Thinking about isolation

This isn’t the post I’d originally intended to write this week, but who of us right now is doing what we thought we’d be doing even at the start of this week, let alone a few weeks ago? As the week has progressed, it has become increasingly difficult to see the relevance of that original idea in the current time and place. So, inspired by the work of a colleague (whose excellent blog post you can see here), I started thinking more about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand. What follows  is a very once-over-lightly and rambling consideration about the different types of isolation experienced by the 19th century settlers of Canterbury, thinking about the sites of isolation I have worked on or know about. I’ve not discussed the types of isolation that Māori experienced during the century (although some may well have been the same as the European settlers, but there would also have been many types of isolation caused by colonialism), as I am in no position to do justice to this (but see this).

Truly splendid isolation. The centre of W. T. L. Travers’s station, on Lake Guyon, in what is now the St James Conservation Area, and where W. L. Newcombe lived in the 1860s (NENZC 29/11/1866: 3). It looks isolated, but there was actually someone living about an hour and half’s walk away (NENZC 29/11/1866: 3). Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, PA1-q-247-02.

Isolation actually forms a fairly prominent theme in Aotearoa New Zealand’s historiography, thanks largely to the work of Miles Fairburn (1989). I’ll confess that I’ve not read all of Fairburn, but I think I’ve read enough, and enough about his work, to be able to summarise his arguments reasonably accurately (bearing in mind that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). I should say, too, that I’m going to focus on what Fairburn had to say about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand, not his overall thesis. Fairburn (1989: 173) calculated that, prior to 1991, some 36-47% of the population did not have any physically close neighbours (I would contend that the methods used to generate this figure were not quite as robust as might be desirable – to be fair, it is not easy data to generate). He argued that this physical isolation was compounded by being a significant distance from ‘home’ in a strange country, without family and friends. He went on to argue that this isolation, in conjunction with relatively high levels of land ownership and relatively high levels of what he called transience (basically that people didn’t live in any one place for particularly long), combined to create an atomised society. This society was characterised by weak social bonds and high levels of drunkenness and violence (Belich 1991: 673). Subsequent work has found a more nuanced picture, and his work has been critiqued for not recognising that important social bonds formed in the face of this physical isolation (Ballantyne 2011: 61-62, Belich 1991: 674).

But it remains true that many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 19th century settlers had left their homes to move to the other end of the world, and many came knowing that they were unlikely to see their family and friends again – I still cannot imagine the leap of faith that requires. Of course, in some cases, family and friends came too: the family of Ernest Oppenheim, who built one of the houses I’m researching, arrived in Christchurch gradually over a ten year period, most of them as adults (DLS 1865, 1872. And while others arrived on their own, they might have been attached to a broader community through religion or country of origin (Fraser 1997). While it was a lengthy boat journey back home, it was by no means impossible: Jessie’s work has found evidence of business owners travelling back to England for business purposes and I have come across families that travelled back simply for a visit. To be fair, this was often a visit of several years and probably the preserve of the wealthy. While it’s not the same, letters appear to have flown back and forth across the oceans, between New Zealand and family members who had not emigrated (Porter and Macdonald 1996: 2). Similarly, this was the age of the telegram, and English newspapers in particular were readily available in New Zealand’s cities, albeit somewhat out of date. All of these would have provided valuable and important connections between those who emigrated and those who did not.

Newspaper from home, wherever that might have been, provided a critical link to the world that many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 19th century settlers had left behind. New Zealand newspapers printed stories from English and other newspapers, mechanics’ institutes stocked various papers for overseas (Schrader 2016: 133) and subscriptions to these papers were available – our addiction to the news is nothing new! Image: Lyttelton Times 17/4/1858: 5.

For some settlers, there was also a very real isolation from others, even in this country. Take Mrs McRae, for example, who lived on Stronechrubie station*, way up in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, from about 1878-1892 and apparently went some 10 years without seeing another woman (Acland 1975: 301-302, 304; Brown 1940: 218). Pastoral stations in general lent themselves to isolated communities at least, if not always isolated individuals. The early boundary keepers of Canterbury (who were, as best my research has identified, fairly few and far between), however, would have been much more isolated, as would the occasional shepherds who lived out on the far reaches of the shepherd. These men would have lived on their own year-round, with just occasional visits from other station workers (I honestly don’t know whether wives might have lived with them).

The remains of an 1850s shepherd’s hut on what was then Omarama station (Watson 2010: 4).

While this isolation must have been pretty hard to deal with for some, there were others who actively sought it out. Take for example, Wyndham Barker, who I’ve written about before over here (and here), established an ice rink on the north bank of the Rangitata River in the 1930s, in the lee of Mt Harper. He and his wife, Brenda, lived here year-round – even today, it’s an hour (including a jet boat ride) from the nearest town (Geraldine). And that’s the quickest way to get there. While things would have been busy there in the winter, the Barkers would have lived in splendid isolation in the summer – and the spectacular scenery would have made it quite, quite splendid.

I can think of much worse places to be isolated. But I am a natural introvert and this is pretty much my tūrangawaewae. The ice rink is in the foreground, and Wyndham and Brenda’s house is in the poplars in the middle distance.

For those living in the cities, there was much less obvious isolation, although one of the criticisms levelled at city dwelling is the isolation that can be experienced in spite of being surrounded by so many people. It is difficult to explore this type of isolation archaeologically, however. Perhaps one of the more obvious ways that people would have experienced isolation in Christchurch is through physical and forcible isolation, in either gaol or the asylum. As with the other sites of isolation discussed here, these were sites of both physical and social isolation, but the social isolation in these cases was much more deliberate. The residents of these institutions were being isolated from the rest of society for what was believed to be the benefit of both society and the individual who was being isolated. Reality, of course, may have been very different for all concerned.

One of the buildings that made up the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa, C.011626.

What I kept thinking about, though, as I wrote this post was that while all these people were isolated, and some in very remote locations, they all remained connected to the world in different ways. At the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, in the early years at least, the public were encouraged to attend a range of events at the asylum, including dances, plays, church services and cricket matches (Seager 1987). Station diaries reveal a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing between different stations, whether for business or pleasure – there was the seasonal round of the shearing gangs, station employees would often go and carry out work on adjoining properties, and then there were social events, too, in the form of balls and other parties (Barker 1883: 90-91, 98). And I’ve already mentioned the various ways 19th century settlers remained connected to the world they’d left behind. From this I drew two conclusions. One: while life in 19th century New Zealand might seem isolated at first glance, once you start to look into it, it wasn’t. You might not have been able to video chat with your friends from all around the globe over lunch, but expectations were different then. And this connects to my second moral: our connections to people matter. This is stating the obvious, particularly in the current circumstances. But it’s worth remembering here and now that these connections have always mattered, and that our forebears coped with this isolation and that we will too. Humans are resilient and social beings and we will always find ways to connect with others in our isolation.

Sometimes it might take crazy video chats to get you through – and this was only Day 1…

Katharine Watson

*A station (also known as a run) was a large landholding, typically of tens of thousands of acres.

Many echoes, but few voices

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say.

Is it, though? Is it really?

I’ve always wondered about that phrase. The thought of someone imitating me, personally, is far creepier than it is flattering, the kind of behaviour that thrillers twist to disturbing ends. If not creepy, there’s an element of mockery that lingers, particularly in imitation of mannerisms or speech, no doubt a hang up from siblings and playground nemeses gleefully repeating every word you say, never intending to flatter, always to ridicule and annoy. Professionally, in a world of intellectual property and copyright law, imitation is a fraught and complicated issue. Emulation, of business model, professional comportment, employment environments, fine, yes? Imitation, of design, of ideas, of brand? Well, that’s usually called something else, and it’s not flattery.

Yet, imitation remains a part of our material world, particularly within the framework of expensive vs. cheap, or authentic vs. fake. From designer knock-offs sold on the street for a fraction of the price, to mass-produced clothing that adapts and ‘imitates’ the trends of the catwalk, to interior design fads. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot lately, because it’s not a new thing and there are more than a few examples in the Christchurch assemblage that illustrate how the imitation of design – particularly in ceramics – is rooted as much in the social and economic meaning of objects, as it is in the aesthetic.

I had originally intended to have a paragraph here giving a brief overview of intellectual property rights in the UK in the nineteenth century, but it turns out that “brief” and “intellectual property law” are not things that go together. So, here are some links to the British Library and National Archives pages on design, trademarks and patents if you’d like to muddle your own way through it. Basically, what you need to know is that prior to 1839, very few protections, if any, existed for design or trademark and, after 1839, those protections that did exist did not necessarily prevent people from ‘adapting’ any designs they wanted (Carter-Silk and Lewiston 2012: 28; Drakard and Holdway 2002: 45). British potters, in particular, were apparently notorious for copying and reproducing designs and I’m not super clear on how the legislation affected this practice in the long run. I’m also not really trying to unravel that, as I’m sure it’s an extremely tangled web of legislation and trade protections and my brain can only take so much. What I’ve been thinking about of late is more to do with the why of imitation in nineteenth century ceramics, from the perspective of both the manufacturer and the consumer.

While I was away, I found a little bit of time to go and visit Stoke-on-Trent, in order to geek out about ceramics. Apparently now a place that no-one in England would ever conceive of going to unless they absolutely had to, Stoke-on-Trent was nevertheless the heart of the Staffordshire pottery industry of the nineteenth century and, if you are a pottery nerd (or even if you are not), it remains the place to go to experience both the industrial manufacturing processes of Victorian pottery production and the end results of that industry. While at Spode/Copeland, we had a short tour from one of the people there of their “Blue Room”, in which we talked about perhaps one of the most famous, and most taken for granted, examples of imitation (perhaps appropriation would be a better word) in nineteenth century material culture: that is, the English imitation of Chinese ceramic designs, fabric and forms.

Stoke-on-Trent is apparently a place that no-one else ever visits. Ever. From the friend who said “I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to visit Stoke”, to the people in London who said “Why on earth are you going to Stoke?” to the hotel receptionist who assumed we were there for work, because why else would anyone go to Stoke-on-Trent, it became very clear that, to the English, it’s like saying you travelled across the world specifically to visit Ashburton (sorry Ashburton, it was you or Gore and I feel like I’ve made enough jokes about Gore that I feel bad about it). Images: J. Garland and T. Wadsworth.

Because of the demand for Chinese porcelain, British potters – such as Spode – would reproduce patterns in their entirety, as well as producing patterns that claimed ‘inspiration’ from Chinese designs. Several of these are held by the Spode/Copeland museum in Stoke-on-Trent, showing both the original Chinese porcelain plate (left) and the British reproduction (right). Image: J. Garland.

Much has been written about the influence of Chinese art and culture on the development of the British ceramic industry (and tea drinking culture; i.e. Drakard and Holdaway 2002: 45, Coysh and Henrywood 1982). Much of the imitation of Chinese designs and styles was rooted in the association of Chinese porcelain with tea drinking, both in terms of the functionality of porcelain (hard, non-porous, coped well with boiling water) and the status of the beautiful blue and white Chinese styles that were, until the late eighteenth century, some of the finest available in Britain and Europe (Coysh and Henrywood 1982). To manufacture ‘Chinoiserie’, as it came to be called, was to buy into the social meaning of Chinese porcelain as much as the economic; to transfer the prestige – technical and social – of imported Chinese porcelains to the local industry. To purchase it was to implicitly acknowledge the fashionability of Chinese ceramics, by choosing to own – and display – a (usually) cheaper version. The Willow pattern is arguably the best example of this, although its ubiquity stands in contrast to the porcelains it imitates.  

The Christchurch assemblage, as most nineteenth century British colonial assemblages do, has copious quantities of ‘Chinoiserie’, or Chinese ‘inspired’ designs, from the Willow pattern (still sold today!) to slightly more uncommon patterns, some of which reference trading posts or places of significance to the English in China. However, it also has a few other examples of ceramic imitations, several of which are layered and often serve to complicate the identification and dating of artefacts and assemblages.

Colourful jug from Christchurch variously identified as a Mason ‘Imari’ jug, imitation Mason jug and Gaudy Welsh jug. This was found in an 1850s-1860s context in Christchurch’s CBD, on a mixed commercial and domestic site. Image: J. Garland.

This beautiful (perhaps, depending on your tastes…) jug was found on a site on Colombo Street a few years ago. It references what are known as Mason ‘Imari’ jugs, which in turn imitate a style of Japanese export porcelain known as ‘Imari’ by Europeans (Godden 1992: 216-218; Kowalsky and Kowalsky 1999: 269, Hildyard 2005: 123). When I first came across this jug, I found the Mason (G. M. and C. J. Mason, c. 1813-1840) examples when I was researching, but the lack of “Mason” in the impressed stamp on the base of the Christchurch jug suggested that it may have been an imitation (Trendafilov et al. 2017: 222; Paull 2018). Since then, however, I’ve come across another style, amusingly named “Gaudy Welsh”, that was made between 1820 and 1860 in several Welsh potteries (Lewis 2011). Identical examples of the jug found in Christchurch have also been identified by collectors and others as Gaudy Welsh jugs. I’m still not clear on which one it is (if anyone knows, do get in touch!), but I think there’s a case to be made that either option still references the initial Mason jugs, and all of the British examples are themselves imitations of a Japanese style. The precise nature of that imitation – inspiration or copying – is less clear, but the links back to Japanese export porcelain remains. It’s certainly clear that this was a design and a style that was shared among different potters during the early-mid nineteenth century and one that consumers may have recognised as either Mason or Japanese inspired.

Batavian ware dish with engraved decoration. Interestingly, both this dish and the gaudy jug were found in the same assemblage, suggesting they were owned by the same person. Image: J. Garland.

Another unusual artefact was found in the same assemblage. This, a brown glazed porcelain dish through which a bird and foliage design had been engraved, resembles a style of pottery popular over a century before Christchurch was settled by Europeans. Known as Batavian ware, after the port through which the original porcelain was shipped (Batavia/Jakarta), this ware consisted of Chinese export porcelain that had been covered with a brown glaze, sometimes with windows to the original porcelain or further decorated by European engravers, with bird and foliage designs (Li 2012; Nilsson 1998-2019; MacPherson 2020; Kerr 2011). Given the dates of popularity for this ware – the 1720s to 1730s – it was a deeply confusing artefact to find in a post-1850s Christchurch context and possible explanations for its presence ranged from an heirloom brought over by a settler to a nineteenth century imitation. The latter was supported by the relatively crude nature of the engraving and what appeared to be a softer porcelain paste for the body of the dish, rather than the harder Chinese porcelain expected for an original.

Various sources suggest different forms of revival or imitation occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: one indicates a revival in the early 1800s in the Netherlands, made primarily for export to South East Asia (Nilsson 1998-2019), while others suggest that the Meissen and Leeds factories made wares in imitation of the earlier Chinese Batavian pottery during the late 1700s and early 1800s (Campbell 2006: 79). That said, it’s all still a bit vague and even the early nineteenth century date is a bit early for Christchurch (an imitation AND an heirloom, perhaps?), but it does lend some credence to the idea of it being an imitation. If that’s the case, the nature of the imitation is multi-faceted, as something that references both Chinese porcelain and European trade, as well as European decorative arts through the wheel engraving. The idea of imitation as ‘revival’ also adds an element of time depth to the reproduction or adaptation of designs that is less evident in the imitation of contemporary designs. It’s something we’re familiar with today, particularly in fashion, for better or worse: I hear the 90s are back at the moment, for example, which is very much something I consider to be for worse.

An imitation of the Blue Fluted Plain or Pattern No. 1, found in Christchurch. The motif refrences stylised Chrysanthemum and cinquefoil flowers and is another example of Chinese-inspired design. The decoration on the Christchurch vessels is cruder, particularly the definition of the cinquefoil flowers, and heavier in colour than many of the examples of Blue Fluted Plain that exist elsewhere, both modern and antique. An email conversation with someone at the Royal Copenhagen factory suggests that the Christchurch examples are not originals, but may be German or English imitations (pers. comm. Nottelmann, September 2019). Image: J. Garland.

Last, but not least, more recently, I discovered a design on several porcelain vessels in Christchurch – mostly chambersticks and tea wares – that had its own story of appropriation. These vessels, found on the site of a nineteenth century shop, as well as the backyard of an early Christchurch rabbi, Isaac Zachariah, and successful Christchurch solicitor Henry Wynn Williams, were decorated with a blue floral line design with more than a passing resemblance to the Blue Fluted Plain pattern (or Pattern No. 1) produced by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Factory from at least 1775 to the present day (Royal Copenhagen 2019). The pattern was extremely popular throughout the nineteenth century and was copied by a variety of other European potters, as well as their British counterparts. The latter included Furnival who produced it as the “Denmark” pattern and Allerton, who produced a version under the name “Stockholm”, which demonstrates that people could be as bad at geography in the nineteenth century as they are now. Naturally, the Blue Fluted Plain was itself inspired by Chinese designs, because of course it was. It was an exceptionally popular pattern and style and the factory was associated with the royal family and Danish nobility, for whom many of their products were made.

The naming of the English versions of the Blue No 1 pattern shows an awareness of its Danish origins, even of its origins as Royal Danish Porcelain (well, the Furnival one does – the Allerton one is, admittedly, a bit confused). The acknowledgement of the European origins of the pattern and the replication of the design is not just an acknowledgement of its popularity but – particularly for the consumer – is also an acknowledgement of the social status of the design, an attempt to gain that same meaning for a fraction of the price. We know this – many of us do this, when we buy cheaper versions of designer goods, when we respond to a complement with “oh, it’s just a fake”, when we equate authenticity and originality with realness and therefore, imitation with pretense. It’s not an association I can prove from only a couple of samples, but it is interesting to note that the examples found on domestic sites in Christchurch are associated with people of a moderate-high community status – a rabbi and a well-respected and successful solicitor.

Writing this post raised a few points for me, in terms of design and the different forms of imitation and the nature of art and material culture. One, I had a lot more to say about this than I thought I would (if you’ve made it this far through the post, well done!). Two, the stories that can be told by artefacts can have much greater depth and breadth to them than even I think possible sometimes. So many of the artefacts found in Christchurch to date are British-made, but their stories are in fact part of a much greater art and design tradition that spans centuries and continents and builds again and again on what came before it. Even though the city was settled by Europeans in 1850, to limit our perspective just to the latter half of the nineteenth century would be to ignore so many of the factors that contributed to its development: both the people who arrived to settle there after 1850, and those who had already been there for centuries have stories – and material culture – that extend back through time and across the world. And three, copyright and intellectual property law is a surprisingly interesting and unsurprisingly complicated thing that, for the most part, appears to have had little impact on the potters of the nineteenth century, no matter where they were in the world.


Carter-Silk, A. and Lewiston, M., 2012. The Development of Design Law Past and Future: From History to Policy. Intellectual Property Office, Newport.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780‐1880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Drakard, D. and Holdway, P., 2002. Spode Transfer Printed Ware: 1784-1833. Antique Collector’s Club.

Godden, G., 1992. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of British Pottery and Porcelain. Magna Books, Leicester.

Hildyard, R., 2005. English Pottery 1620-1840. V & A Publications, London.

Kowalsky, A. A. and Kowalsky, D. E., 1999. Encyclopedia of Marks on American, English and European Earthenware, Ironstone, and Stoneware 1780-1980. Makers, Marks and Patterns in Blue and White, Historic Blue, Flow Blue, Mulberry, Romantic Transferware, Tea Leaf, and White Ironstone. A Schiffer Book for Collectors, Atglen, U.S.A.

Li, B., 2012. ‘Batavian’ Style Chinese Export Porcelain: Origins, Recent Finds and Historic Significance. In Buslig, S. A., Chien, N. D. and Li, B. 2012. The Ca Mau Shipwreck Porcelain [1723-1735]. The Hungarian Southeast East Asian Research Institute.

Paull, J., 2018. Janice Paull Antiques and Design, International Specialist in Mason’s and other English Ironstone China, c. 1790-1848: Fakes. [online] Available at [Accessed 3/5/2018].

Trendafilov, A., Garland, J., Whybrew, C., Mearns, L., Lillo Bernabeu, M., Hennessey, M. and Webb, K., 2018. Christchurch Convention Centre, Vol. 1. Final report on archaeological monitoring under HNZPT authority 2017/280 eq. Unpublished report.