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.