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: a bird’s eye view

“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.

The house that James and Priscilla built in 1889. Image: M. Hennessey.

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 depressingly predictable. 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.

An example of recent global fascination with other people’s homes and backgrounds through the Zoom lens.

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).  

The material culture of dining. Image: J. Garland.

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.

Home and contents: the scullery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharine & Jessie


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

Home and contents: the dining room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharine & Jessie


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

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

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

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