One Advantage of Wearing Corsets: Kirkcaldie & Stains Archives

This blog was written by Katie Fordyce, Curatorial Intern Manuscripts, and Dr. Shannon Wellington, Curator of Manuscripts at the Alexander Turnbull Library.


Photograph of the Kirkcaldie & Stains department store, taken by Gordon Burt (1920s). Ref: 1/1-015403-FPhotograph of the Kirkcaldie & Stains department store, taken by Gordon Burt (1920s). Ref: 1/1-015403-F

On the 27th October 1898, in the newly established Kirkcaldie & Stains tea-rooms, Annie McWilliam opened fire on Ellen Dick, the tea-room’s manager. Annie shot at Ellen three times with a .45 calibre six-chambered revolver known in the American Wild-West as ‘The Equaliser’. (1) Ellen’s life was saved when one of the bullets deflected off her whale-bone corset; miraculously, she suffered only minor bruising and shock. “Your corset saved you Mrs. Dick,” said the physician on the scene. “Had that bullet struck a man where it struck you, it would most certainly have killed him”. (2) Local newspapers were quick to publicise the scandal in the Evening Post, with headlines reading, “Startling Occurrence in a Tea-Room… Three Shots Fired… One Advantage of Wearing Corsets! (3)

Fast forward to January 2016 and after a remarkable 153 years of dressing and furnishing New Zealanders and their homes, Kirkcaldie & Stains are closing their doors. Fondly nicknamed ‘Kirks’ by Wellingtonians, customers will remember the department store for the signature touches that made their shopping experience unique. The doorman in coat-and-tails, the grand piano playing classical melodies, the all-important ‘Powder Room’ and, of course, the Lamson Chute; a pneumatic dispatch system that sent capsules containing money and messages whizzing across the store through three-and-a-half miles of brass piping. The second largest in Australasia at the time of its installation, the remnants of the Lamson system were re-purposed in a subsequent store renovation in the brass hand rails of Kirks’ staircases. (4)

The Alexander Turnbull Library is mandated to collect material of unique regional significance to the Wellington area. In line with this collecting remit, we are privileged to be charged with acquiring, arranging, describing and providing access to 153 years of Kirkcaldie & Stains archives. The Library’s collecting emphasis is placed on the records of individuals and organisations recognised as making a significant, or a unique contribution to the national scene, and which reflect events, policies, cultural practices and social developments that have affected or influenced the lives of all New Zealanders. Kirkcaldie & Stains, as Wellington’s premier department store, family enterprise, site of social and commercial history – and through its contribution to the Wellington city scape – more than represents this collecting mandate.

Kirks records are not entirely new to the Library. Our current holdings include historic photographs of the exterior of the Lambton Quay Kirkcaldie & Stains store, various memoirs from past employees, along with small amounts of advertising material and ephemera. This new acquisition however is of special significance: the volume and scope of the material, not to mention the variety of formats – business records, photographic materials, advertising copy, sketches, stationary, memorabilia, paintings and prints – form an almost complete archive of the Company and its associated social history.

Kirkcaldie and Stains Advertising Copy. Image credit Shannon Wellington Dec 2015Kirkcaldie and Stains Advertising Copy. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Dec 2015

Over the last month, Field Librarian Diane Woods, assisted by Librarian Catherine Bisley, Curator Manuscripts-Shannon Wellington, Curator Photographs-Natalie Marshall and Curator Ephemera-Barbara Lyon, have appraised, packed, documented, uplifted and placed into conservation-level storage the archives of Kirkcaldie & Stains. This was no easy feat! – the uplifted material consisted of seventy-two boxes of records, thirty-five leather and cloth-bound ledgers detailing company accounts, stock inventories, staff wages and holiday records, invoices, stock-takes and cashbooks. Minutes of meetings, company correspondence, building plans for shop fit-outs and renovation specs, company stationery, exhibition files, photo albums, framed images and paintings, advertising artwork and advertising copy, film reels, VHS tapes and sound cassettes were also included.

Curator of Photographs Natalie Marshall packing a framed item for transportation. Image credit Shannon Wellington Dec 2015Curator of Photographs Natalie Marshall packing a framed item for transportation. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Dec 2015

The Kirkcaldie and Stains archive spans almost the entire operational history of the Company, with the majority of records covering the first decade of the 20th century through to their closure in 2016. Of particular interest are Kirkcaldie and Stains “Guard Books”. These books provide a fascinating overview of both the Company’s advertising copy over the years, as well as documenting design trends in graphic art, commercial consumption and social history. These Guard Books form a record of the newspaper cuttings of Kirks weekly advertising from 1959 to 2016; Guard Books from later years contain annotations noting the success of certain advertising approaches and document increases in sales as a direct result of advertising.

Above and below - pages from the 1959 Kirkcaldie and Stains “Guard Book”. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Jan 2016Above and below - pages from the 1959 Kirkcaldie and Stains “Guard Book”. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Jan 2016

Gaurd Book Sale

Curatorial Intern Katie Fordyce checking records before packing for transport. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Dec 2015Curatorial Intern Katie Fordyce checking records before packing for transport. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Dec 2015

Kirkcaldie & Stains ledgers waiting to be boxed. Image credit Katie Fordyce, Dec 2015Kirkcaldie & Stains ledgers waiting to be boxed. Image credit Katie Fordyce, Dec 2015

Large ledgers packaged and ready for transport to the Library. Image credit Shannon Wellington, 2015Large ledgers packaged and ready for transport to the Library. Image credit Shannon Wellington, Dec 2015

Several waxed core flute boxes and portfolios containing items from the uplifted Kirkcaldie & Stains collection, awaiting assessment in the Library’s Assessment Room. The waxed core flute boxes protect material from moisture and provide a semi-rigid enclosure for temporary housing and transportation. The Assessment Room is a temporary holding area for incoming material to be condition checked and treated for any contamination before being moved through to the stacks. Image credit Katie Fordyce, Dec 2015Several waxed core flute boxes and portfolios containing items from the uplifted Kirkcaldie & Stains collection, awaiting assessment in the Library’s Assessment Room. The waxed core flute boxes protect material from moisture and provide a semi-rigid enclosure for temporary housing and transportation. The Assessment Room is a temporary holding area for incoming material to be condition checked and treated for any contamination before being moved through to the stacks. Image credit Katie Fordyce, Dec 2015

Drapers John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains founded Kirkcaldie and Stains in 1863. Kirkcaldie and Stains were two of four friends who departed Sydney, Australia, all harboring the same ambition. They drew lots to determine the location of their new businesses. While Mr. Strange acquired Christchurch and Mr. Paul, Wanganui, Kirkcaldie and Stains claimed Wellington. (5) Having worked together previously in London and Sydney, Kirkcaldie and Stains pooled their funds and invested £700 in their New Zealand business venture.

Messrs. John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains, founders of the Kirkcaldie & Stains department store.Messrs. John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains, founders of the Kirkcaldie & Stains department store. Retrieved from: http://kirkcaldies.co.nz/about-us/our-heritage

In the true essence of ‘humble beginnings’, Kirkcaldie & Stains’ first commercial premises on Lambton Quay was constructed using recycled timber from the ship wreck Inconstant, also known as Plimmer’s Ark. (6) Wrecked at Pencarrow Head, its remains were purchased by John Plimmer. Kirkcaldie and Plimmer enjoyed an ongoing business relationship; they were both directors of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway Company. Kirkcaldie was also a driving force behind the completion of the Wellington Cable Car. (7) He owned property in Kelburn and was keen to obtain easier access to his residence from the city.

The corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets in the 1870s, showing the Kirkcaldie & Stains branch shop. ‘Stains’ can just be made out on the central building’s verandah signage. This shop closed in 1876. Taken by an unidentified photographer. Ref: 1/2-031688-FThe corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets in the 1870s, showing the Kirkcaldie & Stains branch shop. ‘Stains’ can just be made out on the central building’s verandah signage. This shop closed in 1876. Taken by an unidentified photographer. Ref: 1/2-031688-F

The first advertisement for Kirkcaldie and Stains appeared in the Wellington Independent on the 28th November 1863. It appealed to “The Ladies of Wellington and the Public Generally in Town and Country” (8) by boasting “the latest novelties from the London and Paris markets”. (9)

First Kirks Advertisment

While the store prided itself on selling quality goods, of equal importance, asserted Kirkcaldie, was the treatment of all customers alike, a standard that became store policy. (10) They were the first to make the claim “Show us this item anywhere else at a lower price and we will match it”. (11)

Over their lifetimes, Kirkcaldie and Stains would establish themselves as prominent Wellington businessmen and their store would grow to become central to the City’s identity. While Stains returned to England in 1886, their partnership transcended business to family: in 1870, Kirkcaldie married Stains’ niece, Mary Ann Hall. (12) The ceremony itself took place above the Kirkcaldie & Stains store on Lambton Quay. (13)

Kirks has faced many challenges in its lifetime. The business has seen both the opening and closure of three branches, those in Cuba Street in 1870, Napier in 1897 and, more recently, Kirkcaldie & Stains Interiors in Thorndon. (14) Kirks has also changed hands several times during its tenure. It was bought by British Overseas Stores Company in 1931, and in 1985 by the Renouf Corporation. In 1995 it was finally made into a public company. (15)

Julia Millen has researched and written an in-depth history of Kirks. Her published work Kirkcaldie & Stains: A Wellington Story (2000) weaves together fact, photographs and personal narratives about the Company, its output, staff, and social history. Her book tells the story of the men themselves through Kirkcaldie and Stains’ descendants (16) and is good read for those wanting a comprehensive history of the store and its founders. A copy is available for loan at the National Library.

Senior Conservator Frank Fabry examining a Kirkcaldie & Stains advertising book.  Image credit Shannon Wellington, 2015Senior Conservator Frank Fabry examining a Kirkcaldie & Stains advertising book. Image credit Shannon Wellington, 2015

The process of appraising approximately 12 linear metres of Kircaldie & Stains records will begin this year. Once this is complete, the collection will be arranged, described and securely housed in environmentally stable conditions. As we work through this process, Library staff will share collection highlights which we will showcase in future blog posts.

The acquisition of this collection is one way of commemorating Kirks and acknowledging its significant role in Wellington’s history. Another is to share your own memories of the store in the comments below. This blog and your comments will be captured in our National Digital Heritage Archive.

Advertising from the Kirks Archive. Image credit Shannon Wellington 2015Advertising from the Kirks Archive. Image credit Shannon Wellington, 2015


Bibliography and further reading


Endnotes

1. “Startling Occurrence in a Tea-Room.” Evening Post. Volume LIV. Issue 3. 3 July 1897, 6. Ross Digby Gore, The History of Kirkcaldie & Stains Limited, 12-13, Ref: MS-Papers-6781. ^

2. “Startling Occurrence in a Tea-Room.” Evening Post. Volume LIV. Issue 3. 3 July 1897, 6. ^

3. Ibid. More recently, Ellen Dick’s descendant wrote and directed a play about the shooting called ‘The Corset Stays’, which was performed at the Wellington Repertory Theatre in 2008. “Past Productions,” Wellington Repertory Theatre, accessed November 26, 2015. ^

4. “Pneumatic Despatch,” Evening Post, Volume LXXVIII, Issue 85, 7 October 1909, 2. While it was stated in the Papers Past article that there was 3.5 miles of Lamson tubing at Kirks, Millen states 1 kilometre/half-a-mile (Millen, pages 80-82 ref. in endnote 6.). ^

5. Angela Caughey, Pioneer Families: The settlers of nineteenth-century New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman, 1994), 160. ^

6. Julia Millen, Kirkcaldie & Stains: A Wellington Story (Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2000), 12. ^

7. Angela Caughey, Pioneer Families: The settlers of nineteenth-century New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman, 1994), 165-168. ^

8. “To the Ladies of Wellington.” Wellington Independent. Volume XVIII. Issue 1989. 28 November 1863, 2. ^

9. Ibid. ^

10. Ross Digby Gore, The History of Kirkcaldie & Stains Limited, 5, Ref: MS-Papers-6781. ^

11. Angela Caughey, Pioneer Families: The settlers of nineteenth-century New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman, 1994), 162. ^

12. Julia Millen, Kirkcaldie & Stains: A Wellington Story (Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2000), 42-43. ^

13. Ibid., 28. ^

14. Julia Millen, Kirkcaldie & Stains: A Wellington Story (Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2000), 22-23, 62-65. ^

15. “Our Heritage,” Kirkcaldie & Stains Ltd., accessed November 17, 2015. ^

16. Julia Millen, Kirkcaldie & Stains: A Wellington Story (Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 2000). ^


This blog was written by Katie Fordyce, Curatorial Intern Manuscripts, and Dr. Shannon Wellington, Curator of Manuscripts at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Teaser image: Actress Bettina Welch, modelling at Kirkcaldie and Stains Department Store, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/4137-F

By Katie Fordyce

Katie Fordyce is a student at Victoria University of Wellington and was a Curatorial Intern with the Alexander Turnbull Library between November and December 2015.

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Mrs. Diana Kearns January 17th at 5:12PM

A genteel, elegant department store has now passed into history, and New Zealand will not see the likes of it again. It is as though Cranford has closed its doors to the world, and we can only peep around the corners of its archives to see it as it was. A sad week for Wellingtonians and us all, but amazing future exhibition possibilities for the Turnbull!