Childish Amusements

Well, we’ve explored children’s burials, childhood diseases, feeding children and their playthings…and our Little Lives series is drawing to a close. So for our final blog for NZ archaeology week we’re heading back to St John’s in Milton, and trawling through the old records to look at the social events set up for children in colonial Otago

As any parent knows (especially in the time of social lockdown we’re currently experiencing), keeping kids amused is hard work. No matter how many toys you have on hand, sometimes you just need to take the children out and about to keep yourself sane. Luckily for the Otago colonists, public amusements were readily available. Colonial Milton had a thriving social scene, the local newspapers are full of advertisements for concerts, shows, even circuses coming to town.

Perhaps the biggest travelling show to grace Milton with its presence was Cooper & Bailey’s Circus in 1878, an international travelling circus which later merged with P.T Barnum’s circus (recently brought back to public attention by the film The Greatest Showman).

The circus is coming to town. Or at least it was in 1878! (Bruce Herald, 12th March 1878, accessed via Papers Past)

It’s amazing to think that one of the biggest, and most-famous, travelling acts in the world made Milton one of it’s key stops – the early settlement was clearly a thriving place to be! People poured into the settlement from miles around to see the big event. Special trains were put on to bring children from the goldfields towns, with thousands of extra people coming to Milton for the one day it was on.

Travelling shows were highlights in the social calendar for Milton and the surrounding Otago townships. The Cooper and Bailey circus was one of the most famous circuses in the world in the late 1800s, and people flooded to Milton to see it (Otago Witness 30 March 1878, accessed via Papers Past)

Travelling circuses were few-and-far-between though. More commonplace were relatively frequent social events organised by churches and social clubs. Our archaeological work focuses on the burial ground of St. John’s church, Milton, and the church was a main organiser of gatherings in nineteenth century Milton. The Bruce Herald is full of advertisements for concerts and shows held by, and in aid of, the church.

In the late 1800s the St. John’s picnic was one of the events of the season, over 300 people attended it annually, the Milton brass band provided music, there was dancing and food provided by the ladies of the congregation. The popular game of kiss-in-the-ring, also made an appearance from time to time. This traditional game involved players dropping a handkerchief behind a chosen person in a circle, who then must race to kiss them before they complete a run around the circle (like duck, duck, goose… but with more kissing) – an unusual example of a time when it was ok for courting couples to come into contact with one another in strict Victorian society!

Rowdy games were the preference for children, and the St. John’s picnic more than once descended into ill-advised raucous games of football. At one such picnic the vicar (Rev. Mr Stanley) was put on crutches by his involvement in the children’s games!

Account of the St. John’s picnic, 4th Feb 1876 (Bruce Herald, accessed via Papers Past)

These events were put on for the whole town, but events more specifically organised for children were the Sunday School gatherings, St. John’s children’s gatherings were held throughout the year, planned to be held in local paddocks and almost always forced inside by rain (much lamented in the newspapers of the time)! Accounts of these gatherings involve the quite gendered playing of games – boys partook in “outdoor amusements” between rain showers, while girls were expected to play indoor games. But the main event was the generous spread laid on by the ladies of the congregation.

Of course, it wasn’t just the churches putting on events. Local companies offered gala days with free refreshments and entertainment in order to advertise their business, or reward their workers (e.g. The Real MacKay Coal Quarry, Noble, Simons and Co’s Flax Mill). Schools were also responsible for entertainment, occasionally put on excursions to nearby areas of interest like Dunedin or Taieri Mouth. A trip to Dunedin with the school was a rare and exciting occasion, visits to the big city were rare even for some adults in colonial Milton (for readers outside of Otago, Milton is barely a 45 minute drive from Dunedin nowadays).

Trips to Dunedin were big news in the late 1800s! Bruce Herald 24th Dec 1895, accessed via Papers Past

It’s amazing for us, as archaeologists, to have written records of events put on by the parish we’re working in – we hardly ever get insight into how people enjoyed themselves when they were alive. As parish members, the young people in the cemetery of St John’s more than likely would have attended the church picnic and Sunday school gatherings, played rowdy games of football (or stayed inside and played more demure games if they were girls!), enjoyed the piles of sandwiches and cakes made by devoted parish mothers, and been part of what made the Milton community thrive.

Charlotte King, 3rd May 2020

And with that we come to the end of our New Zealand Archaeology Week blog series. Along with women and non-European groups, children are a group that are often left out of history books. However, the stories of children in colonial New Zealand are an important part of our history, and are one of the focuses of our group’s work. By looking at the skeletal remains of these under-recorded little ones, alongside material culture evidence and historical documents, we hope we can contribute to telling their stories and help to bring their little lives to light.

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