Mrs Merritt’s Boarding House

Drunkeness was a serious problem in Christchurch by the late 1870s.  It didn’t help that for a city of its size, there were 47 hotels and breweries as opposed to just 10 dentists and chemist shops. Several small churches organised abstinence societies but it wasn’t until the 1880s and ’90s that the temperance movement ramped up its fight against the abuse of alcohol. Christchurch soon became the largest temperance centre in the colony.

‘Dry’ hotels such as Mrs Merritt’s, on the corner of Hazeldean Road and Harper Street (Orbell Street) clearly advertised its beliefs on its sign above the verandah – “Sydenham Temperance Hotel”.  Mrs Merritt and other ‘dry’ hotels owners tried to educate the public by proving ” it was possible to spend a pleasant hour in social intercourse without the aid of wine or other intoxicating beverages.”

This plain colonial wooden two storey hotel situated in Sydenham was set up by the Temperance Hotel Company from a public share issue. It was in the ‘dry’ borough until Licensing Committee elections in February 1882 saw temperance candidates defeated by those who favoured the view of  ‘Licensed Victuallers’.

Mrs Merritt's Boarding House
Star, 1 October 1884, Page 2

However, in 1884 the popularity of the temperance movement was clear. Over twenty temperance societies had been set up, including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1885 which was based in Sydenham, and the Sydenham Prohibition League lead by Rev. Isitt and Thomas Taylor in 1889. In 1890 their journal, the Prohibitionist, was widely circulated throughout the country.

Temperance Hotels, like the Sydenham Temperance Hotel and the Metropolitan Temperance Hotel on the corner of Lichfield and Madras Street, strictly adhered to temperance principals. They were strongly supported by the clergy, including the Very Reverend Dean of Christchurch, who was concerned that ‘a great proportion of the poverty… might be traced to the use of intoxicating liquors.’

The WCTU, lead by Kate Sheppard, spearheaded the women’s franchise movement and was responsible for gaining suffrage for New Zealand women in 1893. New Zealand was the first self-governing colony to do so.  Sheppard and her fellow suffragists realised that to bring about the social reforms they desired, including equality for women and tackling the issue of alcohol abuse, they needed the right to vote alongside New Zealand men.

IMG0002 Mrs Merritts boarding house
Mrs Merritt’s boarding house at the corner of Hazeldean Road and Harper Street, Christchurch [188-?]. Source: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 7, IMG0002.
Who was Mrs Merritt?

The Merritts were a well known Sydenham working class family. Elizabeth and her husband, William, a carrier, were known to have lived in the area between Montreal and Colombo Street, Sydenham (the corner of Harper St and Hazeldean Rd), for the best part of 40 years.

William had bought the property in April 1875 when it was described as fronting the southern side of Stirling Street and the western side of Harper street.

The family became active in the local Sydenham community. William was involved in the Sydenham Borough Council, he stood (unsuccessfully) for the Council in 1880; the family attended the Sydenham Presbyterian Church on Colombo Street; the founding meeting of the West Sydenham and Addington Working Men’s Club was held at their family home on Harper Street in 1883 where William became the treasurer and secretary.

In 1884 Elizabeth advertised she was opening her house as a boarding home for single men and married couples. She had eight surviving children herself, including her last child, four year old Orlando, born when Elizabeth was approaching her mid 40s after 25 years of child rearing. Elizabeth had carried out domestic work for most of her life so it would seem she was no stranger to hard work.

From Scotland to New Zealand via Australia

Born in Edinkellie, Scotland in 1836, Elizabeth was the middle daughter of Alexander Asher and Anne McIntosh, however she lost her mother when she was little more than a toddler. In 1841, when Elizabeth was five, her widowed father – a 47 year old miller – had relocated Elizabeth and her two sisters (Isabella aged 8 and Ann age 2) north to Mills of Forres on the coast of Moray. Not long after Alexander remarried and three half siblings followed.

By the age of 18 Isabella had found work as a general servant some 160 miles away in the south near Glasgow. In 1854, when Isabella had reached 20 years of age and Elizabeth 17, the sisters decided to seek a new life on the other side of the world. They gained passage onboard the ship “Persia” and sailed from Birkenhead in Liverpool on 22nd December 1853 with 382 other government immigrants bound for Melbourne, Australia. [1]

The 85 day voyage took its toll on the ship and her passengers. The ship was reported as having been dismasted shortly after departing Liverpool [2] and a fatal bout of measles swept through the children and claimed the lives of 13 under the age of four. In total 26 passengers died en route from measles, dysentery – or a combination of the two – gastric problems or exhaustion from sea sickness. [1]

Isabella and Elizabeth arrived in Melbourne on 20 March 1854 to take up work as domestic servants for a period of 3 months. Isabella was to be employed by Captain Edwards, the commander of the Persia. The following year Elizabeth married William Charles Merritt, she was just 19 and he was 25. [3]

The Merritts appear to have lived on one of the myriad of lanes and alleys* which came into existence before the bush was fully cleared and honeycombed the city of Melbourne. Places like Little Lonsdale street where the couple lived in 1857 when their first child, William Alexander, was born and passed away 13 months later, followed by their third son, William Charles, in 1860 at just one year of age, apparently from a scalding accident. It wasn’t a great start to married life for the young immigrant couple. [4] Tragedy would continue to dog them when they crossed the Tasman for a new life in New Zealand.

On 17th August 1855, I. and A. Asher, domestic servants, arrived in Lyttelton on board the Caroline Agnes which sailed from London under the command of Captain Ferguson. It could be assumed that these are Isabella and Annie – Elizabeth Merritt’s older and younger sisters. If this is the case, could Isabella be the same person who accompanied Elizabeth to Melbourne in 1854? [1a]

Also on board the Caroline Agnes was Edward Reece who latter married the 23 year old Isabella Asher on 1 January 1856. The couple married at the temporary church in Lyttelton witnessed by fellow Caroline Agnes immigrants: John Coe (labourer), James S. McGrath (sadler), Charlotte Bishop (domestic servant) and Ann Asher. [1b]

Annie Asher married James Mann on 10th June 1859. Charlotte Bishop was again a witness [5]. Mann was a publican and ran A1 Hotel at the corner of Cashel and Colombo Streets, “a private house for ladies and families visiting the city, and A1 accommodation for gentleman.” [6]

A spell inside

By 1861 the Merritts were living in Manchester Street before moving to Colombo Street South, and William was working as a carter. It was at this time that William landed himself in considerable trouble which earned him a term in Lyttelton Gaol.

He’d sold a bay mare to a Mr Charles Baker, a Ferry road carman, in December 1862 for £60 as he was going to give up the carting business. Baker wanted the horse for towing vessels up the river. The horse, which appeared sound at the time, had gone lame from rheumatism some three weeks later but Baker believed Merritt ‘knew she was damaged at the time he sold her’. [7] Baker brought a case against Merritt to recover £150 damages for ‘breach of warranty’ and £300 ‘special damages’ which went before a jury in the Christchurch Supreme Court. The Jury deliberated for a long time and, much to the judge’s surprise, found in Merritt’s favour. The Judge asked them to return and reconsider their verdict, but they declined. The plaintiff called for a new trial on the basis that the verdict was against the weight of evidence and so, on Saturday 20th June, he was charged with having committed ‘willful and corrupt perjury’ in his evidence in the earlier case on the 17th June. This time the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded him £108. Merritt’s estate and effects (the latter of which there were none) were taken by the receiver. In March 1864 he was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment in ‘the common gaol at Lyttelton’ and to be ‘kept to hard labor’. The judge describing Merritt as having been convicted of a ‘most heinous offense’. He also stated that it was within the prisoner’s power to reduce the sentence by his good conduct in gaol and in late 1864 Merritt did write letters of petition from Lyttelton Gaol. [8]

More family tragedy

By 1866 William was out of gaol and their second daughter, Wilhelmina, was born but she died of typhoid on Friday, 13 August 1869 at age three years seven months.

Orlando, whom the family called ‘Landy’, was the youngest boy and like many lads got himself into some scrapes. As a 10 year old he had twice landed himself in hospital with a fractured elbow. Then at age 14 he had come home ill at 7.40 pm on Thursday, 13th September 1894, complaining to his mother that a boy had kicked him in the stomach. He quickly became unconscious, and when the doctor arrived at around 8pm, Orlando was without a pulse and died shortly afterwards.

Landy had been playing hockey in Harper Street near his home with a number of boys. He had got into an argument over a hockey stick with thirteen year old Frederick Haworth and had tried to strike him with the hockey stick. Haworth blocked the blow and hit out in defense, striking Orlando in the chest. The blow was of sufficient force that Orlando immediately vomited in the gutter, before managing to make his way home. The suddenness of Orlando’s death seemed strange for boy described as healthy and strong, and the blow had left no signs of external damage or organ lacerations. The doctor concluded that the severe blow had shocked his nervous system and a jury called to deliberate on the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death. [9]

The family felt the sudden loss of their ‘dear Landy’ keenly, and wrote a heartfelt poem in his death notice:

We little thought on Thursday night,
As we sat in our room,
That heavenly angels hovered round
To take dear Landy home.

Short was the call he had from above
Only a sentence to his mother did say
His eyes closed in death in the early night,
And he peacefully passed away.

All my young comrades, take warning hy my sudden call,
That you for death prepare
For it will come, you know not when,
No matter how or where.

On 16 April 1897, 25 year old Ernest Merritt (Elizabeth’s 10th child), a jobbing printer with the Lyttelton Times, newly married and father of a baby boy, was sailing to Wellington on board the Talune with his team from the Albion Football Club. He was sitting conversing with two of his team mates at 7 o’clock in the morning when he suddenly fell back, gave a slight groan and expired. Ernest was also said to be in the best of health, although he had suffered from a bout of seasickness on the voyage. A postmortem revealed his heart was in a weak state and the verdict of the inquest said ‘death was the result of failure of the heart’s action’ – an aortic aneurism. [10]

Still grieving the sudden loss of Ernest, almost three months later to the day, on 15 July 1897, forth born son Edwin died of typhoid fever at the age of 29. Edwin had gone to Australia in 1893 and was a partner in a successful wholesale importing business in Freemantle before he took over a well known manufacturing confectionery. [11]  He had only been married for four months before he was struck down with a mild fever. His doctors were hopeful of a recovery which, sadly, never came. [12]

Six years later, on 14 December 1903, William Merritt died aged 73 at the family home at 69 Hazeldean Road, leaving Elizabeth a widow. The following year she put the hotel up for sale but when it didn’t sell carried on running it assisted by her second eldest daughter, Elfrieda.

In 1905 her oldest surviving son, Alexander – a well loved Christchurch tram guard for some 14 years described as ‘Painstaking, kind-hearted and obliging’ – passed away at Christchurch Hospital. He was well loved by the community and the flag on the Sumner Tramway Board building was lowered to half mast in his honour. [13]

By 1911 Elizabeth had retired from the boarding house business and had buried seven of her 11 children and her husband of 56 years. Even though she obviously agreed with temperance her name is absent from the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition championed by the WCTU. That honour goes to her daughter-in-law Ellen Merritt (nee White), wife of Alexander. [14]

Elizabeth died in 1913, leaving an estate worth £1305. She is buried alongside her husband in Addington Cemetery.


  1. Persia passenger manifest, under the Command of H. S. Edwards.

    • 1a: on 17th August 1855 I. and A. Asher, domestic servants, arrived in Lyttelton on board the Caroline Agnes which sailed from London under the command of Captain Ferguson.
      SHIPPING NEWS, Lyttelton Times, Volume V, Issue 293, 22 August 1855.
    • 1b: Marriage: Temporary Church Lyttelton; REECE Edward, age 21, a bachelor, Storekeeper’s Assistant, resident in Lyttelton; ASHER Isabella, 23, a spinster resident Christchurch; Witnesses; John Coe, James McGrath, Charlotte Bishop and Ann Asher; by Banns B.W. Dudley, Register HTL3 95
      Source: Christchurch Libraries, Aotearoa Centre, Manchester Street, Parish index cards.
  2. The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859)  Tue 13 Jun 1854  Page 2  SHIPPING NEWS.
  3. Victoria, Australia BDM index and
  4. The Argus, Melbourne, Victoria, 20 Jan 1857; The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957)  Mon 5 Sep 1859  Page 4  Family Notices; Victoria, Australia BDM index and
    • June 10, at Christchurch by the Rev. C. Fraser, James Mann, second son of Thomas Mann, Esq., Brookhampton House, Warwickshire, England, to Ann, youngest daughter of Mr. Alexander Asher, Forres, Morayshire, Scotland.
    • MANN James & ASHER Annie, married 10 June 1859, in the house of Mr H. E. Alport, Market Place; Age: Full, Full; Status: Bach, Spins; Occupation: Ironmonger, Domestic Servant; Witness: Herbert Edward ALPORT, Merchant, Chch; Charlotte Bishop, Spinster, Christchurch. Source: Christchurch Libraries, Aotearoa Centre, Manchester Street, Parish index cards.
  5. PRESS, VOLUME II, ISSUE 50, 26 APRIL 1862.
  6. BAKER V. MEERITT. SUPREME COURT, CHRISTCHURCH.,Lyttelton Times, Volume XIX, Issue 1107, 20 June 1863.
  7. Archives NZ.
    Letter From Francis Slater, [Solicitor], Christchurch Date: 31 October 1864 Subject: Forwarding petition on behalf of Prisoner William Merritt;
    Letter from Gaoler, Lyttelton Date: 21 November 1864 Subject: Forwarding petition from prisoner William Merritt;
    Letter from His Honour Mr Justice Gresson, Christchurch Date: 29 December 1864 Subject: Report on the petitions of prisoners [William] Merritt, [John] O’Mally and [Edward] Bothwick.
  8. STAR, ISSUE 5055, 14 SEPTEMBER 1894. PRESS, VOLUME LI, ISSUE 8900, 17 SEPTEMBER 1894.
  9. THE LATE ERNEST MERRITT.,Star, Issue 5852, 21 April 1897.
  10. The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), Sat 22 Dec 1894, Page 9, MESSRS.MERRETT & Co’s. CONFECTIONERY SHOP. FREMANTLE.
    The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950) Thursday 15 July 1897 p 3.
  12. Christchurch Cemetery database and Press 12 September 1905, Page 4; Star, Issue 8423, 16 September 1905; NEWS OF THE DAY.,Press, Volume LXII, Issue 12295, 12 September 1905.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sarndra Lees says:

    My great great great grandmother, Rosannah Lodge, built and ran “Lodge’s Temperance Rest” at 145-151 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch. It was demolished in 1963 and the Horticultural Hall [which has now also gone] was then erected.

    About Rosannah, who was certainly a colourful woman:
    About the location of the ‘hotel’:

    Sarndra Lees


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