A Brief History of bars in Wellington

Since the days when the first European settlers arrived on these fair shores, Wellington has seen its fair share of pubs and taverns come and go, but a few stalwarts have stood the test of time – unlike many of their patrons!

The Beatles on the balcony of the Hotel St George, circa 20 June 1964, during their New Zealand tour. Photo by Morrie Hill.
The Beatles on the balcony of the Hotel St George, 20 June 1964, during their New Zealand tour. Photo by Morrie Hill

The Royal Oak’s Hotel was a popular drinking house in the mid-1800s but the original building succumbed to fire in 1898 with two fatalities. It made a bit of a comeback, but ended its days as a rather insalubrious establishment, and is now the site of the Oak’s Complex on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Street.

Willis Street’s Hotel St George was a grand old establishment which was the brainchild of businessman John Plimmer in 1877, but was demolished in 1929 and rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the era. The building cost £100,000 and at the time was one of the biggest hotels in the country.

It’s also famous for hosting The Beatles during their 1964 tour of the country, but the throngs of mostly-female adoring fans meant they had to be secretly escorted through the bottle store to get into the hotel.

The Hotel St George still stands, but is now more focused on budget student and backpacker clientele.

View looking from Tinakori Road, toward the Shepherds' Arms Hotel in Thorndon. Photographed by Alexander McKay, circa 1895.
The Shepherd's Arms on Tinakori Road circa 1895. Photo by Alexander McKay

On Cambridge Terrace the Cambridge Hotel has been serving the local community since 1883, and also has claim over a famous guest with Queen Elizabeth II gracing the hotel with her presence during the 1963 royal tour.

Talking of old dames, the Shepherd’s Arms in Thorndon is one of the oldest pubs in Wellington, even though it’s had a fair few facelifts and name changes over the years.

In one of its guises, the Western Park Tavern will be remembered by many locals as a popular student drinking haunt through the 1970-1990s, and was the location where famous restaurateurs Mr Logan met Mr Brown as a young chef, but it started life (and is currently known) as The Shepherd’s Arms.

Opening in 1870, the hotel was a popular stop for the local coaches, where travellers could get “refreshments” and horses could be re-shod in the nearby Leyden’s Shoeing Forge.

Patrons can still get “refreshments” at the refurbished Shepherd’s Arms and Speights Ale House, but they don’t have to travel so far or so hard to get them these days!

Intersection of Thorndon Quay and Mulgrave Street, Thorndon, Wellington, in 1866, photographed by William Henry Whitmore Davis.
The Thistle Inn in the centre in 1866. Photo by William Henry Whitmore Davis

But the most famous ‘old’ pub in the capital is The Thistle Inn. Built on Mulgrave Street in 1840, it was overlooking the beach at the time and received the second liquor license issued in New Zealand.

Following the 1855 earthquake its prime beachside location changed dramatically but the pub still stood. Even after a fire in 1866, the inn kept its liquor license going even though it closed its doors for six months during the rebuild.

This fact caused controversy when discussion came up about the country’s oldest pub in 2008, as the Upper Moutere Inn near Nelson tried to claim the title claiming that they’d been serving non-stop since 1853 – but the Hospitality Association awarded the title to The Thistle Inn as its doors and stairs were original, and its license hadn’t lapsed since the day it opened.

Katherine Mansfield was also a regular at The Thistle Inn, and wrote about it in her prose – so let’s leave the last word to the grandest of Wellington’s dames.

“So we dined somewhere and went to the Opera. It was late, when we came out into the crowded night street, late and cold. She gathered up her long skirts. Silently we walked back to the Thistle Hotel, down the white pathway fringed with beautiful golden lilies, up the amethyst shadowed staircase.”

Leves Amore, 1907

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Images courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library.