Of universities and architecture

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.

The librarian’s house immediately post-earthquake. I have not researched when the house stopped being used as a librarian’s house, but it was a commercial premises by 2011 and the interior had been pretty much entirely stripped out and refitted. Image: K. Watson, for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

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).[1] 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 North Quad, The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. These quads mimicked the layout of the colleges at Cambridge and Oxford. Image: Krzysztof Golik, 2017.

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).

Christ’s College. This school was established in 1850 (although not on this site) on the model of the English public school system. Image: Wikipedia.

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.

The 1874 Armson library building. The polychromatic brick work, pointed window arches and rondels are particularly distinctive Venetian Gothic features. Image: K. Watson, for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

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.

The timber version of the house (all Collins Harman plans show timber houses in this colour, as opposed to the red used for brick buildings). Image: Librarian’s house, Public Library, No. 1, Armson Collins Architectural Drawing Collection, Macmillan Brown Library.

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).

The brick version of the house. Image: Librarian’s house, Public Library, No. 1, Armson Collins Architectural Drawing Collection, Macmillan Brown Library.

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.

Lovell-Smith, Melanie, 2001. ‘Arts Centre of Christchurch’ [online]. Available at https://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/7301 [Accessed 15 Decemeber 2020].

Tau, Te Marie, 2016. ‘The values and history of the Ōtākaro and North and East Frames’ [online]. Available at https://matapopore.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/GrandNarratives_InternalPages-Copy-small.pdf [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, 2020.’ Kā Huru Manu’ [online]. Available at https://www.kahurumanu.co.nz/atlas [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Tikao, Debbie, n.d. ‘The Public Realm of Central Christchurch Narrative’ [online]. Available at https://www.otakaroltd.co.nz/assets/Uploads/ThePublicRealm.pdf [Accessed 15 December 2020].

Ussher, Robyn, 1983. ‘Armson in Christchurch’. In W. B. Armson: A Colonial Architect Rediscovered. Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch. Pp. 13-16.

[1] 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.

Home and contents: life in the Avon loop

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).

Joseph & Harriet Francis. Source: Ancestry 2020.

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.

The Avon loop, 1877. Source: Strouts 1877.
The Avon loop, 1959, looking southeast. Image: Avonside, Christchurch. Whites Aviation Ltd: Photographs. Ref: WA-49731-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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.

The north elevation of Cora Villa. Image: P. Mitchell.

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!



Ancestry, 2000. ‘Joseph William Francis’ [online] Available at: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/13599389/person/12981309397/facts [accessed 21 October 2020].

Farrell, Fiona, 2015. The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City. Vintage, Auckland.

Globe. Available at https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

LINZ, 1879. Certificate of title 38/187, Canterbury. Landonline, Land Information New Zealand.

LINZ, 1883. Certificate of title 92/203, Canterbury. Landonline, Land Information New Zealand.

Lyttelton Times. Available at https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

NZER (New Zealand Electoral Rolls) (Timaru), 1893. Available at: https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1836/

Press. Available at https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Star (Christchurch). Available at https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Strouts, Frederick, 1877. Christchurch, Canterbury, 1877. Ward & Reeves, Christchurch.

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.



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