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Postcards from Studentville: a history of naming Dunedin flats

Sarah Gallagher, outside the Land of Pleasure, named by the residents in homage to an album by their favourite band. The lettering, made from ply, was carefully cut using a bandsaw.

An investigation into a neglected slice of Dunedin’s Scarfie culture.

In the beginning, Sarah Jones cruised the student streets of Dunedin with friends Sarah Cummin and Steve Gallagher in a black van nicknamed Stealth. The trio were hunting out iconic student flat names to photograph for a group project on ephemeral print culture – part of a master of library information studies degree Jones was studying extramurally through Victoria University. She aced the paper with an A+, but even after the assignment was finished, her obsession with the signs grew. That was 16 years ago, and her camera is still clicking.

Now Sarah Gallagher (she eventually married Steve) runs the Dunedin Flat Names project, and has so far recorded more than 400 unique names, with thousands of Otago alumni sharing their memories through social media networks.

Among them was the Rev Fergus Hume, then aged 97 and an original member of the first known named flat, The Bach, back in 1931. Hume told Gallagher that applicants for a room had to satisfy two entry requirements: to be able to pee straight and be poor, in that order.

“Lifelong friendships developed,” Gallagher says. “Some were best men at each other’s weddings.” Hume died last year, aged 102.

Colourful flat names in Gallagher’s collection have been inspired by a range of environmental, popular culture, alcohol and sexual themes: the Department of Slavonic Studies, the Spanish Slum, the Jolly Roger, the Jam Factory, Hobbits’ Hovel, the Shrieking Shack, Saving Ryan’s Privates, Adventure Time and The Nunnery. Footrot Flats, named in 1975, currently holds the record for longevity.

Sarah Gallagher, front right with the occupants of Mello Yello on Hyde St.

Modern-day naming practices have even jumped on the business wagon. The enterprising boys of the original Pic’s Flat on Dundas St were delivered a weekly supply of Pic’s peanut butter – and apparently cut a deal with the girls next door to supply Vogel’s bread.

The Gallaghers’ 10-year-old daughter, Iris, has become a critical member of the family research team, too. New discoveries this year include Bikini Bottom and Sunny Side Up, on Forth St. “She’s great at spotting [the names] when we’re in the car,” says Sarah, whose working week is now split between her private passion and her “real job” as data and quality manager at Otago University.

A classics graduate and trained librarian, she’s considering doctorate opportunities with the project and is working on a book to be published in time for the university’s 150th celebrations in 2019. When she moved from Christchurch in 1991 to study at Otago, her first student flat was named the Mouse House due to the prevalence of rodents. She changed flats each year – and “learned how terrible houses can be in different ways. It was trial by fire.”

While living in Dalmore, she and her flatmates named their rental the House of the Pot Belly – a reference to both the pot belly in the house and the size of their landlord’s stomach (the sign was written in te reo so he wouldn’t take offence). That was 20 years ago and she discovered, through a tweet, that the name had remained with the flat for at least four years.

Gallagher, who blogs on her project and has released a map of collected flat names (dunedinflatnames.co.nz), says she’s noticed some historic names returning. So perhaps the House of the Pot Belly will make a comeback, too. Anyone have a landlord who fits that description?