The librarian’s house

Libraries are a gift. There is something magical about their existence; about the otherwise ordinary rooms and halls transformed by the books that amass on shelves and displays; a congregation of knowledge in a single space that somehow feels bigger than its physical reality. They’re places that represent more than the sum of their parts, institutions that give us the ability to travel through time and space, across universes and into worlds we’ve only dreamed of (as always, the inimitable Terry Pratchett captured this well in his concept of L-space).

Libraries were also valued by early European colonists, although perhaps not quite so whimsically. Books were relatively scarce in the colony: the expense and distance between New Zealand and European publishers made it difficult to regularly source new reading material (and, very likely, further restricted the privilege of reading to those wealthy enough to spend their time and money on books). Access to reading material was presented in the newspapers of the time as a necessity, in line with the aspirations of many settlers – particularly those involved in the civic shaping of their new society – to make Christchurch (and New Zealand) a center of education  and improvement. Others expressed sentiments familiar to people in the present day (and, I suspect, throughout time): boredom and a wee bit of FOMO, hearing of the new books published in Britain and Europe, yet having to wait for months and months to read them.

Part of the 1870s library building prior to its demolition. Image: K. Watson.

The history of the public library in Christchurch is actually a little bit complicated. The first public library established in the city had its foundations in the Christchurch Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1859, but didn’t really exist as a public library in a way we might recognise it today until the mid-1870s, when it came under the purview of the then Canterbury College (the Christchurch City Council didn’t take it on until the 1940s – I did not know this!; Christchurch City Libraries 2020).

Alongside the reading room and library of the Mechanics Institute, books could be borrowed in a handful of ways during the 1850s and 1860s, including through the ‘circulating library’ run out of John Younghusband’s Well Known Little Shop (possibly my favourite shop name in Christchurch and one I will talk about again on this blog, for sure) and through Christchurch branches of Mudie’s Select Library, a London-based circulating library. John Younghusband is, among other things, also notable later in life for telling his wife he was going to Christchurch to sell some property and just not bothering to come home for another seven years, setting himself up, surely, for a bunch of jokes to be made about his name and his husbandly qualities. Image: Lyttelton Times 16/05/1860: 6, Press 12/05/1866: 6

For those unfamiliar with them, mechanic’s institutes were a relatively common facet of life in the nineteenth century, founded with the intention of educating and improving the lives of their members, who were usually tradespeople, craftspeople and skilled workers (Christchurch City Libraries 2020). As with organisations like the Oddfellows, Working Men’s Associations etc., mechanic’s institutes were part of movements to improve the lot of the working classes – in this case, through lectures, public events, classes and entertainments and, most importantly, the provision of a library. This would have been contrary to the aims of the Canterbury Association, and many of the prominent early colonists, some of whom were decidedly of the opinion that education and knowledge should NOT be available for all, especially those pesky working classes (John Robert Godley had a lot to say on this and it was not good; McAloon 2000: 162). However, despite an early setback (the first attempt was not successful), the Christchurch Mechanic’s Institute was established in 1859 and the library it provided became “the most important element of the Institute’s work” (Christchurch City Libraries 2020). To that end, the Institute changed its name to The Literary Institute in 1863, when it moved from the Town Hall to a site on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street. By the mid-1870s, however, among financial and organizational difficulties, the library was handed over to the College and a William Armson-designed building erected next to the earlier 1863 structure on the site.

With libraries come librarians and, believe it or not, this is actually a blog about a librarian – specifically, the librarian who lived in the house next to the library on Cambridge Terrace. His name was Howard Strong and he was involved with the Christchurch Public Library from c. 1879 until his retirement in 1913, first as Sub-Librarian and then as Head Librarian from 1908 to 1913 (Christchurch City Libraries 2020). During his time with the library, he and his family lived on the premises, in a house right next door to the library building itself. There’s something to be said here about the proximity of living space to workspace, particularly in light of the evident difficulties that could be caused by living at a distance from work, as Kat mentioned in the last blog. It’s not something that we seem to concern ourselves with so much in the present day – at least not to the degree of living next door to our workplaces (if anything, there seems to be more of a desire now to separate places of work from places of living).

The 1894 librarian’s house, which replaced the earlier building inhabited by the Strong family. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of that earlier building, so this one will have to stand in. The placement of the librarian’s house right next to the library he oversaw reminds me of nothing so much as church ministers and their manses. Both caretakers, albeit of very different congregations. Image: K. Watson.

Howard was English, with a relatively interesting background, having been privately educated in England and Brussels and arriving in New Zealand at the age of 19, after three years at sea (as a sailor; he did not make the crossing to New Zealand by way of the world’s slowest moving raft; Press 24/09/1924: 11). He was very much an active participant in the colonial venture: he spent just over a decade of his life in New Zealand, prior to becoming librarian, fighting in the North Island on behalf of the colonial government and constabulary forces against local Māori. This included time as a volunteer under the command of George Whitmore during the pursuit of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, the Ringatū prophet and warrior, and Tītokowaru, the Ngāti Ruanui leader, military strategist and prophet. If you’ve not heard much of Te Kooti and Tītokowaru before, theirs are truly fascinating stories: both of them were men of faith, warriors and leaders, famous for their defiance of the colonial government during the 1860s and 1870s (Te Ara 2020; O’Malley 2016). If you have time, you should absolutely read more about them (I may or may not have lost a couple of hours to reading about them over the course of writing this…).

Excerpt from Howard Strong’s obituary in 1924. Image: Press 24/09/1924: 11.

In 1875, Howard married Florence Bach, moved to Christchurch four years later and, over the course of the next little while, the couple had eight children. As is typical, there’s not a lot of existing information on Florence: her father was from Birmingham and she mostly appears in public notices and newspapers through advertisements for servants and the occasional mention in association with the library or local events. The family appear to have lived in the house next to the library from the late 1870s until 1894, when tragedy struck. A fire broke out in the house and, although Mr and Mrs Strong and seven of their children escaped injury, their 9 year old son died in the fire, which also destroyed most of the house and its furnishings. A new house (which Kat will talk about on the next post) was constructed in place of the burned building and survived through the twentieth century until the earthquakes necessitated its demolition.

The utter tragedy of the fire, as reported in the newspapers at the time. Image: Timaru Herald 28/04/1894: 3.

In 2012, archaeological work on the site of the librarian’s house found evidence of this fire through a burn layer beneath the foundations of the new house, very clearly associated with the events of April 1894. Mixed in with the layer was the detritus of the destroyed Strong household, through the broken and burned objects they owned at the time of the fire. The assemblage is unique in Christchurch, and unusual more generally, as we don’t often have such a clear and narrow date for the deposition of artefacts in the archaeological record. You’ll have seen that in my captions on other posts – artefacts that date to “the 1850s-1870s” or similarly vague periods of time. In this case, it’s not just that we know that the objects were disposed of in 1894, it’s that they would have been deposited as a result of the fire and so, they offer a sort of glimpse through time to the contents of the Strong household in April 1894 – or, at least, those contents that could not be salvaged after the fire (even an assemblage like this is curated by what people – the Strongs – valued enough to save or to leave; Beaudry 2005).

The assemblage contains much that is familiar and expected for a domestic household: fragments of stoneware storage jars, shards of pharmaceutical bottles, the spout from a teapot, the rim of a mixing bowl. A bottle of Bonnington’s Irish Moss may have been prescribed for colds and coughs in the household in the same way that we reach for Codral today, particularly in a household of eight children, at whom much of Bonnington’s advertising was targeted. A slate pencil may have been used and lost by one of those children in the course of their lessons (there’s little doubt that they would have been educated). Leather shoes worn by the family are evocative of the individuals who wore them.

Bonnington’s Irish Moss, a slate pencil and a child’s shoe, all found in the burn layer beneath the house. Image: J. Garland, J. Hearfield.

Some of the vessels were more identifiable. For example, a “porcelain” (actually glass) seal for a preserving jar, perhaps used by Florence Strong or the help she advertised for in the kitchen of the house. An agateware doorknob shows a certain attention to detail and style when it comes to the furnishings and fittings of the house. A bowl marked with the stamp of ‘F. Primavesi and Sons’ provides a link not just to the consumer choices of the Strong household, but to the mechanisms of trade and mass production in the wider world of the 1880s-1890s: Primavesi and Sons were ceramic importers and dealers in Wales and England, a sort of ‘middleman’ between the pottery factories and the retailers who sold their wares (Tolson, Gerth and Cunningham Dobson 2008).

F. Primavesi and Son mark on the base of a transfer printed bowl. The mark of F. Primavesi and Sons, ceramic distributors. Their mark has been found on a handful of ceramics from Christchurch, suggesting that they – or one of their clients – had a hand in exporting to the colonies.Image: G. Jackson.
The agateware doorknob is very unusual – agateware was a particular type of ceramic that used layered/marbled clay to create a ‘stone’ like effect. I’ve only every seen imitation agateware in Christchurch before, not the real thing, which this doorknob definitely is. Image: J. Garland

Most interestingly, perhaps, were a selection of vessels decorated with the appropriately literary “Tennyson” pattern, found in the burn layer. The effects of the fire were clear on the more than 250 fragments of this dinner set, in the melted glazes, scorched and soot-stained surfaces and the odd piece of shapeless glass fused to the pottery. That this was an assemblage of abandonment – that is, an assemblage created by circumstances that led people to abandon the goods they owned where they were left – is also reinforced by the number of different vessels from the dinner set represented in the archaeological record. Ordinarily the household waste that we create is the result of our actions and choices – the things that we break, the choice to throw out one vessel, but to repair another – and things like dinner sets may only be represented by one or two of the vessels from the set. In this case, however, it is very clear that the effects of the fire were indiscriminate (as also evident from the historic record), affecting nearly everything in the house. Consquently, the material footprint of that event provides a more comprehensive picture of the contents of an 1880s-1890s house than we might normally be able to see.

Selected fragments of the Tennyson patterned dinner set, including fragments of several lidded dishes, plates, soup plates, and platters of various sizes. Image: J. Garland

As a result, there’s also something to be said for the very clearly middle class status of the Strong household. The Tennyson dinner set is an example of aesthetic transferware, a style of ceramic decoration popular in the 1880s – it’s what has been termed a ‘high’ style of pottery, a style that changes with the fashions and trends of societies, falling in and out of vogue, in contrast to the more traditional styles – that is, the ones whose popularity remains relatively unchanged for decades – like the Willow pattern or the ever ubiquitous Asiatic Pheasants, neither of which are present in this assemblage (Majewski and Schiffer 2009). It suggests that Howard and Florence were able to keep up with the trends, so to speak, especially as one of the vessels had a mark dating its manufacture to 1888, meaning that Florence and Howard could only have owned it for six years at most. There are nods to more traditional, utilitarian styles – a Rouen plate, a banded mixing bowl – but not as many as might be expected. Instead, porcelain vessels and a matching chamber pot, wash basin and ewer set round out the ceramics from the fire (there does appear to be a certain preference for blue and green floral decoration, but whether this is representative of the time or the taste of Florence and Howard, I don’t know).

Matching sanitary/hygiene set – a washbasin, chamberpot and ewer – from the assemblage. Image: J. Garland.

Alongside all of this, these artefacts carry the weight of their association with Howard and Florence Strong and the fire that proved so devastating to their family and to their home. They offer a glimpse into the domestic life of the librarian and his family, one that is not offered by the documentary record – we know far more about Howard Strong’s public role than we do about his household from the historical records of his life that remain. As an aside, my favourite of these is a 1908 account of a trip Howard made to Wellington to buy books from a sale – in it, he (like all good cataloguers) bemoans the disorder of the sale and discusses several of the treasured books he managed to acquire for the library. I had a look in the library catalogue and, what do you know, a handful of the books he was so happy to have bought in 1908 are still available at Tūranga in 2020, including Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds (1826) and Thomas Bankes’ A New Royal, Authentic and Complete System of Universal Geography, Ancient and Modern (1787-88).

An account of Howard Strong’s 1908 trip to Wellington to buy books, some of which are still present in the Christchurch City Library catalogue. Image: Press 22/05/1908: 8.

We have very little – and are likely to always have very little – in the way of material or archaeological remains of the institution of the public library in Christchurch, with the exception of those artefacts, like Thomas Banke’s geography tome or Bewick’s bird manuscript, that have remained living objects in the library system through to the present day. The artefacts from the librarians’ house, on the other hand, offer a more personal perspective on the history of the library in Christchurch, a glimpse of the people who made the institution what it was, whose actions and choices and attention protected and encouraged the growth of an establishment that remains a magical and necessary part of the Christchurch community.



Beaudry, M., 2015. ‘Households beyond the House: On the Archaeology and Materiality of Historical Households’. In Fogle, K. R., Nyman, J. A. & Beaudry, M. C. (Eds), Beyond the Walls: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Historical Households. University Press of Florida, Florida.

Christchurch City Libraries, 2020. ‘A History of Christchurch City Libraries’ [online] Available at [Accessed July 2020].

Christchurch City Libraries, 2020. ‘The Mechanic’s Institute’ [online] Available at [Accessed July 2020].

Christchurch City Libraries, 2020. ‘ James Nash Howard Strong, 1840-1924’ [online] Available at [Accessed July 2020].

Majewski, T. & Schiffer, M., 2009. ‘Beyond Consumption: Towards an Archaeology of Consumerism’. In Majewski, T. & Gaimster, D. (Eds), International Handbook of Historical Archaeology. Springer.

McAloon, J., 2000. ‘Radical Christchurch’. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G. (Eds), Southern Capital Christchurch: Towards a city biography 1850-2000. University of Canterbury.

O’Malley, V., 2016. The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Te Ara, 2020. The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at [Accessed July 2020].

Tolson, H., Gerth, E. and Cunningham Dobson, N., 2008. ‘Ceramics from the “Blue China” Wreck’. In Ceramics in America 2008. [online] Available at [Accessed July 2020].

Watson, K., 2012. 109 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on Archaeological Monitoring. Unpublished report for CERA.

Watson, K., 2012. 107 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch: Report on Archaeological Monitoring. Unpublished report for Christchurch City Council.

A note on archaeology and racism

I know that this is primarily a blog for sharing the above and below ground archaeology of Christchurch’s colonial period, but it felt wrong to post something this week without acknowledging and engaging with what has been happening in the world, especially the need to re-examine and actively combat racism and white supremacy in modern society. This is a big topic and one I am skimming the surface of, specifically in relation to historical archaeology and my own personal responsibility to change. Please also go and read the words of black Americans in the United States right now, of Māori and Pasifika here in New Zealand, of indigenous and people of colour everywhere.

(TL;DR – racism is a thing in archaeology, archaeology can be part of the problem, we have a responsibility to make sure it’s not; highly recommend reading all the links at the end).

English-made mustard jar, depicting scene between Uncle Tom and Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Image: J. Garland.

The image above is a Prattware jar found in Christchurch, made in the 1850s, depicting a scene from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist, anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is an object that speaks to the history of racism and slavery and oppression in America, and the place of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the abolitionist history of the nineteenth century. It is also, however, an object of British colonialism, one that embodies a tradition of European people co-opting the imagery of black lives, embracing simplistic racialised stereotypes of other cultures, from the concept of a subservient “Tom” or the derogatory performance of blackface to the whole offensive notion of the ‘noble savage’. It is part of a LONG culture-history of systemic racism that has minimalised and dehumanised people of colour, contributing to the unequal and deadly society of today.

The last time I posted a photograph of this artefact, I did so with a caption that acknowledged the relationship of the jar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but failed to look deeper into the appropriation and legacy of that imagery. Listening and watching and reading over the last week, since the murder of George Floyd, and over the last years, since March 15 2019, since Charlottesville, since Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and countless others (because this has been happening for too long), I’ve thought a lot – as I hope a lot of other Pākehā have – about what I can do, to be part of the solution and not the problem. Mostly, the answer is to support, to amplify and to speak out, to stand up in solidarity and to call out racism when I see it. But, thinking about this jar and my framing of its story, I’m also conscious of storytelling and the power of words, and archaeology, to shape histories and attitudes and unconscious biases, of how much the way we tell our histories maintains that systemic, structural racism.

As an archaeologist, especially an archaeologist whose specialty is the colonial period of New Zealand’s history, one of the things I can do, professionally, is actively decolonise the language I use, be anti-racist in the way I tell the story of the space and time I investigate. I can look deeper, beneath the surface of an object or an event, to always place the work I do on the material culture of European colonial society alongside the violence perpetrated by that society against Māori and against people of colour around the world. I can better acknowledge that archaeology is itself a discipline with roots in the exploitation of indigenous and non-European culture for the sake of European curiosity and profit, something we ignore too often. Historical archaeology in particular is sometimes, I think, so focused on the humanity and story of colonial settlers that we ignore, or downplay, the uglier side of their complicity in a deliberately racist system. We should not.

Archaeologists talk about how “absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence”. It’s a nice catchy phrase that reminds us to think about how the archaeological record – the deposits, the impressions left on the land – was curated by the behaviour of people in the past (it is NOT an excuse for conspiracy theories about archaeological cover-ups, which replace an absence of evidence with speculation that has no grounding in historical reality). Sometimes, the reasons for an absence of archaeological evidence are as telling as the actual evidence might have been and I’ve been thinking about this in historical archaeology, in colonial archaeology, in Christchurch. Māori are essentially invisible in the archaeological record of Ōtautahi Christchurch during the 1850-1900 period. Every single archaeological site in my dataset was occupied by European settlers, every single artefact is European or Pākehā in origin. That invisibility is not benign, not just the way it is, but is instead the result of the deliberate and, in many parts of New Zealand, forcible alienation and removal of Māori from the land and its subsequent archaeological record (it is also a consequence of the European erasure of Māori archaeology from the footprint of Christchurch during the nineteenth century). The predominance of European material culture in post-1850 Christchurch is not something that just can be explained away as a characteristic of that time: it’s a characteristic of that time because it was imposed on the land, a tool of British colonialism in New Zealand. The invisibility of Māori in my dataset doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to talk about negative effects of colonisation in Christchurch – if anything, it makes it more important that I acknowledge and discuss the systems and structures that led to that invisibility in the first place.  

I’m afraid of confrontation. I hate it, I’m terrible at it and it makes me deeply uncomfortable. Writing this post has been a huge source of anxiety and I’m worried about what I’ve said and whether it’s enough or whether it’s too much, but it would be worse to stay silent. People are dying, people are being beaten, people here in New Zealand are suffering as a result of a socio-cultural system that has benefited me, because of my birth and my skin, and allowed me to use my discomfort as a reason not to speak out about the injustice that they are facing, even though I know it’s wrong. It is not okay. The very least that I can do is shoulder that discomfort, knowing that it will never be even a fraction of what is experienced by people of colour all the time, and use what little voice I have to amplify theirs, to actively question and deconstruct the racist systems – the bias, the assumptions, the unconscious conditioning – that I see, in my own work and in the world around me.


NB// None of this is anything new, so here are some links, to writing that challenged me and to people who have written about this all better than I ever will:

On the futility of ‘goodness’ in a racist society –

Everything on e-tangata, but especially this, this, and these, on police violence against Māori and Pasifika, and

On institutional racism in New Zealand –, and colonialism and racism –

This, on the recent destruction of Juukan Gorge in Australia and this, on Ihumātao

An amazing resource for Māori place names and history in Ōtautahi Christchurch and throughout the South Island –

Anti-racism resources for white people*g_KKl6pycPL5FuYxjxWfWQ

On the character and construct of Uncle Tom:

A JSTOR syllabus of articles on institutionalized racism:

On race, racism, protest and activism in anthropology and archaeology –

Toward an anti-racist archaeology –

In New Zealand, more generally, anything by Leonie Hayden, Damon Salesa, Morgan Godfery, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Moana Maniopoto and Moana Jackson, among many others.

Internationally, there are so many books and articles and lists of resources out there on the internet. I’ve personally loved and been challenged by the works of people like Ta Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou and Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Lost in translation

People say the past is a foreign country (well, L. P. Hartley wrote it in 1953 and we’ve sort of just been repeating it when it suits ever since), which is a sentiment that, as it turns out, is a lot more complicated than I initially thought when I decided it would make a good framing device for this post. I’ve got it stuck in my head now, though, and I can’t think of another way to start this, so I’m just going to run with it. It’s an appealing statement, one that seems to, in six words, encapsulate the gulf that can appear when we look back on past ages and aeons and the people, societies and cultures that inhabited them. However many questions I have about the analogy (and it’s a lot, apparently), I have to admit that it’s also one that seems startlingly apt, sometimes, when I’m researching people and places from long ago. There’s a great deal of familiarity in the past, in the way that people interact with each other, in their motivations and behaviour, in the way they use objects and construct their physical surroundings. But there’s also quite a lot of unfamiliarity, a dissonance between then and now that is apparent in many ways, but perhaps, for me, never quite so much as when I come across terminology and phrasing from the Victorian era that is either completely indecipherable in meaning or somehow close enough to modern English to be even more obviously from a different time (or country). 

Me, a lot of the time.

I’ve already written about language and archaeology on here, in relation to the languages of analysis and recording around the world, and how speaking the same language is not always a guarantee that words have the same meaning. This post takes the same principle, but shifts focus a little to the language of the 19th century, not as a linguist (which I’m not!) but as a researcher who finds that the English of the Victorians sometimes requires a bit of thinking outside the box to translate to the modern day. So, the following is a handful of terms and phrases that a) confused me greatly when I read them and b) turned out to have interesting (if not always good) stories behind their meaning.

“Dead-eye dick literature”

The story behind this phrase involves one of my favourite anecdotes from Victorian Christchurch. I came across it while researching a man named Thomas Pillow, the proprietor of one of the shops I have artefacts from and a man who had the misfortune to be remembered, at least in part, through this misdeeds of his son, Albert. In 1879, at the tender age of 18, Albert decided to a) steal a bunch of antique weaponry from Canterbury Museum and b) hold up a carriage in Riccarton, wearing a black mask with cut-out eyeholes, two pairs of trousers and two coats, armed with a revolver and an antique Japanese dagger, one of the spoils from his trip to the museum.

It did not go to plan.

The people being held up did not take kindly to it, there was a bit of a scuffle and Albert was arrested and charged with assault and, after the police had searched his bedroom at his dad’s house and found the imitation poignard, and two spear heads from the museum, larceny. Headlines at the time had fun telling the story of “Pillow, the Christchurch Highwayman” and the story lived on long enough to be included in George Ranald Macdonald’s Dictionary of Canterbury Biography  entry for the Pillow family. In it, Macdonald has this to say about Albert’s actions and motivations: “A youth of 18 after doing a course of Dead-Eye Dick literature stole 2 daggers from the museum and armed himself with a revolver and ammunition. Putting on 2 suits to increase his size, he held up a carriage in Riccarton. He couldn’t quite carry it off and was charged with assault.”

Part of the 1879 account of the incident in question. I particularly like the sequence of Albert asking for money, Mr May saying he doesn’t have any and the driver coming to the rescue with “I’ve got four shillings, will that do?”. Image: Ashburton Herald 14/10/1879, p. 2.

It turns out that “Dead-eye Dick literature” refers to the dime novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, stories of adventure and daring – often in the American west – that featured characters like “Deadwood Dick”(possibly based on a real cowboy, Nat Love?) and “Dick Deadeye”, among many others. The term ‘dead-eye” seems to be synonymous with marksmanship and straight shooting, although it might also have something to do with sailors but, by the 1930s, “Dead-eye Dick literature” appears to have become a proxy for all dime novels, as this 1937 headline in the New York Times magazine suggests.

A screenshot of a 1937 article on the collectability of Deadeye Dick literature, which mostly waxes lyrical about how much these books were beloved by children and hated by adults in the nineteenth century. Image: New York Times, 1937.

The emergence of dime novels seems to be attributed to Irwin P. Beadle and company in 1860s America (well in time for Albert Pillow to have grown up with them) and they were very popular by the 1870s, when they’re first mentioned in New Zealand newspapers. As the decades progress, they quickly become associated with bad behaviour – not just of children! – in newspaper accounts, a kind of anti-moralistic devil-on-the-shoulder kind of influence (not far from the modern day “kids and their videogames!” I reckon). All of which might come to explain why George Macdonald uses the term to explain Albert Pillow’s somewhat ill-fated actions in 1879 (although it’s worth noting that I couldn’t find a reference to dime novels in the 1879 accounts of the incident).

“for their booty consisted only of thirty-six keys, which they had taken from the bed-room doors” Image: Hawera and Normanby Star 27.02.1884: 2.

This whole story, and the terminology used in the different accounts of it, is a great example of how much the information in a historical record can be influenced by the time period in which it was written, as well as the person who wrote it. And how much language changes over decades. Macdonald was writing in the mid-twentieth century, about an incident that occurred in 1879, both of which I’m reading about from 2020. It seems likely that the phrase “dead-eye dick literature” would have been as unfamiliar to Albert as it is to me – it doesn’t appear in New Zealand newspapers until the 1900s, despite frequent mention of dime novels themselves in earlier decades, and a lot of the international examples I could find of the term were early to mid-twentieth century in nature, like these “Dead-Eye Western Comics” from 1948. In a way, its use tells me as much about mid-twentieth century New Zealand as it does about Victorian Christchurch, as well as mid-twentieth century attitudes towards objects and events of the nineteenth century.

“Knights of the burnt cork”

In an era that happily named meetings of like-minded people things like the “Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes”, this seems like it could mean anything. But no, it’s a reference to blackface (surprise, racism!).

Blackface is a topic too huge and too complicated to really discuss in a short section of a single blog post (and one that has been written about in detail elsewhere), but suffice to say that minstrelsy, including blackface minstrelsy, was a part of the live entertainment available to New Zealanders during the course of European colonial settlement, from the nineteenth century onwards (unfortunately, it still crops up sometimes, even in 2020). I came across this particular term for it in an account of a ‘juvenile’ minstrel show performed by children at a school in Christchurch in 1879, and it can be found in other advertisements for blackface minstrel shows throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Image: Nelson Evening Mail 14/12/1885, p. 2.

The term itself comes from the use of burnt cork – often mixed with water or petroleum jelly – to darken the skin of the white actors performing in blackface (Mahar 1999). The title of ‘knights of the burnt cork’ serves to imply a gallantry and nobility that is completely at odds with the nature of blackface as a tool that demeans, caricatures and denigrates, but it also – at least to me – evokes the terminology of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members were also called ‘knights’. It seems like peak Victorian whimsy on first reading, but, like so much of that era, the whimsy is just a cover for the deeply terrible attitudes and racism that went hand in hand with European colonialism around the world.  

“Gone over to the great majority”

Monty Python should have used this one in the parrot sketch. Yep, it’s yet another way of saying that someone has died. One that both implies a sort of crossing of the picket line between life and death and recognises that the living are greatly outnumbered by the dead.

An excellent example that nevertheless makes me laugh, mostly for the inclusion of “he has done good service at the stud even with limited opportunities.” What a way to be remembered. Image: Lyttelton Times 4.06.1890, p. 6.
Image: Southern Cross 17.09.1898: 5.

Good wine needs no bush”

Image: Star 17.09.1913, p. 5.

I really didn’t understand this one when I read it. I came across it in an advertisement for Woods’ Great Peppermint Cure, which is ironic, as the phrase appears to mean that a good quality item or product requires no advertising (similar sentiment to gilding the lily, I think). It seems to be derived from two things – the use of a branch  or bunch of ivy, hung outside a tavern, to advertise the presence of wine within and a very old tradition of adding a ‘bush’ of rosemary to drink to improve the flavour. Like so many English idioms, it’s also Shakespearian, found in the epilogue to As You Like It.

In nineteenth century New Zealand, it seems to have been co-opted by everyone from politicians, advertisers and entertainers to those who also seemed to be confused by it, including a contractor who managed to baffle the Lyttelton Times by stating that “good wine needs no bush, but a good bridge needs a great deal”.

What DOES it mean!? Image: Lyttelton Times, 7.11.1870, p. 2.

Funambulist” and “Equilibrist”

I love both of these terms, because you can see the relationship of the word (especially the compound ‘funambulist’) to their meaning. They both refer to tightrope walkers: funambulist – rope + walker (sadly, not fun + walker, as I first thought); and equilibrist – basically, ‘balancer’. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between the two terms, although I’ve found at least one example of an equilibrist act involving bicycles, and I get the sense it might have been more generally used to refer to those whose acts involved feats of balancing.

Equesquiriculem! Another incredible word. Image: Lyttelton Times 21.01.1884, p. 1.

Both terms appear in several of the advertisements for the circuses that used to set up shop on what is now the site of the Isaac Theatre Royal, from which a fairly large assemblage of artefacts was excavated between 2012 and 2014 (Webb et al. 2016). The section was vacant during the nineteenth century and, as well as functioning as a space for people to throw their litter, it was the temporary home of a number of different circuses and travelling performances during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, including those who travelled with equilibrists and funambulists (and, just in case you thought this was a light-hearted fun story, also featured a variety of acts that were racist in execution and/or in advertising, including minstrel troupes likely to have included blackface).

“Finest white snowdrops”

This, you’d think, is fairly self-explanatory, but no. It doesn’t refer to flowers, but to sugar. “Finest white snowdrops in pockets”, as advertised frequently during the 1870s in Christchurch.

Image: Lytelton Times 13.03.1878, p. 2.

You might be amused to know that I found myself wondering if the term was ever co-opted in the twentieth century for cocaine and so googled “finest white snowdrops cocaine” and, rather than finding anything about the history of drug terminology, found this story about Walmart selling a “Santa snorting cocaine” Christmas jersey. Never underestimate the ability of the internet to surprise you.

Enjoy the long weekend everybody!


Home and contents: the pantry

And, now, the last room in our tour of James and Priscilla’s house: the pantry! A very small room with a very important function, and one that’s pretty similar to its function today, which is to store food. As you’d expect, pantries made up part of the general kitchen work area at the rear of the house, and they were full of shelves. In the absence of a fridge, most food was stored in here, although there would also probably have been a meat safe, which would have been positioned in one of the kitchen’s external walls. Like the kitchen and scullery, this room was lined with planed, tongued and grooved boards, on both the walls and ceilings. Being associated with a ‘private’ function and that of a woman’s work, this room was plain and functional, with nothing in the way of decorative features.

The pantry. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.
The pantry, with cupboards and shelves that were added during the 20th century. The small size of this room made it difficult to photograph. Image: M. Hennessey.
The pantry walls and ceiling, showing the planed, tongued and grooved wall lining. Image: M. Hennessey.

In terms of its contents, there are two main aspects to consider: the products the Chalmers family might have used and consumed, and the containers in which they were stored. We’ve a fairly good idea of the latter, from the types of ceramic, glass and metal food containers we find for this period, but the former is a little trickier to establish. Food preferences are an interesting thing, a real mix of social and cultural influences, availability (economic, geographic and seasonal), and personal taste. Some products are staples and we can assume, knowing what we do of their background, that Priscilla and James would have had a bottle or jar in the pantry – things like Lea and Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce, one of the most common foodstuffs we find, or – regardless of brand – foods like jam, pickles, flour. Some of these we can see from the actual brands we find in the archaeological record, others from the jars, bottles, and containers we piece together, many of which had a specific function associated with a specific food.

An array of food containers. Top row: a whiteware crock or jar, which could have contained things like jam or preserves, likely sealed with a cloth covering; stoneware jar, likely to have held pickles, preserves or pastes; Roulland Fils Sardines A L Huile (‘sardines in oil”) sardine tin, the probable contents of which I hopefully don’t need to spell out, n.d. Bottom row: three stoneware jars, a couple of which were found with accompanying stoneware lids; and a tin can, the contents of which could have been all sorts of things. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.
We’ve not really talked about alcohol in these blogs, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Chalmers stored beer, spirits or wine in their pantry as well as food. Black beer bottles, a variety of which are shown on the left, are known to have contained beer, wine and various spirits and are possibly the most common artefact type from nineteenth century Christchurch. On the right, a variety of condiment bottles, from a wide mouth bottle that may have contained capers, to oil and salad dressing bottles to a wide mouth pickle jar. Images: J. Garland.
Sometimes we’re fortunate enough to find bottles and jars that are embossed or printed with the name and maker of the product inside or, more rarely, with the remnants of a paper label still attached. Top row, from left: Crosse and Blackwell Anchovy Paste glass jar, c. 19th century; jar of Bovril, a sort of precursor to Marmite, but a drink, c. early 20th century; French mustard from La Maison Maille, c. 19th century; Mellor and Co. Worcester Sauce bottle with paper label still attached, c. 1870s+; base of a Weston and Westall jar of table salt, c. 1870s. Bottom row, from left: French claret bottles, possibly from the region of St Estephe, Bordeaux, c. 1870s; Grimwade’s Patent Milk bottle, c. 1860s; Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce bottle, c. 19th century; sauce bottle with fragments of label still attached, n.d. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Christchurch still relied heavily on Britain for trade and the British origins of many of the colonial settlers encouraged the consumption of familiar foods, many of them from England and Scotland. It’s reasonable to assume that the pantry at the Chalmers’s house contained a fair few brands that were British in origin, or foods that hearkened back to British culture. At the same time, by the end of the nineteenth century, food and beverage production in New Zealand was well-established and we start to see increasing evidence of local food brands in the archaeological record (although many of the foods themselves are still very British in nature). It’s very likely that James and Priscilla also had a reasonable quantity of local Christchurch products in their 1890s pantry, from aerated water to pickles and preserves, not to mention local vegetables, dairy and meat (traces of which don’t survive well in the archaeological record). Exactly which products (and in what quantity), however, remains difficult to establish without artefacts from the site itself, as so much of the choice of food consumption at this level is the result of personal preference. We can form a reasonable idea of the food culture to which the Chalmers household identified and with which they participated – especially given the strictures and social expectations of dining and entertaining that we’ve already talked about – but, without material evidence, I can only guess at the specifics of what they ate. Did they like pickled oysters? Did Priscilla prefer Burnett’s vinegar to Champions? Did James like apricot jam or raspberry? Did Margaret think Worcestershire sauce was disgusting or delicious?

British foods found in Christchurch. In particular, Crosse and Blackwell, a British food distributor and manufacturer, are well represented on Christchurch colonial sites. Top row, from left: James Keiller and Sons Dundee Marmalade, c. 19th century; cheese in a jar! Peck’s Gorgonzola Cheese, London, n.d.; Crosse and Blackwell’s Anchovy Paste again, this time in a ceramic jar, c. 19th century; Fred Davies “Cook and Confectioner” jar, probably containing jam or something similar, c. 1880s. Bottom row, from left: bottle with Crosse and Blackwell Calves Feet Jelly label, c. 1870s; vinegar bottle, n.d; Sir Robert Burnett’s Old Tom Gin bottle, c. 1870s; Crosse and Blackwell’s Mushroom Catsup, a kind of early ketchup, only mushroom flavoured, not tomato, c. 1870s. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson.
New Zealand brand foods found on sites in Christchurch. Top from from left: Edmond’s Baking Powder tin, c. 1890s-1900s; Hayward’s Pickles, Christchurch, c. 1890+; H. Olson’s Tomato Sauce, Auckland, c. 1870s-1890s; Kirkpatrick’s jam jar, c. 1883+. Bottom row, from left: Maclean’s Pickle jar, Christchurch, c. 1883+ and Christchurch embossed soda water botle, c. 1860s-1870s. Image: J. Garland.

Many of the foods in the pantry at James and Priscilla’s house would have been familiar to us, especially to those reading this in twenty-first century New Zealand, where the influence of colonial food culture is still very apparent in our own pantries. Others would not: some because we’ve found other ways of getting the nutrition of a particular product; some because our methods of cooking and lifestyles have changed or supply and preservation has changed; and others because they’ve simply fallen out of fashion. Others might seem unfamiliar because we’ve become even more distant from the origins of our food than we were 150 years ago and, a lot of the time, we forget or don’t know what’s in the things we eat. Calves Foot Jelly is one of my favourite examples of this – jelly is still a common resident of the pantry, gelatin still a common ingredient in a huge array of foods, but the labels of those products no longer remind us that gelatin is made from the bones, skins and cartilage of cows and pigs and sheep. For the Chalmers, and other households of the nineteenth century, such a reminder would not have been so necessary.

Edmonds! What could be more familiar to the twenty-first century New Zealand kitchen than that. Image: J. Garland.

As noted at the start of this post, this is the final room in Priscilla and James’s house. From a modern point of view, there are a couple of glaring absences in this tour: a toilet and a bathroom. These are both rooms we would consider an essential part of a house. In fact, you might regard two of each as a bare minimum, depending on your family circumstances. While some late 19th century houses in Aotearoa certainly had indoor bathrooms and toilets, particularly towards the end of the century, this was by no means the norm. Ewers and wash basins (as described for the bedrooms) would have provided the washing facilities for many, with the possibility of some kind of tub arrangement for use in the kitchen, if more thorough washing was required. And toilets were outside. For many, the toilet would have been a long drop or a privy. Flush toilets – water closets – became a possibility for parts of Christchurch after the establishment of the sewerage system in the early 1880s, which you can read more about over here. Even once the system was established, however, there was no compulsion to connect to the sewers. Of course, there are many parts of the world where an outdoor toilet is still the norm.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of James and Priscilla’s house, and that you’ve learnt a little about Victorian domesticity as a result. We’re going to take a short break now, but we will follow up with a concluding post about this house, about domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch and about James and Priscilla Chalmers in a week or so.

For, now, let us leave you with this, my favourite recipe from the nineteenth century and one that involved anchovy paste, a product we’ve found in Christchurch. It’s one we’ve had the misfortune (well, I definitely considered it misfortunate for my taste buds – Jessie) to try. I’ll let you decide what your reaction might be, should you be so lucky to taste it yourself…

Image: Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

Jessie & Katharine

Home and contents: the scullery

The scullery was the second in the suite of three rooms that typically made up the service area of the house. It was typically a small room, located off the kitchen, and it was where dishes were washed. And other things, such as clothes, were washed there too (in houses where there was not a copper, which seems to have most commonly been located in an outbuilding – or at least, that’s where you’re most likely to find archaeological evidence of a copper). You could think of a scullery as a wet room. So no, dishes were not washed in the kitchen. Why not? Well, it was partly because the Victorians believed in the specialisation of room function wherever possible, but also because of the risks of miasmas rising up from drains and causing disease (there is no evidence that there were any drains in this room; Leach 2014: 36). Miasmas (literally, bad air) and the breathing in thereof were believed to be the cause of infectious disease throughout much of the 19th century and  thus people were keen to avoid them wherever possible.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the scullery. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

But discussing Priscilla’s scullery is a little difficult. Because I’m not completely certain it was a scullery. You see, this particular room is a funny one. Understanding it isn’t helped by the fact that it was extended at some point in its history, probably in the early 20th century, judging by the fabric used. This extension nearly doubled the size of the room but, of course, also removed one of its walls, which may also have removed vital clues to understand how the room was originally used. The entrance to the scullery was via a curiously narrow door, and there was no external door, something sculleries often (Leach 2014: 35). There was also no evidence in the room for where there might have been any benches or the like. Such marks often remain visible on wooden walls, making it possible to better establish what a room looked like or how it functioned.  It’s also not clear whether James and Priscilla’s house had running water when it was built.

The narrow – and colourfully painted! – door from the kitchen into the scullery, on the kitchen side. Image: M. Hennessey.

But sculleries (and kitchens) were typically lined with planed, tongued and grooved boards, as this room was. The story goes that this is because these boards were easier to clean than wallpaper was. The scullery would have contained a sink for all that washing, as well as a bench for draining washed items on and storage space for some of the items used in the kitchen (Leach 2014: 35). Like the kitchen, it was a plain, functional room, with no decorative elements.

The scullery, with the door from the kitchen at left. The batten at right marks the extent of the original scullery. Why the curious jutting out bit of wall to the right of the door is not clear. Image: M. Hennessey.

If this was a scullery, the material culture of the room would have been as plain and functional as the walls. The objects of cleaning and washing and storage: brushes, cleaning products, containers for water and soap. The cleaning products are interesting to me, not just because of the many terrifying ingredients they held and the mistaken ideas of what they were good for, but because they would have been a key aspect of the public presentation of the house and household, despite being very much within the bounds of the private side of the house. A clean, tidy and publicly presentable parlour, bedroom, hallway and dining room required the private household activities of cleaning and starching and washing. It was this work – the work of the room right at the back of the house, away from prying eyes – that propped up that public façade, both of the house and of those who lived within it.

Disinfectants! Used for household cleaning, sickrooms and, extremely unfortunately for the women involved, feminine hygiene. On the left: Kerol, a disinfectant advertised around the turn of the century, sometimes with poetry (from the Colonist 24/02/1920). In the middle: Lysol, a highly toxic disinfectant that was, horrifically, advertised as a douching agent for women in some of the most sexist and awful advertisements I’ve ever seen (example shown from here. And right: a bottle of Jeyes Fluid, a disinfectant commonly found at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It’s very likely that if the Chalmers owned one of these products, they’d have had a bottle of Jeyes Fluid. Image: J. Garland.
Some products came in tins and pots. On the left, a tin of Poliflor Wax, a 1920s New Zealand made polishing wax intended for waxing furniture to a shine, as well as leather goods and floors. On the right, Joseph Pickering and Sons’ Celebrated Polishing Paste, for cleaning and polishing brass, copper and silver, among other metals. Images: J. Garland.
And last, but not least, boot polish! If not carried out in the scullery, it’s quite likely that the implements of boot polishing would have been stored there. Left: blacking bottles, sometimes used for shoe and boot polish, among other things. Centre and left: an advertisement for and example of Hauthaway’s Peerless Gloss, advertised specifically for the shoes of ladies and children. Image: J. Garland, Underground Overground Archaeology.

Katharine & Jessie


Leach, Helen. Kitchens: The New Zealand Kitchen in the 20th Century. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2014.

Home and contents: the dining room

If much of the rest of the house was about the display of feminine respectability, the dining room was masculine in character. And I’d like to pause here for just a moment to remind you, dear reader, that this was an ideal only, and one that was predominantly the focus of the middle class. Reality could be quite different, and no doubt every household negotiated its own way through the gender roles prescribed in those times. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking about a European ideology, one that was strongly associated with countries that were part of the British Empire, or had been. How gender roles played in households from other cultures is something we’re less familiar with. One of the strengths of archaeology – and, indeed, any study of the past – is to enable us to better understand how these ideals played out in reality.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the dining room, with its interconnecting door to the kitchen. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

But, yes, the dining room was generally considered to be a masculine space. Other spaces were too, such as libraries, studies and smoking rooms, but these rooms weren’t generally found in the homes of the lower middle class in Aotearoa New Zealand (Tange 2010: 137). Furthermore, these were private spaces, whereas dining rooms were not. They were public spaces where people were entertained over, well, dinner. And, part of the point of the dining room was that it was where masculinity could be displayed publicly, so that guests could see that the man of the house was performing that role successfully (and thus the family as a whole was conforming to the ideals of the day). The foundation of this masculine role was that the man of the family earned enough so that his wife could arrange an appropriate dinner, served on appropriate dishes, and decorate the room in the appropriate way. Of course, her role in this generally went unacknowledged (Tange 2010: 157). The man of the house was also expected to be a gracious host – genial, interested and interesting. The room tended to be decorated in a ‘masculine’ fashion, with heavy furniture in dark colours and dark furnishings (Tange 2010: 148).

Priscilla and James’s dining room. The window at right was not original, although the position of the window was. Image: M. Hennessy.

We cannot know exactly what the Chalmers’s dining room looked like, nor how often (or indeed, if) they entertained people for dinner, but there are subtle indications in the room that it was perhaps more decorative than either of the two bedrooms. This may indicate that it was seen as a public space and used as such, in spite of being behind the hall arch that separated the public and private spaces in the house. And the position of the dining room in this house indicates some of the complexities when it came to conforming with the separation of public and private, and the decisions that needed to be made with regard to what room went where, and whether the dining room or the master bedroom should be in front of the hall arch. Of course, James and Priscilla’s dining room was close to the kitchen in this position behind the arch (in fact, there was an interconnecting door).

The dining room fireplace, which was just ever-so-slightly more decorative than the bedroom fireplaces. Image: M. Hennessey.

The subtle differences that indicated that this room was perhaps seen as a public space related to the fireplace, which was the only original feature that remained in the room. You might remember that the fireplaces in the two bedrooms were identical, and slightly less decorative than that in the parlour. The fireplace in the dining room wasn’t quite as decorative as that in the parlour but was more so than those in the bedrooms, just in the details of the mantelpiece, where there was additional timber moulding above the fire and the bases of the mantelpiece legs were moulded in the same way as the skirting boards. Such small details, and their small nature perhaps reflects that Priscilla and James did not have the budget for more elaborate ornamentation – or preferred to spend their money on other things that they valued more.

It’s possible that they relied on the material culture of the room to provide the more elaborate ornamentation that was missing from the architectural details. As with the other public spaces of the house, it’s likely that ornamental objects played a role in the dining room, although perhaps not so great a role as in the parlour. Lighting is likely to have been fairly good, more on par with the parlour than the bedrooms, and would probably have included fixed wall lamps as well as candlesticks, or portable lamps, on the mantel and/or table. Along with the table, the room may have included a display cabinet or similar piece, inside which the best material culture of the household could be displayed.

Most of the objects used within this room, however, would have been associated with the primary function of the room: dining. And, as is the case in many modern households, there was a significant and substantial material culture associated with the behaviours of food consumption, and ‘dining’, both publicly and privately. The ritual and structure of dining in the late nineteenth century, especially in a more public setting, was very much linked to social influences like class. For the middle classes, like James and Priscilla, conscious or unconsciously, these included ideas of gentility, respectability and order, all of which had an effect not just on the appearance of the objects they used at the dinner table, but the actual vessels themselves (Fitts 1999; Wall 1999).

Cutlery! Surprisingly uncommon finds, when you think about how much they’re used, day to day. A lot of these examples were found in underfloor deposits, beneath houses, where the dry environment would have helped the survival of the metal. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

For example, the use of individual dishes, and specialised vessels – like soup plates – for particular foods is not something European/colonial households had always done. In the eighteenth century, somewhere like colonial America, it would have been more common to eat from communal vessels (Fitts 1999: 52), or to have a single vessel from which most foods could be eaten. By the nineteenth century, however, a much greater variety of vessels were required to present the dining table that James and Priscilla’s guests would have expected. One study I’ve read (American, rather than New Zealand, so apply with caution) suggests that the basic middle class table ware set of the late nineteenth century should have contained: dinner plates, soup plates, twifflers (a kind of smaller plate with a name that never fails to amuse me), muffin plates, sauce tureens, a soup tureen, various platters, covered serving dishes, open serving dishes, bakers, a butter dish, a pitcher and a gravy boat (Fitts 1999: 53). It’s a lot, especially if, as was sometimes the case, the Chalmers’s owned two dinner sets – one for entertaining and one for private use within the household.

As many components of an Asiatic Pheasants patterned dinner set as I could find. The vessels in this image come from a variety of household and retail sites in Christchurch, as no single site we’ve ever excavated has had a complete dining set amongst the artefacts. With the exception of platters, serving wares are generally rare in the archaeological record, especially when compared to plates. This may be because they were repaired and retained if they were damaged, or were handled less and therefore less frequently broken. It’s not clear whether James and Priscilla had a dining set this large, but they’re likely to have owned several of these vessel types. It’s even possible they owned them in this pattern, which was one of the most popular and easily accessible of the second half of the nineteenth century. Top row, left to right: large meat platter; two smaller platters; ceramic ladle. Middle row: small serving or baking dish; circular vegetable or serving dish with cover; three dinner plates. Bottom row: three small plates (equivalent of twiffler or muffin plates); three large dinner plates. Image: J. Garland, M. Lillo Bernabeu, C. Dickson.

Social expectations, particularly for the middle class, also affected the appearance of the vessels used at the dining table – specifically, the need for them to match. Ownership and use of a matching dinner set among Victorian era middle class households is in part linked to a middle-class ideal that drew heavily on order and regularity (Fitts 1999: 54). Having a matched set was about more than just the aesthetic appeal – it was about the ability to present an ordered, neat, respectable household through material culture. There’s also an idea that, among a family, or at a dinner party, using a matched set of vessels emphasises the communal experience of eating together, which I find interesting (Wall 1999: 113).

Components of a dinner set decorated with red banding. While, like the Asiatic Pheasants image above, these were gathered from different household assemblages, several of them were actually found on the same site, underneath a the floorboards of a house built in 1879. Note the matching gravy boat and pitcher (bottom right). Images: J. Garland, G. Jackson.

It’s quite possible that the Chalmers would also have owned glassware for use in the dining room, from tumblers, and wine glasses to table pitchers or even glass dishes for desserts and sweets. Tumblers, and even wine glasses are not uncommon finds, but glass dishes and serving vessels are relatively infrequently found on Christchurch domestic sites, so I’m not clear on how many households actually used them. That said, a large number of stemmed glasses, dishes and ‘unusual’ glassware were found on the site of a nineteenth century shop a couple of years ago, so we do know they were available to consumers.

Selected glassware that might have been used in a nineteenth century dining room, from a variety of Christchurch sites. Top row, left to right: stemmed drinking vessels and a small rectangular glass dish, possibly used for compote, or sweets. Bottom row: tumblers, the handle from a glass pitcher, and another stemmed drinking vessel. Image: J. Garland, M. Lillo Bernabeu, G. Jackson.

Of course, dinner wasn’t the only meal that might have been eaten in the dining room, and the material culture of breakfast and lunch differed from that of dinner, formal or not. Breakfast, in particular, had its own associated set of vessels. I’m not going to talk too much about particular types of food in this post (you’ll have to check back for the kitchen and pantry posts to see that), but it’s important to note that the breakfast of the nineteenth century probably didn’t resemble modern ideas of breakfast, either in foods consumed or in the vessels used to eat it. Cooked breakfasts and savoury foods were more of a thing (including last night’s leftovers) and modern breakfast staples like cereal and toast were not as common as they are now. Ceramic “breakfast sets” were sold alongside dinner sets: these might have been made of bone china, instead of earthenware, and included small plates and eggcups alongside matching teacups and saucers. It’s no real surprise, is it, given the number of objects associated with the consumption of food (and how much they would have been used), that tea and table wares are among the artefacts most frequently found in the archaeological record.

Elements of a bone china breakfast set decorated with pink enamel and gilt bands. These pieces were found on the same site, suggesting that they did all actually belong to the same set. Top, left to right: side plate, saucer, teacup. Bottom: saucer, teacup, teacup, eggcup. Image: G. Jackson and J. Garland.

Katharine & Jessie


Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Fitts, R. K., 1999. ‘The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 39-62.

Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.

Wall, D., 1999. ‘Examining Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century New York City.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 102-117.

Home and contents: the master bedroom

Just across the hall from the parlour was the master bedroom, meaning that it was in the ‘public’ part of the house. This was a fairly standard position for the master bedroom in a single storey house (Salmond 1986: 155, Toomath 1996: 127), although a quick perusal of 19th century house plans from Christchurch indicates that this was by no means always the case (and if you love old house plans, there are far worse ways to spend your time than looking at the Collins and Harman plans online at the Macmillan Brown Library). The dining room was arguably a more public room than the master bedroom but, as the posts in this series continue, you’ll see why we think that the dining room in this house was behind the parlour, in the ‘private’ part of the house.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the master bedroom. Image. M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

This notion of the bedroom as a public room is one I can’t quite get my head around, because I tend to think of your bedroom as the ultimate private space within a house. It makes more sense, though, if you think about the fact that most houses had a fairly limited range of rooms: a parlour, bedrooms, and a kitchen and the associated service rooms. The Chalmers’s house was unusual because it had a dining room – and, to be honest, if they’d had more than one child, they might not have had one, as that room might have functioned as a bedroom, depending on the age, gender and number of children. It’s worth noting at this point that mid-late 19th century houses in Aotearoa New Zealand had, by and large, identical layouts, although actual room function might vary, as in this case.

The front bedroom, looking towards the hall. The cupboard would have been a later addition – Victorian villas had very little built-in furniture (Salmond 1986: 153). Image: M. Hennessey.

As you’d expect, the master bedroom was where the husband and wife slept, but it was also a place where visitors might leave their coats (Toomath 1996: 127), this being its ‘public’ role. As a public room, this would have been a decorative space, and another room where a woman might be expected to demonstrate her respectability. The two front rooms often had very similar forms of built-in decoration, although in this case the fireplace in the master bedroom had a slightly less decorative mantelpiece than that in the parlour (the differences, however, are so small that finding them is a bit like playing spot the difference).

The fireplace in the master bedroom, which was just very slightly different from that in the parlour. Image: M. Hennessey.

With the function of the room as a public space, there’s a good chance that decorative objects played a role here, as well as in the hallway and parlour. Lighting would also have been a concern, although good lighting was perhaps not quite as essential to this room as it would have been to the more productive space of the parlour. Portable lighting – like chambersticks, and finger lamps – would have been important, particularly if James or Priscilla had to get up in the night to find their way through a darkened house. In terms of the function of the room as a place for sleeping, the material culture of a bedroom in the 19th century is not so different from what we’d expect of a bedroom now: a bed, perhaps a vanity or set of drawers, a wardrobe. Maybe even a ceramic bedwarmer (the 19th century version of a hot-water bottle). The greatest difference is the role of personal hygiene – ablutions (I love that word) – in the function of the room. The Chalmers would likely have had a washbasin and ewer set, for washing in the morning or evening, and quite probably at least one chamber pot. The chamber pot would have been tucked away beneath the bed, but the washbasin and ewer may have been displayed on a washstand, some of which even had towel rails attached. Because this room was more public than the other bedroom in the house, the chamber pot, washbasin and ewer may have matched, were probably decorated and – if they had two sets – would have been of better quality than the set used in the more private bedroom in the house.

“Colonial bedroom”, an illustration in the Bruce Herald (26/10/1894: 1). Although drawing rather heavily on USA colonial themes (the furniture was modeled on pieces from Mt Vernon), a 19th century Christchurch bedroom may still have contained many of these elements (maybe not the four-poster!).
Left: a selection of chambersticks, plain and decorated. Chambersticks, sometimes just referred to as candlesticks, were portable candle holders, often used in the bed chamber. Centre: large vase, c. early 1900s. Right: brass candlestick, c. 1870s. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.
A selection of ewers, chamberpots and washbasins from the Christchurch assemblage. Most of these are too early to have been used in the Chalmers household, but it’s relatively rare to find complete ewers and washbasins, let alone matching sets like the four on the right of the image (chamber pot and matching washbasin at top, washbasin and matching sponged ewer at base). Their rarity in the archaeological record is not a sign that matching sets weren’t used in Christchurch, but rather that if one part of the set was broken, the other half continued to be used. The Chalmers might have owned something like the brown washbasin (second from top left), the plain bone china chamber pot (bottom left) or the Magnolia decorated washbasin (second from bottom left), which are closer in date to their household. Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

This room is perhaps where we might also find some of the most personal objects in a household – those related to personal grooming and dress. If the room contained a vanity, it could have held cosmetic pots, hairbrushes, razors, hairstyling pomades and oils, toothbrushes and powders, perfumes and colognes, lint brushes and jewellery. It may surprise some to realise, given modern gender and beauty assumptions, that many, if not most, of the personal grooming artefacts found in the Christchurch archaeological record are related to the beauty standards of men, rather than women. This may have a lot to do with packaging and what survives in the archaeological record, but it’s worth remembering that as many of the personal objects in the room could have belonged to James as to Priscilla.

A selection of personal grooming artefacts from the Christchurch assemblage, from haircare to dental hygiene to skincare. Left, top to bottom: comb, possibly made from vulcanised rubber, n.d.; Price’s pomatum, used for styling male (usually) hair, c. 1860s; Bay Rum, c. 1890s-1900s, used as a ‘tonic for the hair’ (as well as other things). Centre, top to bottom: three bone toothbrushes, n.d., all of which would have had boar’s bristles for the brush; Areca Nut toothpaste, n.d.; Rimmel’s Cherry Toothpaste, n.d. Right, top to bottom: shaving or lint brush, c. 1870s; two different lids for cold cream jars, used as skincare, c. 1870s; two cologne bottles – Mulhens 4711 cologne (left) and Farina Eau de Cologne (right). Images: J. Garland.

It’s difficult to be sure exactly where medicinal and pharmaceutical products were kept in different houses (in the absence of the modern bathroom), but there’s a good chance that some of these may also have been found in the bedroom, particularly as the other function it might have had was as both a sick room (not so different from today) and as a place for giving birth (Flanders 2003: 14-22). In general, European women in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand gave birth at home, although there were some private maternity homes in cities (Pollock 2018; in fact, one of the houses I’m looking at for my PhD was used as such later in the 19th century – the women who gave birth here mostly seem to have lived in the country). Of course, James and Priscilla’s only child was born before they moved into this house, and James and his second wife, Annetta, did not have any children. So no children were born here in the 19th century. But Priscilla died at home, at the age of 44, and it is likely that she died in this room. If she were sick for a time before her death, it is possible that she spent time in this room, while she was being treated.

A selection of medicinal artefacts. Clockwise from top left: prescription vial with label from H. A. Papprill, Christchurch chemist, c. 1890s-1900s; Holloways ointment jar, for everything, c. 19th century; Fred W. Hale’s Herbal Oinment, for inflammation and other things, c. 1880s+; Weston’s Wizard Oil, for everything and nothing, c. 1870s-1880s; and Scott’s Emulsion, for general health and growth, n.d. ImagesL J. Garland.
Priscilla’s death notice, indicating that she died at home, and possibly in her bedroom. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1.

Jessie & Katharine


Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Pollock, Kerry. ‘Pregnancy, birth and baby care – Childbirth, 19th century to 1950s’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [Accessed 27 April 2020].

Salmond, Jeremy. Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940. Auckland: Reed, 1986.

Toomath, William. Built in New Zealand: The Houses We Live In. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1996.

Home and contents: the parlour

And so, from the hall, to the parlour, the ‘best’ room in the house and, in more wealthy circles, known as the drawing room. As an aside, these naming schemes fascinate me – at exactly what point (in the social/wealth scheme) did a parlour become a drawing room? And when and where and why do sitting rooms, living rooms and lounges come into the picture, particularly in Aotearoa New Zealand? And how do breakfast and morning rooms fit into the picture? More importantly, what do these name changes tell us about what’s going on in society and domestic life at a broader level?

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the parlour. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

But back to James and Priscilla’s parlour. Or maybe that should be, Priscilla and James’s parlour. The drawing room in Victorian Britain, with its ‘upper’ (used here to refer to both the upper middle and upper classes) class associations, and consequently with a class that employed servants, is generally considered to have been a feminine room, and one where women spent much of their day, reading, sewing, entertaining guests and organising their household (Tange 2010: 62). To what extent this was true of the parlour in late 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand is not clear, particularly in the case of Priscilla and her daughter Margaret, who may not have employed a servant, meaning that they may not have had a great deal of time for relaxing in the parlour during the day.

Priscilla and James’s parlour, looking towards the bay window (and the street). Image: M. Hennessey.

The identification of the parlour/drawing room as a feminine space was a key part of the middle class ideology of separate spheres discussed in the previous post. This room was where the women of the house would entertain their friends, and it was thus the most important room in the house for displaying their respectability and taste. As part of this, the parlour/drawing room showed how a woman created a beautiful, tasteful and relaxing sanctuary from the torments of the public world for her poor hard-working husband… Which completely ignores all the hard work that would have gone into creating this space, keeping the house clean and tidy, looking after children, preparing the meals, and doing the shopping, all whilst appearing suitably respectable – and calm. Anyway. The parlour, though, was not just used for entertaining, it was also used by the family as a space to relax together.

The parlour, then, was the most decorative and decorated room in the house. It was also usually the most prominent and Priscilla’s parlour was a classic example of this, with its protruding bay and bay window – so it would have been clear to passersby that this was the parlour. The room had a fireplace, in order to provide cheer and – maybe – some warmth. The fireplace was also an important place for display, in the form of the mantelpiece itself (which also provided a place for displaying goods), the fire surround (some were tiled, although the Chalmers’s one was not) and the tiles on the hearth (which had been removed in this instance). There was little else in the way of built-in decoration in this parlour – no ceiling or cornice and no picture rail to hang pictures from (although such things could have been removed latterly). The walls, though, were no doubt originally covered in a decorative wallpaper.

The fireplace. While the mantelpiece was slightly more decorative than the most basic fireplaces seen in Christchurch’s 19th century houses, it was still relatively plain, and the absence of colourful tiles from the fire surround is unusual. There would once have been decorative tiles on the hearth. Image: M. Hennessey.

Decorative objects would have played a role in the construction of this space, things like ornaments, vases, decorative lamps, well-chosen and placed furniture, as well as hung pictures and fabric coverings. Sketches and photographs of contemporary parlours (themselves a performance that probably didn’t quite equal reality – I’m sure that the rooms shown in modern interior design never look quite that tidy in everyday use) even show decorative or ornamental plants placed about the room, not so dissimilar to today.

A ‘country’ parlour, from the turn of the century. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img01387.
The fragments of objects that might have stood on mantlepieces, sideboards and tables, lending decoration to the parlous. Clockwise from top left: figurine of woman and dog, c. 1880s; gilt porcelain vase, c. ; ceramic figurine, n.d.; ceramic dog face, from small figurine, n.d.; head of porcelain figurine of a girl in a bonnet, n.d.; glass candlestick, c. 20th century; hand painted milk glass vase, c. 1870s; crimson glass vase or lamp base, c. 1880s. The milk glass vase here is slightly too early and, possibly too expensive, to have been in the Chalmer’s house, but it’s a great example of the sort of ornamental object that they may have owned. The ceramic figurines, while not hugely common in the archaeological record, were popular objects in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and could easily have been placed on the mantle of the Chalmers’ house. Image: J. Garland.

Within this space, James and – especially – Priscilla, would have entertained and hosted guests with the aid of their material culture, particularly through the rituals of tea-drinking and, perhaps, alcohol consumption. The taking of tea involved in the full performance of afternoon or morning tea was not, as I suspect most of us do it now, limited to a teabag, a cup and some boiling water, but instead tea in a teapot, with matching milk jug, sugar bowl, teacups, saucers and, perhaps, even side places for the accompanying snacks.

The scene in James and Priscilla’s parlour may not have looked quite like this… Image: Auckland Star 24/12/1921: 1.
Tea sets. Top: bone china gilt fleur-de-lis, or ‘tealeaf’ design and bone china blue sprigged design. Centre: blue floral tea set, made post-1891 by John Aynsley and Sons at the Portland Works, Stoke-on-Trent. Bottom: Spring patterned brown tea set made by W. H. Grindley between 1880 and 1891. Bone china tea services in these two patterns were popular throughout the nineteenth century, but are very common on sites from the latter decades of the century. They were plain in design, but fine in material, easily accessible to consumers and fitted well with the more minimalist aesthetic preferred in ceramic design towards the turn of the century. Other tea sets from the period were more elaborate in design, however: the blue set in the center was found on the site of a household occupied over a similar period to the Chalmers (1890s-1900s). The brown Spring patterned set is slightly earlier, but could easily have been held onto by the Chalmers and found in their household. Image: J. Garland.

At a different time of day, or in different company, the tea service may have been switched out for alcohol, and the Chalmers may have used glass sets of decanters and tumblers to serve their guests. Glass or ceramic dishes may have been used to set out sweets, delicacies or snacks. The parlour may have also been wreathed in smoke, from time to time, if James, Priscilla (unlikely) or their guests smoked a pipe, or – by the early 20th century – cigarettes. It’s just as likely, however, that smoking wasn’t an activity that took place in the parlour – it may instead have been restricted to the dining room, as a more ‘masculine’ space (see following posts).

Vessels that may have been used to serve alcohol to guests while entertaining. Left: a water bottle or decanter, which may have been used to hold a variety of beverages. Top: ribbed pitcher and decanter with cut decoration. Bottom: cut glass tumblers. Image: J. Garland and C. Dickson.

Games may have been played through the course of this entertaining. ‘Parlour games’ is still a phrase we know and one that was often used in the 19th and early 20th century to mean a more lewd, less socially appropriate activity. Nevertheless, games were absolutely a part of the function of a parlour, both in its role as a space for guests and within the privacy of the family sphere. Games like dominoes, for example, may have been played by children and adults alike. There’s no evidence to suggest that James and Priscilla had a piano, but musical performances and practice may also have fallen within the use of this particular room.

Dominoes and parlour quoits. The full instructions on how to make your very own set of parlour quoits can be found here. Image: J. Garland and Bay of Plenty Times 23/12/1930: 3.

It’s important to remember that the parlour was not a space that was only used when guests were present. It would also have functioned as a space of work and leisure for the family in private. James and Priscilla may have had a writing desk, for example, at which they wrote letters or carried out professional or personal projects. We know that James was a member of multiple associations, including those dedicated to improving the lot of the working class – perhaps this room is where he wrote and read towards those efforts. For Priscilla, the parlour is also the room in which she’s likely to have done needlework – engaging in that ‘genteel’ domestic industry. The bay window would have provided sufficient light during the day to carry out such work and, in the evenings, if the room was well lit (lamps again! – they’re going to be a feature of every room), the fireplace, lamps and candles would have made the room bright enough to continue. 

Top: ink bottles and ink wells, the accoutrements of writing. The second from the right even has little grooves along the sides of the bottle (seen from a top down view) to hold your pen. Centre: the material culture of sewing, from cotton reels (left), copper clothing pins (middle) and the trusty old thimble (right). Bottom: more lighting related artefacts, the decorative cuff from a lamp and a plain chamberstick. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

Katharine & Jessie


Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.

Keys, materialism and things

Originally, I had intended to write this post about climate change and the construction of consumer behaviour and culture, as seen through archaeology, but I think we’ve all been forced to confront the constructed fragility of our society just a little too much in recent weeks. Instead, let’s talk about things! And stuff! And if I sneak a little theory in here, well, I’d say sorry, but I wouldn’t mean it.

We have all been this cat at some point over the last few weeks, I suspect.

Part of what had got me thinking about climate change and consumer behaviour in the first place was the relationship between what I study and my own life. Both in terms of relevance – the ability of archaeology to aid in understanding and making choices in the present day – and in terms of personal perspective. How much my research makes me question my own relationship with the material world, for example. How much my things say about me, but also how much my things mean to me. If I’m looking at artefacts from 150 years ago as objects with social meaning, items with value that go beyond the economic, what meaning do I find – and place – in my own things?

The things we own say something about us, whether we want them to or not. That is a central tenet of material culture studies, particularly within archaeology, where that meaning allows us to interpret broader socio-cultural behaviours and patterns from the rubbish past peoples have left behind (key point here: material culture studies is the study of material culture). But the things we own also say something to us, as conscious or unconscious tools in how we reinforce – or even construct – our own sense of self.  One of my favourite examples of this are my keys. A meaning they held that I wasn’t aware I had given them became apparent when I moved to Australia a couple of years ago. For the first week or so I was there, I had no keys. I didn’t have a house yet, I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have an office. No gates, no locks, no responsibilities. I felt untethered from what had, until that moment, been my adult life and I realised just how much my keys – the most mundane of objects, yet one that (along with my phone) I look for and use every single day – had come to embody being an adult. Not in the sense of my age, but in how they represented the behaviours that characterised the person I had become in my adult life – the independence of owning a car, living in a house I was at least partially responsible for, having access to a workplace that in itself represented a career I had chosen and a contribution I (hopefully!) was making. All of that, bound up in a few funny shaped pieces of metal on a ring.

My keys. From the behaviour represented by the keys themselves, to the stories behind the ornaments on the keyring, they are not just a representation of me to the world, they’re a representation of me to me. Image: J. Garland.

This may have been an association that I was surprised to realise I made, but it’s certainly not an unprecedented one. Keys have been a symbolic representation of adulthood for at least a century in New Zealand, gifted as part of the ritual coming of age encapsulated in a person’s twenty-first birthday. I did a little research into this, trying to find the origins of the symbolism, but it’s not particularly clear from the limited online research I’m able to do. Some accounts link it back to medieval knights and the age structure associated with the progression of a boy from page to squire to knight, but none of these are referenced at all, so I take it with a grain of salt (Marris 2018; The Great Race 2018). The presentation of an ornamental key at the age of twenty-one seems to be a peculiarly colonial tradition, associated with Australia and New Zealand in particular, although the sources for this are also a bit lacking (Williams 2017). It does appear that it’s largely a tradition of the twentieth century, perhaps tied into the social and economic significance of twenty-one as an age of ‘majority’ (Swarbrick 2013; Temuka Leader 20/01/1927: 3; Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 19/02/1935: 1). It’s not quite the same association I’ve inadvertently made with my keys, but it’s not far off.

Keys found on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Likely too early (and too functional) to be associated with the twenty-first birthday tradition, I nevertheless wonder if they held some meaning beyond the functional to those who owned them. Did they represent responsibility, ownership, security? Images: J. Garland, C. Dickson.

Like my keys, the Christchurch archaeological assemblage is full of countless examples of objects that held meaning beyond the functional: from clay tobacco pipes that were both tools of smoking and political propaganda; to christening cups that were commemorative items and also tea wares; ceramics that carried the stories of empire, trade and British colonialism in their designs; and foodstuffs that evoked familiarity as well as sustenance. Things that may have been bought and used for more reasons than just their economic or functional values. Things that were important to who people were, where they came from and what they wanted to be. This meaning might not be the easiest to interpret from the archaeological record (not impossible, though), but it’s an important factor in understanding the relationship between people and things in the past. It’s also an important reminder to consider, when interpreting an archaeological assemblage – whether from a household or a city – not just what that collection of objects might say about the people who used and discarded it, but also what it might have said to them, about where they came from and who they were. 

Artefacts from the Christchurch assemblage. Clockwise from top left: more than just a mustard jar, decorated with a battle scene from the Crimean War, depicting the fall of Sevastopol; a bottle of calves foot jelly, imported into New Zealand; a reform pipe, more than just a tool for smoking; anchovy paste made by Crosse and Blackwell, English food producers and exporters; a christening cup, often gifted at a child’s christening. Images: J. Garland.

For example, if being momentarily bereft of keys in a new country made me confront the unconscious representation of my adult life in some bits of metal, then the lockdown has reminded me, yet again, how important my accumulated material culture is to my sense of self. There is nothing quite like rapid change to make you re-evaluate your world and your place in it and, if you are a student of material culture studies, nothing quite like being separated from your stuff to force a bit of introspection. Like Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone (or you can’t access it. like flat whites. do not underestimate how much I miss flat whites right now.).

Until we meet again, my friend. Image: G. M. Farewell.

I’m on lockdown in Christchurch, while my things remain in Melbourne, minus the two suitcases I brought with me (one was mostly books and whisky, I’ll be honest). After the situation with the keys, I should have realised how unsettled I would feel now, to be living inside a house, for who knows how long, where very little of what surrounds me is mine. It’s not just the familiarity of a certain aesthetic that’s important here, or any kind of possessiveness: it goes deeper than that. The story of who I am – the history of my identity – is bound up in the things I own. Gifts from people I love, things I have bought at different points of my life, things I’ve held onto from childhood, things that remind me of a moment or an experience, a collection of stuff curated by what I’ve chosen to keep, that speaks to me of what’s important to who I am. Without it, trapped inside a house for an unknown period of time, I feel ill at ease, untethered again.

The effect that being separated from my stuff has had on my sense of self throws my mind back to the experience of the Christchurch colonists, specifically the significance of British material culture in their creation and reinforcement of self – as individuals and as a community. This land was not their home and the making of it was forced, through the construction of familiar social, political and cultural structures and through the construction of a material world that reinforced their sense of self, individually and collectively (and came at the expense of the world of tangata whenua, who had been there for centuries). The things they brought with them had a role to play in the transposition of British colonial culture onto New Zealand, through the behaviours and social rituals they reinforced, from teacups and afternoon tea to the clothes, needles and gender roles of the ‘cult of domesticity’ (i.e. Middleton 2007, 2013; Staniforth 2002). Others reinforced a sensory connection to Britain, through food, through the aesthetics of colour and form and texture in furnishings and ornamentation. Others still would have contributed to those colonist’s ideas of who they were in this new place, and what they had come here to do.  

Artefacts from Christchurch, c. 1850s-1870s. What did these say to those who used them? Image: J. Garland.

There is a danger in retroactively applying notions of the present day onto past societies, particularly subjective meaning like this. But there is also a danger in assuming that, if we cannot easily find the more ephemeral meaning of the past, it does not exist. That the functional and the economic were the only relationships that past people had with the things they owned. I do not know if the colonists of the 1850s recognised the materialistic nature of their world, or acknowledged the importance of their material culture with quite this level of self-awareness. All the same, I’m certain it was important, to their continuing and developing sense of self, and to the colonial venture in general.

Ours is a materialistic society, as theirs was. If there’s one thing this research has forced me to recognise in my own relationship with things, it’s that I’m really quite materialistic. I feel like I should say that a little bit like confessing to an addiction. Hello, my name is Jessie and I am materialistic. It’s a word that evokes conspicuous consumption, ‘new wealth’, “keeping up with the Jones’”, gaudiness, vulgarity, debt, the worst of consumerism and consumer culture. Despite the overwhelmingly consumerist capitalist society we live in (or did until now, who knows what next week will hold, what even is anything), somehow, ‘materialistic’ still carries something of a slur with it. It’s a meaning that owes a great deal to Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, but it’s had the unfortunate effect of obscuring many of the other ways in which material goods are valued by people in the modern world (i.e. Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Most of us are materialistic, in the significance we place on the things we own and the comfort they provide. More simply, our interaction with material goods is an essential and everyday part of our lives, and our selves. Tell me it isn’t, the next time you find yourself craving something you can’t access during this lockdown, or taking comfort in the things you do have.  

To put it more flippantly, when you come down to it, Madonna was right. We are all material girls, living in a material world. (Sorry.)



Douglas, M. and Isherwood, B., 1979. The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption. New York: Routledge.

Heath, B., Breen, E. B. and Lee, L. A. Material Worlds: Archaeology, Consumption and the Road to Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Middleton, A., 2007. ‘Silent Voices, Hidden Lives: Archaeology, Class and Gender in the CMS Missions, Bay of Islands, New Zealand 1814-1845. In International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11, Issue 1, pp. 1-31.

Middleton, A., 2013. Missionization and the Cult of Domesticity, 1769-1850: Local Investigation of a Global Process. In Spencer-Wood, S. (Ed.), Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public. New York: Springer.

Miller, D., 1995. Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Staniforth, M., 2002. Material Culture and Consumer Society: Dependent Colonies in Colonial Australia. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

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.