Great Kiwi Pubs: Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell

In this extract from The Great Kiwi Pub Crawl, Jono Corfe and Ned Bartlett look at the history of Russell's Duke of Marlborough Hotel

Russell's Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Picture / Supplied

35 The Strand, Russell
Est. 1827

If it wasn’t for the fact that this pub has burned down four times (three times accidentally and once by act of war), the Duke of Marlborough Hotel would be New Zealand’s oldest pub. Forest-carpeted hills surround the turquoise waters of the Bay of Islands, where small, tranquil waves seem to gently drift up stony beaches before lazily flopping to their end while birds make only the most perfunctory of movements in the bright sunshine in between stress-free dining. Peacefulness imbues Russell, as it has mostly done for hundreds of years of human habitation, but for a brief time it wasn’t all delightful, airy afternoons and languid avian repast.

Russell cracked with gunfire, roared with cannon shot and flickered with firelight as conflict-fuelled flames took hold of buildings.The otherwise peaceful Northland air filled with cursing and the sound of carousing colonial reprobates shaking off months of confinement aboard ships offering prison-like conditions.

Russell was once named Kororareka and was also given the sobriquet "the hellhole of the Pacific".

Sitting as if on sleepy watch looking out over this part of the Bay of Islands is a grand old dame of New Zealand’s pubs; curiously the pub is referred to as "she" by its owners, and she has certainly seen some travails in her nearly 200-year history.

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It is a recorded fact that the Duke holds the first recorded hotel licence in New Zealand, which still graces the wall of the restaurant bar, dated 1840 in faded handwriting. However, the original hotel was slightly older than that, and first established in 1827 by a man described by author James McNeish in his anecdotes of New Zealand pubs as "convict, profligate and publican in the lair of whalers; yet a public spirited man who in 1838 subscribed ten shillings . . . rather more than one or two of the missionaries contributed toward the building of the first chapel".

John Johnson founded his grog shop when New Zealand was still a colony of New South Wales, and named it after the hero of the Battle of Blenheim. The first Duke was altogether a simpler affair, barely recognisable from the slick hospitality establishments of today. In the 1830s all that was needed to be branded an ale house was a roof and grog — ale of a sort, rum, brandy, gin and port predominantly, but anything with a decent octane level and a willingness to sell it to a group of hardened carousers and ratbags who would have present-day district licensing authorities soiling themselves with righteous indignation before racing down the road for an injunction. These were the early days when open flames lit temporary buildings and sometimes destroyed them, too. As with the first Duke, these buildings were duly resurrected to serve their purpose.

Picture / Supplied

Life in Kororareka eventually settled down in the time of the luminaries whose names such as Hobson, Busby and Grey are now common to all New Zealanders, but still the young Duke of Marlborough had its tribulations. It was burned to the ground by Hongi Hika in 1845 before again falling to fire 30 years later, and once more in the 1930s.

Pubs burning to the ground was a tragically common fate, some by design, some by accident. Today’s Duke of Marlborough has provided refuge and comfort for boaties and locals alike and been a New Year party place, but it is no secret that she was barely functional as a day to day business and slowly falling to pieces. Calling her saviours a consortium suggests an element of mercenary overhaul by corporate raiders who would mark her up, strip her assets and sell off the grand dame’s pearl earrings before moving on to their next victim. The truth is very different. Anton and Bridget Haagh, Jayne Shirley and Riki Kinnaird were Kiwis in London who had a vision. The Otago graduates had forged professional careers both here and in Europe, and resolved to take a marquee business and make it their own.

For each couple it was a chance to return to their homeland and set themselves up in a new life in a perfect place to raise their children. Owning and operating the Duke of Marlborough would be a labour of love. And labour is right. Suggesting the place needed a bit of spit and polish would be understating things. Imagine ringing your local electrician and asking them to do a complete rewire on a building that is knocking on for 80 years old, then replacing the roof.

Couple this with other expenses, like shipping everything needed across on a ferry, and then multiply everything by how much bigger you think this pub is than your house . . . and then multiply that by two; you’re probably then close to the eye-watering figure needed to overhaul the Duke . . . but probably not. Add in costs for renovating accommodation, head-hunting staff who can do the old girl justice, then rub your eyes and thank the Almighty you and your friends didn’t carry through on that bond to buy a pub and make it your own.

The Duke had a man-sized hole in her roof and the entire side of the pub was leaning on two pillars. The bar was well loved but not well maintained; it’s not a great start but certainly emblematic of a common struggle throughout the country.

• This edited extract is printed with permission from The Great Kiwi Pub Crawl by Jono Corfe and Ned Bartlett. Published by Random House NZ, $60.

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