A social history of named student houses in Dunedin, New Zealand

This post is contributed by Sarah Gallagher who is a Heritage Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.  An alumna of the University of Otago, she has researched student flat names in Dunedin, New Zealand, since 2000.  Her book Scarfie Flats of Dunedin’, co-written with Ian Chapman (Senior Lecturer in Performing Arts at the University of Otago), was published in 2019.  The book provides a selection of stories of named flats from the 1930s to the present, along with essays on group identity, street art, and student culture. 

The University of Otago was established in 1869 and was the first university in New Zealand.  The university was planned and developed by Scots settlers while New Zealand was still a fledgling colony.  Dunedin was the country’s largest city and was booming thanks to the discovery of gold by Gabriel Reed in 1861.  A recent history by Dr Alison Clarke has been published about the University to celebrate Otago’s 150th anniversary in 2019.

While the University of Otago has an international reputation for teaching and research, it is also well known for its students, colloquially referred to as “Scarfies.  As New Zealand’s only residential campus, it provides a singularly unique living experience in picturesque grounds amongst neo-Gothic buildings that sit alongside the Water of Leith.  Two area units surrounding and including the university campus are populated largely by young people between the ages of 15 and 25 years: in total 91% of the usual resident population.  The majority of the housing stock in these areas is Victorian and the character of the buildings, some of which are listed with Heritage New Zealand.  Many of the houses that students rent lie within Dunedin City Council heritage precincts and are considered character contributing houses; it is their character, as well as their proximity to campus that make these houses attractive to students.

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The Hedge, Castle Street (Dunedin Flat Names Project Collection).

The combination of the residential campus environment, the fact that 80% of students attending Otago originate from outside of Dunedin, as well as their age and stage, provides a melting pot for interesting social activity.  Over the years, Otago students have experienced a number of traditions associated with living in halls of residence.  The Otago student experience until the 1990s is explored in Sam Elworthy’s book Ritual Song of Defiance: A Social History of Students at the University of Otago.  However house sharing, or flatting as we call it, has an interesting history of its own.

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The Pink Pussy on Cumberland Street (Dunedin Flat Names Project Collection).

A particularly esoteric aspect of flatting history has been the focus of my research: the practice of students naming their flats.  This involves the conjuring of names and the creation of signs which are generally hung outside the house and are viewable from the street.  The practice has occurred since the 1930s and since the year 2000, over 700 named flats have been verified and mapped through the Dunedin Flat Names Project.

These flat signs are usually temporary residents in our visual landscape.  They can be in situ for decades or days.  In order to preserve this ephemeral print culture in North Dunedin and investigate their meaning, I began to record them.  Historical images of named student flats are often all that remains of a building that no longer exists and certainly records a piece of history that has not been recorded elsewhere.  They vary in form from simply being painted on the side of the house, to being spray painted on a couch residing on the verandah, to being constructed from a mind boggling variety of materials; these may include such items as cupboard doors, single bed heads, surfboards, skateboards, whiteboards, or beer crates.

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The Hilton, Cumberland Street (Lynne Paterson Collection).

The course of my research has involved photographing the flats with their signs, recording the details of the sign and its materials, mapping the addresses, and researching the background to the names which has involved the development of a taxonomy for the purpose of classification.  Names fall into a number of themes, the most prevalent make reference to the environment – the house, its grounds or often a playful reference to the street, and popular culture – often references to literature, film, music but also social political events.  Sexual themes are present as are references to alcohol but these do not factor as often.

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Bag End, Ethel McMillan Place (Dunedin Flat Names Project Collection).

Names provide insight into what is important or meaningful to this population and are rich with character, imagery and playful linguistic devices.  Double entendre, puns, colloquialisms and vernacular language abound.  Occasionally the names are shocking and cause offence to members of the public, demonstrating a tension between the reader and the creator: a tension between a sign on a private house viewed from the public arena of the street.  Comparing the names and materials of the signs over time shows student behaviour and humour has not changed a great deal, for example, students were borrowing road signs and converting them in the 1980s as they continue to do today.

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Wet Tart, Clyde Street (Dunedin Flat Names Project Collection).

Why do students name their flats?  I believe it is about the creation of identity and sense of place.  As social animals, humans have a deep need to belong, and to create environments that meet these needs.  In a new town, starting a new life amongst new people, name provides an identity, a point of connection, and a locus of identification.  Students use the names as wayfinding devices – a name is easier to remember than a number, for example, “Are you going to the party at The Nunnery on Saturday?” and landlords have discovered that named flats are often desirable by students and rent earlier in the season than flats without names.  At a formative time in a young person’s life, their first home away from home is a memorable and important experience.  The naming of the place, no matter the reason or the name itself has meaning and importance.  The meaning can be so individual it can be lost on readers, or it can clearly demonstrate the musical taste of the residents, as in “Pink Flat the Door”, or it can reflect the history of the building, like a flat called “Legendairy” which was previously a convenience store, or dairy.  Named student flats add a colourful and edgy element to Dunedin’s visual landscape that when examined over time reveal stories about culture.

 

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Legendairy, Duke Street. Design by Jonathan Waters (Dunedin Flat Names Project Collection).

 

Writing a history of the University of Otago, New Zealand

This post is contributed by historian Dr Ali Clarke, a research fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand.  Her most recent book ‘Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University‘ has just been published by Otago University Press and will be launched during the university’s 150th celebrations in March 2019.

The University of Otago takes pride in its status as New Zealand’s oldest university and has organised numerous events to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2019. Establishing a university in Dunedin in 1869 was remarkably ambitious. It was the chief town of the Otago colony, begun just a couple of decades earlier by members of the Scottish Free Church. Gold rushes in the region in the 1860s led to an influx of people, but the population of Dunedin was still only around 15,000.

In response to a suggestion from the Otago high school rector, the New Zealand government appointed a select committee to investigate establishing scholarships to send promising young New Zealanders to universities in the United Kingdom; most people consulted believed a local university would be premature, or even ‘absurd’. Otago, headed by an entrepreneurial provincial council, decided to go ahead and set up a university anyway. It was no accident that it was in a community dominated by Scots that this happened: many Scottish migrants highly valued education and believed it should be offered widely. Furthermore, the Presbyterian Church was willing to fund a couple of professorial chairs.

After two years of preparation – in those days of slow boat transport, it took time for advertisements, applications and professors to travel between Europe and New Zealand – classes began in 1871. The 81 founding students came from around the country. It was a promising start, although many of the students were ill-prepared, without any secondary education. Other regions took note and wanted their own higher education facilities. In 1874, after much debate and negotiation, the University of Otago became a constituent college of a new University of New Zealand, which served as the country’s only degree-awarding body until the 1960s. It left all the teaching to its constituent colleges, established in the main centres of population; those colleges, including the University of Otago, became independent bodies in 1961.

Home science

Professor Ann Strong (right) with the staff of the Home Science Extension Service in the mid-1930s. They travelled around the region providing adult education courses. Faculty of Consumer and Applied Sciences records, MS-1517/064, S15-621E, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

The University of Otago has been in some ways highly entrepreneurial. Within its first decade it had, as well as its arts and science courses, law classes, a medical school and a mining school; its dental school opened in 1907. Women were granted admission from the beginning, and in 1911 a home science school opened, attracting women from around the country. The university also attracted students from near and far to its health science courses; it added further health professional courses later in the 20th century. New campuses in Christchurch and Wellington helped cater for the needs of the expanding medical student roll. Commerce courses started in the 1910s, and Otago boasted New Zealand’s first MBA course in the 1970s.

But the university could also be deeply conservative. It was very slow to recognise the rights and interests of Māori. Although it attracted Māori students, especially to its medical courses, from the 1890s, it was not until the late 20th century that their numbers became significant. Otago was also the last of the New Zealand universities to introduce academic programmes in Māori studies, in the early 1980s. In its early decades almost all of Otago’s academic staff boasted degrees from distinguished old world universities and a remarkable number of Oxbridge graduates continued to be appointed throughout its history. There was much suspicion of American degrees: the first US graduate on staff was Ann Gilchrist Strong, who joined the home science school as a professor in 1921.

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The campus in the 1890s, with the newly-built ‘tin shed’ of the mining school on the right.  H.J. Gill photograph, Box-140-001, S17-172A, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.

The biggest challenge in writing a new history to mark the University of Otago’s 150th anniversary was to turn a huge amount of material relating to a complex institution – it currently has campuses in four cities, over 20,000 students, 15 residential colleges and numerous research centres – into one readable volume. Previous histories, written for the jubilee and centenary, focussed on the administration of the organisation and its ‘great men’. The centenary history included a brief biography of every professor, past and present – that left little room for anyone else. The new book pays much more attention to students, and also tells the stories of early women staff and students and of the involvement of Māori with the university. The development of technology and the changing makeup of the student roll, including the rise of international students, also feature strongly. The book is arranged thematically, with about half devoted to the various academic and research programmes, and the remainder covering a diverse range of subjects, from administration and student life to changing teaching styles and the organisation’s built environment.

While I was working on the project I ran a blog, and found it a hugely valuable exercise – I thoroughly recommend it to anybody researching an institutional history (although it can be pretty time-consuming!). I posted regular stories on a wide range of topics relating to the university’s history. It was a good testing ground for material for the book – people corrected errors and provided further information, including identification of photographs. It also allowed me to share stories which, for reasons of space, couldn’t fit into the final book. The metrics were valuable in identifying areas people found most interesting. The blog was popular with the university’s communications and alumni staff, who are always on the lookout for interesting content. They publicised it widely and a couple of stories even made it to the local newspaper. This helped spark further interest in the project. Now the project is complete, the blog is being maintained by the Hocken Collections, the university’s research library, archive and gallery, using posts written by history students as part of their course work.  Otago: 150 Years of New Zealand’s First University will be launched during the university’s 150th celebrations in March 2019.

Lecture

A class underway in the late 1980s/early 1990s in the Castle Lecture Theatres. University of Otago Photographic Unit records, MS-4185/060, S17-550A, Hocken Collections, University of Otago.