Clarendon Hotel


2:01. Mr. Brittan’s Changing Home.

The Clarendon has always ranked as one of the great hotels of Christchurch, and in its heyday from the 1900’s to the 1960’s was considered to be the most prestigious and luxurious accommodation in the City.

The first building to occupy the south-west corner of the Worcester Street – Oxford Terrace intersection was the town house of William Guise Brittan. Brittan had emigrated from England, with his wife and four children, aboard the good ship Charlotte Jane and his name is duly recorded on the appropriate plaque in Four Ships Court in Cathedral Square. He was appointed by John Robert Godley to supervise the Land Office that allocated land to the new settlers and for himself selected, besides the town section for which he paid the princely sum of 10/-, 100 acres at Papanui Bush and a further 50 acres on either side of the Avon River just east of what was then known as the East Belt between what are now Fitzgerald Avenue and Stanmore Road; here he built the very pleasant home he named Englefield which is still extant today. His town house, which became the Land Office, was built in 1850 from locally milled timber and it was a single storey, shingle-roofed construction surrounded by trees and with a gravel path. An extremely sensitive and increasingly embittered man, he eventually fell out with Godley, whose haughty manner to those he considered his social inferiors was most abrasive. He stood for election to the General Assembly in 1853, but was defeated and never again stood for public office; he pursued other interests.

Brittan sold his town house in 1859 to Rowland Davis who was granted a license and established the Davis Hotel in the former Land Office. Davis was described at the time as a “radical Irishman” who arrived in Christchurch during the late 1850’s and, having bought the Land Office building, added to it and opened it as a public house. In 1860 he changed the name to the Lyttelton Hotel, and so successful was he that the Licensing Bench in 1862 was of the opinion that his hotel was the best in Christchurch. Davis seems to have rather overreached himself financially, however, as he appeared before the Court as an insolvent debtor in March of 1864, being by then no longer associated with the hotel.

In 1863 the license was taken over by former Royal Naval mess steward C H Smith, who was joined in the January by a partner by the name of Charles Green, another mess steward and it is possible that they knew each other from their service days. Although experienced caterers, Mr. Green and his wife seemed have problems wherever they went. Prior to their arrangement with Mr. Smith, they had been at the Golden Fleece looking after the catering, but had lasted a mere four months; later, in 1868, they were at the Occidental in Hereford Street where they spent less than six months. This partnership was not to last either, and the Greens departed for Timaru a mere three months later, where they took the Royal Hotel (MacG381). Smith left the Hotel in 1864, and the license was taken by an American Jew by the name of Benjamin Napthali Jones. He and his wife had been travelling players and were excellent organisers of stage productions, parties, balls and similar entertainments, and the Jones’ were often associated with the Theatre Royal where they staged variety concerts and arranged functions for such organisations as the Licensed Victuallers’ Association and the Sunnyside Mental Asylum. Sadly, although Mr. Jones was a talented entertainer, he was less adept with money. He was declared bankrupt not long after he took over the hotel, and a second time in Auckland in 1870.

2:02. Mr. George Oram Esq.

It was in that year that Mr. George Oram, perhaps the most colourful publican in the history of the Hotel, took over the license.

George Oram was a Somerset man who had arrived in Christchurch in the early 1860’s with his three brothers Matthew, Charles and John; his wife followed him rather later. He was an experienced hotelier, having had extensive acquaintance with The Trade in London, where he had served as a butler, and the Orams were determined to make their fortune in New Zealand. They were quite spectacularly successful, and within a few years had between them gained control of almost half the hotels in Christchurch.

By 1862 George was at the British Hotel at Lyttelton but in May of that year he was engaged as Steward to the Christchurch Club. His stipend was £200, out of which he was expected to provide a housekeeper – presumably his wife who would arrive in due course. His incumbency at the Club did not last for long as he ran up against two particularly unpleasant members who continually complained; he wrote a long complaint in the Complaints Book and terminated his association with the Club.

In April of 1864 he leased the Carlton Hotel from Mr. A W Money, and Inspector Pender of the Police was very complimentary of his management. In 1866 he purchased the freehold of the Lyttelton Hotel for some £2,800, retaining Mr Jones as a manager. Oram had the Hotel renovated when he purchased it as it was his notion to transform it into a mercantile Club, but the construction was not of the best and the reputation of the hotel was no better. Who was worse, the patrons or staff, is a moot point. At one time during this period the Licensing Commission was worried about the conduct at the Hotel and the licensee – unnamed in the report but presumably Mr. Jones – was warned by the Committee for pulling a guest out of bed and beating him because he (the guest) had imbibed too freely. It was explained in mitigation that the wrath of the licensee was aroused not because the man had drunk too much, but because he had bought the beer that had made him drunk at another hotel. During this period, Mr. Oram continued to hold the license of the Carlton Hotel, and also had an interest in the Market Hotel which stood on the site now occupied by the Quality Hotel Central in Colombo Street.

By 1871, Mr. Jones having proved to be more of a liability than an asset, George decided to take over the running of the hotel himself and to make of it a first class establishment modelled on the fine London Hotels with which he was so familiar. To set this new image firmly in place, he decided to give the hotel a new name which may indicate something of his political affiliations and his feelings for the aristocracy. The Lyttelton Hotel was renamed the Clarendon after the then British Foreign Secretary and statesman of the highest repute; the fourth Earl of Clarendon. Extensive additions and alterations were carried out by a Mr. Balke and when all was done, George entertained the builder and his men to a lavish dinner in the new hotel.

The Clarendon quickly gained a reputation for the highest standards of service and accommodation, and began to receive the patronage of the travelling eminent. HRH Prince Alfred, the second Duke of Edinburgh, was a distinguished guest on 22 April 1869. His Highness, the second son of Queen Victoria, came to New Zealand on HMS Galatea, landed at Lyttelton and he and his entourage took the train to Christchurch. Here a tumultuous reception awaited him, with huge crowds, endless flags and bunting, guards of honour from the police, military and the liveried companies such as butchers and ironworkers, and, of course, a reception committee made up of everybody who was anybody and a few more besides. In the words of the Press of that date, as Prince Alfred stepped off the train, “the cheering of the people – swelled wave upon wave until it resembled the tones of a mighty diapason”. He mounted a carriage drawn by six black horses, and, in the position of honour at the end of the parade, progressed in the grandest manner through the streets of the City. The procession itself was fully a mile long, and the crowds were estimated to be some ten thousand strong. At the end of the procession he and his company alighted and retired to their rooms at the Clarendon.

Mr. Oram, in his very best butler manner, dressed up in a powdered wig and satin breeches and attended the Duke personally. Before departing from their hotel on the morning of the 25th of April, His Royal Highness and the Governor expressed their entire satisfaction at the arrangements made for their accommodation. So satisfied indeed was the royal gentlemen that he appointed Mr. Oram his hotel-keeper. Henceforth, and to the chagrin of every other pretentious publican in Christchurch, George could be known by the style and title of Mr George Oram Esquire, Hotel-Keeper by Appointment to His Royal Highness Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh.

            Mr. Oram had many interests outside of his Hotel and was active in the public, commercial and social life of the new province (MacO95). He was one of the founders of the Canterbury Brewing, Malting and Distilling Company, and was a director and the first Chairman; he was a Steward at the Papanui Steeplechase in 1867, and rode at the early paperchase hunts, taking a fall and breaking a rib at one event in 1872. He was for four years Chairman of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, and in April of 1874 stood for the Papanui seat on the Canterbury Provincial Council but was defeated; his slogan was that he would “open up Papanui”. He suffered financial reverses over the years and was bankrupted in 1867, but managed to become discharged and his fortunes revived.

George Oram decided to retire from the Clarendon in April of 1873 for reasons that are now unknown, but may have involved failing health. He married again on 10th April of that year (what had become of his first wife is not recorded) to his housekeeper Louisa Sophia Badham at St. Michael’s Church, a match that seemed to rally his failing health, and he bought the New Brighton Hotel from J H Hopkins in February of 1875. He died at New Brighton on 3rd April 1876 at the early age of 50 of cirrhosis of the liver, an occupational hazard of many in the liquor industry. He had an especially fine funeral, being buried with full military honours, and the black horses with their elegant black plumes that drew his hearse were long remembered in local folklore. Because of his diverse connections with such groups as the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, the Christchurch Yachting Club, the Christchurch Club and numerous hotels, the attendance at his funeral was huge; Dean Jacobs read the service and his pallbearers were D McGuinness, Charles Green, H Hadrell and J Hadfield, all of whom were gentlemen of the liquor trade. He was buried in the Barbadoes Street cemetery, not far from his brothers John and Matthew who were also prominent hoteliers and who also died relatively young.

2:03. Dr. Barker’s Sad Duties.

Like other riverbank hotels the Clarendon was required to act as a temporary morgue for those unfortunates who were not uncommonly dragged from the Avon. Examinations were often carried out by the good Dr. A C Barker, whose home and consulting rooms were just across the road on the site now occupied by Noah’s Hotel, the block of land designated as Town Sections 717 and 718.

Dr. Barker was an interesting character in his own right, a medical doctor, photographer, artist and a man with a keen sense of the value of land and money. One of the earliest of the early settlers, he had paid his £150 fee to the Canterbury Association and in return was able to select not only his Town Section but also a 50 acre block in St. Albans. This roughly triangular block of land, block number 46, followed the present line of Papanui Road to Beverley Street where it turned east for a way and then south in a line with Stoneyhurst Street then west along the short frontage of Bealey Avenue to Papanui Road, thus including the corner opposite the Carlton Hotel. Potentially one of the most valuable outside the central City itself, Dr. Barker named this block Aston, after the old family property outside Birmingham in England, and he at once placed it under the care of a farm manager. It was his hope that his children would take up farming eventually, but he himself never did, and he never actually lived on what he liked to call his “Aston Suburb”.

That he had made a very fortuitous investment very soon became apparent as the 50 acre block was valued in 1858, a mere seven years after its purchase, at £5,000 pounds, or £100 the acre. Ten years later again, in 1868, he sold some eight and a half acres for the handsome sum of £8,335, or nearly £1,000 the acre. As it had cost him about £2 the acre in 1851, this represents a capital gain over 17 years of some 50,000%! It is no wonder that, when he died in 1873 and the rest of the block was subdivided and sold by his heirs, Dr. Barker’s estate represented a very substantial sum indeed. It is very difficult to equate 19th century values with those of today, but one parallel close to the heart of beer drinkers may give some indication of equivalence. In the 1860’s and 1870’s, a pint of premium draught beer was about 4 pence; in 1995 the same product will cost the drinker about $4 which would thus give an exchange rate of about 1d to the dollar, or, in other words, £1 in 1870 had about the same purchasing power as $120 today (£1=$2). Dr. Barker’s 1868 sale represented a sum that in today’s terms translates to about $2,000,000.

The last post mortem examination held at the Clarendon was conducted on March 7th 1901 by Dr. W H Symes. On this occasion a certain Constable Kidd had discovered the body of a man of about 60 years of age beneath the Victoria Street Bridge. The unfortunate fellow had presumably drowned in the Avon, a tediously regular occurrence, but this particular case caused considerable public interest as no-one could identify the deceased. A search through the pockets of a drowned man could usually come up with some sort of identification, but in this case there was nothing more than a miscellaneous collection of items that included a watch and chain, a pocket knife, a threepenny bit, a handkerchief and a tram ticket.

Baffled, the police published a detailed description of the man in the daily papers and over the next two days between 60 and 80 people called at the Clarendon to have a look, but to no avail. The man was a complete mystery, so the police photographed the body and took it away for burial. A month or so later, however, the puzzle was solved when a man called at the police station and asked to look at the photograph and chattels. The visitor immediately recognised the photograph as being of one James McGrath, and the watch as being McGrath’s property. The elderly man had been, its seems, something of a recluse who had “bachelorised” by himself in a tent on the farm of Mr. Sharp of Ladbrooks. He had disappeared some five or six weeks beforehand, never to be seen alive again.

Another public service, equally essential but much more convivial, that he Clarendon Hotel provided was stabling for the horses of the pioneering coaching company Cobb & Co., and it was from the Clarendon that the stage coaches departed for the West Coast. They thundered out of the Courtyard behind the hotel and under the archway that still exists at the southernmost end of the Oxford Terrace frontage.

Despite Mr. Balke’s efforts and expertise, the renovated building was clearly substandard. The Licensing Bench of 1883 insisted that a new building be erected if the Hotel was to retain its license, but relented of their position when counsel for the new owners pointed out that the depressed state of trade at the time meant that his clients simply did not have the funds for such a project. The Bench deferred the rebuilding until the following year but the chairman of the 1884 Bench reiterated his predecessor’s concern and was reported to have remarked that after a personal inspection he found the building to be in a dangerous condition; indeed he had been greatly relieved to get off the balcony as he had feared that it would disintegrate beneath him.

2:04. The Finest House in the City.

Mr. Balke’s wooden building was eventually demolished at the turn of the century, and a new building was erected in 1902. This second rebuilding saw the reconstruction of the Clarendon in a totally new guise. The guiding hand behind the new hotel was Mr. J C Maddison, a leading architect of his time, who also designed the contemporary premises for the opposition, Warner’s Hotel in Cathedral Square. Stone and concrete were used instead of timber and the Clarendon arose in all the Edwardian grandeur that is so familiar to us even today.

Despite its architectural splendour, the Clarendon, like all other hotels in the City, was plagued by the occasional upset with the licensing authorities and a zealous police force, especially during the war years of 1914 – 18. On 25th September 1916 the Licensee and a barman were each fined £2 and costs for supplying liquor to an underage drinker, and on 21st November 1917, a barmaid was convicted for breaching the War Regulations and fined £5 and costs. Her crime was to allow one customer to buy another customer a drink, and thus fell foul of the iniquitous anti-shouting laws that were so rigidly enforced at the time.

Over the years the Clarendon has been a temporary home for the great and the illustrious. Its popularity was due not only to its excellent appointments and its renowned silver service, but also to the convenience of security; it had only two exits, one at the front and one at the back. An early distinguished guest was the first Duke of Edinburgh, as mentioned above, in the days of George Oram, and Governors were frequent visitors. In the 1870’s the Governor the Marquis of Normanby came to stay. Like his Highness, the good Marquis also travelled by carriage from the railway station, but his progress through the City was a little less stately than that of Prince Alfred; the horses bolted, and he made the Clarendon from the railway station in three minutes flat. Alterations were made and considerable money spent to provide accommodation for King George VI and his entourage in 1948.

In January of 1954 Her Majesty the Queen made the Clarendon her Christchurch residence during her coronation tour, and her visit was the occasion of great excitement and considerable expense for the Hotel (Press 14/01/1954, p10). Ballins Breweries, the owners of the hotel since 1949, had spent a total of £28,000 on the building between the visit of the King and that of the Queen, and allocated a further £7,000 to make it a suitable, if brief, residence for her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh, of which £4,000 had been spent on new carpeting for the royal suite, corridors and the royal lounge. £1,500 was spent on interior decoration such as painting and paperhanging, and a further £1,500 spend on new drapes and other facilities. The Government most generously chipped in the princely sum of £35 for a new interior door. And then there were the decorations and arrangements, all of which were scrutinised by the Royal Visit Decorations Committee of the City Council under the chairmanship of Councillor George Manning. It was felt that the appearance of a royal residence should give an impression of quiet dignity, for which purpose flowers and greenery were put up shortly before the Royal Arrival with the earnest co-operation of Mr M J Barnett, the Director of Parks and Reserves. A decorations expert was called in to put up a royal Cipher and red silk drapes over the balcony overlooking Worcester Street. Overhead powerlines that would have obscured the Queen’s view of Oxford Terrace were removed, and flood lights were set up on the Hotel to illuminate the Scott statue and the flower beds.

            No expense was spared, but both Mr N W Millner, the Chairman of Ballins Breweries, and the publican, Mr Weir, were more than happy to provide the amenities. The prestige and glory that would rub off on the hotel that served as a royal palace, even if only for a few days, was immense and something that money could not buy. They were certainly not doing it for the immediate profit as the Government, which was paying for all the royal expenses, was paying no more than the standard room rate. The benefits further down the path would be huge, and neither Mr Weir nor Mr Millner would have had any doubts at all that the Clarendon could command a premium for a very long time to come.

HRH Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother stayed at the Clarendon during her very popular visit in 1958, and made her farewell broadcast to the nation from here. But without doubt the visitors who caused the most excitement were the four lads from Liverpool; the Beatles, who stayed at the Clarendon during their tour of June 1964. They appeared on the balcony of the hotel to a crowd of 5000 adoring – and some not-so-adoring – fans, but were forced back into the hotel by a barrage of eggs thrown up from below. Their departure involved a discreet but ignominious retreat down a back fire escape.

Souvenirs of these notable visits are displayed in cases about the walls of the current first floor bar. Of considerable interest are the many photos with a rowing theme, a sport with which the management of the Clarendon was associated for many years. Indeed it was in the Clarendon that the leading lights of the then Canterbury and Union Rowing Clubs met in 1873 when they decided to amalgamate, creating the present rowing club that today has its rooms at Kerr’s Reach. Most of these photographs and the information that accompanies them are available from the New Zealand Room at the Canterbury Public Library.

2:05. A New Era.

            Time was running out for the Clarendon Hotel. In August of 1986 Mr. Jim Veitch, the general manager of Ballins Rattray Ltd. announced the company’s intention to sell the property along with the adjoining Avon car park building (Press 21/08/1986, p6). The decision was taken in line with the company’s policy of the previous 18 months to divest itself of its hotels of which it had owned as many as 28 nationally. The company felt that the Hotel buildings had reached the end of their economic life and, although room occupancy was satisfactory and the establishment had a loyal clientele, repairs and maintenance had involved considerable expenditure and this was likely to increase considerably in the future. What that future held for the site was uncertain and expressions of interest had been received both from those wanting to redevelop the site and those wanting to continue the Hotel. No decision had then been made on the disposal of the Hotel, whether by tender or by auction, but go it would and the livelihoods of the staff – 25 full-time and 35 part time people – were in jeopardy.

The decisions were made and the sale took place; by April of 1987 the Clarendon was owned by Paynter Developments Ltd. and the Hotel was definitely going to disappear (Press 16/04/1987). By August demolition had taken place and the old building was no more; or, rather, almost no more. So important, architecturally, was the building considered to be that even when it was finally demolished to make way for the present Clarendon Tower, architects Warren and Mahoney preserved the old facade as a feature of the new building. The new building, a 17 storey, $50 million office complex with retail space at ground level, grew slowly out of the ruin of the old Hotel. Even the old facade was in jeopardy, as a crack in the south end of the Oxford Terrace frontage appeared in the August of 1987 when the demolition of the old building took place, and began to widen slightly as work on the new building’s foundations progressed (Press 05/08/1987). Paynter Corporation managed to remove the section and rebuild it on new foundations. The group also retained the license of the Clarendon, and, when the new Clarendon Tower was opened the Clarendon Bar and Restaurant opened for business.

The Clarendon Bar preserves the elegant ambience of the old Hotel with its wood panelling, deep leather chairs and the old balcony from which so many famous hands have waved to the crowds, while the restaurant specialises in fine wines and Canterbury cuisine. Like so many other Hotels, the Clarendon has evolved over the years to the extent that it would be unrecognisable by Mr. Maddison, let alone the patrons of the old Lyttelton Hotel. Nevertheless the present premises, although reduced to a lounge bar and a restaurant, maintain the old standards of comfort and elegance that have ever been its hallmark.


  • By The Clarendon Tower, Christchurch, NZ on 14/09/2015 at 15:01

    […] There are fuller accounts of the history of the various buildings on and around the site ib Stephen Symons’ literary pages and on the NZ Historic Places Trust […]

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