Delving into the household accounts of James Hector

Delving into the household accounts of James Hector

Dr Simon Nathan is an Honorary Research Associate at Te Papa. During his research towards a biography on James Hector, the founder of the Colonial Museum, he has delved into the household accounts of the Hector family, which are held in Te Papa’s Archive. In this guest blog post, he shares some of his findings on the the lifestyle of a museum director in the 1870s.

Living well in the 1870s

The discovery of a bundle of household accounts for the Hector family in the Te Papa archives helps us to understand the lifestyle of one of Wellington’s well-off families in the 1870s. James Hector was founder of the Colonial Museum, forerunner of Te Papa, and he lived with his wife Georgiana and young family in Museum Street – now immediately behind Parliament buildings. Hector was one of the most highly paid government officials, with an annual salary of 800 pounds, worth about $108,000 in 2014 values – so the family was able to live comfortably.

Bundles of James Hector's bills are held in Te Papa's archive. Photo: Simon Nathan.
Bundles of James Hector’s bills are held in Te Papa’s archive. Photo: Simon Nathan.

The collection in Te Papa archives consists of over 600 bills in four bundles, tied with tape. Each bill has a hole  it, so it appears that they were placed on a spike as soon as they were received, and later paid in batches, probably once a month. The bills were then folded into narrow strips, labelled and filed away. Hector was clearly a canny Scot who kept a close eye on his money. Most of the bills cover the period 1870-74, soon after James and Georgiana were married. The Hectors went overseas for a year in 1875, and it seems likely that the household accounts were bundled up and tucked away at the museum, where they remained for over a century.

A tally of purchases from I & H Barber - Butchers. Photo: Simon Nathan.
A tally of purchases from I & H Barber – Butchers.

The bills show that the Hector family ate well. Their diet was rich in meat with legs of mutton, chops, cutlets and a variety of beef cuts including oxtails and ox heart. They also regularly ate poultry, but no fish (which was regarded by many colonists as poor-man’s food.

Mrs Hector was a regular customer at Kirkcaldie & Stains. Photo: Simon Nathan.

Most of the Hector’s clothing was custom-made. Mrs Hector often bought material from retailers such as Kirkcaldie and Stains in Lambton Quay, which was then made up into clothes by local dressmakers.

Mrs Hector paid a Mrs Fahy to do her laundry. Photo: Simon Nathan.
Mrs Hector paid a Mrs Fahy to do her laundry. Photo: Simon Nathan.

Laundry was done by a washerwoman, who presumably picked up the dirty linen, and washed and ironed it at home. There was no dry-cleaning in those days. Clothing, sheets, curtains and chair coverings all went off to be washed.

If you would like more information on James Hector’s lifestyle and spending, you can read a full length article  by Simon in Te Papa’s research journal, Tuhinga 25. 

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