The Big House in a little town

The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the challenges faced by any new colony is what to do with the non-conformists, renegades, and criminals. The ideal, of course, is that your new paradise will be carefully designed to have eliminated these undesirable elements. The reality, however, is far from the ideal. The first lock-up in the Canterbury (consisting of three blockhouses) was located in Akaroa, a significant distance away from the growing towns of Christchurch and Lyttelton (Gee 1975: 5). These blockhouses appear to have been used until John Godley arrived on the scene in April 1850 and was appointed as the resident magistrate of Lyttelton (Gee 1875: 7). With his appointment, the location of the lock-ups/gaols moved to the fledgling port-town instead. The earliest gaols in Lyttelton were improvised and, for some enterprising fellows, rather portable. One particularly slapstick story of a runaway gaol involves some opportunistic pranking by the future gaol warden, Edward Seagar:

One night the prisoners in the lock-up, a flimsy, A-frame construction, took up the floor boards, lifted the building and walked away with it. Seagar arranged ropes and stakes in such a way that the escapees unknowingly headed towards the police station further down the hill (Young 2014).

The landing of passengers from the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy, and Sir George Seymour in Lyttelton c. 1850. Plenty of open space for pranks. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The first permanent gaol buildings in the settlement were constructed between 1851 and c.1857-1861 on Oxford Street, using both hired and prison labour (Gee 1975: 8, 10). Later buildings followed the design of B. W. Mountfort, who also designed the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum (Heritage New Zealand 2016). The decision to construct a gaol in a small town like Lyttelton may seem odd to us today, but the reasoning was fairly straightforward. Lyttelton was the bigger town at the time and the new buildings replaced the earlier makeshift prisons near the contemporary police station and court (Gee 1975: 10).

The Lyttelton Gaol, date unknown. Image: Cyclopedia Company Limited 1903. A later image of the gaol c. 1900 can be viewed here.

Early conditions in this gaol, according to some commentators, had something of a Dickensian feel:

The early days were those of the cat [of nine tails whip] and the triangle, of the 70lb dragging irons, the days of scanty clothing, poor food, the days when the warder was king (Gee 1975: 2).

Others have argued that, in light of the standards at the time, the treatment of the prisoners was not quite as cruel as it may seem to us today (Gee 1975: 10). Conditions were hampered by one major issue which arose in this early period - the swelling gaol population. This population growth was exacerbated by the incarceration of debtors and the mentally ill. The housing of the mentally ill at the gaol was particularly concerning to many (Young 2014). The young townships of Lyttelton and Christchurch simply did not have the facilities to deal with these patients at the time. To their credit, it was intended that the patients be housed in the new Christchurch Hospital, until there was a furore in response to this plan (Gee 1975: 35). The population pressures eased with the construction of Sunnyside Asylum in 1863, and the opening of the prison in Addington in the 1870s (Gee 1975: 30, 87).

Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. Image: Te Papa O.034082.

Part of the Addington Prison complex, c. 2005. Image: Wikimedia Commons. The prison is now a backpackers.

The position of the gaol within town life is quite interesting. As illustrated in the image above, the large Gothic style buildings were quite a dominating feature of the town. In addition to this, the prisoners were involved with a number of town works (discussed further below) and services which ensured a high public presence (Heritage New Zealand 2016). These services included a printing shop, a laundrette for the Lyttelton Hospital and Orphanage and the Immigration Department, and a baking contract for the orphanage (Gee 1975: 17). However, one comment from a resident regarding the communities’ view of the gaol (made after the demolition of the gaol in the 1920s) is particularly telling:

We never thought about the gaol.  We just knew it was there and that was it. But many people couldn’t have been pleased about it because there are few photographs of it and no paintings as far as I have found (C. Fletcher in Gee 1975: 87).

A rather macabre aspect of the prison, which feels particularly repugnant to us today, is that between 1868 and 1918 seven men convicted of murder were executed at the gaol. This was an aspect of the gaol that was a source of curiosity for some of the younger residents, but of dread for most. One resident stated: “In a little place like Lyttelton the knowledge of an impending execution used to hang like a pall over the whole town” (I. Gray in Gee 1975: 47). It is quite a stretch for me to imagine a community continuing with their daily lives in the anticipation of such an event. Executions appear to have been so entrenched in the town’s psyche that despite the fact that the bell did not toll for the last execution in 1918, many residents insist they remember it ringing (Gee 1975: 47).

A poem by Basil Dowling. The role of the hangman was a necessary part of the justice system, which carried a heavy stigma for the men who did the job. There are a number of cases where officers had to smuggle the hangman in to avoid the curiosity and/or anger of the general public.

The archaeological legacy of the prison and prisoners remain visible in many aspects of the town today. All that remains of the gaol itself are concrete retaining walls, a small block of cells, pedestrian pathways and concrete steps. These remains are an important archaeological site, particularly as they are demonstrative of some of the earliest use of concrete in New Zealand (Heritage New Zealand 2016).

The remaining cells and concrete walls of the prison. Image: A. Bulovic, 2013 Peeling Back History.

However, we can also see the influence of the gaol on the Lyttelton settlement through other features of the town. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour were part of gangs put to work on public works, such as road formation and retaining wall construction. In particular, the red volcanic retaining walls constructed during this period have been described as a distinctive part of the townscape. Unfortunately, as with much of Lyttelton’s heritage, a number of these walls have been repaired or replaced after the damage from the earthquakes.

Earthquake damaged walls at the corner of Coleridge Terrace and Dublin Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2015.

 The newly constructed concrete wall on Sumner Road, with partial re-facing using the volcanic stone from the demolished wall. The re-facing will occur on as many of the key retaining walls across the town, as funding allows. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

A collapsed wall at 61 St Davids Street. Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The same wall after deconstruction and reconstruction work (all completed by hand). Image: M. Hickey, 2016.

The port also benefited from convict labour in the form of reclamation construction and wharf building (Gee 1975: 17). Another notable site of works is the fortifications at Ripapa Island, which were constructed in the 1860s and 1870s by the Hard Labour Gang and were even used to house some prisoners (Gee 1975: 22). Prisoners housed on the island reportedly included members of the Parihaka resistance movement in Taranaki in 1880s (Donna R 2014). These men are remembered today during a service on the 5th of November each year and a memorial at Rapaki (Lyttelton Community House Trust 2013).

In many ways, the Lyttelton Gaol was a product of its time; the morality of Victorian Britain, the realities of a new colonial land and the challenges of a growing society. However, the legacy of the gaol should not be limited to a grim spectre of past principles. Prisoners made a considerable contribution to the development of the town through the construction of infrastructure. Despite the recent changes to the townscape, the influence of the gaol remains a visible part of Lyttelton’s heritage.

Megan Hickey


Gee, D. 1975. The Devil’s Own Brigade: A History of the Lyttelton Gaol 1860-1920. Wellington: Millwood Press Ltd.

A local Lyttelton landmark lives on

Refurbished Albion Square, Lyttelton. Image: Christchurch City Council.
Refurbished Albion Square, Lyttelton. Image: Christchurch City Council.

This week on the blog, we look at what we found beneath a local landmark in the community of Lyttelton: the newly refurbished Albion Square.

The Albion Square, on the corner of London and Canterbury streets, is home of the Lyttelton War Memorial Cenotaph. It also acts as a community focal point, and is a testament to the recovery of the port town. However, the longer-standing residents of Lyttelton may recall that this was also once the site of the square’s namesake: the historic Albion Hotel.

We can trace the establishment of the first hotel at this site to 1858, when local merchant John Collier was granted a liquor licence, transforming his grocery store into the Albion Hotel. A year later he added a saddle horses for hire business to the rear of the hotel. An 1862 advertisement in the Lyttelton Times, for the lease of the hotel provides the first known description of Collier’s hotel:

The premises consist of a commodious bar, bar parlour, dining and sitting rooms, with 15 bedrooms, making up 24 beds; also skittle ground and outhouses. This establishment has for the last three years, been favoured with the support of the settlers of the Peninsula particularly.

Lyttelton Times 1/11/1862: 6.

A map of Lyttelton drawn in the 1860s shows the Albion Hotel fronting London Street. Two smaller buildings are shown to the rear of the hotel. These probably represent the outhouses and stables mentioned in newspaper sources (Lyttelton Times 8/1/1859: 5, 1/11/1862: 2).

Detail of an 1860s map of Lyttelton showing structures extant along London Street at the time. Albion  Hotel section outlined in red. Image: Rice 2004: 28.
Detail of an 1860s map of Lyttelton showing structures extant along London Street at the time. Albion Hotel section outlined in red. Image: Rice 2004: 28.

Collier was fortunate that his hotel survived the Lyttelton fire of 1870, which destroyed much of the Lyttelton central business district. In 1881, the original building was sold and removed from the site (Press 14/1/1881: 4). The sale advertisement described the old building as:

Covered with slates, and contains a large quantity of timber and bricks while the intended replacement was a stylish brick edifice to be substituted in its place, whenever the ancient hostelry is removed.

Press 21/1/1881: 2.

Later in 1881 the stables behind the hotel caught fire (Press 22/8/1881: 2). Little damage was done, but the resulting newspaper item indicates the stables were constructed from galvanised iron. The new Albion Hotel continued operating into the 20th century and can be seen in a photograph taken in 1911.  In 1943 a new façade was added to the building (Burgess 2009).

A 1911 photograph showing the Albion Hotel on the corner of London Street and Canterbury Street. Image: Burgess 2009.
A 1911 photograph showing the Albion Hotel on the corner of London Street and Canterbury Street. Image: Burgess 2009.

Over the course of the 19th century, the Albion Hotel and horse for hire business had at least 17 proprietors between them, and more still after the turn of the century. This high turnover complicated the task of attributing the artefacts recovered from the site to a specific individual. The dateable artefacts that were recovered from the site all post-date 1857, confirming that the assemblage was associated with the Albion Hotel. However, serval discreet archaeological features may have been deposited at different times.  The deposition dates of these features range from 1861 to the late 19th century. It is possible that the piece of salvaged roofing slate may have been part of the original Albion Hotel which was removed from the site in 1881 (Press 21/1/1881: 2).

An aerated water bottle manufactured by T. Raine between 1861 and 1871. Image: C. Dickson.
An aerated water bottle manufactured by T. Raine between 1861 and 1871. Image: C. Dickson.

The archaeological material that was recovered was found in a series of rubbish pits, located mainly toward the rear of the hotel site. From this evidence it is apparent that the back of the section was seen as a convenient location to dispose of the breakages and detritus associated with the day-to-day operation of the Albion Hotel. It is possible that the proprietors of the hotel may have deposited waste into these rubbish pits to avoid rubbish collection costs.

The rubbish pits contained combinations of artefacts that are signatures of 19th century hotel sites, such as alcohol bottles, matching serving ware sets and food remains. The alcohol bottles consisted mainly of black beers, though wine bottles, case gin bottles, spirit-shaped bottles and matching glass tumblers were also present. The contents of these bottles cannot be confirmed, as specific alcohol bottle shapes were commonly re-used for alternative purposes. However, it is probable that beer, wine, gin and other spirits were being served at the Albion Hotel. These vessels are also likely to only represent a fraction of the alcohol that was served. The presence of disposable clay pipes with use-wear indicates that the hotel patrons were also smoking at this site.

Rubbish pit feature consisting largely of broken 19th century alcohol bottles. Scale is in 200 mm increments. Image: M. Carter.
Rubbish pit feature consisting largely of broken 19th century alcohol bottles. Scale is in 200 mm increments. Image: M. Carter.
Stem of a clay smoking pipe manufactured by Charles Crop, London between 1856 to c.1891. Image: C. Dickson.
Stem of a clay smoking pipe manufactured by Charles Crop, London between 1856 to c.1891. Image: C. Dickson.

The matching decorative patterns that were found on ceramic tableware and servingware sets are representative of a standardised material culture, and this fashion can be associated with the Victorian idea of social respectability (Samford 1997). It is possible that this servingware is an indication that food was served at the hotel. However, there was a notable absence of condiment bottles from this site. This is unusual, as condiment bottles are typically abundant in 19th century hotel sites.

Fragments of platter and dinner plate set decorated with under-graze transfer print technique. Image C. Dickson.
Fragments of platter and dinner plate set decorated with under-graze transfer print technique. Image C. Dickson.

A number of animal bones with butchery marks were also recovered, the most common of which were cuts of lamb and mutton leg. It is probable that these cuts were being served to the patrons of the Albion Hotel. Shellfish, including oyster, rock oyster, cockle and cat’s eye were also recovered. These are all species that were locally available. There is a notable absence of fish and bird remains from the faunal assemblage. This is unusual, as 19th century hotels have been found to be more likely to serve fish and bird than private houses (Watson 2000).

A newspaper advertisement indicates that the Albion Hotel had rooms at the back that were for the owner’s family (Press 9/5/1882: 3). While both commercial and domestic items were recovered from this site, there appears to be a lack of domestic items that are typically associated with family homes. With the exception of chamber pots, this may be because hotel guests would bring these personal items with them during their visits, and would be unlikely to leave them at the hotel to be discarded.

The Albion Hotel artefact assemblage is comparable to other 19th hotel assemblages in Christchurch, such as the Oxford-on-Avon Hotel and the Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel. All three sites yielded large quantities of alcohol bottles, with black beer bottles being the most prominent. Glass servingware and matching decorative ceramic servingware sets were also present at all sites: the Asiatic Pheasants pattern was dominant at the Oxford-on-Avon, and Willow pattern was well represented at the Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel, while the Albion Hotel appears to have had sets of Willow and unidentified sponged and leaf tableware sets. Unlike Zetland Arms/Parkers Hotel, no evidence that could be associated with the neighbouring stables (such as horseshoes) was recovered from this site, despite the fact that the saddled horse for hire business appears to have been long-running at this address.

Matching sponged teacup and saucer set. Image: C. Dickson.
Matching sponged teacup and saucer set. Image: C. Dickson.

By combining the historical and archaeological information from the Albion Hotel site, the activities of those who lived there was revealed to show the use and modification of the section over time. This assemblage has shed light on the operation of a 19th century hotel in Lyttelton, and the provision of food and drink in this context. This site is also comparable to other 19th century hotels within Christchurch, and has the potential to add to our general understanding of similar establishments in the area. This analysis has salvaged a snapshot of one of Lyttelton’s historic watering holes, adding to the charisma of the vibrant entertainment hub of modern Lyttelton.

Chelsea Dickson


Burgess, R., 2009. Registration Report for Historic a Area: Lyttelton Township Historic Area (Vol. 2). Unpublished report for New Zealand Historic Places trust Pouhere Toanga.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed July 2014].

Press. [online] Available at: [Accessed July 2014].

Rice, G., 2004. Lyttelton: Port and town. An illustrated history. Canterbury University Press, Christchurch.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Watson, K., 2000. A land of plenty? Unpublished Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Otago.

If the boot fits, wear it


My passion is anything and everything to do with archaeology. So when I was given the opportunity to be an intern at Underground Overground Archaeology Ltd., I jumped at this chance of a lifetime! My name is Jessica Hofacher and I am a year 13 student at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery Secondary School. Next year I will be pursuing my passions by studying archaeology at the University of Otago. This year I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Gateway (work experience) program and be taken on by this remarkable company!

Over the last 10 months I have been researching and compiling an information database for the types of shoes available in Christchurch in the 1800s. I did this by searching through old newspapers (available on Papers Past) for information on the styles of shoes available, the people selling them, the methods of manufacture used to make them and the amount of money they cost.


I was asked to research using this method so I could get an understanding of the advantages of this process and also how time-consuming it can be. It was very effective at producing an enormous amount of data, but it also means that it takes a very long time to process and sort through all the information! And I mean a veeeeery long time! To research what shoes were available in Christchurch in the 1850s to the end of the 1870s, who sold them and for how much and what methods of manufacture were used, I had to sort through hundreds of advertisements from the Lyttelton Times, Press, Timaru Herald, Star and the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsular Advertiser, which took me eight months of Wednesdays!

This topic is very important to archaeologists in Christchurch because not much information is known about shoes in this context.

Footwear remains a neglected artefact despite its common occurrence on … historical sites… when considering artefacts in historical archaeology we think immediately of tea cups, medicine bottles and clay pipes. It is important however to consider artefacts other than those that appear in abundance such as ceramic and glass… one category which has received scant consideration by archaeologists is leather footwear… footwear is only occasionally referred to in site reports and typically only in a brief and non-analytical manner.” (Veres 2005:89)

My research is important to the team working here because when a shoe is found in a Christchurch site, they can look at my information database and deduce “Okay, this style of shoe was not available in Christchurch before this date so this shoe (and assemblage) must date to a point after this date” or “This style of shoe was sold in Christchurch for this amount of money in 1864 which shows the inhabitants of this site could have been fairly well off.”

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An interesting trend I found in the data was how many shoe businesses were in Lyttelton in the 1850s. In the years 1852, 1853, 1854 and 1856, there were seven shoe businesses in Lyttelton! Three, possibly four were on London Street, two were on Canterbury Street and the other one was on Oxford Street. This means that within five years of European settlement, Lyttelton had seven potential places you could go to purchase shoes. This is a lot considering most shopping precincts these days (excluding malls) have only one -maybe two - shops that sell shoes.

It makes me ask the question, ‘how many people were living in Lyttelton and the surrounding area at that time, that it warranted having so many businesses to manufacture shoes?’ Lyttelton was the main port for import and export in Christchurch so in one way the abundance of businesses makes sense. But if you consider that nearly all of these businesses were manufacturing their own shoes, then the port doesn’t really play much of a role in supplying them with imported stock. These little insights into the urban layout of Canterbury regions are very special because it allows us to imagine what it was like to be a part of the community at that time. It also allows us to speculate on the type of people who owned these businesses and why, and the kinds of people who were buying from them (based on what types of shoes were being sold).

One such business was ‘West End House’ on London Street, Lyttelton, owned by Thomas and Robert Shalders. This is completely my speculation and personal opinion (based on what I’ve read so far) but I’m sure if more research was done much information such as this could be found out. Thomas and Robert Shalders were brothers who in 1853 opened a business where they could sell their wares, called West End House (Lyttelton Times 13/8/1853:11). This business may have been the beginning of their adult life as shoe manufacturers, which I’m sure they hoped would turn into a successful career, perhaps one that would support their wives and young families. They were not restricted to making and selling shoes for only one demographic, so patrons of all ages could satisfy their soles’ with strong and stolid shoes.

My time spent at UOA has been immensely enjoyable and very informative. I’ve found things out about what it’s like to have a career as an archaeologist that I could not have discovered any other way. The team here has given me insights and advice about studying at Otago, what courses will be useful for me and about how to get where I want to be in my future career. Not only have I found things out about what it's like to be an archaeologist, I have been able to experience what it's like working as one! My research project has given me an insight into information about Christchurch’s past that I never would have thought to look at on my own. Completing my research was like being transported back in time 164 years and personally speaking with the residents of Christchurch. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Jessica Hofacher


Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at:

Myer.G-C, 2012. The Lascaux Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 November 2014].

Veres, M., 2005. Introduction to the analysis of archaeological footwear. Australasian Historical Archaeology 23: 89-96.

"the marvellous antiquity...of our beloved ritual" - Past Master G. W. Speth, 1893.


Context is an important concept in archaeology. Everyday artefacts, often mundane and fragmented, can take on a powerful meaning due to an unusual placement or an association with other material of a different type or function. These circumstances will often nudge the archaeologists towards stories about the past that are easily overlooked in favour of the stronger, overarching narrative of a site’s archaeology. The excavation of Grubb cottage in Lyttelton in 2010 provided an opportunity to contemplate the broader meaning of two common artefacts recovered from unusual contexts. This incongruity, combined with a consideration of the broader context of the cottage’s history, informs an interpretation of the cottage’s occupants that extends beyond the daily domestic activities so often reflected in the archaeology of historical residences in New Zealand. Grubb cottage is one of the oldest standing residential buildings in Christchurch. John Grubb, a ship’s carpenter from Scotland, was stranded in Wellington in 1847 when the ship on which he was employed was condemned due to leaks on a voyage between London and Melbourne (Cyclopedia 1903a). He made his way down to the newly established port of Lyttelton in search of work, and he liked it so much he decided to settle there and bring out his family from Scotland. His wife, Mary, and their three daughters arrived in 1850 on the Charlotte Jane, one of the "first four ships".

John and Mary Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903a.
John and Mary Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903a.

With them they brought the building tools with which John established a thriving shipwright’s business at the port (Amodeo and Chapman 2003: 88). In 1851 John was the first to purchase a town section in Lyttelton after the balloted sections were allotted. On this section in London Street he built a simple timber cottage. The Grubb family grew as John’s business prospered and John himself became a figure of importance in the local community. He served on the borough council, as did his son James who became the Mayor of Lyttelton in 1902. When John died in 1898 (LINZ c.1860: 5W237), James inherited the cottage, which had been enlarged by a significant addition to the south elevation (Cyclopedia 1903b). The cottage remained in the Grubb family for over a century until it was sold in 1961 (HMS 2008: 8).

James Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903b.
James Grubb. Image: Cyclopedia 1903b.

The archaeological excavation of Grubb cottage highlighted two themes: the deposition of the material debris of a century’s worth of occupation by the Grubb family, and changes made to the cottage and surrounding landscape as the Grubb family grew in number and community prominence. However, within these overarching narratives two small artefacts stood out due to their unusual context. During the excavation of new pile holes two timbers were uncovered, one under the other, running north-south along the line of the east elevation of the original cottage. Two coins were found lying on these timbers, later identified as a British bronze halfpence and a bronze penny (Clayton 2013). Unfortunately much of the detail on these coins was corroded but the material, dimensions and remaining detail were enough to date their issue to 1860-1890 and 1874 respectively.

The bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage.
The bronze penny (left) and half-penny (right) recovered from Grubb cottage.

Archaeologists often find coins during excavations and these can be useful for dating the context in which they were found. However, these coins were under the original cottage, which was built in the early 1850s and therefore predated the coins’ issue.  It is here that the physical context in which the coins were found provided a possible explanation for the dating discrepancy. The coins appeared to have been deliberately placed - what if their placement had a ritual purpose, rather than being the result of careless discard? It is likely that the east elevation of the original cottage was the location of the formal entrance until the addition, which included a new front door, was made to the south elevation at an unknown date. The date of the coins precludes any association with the opening of the original cottage entrance, but was it possible that they were used to ceremonially close that entrance before the opening of another? In which case, the coins would date the construction of the southern addition to sometime after 1874.

This possibility is evocative of common ceremonies such as the laying of time capsules, a custom that has been identified at several Christchurch buildings including an early 20th century Masonic lodge. Freemasons held elaborate ceremonies to lay the foundation stones of Masonic buildings, and these almost always included the laying of a time capsule containing a newspaper and coins (Speth 1893).Mention of Freemasonry often conjures notions of conspiracy theories and Dan Brown books, but ‘the brotherhood’ was a real and powerful influence in New Zealand’s male-dominated colonial society. The first lodge in New Zealand opened in Wellington in 1842 and by 1890 New Zealand boasted 151 lodges (Phillips 2012).Members included important society and political leaders, such as Richard Seddon, New Zealand premier and the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of New Zealand.

Now this is where the broader context of the archaeology of Grubb cottage affects the meaning of those two little coins found in the ground – both John Grubb and his son James were Freemasons. Not only were they Freemasons, but they were leaders of the Masonic community in Lyttelton for almost 40 years. Together with several others they succeeded in founding the Canterbury Kilwinning lodge in 1875 (Press 3/12/1875; 21/2/1898). This was the second Masonic lodge in Lyttelton, the first being the Lodge of Unanimity, which was established in 1851 (Cyclopedia 1903c). Three years later John Grubb was elected lodge treasurer while James was elected a senior warden (Press 6/12/1878). The Kilwinning Lodge commissioned the construction of a hall on Canterbury Street, for which James Grubb as Worshipful Master laid the foundation stone in a ceremony in 1881 (Press 30/5/1881). John Grubb remained treasurer of the Kilwinning lodge for 18 years, resigning shortly before his death in 1898 (Press 3/12/1896).

So, if the placement of the coins was related to change in the cottage structure, it is possible that the Grubb cottage coins had a ritual significance that echoed the traditions of Freemasonry. But why were coins and newspapers used in such ceremonies? The reason seems obvious – to provide temporal information concerning the construction of the building for posterity in case of the building’s destruction. However, one would expect that the future destruction of the building was not a desirable result. Could there be an underlying explanation for these ritual actions?

George Speth, a prominent English Mason, related components of Masonic tradition to the folklore of construction. After all, a mason is a builder, and the Freemasons traced their origins to the cathedral builders of medieval Europe, and building tools were treasured symbols of the society (Newton 1921: 97-124). Speth associated common builders’ rites with the ancient belief that in order to ensure the permanence and stability of a structure it must be imbued with a soul (Speth 1893: 3). He suggested that originally this was undertaken by human sacrifice. Legends from around the world connect death to construction and Speth cited instances where human bones have been uncovered in the foundations of ancient buildings (Speth 1893: 4-22). He maintained that over time such sacrifice became symbolic in nature, with the use of animals and animal products, images and effigies. It is this symbolic form of sacrifice that Speth related to the custom of including coins in foundation ceremonies - ”…coins bearing the effigy, impressed upon the noblest of metals, the pure red gold of the one person to whom we are all most loyal, and whom we all most love, our Gracious Queen…” (Speth 1893: 22) - even if the conscious intention of imbuing the structure with a protective spirit had been shed over time.

A stained glass window depicting Saint Columba in Iona Abbey, Scotland.
A stained glass window depicting Saint Columba in Iona Abbey, Scotland.

John Grubb was a builder by trade and a Freemason of high standing in Lyttelton. It is entirely likely that he was aware of the traditions and rites associated with construction. It is even possible that, on the closing of the old entrance to his cottage, he buried two coins to ceremonially mark the occasion. He didn’t necessarily do this while fully conscious of all the connotations of this little ritual. Perhaps it was done out of deference to Masonic practice, or perhaps it was done out of habit – an old superstition he picked up during his time in the building trade in Scotland. Whatever his motivation, this interpretation of past events was only made possible through consideration of two mundane objects within their immediate and broader context.

Rosie Geary Nichol


Amodeo, C. and Chapman, R., 2003. The Forgotten Forty-Niners: being an account of the men and women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury pilgrims in 1850. Christchurch: Caxton Press.

Clayton, T., 2013. Coins of England and Great Britain. [online] Available at:

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903a. Professional, Commercial and Industrial: Mr. John Grubb. [online] Available at:

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903b. Lyttelton: His Worship the Mayor, Mr. James Grubb, J.P. [online] Available at:

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903c. Orders and Friendly Societies: Masonic: New Zealand Constitution: Unanimity Lodge. [online] Available at:

Heritage Management Services (HMS), 2008. Grubb Cottage Conservation Report. Unpublished report.

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), c.1860. Probate Index – 5W237. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch Office.

Newton, J. F., 1921. A Story and Study of Masonry. [online] Available at:

Philips, J., 2012. ‘Men’s clubs – Masons’. [online] Available at:

Press. [online] Available at:

Speth, G. W., 1893. ‘Builders’ Rites and Ceremonies: Two Lectures on the Folk-Lore of Masonry. Delivered by G. W. Speth to the Members of the Church Institute, Margate, On the 30th October and 13th November, 1893. [online]. Available at: