From its earliest beginnings in 1849 the bustling port town of Ōhinehou Lyttelton welcomed both travellers and a growing population of sailors, waterfront labourers, and from 1867, railway workers. As a result, there was always a high demand for hotel accommodations and social venues. By the late 1800s at least eight traditional hotels dotted Norwich Quay and London Street – the Empire, Albion, Mitre, Royal, Saxon, Lyttelton, Canterbury, and British – each catering to a distinct clientele. The story of the British traces the shifting fortunes of this early hotelier trade.
In 1849, the Canterbury Association allocated land for immigration barracks to house their Canterbury Pilgrims arriving from December 1850. The land and barracks were handed over to the Canterbury Provincial Council, later the Lyttelton Borough Council, in 1855 and were cleared in 1863 for leasing. In 1866, merchant David Davis built a large warehouse at the Norwich Quay and Oxford Street intersection where Reverend Dudley’s pioneer church had been. Davis was bankrupt by 1869 but his warehouse was among the few structures in that part of town to survive the Great Fire of 1870 and the Borough Council subsequently leased it to William Savage. He applied for a hotel licence that was approved in May 1874.
‘Savage’s British Hotel’ was initially a rather rough affair and tenders for the full conversion of the original corrugated-iron clad timber warehouse were sought in November of that year. William Hammond completed the refit, including a modern asphalt footpath on both street frontages, and the hotel reopened in early 1875. Hammond unfortunately died that February, at the British, aged just 33 years, leaving behind apparently no family but a number of creditors. While the Lyttelton Borough Council retained ownership, Savage retained the lease on the property but transferred the licence to John Pierce in June 1875. Pierce developed the hospitality business and then promptly went bankrupt in February 1877. Despite numerous licensee and lessee changes in the following years, the British Hotel built a reputation for hospitality, catering to families, commercial travellers, as well as the Lyttelton Yachting Club, brethren of the local Masonic Lodge, and even a Christchurch dental surgeon offering weekly ‘pain-free extractions’ on Thursdays.
Situated at the busy intersection of the post office, railway station, and wharves, the British Hotel became a cornerstone of Lyttelton hospitality with its basement dive bar, in particular, favoured by ‘Home’ (or British) sailors. By 1901, due to popular demand the hotel began focusing on ladies’ accommodations, as advertised in Wise’s Post Office Directory. So popular was the British with the harbour's ladies it's said they would line up around the block to rent an apartment. In 1907 lessee and proprietor David Kelleher extended the hotel into the adjacent Lyttelton Times building, thereby providing 30 extra beds plus a gentlemen’s billiards room. Around this time, the British also played a role in accommodating seamen from various of the early Antarctic expeditions. While officers such as Scott and Shackleton lodged and socialised at the Mitre, the seamen preferred the British. This special hospitality connection with ‘Home’ sailors continued well into the mid-twentieth century.
The British Hotel, being owned by the Lyttelton Borough Council, played an important part in the prohibition debates of the early twentieth century. In the unsuccessful 1905 drive for a ‘no licence’ vote it was noted that the Council’s vocal resistance to licensing change was perhaps due to the monies it made from Lyttelton’s £14,690 per year alcohol trade. In the famous prohibition vote of 1919 the Council was likewise on the side of ‘strong drink’ versus ‘moral cleanliness’. The loss to the Council should the British Hotel be delicensed – through reduced rates, rent, licensing fees, and the provision of gas and electricity – was estimated at £978 per annum. While the national vote was tight, the Council’s budget was saved by the delayed postal votes of 40,000 overseas troops.
By 1940, the 73-year-old corrugated-iron clad timber building required significant repairs. The Lyttelton Borough Council sought a lessee to rebuild it in brick for at least £5,000. Ballins Breweries secured a 21-year lease in 1941 and completed the new Moderne Art Deco-style building in 1942. Built using a concrete frame with brick spandrels, Bob Malden’s ‘New British Hotel’ featured tapestry brick, horizontal alignment, steel casement windows, and rounded corners. Porthole windows in the basement's corner elevation complement the hotel's harbour location, and the Oxford Street entrance featured a hanging canopy with fluted relief work. The architect of this popular Lyttelton icon is unknown.
Through the 1960s and 70s, a combination of factors contributed to the gradual decline of the British Hotel and other establishments in the area. The opening of the Lyttelton Road Tunnel in 1964, the termination of the 'six o'clock swill’ in 1967, the cessation of inter-island ferry services in 1976, and the containerisation of cargo, all led to smaller workforces and a decrease in travellers, and thus a fall in hospitality trade. The British hosted a number of notable brawls around this time including a pitched battle on 4 June 1970 that spilled onto the street, fought between approximately 20 patrons who then turned on the four constables who had attempted to intervene. Reinforcements, including two dogs, from the Christchurch station eventually restored order. A year later, on 25 March 1971, another all-in brawl broke out between 20 Japanese and Yugoslav seamen with several Japanese fellows taken to hospital. By the early 1980s, the British Hotel was perceived as catering to the 'rougher members of society’, at least according to a 1983 Rating Valuation – a perception perhaps helped along by the patronage of a certain recreational motorcycle club on Friday evenings through the late 80s.
The hotel continued to function sporadically throughout the 1990s, but eventually closed its doors in the mid-2000s. After 153 years, the Banks Peninsula District Council, which succeeded the Lyttelton Borough Council, finally sold the land and building to private owners in 2002. The former basement dive bar reopened as the El Santo bar in the late 2000s, but the catastrophic Canterbury Earthquakes of 2011 forced its closure due to extensive damage to the structure. After initial earthquake proofing repairs, the dive bar reopened as the Hellfire Club in 2016, and today remains open for business as the Commoners. Of the eight historic Lyttelton hotels that operated from the late 1800s through much of the previous century before the earthquakes, only two are left standing. The Mitre remains closed for repairs or demolition, and in May 2024 the British will mark its 150th anniversary.