Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

27 October 2009

The Tin Hut, Tauherenikau

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.

My first experience of Tauherenikau was on a hot summer’s day at the nearby racecourse where a friend’s horse won its race. Later, under shady trees in the gardens, we celebrated with a champagne picnic out of the boot of his cream Chevrolet Impala (the one with the gold seats) and felt ourselves to be quite special. Heady days!

Many years later, while cruising down State Highway 2, two things about the Tauherenikau Hotel stopped me in my tracks. One was the bold brilliance of the lettering ‘THE TIN HUT’ on the roof, which screams itself halfway up the Wairarapa; the other was that fascinating door to nowhere with its Parisian canopy. It used to lead to a first floor balcony that became unsafe: now (it still opens) it’ll lead to a broken ankle if anybody’s daft enough to walk though it.

The first licencee, in 1857, was Thomas Hales, who also ran the ferry across the Tauherenikau River. It was quite a large establishment, having eighteen rooms. From around 1865 the hotel became inextricably entwined with horse racing. At that time the Ferry Reserve, which eventually became the site of the race course, was covered with scrub and holes made by the 1855 earthquake, and was considered ‘a dangerous piece of land to ride over’, but Robert Rowe, lessee of both the hotel and the reserve, reckoned that if it could be made safe for racing both the district, and the hotel, would benefit. Trustees were appointed but nothing much happened until a new owner of the hotel, C. Potts, offered to form and fence the course for them in return for a lease of the ground for 21 years at a small rental. His offer was accepted, the course was finished and the Wairarapa Racing Club had their first meeting at Tauherenikau in 1874.

Publicans came and went, a motley bunch. One, Robert Lucas, who was clerk of the course, is buried where the horses gallop; another, John Barlow, ran a hotel that was ‘badly conducted’ with ‘accommodation very indifferent’; and James Barber took off in a hurry leaving ‘numerous creditors’. On the other hand, in 1896, James Cress, an ‘all round sport’ owning ’several racehorses, his colours being blue and gold’, ran a popular hotel, ‘large and commodious’, at the back of which he had a substantial bottling establishment.

A big fire happened in 1925 and in order to maintain the licence a ‘Tin Hut’ was erected from which customers could be served until the new pub was built. This was a common practice, most such temporary arrangements were conducted from tin huts, but in the case of Tauherenikau, the name has stuck to the present day.
Tauwharenikau is the proper spelling of this place. It translates as ‘the whare [house] whose walls and roof are thatched with nikau fronds’. I’m quite sure that was never a description of the pub, even when it had a bush licence.


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By Don Donovan