Coker’s Hotel

5:01. The Fall and Rise of Gentleman Jack Coker 

Like so many others of his period, John Etherden Coker, usually known as Jack, wanted to open a really top class hotel, an establishment that would be patronised by the very best classes of society, and he made several attempts to satisfy his ambition. There is a considerable body of material available on Jack Coker, enough, almost, to warrant a book in its own right.

Jack Coker was one of Christchurch’s more colourful characters, literally and metaphorically. He was a flashy fellow, affecting such items of sartorial elegance as a riding crop, tight trousers, riding boots and a top hat; the image of Jack Coker that is conjured up is thus not unlike that of the Johnny Walker of the well-known brand of Scotch whisky. He fancied himself as an entrepreneur in the hospitality industry but was continually running into a slight administrative problem; bankruptcy. He was born in 1830 at Bath in the West Country of England, and in his youth he served in the Royal Navy, seeing action in the Crimean War aboard HMS Bellerophon. After his discharge he travelled and eventually arrived in Lyttelton in 1861, having taken passage on the “Mary Ann”, one of the Green Line ships. In Lyttelton he found work as a clerk in David Lewis’ butcher’s shop. He shortly afterwards took over the business in partnership with the foreman and later formed a partnership with a Mr. G W Ell. Lewis had a farm at Halswell, and continued to supply the shop with meat.

            The business seemed to do reasonably well, thanks in part to Jack’s undoubted flair as a window-dresser, a talent of particular importance to the butchery trade in that era. Following the English Christmas tradition butchers mounted lavish displays of delectable viands at the Yuletide season, going to great pains to create elaborately decorated carcasses and cuts for the temptation of customers. Patterns were traced in sheep carcases, membranes stretched over opening cuts and sprayed with hot fat which was also traced with decorations, and rosettes and paper frills were lavishly applied. Jack Coker seems to have had a real flair for this artform and he received critical acclaim from the media of the day. Despite this ability, the enterprise failed and the business with its stock and assets, which included a farm at Prebbleton, were sold. Coker and Ell made the first of many appearances before the magistrate on bankruptcy charges.

Coker needed to make a living. He applied for the position of Inspector of Public Nuisances to the fledgling Christchurch City Council and was accepted ahead of thirty other applicants but his heart was not in such a job. He was not one to soldier on for a salary, a mere public servant. There was no flair in such a position. He aspired to higher things. His taste for high living and expensive attire would be better met within the hospitality industry. He found a backer and established Coker’s Commercial Rooms in Cathedral Square on 7th July 1863, to coincide with the marriage of Edward the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark, and when finished the 13 bedroom premises was really quite grand. It had a commercial room (for the use of Commercial Gentlemen), a dining room, smoking room and a bar, as well as another bar at the back that did excellent business from the adjacent Royal Princess’ Theatre with which Coker was heavily involved both financially and theatrically. Not long after its establishment, Coker acquired a Hotel license and the premises became known as Coker’s Hotel, taking on many of the functions of a Gentlemen’s Club. The Hotel commanded a large and growing trade, but finances became a problem to the extent that in February of 1864, Messrs. Burdell, Bennett and Sprot, auctioneers, sold the property, presumably to satisfy Coker’s creditors. It was purchased by William White, and later by William Warner, who renamed it Warner’s Commercial Hotel and firmly established it in local legend.

            Jack had suffered a serious reverse, but he was determined to stay in the liquor trade and eventually establish not just an Hotel but a Club for gentlemen. It did not take him long to find a new berth and before long he was at the City Hotel, but the establishment, fine as it was, did not have the essential something that he sought. He found another backer and opened the Criterion Hotel (later the Dominion, later the Coachman Inn) in 1865, which ran successfully for a time but before too long the old problems arose and Jack Coker found himself one more before the Resident Magistrate’s Bench on a charge of bankruptcy. Despite this latest setback, Coker was soon involved in another enterprise.

He opened the “London Ham and Beef Shop”, a specialty service that supplied hampers for picnics, pork pies and potted meats; a delicatessen, in fact. This enterprise actually worked, but it lacked the grandeur and theatricality that was Coker’s lifeblood and he sold it. His next venture was the “Pleasure Gardens”, an establishment in Manchester Street between Gloucester and Worcester Streets, on a property owned by Judge Gresson which contained a house and a very large garden. He obtained a license, opened the house as a hotel, and the inaugural festivities  on Boxing Day of 1867 included a sports day, a band and dancing; Jack Coker loved parties, especially when he was the party boy. There were gardens, a concert hall, fishponds, aviaries and quoits and skittles areas. There were several successful flower shows hosted by the Horticultural Society and on one occasion an unlucky sealion was caught on Sumner beach, carted into town and exhibited at the Gardens. A large watercourse, dry mostly but a torrent when it rained, ran through the property at that time (it continued past the Bank of New Zealand in Hereford Street and into the Avon at St. Michael’s) and was dammed to form ornamental pools.

Then everything went wrong. Coker’s wife had suffered a long illness and died in 1868. A flood came, flooded his lovely gardens and blew his earthworks apart, creating havoc downstream. By February of 1869 Jack Coker was once more in the dock on charges of bankruptcy. Judge Gresson was, given the circumstances, extraordinarily mild, remarking only that he had “seen rather too much of Mr. Coker”. The Pleasure Gardens continued for another year more or less, but Coker was deprived of his license and the business closed. The house was taken over by Thomas Gee as a school.

Then came the Rakaia Accommodation House, for which he tried to obtain a Hotel license but seems to have failed, followed by the Theatre Royal Café. Again there were financial problems. At the heart of the matter was Coker’s desire to be the biggest, the best, the most lavish. Obviously a glib talker he was able, before his  reputation became too notorious, to convince financial backers to put up the money for his various ventures, all of which were very sound as the enduring nature of Warner’s Hotel and the Criterion (now the Coachman Inn) were to prove. Unfortunately, having secured finances he then spent everything on his magnificent new premises and nothing was left for operating expenses. He was permanently underfunded. But Jack was a survivor, and his ultimate success was due to Lizzie Allen.

English born Lizzie was lucky to have reached New Zealand. A woman of some musical talent, she saw little future in Britain and decided at the age of thirty-three to seek her fortune in the colonies. Accordingly she booked to take passage on the “Burmah”, but as passenger accommodation on that vessel was reduced at the last minute, she instead took passage on the “Regina”, arriving safely at Lyttelton in December 1859. She had cause to thank her good luck, as it was not long before the news came to hand that the unfortunate “Burmah” had been lost with all hands on the high seas. Lizzie had travelled with her cousin James Gapes, a man of some substance, who soon established a successful painting and paperhanging business and later twice became Mayor of Christchurch.

In March of 1860, Lizzie married the prosperous George Allen, who had come out to New Zealand on the “Charlotte Jane” some ten years before and made his money as a market gardener in Manchester Street. As a result of his success, he became a well-to-do property owner and hotelier, being the first licensee of the Southern Hotel (later the New Zealander, now the Southlander). George Allen died suddenly in January of 1871, his memorial  being the names of George Street (now Southwark Street) and Allen Street, and his widow Lizzie inherited thereby a very substantial estate. She met Jack Coker, six years her junior, through a mutual interest in music. He loved the theatre and trod the boards himself, appearing in the annual Licensed Victuallers’ Association performances, especially if it involved a naval part. He was deeply involved with the Royal Princess’ Theatre, later the Gaiety, and with the Christchurch Music Hall Company.

Jack and Lizzie were married in December of 1872. The happy couple remained in the hospitality trade, and Coker briefly returned to Whites Commercial Hotel in 1873, but again he fell into a financial hole and he had to move on while the furniture and fittings were sold to defray his debts. The Cokers moved to Wellington where Jack took over the license of the Occidental Hotel, but again things did not work out and they were back in Christchurch in 1878. Lizzie seems to have finally taken matters in hand and, using her own money, they built a hotel on the corner of Manchester and George Streets on land Lizzie had had from her former husband. The new premises opened in 1879 under the name of Coker’s Family Hotel. At last, thanks to Lizzie’s finances, her steadying influence and, very probably, her hands on the purse strings, Jack Coker made a success of things. For the first time ever he had adequate funds and financial supervision to match his ambitions and his undeniable flair for management.

When the Hotel first opened its doors, the gentlemen of the Licensing Bench expressed their firm approval at seeing a house of such class being established in Christchurch, and there can be no doubt that during Mr. Coker’s stewardship (or, perhaps more accurately, Lizzie’s stewardship) the house remained one of the best run and the best appointed in the City. The Hotel became well known throughout the Empire, and received many distinguished visitors, one of whom was the great author, poet, and traveller Rudyard Kipling. Indeed, it is considered that the central character of Kipling’s story “Mrs Bathurst” is based upon an attractive member of Coker’s staff.

Mr. Coker held the license for eleven years until 1890, when he and Lizzie bought the residence of the Hon. Edward Richardson, spending a considerable amount of money refurnishing and refurbishing it. Captain William Popham took the license for Coker’s Hotel. Coker was now a man of substance and seemed to settle down to a life of leisure, although his health was not of the best. He took a sea cruise to help improve his constitution. But a life of leisure was no existence for a man of energy and ideas such as Jack Coker and the couple moved to New Brighton, where Coker took the license for the New Brighton Hotel, completely renovated it and reopened it with the usual grand Party.

Sadly, it all became a bit too much for the aging Jack. The pressures of management and the strain of running a bustling Hotel took their toll on his health. In 1894 he reluctantly admitted that he was unable to continue, transferred the lease to James Murray, formerly of the Red Lion at Rangiora, and departed the hotel trade forever. Jack Coker died on 29th August 1894, leaving to his wife Lizzie a very handsome estate worth some £12,000. His daughter Catherine, a child of his first marriage, was to receive an annuity of £70 during the lifetime of Lizzie, and upon the latter’s death the capital would pass to her. Her sister, Elizabeth Ann Blundell of Wellington, would inherit should Catherine predecease her, and Elizabeth’s two sons, John’s grandsons John and Lennard (sic) received small bequests.

5:02. The Wrath of the Wowsers.

Meanwhile, back in town, Captain and Mrs. Popham were busily working at Coker’s Hotel. As is usual with a change of management, the new Mine Host will seek to put his own personal stamp on the business, and alterations were made. The small bar in the billiards room was replaced with a larger, semi-circular one of handsome polished kauri and lit by two stained glass windows at the back. A small private office which had been on the left of the bar was enlarged and the right hand side became a card room. The telephones were installed in a small office of their own under the stairs and the hotel office and inquiry window were located to the left of the main entrance. A French window, opening onto the garden, was inserted in the smoking room.

But all was not well. It would appear that the tone of the hotel was lowered somewhat during Captain Popham’s time, and the establishment became the source of some controversy. Like most Hotels during the 1880’s and 1890’s, Coker’s was the target of various groups of self-appointed arbiters of public morality, groups known collectively as Wowsers. In about 1894 various of these Prohibitionists conspired to close the Hotel down by raising lurid objections when the time came for the renewal of the license. When the application for the renewal of Captain Popham’s license was heard before the Licensing Bench, the magistrates were regaled with anecdotes by so-called reliable witnesses who testified that George Street (now Southwark Street) was the scene of such drunkenness, debauchery and decadence as would rival the worst excesses of Caligula’s Rome. Fifteen witnesses, gentlemen of high repute, spoke in sombre tones of being accosted by foul-mouthed and wretched women, of drunken brawling and fights spilling out onto the street, of fallen women committing acts of gross indecency, and of a plethora of prostitutes in and about the Hotel.

Mr. Wilding, acting for Mrs Coker, the owner of the property, and for Captain Popham, the licensee, opened his defence forcefully. Firstly he pointed out that the problems with prostitutes were largely over now that the cottages owned by the Church Trust had been closed down. He then produced a procession of the residents of George Street, summoned by subpoena, who gave quite a different tale. Mrs Miln, who had lived opposite the bar for ten years, testified that she had never seen any drunkenness or “bad women”. Another resident, Henry Brooke, had heard occasional fights but set this down to the residents of Manchester and Madras Streets settling their differences on neutral ground. The testimony that sealed the verdict was that of the Reverend Mr. Watson of St. John’s Church, in whose parish George Street lay. He commented that he and Mrs. Watson often walked along the street as late as 11:00 p.m. and recalled mentioning to his wife that the street was as quiet as their own parsonage grounds.

The testimony of the Prohibitionists was delivered blow after shattering blow, and was quickly exposed as gross exaggeration if not actual fabrication. The gentlemen of the bench conferred amongst themselves and decreed that the Wowsers could not present a convincing case. Captain Popham’s license was renewed and business continued as usual.

In 1896 the irrepressible Lizzie Coker married John Hurd, a man thirty years her junior, with whom she travelled to Canada and Britain. She died in 1910 at the age of 84 and was buried in Linwood Cemetery next to her beloved Jack.

Captain Popham removed from the Hotel when, in 1897, Mr. James Hatfield purchased the premises and took up the license himself. Hatfield was an Englishman who had emigrated to New Zealand in 1879 on the “Crusader”. He was for some years employed by the Union Steamship Company and later by the Canterbury Club where he worked for seven years. In 1892 he took possession of the Royal Hotel in Oxford Terrace and in 1897 purchased Coker’s Family Hotel.

A thoughtful man and a popular host, he was a member of the Canterbury Lodge of the Freemasons and of the local Order of Druids. Whatever the state of the Hotel may have been under Captain Popham, it was clearly nothing like as bad as the Wowsers would have had people think. It was large, well-run and highly regarded both locally and nationally, and under Mr. Hatfield the house was generally considered to be one of the best in the City. The Canterbury Times of January 18th 1899 reported that it was “well-built, well-lighted (sic) and above all it is scrupulously clean and airy, characteristics not always found even in the most pretentious establishments.”

            Coker’s Hotel had become very popular indeed, and its fame spread far and wide. It could “lay claim to being known, and known favourably, to perhaps as large a tourist clientele as it is given to most fashionable hotels to enjoy, and there are few well-to-do families in the Australasian colonies, who have toured New Zealand, and included Christchurch in the round, who have not ‘taken mine ease in mine inn’ at the popular house” (Lyttelton Times 29 October 1900, p2). The trouble was that it was too small to put up all those who desired to stay, and large numbers were obliged to be taken as outside guests in sub-contracted accommodation. This unsatisfactory situation applied even during off-season periods and at peak periods, such as Carnival Week and the various other festive occasions, was quite intolerable. Mr. Hadfield decided to do something about it.

            An ambitious building programme was begun, and extensions and alterations were made to the large site. To the south of the Hotel buildings that had been used for warehousing, salesrooms and a bicycle factory were gutted and completely refurbished to provide a further twenty five bedrooms and several sitting rooms which could be run together en suite for family apartments. A private bar and a ‘snuggery’ (an even smaller private bar) were constructed, and the public bar was transferred from its old position on the corner of George Street to the new development. “As the great desideratum was more accommodation for visitors” (Lyttelton Times 29 October 1900, p2) the old public bar was renovated into more guest bedrooms, bringing the total bedroom accommodation to more than a hundred. More sitting rooms were added, the dining room refurbished, and space across from the dining room rearranged to enable it to be used as dining accommodation for a further hundred if required. Six telephones were installed at strategic points and every bedroom was equipped with an electric bell connected to the office. A huge amount of new furniture was brought in and the whole complex (it covered more than an acre) so designed that fire escapes and exits were most conveniently positioned at every point. All was in place for Carnival Week of 1900, and well ready for the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations. The sixty-fifth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, due in 1902, did not, in fact, occur as she died in 1901.

Besides the quality of its appointments and accommodation, the interior of Coker’s Hotel was also, at this time, noted for its elegant decorations. Indeed, the Hotel catered to the very best of society to the extent that Mr. Hatfield could claim that his house was “patronised by their Excellencies the Governors of New Zealand” (Press 8th October 1902, p11).

In 1903 the internal layout was as follows. The main door on Manchester Street gave access to a spacious passage to the right of which were, from front to rear, a smoking room, a ladies’ drawing room and a dining room with space for a hundred guests. On the left side of the passage were, in order, a coffee room. a private sitting room, the office and a writing room which, should numbers require it, could be converted to a second dining room with accommodation for eighty-six guests. There were as well numerous private dining rooms for the use of guests for private suppers and dinners, and at the end of the corridor was a billiards room and well-stocked bar. The drawing room and the public dining room opened to a private garden bright with flowers and adorned with a fountain, and furnished with seats and summer houses, a pleasant spot that was always cool in warm weather and free from dust.

The upper floor was reached via an elegant main staircase and five secondary ones, and contained about a hundred rooms so well situated that none of them had to depend upon artificial light in the daytime. The amenities were excellent indeed and included bathrooms with baths and showers, gas lighting, an in-house telephone system and electric bells and wire fire-escape ladders in every room. Coker’s was surely as well-appointed and well operated as any hotel in the country. It had two external telephone lines, numbers 478 and 677.

For the next sixty years the license passed through more than a dozen hands; to Mr. Green in 1905, Mr. Sofield in 1906, Mr. Rainbow in 1907, and in 1908 the license was held in the name of Mary Rainbow and H Thompson, the last suggesting something of interest. The death of Mr. Rainbow, perhaps, with his widow taking up the reins, but who was H Thompson and what part did he play in this little drama? Was he a business partner, or something more? And what happened to Mr. Rainbow? We may never know.

5:03. Return to Gentility.

By this time the hotel had more than regained the reputation for gentility that had become somewhat tarnished thanks to the slanderousness of the Wowsers, and  had become once more a resort of the affluent, but the affluent have to beware, for rogues are ever about. Just before World War 1, a wealthy American couple staying in the house struck up an acquaintance with a suave and elegant gentleman with a slight foreign accent, a man who seemed to be known as the Count. They were delighted to learn that the Count was booked on the very same steamer that was due shortly to take them, and their considerable collection of diamonds, to Melbourne. During the voyage the Lady’s jewellery mysteriously vanished, but of course nobody suspected the debonair Count who, coincidentally, turned straight around as soon as he reached Australia and returned to New Zealand.

Arriving back in Christchurch the Count, otherwise known as German Charlie, hid his loot in a derelict building to let it cool down for a while. Before he could recover it, however, he was arrested upon an unrelated matter and constrained to serve 12 months at His Majesty’s pleasure. On his release, Charlie made straight for the derelict house only to discover that it was now a two storey gentleman’s residence and the jewels were buried beneath the drawing room hearth. Undeterred, Charlie broke in and dug up his swag, only to be told by the local receiver of stolen property that his beautiful diamonds were nothing more that paste and glass.

A more sinister legend has attached to the hotel now for decades. It seems that many years ago one of the housemaids became pregnant to the proprietor and when the baby was born or shortly thereafter she murdered it and buried the pathetic little corpse under the floorboards of room No.5. She disappeared never to be heard from again, but the baby, it would seem, was not so easy to dispose of. Strange things have happened in room No.5, and it has not been used by guests for many years as the baby’s ghost, it is said, still lingers there and does not take kindly to company.

Sightings of the spectre occur quite regularly. In May of 1995 Paula Cunningham, an English backpacker staying at the hotel, was asleep in her bunk in room number 8. She awoke from a bad dream at about 1;30 a.m. and opening her eyes beheld a tall figure at the far end of the room. It features were vague, but they appeared to be quite definitely of masculine cast, and the figure wore what looked like a full-length white nightshirt with a high collar. The phantom swayed slightly, as if looking about the room, perhaps seeking something, but Paula felt no particular menace from it. It seemed to be neither friendly nor hostile but quite uninterested in her and thus she felt no fear but only curiosity. After two or three minutes the figure vanished, leaving Paula rubbing her eyes.

The next morning, speaking to her companion who had been asleep in the adjoining bunk, she found that the latter had also been aware of something in the room and had been awake at the time. Unlike Paula, however, her companion, a Scottish woman, had been terrified and had kept her eyes firmly closed and her head under the blankets.

5:04. An Evolving Institution.

Coker’s Hotel has evolved over the years, moving from family hotel to den of iniquity to superior accommodation, back to family hotel and then to corner tavern. A whole string of proprietors has held the license, the longest incumbency being that of William Angus who ruled from 1918 to 1934. In 1939 the freehold was acquired by the Ballantyne family and the Hotel was run either by members of the family or their managers. In 1970, when the big breweries were buying up every hotel and tavern in the country, the freehold of the hotel was purchased by Dominion Breweries. The buildings altered over the years, and the additions of 1900 were torn down to became car sales yards. The public bar moved back to its old position on the corner of George Street. Times and concepts change and in June of 1994 it was taken over by Mr. Chris Brereton and is now a Backpackers’ Hotel, offering quality accommodation at a budget price.

But the corner bar is still open, as it was in the days of Jack Coker and Captain Popham, and who can say what more adventures shall befall it in the future?

Comments

  • David Kyle  On 20/08/2014 at 17:47

    A defining feature of Cokers in the 50’s and 60’s was the huge mural of a West Coast scene by Dusty Rhodes, Does it still exist?

    • poddimok  On 21/08/2014 at 10:43

      Long gone, alas, along with the rest of Coker’s Hotel. It was all demolished in the wake of the 2011 earthquakes, and the site is now occupied by a temporary branch of the Christchurch Public Libraries.

  • Arlene Bishop  On 21/12/2015 at 11:07

    Really interesting piece, thank you!
    I googled the hotel name as my great grandfather gave it as his last place of work when he joined the army in 1914. He names his boss as Mr Moow? (The writing is not clear)

    • poddimok  On 21/12/2015 at 13:16

      Hello Arlene.

      According to my admittedly non-comprehensive records, one Horace J Moon was licensee of Coker’s Hotel from 1910 to 1915. Where he came from or where he went after that I have no idea.

      Cheers,
      Stephen.

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