A day in the 1850s

Canterbury Provincial Buildings, begun in 1858 (click for image credit)

Canterbury Provincial Buildings, begun in 1858 (click for image credit)

Every December Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre of Building Performance Research holds a one-day symposium that examines New Zealand’s built environment during a particular decade. This year it was the 1850s.

Each year I look forward to this symposium because most historians I meet are more interested in events that take place in built environments rather than the environments themselves. The symposium is therefore a chance to discuss ‘bricks and mortar’ – sometimes literally!

As a number of the speakers pointed out, the 1850s was important for the arrival of photography. For the first time we can see what buildings and places actually looked like, free from the modifying pencil or paintbrush of the artist: the rounded hills of Wellington, painted by the likes of Charles Heaphy in the 1840s, are now revealed as mountainous and rugged. Most speakers made liberal use of photos in their presentations, although due to the basic technology of the 1850s many of these lacked clarity. I can only give a brief account of some of the talks.

Sarah Caylor talked about shit in Wellington. She noted how in 17th-century London human excrement was collected at Dung Wharf on the Thames and then used as a fertiliser for market gardens on the city’s periphery. The same happened in 1850s Wellington, before being discontinued for public health reasons. She suggested it was time we returned to the sustainable practice.

Christine McCarthy examined the ‘V-hut’ as a temporary housing type, described by early settler Charlotte Godley as ‘all roof and no walls’. The building was closely (but not exclusively) associated with the Canterbury settlement, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ currently arising in Christchurch is a V-hut writ large.

Peter Wood spoke about Tāmihana Te Rauparaha’s (long-demolished) house at Ōtaki. It was built beside its more famous neighbour, the Rangiātea Church. Like the church, it was a culturally hybrid building, containing both Pākehā and Māori elements. The verandah posts had figurative carvings and a carved beam. Wood suggested the verandah represented the threshold between a noa (profane) exterior and a tapu (sacred) interior.

In my session, I looked at the way the main towns moved past their frontier origins and became more city-like. I argued that Canterbury Provincial Buildings was the first New Zealand structure to go past the utilitarian architecture of the first settlers and introduce a style that was more intricate and sophisticated. It was our first ‘city building’. Ian Lochhead also examined the Provincial Council Buildings, or rather what remains of them following the 2011 earthquake. The magnificent council chamber collapsed in the quake, but he said there were high hopes it would be rebuilt. He showed us a poignant photograph of recovered blocks of stone laid out in numbered piles on the street. He then showed us a photograph taken 150 years before with some of the same stones sitting in the same place waiting to be shaped and put into place. We all got the Phoenix metaphor.

Other topics included: a history of Ahuriri in Napier, the historical archaeology of post-earthquake Christchurch and Wellington architects in the 1850s.

It was interesting to see how the digital age was changing research practice. The plethora of historical images online meant at least one speaker, whose whole presentation was based on an analysis of photographs, admitted he had never entered the doors of an archive. Most speakers had filled their PowerPoint presentations with jpeg images from digital archives. The online newspaper archive Papers Past was a pivotal source for many. The experience of tramping to a particular archive to work through mountains of files appears to be on the wane.

The event ended with the traditional stroll around the corner to Havana Bar, comprising two 19th-century workers’ cottages that could have been (but weren’t) erected in the 1850s. After a few ales and a lively discussion we agreed next year’s symposium will be on the 1880s.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Megan Cook || December 17th, 2012

    I like the informality of it. A few beers and it’s decided: the 1880s next time. It sounds like a good conference - maybe I’ll get to it in 2013, and hear another, more academically-phrased version of why that decade was chosen.

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