Excelsior Hotel

7:01. A Touch of the Blarney.

The Excelsior has had many changes of guise over the years, but in the beginning it was arguably Christchurch’s original Irish Hotel. The first Hotel was opened by a Mr. and Mrs James O’Hara in 1865 as the “Harp of Erin”. Police Inspector Pender, in his report on the condition of Hotels to the Licensing Bench of 1865 noted of “The Harp” “House clean and comfortable. All conditions fulfilled” (Lyttelton Times 6th April 1865, p5), a routine, almost stock, comment which would imply that the Hotel was competently run but otherwise unremarkable. Interestingly, the publican is given as Mrs. O’Hara. Five years later, in 1870, the lease was taken by a Mr. Pristin and the house was renamed The Borough Hotel.

It is possible that there is a gap in the records here, which may mean that a very brief proprietorship by someone else escaped the process of recording. The licensing records show the proprietorship as passing directly from James O’Hara to Mr. Pristin, but the Lyttelton Times of February 7th 1870 (page 2) details a most unpleasant little incident involving a certain John Henry Hart “of the Borough Hotel”, who seems to have been the publican at the time, and his wife Harriet. It was a petty and sordid episode that, sadly, was all too typical of the times. It is instructive however, as it demonstrates that women at that time were not entirely the powerless appendages of their husbands as sometimes is believed today, and that redress under the law was available and sympathetic.

On Saturday 5th February 1870 John Henry Hart was to appear to answer a charge of violent assault upon Harriet Hart at the Christchurch Magistrate’s Court before C C Bowen, Esq., Resident Magistrate., and E W Humphreys, Esq. but did not arrive on time. The Magistrates obviously asked if Hart knew about the proceedings and Constable Wilson told the Court that he had indeed served the defendant with a summons at the Borough Hotel, and that Hart had been sober. Mr. Bowen then said that he would have to issue a warrant for the man’s arrest, but Hart appeared a few minutes later and the proceedings began with Mr. Slater appearing on behalf of Mrs. Hart.

At the invitation of the Court, and with the prompting of the learned Mr. Slater, Mrs. Hart (“the prosecutrix”) told her sad tale. Harriet and Henry were married on the 16th November 1868, but had been married barely six weeks when he gave her a black eye. Violence had become a regular part of their marriage, the cause of the problem being Henry’s drinking habit. The violence had become so acute that on one occasion Harriet had laid a complaint with the Police, but Hart “begged and prayed of her to withdraw it, promising that he would take the pledge”. Harriet duly relented, and Hart took the pledge, but within a month he was back on the liquor and matters were as bad as ever. Then one day Henry threatened Harriet in a most violent manner, striking at her with an axe, a blow which she parried with the broom she had seized in self-defence. She was now, understandably, in mortal fear of her husband and would not sleep in the house unless other people were sleeping close to her bedroom. Witnesses deposed that Hart was a source of annoyance to everyone in the house, and testified to the ill-treatment to which he had subjected his wife.

A man named Caldwell, an engine-driver who had been a lodger at the Borough Hotel for three weeks, testified that Hart was continually drunk, annoyed everyone in the house and was particularly abusive towards his wife. Hart was “very abusive when drunk, and when sober was only a passable man”. He deposed that he had known Harriet Hart for about a year, and that she had always “conducted herself in an inoffensive and business-like manner.” What, if any, reply was made to these damning charges is not recorded, and the Court was adjourned with Hart remanded into Police custody. The following day (Monday 7th February) Mr. Slater informed the Court that the two parties would in all probability come to a separation agreement. The end of the business is not recorded, but a formal separation between the pair is most probable, and it is unlikely that Hart would have escaped a prison sentence.

Just who this John Hart was is debatable, and what his association with the Hotel might have been is also moot. The newspaper report says only that he was “of the Borough Hotel”, and the context would imply that he was the publican but nowhere is this expressly stated. A John Hart had held the license at the Gladstone Hotel on the corner of Peterborough and Durham Streets in 1864, and the Police report on the Gladstone in 1865 had been favourable. It may be that he actually had the lease on the Borough as well as the Gladstone after Mr. O’Hara; the timing of events would suggest that O’Hara passed the lease to Hart briefly in late 1869. The charge of assault and Hart’s subsequent bankruptcy in June of 1870 would have meant that, whatever other punishment he may have suffered, the authorities would no longer see him as a fit and proper person and would have demanded the surrender of his licenses, or at least that of the Borough. This would accord neatly with the taking of the lease by Mr. Pristin in early 1870.

            The Borough Hotel continued to trade satisfactorily through the early seventies with only the occasional côntretemps such as is experienced by any Hotel. Such an occasion concerned a man by the name of McGill who ran into a bit of a problem just after New Year of 1871. McGill was released from prison on 2nd January 1871 and proceeded to the Borough to celebrate his new-found liberty where he shortly thereafter became embroiled in a disturbance in which he received a cut to the head. It was thought at first that he had been stabbed, but, head wounds being prone to heavy bleeding, his injury was subsequently found to be nowhere near as bad as it looked at first sight. He went about his business, bandaged for a while, a much chastened man (Lyttelton Times 3rd January 1871).

7:02. Barrett’s Family Hotel.

It may be that Mr. Pristin died during his incumbency, as the licensee for 1876 – 78 is listed as Alicia Pristin, almost certainly his wife. In 1878 the license passed to John Barrett. Mr. Barret owned the Gladstone Hotel (now the Durham Arms) on the corner of Durham and Peterborough Streets and had been so successful that he was able to expand his business by acquiring the license of Mr. Pristin’s Borough Hotel. Putting a licensee manager in charge of the Gladstone, he took up the management of his new acquisition himself for the next two years.

John Barrett was born in 1836 at Roscommon in Ireland (MacB182). Like so many of his race he felt the need to seek his fortune over the ocean and by 1859 he was in Australia, working the goldfields around Ballarat. Word came that the magic metal had been discovered in Otago in New Zealand and Barrett packed his bags and headed across the Tasman. By 1862 he was prospecting along the Shotover River. How well he did at the diggings is not known, but clearly he was able to put together a tidy sum as he is later recorded (Lyttelton Times 14th March 1876, p2) as being at Hokitika on the West Coast where he set himself up as a hotel keeper. He was elected to the local Borough Council, in which capacity he appears to have been most active and competent.

By 1876 Mr. Barrett and his wife Honora were in Christchurch where he purchased and completely rebuilt the old Devonshire Arms Hotel. The Hotel had fallen on hard times and was in a very poor state, but under Mr. Barrett’s management it revived and prospered. So well did Mr. Barrett’s enterprises fare that he was soon able to expand by leasing the Borough Hotel from its owner, a Mr. William Wilson. In 1878 Mr. Wilson, a prominent landowner, decided to sell up a number of his City properties, amongst which were the Borough Hotel and Carl’s Empire Hotel in High Street.

The auction began at 2:00 p.m. sharp in the rooms of Messrs R Walton & Co., auctioneers, in Hereford Street, on 6th March 1878. Lot 1 was the Borough Hotel, described (Lyttelton Times 6th March 1878, p2) as “situated at the junction of six streets, and having a total frontage of 129′, by depth of 99′, 75′, and 105′, the lease covering a rental of £28-2-6d expiring in December 1879.” The conditions of sale included an immediate deposit of 15%, a payment of 35% by 30th June following, and 50% to remain on mortgage at 8% for three to five years. Bidding began at £4,000. As always, it is very difficult to equate monetary values of the era with those of the 1990’s but using the formula based upon the contemporary value of 4d for a pint of beer and today’s price of about $4, £4000 equates to close to $1,000,000 in today’s terms.

Before opening the bidding Mr. Walton made some preliminary comments on land values at the time, remarks that offer a fascinating snapshot of the burgeoning property market of the 1860’s – 1880’s. He noted the near impossibility of purchasing prime freehold properties in the City, the incredible rate of the growth of permanent and imposing buildings in the previous fifteen years of his residence in Christchurch, and the meteoric rise in property values as expressed in pounds sterling per line foot of street frontage. He made comparison with Wellington, citing the case of a Mr. Larnach who had recently purchased a corner section in Grey Street in that City. The property had a frontage of 32′ by 28′, for which Mr. Larnach had paid £6,000, or £100 per foot of frontage. He was the next day offered £7,000, a profit, had he chosen to take it, of £1,000, or, using our formula of 4d = $4, nearly a quarter of a million dollars. “At the same rate for the Borough Hotel frontage, which is far more valuable than the corner of Grey Street, Wellington, it would give at the same rate for the 129′, £12,900, and in seven to ten years hence three times that price will not buy it.” (Lyttelton Times 6th March 1878, p2).

Mr. Walton then catalogued some recent sales in Collins Street in Melbourne. A major bank with a frontage of 66′ and a depth of 320′; £50,000. Briscoe’s the ironmongers gave £600 per foot for 66′. A section next to the National Bank, 25′ by 60′ in depth “was sold in 1873 at £200 per foot and £600 per foot has since been refused”. The site of the old Criterion Hotel, some 66′ by 320′ in depth, was purchased by the Union Bank for £40,000. “It seems like a fairy tale, and there is no reason, as City freeholds get scarcer, why the same results should not be shown here (in Christchurch).” The avarice of the gentlemen investors having thus been whetted, the bidding began and the Borough Hotel was knocked down to the current licensee, Mr. John Barrett, for £6,500.

Mr. Barrett thus became the owner and licensee of the Borough Hotel, which he promptly renamed Barrett’s Family Hotel. The business prospered and Mr. Barrett was starting to become a respected member of the business community, a social status that he much desired, although in staunchly Anglican English Christchurch a Catholic Irishman had a hard road to travel towards a goal of respectability and public acceptance. He stood for the Christchurch City Council in the elections of 1878, hoping to repeat his civic success on the West Coast, but was not returned. Undeterred, he diversified his business interests, and in that same year successfully tendered for the construction of the Christchurch Tramway Company’s lines, the first stretch of which was to run from the Square to the Railway Station.

Gathering a workforce of his fellow countrymen he set to work on the tram lines, and his involvement in this exercise, along with his Irishness and Catholicism, set the scene for the debacle that was to shortly ensue. Sadly, like the English, the Scots, the French and indeed everybody else, the Irish export not only their people and products but their prejudices as well. The Irish connections were not lost, and the Irish animosities continued, as a result of which Mr. Barrett landed in a bit of judicial hot water.

On the morning of Boxing Day, 1879, there was a bloody riot outside the Hotel when an Orange Lodge procession was attacked by the patrons with makeshift weapons including pick handles, and Barrett was held to be implicated in the incitement to riot. This was the most spectacular event in the history of the Hotel and, as considerable information, including eye-witness accounts, has survived it is worth recounting the events of this “disgraceful outrage” (Press 27th December 1879; p2) in some detail. The following reconstruction is drawn from reports in the Lyttelton Times of 27th December 1879; pp2 -3, 28th December 1879; p3, 29th December 1879; p5, 14th January 1880; pp5-6, 16th June 1880; p3, and The Press of 27th December 1879; p2.

7:03. The Orange and the Green.

            On the morning of December 25th, 1879, the members of the Protestant Alliance Friendly Society began their annual march through the City. Their intention was to progress down Manchester Street to the Railway Station, where they would catch the train to Prebbleton for the annual Boxing Day picnic. Wearing livery, carrying banners on high and preceded by a band, the Orangemen marched through the City. By 9 o’clock they were approaching Barrett’s Borough Hotel.

            Unknown to the marchers, some of their Catholic countrymen had heard of the march and seem to have had laid plans to disrupt it. The phrase “seem to have” is important, as the question of premeditation was central to later judicial proceedings; was the attack a spontaneous act of sectarian violence by a few hotheads, or was it planned beforehand and was thus something more sinister?

            Mr. Barrett came downstairs at about 9 o’clock and could hear the band playing in front of the advancing procession. Looking out of his dining room window he could see the parade coming past Cunningham’s corner. He went to the back of the Hotel, the one that opened onto the yard that in turn opened onto Manchester Street and there saw a body of men, all Irish Catholics, some of whom boarded with him. There were perhaps thirty of them, amongst them men by the names of Shea, Hanley, McEvey Cuddihy and, to Mr. Barrett’s horror, his only son Stephen. Many were armed with pick staves. Mr. Barrett immediately demanded to know what they intended to do, and they replied that they were going to stop the procession. The prospect of such violence appalled Mr. Barrett, and the hypocrisy of the Catholics’ attitude was also horrifying; they had themselves held their own march only a few days previously.

            “What right have ye to stop the procession?” he demanded. “Have they not as much right as ye have? Them pick staves are my property. How dare ye interfere with them? Put them down this instant!” John Gildea, a labourer who was also staying at the Hotel, left his breakfast on the table and rushed out and, hearing the exchange, begged his friends not to do this rash act. But it was too late, and the procession was at hand. Some of the men, heeding Mr. Barrett’s words, put down their pick staves but others were already in the street, laying about them with their weapons. Men rushed from the yard while others dropped from the windows in a manner that looked very much like a preconcerted action. “Get a rope”, shouted Cuddihy. “Bring a rope and put it across the street. Don’t let them pass. Bring the colours down!”

            Charles Gourley, another lodger of Barrett’s, was sitting at table eating his breakfast when Mr. Barrett rushed back into the room from the yard.

            “My God,” moaned Barrett to his wife Honora. “them fellows will have me ruined, they have gone out to attack the procession!” He rushed to the bar, almost in tears.

            “What is happening?” asked barman John FitzGerald.

            “I don’t know,” replied Mr. Barrett. “They are going to attack the procession. I cannot stop them!” and he rushed outside.

            There was carnage on the street. Some thirty or forty men were attacking the marchers, laying about them indiscriminately with their pick staves. One man was in the gutter, senseless, and many more were bleeding from severe blows to the head. The banner was thrown down and the procession halted. For some reason the melee ceased and the two sides faced each other, the assailants threatening to deliver more of the same if the Orangemen did not at once disperse and abandon their march. One lone young constable, assisted by Detective Benjamin, intervened and attempted to restore peace. He strongly urged the Orangemen to disperse and avoid further trouble. It was not to be.

            “No, we claim our rights!” shouted one young Orangeman, gesticulating furiously. “We demand protection, in the name of the Queen!” The marchers were by this time retiring up High Street towards Strange’s store and even then the fighting might have come to a halt. Then all of a sudden one of the rioters cried out;

            “There he is! Let’s attack him!” The rioters rushed up High Street, laying about them furiously. Three men were under a verandah outside Lake’s shop by Strange’s and were attacked by a dozen club-wielding thugs, the pick staves being used in a straight-down manner that must have caused grievous injury. One man’s head was quickly reduced to a mass of blood and someone in the crowd screamed; “There’s murder being committed!”, at which the young Constable ran up and intervened, probably saving the men’s lives but in so doing he received some very rough handling. Just then Inspector Broham and a squad of Constables arrived, and peace was quickly restored.

            The Police were under a severe strain, as their numbers had only the day before been reduced by a hundred men who had been sent to Timaru to provide reinforcements for the Police of that town. Ironically, their duty was to prevent an expected confrontation between Protestant marchers and Catholic objectors. Although the few regular Police and some specials were on hand, their numbers needed reinforcing quickly. Many people, Irish and non-Irish alike, sympathised with the Orangemen and there was angry talk. Crowds began to gather in High and Manchester Streets, and the Police warily awaited the train from Prebbleton with the returning picnickers. By 2:00 p.m. the Police had arrested four of the ringleaders of the riot and feelings were running high. At 2:30, under orders from the Licensing Commissioners, the Police closed the Borough Hotel. At 3:00 p.m. the Mayor, having addressed a hastily convened public meeting of concerned citizens, swore in a further four dozen Specials, increasing their number to 250. The picnickers, meanwhile, had arrived back and, gathering numbers of sympathisers en route, made their way to the Orange Hall where they were addressed by Mr. J W Anderson of the Prebbleton Hotel. Mr. Anderson spoke in most robust terms and denounced the attack as a most dastardly action. The crowd then dispersed, muttering, many of them in the direction of the Borough Hotel.

            By this time there was a mob of between three and four thousand in the streets around the Hotel and their mood, although restrained at the time, had the potential to turn ugly. There were murmurings in the crowd and stones were thrown at the Hotel; every time a window was shattered there was a burst of cheering from the crowd. The Specials set up a cordon around the Hotel and, as the crowd was pushed back so the Police expanded their cordon. Several people were arrested for disorderly behaviour, stone throwing and resisting arrest. It was well known by the Police that the ringleaders and principal players in the riot were sheltering in the Hotel, and Detectives Benjamin and Neil entered the building, arresting rioters who had taken refuge within it and bringing them outside one by one. They were Walter Teague, Thomas Magner, Patrick Shannahan, Edward Murphy, Thomas Kelly, Charles Gawley, Michael Rock and John Mahoney. As each man was brought out and handed over to the uniformed men there was cheering from the crowd. Stephen Barrett, the son and heir of John Barrett, was arrested in Lyttelton the following day.

            The crowds continued to swirl about the Hotel and larrikins were about the streets. There was singing and songs such as “The Union Jack of Old England” and, curiously, “John Brown’s Body” were sung with tipsy gusto. Again it looked as if more trouble might be brewing and at 10:10 p.m. that night the Mayor stood forth and addressed the crowd. He asked them to behave like good and loyal citizens and assured them that justice would be done; the Hotel would be closed until the New Year, at which there were cheers. Despite the Mayor’s soothing words, rowdy behaviour increased, at which the Specials were brought out to form a cordon in front of the Hotel. This seemed to have a calming effect on the assembled throngs and they began to disperse. By 1:00 a.m. on the Sunday morning all was quiet and the Specials were stood down.

            That was by no means the end of things however. The authorities took a very dim view of this sort of behaviour and the Resident Magistrate’s Court was busy the next day. First before the bench was a whole array of people on charges ranging from riot and assault, causing an affray, riotous conduct, to obstructing Special Constables and window breaking. Those charged with riot and assault, the ringleaders of the attack, were remanded in custody for a later appearance before a Court of higher jurisdiction, while the Resident Magistrate dealt with the lesser charges summarily. Alexander Howden, charged with riotous conduct, was seen to be throwing stones and when arrested and searched was found to have an iron bar in his pocket. The accused, in defence, said that he just happened to have his hand behind his back when someone put a stone into it, which he then threw into the pond (derisory laughter): fined 60/-. Charles Sandeman, charged with stone throwing said that he merely threw a bit of gravel at a friend to attract his attention; he did not throw anything at the Hotel nor had he any intention of doing so; fined 60/-. John Smith had the grace to plead guilty to a charge of breaking a window. John O’Donell saw the accused pick up a stone and break a window. Accused “I beg your pardon, I didn’t throw at the windows. There was a lamp outside and I picked up a stone and banged at it!” (more derisive laughter); fined 60/-.

            The cases of the men accused of riot and assault were more serious. They were tried before His Honour Mr. Justice Johnston at the Christchurch Supreme Court on 13th January 1880, and “if it had not pleased Providence to prevent your blows from being fatal, you, all of you, would have been guilty of murder”. His Honour, giving due weight to the many circumstances was inclined to be lenient. Hanley, Cuddihy, McAvey and Stephen Barrett were sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment with hard labour, the balance to 12 months with hard labour.

            The repercussions for John Barrett were also serious. At the Annual Licensing Court of Tuesday 16th June 1880 his application for the renewal of his license was examined at some length and in considerable detail. Despite that the depositions of witnesses showed him to be unaware of the forthcoming riot, the fact that he could not have done anything to stop it once the affray had begun, and a 1,000 signature affidavit signed by some of the City’s most prominent citizens attesting to his capability as a hotelier, the presiding Magistrates were unmoved. Messrs G L Mellish Esq (chairman), R J S Harman and G L Lee Esqs, having heard the evidence, retired for twenty five minutes to consider their verdict and on returning were inclined to ask one question only; whether or not the license should be taken away absolutely from the House. Mr. Joynt, for the appellant argued that the former would be a grossly inappropriate decision as the House was a most valuable one and succeeded in getting the Bench, most begrudgingly, to allow Mr. Barrett a month from July 1st – about six weeks – in which to lease the house absolutely to someone else.

            This verdict, in hindsight, was manifestly unjust and the punishment handed down extremely harsh. It imposed a very severe financial penalty on a man who was arguably innocent, and was, perhaps, at worst prepared to turn a blind eye to certain events. But the matter is now unable to be solved and there were other matters arising from various issues, for example the fact that many of the men involved in the riot had been employees of Barrett in his contracting venture, and it was then illegal for men to be paid at an Hotel. Certainly there were irregularities and at the Supreme Court hearing of the rioters the previous January Mr Justice Johnston remarked “It is probably since the licensed publican obtained his license that he has become a contractor. It is not my business to review the acts of the Licensing bench, but with this evidence before them, I believe that these gentlemen will hesitate to give this man his license again”. Everything was stacked against the lad from Roscommon. Mr. Barrett vacated his house and leased it to another.

7:04. The House of Many Names.

Thereafter the license and the name both went through many changes. John Barrett kept the ownership of the Hotel, but quickly leased it a Mr. McGoverin and two years later the old wooden Hotel was torn down and rebuilt in magnificent and permanent style by the flamboyant William Barnett Armson and is one of the small number of his buildings that still survive. One of the leading commercial architects of his day, some of Armson’s other buildings include the old public library in Hereford Street (1875), the old Christchurch Boy’s High School (1879), and the elegant Venetian Renaissance building of Bells Arcade in Cashel Street (1881). The Hotel is a most outstanding example of his craft, and was built in 1881. A three storeyed building designed in the Italian palazzo style, it owes much to the influence of architect Charles Barry’s Travellers’ and Reform Clubs in London, and the quality and abundance of the ornamental stuccowork is a distinctive feature of the hotel. It is a striking example of the Renaissance Revival style and the exterior remains in substantially original condition.

            Mr. Barrett’s exile was not to be permanent. In 1882 he regained the favour of the licensing bench and returned to the Hotel but his joy was not to last. In 1884 his wife Honora died at the age of 42 and the effect of her death upon him is not known; certain it is that after a few years he abandoned the Hotel trade and took to a farm in Kirwee. Mr. Barrett continued at the Hotel until 1890 when he leased it to another fellow countryman, a Mr. Patrick Burke.

Barrett’s Family Hotel thereupon became Burke’s Family Hotel. Pat Burke was a native of Galway and was born on 1 January 1854 to a farming family. Like John Barrett he too had felt the need to depart his native soil and seek his fortune overseas. He duly travelled first to Australia and then to New Zealand, arriving here in 1870 at the age of 16. Drawing on his farming knowledge, he worked on the Wentworth estate in Southland for a while and visited Australia in 1877, returning to New Zealand soon after to manage the Caroline Station for eight years. He arrived in Christchurch in 1880 and engaged in business as an hotelier with considerable success. Firstly he ran the old Victoria Hotel for two years, then built and obtained the license for the Southern Cross Hotel in Lincoln Road which he ran for eight years. Taking over from Barrett, he ran Burke’s Family Hotel for six years until 1896.

Pat Burke continued in the hospitality and catering industry for his entire career. Following his time at what would one day become the Excelsior, he took the Cafe de Paris Hotel in Cashel Street for two years, then purchased the nearby Tattersall’s Hotel. For many years he was caterer to the Canterbury Saleyards Company, and the Canterbury Jockey Club. He won the contract to cater for the various contingents of troops in transit for the South African War of 1899 – 1902, and was a long-time president of the Canterbury Branch of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association. He became one of the largest and most successful caterers in New Zealand and founded Burke’s Catering Ltd.

In 1896 Mr. James Murphy became mine host while Burke went on to take Tattersalls Hotel, which was where the present Shades Arcade is now. In 1900 Burke’s Family Hotel became the Shamrock Hotel, and then in 1906, under the stewardship of Mr. F W Green, it became the Excelsior Hotel and (apart from a very brief interlude in the 1970’s) has so remained ever since.

The license for the Excelsior changed hands many times over the decades, although the Irish association continued; the list of licensees includes names such as Burke, McGoverin, Murphy, Mahoney, Flynn and Galligan. Mr. Green went into partnership with William Coleclough in 1906, but the license passed to Ada Rowse in 1910, to Thomas Green in 1913, to Patrick Mahoney in 1915, and to Tom Tansey in 1918. Mr. Tansey did not get off to a good start. He was granted the license on 5th December 1918, and five days later he was convicted and fined £2 and costs for failing to close the premises when ordered to by a Public Health Officer. He seems to have survived this little contretemps, however, and retained the license until 1926. The freehold of the Hotel remained in John Barrett’s hands until his death in 1919, when it passed to his son Stephen. Stephen sold the Hotel to James C Lamb in July of 1924 for £40,000.

During the late twenties there was a general downturn in trade worldwide and financial recession began to bite many in the business community. Such a one was George Fox Webster who purchased the lease of the Excelsior in January of 1925 (Press 15th March 1928, p3).

Webster had seen active service in the Great War and on his return had returned to his old job with the Railways Department. In February of 1920 he went into partnership with his mother-in-law, Mrs. White Smith, in the Sheffield Hotel which he vacated some eighteen months later, coming out with a profit of some £400. He then occupied himself with casual work until May of 1923 when his mother-in-law purchased the lease of the Wellington Hotel and engaged him as a manager at a salary of £5 a week. He remained with her until her lease expired in November of 1924 and in January of 1925 took the lease of the Excelsior Hotel. He purchased the three year lease, together with stock and furniture, for a total of £4,657-11-4d, of which he put up £1,000, the balance being funded by Ballins Brothers with the usual securities to be repaid at £80 per month.

Mr. Webster had taken the Hotel on the understanding that turnover was about £300 per week, and this indeed proved to be an accurate figure. For the first two years business continued well and turnover was maintained. Mr. Webster was very happy with the way of trade and he worked hard to reduce his debts, but times began to get hard. A general recession of business began to cut into his turnover. Men were being put out of work in increasing numbers as the first icy fingers of the Great Depression began to tighten their grip. Turnover dropped to between £200 and £250 per week. He soon became unable to meet his obligations and in September of 1927 New Zealand Breweries issued a writ for the recovery of debts of £240 and Mr. Webster’s finances collapsed. He approached Ballins Brothers and quickly made a composition with them under the terms of which he surrendered his lease and became an employee manager of that company.

A creditors’ meeting was held and when Mr. Webster’s situation was reviewed in detail it was revealed that his total debts were £878-15-2d, of which £240 was owed to the New Zealand Breweries. Overall the Breweries seem to have been unduly harsh and premature, overeager to pounce on a man fallen on difficult times whereas Ballins Brothers, by contrast, were very supportive of him. It was revealed that of Webster’s original debt of over £3000 three years previously only £400 remained outstanding and Ballins spoke highly of his regular payments and commitment to his financial obligations. So certain were they of Webster’s honesty and excellent managerial skills that they were even prepared to assist him into another Hotel to give him an opportunity to pay his debts. His lawyer, Mr. Inder, was prepared to ask for an immediate discharge from bankruptcy on the strength of this support. This indeed was done and it seems that Mr. Webster eventually discharged his obligations. Whether he prospered or not is not known, but certainly Ballins Brothers were to be hailed for their compassion and sound common sense. Rather than ruin a man, as some would have done, they were prepared to work with him to the benefit of all parties.

James Lamb, the owner of the Hotel, then took up the license himself with a partner by the name of John Flynn. Four years later, in 1932, the lease was sold to Peter Galligan and for the next four and a half decades the Hotel passed more or less uneventfully from licensee to licensee. Then in 1976 the lease of the old Hotel was sold on and a very different vision of the Excelsior began to unfold.

7:05. The Hotel International.

Ivan Kwasza was born in Russia in 1928 (Press 19th December 1977 pp27-30). In 1943 he left his native land, became a British subject and joined the British Merchant Navy. He arrived in New Zealand in 1959, married New Zealander Gwen and set himself up in business in Christchurch as a property developer. The couple later took over the Man-Tuam health centre on the Corner of Manchester and Tuam Street. In 1976 the license of the nearby Excelsior Hotel came on the market and Mr. Kwasza saw the chance of a very substantial business enterprise.

Mr. Kwasza purchased the lease of the Hotel and began a most ambitious plan for its total redevelopment. He contacted Sussex born architect Terry Mitchell and plans were drawn up to turn the old Excelsior Hotel into the Hotel International. Mr. Mitchell was a man of considerable experience as he had designed the Antigua Street housing project in conjunction with the Christchurch City Council, had been the group leader for the Cathedral Square renovation project, and the architect of the AMP Building in Cathedral Square. He was no stranger to Hotels either, having been the New Zealand architect for the innovative Noah’s Hotel. His association with the Hotel International was to be as more than just as an architect; with no general contractor, he took charge of costing and handled all the contracts with the builder, Maurice Carter, and the tradesmen involved in the renovation work (Press 19th December 1977 pp27-30).

The Hotel International was to cater for families, tourists and business travellers and would be refurbished in two stages. The first stage was the complete reconfiguration of the ground floor into three bars and a restaurant, and the theme would be that of Ye Olde Englysshe Tavern. The bars would be known as the Palm Lounge (so called because it overlooked the Phoenix Palm on the corner of High and Manchester Streets), an upper class lounge with a strict dress code and dining facilities, Sir Ivan’s Tavern, a more informal saloon bar, and the Rose and Crown, a public bar. The Concorde Restaurant would provide meals from breakfast to late dining and, like the supersonic jet aircraft for which it was named, would be a truly international establishment. Cosmopolitan cuisine from China and from Poland, from France and from Hungary would feature on the bill of fare and everything would be under the control of Chef and Manager Mr. Chris Ealey. (Press 19th December 1977 pp27-30) The first phase of the programme would cost some $483,000 and would close the Hotel for over two months. Phase two, the renovation and refitting of the first and second floors into a sixty-one bed accommodation area, would begin early in the New Year and would take about six further months to complete.

In late August of 1977 the Hotel closed and work began. Mr. Carter and his men worked assiduously. By late December 1977 the work was done and the first stage of the Hotel International was advertised to open with a flourish.

7:06. Back to the Future.

It never happened. The extensive renovations to the ground floor were never really opened. Stage two was never started. In February of 1978 New Zealand Breweries quietly leased the Hotel from Carls Securities Ltd., the Company that Mr. Kwasza set up to run the Hotel and permanently shelved any plans for further alterations to the building (Press 22nd February 1978). Mr. Kwasza subsequently made a brief but ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over the proprietorship of Warner’s Hotel in Cathedral Square. (Press 28th February 1978, p6; 1st March 1978;p6). The Hotel International became once more the Excelsior Hotel and business continued quietly and much as before. Why did it not happen? There is no simple answer to that question but if there is any reason at all it may be summed up in two phrases: “wrong time, wrong place” and “too much, too soon”. Manchester Street in the 1970’s was the wrong location for a superior Hotel, which, despite protestations to the contrary (it was to be “aimed at the family and budget conscious” market), it was clearly intended to be. 1977 was not the right time, in terms of the tourist industry, for such an establishment. It was a good idea, but too far ahead of its time.

The Excelsior has moved on with the times and today rioting is no longer one of the many entertainments that the Hotel has to offer. Under the supervision of the current landlord, Mr. Philip Cooper, licensee since 1988 and also the owner of the building, and manager Karena Jackson, the Excelsior has recognised the value of the City’s exploding tourist trade. Thus the accommodation of 24 rooms has been reopened after a lapse of some twenty years as a budget Hotel, and as well as the two bars, the Excelsior also offers a games parlour, a bistro and a TAB. Like any successful Hotel, the Excelsior has learned to pace itself and cater to current demands rather than reach too far, too soon.

July 1996.


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