Clara Evelyn James was born in Ettrick, South Otago, on 4 March 1885, the daughter of Christina Thomas and her husband, William James, a rabbiter. Little is known of her early life. She lived in Dunedin before moving to Auckland, and it is said that she worked in hotels before her marriage there on 29 October 1910 to John Hallam, a plasterer. The couple were to have five children. In 1927 the family moved from Auckland to Bidwill Street, Wellington.
Clara Hallam bought her first boarding house in 1928. Over the years she acquired many properties, mostly houses and hotels in the inner-city area, but she also owned flats in Kelburn and Kilbirnie. Before there was a night shelter or other emergency accommodation in post-Second World War Wellington, little housing existed for people such as homeless alcoholics, who were usually put in prison to dry out and then released. Hallam was prepared to have such people in her boarding houses and private hotels, thereby providing a social service while making a very comfortable living. Her son, Reg, once remarked: ‘Before social security came in some of these people had nothing to live on. Literally nothing. When it was introduced mother looked after their pension books for them. Mostly because they were incapable of looking after themselves…but also as security.’ Through her clientele Clara Hallam was familiar to the police. Interestingly, a number of officers rented her better properties: she considered them good tenants who paid their rent on time.
Probably the best known of her boarding houses were the Mansions and the Albermarle private hotels in Ghuznee Street, Lloyds Hotel (later the Columbia) in Cuba Street, and the White Lodge in Courtenay Place. The Mansions achieved a certain notoriety during the Second World War as a favourite visiting place for United States servicemen, where Hallam was known to provide alcohol and ‘other services’ to them, although not personally. According to the Dominion, Lloyds Hotel was a haven for ‘thieves, known criminals and reputed prostitutes’. Police considered the hotel to be a brothel in many respects, although ‘Ma’ Hallam, as she was always known, was not a typical madam. She did not employ prostitutes herself, but was to be seen from 2 p.m. until 2 a.m. in her small office in the hall of Lloyds, renting rooms by the hour.
Hallam was fined a substantial amount of money for receiving stolen property in the late 1950s, and she made headlines when the White Lodge was damaged by fire in November 1967 and December 1971. In the latter incident, four people died and Hallam herself broke her leg jumping from a first–floor fire escape. She recovered, but the accident slowed her down, and she spent the remaining years of her life at the Albermarle.
Clara Hallam died in Wellington on 26 March 1976 aged 91 years, leaving an estate of around $500,000. Her husband, John, had left her in the mid 1930s, allegedly because he resented her increasing activity as a property owner. She was known to have commented that this was the kindest thing he had ever done for her. She was survived by two sons. Described by Canon Walter Arnold, the city missioner, as ‘a very lovable rogue’, Clara Hallam combined good business sense with philanthropy of sorts: ‘she had an eye for the main chance, but she had a good heart or she couldn’t have put up with the extraordinary collection of life’s unfortunates as she did’.