and societies, attribute stuff to respective cultures and use the spread of it, and how it changes over time, to explore how respective cultures and societies lived and behaved. When we see British stuff appear in New Zealand, we see that a new culture has arrived. And when we see British stuff continue to arrive throughout the 19th century, we see that this new culture retains ties to their homeland.

To circle back to the idea of a ‘new normal’, this blog was inspired partially by a tweet that I can, of course, no longer find, but that talked about the idea of the archaeology of Covid-19. The tweet explained that archaeologists of the future will be able to see our response to the pandemic through things like an increase in PPE in rubbish dumps, indicating actions to fight the pandemic, toilet paper, showing the panic buying that occurred, and mass-graves, indicating the success or failure of our actions. This is all true and it’s something that archaeologists today study when looking back at pandemics like the Black Death.

But it got me thinking, that if somebody was to study my stuff at the moment, there wouldn’t be any difference between now and before Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. My life is exactly the same as before, it’s just that I don’t leave the house anymore. This is, of course, a temporary ‘new normal’. We don’t know what the economic and social impacts of this lockdown are going to be, just that life isn’t going to be the same as before. And so, when I sit here, surrounded by my stuff, and knowing that that stuff is still going to be there in the future, it just might be a little bit different, I’m reminded most of 1890s settlers to New Zealand. Colonists arriving to Christchurch in this period were entering a world that would have been familiar to them. They didn’t have to climb over the Bridle Path, they could catch the train. The roads were metalled, the houses were built, there were willow trees along the banks of the Avon, and they could buy Worcestershire Sauce at the general store. And yet, I imagine, despite being in a country surrounded by familiar stuff, they still felt a nervousness and slight dread at the new life that awaited them. Similar to how I feel now.

Clara Watson