Lately I have been doing quite a bit of Job Safety Analysis paperwork (because safety in the workplace is number one priority, folks), and that got me thinking about how the people of early Christchurch might have managed their own health and safety at work. And then that got me thinking about how health and safety practices might be represented in the archaeological record, which made me reminisce about that time when we excavated Booth’s Sawmill on Lichfield Street, and found that tidy stack of bricks… thought I’d share it with you. James Booth established his Victoria Steam Sawmills and Timber Yard on half an acre of land between Lichfield and Tuam streets around 1866. An 1875 description of his business tells us that about 10 men were employed there, and that pride of place in the mill were two circular saw benches that were powered by a 15-horsepower horizontal steam engine. In addition, the sawmill had a vertical deal frame sawing machine, and machines for planing, tongueing, grooving, beading and bevelling, as well as a moulding machine for making fancy skirting boards and architraves. Oh yeah, there were also lathes and a jigging machine – (because what’s the point in having a whole lot of wood if you can’t indulge a quick jig- right?; Star 15/2/1875:2).
Booth tried to sell his business in 1877, but was unsuccessful. Two years later he mortgaged it to William Hargreaves, though he stayed on as manager for a bit. By 1880 Booth had left the business altogether, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts by Hargreaves to sell the business after this time, the mill closed for good in 1895. It is suspected that soon afterwards Andersons Foundry occupied the mill building, though (on paper at least) they didn’t obtain the lease for the property until 1903.
We know from historic records that 19th century sawmills were notoriously dangerous places to make a living. Like other factories and workshops of the time that operated machines driven by belts connected to big noisy steam engines, there were often little or no measures in place to ensure the safety of workers. No safety guards, protective barriers, or emergency stop buttons, not to mention the mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment such as ear muffs and safety glasses. I was surprised to find out how often 19th century sawmill workplace accidents were reported in the daily papers, but also that sometimes quite gory details of these incidents were provided to readers.
I can’t help but share a few of these sawmill accidents with you, some serious, others fatal. A note of warning folks – skip this paragraph is you are a bit squeamish…
Mr Mortimer suffered a broken arm and leg when he was struck by a crane (West Coast Times 2/6/1882:2), and young lad Henry Brown had a middle finger cut off while working the circular saw (Thames Star 29/4/1891:2). Mr Henderson cut two fingers off his left hand while working the breast bench (Woodville Examiner 3/7/1891:3). Mr Powell was smacked in the face when a piece of timber came back on the circular saw. His wounds were sewed up and he was sent home (New Zealand Herald 18/2/1899:5). Mr O’Brien had a splinter pierce his cheek and tongue “transfixing them” and afterwards had to be fed through a tube (Marlborough Express 25/8/1880:2), while Mr Thompson lost his left arm at the elbow to the saw bench when he slipped shoveling sawdust (Hawera and Normanby Star 17/10/1884:3). Henry Ash was killed when his head was crushed between some logs (Grey River Argus 14/11/1884:2), Mr Faulknor got run over by a timber truck that crushed his stomach (Hastings Standard 12/2/1897:2). Mr Anderson had his “brains knocked out” by a piece of wood that got caught in a circular saw (Wanganui Chronicle 16/3/1886:2), Mr Smith was killed instantly when he fell from a log onto the circular saw and got cut in half (Marlborough Express 19/4/1883:2) . And if you were to think that all 19th century sawmill accidents were related to being cut, squashed, or pierced, let us not forget poor 21 year old Norman McKay, who was scalded to death when the boiler at Campbell’s sawmill blew out. He died from his severe burn injuries two hours later (Oamaru Mail 4/3/1897:2).
We have found no historical records to suggest that any serious accidents, fatal or otherwise, occurred at Booth’s Sawmill, which we excavated over two weeks in late June 2014 while working on the site of the new Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct. What began as a small area of paved brick exposed below fill layers of granular ash and rubble-filled silt turned into a much larger complex of paved brick that was revealed to be the main working floor of the sawmill building. In addition, we found other paved brick surfaces outside the building, stone and brick footings onto which we suspect the sawmill’s machinery was once fixed, as well as the foundations of the sawmill’s chimney and the likely location of the timber storage yard.
The floor was made of three layers of brick, some laid flat and others on edge – the thickness of the brick floor is testament to the fact that this floor was built to be hard wearing and durable. Some stretches of brick were well worn, suggesting that these parts had seen heavy foot traffic over the years, and the wear to the bricks in these areas we suspect represented the main routes between different activity areas in the mill. We got some idea of where the different machines were probably once located, based on where areas of brick had suffered disturbance when these heavy machines were eventually removed. Complicating our interpretations about these different activity areas, however, was the fact that in its last 8 years of life, the mill was repurposed as a place of metalworking activity, and at least some of the existing features and parts of the mill building were modified to reflect this change in use.
Whether associated with the last days of the building’s use as a sawmill, or that short period afterwards in which the mill became a foundry, for me one the most memorable archaeological features uncovered at Booth’s was a row of broken bricks stacked up out of the way against the degraded remnants of one of the mill’s timber-framed walls. It was clear that these bricks had once been part of the adjacent section of floor (because the top layer of brick was missing here), but on becoming dislodged and broken, had become little more than a tripping hazard. Because no one likes a tripping hazard or falling flat on their face (especially in front of co-workers), someone had taken the initiative to remove the hazard and stack these broken bricks up out the way against the nearby wall. What do you think about our interpretation?
This neat stack of bricks reminded me that archaeology is not just about the stuff and things from the past, and that all this stuff and things can inform us about was happening on a site back in the day, but that first and foremost archaeology is about people. Specifically, what they left behind can inform us about past human behaviour – what might have been going on in people’s heads – their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
Remember folks, situational awareness at all times - watch your step, and mind how you go.
Grey River Argus [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Hastings Standard [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Hawera and Normanby Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Marlborough Express [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
New Zealand Herald [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Oamaru Mail [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Thames Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Wanganui Chronicle [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
West Coast Times [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].
Woodville Examiner [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].