Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

09 October 2009

The Good Old Kiwi Pub: Introduction

I wrote and illustrated ‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’. It was published in 1995. It’s a snapshot of some New Zealand pubs as they were at the end of the 20th century. I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.

Title page.

There is a critical point at which Nature through gradual processes such as throttling creeper and encroaching lichen, blends with human artifact to produce Art. I like that. As an illustrator I take my delights from shape, texture, colour and the mildewy stains of dilapidation. Mottled brickwork, weathered timber, mossy masonry and rusted corrugated roofs enchant me. I paint and sketch tottering barns, old houses and crumbling public buildings adorned by all manner of public writing from graffiti to some surprisingly good or endearingly primitive examples of the sign-writer’s craft.

In the case of this book, I have found graphic satisfaction in a few of the hostelries and taverns that have survived - albeit scarred - the regional planner, the bulldozer, fire and that destructive process which breweries call ‘upgrading’. It is significant, I think, that nearly every pub I have illustrated is independently owned and owes the big breweries nothing. Independent publicans do not, as a rule, have the financial resources to ‘improve’ their premises by tearing down walls and fitting false façades, consequently their pubs remain more closely identifiable with their beginnings, and their old kauri beams and pine planks bend with the burden of their years to carry the stains of hospitality with ageing dignity. There used to be a poster in the London Underground for a famous brand of shoe polish (’Kiwi’?) which showed a pair of shining brogues above a slogan ‘They’re well-worn but they’ve worn well!’ That’s what I’m getting at.

There are only two city pubs in this book. The rest are country or provincial hotels and taverns. There’s a reason for that; I like to enjoy what I do and hanging around city streets isn’t one of them, I’m not that enamoured of metropolitan New Zealand. To me the best of this favoured country lies in its rural landscape and its country towns. There’s another reason: I’m a romantic. I like to picture what travel was like in this country in the early days and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how important country hotels were when the likes of Cobb & Co. were carrying travellers across a forbidding land of mountains, dense bush and the capricious, sometimes deadly streams that ran down and through them to the sea.

On one of my journeys in search of subjects for this and other works, I found myself overnight in Haast Township with the weather closing in fast. My work was done and all I then had to do was drive home to Auckland. Apart from food and fuel there was nothing to stop me travelling as far and as fast as freshness and the law would allow, so I drove from Haast to Picton in one day, crossed Cook Strait on the pre-dawn sailing next day and then directly to Auckland. The road was tar-sealed and uncluttered all the way and the journey was not only easy but entirely enjoyable. On my way I passed numerous old hotels or the sites of others long gone and reflected upon their role in the development of early New Zealand.

Derelict White Horse Hotel, Becks, Central Otago 
The journey I was making would, a hundred years ago, have been impossible. Indeed, it was not until November 1965 that there was a road connexion between Haast and Hokitika. Travel in the early days of European settlement was by sea between the major towns and apart from ancient Maori river routes and foot tracks, the development of inland routes was entirely a matter of short distance expediency, to link settlers with their nearest towns, to supply diggers on the goldfields or, perhaps, to facilitate movements of armed constabulary and militia from one garrison to another.

Once the demand for the movement of people and goods had grown sufficiently for roads wide enough for wheeled transport to be formed, a network of primitive routes would have been established. Any serious journey would have been a succession of relatively short day stages by horse or horse-drawn coach on rutted roads following, as far as possible (in order to maintain easy gradients) the contours of the land. There would have been few cuttings or tunnels, the tracks would have snaked appallingly around headlands and re-entrants, often teetering over terrifying precipices and crossing rocky fords. At unavoidably steep climbs or descents passengers might be asked to alight and, at best, walk behind the coach: at worst they would be obliged to assist, with groaning joints and bruised shoulders, slowly to rotate wheels slimy with mud and caramel clay. They might spend hours in rain or humid bush, attacked by sandflies and itching with grime, while a wheel was changed or the carriage was jacked up to replace a broken axle.

Little wonder that in those early days seaports had a pub on every corner, while along the narrow highways, hotels were closely and regularly spaced so that travellers of all ages, occupations and classes could find food and a bed for the night while the horses were rested. Those of a genteel disposition might affect an aloof indifference while all manner of itinerants, ne’er-do-wells or local workers drank, fought, gambled, danced or cursed the night away in the bar.

Over-nighting at a roadside hostelry would have been a great leveller and, as such, might most appropriately have exemplified what New Zealand was all about - equality. ‘…you can forget those ancient European airs and graces, they won’t wash here!’

Railways and greatly improved roads gradually reduced the importance of closely spaced travellers’ hotels, with their accommodation and dining rooms, lounge bars and facilities for stabling of horses. Today, the emphasis is upon destinations rather than stages along the way, and a highly developed network of motels and luxury hotels serves tourists and business travellers at their journeys’ ends. In one or two of the remaining old country hotels you can still get a hint of what life might have been like at the turn of the century - in hotels like the Brian Boru at Thames or the Mangonui Hotel - but most of them, with redundant upper storey bedrooms and their attendant spindly fire escapes, are simple taverns, offering, at minimum, beers and lagers to farm or factory workers, but often rising in sophistication to a ‘good table’ with fine food and wines, and achieving seven-day opening by allowing food and non-alcoholic drinks to feature on their menus as prominently as liquor.

Toe to toe with the changes wrought upon pubs by improved transport and communications are others both social and statutory. Drinking mixed with driving is legally and socially unacceptable these days, and while it’s true that the Sunday newspapers still carry plenty of reports of the public bar excesses of the previous night, things aren’t what they used to be: they’re getting better.

If you doubt me, read these edited extracts from Phil May’s ‘West Coast Gold Rushes’-

‘The number of hotels was commonly regarded as an index to prosperity…’

‘The presence of a barmaid was an undoubted stimulus to trade…’

‘Many of the bigger hotels provided a small orchestra in the evenings, for diggers loved to dance. Of necessity the style was “stag” or “buck” dancing…’(the first gay bars?).

‘Drunkenness was rife in the goldfield community. A large number of licensed hotels (102 in Hokitika in 1867) an unlimited number of unlicensed shanties, an unknown number of illicit stills, twelve local breweries (on the West Coast)… did not make for sobriety. Drunkenness was, of course, the colonial evil…’


I promised myself that I would not write a history book. That flaking paint and those distorted boards have a lot to answer for!

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ is neither a definitive survey of New Zealand hotels and taverns, past and present, nor a series of beer-breathed anecdotes or pen-portraits of public bar heroes - although I’ve had great fun turning up little snippets of history, some of which may turn out to be apocryphal! It is simply a collection of pubs that look interesting to me as an illustrator.

The pen and watercolour illustrations were done over five years to 1995, during which time many of the pubs have had new owners, and a new coat of paint. At the time of publication, one of them, the Rat Trap at Upper Takaka, had burned to the ground and so suffered the fate of most of the old hotels. There’s not too much one can do about that; sufficient to look at each drawing and say that that was how it was on the day I visited it. Nothing remains the same and, in time, nothing of the old buildings will remain at all. I’m happy to have captured just a few of New Zealand’s rural pubs of character as they were towards the end of the twentieth century.


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By Don Donovan