Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

28 October 2009

Royal Tavern, Featherston

I wrote and illustrated ‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’. It was published in 1995 and was 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.

Upon entering Featherston after negotiating the numbing loops of the Rimutaka Highway one of the first things you notice is the Royal Tavern squatting solid and grey like a land-based battleship on the southern side of Revans Street. Impressive and reassuring, it seems to exemplify the essence of the town.

The infuriating thing is that as soon as you try to find out something of the pub’s history nobody seems to have any clear answers. One authority writes ‘We have been unable to establish the date… or for whom it was built, but in 1869 the proprietor was John Feast.’ Another reads ‘Early hotel licencees included Mr W. Buckeridge, of the Royal Hotel, which was built about 1870 . . .’ And if you ask why it sports the coat of arms of Queen Victoria they’ll tell you it’s because it’s called ‘The Royal’ or ‘Because the Prince of Wales visited’. I prefer to think it’s because it was a staging post for the Royal Mail coaches.

The first pub burned down and was replaced by the present building in 1893. A photograph in the ‘New Zealand Cyclopaedia’ of 1906 proves that it has hardly altered in nearly a century. It was then described as having thirty-five well furnished rooms, the best liquors and accommodation, a good table, being lighted by ‘a private installation of acetylene gas’ and having ‘up-to-date fire escape appliances.’ In an age of motels it’s now a tavern and most of the upstairs rooms are empty.

Featherston grew when, instead of taking the Palliser Bay route to the Wairarapa, travellers from Wellington could confidently cross the Rimutaka Range by road or, later, pass through it by rail. The first settler, in 1846, was Henry Burling and the Maori settlement of Paeotumokai was Anglicized to ‘Burlings’. Henry successfully requested a bush licence for a ‘house of refreshment… at the Wairarapa side of the Rimutaka Mountain’ and so became the town’s first landlord in 1849.

It wasn’t long before things became more formal and, around 1854, the first Superintendent of Wellington Province formally chose the town site and generously allowed it to be named Featherston after him. (With delightful pomposity most of its streets were also named after his colleagues on the council). Burling, not very well treated and probably a bit fed up, left town in 1860 and died, much later, in Waikanae in 1911. He was 110.


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By Don Donovan