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.

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

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.


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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.