Topic: Requiem for a watering hole: The Bower

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The Bower Tavern is yet another earthquake-vanquished structure. I know little about the attractive wooden building but do have information on its predecessor, the first Bower Hotel.


In 1862, in New Zealand, John Paynton, 54, married Emily Williams who was about 18 years his junior. 1.

The couple dwelt on New Brighton Road, sometimes called the “Old Brighton Road’ because it was the first route to the seaside. Their house was on land owned by farmer and carpenter, Thomas Free, which stretched from the Avon to the New Brighton Racecourse, now Queen Elizabeth II Park..

The Payntons gained a wine and beer license; of their business a licensing meeting commented succinctly: ‘John Paynton, New Brighton, well conducted’. 2.

In 1872, boating men brought the Canterbury provincial government down to view the Avon’s polluted state. A journalist described how

… The little flotilla, when fairly underway, formed a very pleasant sight which was productive of much enthusiasm, mingled with chaff, on the part of a number of small boys on the bank …. 3.

At Payntons the guests consumed fruit and promised improvements. 4.

Also in 1872, businessmen tried to shock Central New Brighton into development. In the background were George Oram, hotelkeeper, and former Christchurch Mayor, William Wilson; in the forefront Joseph Harrop Hopkins, a Ferry Road storekeeper.

Hopkins bought land on both side of Seaview Road and established two hotels. The neglected Bar 25, till recent years the New Brighton Hotel, was designed by John Jacobsen and stands on the south side of the road near the beach. Hopkins’ paddle steamer, Brighton, brought the populace to the seaside. 5.

In March 1874, at Payntons, the capitalists sought to ‘shorten the distance from Christchurch to the significant … sea beach at New Brighton’ 6. so that the trip would take half an hour. This could be achieved through the erection of an Avon River at the end of the embryonic Wainoni Road.

‘The Nabob’, Sir John Cracroft Wilson, and provincial secretary, H. R. Webb, drove across the bridge in a trap. The opening of the first bridge east of Stanmore Road was dismissed thus by the Star: ‘New Brighton bridge. This bridge was formally opened to the public on Saturday afternoon. ’ 7.

The businessmen had, by now, been scattered. Hopkins, bankrupt in 1875, 8. was in his Woolston bolt-hole. William Wilson, a wife-beater, had also, in the civil courts, been exposed as swindler of Charles Turner’s estate. 9. He was a pariah.

George Oram had, on 3 April, died of cirrhosis of the liver. Black-plumed horses had borne the coffin from the New Brighton Hotel to the Stanmore Road bridge where it was met by the Licensed Victuallers’ Association and firing party and band of the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry. The latter played the ‘Dead March in Saul’ and the deceased’s horse, appropriately caparisoned, led the way to the Barbadoes Street Cemetery. 10.

The existence of the bridge gave the Payntons an expanded customer base. The Volunteers practised military manoeuvres in the area and, in the descriptions of these, newspapers described the structure as ‘Paynton’s bridge’. 11.

Thonas Free’s children stated that the hotel was in the front room of the house. There was no bar and customers sat when drinking. A silent clock bore the slogan ‘No tick’ and the rhyme:

My liquor is good, my measures are just.

I keep no books, I give no trust.

I have trusted many to my sorrow.

Try today and trust tomorrow. 12.

The dwelling was a tiny ‘rustic… house covered with ivy’ 13. On either side of the entrance stood a holly fence. In front there was an archway created from two whalebones. Whale-bone was plentiful on the beach and the populace decorated its homes with such bowers. 14. The younger Frees claimed that, from a list of names put to the Payntons, they chose the name ‘Bower Hotel’. It is likely that the couple chose the name because of the appearance of the place. 15.

The ‘Old brown cow’

The masses called the waterhole ‘the Old Brown Cow’. Rowing men, ‘dry as a wooden joss’ 16, consumed strawberries and cream, wine or ‘a long draught of nut brown ale’ 17. served ‘in a homely style’ 8. At the ‘Brown Cow’ a dip in the Avon was ‘indispensable’. 19.

In 1882 Emily was thrown from a spring cart. 20. The accident may have contributed to the couple’s decision to abandon the hotel. Pressure could also have come from Thomas Free who, fancying himself as licensee, approached the Avon Licensing Court seeking the grant of a full publican’s license. 21.

In 1884 Emily took over New Brighton Road picnic grounds, ‘The Pines’, a little below Baker Street. She told the public that she could provide tea, coffee and other refreshments, and that special arrangements could be made for pleasure and picnic parties for the use of the grounds. A saloon could be hired for entertainment. 22.

John Paynton, 90, died in August 1898. Emily, 80, died in March 1904. The couple were buried in the Linwood Cemetery. 23.

The rise of Thomas Free

Thomas, son of Thomas and Eliza Free, was born in England in 1844 and emigrated on the Grasmere in 1855. According to legend, on 16 December 1860, five men gathered at their properties near the Bower Hotel site. Crown Lands Commissioner William Guise Brittan came up the Avon on a small vessel and the group christened the area with the name ‘New Brighton’. Thomas Free senior was among those present. 24.

On 5 October 1867, Thomas junior, 23, married Sarah Ann Turner, 20; the pair remained a devoted couple. In his 1873 will, Thomas left his wife as executrix and sole beneficiary. Although he became a man of substance and fathered several children, Thomas did not alter his will; thus the document reveal nothing about the worldly goods which he accumulated. 25.

Thomas continued to provide the strawberries and cream menu, adding whitebait teas and ‘a tot of… rum straight from the barrel and well over-proof’. 26. He gained a full publican’s license, built a substantial hotel and provided lodgings for travellers and stables for their horses. During coroners’ inquests at the hotel, when juries and others were present, Thomas made a profit by providing refreshments. 27.

Thomas built a jetty in front of the hotel. Using worms as bait, the children caught eels which reached ‘from a man’s shoulder to the ground.’* Whitebait was sold at sixpence a quart. The hunt club brought its dogs. Thomas’s sons dragged aniseed-stained rabbit skins across the course which the dogs were to follow - ‘and how we used to love to see them come back to be fed when rabbits were thrown up in the air for them.’ *

Such was Thomas’ mana that the route which ran from south to north some distance to the east of the watering hole, that it was, in popular parlance, known as Frees Road. It became, officially, Racecourse Road and is now Bower Avenue.

Sporting activities

The New Brighton Beach Racing Club flourished in the 1880s.

Thomas Free’s affiliations were with the New Brighton Racing and Trotting Club and, at the modern QE II Park, he laid out a course, built a grandstand and served whitebait teas on the largest available dishes.

Thomas owned horses. These included ‘Young Irvington’, ‘a grand little horse … very thick set, [with] grand legs and a splendid temper’. 28.; and ‘Uncle Tom’. The latter did well at New Brighton; Lower Heathcote, Lancaster Park and Plumpton Park (where the Wigram airbase was eventually sited). Of one race a journalist commented: ‘Uncle Tom made all the running and won easily by 60 yards.’ 29.

In 1886, Free’s group formed the New Brighton Sports Company, intending to acquire the freehold of 75 acres of the racecourse and encourage ‘racing and other legitimate sports.’ 30. Free was a director. In 1894, 69 acres 1 rood and 23 poles, together with the buildings, were knocked down to another director, Henry Mace for 925 pounds. 31.

On many occasions, Thomas gained a conditional license to provide food and drink to race-goers. 32. On one occasion hunters assembled with hounds ‘at Mr. George King’s beautiful residence’ on Lake Terrace Road. 33. They hunted on Edward Reece’s Bottle Lake homestead and, at ‘Mr. Free’s Bower Hotel, the afternoon’s sport was brought to a close.’ 34.

The Burwood Hall

In 1891 Thomas built a structure, 60 feet by 25 feet, to the west of the hotel. Known as the ‘Burwood Hall’ or ‘Free’s Hall’, it was opened on 7 August, one hundred couples taking part in a ball ‘at which dancing was kept up till daylight.’ 35. The New Brighton Band, which made the hall its headquarters, played, 36. as did the Stanmore Band. Songs were sung, supper consumed in a spacious ante-room and ‘several toasts … heartily honoured’. 37. The building was used for political meetings, dances and skating, visitors coming from Burwood, Marshland and further afield. At the hall, there was staged Retaliation, a drama written by local baker and singer, Sidney Hawker. A journalist commented: ‘Notwithstanding the weather, there was a good attendance, the hall being filled. The performance met with so favourable a reception that it will be repeated at an early date.’ 38.

Licensing woes

In 1894, Christchurch, with a population of 31,454, had 55 licensed houses. Throughout the country there was a similar high number of hotels per head of population. Voters supported a general reduction in the number of licenses. 39. One Star correspondent stated: ‘I have, within the past week, seen men come out of respectable looking hotels so drunk that they reeled and staggered until they have fallen’. 40.

A June 1894 licensing committee meeting had to decide whether the Courtenay Arms or Bower would lose its license. Two petitions were put forward on behalf of the Bower Hotel, one by locals, the other by 200 boating men. The licensees spoke and heavyweights auctioneer George King supported Thomas. Thomas’ lawyer described how well the hotel was conducted, the excellent accommodation and how ‘a first rate table was always kept’. 41. The license of the Bower Hotel was granted. 42.

The decline of Thomas Free

In trap accidents, in 1891 and ’92, Thomas sustained injuries. 43. The big man’s health declined and, when he spoke to the licensing committee, he was very frail. On 30 November 1894, ‘after a long and painful illness’ 44., he died at 50. Many people attended the funeral. Thomas, ‘one of the first settlers in the district’ 45. had ‘earned the respect and esteem of a wide circle of friends’. 46. Thirty five years later, ‘Lucy’ reminisced that her father had thought that ‘Free of the Bower Hotel was the Father of New Brighton’. 47.

Sarah Ann became licensee but she too fell ill. While the hotel remained the property of the Free children, the license was passed to George Henry Pierce. Sarah Ann Free, 48, died on 8 July 1895. 48. A daughter, Eliza Catherine, 11, had died on 19 September 1888. 49. Thomas, Sarah and Eliza Free are buried in the Burwood Anglican Cemetery. 50.

Drunkenness …

Then as now publicans sold intoxicating liquid to people but were supposed to ensure that they did not become drunk. Even more important, they could not encourage people to become drunk. New Brighton was a wide wild country area served by two licensed premises – the New Brighton and Bower hotels. Until the beginning of the 20th century, there was no local policeman to enforce the rules

Thomas Free had intoxicated customers; perhaps he ensured that they always got home safely. In 1968 David Florance recalled a customer from his childhood, his uncle, John Kerr:

… otherwise the ‘Big Fellow’ … a very Viking, hairy-chested, a reddish spade beard, magnificent as he guided his team of horses along the furrows; a man bursting with vitality except when horse and sulky brought him home from the Bower. 51.

And more drunkenness

Some later licensees – managers rather than owners – were inept and, occasionally, criminal. Frank Mulholland was twice accused of breaching the licensing laws. 52. In a third case, in 1904, William Clinton, a well-to-do [Darfield] farmer,’ 53. came to town. Mulholland took the drunken yokel away, refusing to hand him over to his minders, employees of Matsons, the auctioneers. During the night, the visitor wrote cheques to the value of 150 pounds. In court, the magistrate stated that this was a typical case of the practice of ‘lambing down’. 54. Mulholland, no longer licensee, was fined 20 pounds, costs and four pounds witnesses’ expenses. 55.

The end of the first hotel

Between 2 and 3 a.m. on 16 November 1908, fire consumed the Bower and its contents; all that remained was a concrete horse trough. The hotel was insured for 400 pounds in the Imperial Fire Office, and the contents for 420 pounds in the Liverpool and London and Globe Office. 56

Rising of the phoenix

After the fire, a temporary bar was run from Thomas Free’s hall. A new hotel was built 16 chains east of the old structure, on the New Brighton Road-Racecourse Road corner, and operated till its demolition in 2011. 57.




Avon Road Board archives, Christchurch City Council Archives, Christchurch

Canterbury Provincial Archives, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch

Christchurch City Council scrapbooks, Christchurch City Council Archives

Liquor Licensing Archives, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch

Will of Thomas Free, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch


Campbell, Bruce Manson, All Saints’ churchyard, Parish of Burwood, 1979

Greenaway, Richard, Burwood, All Saints’ church, 1877-1977, 1977

Greenaway, Richard, Rich man, poor man, environmentalist, thief, 2000

Walsh, George W., New Brighton, a regional history, 1971

Information files

Hotels information file Aotearoa New Zealand Centre, Christchurch City Libraries


Canterbury Pilgrims’ and Early Settlers’ Association scrapbook, Christchurch City Libraries and Canterbury Museum’s Documentary Research Department

Entries on Thomas Free, John Paintin, Joseph Harrop Hopkins, William Wilson and George Oram in G. R. Macdonald dictionary at Canterbury Museum’s Documentary Research Department

Owles scrapbook, Christchurch City Libraries

Taylor, W. A. Manuscripts, Canterbury Museum’s Documentary Research Centre


History: New Brighton Silver Band:

New Zealand. Department of Internal Affairs, Births, deaths and marriages index

Papers past: N.Z. truth, the Star


North New Brighton. Published by the North New Brighton Residents’ Association, 1954


1. Births, deaths and marriages on-line index

2. ‘Christchurch annual licensing meeting,’ Star, 8 May 1872 p 2

3. Christchurch City Council newspaper scrapbooks.

 ‘Local and general’, Star, 21 December 1872 p 2

4. Ibid.

5.. ‘O-rua-paeroa’ : reminiscences of New Brighton, Star, 27 April 1896 p 2;

O-rua-paeroa: the pioneer days of New Brighton, ’ 8 May 1896 p 2;

 Lamb, R. C., From the banks of the Avon, 1981

6. Petition to the Superintendent regarding Avon River bridge, 1874, Canterbury Provincial Council archives; ‘Local and general’, Star, 28 March 1874 p 2

7. Letter from A. Blakiston to the sub-editors of the Lyttelton times and Press, 5 September 1876, Canterbury Provincial Council archives; ‘Local and general, ’Star, 11 September 1876 p 2; W. A. Taylor manuscripts.

8. See G. R. Macdonald biographical dictionary entry, Canterbury Museum’s Documentary Research Department

9. ‘Supreme Court ’, Star, 17 July 1876 p 2, 18 July 1876 p 2, 19 July 1876 p 2, 20 July 1876 p 2-3, 21 July 1876 p 2-3

10. ‘Military funeral’, Star, 7 April 1876 p 2

11. ‘The Volunteers’, Star, 25 May 1888 p 3; ‘The operations at New Brighton’, Star, 26 May 1885 p 3

12. Reminiscences of George Free and Sarah Anne Marriott. Copied by Richard Greenaway in 1978 when held by Karl NcGillivrat

13. Greenaway, Richard, Rich man, poor man, environmentalist, thief, 2000

14. ‘The lad from Tipperary’: Tom Gray’s reminiscences, Star, 31 May 1919 p 8

15. Reminiscences of George Free and Sarah Ann Marriott, op. cit.

16. ‘Reminiscences of New Brighton: its early history’, Star, 27 April 1896 p 2

17. Hotels information file

18. Ibid.

19. ‘New Brighton memories: No. 1,’ Star, 5 February 1895 p 2

20. ‘Local and general’, 8 December 1882 p 2

21. ‘Licensing court. Avon’, Star, 21 March 1882 p 3

22. ‘Advertisement’, Star, 9 April 1884 p 1

23. Christchurch City Council’s cemeteries database

24. Ferrand, B. F., ‘The borough of New Brighton: an experiment in local

 government’, M. A. thesis, Canterbury University College, 1951;

 Greenaway, Richard, Burwood, All Saints’ church, 1877-1977, Ch. 1

25. Will of Thomas Free

26. Hotels information file, op. cit.

27. See, for example, the inquest on the body of Enoch Barker: ‘Found drowned’,

 Star, 18 January 1892 p 4

28. ‘New Brighton Racecourse’, undated article, A. W. Owles scrapbook

29. ‘Sporting. Lancaster Park Trotting Club’, Star, 19 June 1893 p 1

30. ‘New Brighton Sports Company’, Star, 21 April 1886 p 4.

31. ‘Local and general,’ Star, 5 September 1894 p 3; Phyllis Kerr, ‘Colourful early

 owner of Games site’, Press, 20 November 1971

32. Liquor Licensing Archives

33. ‘Hunting. The Christchurch harriers,’ Star, 24 May 1886 p 3

34. Ibid.

35. ‘Latest locals’, Star, 8 August 1891 p 3

36. History: New Brighton Silver Band:

37. ‘Latest locals,’ op. cit.

 38. ‘Dramatic performance’, Star, 18 March 1892 p 3

See also ‘Latest locals ‘, Star, 3 March 1892 p 3; ‘New Brighton election’, Star, 30 July 1892 p 3, ‘Latest locals, ’ Star, 4 October 1892 p 3, ‘Avon Road Board’, Star, 3 May 1893 p 3

39. ‘Licensing in Christchurch’, Star, 9 April 1894 p 3; ‘Christchurch licenses’, Star,

 26 May 1894 p 4

40. ‘The Christchurch licenses’, Star, 28 May 1894 p 3.

41. Liquor Licensing Archives op. cit.

42.Local and general’, Star, 23 June 1894 p 5; ‘Licensing committee’, Star, 23 June

 1894 p 6

43. ‘Latest locals’, Star, 26 September 1891 p 3; ‘Latest locals’, Star, 10

 May 1892 p 3

44. ‘Deaths’, Star, 1 December 1894 p 4

45. ‘Funeral ’, Star, 4 December 1894 p 4

46. Ibid.

47. Canterbury Pilgrims’ and Early Settlers’ scrapbook

48. ‘Deaths’, Star, 9 July 1895 p 2

49. Campbell, Bruce Manson, All Saints’ churchyard, Parish of Burwood, 1979

50. Church register transcripts, Christchurch City Libraries; All Saints’ churchyard,

 Parish of Burwood, op. cit.

51. Greenaway, Richard, Burwood, All Saints’ church, 1877-1977, p

52. ‘An hotel case’, Star, 17 December 1901 p 2; ‘Christchurch’, Star, 18 August

 1903 p 3

53. ‘A lambing-down case’, Otago witness, 16 November 1904 p 89

54. Ibid.

‘Lambing down’ was the practice where a worker gave his cheque for the season to a publican. The publican would supply him with alcohol till the value of the cheque had run out.

55. Ibid

56. ‘Fire at Burwood. Bower Hotel burnt down’, Star, 16 November 1908 p 3

57. ‘Licensing committees: Avon,’ Star, 8 March 1909 p 1; ‘Licensing committees:

 Avon,’ Star, 5 June 1909 p 4

Reminiscences of George Free’s children, George Free and Sarah Ann Marriott.

Meeting of committees, 9 June 1891 p 3

The following renewal of licences were granted, the police reporting favourably in each case, Thomas Free, Bower Hotel, New Brighton.



Thomas was, from 1884, ‘mine host’ of the Bower Hotel. He was noted for the quality of his liquor which was ‘straight from the barrel and well over-proof’ and also because he put on whitebait teas and strawberries and cream. The rowing clubs so enjoyed Tom’s fare that they made the hotel their rendezvous. In 1894 their influence saved the hotel from closure when there was a general reduction in the number of liquor licences.

Star 10 June 1889 p 3

7 December 1894 p 3

Accidents, inquests &c.

8 March 1886 p 3

Old lady, Eliza Free, 70, wife of Thomas Free, dropped dead at her residence, London Street, Richmond, Sunday morning. Dr. Russell called and pronounced life extinct. Inquest to be held.

7 June 1888 p 3

Application for licence granted, Thomas Free, Bower Hotel, New Brighton

15 September 1900 p 9

First Four Ships

Mr.. and Mrs. William Free on a vessel.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Free on a vessel.

Avon Licensing Committee renewed license of Thomas Free, Bower Bower Hotel, New Brighton Road

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Requiem for a watering hole: The Bower

Suburb :Burwood and New Brighton