Christchurch’s newest and grandest hotel in the first decade of the 1900s was the Clarendon Hotel situated on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Worcester Street. It replaced the former two-storied wooden hotel which dated back to 1851 and was demolished in 1903.
The original building, one of the first erected in Christchurch, was built in the very early days of the settlement by Mr. William Guise Brittan, as a residence for himself, and at that time was one of the landmarks of Christchurch.
Charlotte Godley described the Brittan house as “exactly like a small villa, just out of London”. 
The old Land Office – the first building put up in the city – was immediately opposite it, and for a long while these two stood there without another within a long distance of them.
From town house to public house
Irishman, Rowland Robert Teape Davis bought the house and land in 1859 and added to it a hotel. It was known initially as Davis Hotel until he changed it to ‘Lyttelton’ in 1860. Davis, originally a smith by trade, had come out to New Zealand on the ‘Aurora’, arriving in Port Nicholson (Wellington) in January 1840. He brought with him his wife and three young children, along with three cousins – all seeking a new life and opportunity. Also on board was William Deans along with servants Gebbie and Manson and their families. Like the Deans brothers, the Davis family eventually made their way to Canterbury, but not before they had spent ten years establishing themselves as hoteliers, running the Aurora Tavern and Britannia Saloon in Lambton Quay.
In May 1851, the Davis family made their way south, settling in Lyttelton, where they set up the Canterbury Hotel. For many years Rowland Davis represented Lyttelton in the Provincial Council, and was instrumental in pushing through Moorhouse’s tunnel and railway schemes. In 1860 the family moved once again, this time the shorter distance to Christchurch. They stayed at the hotel on Worcester Street until 1864, when they moved to a private family home ‘Kealkill’, on the banks of the Heathcote River.
Then followed C. H. Smith, an ex Royal Navy mess steward, who stayed only a year, followed shortly by Benjamin Napthali Jones. Jones was an interesting character, an American Jew, actor and comedian, who took the name Jones, reportedly “afraid that its pronounced Jewishness would be against him.” In 1862 he was publican of the Railway Hotel in Lyttelton, on the corner of London and Canterbury Street. By July 1870, Napthali was in financial strife, declared bankrupt in Auckland.
Jones had arrived in New Zealand in the early ’50s, and had staged and acted in productions at the old Town Hall and the Theatre Royal in Christchurch. After his stint as a hotelier, he returned to acting and stage production in Sydney and Melbourne, before his death in 1890. The Otago Witness reported that his friends had held a meeting in Sydney to raise funds for his widow, as “Actors appear to be very careless with money as a general rule. 
A Hotelkeeper by Royal Appointment
Under the management of experienced Hotelier and former Canterbury Club Steward, George Oram, the hotel’s name was changed from the Lyttelton Hotel to the Clarendon in 1866, after the British foreign secretary, George Villiers, the 4th Earl of Clarendon. Oram carried out extensive improvements on both the buildings and the level of service at the hotel.
On the Royal visit of 1869, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, took suites at the Hotel during his visit to Christchurch in May. It is said that Oram, dressed in powdered wig and satin breeches, waited on the Prince personally. So impressed was His Royal Highness, that afterwards he bestowed on Oram the title of, “Hotel Keeper by Appointment to His Royal Highness Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh”.
Miserably old and shabby
The Clarendon was a hotel grand enough to host royalty and nobility; the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869, the Marquis of Normanby in 1875, King George VI in 1948, Queen Elizabeth in 1954, the Queen Mother in 1958, as well as the rich and famous, like the Beatles in 1964, who waved to their adoring fans from the Worcester Street balcony.
But it wasn’t always that way. For some time the Clarendon had been considered old and dilapidated – its “appearance miserably old and shabby for a house of its pretensions”.
Proposals to rebuild the Clarendon were made as early as June 1883. The Licensee at this time, Mr Tregonwell Augustus White-Parsons had his application for an annual license turned down by the Licensing Committee on account of the building being so old. The hotel was owned by Mr C Louisson, one of two brothers who owned the Crown Brewery Company, with interests in the Terminus, White Hart and Hereford Hotels. He had bought the hotel and half an acre of land at auction in July 1880 for £2800, subject to a mortgage of £4663. Louisson had presented plans for a substantial new building, designed by architect Thomas Stoddart Lambert, which would be completed by 1884, contingent upon the formation of a joint stock company to build a new theatre and rebuild the Clarendon.
Another American Bankrupt
The committee had been concerned about the state of the Clarendon for some time, but their concerns had been largely ignored. Prior to White Parsons as licensee, an American named Jacob Shepherd Wagner had been in charge of the Hotel (1875-1881). Wagner had come to Christchurch after running the Shamrock and Empire Hotels in Revell Street, Hokitika. Just about everywhere Wagner went, bankruptcy followed. In 1862, whilst farming near Smeaton in Victoria, Australia, he had faced a charge for ‘fraudulent insolvency’. In 1868, whilst hotel-keeping on the West Coast he was declared bankrupt, and again in December 1882, in Christchurch. This could well have been why the Clarendon was in such a poor state. Thankfully for the future success of the hotel, Wagner then moved to Coalgate, returning to farming.
When the Licensing Committee meet again in December 1884, the rebuild had still not been completed. Louisson explained that it had been “impossible for him to rebuild the house in the present depressed times”. He had consulted a ‘competent builder’, who told him that for £400-500 the hotel could be repaired to last a further 15-20 years. The decayed balcony and outhouses were subsequently demolished and rebuilt, and the hotel had been thoroughly renovated inside and out. The hotel’s gardens and grounds were said to be “of great advantage for families, not possessed by other hotels in the city”.
The Committee was happy with the work carried out, and with how the Hotel was run, but “they hoped the owner would not lose sight of the advisability of replacing the wooden building by a brick or stone one, and thus ensure greater safety from fire”.
By 1901, the annual meeting of the Licensing committee was still making recommendations that the Clarendon should be rebuilt.
The Mystery of the Severed Hand
In the early days, hotels like the Clarendon, the Star and Garter and White Hart were used as morgues and venues for inquests, due to their proximity to the Avon – the scene of many drownings during the early years of the settlement. Ironically, some drownings occurred after patrons became intoxicated after bouts of drinking at the hotels.
One of the most bizarre inquests hosted at the Clarendon was in December 1885, into the severed hand found at Taylors Mistake. The hand had supposedly washed up on the beach after the disappearance of Arthur Robert Howard, who had been swimming at Bell’s Baths in Sumner.
The hand was believed to be that of Howard, but was later found to belong to someone unknown, but staged by Howard in an attempt to defraud his insurance company.
Women in Charge
It was not unusual for women to be the licensees of hotels, usually in partnership with a man, but it was not particularly common. As the years progressed, and prohibition took hold, there were increasing movements to exclude women from drinking and working in hotels.
In September 1888, Justice Williams ruled in Dunedin that married women were ineligible to hold a hotel license. The next year the Licensing Committee had received notice from the Police that they would oppose the renewal of any licenses granted to married women who lived apart from their husbands.
For more than ten years from the late 1880s, Sophia Ann Taylor ran the Clarendon alongside her husband Henry, who hailed from Bedfordshire and had arrived in NZ only eight years prior. He’d been a widowed bailiff and estate manager prior to emigrating, which no doubt stood him in good stead for a new career as a hotelier. Sophia’s origins are less known.
When Henry died in January 1889, aged 60, the younger Sophia continued to operate the hotel successfully, keeping in favourably with the police. She transferred her license to Irishman, Robert Allen in 1891, whom she married the same year. The pair continued to run the hotel together; Sophia managing the “household arrangements” with a “thoroughly good cook” in charge of the kitchen. It was her name on the license when applying for renewal in June 1898.
Robert was almost as many years younger than Sophia as she had been younger than her first husband. You might expect that he would’ve outlived her, but in November 1899, just ten years after burying her first husband, Robert died aged just 40. Sophia was to survive him by only three more years, and was buried in Linwood Cemetery, aged 56, in the same plot as her first husband, Henry.
The new Clarendon – A Family and Commercial Hotel
Wholesale rebuilding of Christchurch’s old hotels was ordered by the Licensing Committee in 1902, and at least £60,000 was spent in this direction during that year.
Hotel owners felt very uncomfortable at the progress which the no-licensing movement was seen to be making all over the country at that time. District wide prohibition saw hotels close without compensation to the owners.
The former Lyttelton Hotel was finally to be rebuilt. The new licensees were Mrs Edith Reid and Mr Sydenham James Flewellyn, who previously had run respectively the Lady Chavannes Hotel in Wanganui and the Ship Hotel in Nelson. They took possession in April 1903, and reopened the Clarendon as a “Family and Commercial Hotel“, on May 2nd.
Flewellyn was the son of a Somerset master carpenter and a dressmaker, who came to Auckland with his brother in the 1870s. He had spent the greater part of his adult life in Wellington, working as a compositor for the Evening Post, before turning his hand to hotel management.
His hotel career had been extremely successful and he was greatly respected. When he left Nelson for Christchurch, local newspaper reports said that “although engaged in a trade that called for criticism‘, he had ‘conducted his business in an admirable way“. Described as an affable urbane gentleman, Flewellyn no doubt brought the same sense of style to the new Clarendon Hotel. 
Designed by Joseph Clarkson Maddison (1850-1923), who had designed many hotels in Christchurch as well as Mona Vale, and built by J. Otley, this brick and stone establishment stood for style, opulence and privilege. There was a grand restaurant, ladies sitting room and twenty eight bedrooms spread over the first and second floors.
The main entrance from Worcester Street led into a spacious hall. The office, telephone and private bar were about halfway down the hall, and a polished wooden staircase lead up to the floors above. Plush patterned carpets covered the floors and potted parlour palms stood on high wooden and ceramic stands in the halls, guest drawing rooms and lounges. Venetian blinds and layered curtains covered the windows for privacy.
Situated at the end of the hotel’s entrance hall was the dining room which was furnished in green and crimson colours, and filled with small dining tables topped by crisp linen table cloths and decoratively folded napkins. Formally attired waiters stood at the ready to seat and serve the diners.
The ladies drawing room was designed to make the female guests feel at home, and was lavishly decorated with furnishings from Strange and Co. Decorative objects sat on tables and sideboards and the wallpapered walls were hung with pictures. From the windows, ladies could take in views of the Park on one side and of the river bank towards the Government Buildings on the other.
Barmaids and Young Bloods
March 20, 1909, two “young bloods” in the company of Miss Jessie Hill-Scott and her workmate Miss Thompson, both barmaids at the Clarendon Hotel, were involved in a mystery surrounding the violent death of an old man named Andrew Hardie. His battered and broken body had been placed in a paddock, and it was believed he had been involved in a collision with a car.
The two barmaids had finished work at the Clarendon the same night and were picked up by the two young men (the ‘young bloods’) in a taxi outside the Rink Stables at about 10.20 pm. They travelled to New Brighton, stopping at the pier, where they disappeared onto the beach for a ‘spiritualistic seance or a study of nature, or something’, according to the salacious rag, NZ Truth.
The inquest found no connection between their actions and the death of Hardie, but unfortunately for the two barmaids, the public airing of their outing resulted in their sacking by the “shocked licensee“, who at the time was David Collins. The Collins’ had previously been hotel keepers in Gore, and stayed at the Clarendon for a number of years from around 1906 until some time before 1916, when they were managing the Royal Hotel in Auckland before returning to Christchurch and taking over the Federal Hotel.
Chloroformed at the Clarendon
In 1917, whilst John Thomas Souper was the licensee at the Clarendon, a strange and disturbing incident occurred to two guests from Timaru, which caused a sensation in the media.
Souper had been the Chief Steward on the government steamer Tutanekai, before spending twelve years as supervisor of the NZ railway dining cars, so he was well versed in hospitality. In March 1916, he moved from Wellington to take over the Clarendon. Unfortunately his tenure was to be short as he died two years later on November 11, 1918, aged 47.
On 4 July 1917, Temuka farmer Andrew Rollo Guild and his wife Enid motored to Christchurch to attend the Addington saleyards, treating themselves to a stay at Christchurch’s most popular hotel, the Clarendon. Retiring after a long day, Enid went to bed in their room at 10.45 pm, leaving her husband to his leisure in the hotel. He retired some time later, leaving their room door unlocked.
On the same evening the assistant booking clerk, Theophane Murphy was on duty in the hotel office when two men arrived, asking for a private room and something to drink. She showed them to the writing room but they returned to the office requesting supper. She told them that due to the hour, she could not serve them food unless they were guests, so the two men asked to take a double room. Supper was served to them in the smoking room where they stayed until 11 pm, chatting with a business man, William Saville, a tailor, after which they left the hotel for the evening.
The two men, supposedly American car salesmen, who had registered in the names of Mr Robert Wilson and Mr T. Owen, returned to the hotel at 3.30 am. They were served drinks by the night porter Edward Price, returning again to the smoking room to continue their drinking. Robert Wilson was carrying a revolver in his pocket which he produced. According to Price, he pointed it at his stomach, asking, “Do you carry one of these about with you?” It would seem that Price was not overly disturbed by this, as he handled the gun himself and the three talked some more before Wilson and Owen were shown to their room, which was opposite the Guild’s at number 31.
In the early hours of the morning, about 5.25 am, Enid Guild was woken suddenly by a strong and unusual smell. In a distressed and dizzy state she leapt out of bed, calling out to her husband. Roused from his sleep, he smelt what he believed to be chloroform. Searching the bed, he discovered a large, dirty, soaked handkerchief lying on the pillow between them. Hearing steps in the passage outside, he opened the unlocked door and looking out, but it was only Edward Price, the night porter, knocking at a door a short distance along the passage.
Wilson and Owen were in fact two habitual criminals; William Kinniard and Robert Irwin Meaclem. They had arrived in Christchurch on 1st July, going first to the Federal Coffee Palace (in 1906 it was in Victoria Square), then they took lodgings in Bath Street the following day. That same day Kinniard purchased two ounces of chloroform from Scientific apparatus importers, Wilton and Co, claiming he was ‘a student at the college‘.
On the night of the attack, having gone to the Clarendon Hotel and booked a room, they went for a joyride in a taxi, returning to the hotel in the early hours of the next morning. After being shown to their room, Kinniard claimed he went to look for a waitress he had met the day before, and whom the night porter had said was occupying the room opposite their own. On entering the room he saw a man asleep, and decided to test out the chloroform, by soaking his handkerchief with it and throwing it on the pillow, before returning to his own room.
After the incident they were both interviewed and allowed to go, but were subsequently arrested at the lodgings they had previously taken in Bath Street. The bottle containing the chloroform had been found by Police in the room the two men had occupied at the Clarendon, along with the revolver hidden in the toilet cistern, along with some papers belonging to Andrew Guild. Unusually none of the Guild’s money or jewellery was taken.
Both men pleaded not guilty but were refused bail. Meaclem, only 24 years old at the time, had previously been committed to Burnham Industrial School at the age of 18, but had absconded before being caught breaking into and stealing from settlers’ residences in Dunedin in March 1911.
Kinniard had some 16 previous convictions in England and New Zealand. He was 30 years old, and conducted his and Meaclem’s defense himself. The pair received a three year sentence, Meaclem received an additional 6 months for stealing the revolver. He was released in September 1921 and went on to continue his life of crime.
Skipping ahead to 1932 and Arthur Harvey had tooken over as Licensee from owner Claude Herbert Piper, an Australian who had been licensee for 12 years previous. In 1935 Piper sold the hotel to Harvey for an estimated £25,000 and retired, ending his days at Seaview Road in New Brighton.
In 1987, the main structure of the hotel was demolished while the Worcester Street balcony was retained and the façade was left to sit as a false frontage to the highrise building, the Clarendon Tower. The change was highly controversial; some liked it whilst others were vocally against it. Well known local artist Bill Sutton, described the completed structure as looking “like a boy with his trousers down around his ankles“.
According to the Historic Places Trust Register, “An innovative system of seismic strengthening was used to ensure that each façade could respond independently to differing shocks“.
The tower was one of a handful of high rise office blocks in the CBD that commanded high rents. In 2008 the Japanese owners carried out further work to upgrade the lobby, lifts, toilets and preserve the façade.
- Letters from Early New Zealand, by Charlotte Godley.
- Illustrated Guide to Christchurch and Neighbourhood. J. T. Smith & Co., 1885. Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection.
- Obituary, Mrs Rowland Davis. Star , Issue 6325, 24 August 1888, Page 4.
- Otago Witness, Issue 1987, 13 March 1890, Page 36. Evening Post, Volume XXXIX, Issue 41, 19 February 1890, Page 2.
- Historic Places Trust; “Arrival of the Prince” Timaru Herald, Volume X, Issue 412, 8 May 1869, Page 6; Stephen Symons’ literary pages: http://www.poddimok.wordpress.com
- Te Aroha News, Volume VI, Issue 374, 5 June 1889, Page 5. Evening Post, Volume XXXVI, Issue XXXVI, 25 September 1888, Page 2.
- Star, Issue 6193, 1 June 1898, Page 3.
- Observer, 10 February 1912. Evening Post, Volume XCII, Issue 52, 30 August 1916, Page 8.
- Christchurch City Libraries.
- ‘Chloroformed!’, NZ Truth , Issue 633, 28 July 1917, Page 8 and ‘The Chloroform Case’, NZ Truth , Issue 635, 18 August 1917, Page 5.
- Evening Post , Issue 52, 2 March 1935, Page 7.