The earliest New Zealand hotels were established in Northland. One of the first was opened in the 1830s at Hōreke on the Hokianga Harbour – various hotels have provided accommodation on the same spot to the present day.
By 1838 there were 20 hotels in Kororāreka (now Russell), although most probably operated as little more than grog shops. In 1840, eight Kororāreka hotels were granted liquor licences. The country’s first licence went to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. The ‘Duke’ was burnt down during the northern war of 1845, and replacement hotels twice succumbed to accidental fires.
Before gas and electric lighting became the norm, hotels were often damaged or destroyed by fire. Wooden hotels were major fire hazards because they were often crowded, lit with candles and oil lamps, and patrons could be drunk. Five Dunedin hotels were razed by fire in the first six months of 1865 alone. Hotel advertisements often stressed the presence of fire escapes.
Auckland’s first hotel was the Royal, whose brief life from 1841 to 1847 shows the important and varied role hotels often played in colonial times. The Royal hosted an extravagant dinner for Governor William Hobson, became a temporary barracks for troops during the war in the north, acted as a transport centre for the weekly coach service to Manukau, and hosted political meetings. In 1843 the hotel was the venue for Auckland’s first theatrical performance – at that time hotels were the favoured venue for touring entertainments.
Most 19th-century hotels were located in colonial settlements or on transport routes.
An unusual attraction
The Spa Hotel complex in Taupō contains the only privately-owned historic wharenui (meeting house) in the country, Te Tiki o Tamamutu. Built by Te Arawa carver Wero Tāroi, the house was purchased by hotelier John Joshua, who assembled it in the grounds of the hotel in the late 1880s. It was converted to a dining room by another owner, breaking the tapu which forbids consumption of food inside wharenui. Cleared of all dining paraphernalia, it now functions primarily as a tourist attraction.
The arrival of New Zealand Company settlers in 1840 was followed by a spate of hotel building in Wellington. Trader and whaler Dicky Barrett established the first hotel, using a converted pre-fabricated cottage brought out from England by a passenger on the Adelaide.
In the South Island hotels flourished during the gold rushes of the 1860s. Hundreds of hotels opened throughout Otago, Nelson and the West Coast. Dunedin had five hotels in 1861; four years later it had 81. Many hotels closed once gold fever subsided.
Hotels soon developed on the country’s main transport routes. These were vital due to the poor state of the roads – lack of bridges and frequent floods often left travellers stranded overnight. Hotels acted as setting-off and arrival points for coach services and ferries.
The development of the railway network from the 1870s led to the construction of new hotels. Soon many towns and cities had a ‘Railway’ hotel.
Hotel keeping was commonly a pursuit of the middle classes, or those aspiring to join them. Barrett’s hotel in Wellington was taken over by Charles Suisted, a Swedish sea captain who remained in the hotel business for many years. The best-known early Dunedin hotelier was Shadrach Jones, an English doctor, but his hotel operations came to a halt in 1864 when he went bankrupt after promoting an all-England cricket tour of New Zealand.
By the latter decades of the 19th century, women were increasingly taking on the hotel-keeping role, sometimes after the death of their husbands. Some women started their own hotel businesses.