On the north east corner of Cathedral Square, the Commercial Hotel, owned by John Etherden Coker (1832 – 1894) was opened in 1863. The name Warner’s was not used until the hotel’s third owner, William Francis Warner (1836 – 1896) purchased the establishment in 1873 and renamed it Warner’s Commercial Hotel. 
Warner the Hero
Warner was one of Christchurch’s most respected members of the licensed victuallers’ fraternity who owned Warner’s Hotel for twenty two years. He had lived an adventurous early life, having left his home in Littlehampton, Sussex as a young man and gone to sea. In December, 1860, at the age of 25, he gained his certificate as a Second Mate, and in 1861 he made his first voyage to New Zealand, on board the Reah Sylvia, an immigrant ship which sailed between Bristol and Lyttelton. It was during this voyage that he distinguished himself by saving the life of a passenger who had fallen overboard mid-ocean, during heavy seas. 
“Monday.— March 11. Lat. 30 South. Yesterday was calm, not a breath of wind, the sea the smoothest I have seen it. Nearly as warm as on the Line. Public worship at ten o’clock as usual. Several bathed in the afternoon. One young man, Robert Gibson, in our mess, was nearly lost. He sank twice, almost unseen, was going down the third time when the alarm was given, and Mr Warner, the second mate, dashed in and saved him. Mr Warner is the best fellow and the most active in the ship, and says Gibson is his property now.”April 11. “Mr Warner, the second mate, is a fleet, robust-looking fellow, very quick in speech and action, and is very much liked by the passengers, and possessed of great agility. He has saved two lives during this voyage.” Diary of a Passenger on board the Reah Sylvia. 
After many exotic voyages, he returned to New Zealand and decided to stay, finding work in Christchurch in the surveying field. “With Sir Julius von Haast, he took part in the exploration of the West Coast, and was amongst the first to cross the dividing range.” 
In 1865, he began hotel work with Mr. J. G. Ruddenklau at the City Hotel in Christchurch.  In October, he and James Workman were granted a joint liquor license for the Colombo Street hotel. Warner left his employ In 1866, to become the landlord of the Golden Age Hotel which was on the corner of Hereford and Colombo streets. Warner and Ruddenklau remained close friends right up until the latter’s death in 1891.
When John Coker left the Commercial Hotel in Cathedral Square in 1873, Warner took over as the proprietor and changed the name the following year, but for several more decades it was still known as the Commercial Hotel. He executed several improvements; devoting a large proportion of the ground floor to Sample Rooms designed to appeal to Commercial Travellers, and adding a new billiard room. 
Warner was a jovial man who had an extensive repertoire of tales to tell from his interesting life.
“W. F. Warner is the right man in the right place. Shrewd, business-like, practical, with the readiness of resource which characterises old salts, he can “run a hotel” as he himself would phrase it, with any man south of the Line.” 
An Explosion at the Hotel
Warner’s Hotel very narrowly escaped damage by fire on two occasions in 1874. Plasterers working on one of the rooms in the old building carelessly left the gaspipe open in the ceiling. Warner discovered it and corked up the end of the pipe, and then foolishly struck a match to light his pipe! He and his barman were thrown off the plasterer’s scaffolding on to the floor, and were severely burnt. 
Less than two months later, in December, ‘the rays of the sun shining through a bedroom window were focused by a glass waterbottle on to a towel with such effect as to cause the ignition of the towel. It was just commencing to burn when the fire was discovered.’ 
Boating trip ends in tragedy for an Old Salt
Tragically, Warner was drowned at sea near New Brighton in 1896, at the age of sixty one years. He had gone with three others to bring up the yacht Waitangi from Monck’s jetty, near Sumner, for the races at New Brighton – where he was the commodore of the Sailing Club. The boat had capsized in a stream in the Sumner estuary, in about 7-8ft of water, after being caught by a strong puff of wind. Warner got on to the mast and the other three men clung to other parts of the yacht.
All could swim but it was decided that as the yacht seemed quite stable and the men not in any danger, one man would swim for the shore and wade through the mud to go for help. However when he returned, the boat and the three remaining men had gone. They searched until the early hours of the morning, but could not find any sign of them. The next day, a search party found Warner’s body lying in about 2 feet of water, 200 yards upstream from where the yacht was lying. 
Warner had not long remarried, having wed 27 year old Alice Little from Nelson in 1891. Warner was 56. Three children were subsequently produced in quick succession. His first marriage had resulted in no children, and his wife had died at the Hotel in 1889, age 39.
After his death, the hotel was carried on under the leadership of Henry Allen, who had been for many years Warner’s Attorney and Manager.  The following year Warner’s Trustees advertised the hotel for sale as a going concern…
“WARNER’S HOTEL.It commands the Finest Position in the city, having a Double Frontage on Cathedral Square – 132ft. x 125ft. – and is within Two Minutes’ Walk of the Post, Telegraph, Banks, and leading mercantile offices.
The centre of the tram service of the city is in front of the hotel.
It has for many years, and is at present, doing one of the best businesses In NEW ZEALAND,
And receives the patronage of the majority of distinguished visitors.
The house contains about 100 Rooms, including two handsome dining-rooms capable of seating upwards of 150 persons, and all the requisite appointments of a first-class hotel.
To an experienced man in the trade this property offers a sound and lucrative investment, and a good proportion of the purchase money may remain on mortgage at 5 per cent per annum.”The Brisbane Courier, 9 Aug 1897. 
Warner had carried out extensive additions on the hotel.
In 1887, he transformed the space on which the Gaiety Theatre – which subsequently reopened as the ‘Academy of Music’ amusement theatre in late 1879, then was leased by the Salvation Army as barracks in 1883, and finally became ‘Warner’s Assembly Rooms’ and was used for meetings and bazaars – previously stood.
The lower storey, which had been given over to the sample rooms, was retained, but the upstairs portion he divided off into 17 bedrooms along each side of the building, increasing the hotel’s capacity to 59 rooms.
Each new room had a 10ft stud, with a length of 11 ft by 10ft, and a large double-sash window and glass ventilation louvres over the door. The rooms were ‘handsomely furnished’, each with a wash-stand, dressing table, chairs, an iron bedstead, and a spring or hair mattress. The furniture was made locally by A. J White especially for the hotel. The bedrooms shared two bathrooms, fitted with hot and cold water and a shower.
At the south end of the wide carpeted corridor were French windows opening onto an iron balcony which was fitted with a wire ladder fire escape. In the event of the inevitable fire, each room also had its own secured ‘man-rope’ which could be let down from the window to the ground. 
(In 1909, the fire-escapes were used by an enterprising burglar to ascend into several rooms and relieve the unconscious sleepers of their valuables. He made a fairly good collection of lout from the rooms he visited before he was disturbed by one occupant who tackled him and called for help, summoning the night porter, hotel manager and finally the police.) 
in 1891, Warner adding a large new wing. The hotel then boasted seventy eight sleeping rooms, a special dining room and drawing room for ladies, six sample rooms for commercial travellers, a high pressure water supply, bath rooms fitted with hot, cold or shower baths, and suites of private apartments ‘elegantly furnished and appointed’. 
The original part of the Hotel had been constructed of wood, and like many wooden buildings in the city, succumbed to fire in 1900. At 20 minutes to 8 on the evening of March 24th, 1900 fire broke out in a linen closet in the upper story of the old portion of the hotel. The fire spread rapidly, and nearly the whole of the old wooden portion of the premises was destroyed. The new portion, consisting of about 70 rooms, sustained little damage, and business could carry on as usual pending the re-erection in brick of the portion destroyed. The employees rooms were situated close to where the fire originated, and ‘it spread so rapidly that not one of them was able to save any personal property, and only one of them had insurance’. Fire broke out again about two weeks later, when some of the debris from the previous fire over the kitchen reignited. It was quickly put out without any further damage. 
The oldest surviving building in Canterbury
At this time, Warners had the oldest surviving building in Canterbury. It was a two roomed building originally built in 1840, in Hagley Park, and was being used as a laundry room at the Hotel. It had been built for the Government surveyor with timber cut in Riccarton bush and had been shifted into Christchurch in 1850. 
Also around this time outside Warner’s Hotel hung a cage containing a grey Australian parrot which would give a loud clear whistle similar to a man hailing a cab. Cabbies would frequently mistake the call, and would drive up ‘post haste’ only to find they had been the victim of a joke by the parrot. 
Handsome and substantial
For a considerable time the damaged hotel buildings presented an unsightly appearance, but by the end of 1901 a ‘handsome and substantial’ new brick building had risen from the ashes. A new hotel proprietor called Mr. Percy Herman, who had experience in some of the finest hotels in the North Island, had secured a long lease of Warner’s Hotel. He instructed Christchurch’s leading architect of the day, Mr Maddison to design Christchurch’s finest hotel with an unlimited budget. The brand new hotel increased its size to one hundred and fifty rooms. His wife, Rebecca assisted her husband in the domestic organisation of the hotel. 
The new architecturally designed hotel was a very grand addition to the cornerstone of the Square. It had two decorative frontages – each of 134 feet in length which extended from Cathedral Square to Worcester Street and to the other side on Worcester Street. It was a very handsome hotel with ornamental iron galleries running around the building. The upper storeys were connected with the ground floor by iron stairs providing guests space when entering or leaving the hotel.
The main entrance on Cathedral Square was accessed under an ornamental porch. On entering, guests found themselves in a large vestibule which had handsome passages leading off to the left and right. It was such an important grand hotel for Christchurch, its features were described in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand, the Canterbury Provincial Section of 1903,
“On the left is situated the office, which is supplied with a system of telephones connected with every part of the establishment. The main dining room, which is one of the largest and handsomest in the colony, faces the main entrance, and has room for 200 guests. In the daytime this room is lighted by skylights, but at night innumerable electric lights of various colours, playing upon the rich display of silver plate and specially imported glassware on the tables, give to the whole apartment a look of extreme elegance.
The dining room generally has been furnished with good taste and luxury. Tables of various sizes are so arranged that parties and families can enjoy that privacy which is all the more agreeable on account of the animation of a large dining hall. A separate room capable of seating 100 guests can be used for private dinners. Two private sitting rooms, with a handsome room for the convenience of visitors, and close to the public telephone room, are to the right of the entrance, opposite the office. One of these is the waiting room for gentlemen guests, and is furnished with roller desks each supplied with a movable electric light; and each guest has during his stay the control of the key of a desk.
In the northern end of the buildings, and completely cut off from the private portions of the establishment, are the public and private bars, fitted with handsome cedar fittings and bevelled plate glass mirrors. The public bar is a large and handsome apartment furnished with numerous luxurious couches, upholstered in crimson velvet. A smaller private bar adjoins, equally well appointed, and both are equally supplied with the choice wines, liquors, and cigars, for which “Warner’s” has so good a reputation. A broad passage laid down with ornamental tiles leads past the bars to a large commercial room, which is reserved for the use of commercial gentlemen and their friends. At the back, and separated by a splendid system of lavatories, is the fine billiard room, fitted with two exhibition tables.
The approach to the upper stories is by a broad staircase carpeted with heavy Wilton carpet and with brass mountings. The same luxurious material covers the corridors. The ladies’ drawing room, which is on the southern end of the building, is furnished with the greatest luxury and taste, and supplied by telephones connected with every portion of the house. Along the passages there are numerous private sitting rooms furnished with the same magnificence which is displayed throughout the establishment. In this connection the appointments of “Warner’s” reflect the utmost credit on the taste of Mrs Herman, who selected the furnishings.
The second floor is devoted solely to bedrooms, each of which is supplied with an electric reading lamp over each bed, and convertible into a table reading lamp. All the rooms are furnished with refined luxury, and each has its wardrobe, telephone, and electric bell. Bathrooms with hot, cold, and shower baths are conveniently placed throughout the building.”
Its one hundred and twenty rooms were luxuriously furnished to the highest of tastes. It boasted that it was one of the finest hotels in Australasia. At the time, it was unrivalled in its position in the centre of the city, being close to the tram and yet far enough away from the noise of the traffic. The Post Office was a minute’s walk away and the Government Tourists’ Enquiry Office adjoined the hotel.
The following year the hotel was floated as a limited liability company with a capital of £56,000, and Herman as supervising manager. 
Warner’s Vs Lyttelton Times
Warner’s didn’t always happily co-existence with its neighbour, the Lyttelton Times. Warner’s Ltd leased rooms for a period of ten years from Lyttelton Times, above their printing presses on the north corner of Cathedral Square. These were to be used as bedrooms extending the capacity of the Hotel, however the noise and vibration from the printing presses underneath the rooms on the ground floor greatly disturbed guests and cost Warner’s business.
In 1904, Warner’s Ltd sought £1500 damages and an injunction against the Lyttelton Times through the courts. The case proceeded to the Court of Appeal for legal argument in 1905, which was made in favour of Warner’s. An injunction was granted restricting the use of the machinery at certain hours and costs were given against the Lyttelton Times. However it did not end there. Lyttelton Times then took the case to the Privy Council in London. The Privy Council reversed the decision, finding in favour of Lyttelton Times. It was their opinion that both the tenant and the landlord had gone into the agreement knowing that both parties would be continuing to operate their respective businesses. Warner’s didn’t realise the noise potential at the time, but this was exacerbated by the design of the premises which the two partied had negotiated to be built on the land by Lyttelton Times. The injunction was removed and Warner’s had to repay the costs. 
In 1917, the Liberty Theatre, the largest in the city, seating 1400 patrons, was built and opened next to Warner’s. It was converted from a portion of the Warner’s hotel which in a previous life had been the Gaiety Theatre, and provided a division between the hotel and the noisy vibrating printing presses at Lyttelton Times. 
The hotel has seen many proprietors and owners during its lifetime, including Harry Price who came there from the Clarendon in 1914 and managed the hotel for about a decade. In 1929 the Hotel and the adjoining Liberty Picture Theatre was sold to a Palmerston North syndicate for £80,000. Five years later, in 1934, it was bought by Licensed Freeholds Ltd as their first licensed property.
- Local and General. Star, Issue 1644, 2 June 1873, Page 2. Hotel Property.— Mr Warner, of the Golden Age Hotel, has purchased the property known as Coker’s Hotel, Cathedral square, and will enter into occupation at once.
- The Weekly Press, 31st January, 1906, page 45. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 3, IMG000931.
- THE LATE MR WARNER.. Star, Issue 5503, 2 March 1896, Page 2.
- The Weekly Press, 8th November 1894, p. 53. Image: Christchurch City Libraries CCL PhotoCD 8, IMG0100.
- BETTER LATE THAN NEVER. Star, Issue 7023, 29 November 1890, Page 3.
- THE LATE MR WARNER. Star, Issue 5503, 2 March 1896, Page 2.
- Public Notices. Lyttelton Times, Volume XXIV, Issue 1517, 23 October 1865, Page 4.
- “Warner’s Commercial Hotel, Christchurch” Page 4 Advertisements Column 4. Auckland Star, Volume VII, Issue 1935, 2 May 1876, Page 4.
- WARNER’S COMMERCIAL HOTEL. Star, Issue 6062, 19 October 1887, Page 4.
- Source: Museum of NZ Collections Online Ref: C.011553
- Untitled. Colonist, Volume XVII, Issue 1830, 31 October 1874, Page 3.
- CHRISTCHURCH. Wanganui Herald, Volume VIII, Issue 2329, 9 December 1874, Page 2.
- THE INQUEST. Press, Volume LIII, Issue 9366, 16 March 1896, Page 2.
- Page 3 Advertisements Column 7. Auckland Star, Volume XXVII, Issue 60, 12 March 1896, Page 3.
- The weekly press, 20 Mar. 1907, p. 53. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0059.
- “Classified Advertising.” The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933) 9 Aug 1897: 1.
- The weekly press, 17 Oct. 1900, p. 11. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0089
- WARNER’S COMMERCIAL HOTEL. Star, Issue 6062, 19 October 1887, Page 4.
- Untitled. Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XLIII, 15 September 1909, Page 3.
- Page 7 Advertisements Column 2. Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 8004, 27 October 1891, Page 7.
- FIRES. Star , Issue 6753, 26 March 1900, Page 4.
Star, Issue 6840, 6 July 1900, Page 3. FIRES. Press, Volume LVII, Issue 10702, 7 July 1900, Page 10.
- NEWS ITEMS. Colonist , Issue 9913, 25 September 1900, Page 4.
- NEWS OF THE DAY. Press, Volume LVII, Issue 10749, 31 August 1900, Page 4.
- Ref: 1/2-025301-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
- Source: Cyclopedia of New Zealand.
- Page 6 Advertisements Column 3. New Zealand Herald, Volume XXXVIII, Issue 11829, 5 December 1901, Page 6.
- Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL-83338-062.
- Photo from Webb, Steffano, 1880?-1967 : Collection of negatives. Ref: 1/1-019480-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
- WARNER’S HOTEL. Manawatu Times, Volume XXVII, Issue 7521, 5 September 1902, Page 2.
- Photo by Price, William Archer, 1866-1948 :Collection of post card negatives. Ref: 1/2-000846-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.
- Telegraphic. Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser, Volume LXII, Issue 3233, 2 August 1907, Page 2. WARNER’S V. ” LYTTELTON TIMES.” Star , Issue 8996, 1 August 1907, Page 3.
- AMUSEMENTS. Press, Volume LIII, Issue 15998, 5 September 1917, Page 9.
- Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 1, IMG0044 Image: Pioneer Amateur Sports Club, Archive 6.