Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flames of justice

Occasionally (very occasionally), the contract corporate communications work I do part-time intersects with my true love, which is of course studying history. Such a serendipitous cross-over happened just recently, as I’ve been writing some case studies for a company involved in upgrading the technology in a number of New Zealand’s historic courtrooms.

I was tracking down some background on the Old High Court building, which has now been incorporated into a brand spanking new Supreme Court complex, when I came across this little gem from the Supreme Court’s Conservation Report. It’s the tale of one Sir Hubert Ostler, a future Crown Solicitor and Crown Prosecutor. In 1910, Sir Hubert was a new appointee to the Crown Law Office and worked in a room above the court, but his career could well have been snuffed out by this little misjudgment:

“My desk was near the window and I generally worked with the window open. One day I was concentrating on some work and as I read I lit my pipe, shook the match and thinking it was out, dropped it into the wastepaper basket, which happened to be fairly full. But the match had not been extinguished, and presently I heard a noise and on looking round found a merry fire, the paper being well alight.

I promptly picked up the basket and dropped it out of the window and on looking out to watch the result I saw it descend on the head of Mr Justice Cooper, who had just emerged from the door. There was no time to warn him. It landed on his hat and blazing papers were shot out and showered around him like a Greek fire. He let out a yell and jumped liked a frightened horse…” [1]

The archaeologists have done some major excavating work on the construction site for the new Supreme Court, which lies next to the Old High Court building. This land was originally part of the harbour but was reclaimed in stages from the 1850s to provide some much-needed flat building space between the water and the steep, bush-covered hills. Archaeological finds on the Supreme Court site have encompassed both indigenous artefacts such as Maori kete (baskets, which were possibly used for bringing goods to trade with the colonists) and the prosaic leavings of daily life in the European settler community. The latter includes china fragments, wine goblets, gin and beer bottles, pharmaceutical bottles, and a rather beautiful Belle Epoque-style cold cream container.

Below is a Wellington City Council map showing the harbour reclamations and their dates superimposed on modern Wellington. Much of what is now the CBD is within the green area of reclaimed land. This is an interesting prospect considering this city is smack in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone at high risk of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. I try very hard not to think about that - and about the fact that the scientists keep warning us we’re well overdue for ‘the big one’ - when I’m up on the 25th floor of some waterside high rise and a tremor hits.

Writing about the court’s conservation reports has reminded me I must track down a friendly local archaeologist to help me identify a few bits and pieces that were unearthed under our 1890s cottage when the drains were replaced recently. They include a couple of lead soldiers (?? - I think they’d be lead, if they are indeed from around the turn of last century) and some interesting old glass bottles.

1. The full story is published in R. Cooke (Ed.), Portrait of a Profession: The Centennial Book of the New Zealand Law Society, Reed, 1969.


RPS77 said...

OK, that quote made me laugh.

(I tried to think of something more profound to say, but failed.)

Bavardess said...

That was my reaction, too. I get this mental picture of a pompous old dude with mutton chop sideburns and his hat on fire.

stu said...

Tracking down archaeologists:

1-Try the pub.
2-If they aren't there, try the nearest university
3-Failing that, look for the muddiest spot for twenty miles.
4-Or there's usually one attached to a museum.

Bavardess said...

Good call on the pub. I don't want to waste the museum's time with my little domestic curiosity, but I bet a beer would smooth the path.

Digger said...

Yay Archaeology!

At first I thought you were going to tell how the archaeologists found bits of a burnt metal bucket...

If you don't turn up any archaeologists in the pub, I'm happy to look at some pix for you.