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19th century life – fascinating discoveries in Newtown

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by Mary O’Keeffe
Late last year a series of pre-1900 cottages, two-storey villas and commercial buildings located in Normanby Street, Donald McLean Street and Riddiford Street in Newtown were demolished to allow construction of the new Salvation Army building.

Prior to the demolitions, an archaeological programme was undertaken, investigating the buildings’ fabric, the building sites and the in-ground archaeology of the wider area between the buildings. A rich array of archaeological artefacts and material was recovered. The entire heritage landscape, including the buildings and the artefacts assemblage, presented a rich and fascinating story of 19th century life in a working-class suburb of a developing city.

The buildings’ archaeology revealed changes to the physical structures, presumably in response to either increased affluence or growing families. The artefacts recovered from beneath the houses and from the ground between the buildings demonstrated the everyday items people were using and food they were consuming.

The subfloor and in-ground artefacts were generally typical of mid-late century Wellington settlement with a predominance of tea and table ware, including commonly found transfer patterns and types. Glassware was also typical and included a predominance of beverage bottles (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), as well as a range of condiments and medicines.

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By far the most extraordinary and interesting material was recovered from the cottage at 8 Normanby St. Removal of the modern wallcovering in what would have been the parlour revealed wonderful original wall coverings. Initial holes made in the modern plaster board indicated to the archaeologists that there was paper over the underlying sarking, presumably newspaper (newspaper pasted onto sarking to block the gaps is a reasonably common wall treatment). However complete removal of the plaster board revealed that the paper was in fact coloured pages from a London fashion magazine. The pages had been pasted over the sarking for insulation, and were present on the entire of the east wall and much of the west wall. The coloured pages, with the richness of colour and detail of the dresses, were a wonderful and highly unusual thing to find.

The pages were taken from “The Young Ladies Journal Monthly Panorama Of Fashion”, an illustrated periodical that was marketed specifically to a young, female, middle-class audience, published by Nicholson and Company between 1864 and 1920. Each month, the YLJ published several fashion supplements that were distributed with its regular magazine issues. These supplements feature illustrated fashion spreads, needlework design and crafting templates, and dress patterns that could be cut out and traced onto fabric.

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The lithographic prints on the walls of 8 Normanby St are remarkable for their colour and the complexity of the pictures. The women wearing the garments are pictured in scenes or tableaux that perhaps unconsciously suggest the social situation that a wearer of the dress might aspire to. Accessories such as boots and bonnets are also shown.

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The second intriguing archaeological discovery of 8 Normanby Street was in an internal wall cavity. Material could be seen through the gaps in the wooden sarking of the wall between room 1, (the room containing the pictures) and the hallway.

Removal of the sarking revealed a rich and extraordinary deposit of artefacts including:

Handkerchiefs
Scraps of fabric
Formed pieces of fabric including frills and sleeves
Ribbons
Quilt scraps
Vesta match boxes
Spent matches
Paper strips with perforated edges
Wrapping paper
Cardboard packaging
Collar box tags
Cigar tag
Tram tickets
Advertising tracts and calendars
Magazines, including Bow Bells and The London Journal
Fragments from local and other newspapers
Buttons
Smoking pipes
Pencils
Slate pencils
Candle stubs
Nails
Dressmaking pins
Cardboard and linen collar frames
A used finger dressing

It is intriguing to note that many of the objects found in the wall appeared to be associated with fashion, personal grooming and tailoring or dressmaking, including:

Magazines featuring fashions and patterns
Fabric scraps and swags
Buttons
95 linen and cardboard collar frames of various styles
Collar box tags
Dressmaking pins
Home-made man’s trouser pattern (from a Dominion Post newspaper page)

This assemblage of items associated with dressmaking suggests that someone in the house undertook sewing or dressmaking. This could have been as a commercial activity, as a home-based industry, or simply someone sewing for the family. Research in street directories and rates books did not reveal any information about a known seamstress or dressmaking living in the cottage.

It is not clear how the assemblage came to be in the wall cavity. The ceiling above was a flat continuous panel covering the wall cavities, so the assemblage did not fall down from the roof space. The assemblage had to have been deliberately placed within the wall cavity; however, no sarking boards on either side appeared to be a replacement board.

The reason for the assemblage being in the wall is also not clear although the most likely explanation is for insulation. However, whilst some of the artefactual material would have had an insulating effect, substances such as the food scraps, smoking pipes and glass bottle would not. Further, this was the only wall cavity in the house with artefacts within it.

It is possible that the occupants made a small attempt to improve insulation in this area of the house whilst taking the opportunity to empty one or several rubbish containers at the same time. Certainly, once the artefact material had been removed from the wall cavity, there was a distinct updraft felt from underneath the house and into the room.

The in-wall assemblage from 8 Normanby Street gives an interesting insight into the mundane aspects of daily life in 1880s, working class Wellington (sewing, home economy, smoking), but the items also gave insight into specific moral and religious concerns, interest in local current events and political developments. It also suggests that, although the area was probably largely occupied by working class tenant families (carpenters, bricklayers, painters), there was a high level of literacy and an interest in self-education and self-improvement .

The beautiful colour pictures pasted to the sarking primarily served a functional purpose, being to increase insulation by blocking gaps in the sarking. However, the fact that each picture has been used in its entirety, rather than just the more usual strips of paper or fabric, suggests the pictures themselves served an aesthetic purpose. Coupled with the artefactual material associated with sewing in the in-wall cavity, this suggests at the very least a competent and active home sewer, or possibly a person running a home-based business as a tailor or seamstress. The pictures and artefacts indeed represent ‘a stitch in time’.

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The demolished buildings. Top: cottages in Normanby Street. Bottom left: 11 & 13 Donald McLean Street; Bottom right: the Riddiford Street commercial buildings.

Details of Mary O’Keefe’s archaeological firm can be found here. This article was first published on Elizabeth Cox’s Bay Heritage Consultants website.