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Topic: The Randell Cottage collection

Bits and bobs

At first glance, the bits and bobs that make up this collection don't amount to much. It is a collection of broken plates, small dolls, discarded jewellery, nails, and bits of corset stays, cutlery, coins, buttons, and pins. However, as a group, these objects become a treasure trove that provides a physical link into the everyday life of early New Zealand settlers.

Clothes, obviously well worn and repaired, remind us of the financial difficulties many families faced, a time when reusing and recycling was a necessity not an environmental choice. A child's drawing and hidden trinkets show us what children valued and treasured in the 1870s. The throw-away items found in the attic, within the walls, and under the floorboards illustrate what people ate on, played with, dressed in and surrounded themselves with.

A crowded settlers cottage

All of the objects in this collection came from a little cottage in Thorndon, Wellington, occupied by the Randell family between 1867 and 1910.

The cottage, built by William Randell, originally had four rooms, three bedrooms and one kitchen/living/dining area. William and his wife Sarah had seven children when they moved in. By 1877 they had ten children, so William added two more rooms to accommodate his growing family. All of the children shared a bedroom with their brothers or sisters, and at least one of the youngest children would have shared with their parents.

A wonderful gift

The cottage was bought by Sarah and William's great granddaughter Beverley Randell-Price in 1994. As a historian with a keen interest in her roots, Beverley recognised the significance of her family's story and the importance of the objects found in the cottage. As Beverley and her family renovated the cottage, they meticulously retained every item found and recorded as much information as possible. This information was recorded in a series of albums, copies of which are in Te Papa's archive.

Beverley, her husband Hugh, and daughter Susan donated the collection of objects they found to Te Papa in 2006. The cottage is now listed as Category II with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. It is owned by the Randell Cottage Writers' Trust and occupied alternately by writers-in-residence from New Zealand and France.

Stories from the past

Beverley spent many hours with her 80-year-old father and a few of his surviving cousins recording their memories. Together they were able to make sense of the objects they found in the cottage and record a history that represents the life of many New Zealanders from that period, as well as a detailed personal family history which was published in a book A Crowded Thorndon Cottage by Beverley Randell.

One of the shared family memories of Sarah Randell was that she adored babies and children - she had ten children of her own. It is therefore appropriate that some of the most captivating stories to come out of this collection related to the life of the Randell children.

Secrets from the Randell children

Some of the children's objects include writing slates and slate pens, text book pages, a baby plate and toys - a home-made hoop, spinning tops, playing cards, a carved boat, and balls.

When the renovations were begun, the attic was opened up and lying in a corner were some hand-sewn clothes that would have fitted a young girl. They included a worn and altered dress, skirt, jacket and shirt. Beverley was able to surmise that while the extension of 1874 was being built, Annie, the middle daughter aged nine at the time, had hidden these clothes. She had always had to wear her sister's hand-me-downs, and in an act of defiance she secretly squirreled these clothes away.

Handwriting on the walls illustrated which bedroom the three Randell boys used. A brief pencilled note on white cloth glued to the wooden wall noted:

March 10th W. Randell New pair of boots

Young William must have thought this purchase was worth recording. Boots were a very expensive and highly prized commodity. Another significant discovery in this room was found on a plain piece of blue wallpaper, exposed when the top layers were removed. There, drawn with a ruler and pencil, is nine-year-old Dick's impression of the Government Building in Thorndon after it was built in 1876. It would have been the biggest structure Dick had ever seen, with more windows than seemed possible. Even now, it is still the largest wooden structure in the Southern Hemisphere.

Another glimpse into the life of the Randell children was provided by a cluster of objects found outside, at the back of the cottage by the kitchen chimney, in a little gap between a brick and a weatherboard just big enough for a little hand to fit into. In this hole were treasures thought to have belonged to the three smallest girls - Em, Nell, and Con. Hidden in the wall were broken brooches and bracelets, bits of toy china tea sets, tiny broken china dolls and other precious objects. Clearly these were special playthings collected by the little girls and hidden away.

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