19th-century Hotels: The Eagle Tavern, Wellington

I’m fascinated by the history of early New Zealand hotels — and there were a lot of them! While researching The Aerial Queen I sometimes found mention of the hotels that Leila Adair stayed in:

I found a letter written by Arthur B. Adair to the Wellington Town Clerk (asking for use of Newtown Park for a balloon ascent) in the Wellington City Archives, but the letter doesn’t have a specific address in Wellington. I like to think, however, that they may have stayed at the hotel once run by my great-great-grandfather, Conrad Deihl. When Conrad married in 1859, he gave his occupation as innkeeper and the newspaper report of his death in 1868 identifies the hotel as the Eagle Tavern. The family legend is that he went out to collect a debt and the fall may not have been an accident, but that’s another story…

Wellington Independent, 13 June 1868

I wanted to find out more about the Eagle Tavern, in particular, its exact location. The earliest newspaper reference to Eagle Tavern is from 1853, but it appears to have been established before this date. Advertisements for the Eagle Tavern and Bull’s Wellington Almanack 1864 refer to its location as Lambton Quay until 1865 when the south end of Lambton Quay (as far as Bond Street) was incorporated into Willis Street.

Willis Street, Wellington 1861. Ref: 1/2-029400-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23039328 The Eagle Tavern was about six buildings down from the Commercial (later Grand) Hotel on the right.

William McKenzie vacated the lease of the Eagle Tavern in 1853 and Conrad Deihl was the proprietor from at least 1859 until 1863, when he sold the lease to William Jones. During Conrad’s time, the Eagle Tavern became a notorious watering hole for soldiers from the Mount Cook Barracks.

The Colonist, 19 July 1861

Then, after a succession of short-lived tenancies and bankruptcy the Eagle was taken on by the theatrical impresario W.H. Foley, and a series of name changes followed:

Wellington Independent, 7 May 1867
Wellington Independent, 21 May 1867
Wellington Independent, 4 July 1868

In 1876, the Melbourne Hotel was rebuilt. Designed by architect Charles Tringham, it was one of Willis Street’s tallest buildings and required substantial excavation of the hill behind it. This interference with the escarpment resulted in a massive slip of 300 tons of rock, which all but demolished the hotel’s dining room (Source: Colonial Capital by Terence Hodgson).

Evening Post, 24 June 1876
Willis Street, Wellington. Miller, C O: Burton Brothers negatives. Ref: BB-2276-1/1-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22715410 [ca 1885-1888]
New Zealand Times, 21 August 1888

The 1897 Cyclopedia describes the facilities: The Oriental Hotel, which was originally known as the Melbourne, was established nearly twenty years ago. It is a large iron building, three stories in height and contains fifty rooms, of which at least some forty-two are bedrooms. Of the four large sitting-rooms, two are devoted to the use of ladies. The dining-room is on the ground floor, and is a really pretty apartment, splendidly lighted on three sides. Two large tables are placed down the middle of the room, and eight smaller ones ranged along the sides, the seating accommodation being sufficient for sixty-five persons. The Oriental Hotel has, under Mrs. Ormsbee’s management, become noted for its excellent luncheon provided from 12 to 2 p.m. daily, at a cost of 1s. per head. More than 100 persona take advantage of this specialty every day.

Photographer unidentified. Print showing the Oriental Hotel in Willis Street, Wellington. Ref: PAColl-10563-045-10 Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.

In 1901, the Oriental Hotel was gutted by fire and one man died the next day of his injuries. The hotel had been overcrowded, the fire-alarm failed to work, and the order to provide iron fire escapes had not been complied with — knotted ropes were the only means of escape.

Evening Post, 25 November 1901
This photograph was reproduced  in Old Wellington Hotels by Pat Lawlor, published by Millwood Press, Wellington, 1974, reprinted here with permission of the publishers. 

A new hotel was developed on the site, named the Adelphi which later became the Carlton Hotel. You can peruse a menu from 1950 here. Who else remembers having sippets with their soup? The Carlton, in turn, was demolished in the 1980s. Wellington City Archives locates the site as 44 – 46 Willis Street — now occupied by the Spark Building, directly opposite Chews Lane.

This post could have been much shorter if I’d found this wonderful map drawn by Louis Ward at the start of my research. It shows the original sections sold by ballot in London by the New Zealand Company in 1839, with the subsequent owners’ names in brackets. Zoom in to section 509 — owned by James Aked (C.Deihl).

All newspaper clippings from Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

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