A Stitch in Time: The Archaeology of Newtown

Wellington archaeologist Mary O’Keeffe has kindly provided a summary of her archaeological investigation on a number of properties recently demolished in Newtown, which provided a rich and highly significant addition to our understanding of the social history of Wellington. The diverse and fascinating artefact assemblage she found gives an insight into the lives and aspirations of Newtown residents in the late 19th century.

In late 2016 a series of pre-1900 cottages, 2 story villas and commercial buildings located in Normanby St, Donald McLean St and Riddiford St in Newtown were demolished to allow the building 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, presents a rich and fascinating story of 19th century life in a working-class suburb of a developing city.Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 10.31.47 AMThe demolished buildings. Top: cottages in Normanby St. Bottom left: 11 & 13 Donald McLean St; Bottom right: the Riddiford St commercial buildings.

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.

#8 Normanby St

By far the most extraordinary and interesting material was recovered from the cottage located at 8 Normanby St. Removal of the modern wallcovering in the 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 was a wonderful and highly unusual thing to find.

The pages were taken from “The Young Ladies Journal Monthly Panorama Of Fashion”. “The Young Ladies Journal” was 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.

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.



The second intriguing archaeological discovery of 8 Normanby St 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 appear 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.

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 10.17.32 AMScreen Shot 2017-12-05 at 10.18.23 AMThe 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’.

Mary O’Keeffe.

Details of Mary’s archaeological firm can be found here: heritagesolutions.net.nz. See our other story about Mary’s work here.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Absolutely fascinating! How exciting it must have been to uncover all of that. Isn’t it amazing how even the smallest things can give such a strong connection to those who came before us.

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