While walking through the city a month or so ago, I was stopped in my tracks by an unassuming sign: Shands Lane. For me, this small sign captured much of what is difficult about protecting, preserving and remembering our past in an urban environment. The sign refers to an early 1860s building popularly known as Shand’s, a name bestowed on it in the 1970s. The building was not named for an early occupant of the building, as might be assumed, but for the John Shand who owned the land when the building was constructed. John Shand was a farmer, racehorse breeder and hotelier. He neither built nor occupied the building and no other Shand is known to have done so (Christchurch City Council 1982). The building was moved to Manchester Street in 2015 (where it still stands), largely to make way for the access way now called Shands Lane.
Much was made of the need to incorporate lanes into central Christchurch following the earthquakes, with commentators frequently observing how laneways had revitalised central Melbourne. This discussion ignored that Christchurch had lanes prior to the earthquakes. Poplar Lane is one that people might remember, because it was used in the same way that the Melbourne lanes are, for shops and bars. Woolsack Lane (now the entrance to the Les Mills car park) is likely to be less familiar. These lanes are now gone, and there is no trace of them on current maps of the city. In 2017, the then head of Ōtākaro described the new lanes as “very much about giving character to Christchurch” (Small 2017), as though the city did not already have a character of its own, derived from multiple factors. More relevant might have been the point made by a local architect, that our city blocks are large, and constructing lanes through them provided more street-front commercial space within the city, particularly for retail outlets, cafes and bars (Dalman 2017). Shands Lane does indeed provide access to such premises, including a bar in a faux heritage-style building, which seemed to me to be the ultimate irony.
In general, heritage practitioners regard moving a building to preserve it as a last resort: preservation in situ is much preferred. This is because part of the meaning a heritage site – or artefact – derives from its context, from its connections with the place and environment in which it was originally constructed and used, even when that landscape has changed dramatically. The Shand’s building was built on Hereford Street, a location that placed it near the commercial heart of the new city. The solicitor who constructed the building no doubt chose the location for this very reason.
There is nothing at Shands Lane today to indicate why the lane is named as such, and so the name, too, is devoid of any context, like the building the name derived from. It is simply one name among many and I imagine few stop to think about it. It is a lane named for an 1860s building that was only named as such in the 1970s, that had to be moved so that the lane itself could be built, with no interpretation to recognise that a nod to the past is being made. Some form of interpretation would make the remembrance of this name more meaningful, and helped to demonstrate some of the layers of history within the city.
For me, Shands Lane serves as a reminder about how history is constructed and reconstructed as time passes, of how knowledge is lost and of how there can be an element of myth-making to the presentation of the past. This is only one very small – and quite harmless – example of this process. As has been discussed much in the media recently, incredible injustices and harms can result through misrepresentations of the past. History is no one fact, it is a story about the past and, like all stories, it is constructed by people to serve their own ends.
So, way back in the mists of time (i.e. about a couple of months ago…), we promised you a blog about the house built on this site after the existing house burnt down, tragically killing the son of the occupants. And, at last, here it is! Because even the most attentive reader is likely to have forgotten what that earlier post was about, here’s a quick reminder: Jessie wrote about the material culture used by Florence and Howard Strong in the late 19th century, Howard being the Head Librarian at the Christchurch library at the time.
Jessie’s post finished by talking about how the artefacts from the librarian’s house represented a more personal element of the history of Christchurch’s public library, an aspect of library history that is perhaps not often documented. In talking about the ‘new’ house today, I am returning to a more institutional aspect of the library’s history, but one where the institutional and the personal intersected. The house built for the Strongs following the 1894 fire was built by Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury) for the librarian and his family to live in. This, then, was a case of an institution making decisions that would affect the lives of those who lived in the house. It is too strong in this case to say that such decisions would have controlled the lives of the occupants – this was a fairly standard house – but that was certainly true when some institutions built residences: think of asylums, orphanages, gaols and even hospitals. The librarian’s house is more akin to a manse, a caretaker’s house or a sexton’s cottage. It is a very different thing to live in a house that someone else has built for you, as opposed to one you have built yourself. In this situation, you really have no choice at all. While it’s possible that the Strongs were consulted about their new house, it seems likely that such consultation would have related only to the interior: the library was in the heart of the city with the librarian’s house right next to it. This was a prominent location and Canterbury College was an organisation that was very conscious of its image, and of the how architecture contributed to that image.
At the heart of Canterbury College’s was the university itself, now The Arts Centre of Christchurch Te Matatiki Toi Ora, and undeniably an architectural taonga. (Side note: I was intrigued to learn during the course of researching this blog that the College actually built the first library building (in 1874) before it built the first of the stone university buildings (in 1877)). The university chose to build in the Gothic style (as did the two high schools – Christchurch Girls’ and Christchurch Boys’ – that also built on the university site). A number of Christchurch’s significant early buildings were built in this style (or, more accurately, the Gothic Revival style – quite frankly, architectural ‘styles’ are a nightmare for someone who isn’t an expert). These included the Canterbury Provincial Council Chambers (1857), the Canterbury Museum (1870), Christ’s College (1863) and the Christ Church Cathedral (1864). It is no coincidence that the university chose to build in the same style, which was synonymous with the ideals of the Canterbury Association (responsible for founding the settlement of Canterbury in 1850, and disbanded in 1852).
The Canterbury Association was formed at a time when some of the upper echelons of English society were becoming increasingly convinced that industrialisation had ruined England, not so much because of the societal or environmental costs that we might first think of today, but because it had destroyed England’s rural and feudal society and the Christian values that were part of that. A number of those who were instrumental in the association had connections with organisations that espoused these elitist views (such as the Tractarian movement, the Young England movement and the Ecclesiological Society) and they became one of the underlying tenets of the association. There was an architectural component to this: that the Church of England needed not just to return to the values of the pre-industrial church, but that its architecture also needed to return to the Gothic style. There was a strong nationalist component to this, which held that Gothic architecture was a true English style and therefore the only appropriate style for the Church of England to build in (Lochhead 1999: 46-50). As such, Gothic Revival was the preferred architectural style of the Canterbury Association. It intrigues me that most of the best-known buildings built in that style in Christchurch were built after the association was no longer, particularly given that many of the key values of the association were undermined even before their first settler had arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand. The ideal persisted for some, even if the reality was very different.
By the time the college embarked on building the university, the association was long since defunct and it is arguable that the Gothic Revival style in Christchurch was by now more about power (the Provincial Council buildings, although the provincial council was disestablished in 1876), religion (the cathedral) and education (the museum and Christ’s College). Each of these buildings were strongly associated with the elite, and thus Canterbury College positioned itself as an institution of and for the elite. The style and manner in which it was built also consciously echoed the university buildings of Cambridge and Oxford (Lovell-Smith 2001).
The library complex was located only a couple of blocks from the university, on the site of Puāri Pā Urupā (Tikao n.d.: 5). Puāri was a kāinga nohoanga (settlement) and kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering place), located to the north of the urupā, on the banks of the Ōtākaro (Avon River). It was used for some 700 years, from the time of Waitaha up until the Kemp Purchase (1848; Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu 2020). In 1868, Ngāi Tūāhuriri tried to claim the site (and that of Ōtautahi) through the Native Land Court, but were not successful (Tau 2016).
The library was built in a very different style from the university. The first of the buildings, constructed in 1874, was Venetian Gothic and designed by W. B. Armson, who was particularly known for this style. It was a single storey brick building with limestone details and a slate roof. In stark contrast to the Gothic Revival style, Venetian Gothic had strong associations with commercial buildings and commercial prosperity and was a style that looked more to Italy than the English Gothic (Ussher 1983: 13). The commercial connotations make it a curious choice for a library. The second library building, built in 1893, could not be called Venetian Gothic, but certainly echoed elements of the first building: it was brick, with limestone detailing (including limestone window surrounds), pointed window arches and brick dentils under the eaves. The following year, the college rebuilt the librarian’s house.
At this point, they turned to Collins and Harman, the architectural firm that Armson had founded and who had designed the 1893 addition. What brief the college gave the architects is not known, but the plans are now held at the Macmillan Brown Library. These indicate that the university were uncertain about exactly what they wanted, for two different drawings were prepared for the street-facing elevation. Both options were two-storeyed, with a veranda and the same number and arrangement of windows. The front doors were identical, as were the veranda posts. The main difference lay in the materials used, and the concomitant effect this had on the decorative details: one design was to be built in wood, the other in the brick, with limestone detailing and polychromatic brickwork in the gable apex. The wooden house was to have pierced bargeboards (in wood) and stickwork in the gable apex. The window surrounds on the two designs were quite similar, both featuring label moulds (an important component of Gothic architecture) above the windows in the bay, although these were to be executed in wood on the wooden version and in limestone on the brick version. The wooden version also appeared to have some slightly Gothic detailing at the top of the windows in the bay on the ground floor – not quite the quatrefoils of the 1893 building, but something akin to that. The wooden house was to have eaves brackets, while the brick one was to have brick dentils below the decorative brickwork in the gable. Stylistically, the wooden house was probably influenced most by Arts and Crafts ideas or the American stickwork style, while the brick version was perhaps more Queen Anne in style.
Unsurprisingly, the university chose the brick option, which was far more in keeping with the rest of the growing library complex (there were two further additions to the library, both of which were also built in brick with limestone detailing, although the Venetian Gothic influences were increasingly watered down).
I cannot help but think that the choice to build in brick must have been some comfort to Florence and Howard Strong, who had lost their son, home and contents to the fire that had destroyed the wooden librarian’s house. What is surprising to me, given the university’s clear sense of image (or ‘brand’, if you will), is that they even considered a wooden house, which would have been at odds with the other buildings. While the materials of the house matched those of the library, there was little that connected the two stylistically, and no real consideration appears to have been given to including Venetian Gothic elements in the house. Perhaps it was the case that, while building a library in the Venetian Gothic style was one thing, building a house in it was a step too far. Or perhaps it was a desire to visually distinguish between the house and the library that led to this decision. This could also explain why the university contemplated a timber design. In the end, though, they must have decided that they wanted the house to appear to be part of the complex at first glance, but to be different, unlike the case with truly institutional accommodation, such as the aforementioned asylums, etc.
Lochhead, Ian, 1999. A Dream of Spires: Benjamin Mountfort and the Gothic Revival. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.
Ussher, Robyn, 1983. ‘Armson in Christchurch’. In W. B. Armson: A Colonial Architect Rediscovered. Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch. Pp. 13-16.
 These dates refer to when construction of the first stone part of each of these buildings/complexes. Some, such as the cathedral, took many years to complete, while others were part of large complexes that kept on growing.
Joseph Francis was the only member of his family who didn’t enter the woollen mills in Wiltshire. Instead, he trained as a solicitor’s clerk, a position that would have ben a step up the social scale. At the age of just 20, he married Harriet Hall, and the pair immigrated to Christchurch shortly thereafter, no doubt hoping to improve their fortunes (Ancestry 2020). In 1878, about two years after they’d arrived, Joseph commissioned local architect J. C. Maddison (who would go on to become quite prominent) to design him a house for land he’d purchased on Oxford Terrace in the Avon loop (Lyttelton Times 1/10/1878: 4, LINZ 1879). At this time, Joseph was working as a waiter in a hotel owned by one Joseph Oram Sheppard (Globe 17/2/1879: 2). Having an architect design your house still isn’t exactly the norm, but it was even less common in 19th century Christchurch, when houses were probably largely designed by builders, or selected from a pattern book. And how a waiter came to have sufficient funds to commission an architect is still not clear to me. Given his and his family’s occupations, it seems unlikely that Joseph had brought much money with him from England, and most of the funding the architect, the house and the land is likely to have come from the mortgage he took out against the property (the aforementioned Sheppard was the mortgagee).
The Avon loop (the area between the Avon River, Barbadoes Street and Kilmore Street) was just starting to develop when Joseph bought his land there. By 1877, there were a number of houses in the southern part of the loop, and around what would become Hurley Street, but few elsewhere. The roads that were to be formed in the area had been surveyed in 1877 but were not built for another few years. These roads were not part of the original survey of Christchurch and, while they conformed to the overall grid plan, several were dead-end streets, and thus the neighbourhood was not as interconnected as or with other parts of the city (Farrell 2015: 151-156). Joseph and Harriet’s house was built on a section on Oxford Terrace, and faced north across the river. This would have given it a pleasing aspect, and one somewhat different to the houses within the heart of the loop. In other words, this was perhaps a slightly better location than, say, Hurley or Willow streets. An aerial photograph of the loop from 1959, when many of the 19th century houses still stood, indicates that the houses on Oxford Terrace and Bangor Street were typically villas, while those on Hurley and Willow streets were more likely to be cottages. By the mid-1880s, the loop was largely completely occupied, and most of those occupants were working class.
For all that he commissioned an architect to design his house, it was in fact a very ordinary house for the times. It was a square villa, with a veranda, built largely from kauri. There were some quite plain brackets on the veranda, and the house had double sash windows on the front, as well as both fan and sidelights on either side of the front door. These were all signs that the house was a cut above the basic cottage. Inside, there were seven rooms: a parlour, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a scullery, a pantry and the hall. The house was 81 m2, making it considerably smaller than 105.4 m2 (the average size of the 101 19th century houses in the sample I’m looking at for my PhD), but larger than the average Avon loop house. The house was lined throughout with lath and plaster, except in the kitchen, where there was wainscoting. Unusually, even the pantry was lined with lath and plaster (match-lining was more common). It had traditional moulded skirting boards, and these were higher in two of the three public rooms (the hall and the parlour, but not the master bedroom) than in the rest of the house. Unfortunately, the fireplaces had been removed long before the archaeological recording.
It’s not at all clear whether Joseph, Harriet and their young family ever lived in the house. The architect called for tenders for its construction in October 1878, and Joseph was advertising it for lease in November the following year (Lyttelton Times 1/10/1878: 4, 9/12/1879: 1). In these advertisements, he gave his address as the Junction Hotel in Rangiora. Of note is that, when advertised for lease, the house was called Cora Villa, a name that continued to be used until at least 1916 (Star (Christchurch): 1/4/1916: 10). It seems that Joseph and Harriet named the house for their infant daughter Cora, who died not long after her birth in 1878 (Ancestry 2020).
Joseph continued in his career as hotelkeeper, moving from the Junction to the South Rakaia to the Rolleston hotel in fairly quick succession (Press 15/5/1880: 5, Lyttelton Times 8/10/1880: 1). Advertisements letting the house appear from time to time throughout this period. In 1881, Sheppard foreclosed on the mortgage (LINZ 1879). The following year, Sheppard also forced Joseph to sell the Rolleston Hotel lease, to recover debts that Joseph owed him. By this time, Joseph had mortgages worth more than £1400 (he owned property in Waimate, Christchurch and Rolleston), as well as debts to suppliers (Star (Christchurch): 30/6/1882: 3). By July 1882, he was unemployed (Lyttelton Times 20/7/1882: 7).
It’s not entirely clear what Joseph did next. Harriet died in 1887, having borne Joseph as many as seven children (the records are a little hazy), the oldest of whom was 11. As was often the case in a situation like this (widowed man, a number of young children), Joseph quickly remarried, to one Nellie Britt, who would have two children with Joseph (Ancestry 2020). The following year, the couple were living in Timaru, where Joseph was working at the Club Hotel, as a waiter (NZER (Timaru) 1893: 22). Joseph died in Timaru in 1894, aged 39 (Ancestry 2020, Timaru Herald 3/7/1894: 2). And Nellie? Well, it’s not clear – Ancestry records her as dying in 1895, but provides no reference for this information, and there’s no record of her death in Births, Deaths and Marriages (Ancestry 2020).
Sheppard retained ownership of the house for a couple of years, possibly briefly renting it back to Joseph and Harriet, before selling to Charles Fox in 1883. Charles was an accountant, who owned the house for about a year (and lived there) before selling to Charles Marshall (LINZ 1883). This Charles was a newly married law clerk, and he and his wife Agnes would have three children at the house, before also selling up and moving on in 1891 (LINZ 1883, Star (Christchurch): 4/10/1884: 2, 29/12/1887:2, 20/5/1891: 2, Press 27/6/1885: 2). After this, the house was owned by one Therese Schuster (later Therese Wisker) into the 20th century. Therese rented the house out to a succession of occupants. Even after she sold it, it remained a rental property for the rest of the century (LINZ 1883).
Cora Villa is the subject of an exhibition that we’ve curated as part of the Christchurch Heritage Festival , being held at the South Library . This blog explores just part of the story of the house and those who lived there. Over the course of the next two weeks, we’ll be featuring more of these stories – and the artefacts that go with them – on our Facebook and Instagram pages. Enjoy!
Concern about houses in New Zealand – whether the quality, quantity or location thereof – is nothing new. The development of so-called slums, in particular, alarmed nineteenth century migrants to Aotearoa New Zealand, many of whom had come here in the hope of escaping just such problems. By the same token, one of the appeals of nineteenth century Aotearoa to European migrants was the (relatively) unfettered access to land, particularly in urban areas, thanks to the Crown’s cheap acquisition (and in some cases confiscation) of that land from Māori. Not only was land readily available as a result, but there were also few controls on its use (Schrader 2005: 17). The tension here is obvious to us today, but state involvement in the property market (or any other aspect of life for that matter) was considered even less desirable then than it is now (Ferguson 1994: 5, Schrader 2005: 17). The election of the Liberal government in 1890, however, saw attitudes and approaches begin to change (Schrader 2005: 18-19).
Gael Ferguson and Ben Schrader have both documented the solution the Liberals implemented to try and deal with clusters of poor quality housing (Ferguson 1994: 45-45, Schrader 2005: 16-22), which I have summarised below. What I really want to explore, through two case studies, is the houses that were built in these settlements and the people who lived there, in order to move beyond the general to the particular and thus to better understand the individual experience of these hamlets, as they were known.
To solve the problem of slums, the Liberal government decided to establish working class settlements on the outskirts of Aotearoa New Zealand’s cities. These settlements were to be for working men and women, who would be able to lease a section (for 999 years), in return for meeting various requirements, including building a house within a year, fencing the land within two years and establishing a fruit and vegetable garden within three years. Successful applicants had to be able to prove that they had the means to build a house, or that they would be able to do so with a government loan. And they had to be “in all respects a deserving and suitable person” (Lands Department n.d.: 8-9). The sections were to be big enough for a productive garden that would support the occupant in times of little or no work (Schrader 2005: 20). It is perhaps no coincidence that the sections were sometimes referred to as “workmen’s home allotments” (Star 28/10/1896: 3).
The first of these settlements – or hamlets, as they were to be known – was Wharenui, established in Christchurch (Ellesmere Guardian 3/4/1897: 2). The irony here is that the complaints about slums were generally about Auckland and Dunedin (Schrader 2005: 18) – in fact, I have found little reference to slums or rookeries, as they were often known, in Christchurch in nineteenth century newspapers. The land was opened for selection in March 1897 and, although there were a reasonable number of applicants, several applied for the same sections, with the result that only seven of the 26 sections were taken up (Press 9/3/1897: 1, Star 27/3/1897: 5). Those sections that were not leased to working men were offered on a weekly leasing arrangement to the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company and a Mr Chadwick, presumably for grazing (Star 9/4/1897: 2). As would be found throughout the country, the lack of public transport would limit the appeal of this scheme, along with the fact that sections could not be purchased or subdivided (Schrader 2005: 22). People wanted to live near their work, and the other supposed advantages of the scheme were not enough to outweigh the disadvantages.
One of the leaseholders at Wharenui was Hans Hansen, who took up his lease in 1898, not long after he’d arrived in the country from Ribe, Denmark, aged 36 (DIA 1899, LINZ 1898). Hansen leased Section 13, of 2 acres, for £6 12s a year (LINZ 1898). Within a year, Hansen had built a one-room dwelling, fenced the section, sunk an artesian well and was cultivating and gardening. The dwelling, however, did not meet the requirements of his lease, being worth less than £30, and he was granted an extension until 1 November 1901 to build an appropriate house, as well as a loan of £20 to do so (Lands Department 1898-1929). By 1904, when Hansen put the lease up for sale, he had built a two-room cottage on the land to replace the original dwelling (Press 3/2/1904: 10). Early in 1905, the lease was transferred to Alexander Grieve (LINZ 1898).
The second house Hansen built at Wharenui stood until 2008. This was a very simple box cottage, with a gable roof and very little in the way of ornamentation. The street-facing elevation was symmetrical, with a door in the centre and windows either side. These were casement windows, which probably replaced sash windows (casement windows did not become common in Christchurch until c. 1910). The house was clad in standard weatherboards, with a corrugated iron roof and it sat on stone piles. The only feature that could in any way be considered decorative was the front door, which was a four-panel door with round-headed glass upper panels, and sat in a recessed niche with angled (rather than horizontal) rusticated weatherboards. The interior of the cottage was not inspected. As such, it is not clear whether the two-roomed cottage referred to in the 1904 newspaper advertisement actually only had two rooms, or whether it had two rooms and a hall (halls were not typically counted as a room). Aerial photographs, however, show that it had just the one fireplace, against the rear wall of the east room, indicating that this was the kitchen.
There’s not a great deal of information about Hansen’s life or activities available for the period when he was living at Wharenui. He obtained New Zealand citizenship during this time, sold pick-your-own raspberries, placed advertisements in the paper for work, and variously described himself as a farmer or labourer (DIA 1989, Press 23 12/1901: 8, 2/5/1902: 8). After selling the lease, he appears to have moved around the city, not really settling again until he purchased another 2½ acres at Harewood in 1915 (Sun 16/6/1915: 1). Prior to this, he placed advertisements in the paper looking for work on a fairly regular basis (generally as a ‘rough’ carpenter or unskilled labourer; e.g. Star 27/10/1906: 6, Press 5/11/1913: 14); once he was at Harewood, these advertisements no longer appeared. He sold the Harewood property shortly before he died in 1931, leaving an estate of £260, but with no children (he had – very briefly – married, in 1915 (Sun 15/3/1920: 11, Christchurch High Court, 1931)).
On 9 August 1900, John Larkin was granted Section 38 of the Tamai Hamlet, in Woolston (Lands Department 1901). Like Hansen, Larkin appears to have been unskilled, being described as both a labourer and a dealer (usually a secondhand dealer; Wises 1903: 218, NZER (Lyttelton) 1905-06: 51). In March 1901, the Ranger reported that there was no building on the section, and the situation was the same a year later, when apparently Larkin had not complied with his lease in terms of the value of the house on the section, although he was resident there. By 1903, there were £25 worth of improvements to the property, which was still not enough to comply with the conditions of the lease. Two years later, the value of the improvements had trebled, suggesting that Larkin’s house (which stood until 2014) was built between 1903 and 1905. Larkin was the only person resident on the section. In 1908, Larkin sold the lease (Lands Department 1901).
The house that Larkin built was a four-room house, with no hall. It was a saltbox cottage, clad in plain rimu weatherboards, and sitting on stone piles. The street-facing elevation was symmetrical, and, like Hansen’s house, this is likely to have had sash windows originally. There were no decorative features on the exterior at the time of recording, and it seems unlikely that there were any originally. Inside, the rooms were lined with beaded match-lining (a cheaper alternative to the more common lath and plaster), and there was a back-to-back fireplace between the kitchen and parlour.
Clearly, John Larkin spent considerably more money on his house than Hans Hansen did, and his house appears to have been constructed in anticipation of a family, although I’ve not been able to work out whether or not Larkin ever had one, or even what his age was when he was living there. These houses give an insight into the type of houses that unskilled labourers were building in Christchurch in the early twentieth century. They were little different from the houses that early European settlers in Ōtautahi Christchurch had built some 50 years previously, although possibly better built. They were a type – cottage – that became less and less common as time passed and the villa began to dominate Christchurch’s housing stock, but one that clearly remained an option for those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale to build.
What do these houses and the lives of these men tell me about the working men’s settlements the Liberal government developed in the late nineteenth century? Well, it’s only a sample of two, but neither man stayed particularly long in the settlement in question and both struggled to meet the conditions of their lease. It is notable that both were unskilled labourers, meaning they probably had a particularly precarious existence in terms of both work and income, often not having full-time permanent employment – something Hans Hansen’s story illustrates perfectly. This would have made it more difficult for them to save the money necessary to build a house and comply with the lease conditions. For Hansen in particular, this situation is likely to have been compounded by the lack of public transport options, meaning the area within which he could take on work was limited. Larkin, however, was much closer to the city and to a wider range of potential jobs. Hansen – with his raspberry plot – seems to have put his land to the use the scheme intended, but it is not clear whether or not Larkin did. On balance, while the scheme allowed both men to build a house, neither was able to retain this property, and the scheme probably cannot be regarded as successful for Hansen, who seems to have been of no fixed abode for sometime after this. Somewhat ironically, Hansen would eventually purchase more land and, in fact, fulfil the ideal that the Liberal government had envisaged when they established the hamlet scheme.
Christchurch High Court, 1931. “Hansen Hans – Christchurch – Labourer”. Accession CH171, R20184940. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
Department of Lands and Survey, 1897. “Lands and Survey Library – Settlement Sales Plans – Wharenui Hamlet”. Accession CH730, R2085471. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
DIA, 1899. “From: Hans Hansen, Riccarton Date: 6 May 1899 Subject: Memorial for naturalisation”. R24925016. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
Ellesmere Guardian. Available from Papers Past.
Ferguson, Gael, 1994. Building the New Zealand Dream. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press with the assistance of the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs.
Lands Department, n.d. “Particulars, Terms and Conditions of Disposal and Occupation of Tamai Hamlet”. Accession CH325, R20081115. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
Lands Department, 1898-1929. “Leases in Perpetuity – J. F. Archer Section 13 Wharenui Lands and Deeds reference CL181/82”. Accession CH134, R20017733. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
Lands Department, 1901. “Leases in Perpetuity – J. Larkin Section 38 Tamai Settlement Lands and Deeds reference CL189/115”. Accession 134, R20017921. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.
“We shape our buildings; and afterwards our buildings shape us” – so said Winston Churchill. He was referring particularly to the House of Commons’ Chamber, but the statement is true of any building, and it’s a process that works in a myriad of ways. Buildings reflect the world around us, whether by affirming what society values or the norms of the days, or in opposition to that. Those that affirm the values of the day, such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s house, also serve to reinforce those values and to encourage the behaviours that form part of that, rather than challenging the norm or seeking to change it. And so James and Priscilla’s house reflects the ideal that middle class Victorians aspired to, and is characterised by three things: gendered roles, public and private space and display. You could easily extend that argument to cover much of Victorian life, but let’s stick to houses for now.
Gender, space and display in Victorian houses were all interconnected, most obviously through the connection between public spaces and masculinity and private spaces and femininity. Display weaves its way through those spaces, characterising them as either feminine or masculine and underlying the performance of middle class identity. It might seem strange to us to characterise a space within a house as being feminine or masculine, beyond the obvious example of some children’s bedrooms, although that’s slightly different from the way middle class Victorians thought of space and gender. But interior decoration is frequently characterised as being masculine or feminine – the results of googling “[insert appropriate gender] interior design” are depressinglypredictable. And this modern characterisation has at least some of its roots in the Victorian era.
Public versus private space in the home is probably something we’re much more familiar with, and many people are likely to have rooms in their house that they don’t take visitors into, although what rooms in particular probably vary from house to house, depending on the occupants’ preferences. We still use objects in the household along public and private lines, some placed to be seen (recent scrutiny of people’s bookcases on Zoom is an excellent case in point) and others hidden away, or used only to – privately – prepare spaces for public expectations (cleaning products!). There are differences, though – we’re less likely to show off our bedrooms, perhaps. Kitchens, though, are now much more public than they were in the Victorian era, thanks to the rise of open-plan living, changes in gender roles and changes in family life. Ironically, this has led to sculleries becoming a kitchen feature again, as people once again seek to hide the work that goes into preparing a meal, to maintain a sense of order and tidiness throughout. For others, though, the very act of preparing a meal has become an act of performance, particularly with the rise of a ‘foodie’ culture.
And we do still think carefully about how we furnish our rooms and what we display in them, although these features are less likely to be built-in (such as ceiling roses and ceiling cornices) than they might have been in the late 19th century. Recent trends in domestic architectural design, though, turn the fabric of the house into a feature that can be related to identity – the particular types of timber used, for example, can convey a message about what environmental values you hold dear. For many of us, though, living in houses we did not build, a great deal of the personal and social identity expressed within our households comes from the ways we use the spaces we have, and the less-fixed material culture we use to construct, augment and change the material world of the building we live in. In this we are not so dissimilar from James and Priscilla, who – although living in a house they built – would still have used objects and furnishings to reinforce notions of behaviour and space within their household.
The material culture of a Victorian household can be viewed from many perspectives, on its own or as part of an aggregate that sheds light on broader patterns in a society or culture. Considered alongside the house itself, it’s fascinating to see how it might have been intertwined with the expression of gender, space and display embedded in the physical structure. The designation of certain rooms – like the parlour or dining room – as feminine or masculine is both complemented and contradicted by the use of objects within the room. The more masculine dining room, for example, would have been filled with the material culture of dining, food production and consumption, objects often considered a reflection of women’s consumer choices and women’s labour. Yet, the material culture of the parlour likely complemented its characterisation as a woman’s space, reinforcing a Victorian ideal of women’s roles as hostesses, mothers and industrious members of the household. This may seem a rigid delineation of space to us now, but its legacy is still visible in the gendered spaces of many modern households (“man-caves”, ugh).
Other objects reflect Victorian ideals of gender in a way that is divorced from the spaces they occupy within the house – items like perfume, hair care remedies and clothing connected to broader social concepts of feminine and masculine (as they, irritatingly, still do today), but were anchored to a performance of person rather than household space. In this – as with the use of objects to display wealth, status, class, social identity etc. within the household itself – that performance of identity is not just directed at the observer or, in the case of the household, the visitor, but also served to reflect the household back onto itself, reinforcing how James and Priscilla saw themselves within their world as well as how their world saw them. The things they owned connected them to the much wider world in which they lived – not just late 19th century Christchurch, but the broader expanses of British colonial culture and their own personal experiences, through time and across space. Perhaps not all of it would have been evident on first glance – or ever – to those who entered their home, but their participation in and identification with ideas and groups far beyond the walls of their house would nevertheless have been ever-present within their home, through the structure, through the material culture, and through their own social behaviour.
Jessie & Katharine
Beaudry, M., 2015. ‘Households beyond the House: On the Archaeology and Materiality of Historical Households’. In Fogle, K. R., Nyman, J. A. and Beaudry, M. C. (eds), Beyond the Walls: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Historical Households. University of Florida Press, Florida, pp. 1-22.
And so we reach the truly ‘private’ part of the house, which guests would never have entered. You could call this part of the house ‘private’, or you could call it a place of work. Both would be equally true and the fact is that the latter led to the former, for the care and maintenance and provisioning of a Victorian home was supposed to be effortless, thanks to the skilled management of the woman of the house. The kitchen (and the associated scullery and pantry) was specifically a place of women’s work, whether it was the women and girls who lived in the house, or the servant(s) employed by them, or both. As already noted, we’ve not found any evidence that the Chalmers employed servants, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t. By the 1890s, though, servants were becoming hard both to find and to retain in Aotearoa New Zealand, as other employment opportunities for women became more appealing (Macdonald 2000: 42).
The ‘private’ nature of the kitchen is key to understanding why the kitchen, the scullery and the pantry were all connected. Yes, it was convenient (and by no means everything about Victorian house layout was), as these spaces were used in tandem, but it also ensured that all the work carried out in these rooms remained invisible, that nobody had to pass through the hall carrying dirty dishes, or an armful of food or, worse still, to bump into a visitor while doing so. This too, is perhaps why the dining room in this particular house was connected directly to the kitchen, which was by no means the norm – in fact, it was not uncommon for the dining room to be some distance from the kitchen. The fact that neither solution was perfect highlights the difficulties of maintaining the separation between public and private.
The exact uses to which a kitchen was put would have depended on how the rest of the house was used. If Priscilla and James had had more children and had consequently not had a dining room, the kitchen would have been used for the consumption as well as the preparation of food. In a house without servants, it would have been where the woman of the house, and possibly her young children, spent much of the day. In a house with several servants, even family members would probably have spent little time in this part of the house. But it was always a place for preparing food. As such, the room was purely functional, with nothing in the way of decorative features. It would have had a large table in it, for preparing food at, and the walls in Priscilla’s kitchen were probably originally clad in match-lining (given that the walls in the adjacent scullery and pantry were).
The cupboards and walls would also have been home to the instruments of cooking and food preparation used by Priscilla and/or her possible servant. Many of these would have been familiar to us today – pots and pans, mixing bowls, baking dishes – although the materials from which they were made differed. No Pyrex or heat-proof glass for the kitchens of the nineteenth century, and probably fewer metal mixing bowls (stainless steel wasn’t a feature of kitchenware until the twentieth century). Those that did exist would likely have been enamelled to protect the metal from the food and vice versa. Pots and pans would have been cast iron in most cases and, again, some would have been enamelled on the inside. Ceramic was still one of the best, most durable and most heat-resistant materials of the nineteenth century, and the baking dishes and mixing bowls of the kitchen would have reflected this. All of these vessels, unlike the ceramics used on the table in the dining room, are likely to have been quite plain, although some examples of decorated mixing bowls exist in the Christchurch assemblage. Most of the utensils used in the kitchen are likely to have been made from wood or metal, and the fragility of those fabrics in the archaeological record means they’re not often found.
There seem to be two main ways in which late 19th century kitchens would have differed from modern kitchens. Well, actually, there are an awful lot of differences, but these two were fundamental and had a significant effect on the women who worked in late Victorian kitchens. They were the coal range and the meat safe. Or, in the case of the latter, the absence of a fridge and freezer. Think of what that means in terms of food storage and the frequency with which you’d need to go shopping, particularly at a time when you couldn’t get everything from one store, that dry goods came from one shop, meat from another, etc, etc. Then start to realise just how much preparing food might dominate a woman’s life. If preparing food dominated a woman’s life, the coal range was probably the most obvious symbol of that. Unlike a modern, temperature-controlled oven, a coal range needed to be carefully tended and fed. Further, it was often used to heat hot water (through a wetback) and was generally used year-round. So you had a fire going in the kitchen all year. The heat in here must have been in stark contrast to that in much of the rest of the house.
Katharine & Jessie
Macdonald, Charlotte. “Strangers at the Hearth: The Eclipse of Domestic Service in New Zealand Homes c.1830s-1940.” In At Home in New Zealand: Houses, History, People, edited by Barbara Brookes, 41-55. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2000.
Having described and discussed James and Priscilla’s bedroom, we move on to Margaret’s bedroom, which was immediately behind her parents’ bedroom. Margaret would have been about 18 when the family moved into the house and, as with her mother, we know very little about her life, particularly prior to her marriage. In fact, the only pre-marriage information (as it were) that I’ve been able to find is that, at age 12, she won a prize at school for her sewing (Press 17/12/1883: 3). Which is lovely, but just seems to feed into all the stereotypes about women’s roles in the 19th century. We don’t know how much longer she continued at school for (education was compulsory for Pākehā children up to the age of 13 in New Zealand from 1877), or whether or not she might have worked after she finished school, as became increasingly common for young women at the end of the 19th century (Olssen 2003: 84).
Margaret’s bedroom was pretty similar to her parents, although it was slightly smaller. The two bedrooms had identical fireplaces and mantelpieces, and this is one of the pieces of evidence that makes us think that the master bedroom was a master bedroom. The biggest difference between the rooms was in fact the amount of natural light they would have got. Priscilla and James’s bedroom faced northeast and would not only have received sun for most of the day, it had a pair of sash windows that would have let in a reasonable amount of light (veranda notwithstanding). Margaret’s bedroom, on the other hand, had just one window and it faced southwest. This would have been a cold, dark room.
Margaret’s bedroom would have functioned in a similar way to her parents, although it would not been a place for visitors to leave their coats and nor would it have been a place where children were born. Materially, there’s not likely to have been much of a difference between the objects used in each room (except, one assumes, a lack of male grooming products in Margaret’s bedroom!). Perhaps fewer ornamental objects, and smaller furniture. Her washbasin and ewer set may have been of slightly lesser quality, given that the space was more private than her parents’ bedroom, but they may also just have been decorated in a style more suited to her personal tastes. Unfortunately, without any artefacts from the house, it’s impossible to know what this might have been.
While we pause here in the second bedroom, about which there’s not a great deal to say, there two elements of late 19th century housing in Aotearoa New Zealand that I’d like to turn to very briefly. First up, door locks. Every internal door had a lock. Whether this was to really emphasise the point about privacy, or was for added security, I’m not sure, but it intrigues me. More to the point, I’d like to know when it stopped being a thing. Secondly, skirting boards. As already noted, the hall arch separated the public from the private within the house, and the (public) rooms in front of the hall arch were typically more decorative than those in front. One of the ways this played out was through the height of skirting boards, which were often higher in the public rooms than they were in the private rooms. This wasn’t just about display, but also about budget – the greater the height of the skirtings, the more they cost. In the Chalmers’ house, however, this was not the case and the skirting boards were the same height (and, at 270 mm high, these skirtings were a fairly normal height). Why there would be no difference is not known. Certainly, it’s clear from the other small details in the house that the Chalmers recognised and understood the relationship between public and private rooms and display. Perhaps the builder offered them a discount for a job lot of skirtings of the same height?
Katharine & Jessie
Olssen, Erik. “Working Gender, Gendering Work: Occupational Change and Continuity in Southern Dunedin.” In Sites of Gender: Women, Men and Modernity in Southern Dunedin, 1890-1939, edited by Barbara Brookes, A. Cooper and R. Law. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
The hall was, literally and figuratively, the centre of the middle class home: it typically ran down the middle of the house and it was the room that connected all other rooms. Except the service rooms at the rear of the house – there was a reason for this, which I’ll come to in a subsequent post. In general, in a middle class house, there wouldn’t be a direct connection between the parlour and the bedroom, for example. Instead, you’d go out of the parlour, into the hall and then into the bedroom. This was important, because it meant all spaces were separate, and private. The concept of the private world is critical to understanding both the Victorian villa and Victorian domestic life.
In the Victorian world, the prevailing middle class ideology held that the home was a private place, separate from the ‘public’ world of commerce, politics and economy. There were very clear gender divisions associated with this ideal, the private world of the home being the realm of women (and children) and the public world the realm of men. A woman’s role, then, was to create a calm, peaceful and respectable home that offered respite for her husband (or brother or son or father) from the vicissitudes of the public world. I can’t stress enough that this was an ideal, not necessarily reality, and a middle class one at that (Tange 2010: 12). Some scholars have suggested the idea of intersecting and overlapping spheres is a more accurate reflection of reality (Archer 2005: 201), while others have outlined the tensions implicit in the attempts to keep the public and private separate, and the impossibility of keeping the public world out of the home (Tange 2010: 12-16).
One of the ways the public world came into the home was through guests, who were by definition external to the family (I feel we’re getting awfully close to bubbles here…). While female guests are unlikely to have been seen as part of the public world, given that it was considered to be masculine, their access to the house they were visiting was still controlled, and it was controlled by the hall. In a middle class house such as James and Priscilla Chalmers’s, the arch across the hall, with its decorative plaster work, demarcated public from private. Those spaces in front of the arch were the public ones. Because visitors did not go beyond that arch, these public spaces were often more decorative than those behind, in terms of both features that were part of the house and the objects that were displayed.
The hall itself could be decorated, and the site of decorative objects, were it big enough. The Chalmers’s hall might just have been wide enough for a rather narrow table, but even that might have been a stretch. So there would have been little in the way of surfaces for objects to sit on, and there’s no evidence that were was a picture rail to hang pictures from. Nor was there a ceiling rose. So, while Priscilla and James had chosen to have a hall arch (and this was by no means the norm – people also used curtains or doors across the hall to separate public from private), they had elected not to have any other decorative features in the hall and to construct a hall that was too narrow for the extensive display of decorative objects. This is evidence of the complex interplay of factors that have always influenced the decisions of those building a house, whilst still remaining within – or at least close to – the budget.
For this reason, even if we had found artefacts from the Chalmers’s house, it’s unlikely we would have found any associated with the hallway. This is not to say that it wouldn’t have been a space in which portable material culture existed, but that most of those objects would have been temporary fixtures in the space, in keeping with the liminal function of the hall. There may have been an umbrella stand, or a coat rack, to hold the umbrellas, coats and hats of guests and residents alike. Unlike many of the objects in a house, these are ones that come and go with the people, rather than remaining with the house.
There was probably a door mat and, if Priscilla and James did have a narrow hall table, it may have held ornamental objects, like a vase or decorative figurines. In truth, perhaps the most likely object to have been placed in the hallway is one that we tend to take for granted now: lighting. Lighting is so much a part of modern household interiors that we can forget to think of it as the household artefact that it is. Built in the late 1880s, Priscilla and James’s house may quite easily have had gas fitted lights, but documentary and archaeological evidence shows that portable oil lamps and candlesticks remained in use decades after the introduction of gas lighting. However, without a hall table on which to rest, those lights would also have been temporary additions to the space, carried in and out of the darkened hallway by James and Priscilla as they moved from room to room throughout the house.
Katharine & Jessie
Archer, John. Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.
Kia ora koutou! And welcome to our online exhibition! As the title above indicates, it’s called ‘Home and contents: the archaeology of a Victorian villa’ and it’s part of the New Zealand Archaeological Association’s Archaeology Week 2020. You can find out more about that and all the other events taking place over here. The exhibition that we’ve curated is a room-by-room tour through a late 19th century villa in Ōtautahi Christchurch, looking at how each room was used and the kind of objects that would have been used in them. Through this, we hope to give you some insight into what domestic life in late 19th century Christchurch was like. And seeing as so many of us have become quite, quite familiar with our own homes over the last month, it seems quite appropriate.
Disclaimer: the artefacts featured were not recovered from the house that’s featured. Sometimes archaeology doesn’t give you what you want and, between us, we didn’t have a good house to feature that also had lots of artefacts.
And, particular thanks on this on to Matt Hennessey, for his excellent photographs of this particular house.
The house that James and Priscilla built
James and Priscilla Chalmers arrived in New Zealand in 1878, landing in Dunedin (Otago Daily Times 13/11/1878: 2). James was an engineer by trade, but more your 19th century type of engineer (i.e. working with his hands) than your 21st century type of engineer (more involved with design and supervision). Which is really just a complicated way of saying that James was very definitely working class. James was born in Liverpool in 1848 and started his working life as an apprentice in the Liverpool Dockyards. From there he moved into railways, a career choice that would end up taking him to Russia, of all places. He spent several years in Russia, only leaving at the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war of 1878-1879 (Press 19/4/1905: 8).
At some stage prior to this, James and Priscilla had married. Exactly when isn’t clear – 19th century women are frustratingly elusive. They typically only appear in the papers (the main source for so much research – thanks, Papers Past!) if they were socially prominent, in trouble with the law or advertising for servants. And of course, women signed the suffrage petition(s), another way they became historically visible (disappointingly, Priscilla did not). Sometimes a birth, marriage or death notice might make it into the papers, but in the case of the first your husband might get more of the credit. However, Priscilla and James had presumably married by the time their only child, Margaret, was born in c.1871 (BDM Online 1907/3963).
By c.1880, the Chalmers were resident in Scott Street, Christchurch, and James was working as a fitter at the railway workshops, as so many of those who lived in this part of the city did (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Heathcote) 1880-81: 6). Unfortunately, it’s not possible to work out exactly where on Scott Street the family were living, but the street was home to numerous small workers’ cottages, some of which remained standing until the earthquakes and it is possible that the Chalmers lived in a house that like these. Unsurprisingly, because we don’t know exactly where the Chalmers were living, it’s not possible to work out whether the family were renting a house or had bought or built one.
Two 19th century workers’ cottages on Scott Street. Images: K. Webb (top left) and P. Mitchell (bottom right).
By 1886, the family had moved (to somewhere on Lincoln Road) and James was now working for the Canterbury Tramway Company (New Zealand Electoral Roll (Sydenham) 1885-86: 7, Press 29/10/1886: 3). Just a couple of years later, James purchased the land – in Richmond Terrace (now Waller Street) – where he would build the house that’s the focus of this exhibition (yes, sorry, it took a while to get there). In June 1888, James took out a mortgage against the land with one Alexander Christian Fife (LINZ 1888). Mortgages in 19th century New Zealand were often personal loans, and James is likely to have known Fife through both work (Fife was involved with the railways) and the St Augustine Lodge, as both were also involved with this (Star 18/1/1895: 1, Press 21/12/1915: 6). It is likely that the mortgage was used to fund the construction of the house (mortgages taken out in such circumstances – against a bare piece of land – are often interpreted as being used to fund house construction, although the method is by no means foolproof).
The house seems to have been completed in 1889, by which time James was the general manager at the Canterbury Tramway Company (Press 7/11/1889: 1, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1890-91: 122). There’s a nice symmetry here, whereby James is moving up the employment ladder (and thus, to a certain extent up the class ladder, a managerial position like this one generally being associated with middle class status) at the same time that his family’s housing status seems to be improving, as you’ll come to see. Because the house that James and Priscilla built was a step up from the workers’ cottages typical of Scott Street.
The Chalmers built a bay villa, that typical late 19th century New Zealand house, albeit one that was much plainer than the classic examples (although my research suggests that bay villas were not, in fact, common in Christchurch in the 19th century). This villa was not particularly ornamental – there were pediments and panelling on the bay window, coloured and etched glass around the door and there may have been eaves brackets on the front of the house. There certainly were on the sides and rear but no evidence of them having been on the front remained. I think of this all as a fairly restrained form of decoration, and I am not the first person to suggest that houses in 19th century Christchurch were somewhat plainer than those built elsewhere in the country (Mulligan and Wright 2019: 70).
Details of the house that James and Priscilla built. Clockwise from top left: etched and coloured glass in the door surround (note also the vertical letter slot); panelling under the bay window; pediments associated with the bay window; the eaves brackets on the rear corner of the house. Images: M. Hennessey.
With seven rooms, the house was of a fairly average size, and would have allowed the Chalmers family to live there in some comfort. There was no room for a servant to sleep-in (and nor did Priscilla ever advertise for one – which is not evidence that she did not have one to help around the house), but there was a separate dining room, along with a scullery and pantry (as well the standard parlour, bedrooms and kitchen). The toilet would have been in a separate building in the back garden, possibly along with a copper for doing the laundry. This range of rooms was fairly standard for a family of the middling sort in this particular time and place.
Sadly, though, the family did not long enjoy the house. Priscilla died in 1892, aged 44, and a year later, Margaret married, leaving James alone in the house (Lyttelton Times 22/6/1892: 1, Star 8/1/1894: 2). There’s no evidence of James advertising for a servant either. While this isn’t evidence that he didn’t have one, this possibility is a tantalising one for the era. James remarried in 1897, to Annetta Kinsman, who was almost the woman next door – her brother had bought the section next to James’s in 1890 and was living there by 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 669, BDM Online 1897/2040, Wises New Zealand Post Office Directory 1898-99: 233). The couple did not have any children, and James died in 1905, after being ill for a time (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He left the house to Margaret, although he gave his wife permission to live there for three months after his death – this strikes me as curious, as he had, to all intents and purposes, left his wife homeless. He did leave her the rest of his estate, so she was not left penniless (Christchurch High Court 1905). The house, in fact, would stay in the Chalmers family until 1930 (LINZ 1888).
In all of this, I have not mentioned James’s political involvement. James was a member of the Working Men’s Political Association, which was established to advocate for the rights and working conditions of working men (Globe 4/3/1882: 3). Given this obvious interest, it is no surprise that he was also a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He held executive roles for each of these organisations (Press 19/4/1905: 8). He was also, for a time, a member of the Conciliation Board, a board that mediated in disputes between employees and employers (this short sentence significantly downplays the role of these boards in New Zealand’s labour history – you can learn a bit more here; Press 19/4/1905: 8). James was also a fairly active mason (Press 19/4/1905: 8). While I can’t speak to James’s involvement with the masons, his membership of the other organisations indicates a concern with the conditions and livelihood of his fellow members of the working class (or, if you prefer, a rabble-rousing troublemaker – but there is nothing in what I have learnt of James that suggests this).
So, that’s the story of James and Priscilla and the house they built. It’s a story of change and social mobility and the opportunities that New Zealand offered its European settlers (and hidden under that is the terrible cost of this to Māori). It’s a story of loss and possibly one of ambition. It’s also a story of labour activism, and of the roles everyday people play in much bigger social change. And it’s the story not just of the position of women in the 19th century, but their visibility in the historical record. I hope you’ll join us over the course of the next week as we explore more of the stories of James and Priscilla and the house they built.
New Zealand Electoral Roll. Available online at Ancestry.com.
Mulligan, Amanda, and Gareth Wright. “‘Why Not Live There?’ Two 1908 Houses in Addington and Hataitai.” In “The raging fury of Edwardian ornamentation” Meets “a virtual frenzy of stylism”: New Zealand Architecture in 1900s: A One Day Symposium, edited by Christine McCarthy, 65-70. Wellington: Victoria University, 2019.
This isn’t the post I’d originally intended to write this week, but who of us right now is doing what we thought we’d be doing even at the start of this week, let alone a few weeks ago? As the week has progressed, it has become increasingly difficult to see the relevance of that original idea in the current time and place. So, inspired by the work of a colleague (whose excellent blog post you can see here), I started thinking more about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand. What follows is a very once-over-lightly and rambling consideration about the different types of isolation experienced by the 19th century settlers of Canterbury, thinking about the sites of isolation I have worked on or know about. I’ve not discussed the types of isolation that Māori experienced during the century (although some may well have been the same as the European settlers, but there would also have been many types of isolation caused by colonialism), as I am in no position to do justice to this (but see this).
Isolation actually forms a fairly prominent theme in Aotearoa New Zealand’s historiography, thanks largely to the work of Miles Fairburn (1989). I’ll confess that I’ve not read all of Fairburn, but I think I’ve read enough, and enough about his work, to be able to summarise his arguments reasonably accurately (bearing in mind that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). I should say, too, that I’m going to focus on what Fairburn had to say about isolation in 19th century Aotearoa New Zealand, not his overall thesis. Fairburn (1989: 173) calculated that, prior to 1991, some 36-47% of the population did not have any physically close neighbours (I would contend that the methods used to generate this figure were not quite as robust as might be desirable – to be fair, it is not easy data to generate). He argued that this physical isolation was compounded by being a significant distance from ‘home’ in a strange country, without family and friends. He went on to argue that this isolation, in conjunction with relatively high levels of land ownership and relatively high levels of what he called transience (basically that people didn’t live in any one place for particularly long), combined to create an atomised society. This society was characterised by weak social bonds and high levels of drunkenness and violence (Belich 1991: 673). Subsequent work has found a more nuanced picture, and his work has been critiqued for not recognising that important social bonds formed in the face of this physical isolation (Ballantyne 2011: 61-62, Belich 1991: 674).
But it remains true that many of Aotearoa New Zealand’s 19th century settlers had left their homes to move to the other end of the world, and many came knowing that they were unlikely to see their family and friends again – I still cannot imagine the leap of faith that requires. Of course, in some cases, family and friends came too: the family of Ernest Oppenheim, who built one of the houses I’m researching, arrived in Christchurch gradually over a ten year period, most of them as adults (DLS 1865, 1872. And while others arrived on their own, they might have been attached to a broader community through religion or country of origin (Fraser 1997). While it was a lengthy boat journey back home, it was by no means impossible: Jessie’s work has found evidence of business owners travelling back to England for business purposes and I have come across families that travelled back simply for a visit. To be fair, this was often a visit of several years and probably the preserve of the wealthy. While it’s not the same, letters appear to have flown back and forth across the oceans, between New Zealand and family members who had not emigrated (Porter and Macdonald 1996: 2). Similarly, this was the age of the telegram, and English newspapers in particular were readily available in New Zealand’s cities, albeit somewhat out of date. All of these would have provided valuable and important connections between those who emigrated and those who did not.
For some settlers, there was also a very real isolation from others, even in this country. Take Mrs McRae, for example, who lived on Stronechrubie station*, way up in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, from about 1878-1892 and apparently went some 10 years without seeing another woman (Acland 1975: 301-302, 304; Brown 1940: 218). Pastoral stations in general lent themselves to isolated communities at least, if not always isolated individuals. The early boundary keepers of Canterbury (who were, as best my research has identified, fairly few and far between), however, would have been much more isolated, as would the occasional shepherds who lived out on the far reaches of the shepherd. These men would have lived on their own year-round, with just occasional visits from other station workers (I honestly don’t know whether wives might have lived with them).
While this isolation must have been pretty hard to deal with for some, there were others who actively sought it out. Take for example, Wyndham Barker, who I’ve written about before over here (and here), established an ice rink on the north bank of the Rangitata River in the 1930s, in the lee of Mt Harper. He and his wife, Brenda, lived here year-round – even today, it’s an hour (including a jet boat ride) from the nearest town (Geraldine). And that’s the quickest way to get there. While things would have been busy there in the winter, the Barkers would have lived in splendid isolation in the summer – and the spectacular scenery would have made it quite, quite splendid.
For those living in the cities, there was much less obvious isolation, although one of the criticisms levelled at city dwelling is the isolation that can be experienced in spite of being surrounded by so many people. It is difficult to explore this type of isolation archaeologically, however. Perhaps one of the more obvious ways that people would have experienced isolation in Christchurch is through physical and forcible isolation, in either gaol or the asylum. As with the other sites of isolation discussed here, these were sites of both physical and social isolation, but the social isolation in these cases was much more deliberate. The residents of these institutions were being isolated from the rest of society for what was believed to be the benefit of both society and the individual who was being isolated. Reality, of course, may have been very different for all concerned.
What I kept thinking about, though, as I wrote this post was that while all these people were isolated, and some in very remote locations, they all remained connected to the world in different ways. At the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum, in the early years at least, the public were encouraged to attend a range of events at the asylum, including dances, plays, church services and cricket matches (Seager 1987). Station diaries reveal a considerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing between different stations, whether for business or pleasure – there was the seasonal round of the shearing gangs, station employees would often go and carry out work on adjoining properties, and then there were social events, too, in the form of balls and other parties (Barker 1883: 90-91, 98). And I’ve already mentioned the various ways 19th century settlers remained connected to the world they’d left behind. From this I drew two conclusions. One: while life in 19th century New Zealand might seem isolated at first glance, once you start to look into it, it wasn’t. You might not have been able to video chat with your friends from all around the globe over lunch, but expectations were different then. And this connects to my second moral: our connections to people matter. This is stating the obvious, particularly in the current circumstances. But it’s worth remembering here and now that these connections have always mattered, and that our forebears coped with this isolation and that we will too. Humans are resilient and social beings and we will always find ways to connect with others in our isolation.
*A station (also known as a run) was a large landholding, typically of tens of thousands of acres.