In 1849 Major Alfred Hornbrook opened a ‘sly grog’ (unlicensed) shop on the site of the soon to be built Mitre Hotel in Ōhinehou / Lyttelton; it became the first pub in Canterbury and an important port of call for newly arrived European settlers. Although the Mitre escaped the Great Fire of 1870 which razed most of the township, just 5 years later it was gutted by a smaller fire. The timber building was rebuilt but was again destroyed by fire in 1926; as a consequence its successor was constructed in more resilient brick and reinforced concrete. The art deco influenced building still stands in its earthquake damaged state on the corner of Norwich Quay and Canterbury Street, having been deemed uneconomic to repair.
That first hotel was closely followed by many others; in 1852, William Bannister’s advertisement for the Lyttelton Arms, Port Victoria (an early name for the European settlement of Lyttelton) highlighted the wide range of alcoholic beverages available:
“Martell’s Brandy, Hennessey’s Brandy, French Cherry Brandy, Sparkling Champagne, Burgundy, Marsala, Bucellas, Hock, Fine Old Port, Madeira, Golden and Brown Sherries, Campbeltown Whisky, Hollands Gin, Old Tom, Jamaica Rum, British Wines, Cordials, Byass’ Bottled Ale and Porter, Truman and Hanbury’s Extra Stout, Burton Ale, Guinness’ Dublin Stout &c., &c., &c.” (Te Ara).
At a time when water was often contaminated, milk could easily go off, beer was not widely available, and spirits were much easier to transport, a daily dose of spirits (higher in alcohol content than modern equivalents) was considered a health tonic. Pubs were also important places for social interaction - a place to warm up, have a yarn and a laugh, share stories and swap information. In the words of George Chamier; "It was considered a mean thing to drink alone; it was considered meaner still not to drink at all." (George Chamier, Philosopher Dick: adventures and contemplations of a New Zealand shepherd London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891, p. 517).
Right through the 20th century, Lyttelton’s licensed premises were important social hubs and places of entertainment and respite for seamen, wharf and railway workers and all manner of people. Each establishment catered to a slightly different clientele, especially during the 1951 New Zealand-wide Waterfront dispute which created deep divisions within Lyttelton’s close knit community.
Prominent corner sites were a popular location for large hotels. Many of Lyttelton's significant heritage buildings that were demolished as a consequence of earthquake damage were originally built as hotels - The Albion on the corner of London and Canterbury Streets, The Royal (originally the Robin Hood Hotel) on the corner of Norwich Quay and Canterbury Street opposite the Mitre, and the Canterbury Hotel on the corner of Norwich Quay and Oxford Street, facing the British Hotel. The British is the sole surviving traditional hotel building still in use, albeit in different usage now.
There were numerous other drinking venues on the streets in between those corner sites; London Street’s Empire Hotel was another iconic building whose loss has changed the streetscape significantly. In the mid 1990’s there were over 40 licensed premises in a community with a population of less than 3000 people!
The featured photograph is of the Railway Hotel which graced the corner of London and Canterbury streets (on the site of the current library) from the 1870’s until its demolition in 1968. Showing a large group of men loitering outside, the image stands testament to a time when pubs were an integral part of the social fabric of the Port town. Some might argue that has not changed in recent decades, with the likes of the Wunderbar, the Porthole (on the site of the much loved Volcano and Lava Bar), the Lyttelton Arms, Civil and Naval, Eruption Brewing, The Top Club, the Loons and other hospitality venues. Ownership, usage and names may have changed over the years, but they still serve the purpose of bringing people together over a convivial tipple or three.