builder

Death and Taxes

He is bed maker to the dead. The pillows which he lays never rumple. The day of interment is the theatre in which he displays the mysteries of this art.

Thomas Lamb 1811.

 

Nothing in this would can be certain except for death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin’s proverb was never more true than in the case of John C. Felton, a cabinet maker/undertaker from Rangiora who went bankrupt just before the turn of the 20th century. In fact, a site that I was working on recently was occupied by a string of undertakers who moonlighted as carpenters of some description during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The men in question – George Dale, John C. Felton, and J. M’Auliffe – left little evidence of their macabre craft behind, save a chisel and a few nails and bolts. But this was not unexpected - it isn’t often that we find artefacts which form an obvious link to a more ephemeral business like undertaking (we do find the odd ‘mummified’ cat underneath demolished houses, but that’s a bit different). In cases like these, we rely heavily on historic records of land ownership and newspaper reports to connect archaeological assemblages to their 19th century owners.

New Zealand Tablet 2/2/1894: 32

Despite the fact that humans have been dying for as long as they have been alive, ‘the undertaker’ is a relatively new profession. Before the mid-19th century the term ‘undertaker’ referred to anyone who undertook a task or enterprise, and the ‘laying out’ of a corpse in preparation for burial was a task generally carried out by female family members of the deceased, or by individuals with other nurturing roles, such as mid-wives. This role eventually transitioned into a male dominated one, in conjunction with the rise of the ideas of feminine sensibility and Victorian female respectability (Burrell 1998).

 

The profession developed as a part-time industry, associated largely with cabinet makers and carpenters, who used their skills to build coffins on the side – Dale and Felton were also both cabinet makers/carpenters – and because of the early undertaker’s associations with furniture dealing, these individuals were probably more familiar to their clients and neighbours as handymen rather than being associated exclusively with death. This early picture of the undertaker developed as populations and commercial specialisation grew – as a result, undertakers were able to dedicate all of their time and effort to the one profession (Burrell 1998). As mourners required evermore elaborate funerary displays, as characterised by the mourning obsessed Victorian era, livery men joined the funerary procession. This group of merchants acted as the suppliers of the horses and carriages to transport the deceased. This in turn gave rise to the hearse bearing undertaker (Polites 2011).

Typical turn of the century Brisbane undertaker (1902).

All of this sounds relatively profitable, right?  Multifaceted business ventures in an industry which theoretically had a steady and very reliable stream of potential clientele – particularly as the world was still coming to grips with the concept of germ theory (Tremlett 2016)... But alas, John Courtney Felton went bankrupt nonetheless (Star 20/11/1899: 2). One can only speculate as to why his business was unsuccessful.

Figure 3. Hard times for the undertaker (New Zealand Herald 15/09/1923: 3)

 

The same fate was not met by another notable 19th century Christchurch undertaker - a prosperous business man: Herman Franz Fuhrmann, who was German. We have met Herman Franz Fuhrmann on the blog before, and it’s possible that his business success could be related to the catchiness of his name – it sounds like it was just made for a jingle! – but regardless, he managed to expand his own undertaking and cabinet making business to include a saddler, branched out into insurance, and made a killing in the sale of the Molesworth station in Marlborough.

 

Figure 4. Rhyming makes ads cooler (Free Lance 29/03/1902: 21 ) - Is it just me or do the finials on this hearse look like shrunken heads on spikes to anyone else? Creepy!

This more capitalist version of undertaking brings us a little closer to some of the more recent attitudes toward modern funerary directors. Exposés starting in the 1960s tackled the controversy of the idea of the modern undertaking and funeral industry as a profit-driven empire - making a commodity out of death, and manipulating mourning people at their most vulnerable (Mitford, 1983). This is a large and complex debate that won’t be covered here. No price lists were found for any of the undertaking services of Felton, Dale or M’Auliffe, and their advertisements and others like them from this era seemed to focus more on being sanitary, speedy and available on short notice.

 

M’Auliffe is the only one of the three undertakers in question who also advertises an embalming service (Press 3/07/1903: 8). The idea of embalming corpses (the science of preserving human remains intact, for the sanitation, presentation and preservation), can be traced to at least 5000-6000 BC and the Chinchorro culture in present day Chile and Peru (Brenner 2014). Modern embalming began in the 17th century but really didn’t take off until the American Civil War, which saw soldiers dying far from home and their families wishing their bodies to be returned home for burial. The long journeys presented the need to slow down decomposition, and led to injecting various solutions into arteries of a corpse to prevent this natural process (Chiappelli, 2008). During the 19th century, arsenic was the most favoured embalming fluid, although it was eventually replaced with less toxic chemicals in the 1900s. This occurred in order to alleviate growing concerns about ground contamination from buried embalmed bodies seeping into local water supplies - not to mention the possibility of homicide cover-ups in which any evidence of arsenic poisoning could be disguised by embalming fluid (Mettler 1890). Formaldehyde eventually replaced arsenic as the favourite solution and is still used today.

 

M’Auliffe’s multifaceted service also appeared to have run more successfully than his predecessor Felton’s, although he also had his share of hiccups. M’Auliffe may have been a funerary director who harboured a death wish, as he was charged with riding bicycle in the street in the dead of night without a light, and a mysterious fire broke out at his premises in 1912 (also in the middle of the night), destroying his house and workshop. Luckily, the property was insured (Star 21/10/1902: 3, North Otago Times 16/10/1912: 3). Dazzling reports described a scantily-clad Mrs M’Auliffe having to make her way to the ground by a rope fire escape, “with a three-year-old child clinging to her neck. Fortunately, before making her descent she had the presence of mind to throw down a mattress, otherwise the child, who let go its hold when eight or ten feet from the ground, might have met with injury” (Star 15/10/1912: 3). I can only imagine how creepy it would have been to witness the local funeral home or mortuary burning down at the start of the 20th century!

Here’s a picture of another enterprising dame escaping from a building via bedsheet rope- not the same incident, but you get the idea.

But even without the burning building, why do we generally find the concept of an undertaker creepy, particularly one from ‘olden times’? When I hear the word ‘undertaker’ or ‘mortician’, the picture of a solitary guy in black and white, with a bit of a mad scientist vibe comes to mind. Pop culture, through the horror novel and film industry, is probably largely to blame for the demonisation of the profession, but the concept of ostracising those who handle the dead is not a new one. It can also be explained by human desire and the need to survive by disassociating one’s self with dead bodies and death. The idea has been explored by acclaimed social anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, making reference to the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, where the townsmen charged free blacks with the responsibility for picking up the dead and then "shunned them as infected, vilified them as predatory" (Burrell 1998).

 

Well that brings me to the end of this undertaking… Until next time…

 

                                                                                                                                                                Chelsea Dickson.

 

 

References

 

Burrell, D. 1998. Origins of Undertaking: How antebellum merchants made death their business. Seminar in Early American History.

Brenner, E. 2014. "Human body preservation - old and new techniques.” Journal of Anatomy. Vol. 224: 316-344.

Chiappelli, J. 2008. "The Problem of Embalming". Journal of Environmental Health 71 (5): 24.

Lamb. T. 1811. "On Burial Societies, and the Character of an Undertaker." The Reflector: A Collection of Essays on Miscellaneous Subjects of Literature and Politics. Vol. 2. London: 1812. 143.

Free Lance. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Mettler, L. Harrison. "The Importance, from tire Medico-Legal Standpoint, of Distinguishing Between Somatic and Molecular Death." Medico-Legal Journal 8 (1890): 172-79.

Mitford, J. 1983. American Way of Death. Fawcett.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

New Zealand Tablet. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

North Otago Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Polites, T., M. 2011. The Undertaker Undertakes [online] Available at: http://taylorpolites.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/undertaker-undertakes.html. [Accessed June 2016].

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Tremlett, L. (2016). Medical Buildings and Medical Theory: An Archaeological Investigation of Ashburton Hospital, New Zealand. MA Thesis, University of Otago.

A message in a bottle

DSC_0045ed2.jpg
Following advice from our consultant conservator, Jessie spent half an hour carefully easing out the  cork (all the while worrying the cork would snap off!). Photo: K. Bone.
Following advice from our consultant conservator, Jessie spent half an hour carefully easing out the cork (all the while worrying the cork would snap off!). Photo: K. Bone.

Look! Kirsa found a message in a bottle under a house. Here's how we got the message out.

Easy does it: slowly pulling out the cork. Photo: K. Bone.
Easy does it: slowly pulling out the cork. Photo: K. Bone.
Next step: getting the message out. Kirsa is carefully holding the bottle while Jessie uses the tweezers. Photo: K. Bone.
Next step: getting the message out. Kirsa is carefully holding the bottle while Jessie uses the tweezers. Photo: K. Bone.
Tantalisingly close! Photo: K. Bone.
Tantalisingly close! Photo: K. Bone.
Special equipment: Jessie & Kirsa couldn't get the message out, so Sasha (our conservator) made some special tweezers. Here's how Sasha described her tweezers: "They're made of coat hanger wire with tips doubled over and beaten flat, covered in shrink tubing for smooth grippy surface.  The photo Jessie sent me of the message half tweezed out of the bottle was the first attempt using shorter, gentler tweezers, producing a cone shape which would have wedged in the neck.  To pull it out safely maintaining the diameter at less than the bottle neck, I needed to grab the paper at the lower inner corner and coil inwards.  It was tricky spreading the grippy tweezers either side of the paper while lowering into the bottle, which was why I gave the shorter tweezers a try first before committing and steeling myself for the job at hand." Photo: S. Stollman.
Special equipment: Jessie & Kirsa couldn't get the message out, so Sasha (our conservator) made some special tweezers. Here's how Sasha described her tweezers: "They're made of coat hanger wire with tips doubled over and beaten flat, covered in shrink tubing for smooth grippy surface. The photo Jessie sent me of the message half tweezed out of the bottle was the first attempt using shorter, gentler tweezers, producing a cone shape which would have wedged in the neck. To pull it out safely maintaining the diameter at less than the bottle neck, I needed to grab the paper at the lower inner corner and coil inwards. It was tricky spreading the grippy tweezers either side of the paper while lowering into the bottle, which was why I gave the shorter tweezers a try first before committing and steeling myself for the job at hand." Photo: S. Stollman.
Sasha makes a start on extracting the message. Photo: J. Garland.
Sasha makes a start on extracting the message. Photo: J. Garland.
Nearly there! Photo: J. Garland.
Nearly there! Photo: J. Garland.
Carefully cleaning the message. Photo: K. Bone.
Carefully cleaning the message. Photo: K. Bone.
What do you think it says? Photo: J. Garland.
What do you think it says? Photo: J. Garland.

Katharine Watson

A humble home

Today’s post presents the story of William Bowen, a prominent Christchurch builder, as told by his residence at 441 Madras Street. Archaeologists recorded this building using building archaeology techniques before and during its post-earthquake demolition. 441 Madras Street was initially numbered 9 and then 13 Madras Street before the Christchurch’s street addresses were reorganised in 1911. William and Ellen Bowen emigrated from Birmingham in 1873 and settled in Christchurch (Macdonald Dictionary of Canterbury Biography B604). William plied his trade as a carpenter in the city over the next decade. In 1891 William and Ellen purchased an empty section on the St Albans extension of Madras Street (LINZ 1891). Here William constructed the house that became the Bowen family home.

The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.
The house that William Bowen built at 441 Madras Street.

Over the next 18 years William developed a very successful construction business in Christchurch, becoming one of the city’s foremost builders. As well as his St Albans residence, William owned large premises on Kilmore Street in the central city from which he operated his construction business (Press 2/3/1910). William worked on many major building projects in Christchurch. Some of these became well-known buildings of 19th century Christchurch, such as the Theatre Royal on Gloucester Street (Press 2/1/1907) and Warners Hotel in Cathedral Square (Press 12/7/1900). William was also very active in the building industry’s political scene, being the director of the Industrial Building Society (Press 21/5/1897) and president of the Builders and Contractors Association of Canterbury (Press 29/7/1906). He also seems to have enjoyed participating in Christchurch’s social and recreational clubs. William was vice-president of the Christchurch Amateur Rowing Club (Press 3/9/1904) and a member of the Canterbury Automobile club, for which he drove a ‘French car’ in their Easter rally (Press 8/4/1904).

William Bowen's professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).
William Bowen's professional advertisement (Star 1/5/1908).

William also dabbled in property development. The year after they purchased 441 Madras Street William and Ellen Bowen bought the neighbouring property at 443 Madras Street and built a house there before selling it in 1896, presumably for a profit (LINZ 1890). This building was also recorded by archaeologists before it was demolished.

William Bowen died in 1909 (Star 8/10/1909). At the time of his death he owned another house and section at 483 Madras Street and two more undeveloped sections on Madras Street near Canon Street (Press  8/12/1910). The auction of his estate in 1912 provides an insight into his lifestyle through the list of chattels.

Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).
Advertisement for the sale of 441 Madras Street (Press 21/9/1912).

In contrast to his thriving professional and social life, the archaeological investigation of his house at 441 Madras Street revealed a surprisingly modest residence. The Bowens purchased 441 Madras Street at a time when the outskirts of Christchurch were rapidly developing their suburban character. William Bowen, with his residential life in St Albans and large business premises in the inner city, was typical of the movement towards separation of work and living space that was becoming increasingly common as the city of Christchurch grew and developed.

The section at 441 Madras Street was originally larger than it is today, with room for stables, a carriage shed and a motor shed (perhaps used to house the French car’ that William drove in the 1904 Automobile Club rally). However, the house itself, with eight rooms, was surprisingly modest for a man of means with a large family. In contrast, John Cracroft Wilson built himself an 11-roomed house in Cashmere for his family of three (in the 1850s). Bowen's house was a single-storey weatherboard villa typical of those constructed in late 19th century New Zealand and, like most villas, was formulaic in design. The house was situated on the street front, with a verandah on its front elevation. A central hall ran the length of the house, with rooms opening off to either side.

Floorplan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.
Floorplan of the house at 441 Madras Street. Image: K. Webb.

No overt indications of conspicuous display were identified in the house. One might have expected a man such as William Bowen to have had a two-storey house, with ornate decorations, such as stained glass and cast iron work, on its exterior. The only stained glass around the front entrance of 441 Madras Street was installed in the 1980s. However, several decorative features were recorded inside. These included a mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door, a moulded plaster hallway arch, and several ornate ceiling roses and picture rails. These features are not unusual in late 19th century Christchurch houses, and are particularly common in houses occupied by the respectable middle-class.

Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.
Decorative features in the house at 441 Madrass Street. Clockwise from left: the mosaic of tessellated tiles at the foot of the front door; detail of the moulded hall arch; detail of a picture rail; one of the moulded ceiling roses. Images: K. Watson.

The house had five fireplaces, four of which remained in their original condition. These fireplaces had moulded timber surrounds and were decorated with embossed patterns or colourful painted tiles. One fireplace was of particular interest. Along with decorative tiles, the fireplace had embossed panels emblazoned with the words ‘The Congo’ and the head of a mustachioed man flanked by two lions. This man was identified as Sir Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-American journalist and explorer famous for uttering “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” upon discovering the missionary in Tanzania in 1871. Stanley had a long and complicated association with the Congo region, one that has subsequently been approached with criticism (Driver 1991). It is not clear why Stanley’s head was considered appropriate decoration for a suburban fireplace in Christchurch. Perhaps it was created in celebration of his feats of exploration. Or perhaps it was produced by a fireplace manufacturer named for the Congo. At the height of his popularity, Stanley’s image was used to sell “everything from soap to Bovril” (Driver 1991: 134).

Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.
Fireplace panel embossed with the head of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Image: K. Watson.

The historical sources depict William Bowen as an extremely industrious and successful tradesman, active in both professional and social organisations. He was not only employed on major construction projects, but dabbled in property development and was presumably wealthy. The archaeological examination of his residence adds a new dimension to this image. While a comfortable residence, 441 Madras Street was more modest than what could have been expected of a prominent tradesman with a large family. It is possible that the house was built before the height of William’s success, and the family did not feel the need to change it. Alternatively, the residence could be attributed to William’s personal taste, and presumably that of his family, and may have been related to his religious faith.

William Bowen was a member of the Methodist (Wesleyan) church, and prominent in Methodist affairs in Christchurch. Several contemporary newspaper items indicate that both William and Ellen were active members of the St Albans Crescent Road Wesleyan Church (Press 1/5/1897) and that William was president of the Wesleyan Sunday School Union (Press 8/12/1900). The Methodist church emphasised discipline and social responsibility (Shoebridge 2012), and their religious affiliation no doubt influenced the Bowens’ lifestyle, including the house William built for his family on Madras Street.

Rosie Geary Nichol

References

Driver, F., 1991. Henry Morton Stanley and his Critics: Geography, Exploration and Empire. Past and Present 133: 134-166.

LINZ, 1890. Certificate of title, CB144/91. Landonline.

LINZ, 1891. Certificate of title, CB147/38. Landonline.

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

Shoebridge, T., 2012. Methodist Church. [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/methodist-church.

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