Kia ora koutou! And welcome to our online exhibition! As the title above indicates, it’s called ‘Home and contents: the archaeology of a Victorian villa’ and it’s part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Archaeology Week 2020. You can find out more about that and all the other events taking place over here. The exhibition that we’ve curated is a room-by-room tour through a late 19th century villa in Ōtautahi Christchurch, looking at how each room was used and the kind of objects that would have been used in them. Through this, we hope to give you some insight into what domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch was like. And seeing as so many of us have become quite, quite familiar with our own homes over the last month, it seems quite appropriate.
Disclaimer: the artefacts featured were not recovered from the house that’s featured. Sometimes archaeology doesn’t give you what you want and, between us, we didn’t have a good house to feature that also had lots of artefacts.
And, particular thanks on this on to Matt Hennessey, for his excellent photographs of this particular house.
The house that James and Priscilla built
James and Priscilla Chalmers arrived in New Zealand in 1878, landing in Dunedin (Otago Daily Times 13/11/1878: 2). James was an engineer by trade, but more your 19th century type of engineer (i.e. working with his hands) than your 21st century type of engineer (more involved with design and supervision). Which is really just a complicated way of saying that James was very definitely working class. James was born in Liverpool in 1848 and started his working life as an apprentice in the Liverpool Dockyards. From there he moved into railways, a career choice that would end up taking him to Russia, of all places. He spent several years in Russia, only leaving at the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war of 1878-1879 (Press 19/4/1905: 8).
At some stage prior to this, James and Priscilla had married. Exactly when isn’t clear – 19th century women are frustratingly elusive. They typically only appear in the papers (the main source for so much research – thanks, Papers Past!) if they were socially prominent, in trouble with the law or advertising for servants. And of course, women signed the suffrage petition(s), another way they became historically visible (disappointingly, Priscilla did not). Sometimes a birth, marriage or death notice might make it into the papers, but in the case of the first your husband might get more of the credit. However, Priscilla and James had presumably married by the time their only child, Margaret, was born in c.1871 (BDM Online 1907/3963).
By c.1880, the Chalmers were resident in Scott Street, Christchurch, and James was working as a fitter at the railway workshops, as so many of those who lived in this part of the city did (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Heathcote) 1880-81: 6). Unfortunately, it’s not possible to work out exactly where on Scott Street the family were living, but the street was home to numerous small workers’ cottages, some of which remained standing until the earthquakes and it is possible that the Chalmers lived in a house that like these. Unsurprisingly, because we don’t know exactly where the Chalmers were living, it’s not possible to work out whether the family were renting a house or had bought or built one.
Two 19th century workers’ cottages on Scott Street. Images: K. Webb (top left) and P. Mitchell (bottom right).
By 1886, the family had moved (to somewhere on Lincoln Road) and James was now working for the Canterbury Tramway Company (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Sydenham) 1885-86: 7, Press 29/10/1886: 3). Just a couple of years later, James purchased the land – in Richmond Terrace (now Waller Street) – where he would build the house that’s the focus of this exhibition (yes, sorry, it took a while to get there). In June 1888, James took out a mortgage against the land with one Alexander Christian Fife (LINZ 1888). Mortgages in 19th century New Zealand were often personal loans, and James is likely to have known Fife through both work (Fife was involved with the railways) and the St Augustine Lodge, as both were also involved with this (Star 18/1/1895: 1, Press 21/12/1915: 6). It is likely that the mortgage was used to fund the construction of the house (mortgages taken out in such circumstances – against a bare piece of land – are often interpreted as being used to fund house construction, although the method is by no means foolproof).
The house seems to have been completed in 1889, by which time James was the general manager at the Canterbury Tramway Company (Press 7/11/1889: 1, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1890-91: 122). There’s a nice symmetry here, whereby James is moving up the employment ladder (and thus, to a certain extent up the class ladder, a managerial position like this one generally being associated with middle class status) at the same time that his family’s housing status seems to be improving, as you’ll come to see. Because the house that James and Priscilla built was a step up from the workers’ cottages typical of Scott Street.
The Chalmers built a bay villa, that typical late 19th century New Zealand house, albeit one that was much plainer than the classic examples (although my research suggests that bay villas were not, in fact, common in Christchurch in the 19th century). This villa was not particularly ornamental – there were pediments and panelling on the bay window, coloured and etched glass around the door and there may have been eaves brackets on the front of the house. There certainly were on the sides and rear but no evidence of them having been on the front remained. I think of this all as a fairly restrained form of decoration, and I am not the first person to suggest that houses in 19th century Christchurch were somewhat plainer than those built elsewhere in the country (Mulligan and Wright 2019: 70).
Details of the house that James and Priscilla built. Clockwise from top left: etched and coloured glass in the door surround (note also the vertical letter slot); panelling under the bay window; pediments associated with the bay window; the eaves brackets on the rear corner of the house. Images: M. Hennessey.
With seven rooms, the house was of a fairly average size, and would have allowed the Chalmers family to live there in some comfort. There was no room for a servant to sleep-in (and nor did Priscilla ever advertise for one – which is not evidence that she did not have one to help around the house), but there was a separate dining room, along with a scullery and pantry (as well the standard parlour, bedrooms and kitchen). The toilet would have been in a separate building in the back garden, possibly along with a copper for doing the laundry. This range of rooms was fairly standard for a family of the middling sort in this particular time and place.
Sadly, though, the family did not long enjoy the house. Priscilla died in 1892, aged 44, and a year later, Margaret married, leaving James alone in the house (Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1, Star 8/1/1894: 2). There’s no evidence of James advertising for a servant either. While this isn’t evidence that he didn’t have one, this possibility is a tantalising one for the era. James remarried in 1897, to Annetta Kinsman, who was almost the woman next door – her brother had bought the section next to James’s in 1890 and was living there by 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 669, BDM Online 1897/2040, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1898-99: 233). The couple did not have any children, and James died in 1905, after being ill for a time (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He left the house to Margaret, although he gave his wife permission to live there for three months after his death – this strikes me as curious, as he had, to all intents and purposes, left his wife homeless. He did leave her the rest of his estate, so she was not left penniless (Christchurch High Court 1905). The house, in fact, would stay in the Chalmers family until 1930 (LINZ 1888).
In all of this, I have not mentioned James’s political involvement. James was a member of the Working Men’s Political Association, which was established to advocate for the rights and working conditions of working men (Globe 4/3/1882: 3). Given this obvious interest, it is no surprise that he was also a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He held executive roles for each of these organisations (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He was also, for a time, a member of the Conciliation Board, a board that mediated in disputes between employees and employers (this short sentence significantly downplays the role of these boards in New Zealand’s labour history – you can learn a bit more here; Press 19/4/1905: 8). James was also a fairly active mason (Press 19/4/1905: 8). While I can’t speak to James’s involvement with the masons, his membership of the other organisations indicates a concern with the conditions and livelihood of his fellow members of the working class (or, if you prefer, a rabble-rousing troublemaker – but there is nothing in what I have learnt of James that suggests this).
So, that’s the story of James and Priscilla and the house they built. It’s a story of change and social mobility and the opportunities that New Zealand offered its European settlers (and hidden under that is the terrible cost of this to Māori). It’s a story of loss and possibly one of ambition. It’s also a story of labour activism, and of the roles everyday people play in much bigger social change. And it’s the story not just of the position of women in the 19th century, but their visibility in the historical record. I hope you’ll join us over the course of the next week as we explore more of the stories of James and Priscilla and the house they built.
BDM Online 1907/3963. Margaret Ann Woodward death registration. Available online at: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/ [Accessed 19 April 2020].
BDM Online 1897/2040. Annetta Kinsman/James Chalmers marriage registration. Available online at: https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/ [Accessed 18 April 2020].
Christchurch High Court, 1905. CHALMERS James – Christchurch – Engineer (R22389332). Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office. Available online at: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9GY-2G5W?i=15&cc=1865481&personaUrl=%2Fark%3A%2F61903%2F1%3A1%3AQK9V-GN7Q [Accessed 18 April 2020].
LINZ, c.1860. Canterbury Land District Deeds Index – Volume A/S – Christchurch town sections – Subdivisions of ‘A’ book (R22765341). Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office. Available online at: https://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=22765341
LINZ, 1888. Certificate of title 135/187. Landonline.
Lyttelton Times. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/
New Zealand Electoral Roll. Available online at Ancestry.com.
Mulligan, Amanda, and Gareth Wright. “‘Why Not Live There?’ Two 1908 Houses in Addington and Hataitai.” In “The raging fury of Edwardian ornamentation” Meets “a virtual frenzy of stylism”: New Zealand Architecture in 1900s: A One Day Symposium, edited by Christine McCarthy, 65-70. Wellington: Victoria University, 2019.
Otago Daily Times. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/
Press. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/
Star. Available on Papers Past: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/
Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory. Available online at Ancestry.com.