Urban infrastructure

The light fantastic

In last week's blog post, we talked about the use of light in Christchurch’s city streets and public spaces, from oil lamps to gas lights to electricity in the early 20th century. This week, we step out of the street and through the door into the house, where 19th century residents harnessed everything from naked flame to caged lightning (their words, not mine) to illuminate their daily lives. In the first years of European settlement, unsurprisingly, lighting options were limited. Setters in the 1850s and early 1860s would have relied exclusively on candles and kerosene for lighting in the home. These had the advantage of being cheap, easy and portable. They also had the disadvantage of being smoky, dim, sometimes odorous and prone to setting things on fire. In a settlement largely constructed from timber, the last of these was definitely a concern.

Candles and kerosene or oil lamps weren’t just used because of a lack of alternative options, however. Even after the introduction of gas lighting into homes later in the 19th century, candles and lamps continued to be a popular method of illuminating the room, so to speak, with contemporary newspapers advertising their use well into the 20th century (Ashburton Guardian 12/05/1900: 3, Star 12/09/1896: 4). In truth, candle light is probably the form of household lighting for which we have the most archaeological evidence, in the form of candle sticks, chamber sticks and candle snuffers. Most households are likely to have had several candle sticks and/or chamber sticks, the flat circular candle holders with a handle and inbuilt snuffer holder for ease of carrying (presumably into the bedchamber, hence the name).

Candle sticks and a candle snuffer. Candle snuffers would often rest on the cone of chamber sticks (see picture below) for ease of access. Image: J. Garland.

We’ve talked about the types of candles available to consumers before on the blog, from cheap tallow candles to spermaceti (or, as they are hilariously referred to sometimes, sperm candles) and stearine candles, advertised for their superior quality and bright light. The amount of light provided from each of these varied, as one would expect, but even the best stearine candle was limited in the amount of illumination that it could provide. Stearine candles were, however, the ones used as a measurement of candle power against new light forms like burning magnesium. Lights could be anything from 15-20 candle power (basic lamps) to bright light house beacons with candle power measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Advertisement for prize medal spermacetti and stearine candles from the

Candles, like the candle sticks and chamber sticks in which they were displayed, also came in a variety of forms, with some attention paid to appearance. For example, one advertisement offers “plain, fluted or coloured piano and bedroom candles”, suggesting that different candles may have been used in different – perhaps public and private – parts of the house. Similarly, the candlesticks we’ve found have been both decorated and undecorated, in everything from brass to porcelain to plain old refined earthenware. In this way, as with almost every other object we use in our lives, the provision of artificial light becomes another avenue for the expression of style and status and taste within the home (as is still the case today, from modern industrial chic fittings to terrible awful 1970 glass lamp shades).

Ceramic chamber sticks or chamber candle sticks. Note the cone for the snuffer and, although they're all roughly the same shape, the differing decoration. Image: J. Garland.

The same thing is apparent with oil and kerosene lamps.  While we tend to only find the plainer lamps in the archaeological record, if we find them at all (lamp glass is thin and fragile and usually in tiny pieces by the time it gets to us), a variety of elaborate casings were available to discerning consumers. Kerosene and oil lamps, as I’m sure many of you are aware, operated by burning fuel, usually stored in a burner at the base of the lamp, through the means of a wick, either an upright or flat wick or a circular rolled wick (also known as the Argand lamp), aided by a draught from the glass chimney casing.

Both kerosene lamps and candles were used in hanging lamps, chandeliers and light fittings as well as the portable lamps and holders that we commonly find in the archaeological record.  In fact, archaeological evidence for the more elaborate lights and light fittings is scarce. I think this is probably because they were part of the furnishings of a house and a) less likely to have been broken or damaged than portable lights and b) more likely to have been refitted for gas and/or electricity later on (although we also don’t find many original light fittings in extant 19th century buildings today).

A 'finger' lamp found on a site in central Christchurch and an advertisement showing the selection of lamps available to the consumer. This is the base of a kerosene lamp that would have looked a bit like this when complete.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, gas began to be used for lighting in Christchurch in the 1860s. The Christchurch Gas Company was formed in 1862, by which point “the city of Christchurch [had] attained such dimensions and density that it appears capable of supporting a Gas Factory.” The company was formed with the purpose of lighting the city, and the advantages of gas as “the cheapest and safest means of illumination yet offered to the public” were emphasised, particularly in comparison to the cost of oil and candles (Press 22/11/1862: 6). Works were carried out throughout 1863 and 1864 and by November 1864, they were giving notice that gas would be supplied to consumers by early December, aided by the work of Mr Edward Reece, who would “furnish the internal fittings.” The first use of gas lighting in a building appears to have been in late December 1864, when Coker’s Hotel, J. G. Ruddenklau’s City Hotel and a few other buildings braved “the new acquisition” (New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian 28/12/1864: 3).

Notice of the first use of gas lighting in buildings in Christchurch, given in December 1864. Image:

By the 1870s and 1880s, many people were lighting their rooms with gas, piped through a meter from the mains laid down under the roads (the connection initially paid for by the Christchurch Gas Company). Public buildings were also outfitted with gas pipes and lamps, although kerosene also seems to have maintained a tenacious hold in some places: the Canterbury Provincial Chambers, although fitted with gas pipes, were still being lit with kerosene in November 1865, much to the outrage of one letter-writing citizen in the local newspaper. Interestingly, gas lighting in domestic residences is another thing that’s under-represented in the archaeological record, likely for the same reasons as the fixed oil and candle light fittings are missing. In fact, sometimes we only find indirect evidence of it, through the presence of associated architectural features like gas vents in ceilings.

Archaeological evidence for gas lighting in buildings. Top: a ceiling vent in a 19th century house. Below: one of the gas light fittings from the Canterbury Provincial Chambers. Image: F. Bradley, L. Tremlett.

Eventually gas lamps were surpassed by the “superior” electric light towards the turn of the century. By the 1910s, houses were being advertised with electric lights as a selling point, although, many homes in Christchurch (and New Zealand) continued to be lit with gas lighting until well into the 20th century. This seems to have the result of a few issues. For one, electricity was expensive, especially at the beginning, and gas was the easier and cheaper option. For another, people in the 19th century had become used to portable, easy, lights in the home and – early on, in the 1880s – electricity was neither of those things. At least one enterprising swindler took advantage of this, advertising “portable electric lamps” for the home in the mid-1880s that sounded an awful lot like oil lamps, described modestly as a “most important invention that will bring about a complete revolution in all branches of lighting” (Thames Star 26/11/1885: 1). The scheme was soon unmasked as “an unmitigated fraud and swindle” (Thames Advertiser 10/02/1886: 3).

Advertisement for the Norman Electric Company Portable light (left) and a company offering installation of electric lights in the early 20th century. Image:

It brings up an interesting point though, this emphasis on the portability of light. If there’s anything that stands out to me from the progress of lighting in Christchurch, especially in the home, it’s that shift from artificial light as something personal – that people lit themselves, candle by candle or lamp by lamp, and carried with them – to something that is a fixture of the surroundings, no longer carried with a person, but always there to be switched on (as it is today).

Looking back at last week’s post, there’s also a contrast to be explored between the lighting of the public spaces of the city and the use and perception of light in the private spaces of the home, some of it to do with that same issue of portability. For the city as a community, lighting in public spaces was a question of safety and convenience, a response to the dangers of the dark, as well as a matter of civic pride and a certain standard of civilised living. The fixed street lamps, city wide gas provision, the requirement for lighting outside hotels and early attempts to adopt electricity all bear witness to this. Those same themes of pride and status are evident in the use of light in private homes, from just the ability to provide light after dark to the quality and style of lights used. The lighting of our homes and personal spaces, though, seems to me more of a convenient luxury than a mitigation of danger (although there’s an element of that as well), even in the 19th century. It is what allowed people then – and now - to live their lives outside of the constraints of sunrise and sunset, to essentially manufacture more time from the day.

Jessie Garland


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Thames Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Thames Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Bright lights, small city

Beware the darkness, children, for there be monsters We love to characterise the dark as something to be feared, the territory of nightmares, of ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump. In our collective psyche it belongs to the creatures on the edges of our imagination, to the sinister characters hidden within our society, to nefarious deeds carried out in the shadows. For, as one dramatic journalist puts it in 1882, “darkness is the mother of all evil."

Not actually relevant to lighting at all, but the closest thing I could find to horrors hiding in the dark. Image: J. Garland.

That characterisation of darkness as a home to all the bad things we can conceive of, be they real or imagined, probably has its roots in some far distant corner of our psychology, but is, I think, exaggerated now by the contrast between the dark and the near constant state of illumination in which we carry out our daily – and nightly – lives. It’s one of the things that we take for granted the most in the 21st century, our access to light wherever we are, whatever time of day it happens to be (especially those of us who live in cities). The absence of sunlight for half of our day is no longer the hindrance to our lives that it once was: it neither prevents nor restricts us from doing what we want to do after the sun has set. If anything, darkness is merely a minor inconvenience that only becomes something more when we’ve forgotten to buy light bulbs, or the power goes out, and we’re reminded that our almost permanently lives are not actually, in fact, the natural state of affairs.

The use of bright electric lights on our streets and in our homes is a relatively recent innovation, as many of you will know. Electric arc lamps were in use from the 1870s onwards, including in New Zealand where the first occasion of their use seems to have been a soccer match between Te Aro and Thorndon in Wellington (not even a rugby game, what a blow to our national identity!; Swarbrick 2012). Towards the end of the decade, Sir Joseph Swan first demonstrated his incandescent light bulb in England in 1878, followed by Thomas Edison’s long-lasting light bulb in 1879. Although other versions of the incandescent light were invented prior to this (there is a surprising amount of controversy and obfuscation out there regarding the invention of the light bulb), it wasn’t really until the late 1870s that the use of this kind of electric light became a commercially viable and practical option for illumination (Friedel and Israel 1986).

The carbon rod from an arc lamp found in Christchurch and a diagram of how arc lamps worked. If you're interested, there's more information here. Image: J. Garland

Here in New Zealand, electric light was quickly adopted, but took a long time to gain a real foothold in many areas. The early 1880s saw a number of places demonstrate or install electric lighting, including Parliament in 1883, the Savoy Theatre in Christchurch in 1883, the Ross and Glendinning Woollen Factory in Dunedin in 1882, the Press offices in Christchurch in 1885, and Lyttelton Harbour, where a trial system of electric lighting was installed in May 1883 (Aspden 1986, Otago Daily Times 22/05/1883: 3). And of course, in 1888, Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lighting, powered by the Reefton power station and the nearby Inangahua River (New Zealand Herald 5/10/1888: 5).

The proposed scheme for lighting Lyttelton Harbour with electric lights in 1883. Image:

Interestingly, many of the early attempts at electric lighting in New Zealand seem to have been in Christchurch, but the streets of the city weren’t lit by the “caged lightning” until the early 20th century (although the possibility was discussed as early as 1888; Star 24/01/1888, Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 4/07/1882: 2). Before that, 19th century Christchurch was lit mostly by oil or kerosene lamps and gas lighting, although even those took a while to implement on a city wide scale. The first lamp posts of any sort weren’t erected on the city streets until 1862, for example, 12 years after the settlement was officially established. Presumably, during the intervening dozen years, people carried lights with them or just tripped over and walked into things a lot. As Te Ara puts it, “citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles”, a situation which must have been uncomfortable for both citizens and stock.

When those first lamp posts went up in Christchurch, they were filled with kerosene. Sixty-two kerosene lamps were installed in 1862, one for every year of the century (which, despite the symmetry, seems an odd way of determining the extent of your street lighting system; Anderson 1949: 90). These would be lit every night by hand: in 1864, a contractor offered to do so for the small price of 9 and a half pence per lamp per night, while in Lyttelton, in a particularly Dickensian state of affairs, the lamps were apparently cleaned and lit by “mere children” carrying a heavy ladder (Lyttelton Times 1/11/1864: 416/12/1868: 2). Unsurprisingly, no reference to cost was made in that case.

In December 1864, after much discussion in the local newspapers on the subject, the first gas lamp was lit (Anderson 1949: 88). Soon after, the remaining kerosene lamp posts were converted for gas lighting and by 1876 there were 152 gas lamps lighting the city street (Heritage New Zealand, Humphries 2012). The city would continue to be lit by gas – both inside and outside – until 1918, when the gas supply for the streets was finally turned off and electric lighting finally dominated (after decades of discussion about cost; Heritage New Zealand).

In possibly my favourite finding from all of this research, the illumination offered by these street lights – and all forms of 19th century lighting – was described in units of ‘candle-power’. In 1894, one account defends the efficacy of the street lamps in use in Wellington, describing them as fulfilling their intended “20 candle-power”, while the magnesium lighting system proposed for the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865 was described as giving a light “equal to that of 80 stearine candles” (Lyttelton Times 21/12/1865: 2).

A street sign advertising candles, including the brilliantly named "Five medal British sperm" ones. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

The illumination of the tunnel is an excellent reminder that there were other forms of lighting available to the 19th century individual or community. The magnesium light that they used took the form of wire, burned by hand initially since they didn’t have the appropriate lamps, which gave off a “most brilliant light” and was suggested as a likely candidate “to supersede gas for lighting towns.” Other lights used or discussed during this period included arc lamps (mentioned above), acetylene lamps (introduced towards the end of the century) and variations on the typical oil or gas lamp. One Christchurch engineer, Mr J. Hadley, manufactured his own light fuelled by gas made from a combination of tallow and resinous gum, described by contemporaries as being “of excellent quality, burning steadily, without the slightest offensive odour” (Lyttelton Times 18/09/1861: 4).

The proposed scheme for lighting the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865. Image:

Unfortunately, there’s very little archaeological evidence of these early forms of lighting to be found. One very notable exception is the Canterbury Club gas light, as it’s known, which still stands on Cambridge Terrace outside the, you guessed it, Canterbury Club. It was erected around 1900 and, despite a small electric interlude in the 1990s (not a bad name for a band, electric interlude), continued to be lit with gas in the 21st century, which is pretty brilliant (pun intended; Heritage New Zealand). This lamp, and  the occasional arc lamp carbon rod, continues to be the only remaining physical evidence we have for public street lighting in Christchurch. Everything else we find is associated with the use of artificial light inside structures, be they public buildings or private residences, something that we’ll talk about in next week’s post.

The Canterbury Club Gas Light, still standing on Cambridge Terrace. As a side note, in the 19th century, publicans and hotel keepers were required by law to keep a light - like this one - burning outside their establishment throughout the night. There are several accounts of people being prosecuted for failing to do this, many of whom defended themselves with "I can't help it if the light goes out while I'm sleeping." Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s any number of things to be said about the progress of street lighting in Christchurch, from the way it reflects the transition of the settlement from ‘swamp to city’ to the social beliefs and behaviour driving the need of the community to illuminate their public spaces (darkness is the mother of all evil, indeed). What stands out the most to me, though, is the rapidity with which the city trialled, if not implemented, the new technology (the early 1880s!) and the innovation with which individuals like Mr J. Hadley adapted that technology, even if just to find a way of making gas from tallow. As with so many other aspects of life in Christchurch (and New Zealand), to view the city as a passive recipient of new technology does a disservice to the individuals whose ideas and entrepreneurial spirit made the city what it is today.

Jessie Garland


Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser.  [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Anderson, J. C. 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Aspden, R., 1896. "Centenary of electricity in NZ - Bullendale 1886-1986. In New Zealand Engineering: The Journal of the Institution of Professional Engineers in New Zealand, Vol. 41: 5, p. 6-7.

Friedel, R. and Israel, P. 1986. Edison's electric light: biography of an invention.  New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. pages 115–117

Humphris. A, 2012. 'Streets and lighting - Street lighting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/streets-and-lighting/page-5.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Otago Daily Times [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Swarbrick, N. 2012. 'Rural services - Electricity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rural-services/page-4

Below the belt: part 2

Last week on the blog we introduced you to the 1881 South Belt sewer beneath Moorhouse Avenue: how it was built, how it got blocked, and how recently as part of SCIRT's horizontal infrastructure rebuild program, their Downer delivery team and sub-contractors Donaldson Civil fixed the blockage. On this week’s blog installment, we look at what we found both above and below the sewer. Enjoy! Whenever we dig down into the road to repair or replace damaged horizontal infrastructure we always find what I sometimes call ‘road trifle’ – but with layers of asphalt and aggregate instead of layers of custard and fruit. Actually probably more of a ‘road crème brulee’ – as out modern road surfaces, like fancy French desserts have a hard top we have to break through first. At the best of times it’s almost impossible for us to tell whether any such layers exposed in the side of such trenches are of the 19th century period – as we know that most city roads have been rebuilt many times in the past. This one had a layer of soft friable concrete below the asphalt, which was a bit different. Image: Hamish Williams

They didn’t have any mechanical excavators back in 1881, which means that the Drainage Board contractors had to dig the sewer trench by hand, using pick, spade, and shovel. As well as digging, they also had to do cutting – we found mixed in with the clay as backfilled atop the sewer lots of monster sized tree stumps and tree roots with saw cut ends. You can see some of these bits of stumps at the left of this photo. It’s not uncommon for us to find evidence of prehistoric swamp vegetation well preserved in the anaerobic clay at great depth below the city. Image: Hamish Williams.

We didn’t find much by way of artefacts in the backfill atop the sewer, with the exception of broken taper bricks. These bricks had evidently fractured because of the large clinkerous inclusions contained within. Useless for construction, they had been left by the bricklayer aside the crown arch.  Image: Hamish Williams

Found in close association with these broken taper bricks was a small red pebble with an attractive white stripe. This is by definition not an artefact (it was not made or modified by humans) but is a manuport (it is a natural object transported from its original location and is otherwise unmodified). This pretty pebble I reckon must have been picked up somewhere by one of the sewer gang boys back in the day before it was lost on the job, maybe falling out a pocket.  I can’t think that such an awesome find would have been deliberately discarded, unless perhaps the peer pressure of a ‘manly man’ on the sewer gang who collects pretty pebbles in his spare time was a contributing factor? Archaeology can never answer such questions for us – but it’s nice to ponder them all the same. Image: Hamish Williams


I thought that perhaps at depth we would find in situ 19th century trench shoring timbers, which would have had to have had to have been put in place to stop the sides of the trench collapsing (today we mostly use steel trench shields, but if we have to go super deep, sometimes interlocking sheet piles). This was not to be however, but we did find in the outer faces of the concrete sewer invert the casts from where these would have once been. 200 mm x 100mm timber set some 200 mm apart were evidently used to support the walls of the trench. These had been pulled out and presumably used to line the next stretch while the concrete was still wet. Images: Hamish Williams.

Working in an area with a high water table was a challenge while we were working on fixing the sewer, even though we had dewatering system of pumps set up to make our subterranean works area as dry as possible. How did they manage this back in the day when they built the sewer? Evidently with some difficulty – at the start of construction, the Drainage Board reported that the [sewer] works on the South Belt are in very troublesome ground, with much water and running sand, and the progress is consequently slow (Press 22.2.1881:3). They had pumps, yes, but these coal powered steam driven pumping devices were probably not as effective as the diesel powered pumps we have available today. They were clever however – first installing a line of earthenware pipes within a smaller gravel filled trench, which we hope would have removed a great deal of the water away from where they were pouring concrete and laying bricks – presumably to a pumping collection point further down the trench line. You can just make out this 19th century dewatering system in place below the concrete invert in this photo. Image: Pieter White.

Not surprisingly, when we removed one of these pipes it was choked with liquefaction silt. Image: Hamish Williams.

A very happy Ty Laskey from Donaldson Civil with one of these earthenware dewatering pipes we managed to recover intact. Unlike earthenware pipes for sewerage applications which are always glazed, these particular pipes were unglazed, and had been laid dry; that is to say without any cement mortar between the individual pipes to allow for the free infiltration of water. Image: Hamish Williams.

Many thanks to SCIRT,  Downer and Donaldson Civil for a job well done, and especially to Moorhouse Avenue businesses and motorists for their patience while SCIRT has been working on fixing this and other damaged horizontal infrastructure in the area.

Hamish Williams

Below the belt: part 1

This week on the blog we take you on a journey down the South Belt sewer, one of Christchurch’s many 19th century wastewater sewers. Located deep below the east-bound lane of Moorhouse Avenue and more than a kilometre in length, construction of this sewer began in 1881 and was completed in early 1882. Recently, as part of SCIRT's horizontal infrastructure rebuild program, their Downer delivery team and sub-contractors Donaldson Civil replaced a 30 metre long upstream section of this sewer where a blockage had occurred. In this part 1 of a 2 part sewer archaeology special – we look at how this sewer was built, how it got blocked, and how it got fixed. Enjoy! Before we got digging, we put a sewer inspection robot down into the sewer, the footage it recorded helped us to determine the location of the blockage, and thus where to dig. Image: Hamish Williams.

We dug down more than 2.5 metres to reach the brick crown arch, downstream of the blockage location. It was neat to see a thin smear of cement mortar had been applied to the top of the arch – where the bricklayer more than 130 years ago had cleaned off his trowel. Image: Hamish Williams.

Using a concrete saw, we cut through the crown arch...Image: Hamish Williams.

...and were most surprised to find a 30+ metre long sewer snake trapped inside! This snake (actually a high pressure sewer cleaning jet) had got stuck some time ago while trying to swim upstream. There was no flow in the sewer at all, only 60 mm of stinky sewage water. Images: Hamish Williams.

Of an oviform or ‘egg’ shape, the base of the sewer (that’s what the invert is called in pipelaying speak) was made of unreinforced concrete. The upper crown arch was formed of specially shaped taper bricks, 13 of which were required to span the arch. In the photo on the left you can see the resin impregnated fabric liner that was installed inside the sewer circa 2009, and at right one of engineer William Clark’s original 1878 oviform sewer design drawings. The sewerage system that he designed for the Christchurch Drainage Board became fully operational in early September 1882, and many parts of this system are still in use today. Images: (at left) Hamish Williams and at right, after Clark (1878) Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

A section of this liner was cut out and used as a mould to custom make two PVC plastic transition pieces, as we were replacing the damaged section of sewer with pipe of a circular shape. Image: Hamish Williams.

A special wire cutting saw was brought in to make a clean cut through the sewer, so we could firmly fix the downstream transition piece to it, before this join was encased in reinforced concrete. Future archaeologists should have no issues determining when this concrete was poured! Images: Kane Reihana (at left) and Hamish Williams (at right).

When we got to the blockage, our suspicions about the cause of the blockage were confirmed. Although the sewer itself had not suffered any form of structural collapse, liquefaction silt had entered the sewer through cracks in the brickwork and had constricted the liner, blocking the flow of sewage. Images: Kane Reihana (at left) and Hamish Williams (at right).

Ben McConochie fits the upstream transition piece in place with epoxy mortar before the concrete is poured. Image: Hamish Williams.

All done! Image: Hamish Williams.

Many thanks to SCIRT, Downer and Donaldson Civil for a job well done, and especially to Moorhouse Avenue businesses and motorists for their patience while SCIRT has been working on fixing this and other damaged horizontal infrastructure in the area.

Hamish Williams.

On the right track: tramways archaeology in Christchurch

How did people get around Christchurch in the 19th century? People certainly walked, or rode, perhaps on a horse, or in a wheeled vehicle pulled by a horse, such as a dray, gig, hackney, or hansom. And let’s not forget that by the later 19th century many people were certainly racing around on bicycles . From early 1880 however, the people of Christchurch were given the option of travelling by tram. During the course of horizontal infrastructure rebuild we have come across lots of old tram lines, and in the process have become tramways archaeologists.

Trains versus trams

What’s the difference between a train and a tram? Both are flange wheeled vehicles that operate atop a permanent way of iron rail: mostly it’s a question of scale. Trains are a heavy rail transportation system and trams are a light rail transportation system. Trains run on specially built lines that are always separate from other traffic, whereas trams run along lines (called tramways) that are built into public roads, a space they have to share with other traffic.

All the rage across the world in the 19th century, once trams finally arrived in Christchurch they proved to be a big hit. Before the Christchurch Tramway Board was formed in 1903 to municipalise, modernise, and electrify the network (the first electric trams ran in 1905), the tramways of 19th century Christchurch were owned and operated by private companies. The Canterbury Tramway Company was the first of these: formed in 1878, it opened its first passenger service in March 1880, and by the end of 1888 had 17 miles (more than 27 kilometres) of tramway in operation (Alexander 1985: 8).

Off the rails: rail types

Three different types of iron rail were used in the 19th century to carry Christchurch trams. Thin flat grooved rails were used in the early years - these were attached to longitudinal timber beams fastened to timber sleepers. This first type of rail (not surprisingly) wasn’t very robust - it cracked along the inside of the groove, and was soon replaced with other rail types (Anderson 1985: 29). Loubat’s grooved tramrail proved to be the best choice: with the flanges of the tram wheels running safely within the groove or ‘flangeway’ of the upper surface of the rail, Loubat’s rail could be easily set flush into the road surface where they didn’t pose such a hazard to other road users (except possibly unfortunate cyclists with narrow tires).


Mostly we have found Loubat’s grooved tramway rail in situ below Christchurch’s roads, though all the examples we have found so far have been associated with 20th century electric trams.

With the transition to electric trams all the tramlines of the private companies had to be replaced. Although the new electrics were of the standard gauge like their steam and horse powered predecessors, most of the tramlines were in poor condition, and the rail was too light to handle the much heavier electric tramcars, so had to be dug up and replaced. The standard method of tramway formation in the electric era involved bedding the sleepers on compacted shingle, and fixing the rails with big spike nails (Alexander 1986: 52). A good example of this was uncovered in 2012 on North Avon Road - you can read all about it here. From the 1920s this method was improved, with concrete being used instead of compacted shingle. Last week I spotted a fine example of this in the side of a sewer trench crossing Colombo Street.


A later method involved completely embedding the rail in reinforced concrete (Alexander 1993: 78-79). We have come across lots of this type of tramway in the central city, just below the road surface. It’s easy to see why these tramways were simply covered over after the last of the trams stopped running in 1954, as removing them is lots of hard work!


The tramway on Tuam Street

We have found the remnants of only one 19th century tramway. This was on Tuam Street, and formed part of the Canterbury Tramway Company’s Addington line, which opened to the public on 5 January 1882 (Star 5/1/1882: 2). Unlike most of the other 19th century tram routes, when the tramway network was electrified the Addington route was slightly altered, and Tuam Street bypassed. Because of this, remains of this 19th century tramline survived, unlike the lines of other routes that were dug up and relaid.

At three different locations on Tuam Street we found timber tramway sleepers, but sadly no rail. Presumably the well-worn rail was removed and scrapped, but it may have found another use. On Main Road near McCormacks Bay last year we looked at a trio of Vignoles rails exposed during road widening works. These had been embedded vertically in the ground, to support part of the seawall. We guess that these old rails had once been part of the adjacent roadway, where they carried the Sumner tram.


Most of the sleepers of the Addington line had been removed; in over 300 metres of trenching on Tuam Street we found just eight sleepers, probably left there because their condition was too poor to justify their removal for reuse. Knowing that vast numbers of hardwood sleepers were being imported from Australia for our railway construction at the time (Press 8/9/1891:5), I was interested to learn that the timber was of a native species – rimu.


There are so many social and cultural related tramway things that sadly we haven’t been able to touch upon in this week’s blog – such as the rules for riding a Christchurch tram in the 19th century (no playing musical instruments without the permission of the [tram!] conductor), or the saga of the council’s tramway hearse that never carried a single corpse and ended up a houseboat (Alexander 1983: 11).

Because of the context in which we have found these tramway features (located on public rather than private land) it’s been a different sort of archaeology than what we have been used to – representing one not of past peoples 'in their place', so to speak (be it in their former home, workplace, or backyard, the kind of contexts where we end up doing most of our archaeology), but of past peoples 'between places'; neither here nor there but 'on the way somewhere' – a most ephemeral archaeology of people in transit, people in motion.


Thanks to Dave Hinman from the Tramway Historical Society for providing the photo of Kitty, and to Dr Rod Wallace for timber identification.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the Roads: the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1986. The Wire Web: the Christchurch Tramway Board & its early electric tramways, 1903-1920. Christchurch, N.Z: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1993. Tram to the Terminus: the Christchurch Tramway Board and its electric tramways 1921-54. Christchurch N.Z: A&M and Tramway Historical Society.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

No poo in the sewers, please…

In previousblog posts we've touched upon the smells of 19th century Christchurch and how, in the absence of an organised sewerage and rubbish disposal system, early Christchurch was, at the best of times, a dirty old town. Inadequate drainage was a persistent problem, accosting the senses of citizens on a daily basis. Following the formation of the Christchurch Drainage Board in 1875, and the development of an engineering solution, a sewerage system was eventually constructed in the city. Once this became fully operational in September 1882, it could be considered by the standards of the day to be one of the finest in the world. During the course of SCIRT infrastructure projects out and about in the central city, we’ve been able to get up close and personal with 19th century Christchurch’s drainage system. We’ve learnt a great deal: about how the system was built, how it functioned, and how this system expanded and changed over time. It’s also got us thinking about path dependency as we have been able to observe it in the archaeological record. The way that our city’s drainage infrastructure was designed and built more than 130 years ago is having a direct impact on the how we are able to go about repairing it in the present day.

Waiting at a bus stop last week, I got into a conversation with a fellow commuter about what I do for a living and what I’ve been finding looking at the city’s old sewers. “Found any old poo?” “No old poo, mate”, I replied. “What about Ninja Turtles?” “Only crocodiles, sorry.” “Any idea about who flushed the first Christchurch poo?” I told him that I haven’t yet found any historical documents about that kind of thing. As I boarded the bus, I got to thinking about the subterranean city: about the hidden horizontal infrastructure that, in an abstract kind of way, can be seen as an extension of our bodies (our digestive systems at least!), and about 19th century discard behaviours of the most private and personal kind. Which begs the question, how did Christchurch get its first flush toilets, and what did this mean in the transformation of early Christchurch?


The poo, the water closet, and the big “Drainage Question”

We have learnt from historical records that the citizens of 19th century Christchurch were scared about putting poo down the sewers.

The Drainage Board’s first consulting engineer was John Carruthers, who presented the first design for sewerage system to the city council in January 1877 (Wilson 1989:17). He advocated construction of a combined sewer system, which would see wastewater and stormwater conveyed eastwards out of town to an estuary outfall (Star29/1/1877:2). Carruthers strongly recommended allowing water closets to be connected to the sewers, but noted that:

I do not go so far as to recommend their compulsory use at present, as I have little doubt they will, if allowed, very soon be generally used for the sake of their healthfulness, decency, and cleanlinessthe primary object of sewers is not to carry water closet dejecta, but to remove household water after it has been used and fouled. It is obviously a matter of the first importance to get rid of this filthy water, and underground sewers form the basic vehicle for carrying it away...”  - Star 29/1/1877:2

The Board accepted Carruthers’ scheme, though without any public consultation and without an official stance as to whether water closets would or should be adopted, whether sewers were the right place for ‘closet dejecta’ or whether their installation should be made compulsory once the system had been completed. Frenzied public meetings were held wherein ratepayers, engineers, and medical men debated “The Drainage Question” in filthy detail (Press16/2/1877:2, 3/3/1877:1).

Of chief concern was sewage contamination at the estuary outfall, sewer blockages that would generate poisonous gases, and inadequacies in the local water supply for flushing. Backyard artesian wells across the district that were looked to for flushing purposes were already beginning to dry up (Press 3/3/1877:1). Unhappy with Carruthers’ plan, at the ratepayer’s suggestion William Clark was made the Drainage Board’s new consulting engineer, and by April 1878 had revised the original plans, presenting the board with a comprehensive report, Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

The key point of Clark’s scheme, which was approved in May 1878, was that wastewater flows were to be admitted into the sewers, but were to be kept separate from stormwater at all costs. A pumping station was to be built on land the Board owned on Mathesons Road, which would pump the city’s sewerage eastwards out of town, where a sewage farm was to be established on the sandhills. Here the sewage would be irrigated over the paddocks, fertilising the soil (Clark 1878:6-12). Construction of the sewage tank underneath the pumping station progressed slowly, on account of the unstable, quicksand-like subsoil, and the many baby eels “about the thickness of a man’s finger” that continually clogged the fans of the groundwater pumping apparatus (Star 16/7/1879:3).


Available historical records do not specify where or when the first water closet was installed and the first filth flushed, but it must have been by late 1882, once the last of the earthenware pipe sewers to receive the private house connections had been laid (Star10/1/1882:3). The completion of the system, however, did not result in properties becoming connected straight away. Landowners had to pay for a private connection to be made to the sewer, as well as satisfy the board that these private drains were properly laid, the water closet was of an approved type, was properly located and ventilated, and had a sufficient water supply for flushing purposes (Press21/10/1882:2). Because of installation costs, many households may have initially only made a house connection to the sewer for the removal of kitchen 'slop water', and would have continued to use their chamber pots, backyard long drops, dry earth closets, and the regular nocturnal services of the ‘night soil’ man. Clark thought that his estimated 2 pounds 10 shillings cost for constructing a 'water privie' of his own design would be affordable for households over the long term, considering that the night soil man was already costing them 7 pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).

In 1884 Christchurch had 293 water closets, by 1901 this number had jumped to 1915 (Wilson 1989:29).

300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made
300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made

We have found out by looking at some 19th century private connections into the 1882 St Asaph Street sewer that there was great variation in how these 100mm diameter earthenware pipe drains were installed. Some were fully haunched in concrete as a protective measure, others were simply laid down into the natural sandy clay subsoil and then backfilled with the same. Individual pipes were mostly bonded with rigid cement mortar joints,but we did find evidence for a more 'flexible' bonding agent on one drain: this was a sticky, sulphurous, coal tar. From impressed manufacturers marks on these pipes we have learned that these were all manufactured locally. The larger diameter sewer mains on the other hand were all imported, these were made in Scotland at James Binnie's Gartcosh Fireclay Works.

Tar joint
Tar joint

Pumping and flushing By late 1882 the Drainage Board had exhausted most of their funds on pipe laying; what was left in the budget was to be spent on pumping and flushing.

The pumping station on the corner of Mathesons Road and Tuam Street ceased pumping the city’s sewage in 1957, by which time the drainage system had greatly expanded in size and a new pumping station on Pages Road had taken over. The original pump-house building still stands, (albeit without its fine brick chimney) as one of the few visible above ground components of the city’s 19th century sewerage system, and is a Cat 2 registered historic place. Currently a recycled building materials yard, it’s also a good place to go if you are looking to buy a second hand toilet or wash basin…

The Christchurch Drainage Board's first wastewater pumping station as it stands today.
The Christchurch Drainage Board's first wastewater pumping station as it stands today.

As well as pumping, the Drainage Board was also involved heavily in the business of flushing. Brick ‘flushing tanks’ were built at various points along the sewer lines, and the regular flushing of the sewers ensured that no ‘closet dejecta’ or foreign solids was given any chance to settle: sewerage was to be kept moving through the sewers at all costs. These tanks were supplied with water from the board’s own wells, which were sunk all over the place. When Christchurch finally got a high pressure water supply turned on in 1909, these tanks were connected up to this new supply, thus preventing any 'back flow' from the sewers potentially contaminating the groundwater aquifers (Wilson 1989:26).

A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the 'H' bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes.
A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the 'H' bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes.

Past and future sewers

Although a number of Christchurch’s 19th century sewer lines were damaged in the earthquakes, and have since been dug up and replaced, some have been decommissioned and remain in situ deep underground, to perhaps to one day be investigated by archaeologists in the distant future. Other sewers, which may have cracked a little but have not been vertically displaced, have been relined. This non-invasive rehabilitation technique should ensure that these ancestral central city sewers can remain operational for perhaps another 130 years or more.

Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.
Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.

There can be no doubt that the sewerage system transformed 19th century Christchurch in so many ways, though for different reasons the system would have benefited some more than others. It reduced the mortality rate by removing problematic disease causing ‘dejecta’, and in doing so made the urban environment a safer, cleaner and we suspect, a much better smelling place. Parallel with changes to the physical environment, the sewerage system also brought about changes in peoples behaviour. The people of Christchurch could now flush, provided they were lucky enough to have a water closet, which makes us think again about archaeology and status. In today's modern world we all take flush toilets for granted, but when they first appeared in 19th century Christchurch I'm sure that they must have been a real novelty! For first time users, would the water closet experience have been scary, or exciting? Pondering this question, I couldn't help but think it perhaps best summed up by Tom Lehrer:

"Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it." 

And whatever you do, don’t forget to wash your hands.

Hamish Williams


Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs. Christchurch: The Times.

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch: Christchurch Drainage Board.

"A few filthy features"

As archaeologists we almost exclusively describe and interpret the physical evidence of past human activity in visual terms, through maps, photos, and descriptions of what the archaeological features or artefacts look like. Although this makes perfect sense, lately I’ve come to ask myself: “Okay, so if this is what life in 19th century Christchurch looked like, what on earth does this tell me about what life in 19th century Christchurch smelled like?”

Unfortunately, we can only learn about the smells of the past indirectly through archaeology. Smells are not physical things that can be dug up and most don’t stick around for very long anyways. The smells of times past have long since been replaced by the smells of the present.

Historical records such as 19th century newspaper accounts, however, point to a number of different urban smells that were nothing short of offensive in the extreme for both local authorities and the general public.  And, despite the best efforts of those authorities, many such smells simply refused to go away.

In this week’s blog, for your eye-watering olfactory pleasure, I present you with a ‘few filthy features’, bringing the 19th century alive in all its ‘stink and glory’. Enjoy!

Drains and sewers

Before the Christchurch Drainage Board was established in 1876, the Christchurch City Council and other local authorities dug a number of drains and ditches, and built culverts, sewers, and roadside channels to remove stagnant and polluted surface waters. Draining mostly into the Avon and Heathcote rivers, these conduits were never intended to carry sewage and other offensive matter, although they inevitably did.


The gently flowing Avon soon became an open sewer by proxy. As one observer noted, it “oozed a mass of putrid and decaying animal and vegetable matter” (Star 21/11/1872: 3).

Box culvert Image: H. Williams
Box culvert Image: H. Williams

We have found some evidence of these early drainage conduits, such as a boxed timber culvert that carried the Ferry Road drainage ditch beneath Ferry Road (above), and early pipe drains, which were crudely constructed by modern standards. One such pipe drain, found on Oxford Terrace, was laid on a flat gradient, meaning that the filth and water it once carried can’t ever have been able to drain away freely (a factor that no doubt contributed to its eventual silting up). Worse still was a crudely made and un-trapped connecting house drain, which may well have resulted in the sewer stink travelling up this drain and entering the house. Yuck!

Image: H. Williams
Image: H. Williams

By 1882 the Drainage Board had helped to remove some of the sewage stink from Christchurch through the construction of a sewerage system that carried waste eastwards out of town towards the estuary, and stormwater via a separate network of sewers into the rivers. Many of these sewers, of brick and concrete construction, have been relined and are still in use today. We also know that for some disgruntled 19th century ratepayers, the sewers, and the Drainage Board itself, carried with it the reek of corruption. Although he never publically admitted it, the Drainage Board’s Engineer Mr Charles Napier Bell was accused of profiteering from a 5% commission on all the earthenware sewer pipes the Board was importing from Britain (Wilson 1989: 18).

One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.
One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.


Despite the expansion of the sewer network, many households did not connect to the sewers and instead continued the medieval practice of using backyard latrines/privies with subsurface cesspits for disposing of their bodily wastes. Typically unlined, these cesspits were directly implicated in the transmission of fatal water borne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery, with seepage contaminating the groundwater of nearby wells. Emptied by hand (before they were later abandoned and filled in with rubbish, much to the excitement of us archaeologists), ‘night soil’ was carted away and dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch,  a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood  (Alexander 1985:11).

We have excavated a surprisingly small number of cesspits in Christchurch, the deepest of which was 1.8 m deep. The bottom of this deep cesspit was stained a light tan colour and was of a puggy, sticky consistency, which we have interpreted as the residues of decomposed poo. Layers of ash, and a white powdery substance (probably lime) found within one of these pits may represent deodorising agents.

Julia sitting in the cesspit feature she just excavated. Image: H. Williams.
Julia sitting in the cesspit feature she just excavated. Image: H. Williams.

Rubbish and rats

As we have mentioned before on the blog, rubbish disposal was a continual problem in early Christchurch. Although in some areas the council did operate a household rubbish collection system in the 19th century, and employed ‘scavengers’ to clean the streets of rubbish and horse poo on a semi-regular basis, many households continued to dig pits in their backyards for disposing of their rubbish, or simply dumped it out of sight under the house or on a vacant section, thereby avoiding the collection fee.

With particularly large rubbish pits, I have always wondered to what extent they may have smelled bad, as they were filled up over time with the household’s food and kitchen scraps and other offensive organic wastes, left to putrefy in the summer sun. To date, we have not found any clear evidence of layers of dirt or sand dumped in pits in Christchurch that would have helped to minimise any bad smells. Pits may have been covered in some way, however, perhaps with lengths of timber or sheet metal, which would have helped to suppress any nasty smell, and we hope, have kept the rats out.

With all the filth and rubbish in, around, and underneath Christchurch buildings, it is not difficult to imagine how easily a population of rats could get out of control. Many a subfloor space in built-up Christchurch may have sheltered a rat family or two, safe out of the cold and with a ready supply of food scraps about to sustain them.

By 1900 the rodent menace reached a crisis point, as civic authorities prepared for the coming of the plague, which had appeared in New South Wales and threatened to spread to New Zealand on infected stowaway rats (Star 27/2/1900: 2). Although the plague never arrived in Christchurch, the threat contributed to a greater awareness about the dangers of filth, and the eradication of urban rat populations.

Advertisement for O'Kearney's rat poison. Image:
Advertisement for O'Kearney's rat poison. Image:

A wide variety of strychnine, phosphorus, and arsenic-based rodent poisons were available from chemists to deal with rat infestations. Because they were implicated in a number of suicides and murders across the country, after 1895 purchase of these products required a signed declaration from a Justice of the Peace as to their intended purpose, as well as the payment of a government fee (Press 23/10/1895: 4).

At a site on Victoria Street we found two pit features like nothing we have ever seen before, features we have interpreted as archaeological evidence of 19th century rodent eradication activity. This took the form of two hand dug pits, each of which contained only rat bones – the remains of 34 rats in one pit and 21 in the other.

Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.
Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.

Whether both these pits were dug, filled, and covered over in the same day we will never know, nor what stinky state of decomposition these rat corpses may have been in when buried, nor whether these rats succumbed to poison, traps, or the resident tabby cat. What both these rat bone features do tell us, however, is that at the end of the day, it was the people of Christchurch who not only through their individual actions or inaction contributed to the filth and the stink, but were ultimately also the individual agents of change who helped play their part in cleaning it up. Such is the sweet retrospective smell of history.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Press.  [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.