Gilmer Hotel (Former)
43 Gresson Street, Greymouth
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 2
Private/No Public Access
4th April 2008
Extent of List Entry
The registration comprises the Gilmer Hotel (Former), its fixtures and fittings and the land in Pt Secs 82-85 Town of Greymouth, Westland Land District.
West Coast Region
Pt Secs 82-85 Town of Greymouth (CT WS5A/541), Westland Land District.
Te Poutini, the west coast of the South Island, was of special interest to Maori because of its rich pounamu (greenstone) resources. Near the mouth of what is now known as the Grey River, was the Mawhera Pa, a fruitful food gathering site with the river providing ready access into the Grey Valley. In the wake of information from pioneering explorers Heaphy and Brunner, the Nelson Provincial Government sought surveys of the West Coast to assess the area's potential for settlement and resources. Coal caused the first excitement, but it was the possibility of finding substantial gold deposits that brought the massive influx of hopeful diggers to the area in 1864. The initial prospectors in the early 1860s had sought gold in the Buller region and around the Taramakau River until news in 1864 of rich deposits further south around the Totara and Mikonui Rivers coincided with a reduction in the ease of working the Otago gold fields. Prospectors flooded into the area. Europeans had already found the Grey River mouth a convenient place for settlement with the new arrivals now journeying by sea or trekking over the alps and down the river valleys to the coast.
In March 1857, the first ship the Emerald Isle sailed into the Grey River, identifying the river mouth as a potential harbour. Like all the Westland rivers flowing into the Tasman Sea, gravel deposits formed a bar at the entrance. Although this necessitated considerable navigational skill, the port at Greymouth became of great importance for export of products, import of essential supplies and as an arrival point for settlers. The formal Arahura Deed of Purchase was completed 21 May, 1860 leaving the vendors with 10,000 acres (4,050 hectares) of reserve, including the Mawhera pa site. In 1864 the first shipment of coal from the Brunner mine left the port and a small settlement began on the south side of the river, later Mawhera Quay, with two supply stores established here. Through that year there was dramatic growth because of the gold rush. The typical, rapidly constructed buildings of canvas, rough timber and corrugated iron appeared along this water front. A number of hotels were rapidly established to provide both accommodation for the influx of prospectors as well as liquor and entertainment.
The stories of the West Coast's great number of hotels are legendary. In Hokitika in 1867 there were 102 licensed hotels, while a Greymouth Directory of 1866 lists a total of 61 hotels in the town. Along Mawhera Quay at that time there were nine hotels in one short block, with several adjacent to one another. Many seekers of gold rapidly realised that selling the 'liquid gold' was a more lucrative proposition than prospecting. Twelve West Coast breweries were soon established, together with a number of unlicensed shanties and illicit stills. The drinking capacity of those first, hard working, often short-term settlers is well known and right through the nineteenth century this reputation continued, with tales of later licensing regulations being ignored. The hotels in colonial and gold mining days doubled as halls for meetings and entertainment, playing a major part in the lives of the settlers.
One of Greymouth's renowned historic buildings is the Gilmer Hotel (Former), built on the corner of Gresson and Arney Streets around 1905. It replaced the original Gilmer, built circa 1868 on the western corner of Mawhera Quay and Tainui Street. It was upgraded over the years, becoming the principal hotel in town with 52 rooms including 39 bedrooms, 8 sitting rooms, a dining hall, a billiard room and a sample room.
Hamilton Gilmer was one of five brothers who migrated from Ireland and eventually owned hotels in Greymouth, Cobden, Charleston, Westport, Ahaura, Reefton, Nelson, Christchurch and Wellington, individually, or together as the Gilmer Brothers. Their hotel 'chain' made them a significant business group in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Hamilton Gilmer bought the Prince of Wales Hotel in 1868, changed its name to the Gilmer and then enlarged and developed it. Contemporary photos held at History House, Greymouth, show it as a large, two-storeyed timber building fronting its prominent corner site. Hamilton Gilmer moved to Wellington in 1886 where he continued to invest in and establish hotels, while further expanding his business interests and his civic standing. He was a strong supporter of Prime Minister Richard John Seddon, a long time acquaintance, and was a member of the Legislative Council. His financial interests remained in the West Coast buildings that were now under independent management. Thomas Oxenham became the publican of the Gilmer Hotel in 1896 and is recorded in Wise's Directories as continuing in this role for a decade. In 1900 the Gilmer was acclaimed as the largest and grandest hotel on the West Coast. After a fire is reputed to have destroyed this imposing building in 1902 it was closed and when it was finally demolished in 1906 it was stated that it had 'stood as a landmark' for 38 years.
It was decided not to build a new hotel on the large site that the Gilmer had occupied. It seems apparent that the Gilmer Brothers were involved in the proposals for a replacement hotel, and probably retained some financial interests, though none is documented. This was frequently the case when a hotel was sold with the family interest continuing as mortgagors. Despite this peripheral connection, the new hotel was named the Gilmer, probably because benefits were expected of the reputation which the name had established. Ownership of the land on which the replacement building was sited was out of the Maori Reserve and had a freehold title. It was first purchased in 1866 by Peter Bell Cameron, hotelier of Greymouth and remained in this family until 1906 when it was transferred to John Geiseking, hotelier, on 11 August 1906. It may be that the new Gilmer Hotel continued under the management of Thomas Oxenham in the initial years. No evidence has been found to show that the Cameron family operated a hotel on their land. It seems likely that they did so and this would mean that a hotel operated on this site for about 140 years.
The reason for the change of location for the Gilmer is not clear, but the 'down-river' end of town had seen little commercial development since the February flood of 1872, which removed most of the buildings from Richmond Quay, and since then there had been considerable port development in that zone. Although it was not out of the flood area (as late as 1988 floodwaters would flow 1.5m deep in the Gilmer bar) the new freehold site outside the Maori reserve was considered advantageous. The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel (now the Duke Backpackers) in Guinness Street, described in January 1905 as 'newly built', was also a replacement of an 1874 timber structure. At this time Greymouth's population was approaching 4,000, re-growing after the post-gold rush decline and the number of hotels had reduced to eighteen in the widely spreading town. The port had expanded significantly to cater for the increasing volume of coal and timber that was being exported and this economic boost secured the town's viability. The opening of the Otira Tunnel in 1923 allowed products to be transported by rail to Canterbury and beyond, but exports from the port continued.
There is some confusion regarding the year when the new hotel was built and completed. For example the 1906 Cyclopaedia of New Zealand contained a description of the old hotel as if it was still operating; however, it is likely that the entry had been written for the 1899 edition and was never changed for the later volume. About the same time as the old Gilmer Hotel was being removed, the newspaper was carrying advertisements for the 'Amazon giantess' Abomah, said to be the tallest woman in the world and 'a living colossus', appearing at the Gilmer Hotel. Unlike most local hotel advertisements it did not give the hotel's location, but presumably it was the new building with its transferred name, as the original was on the point of being demolished. This use of the hotel reflects the continued use of hotels for entertainment in the gold fields' locations as had been the norm since the days when dancing girls were the prime attraction.
It has been stated that the Premier, R.J. Seddon opened the new hotel shortly before his death in July 1906, but this is not mentioned in newspaper accounts of his West Coast visit in January that year. However, because of Seddon's long connection with the Gilmer family, his involvement in a possibly informal opening can be accepted as claimed.
Known as 'The Brick House', the new Gilmer became a working and sports persons' hotel, patronised largely by fishermen, wharf workers, railways staff, miners and visiting seamen. Over the twentieth century its role became increasingly that of a social and drinking venue, demonstrating its role as part of the West Coast's renowned 'pub culture' with this building considered by many residents as their 'local'. Publicans included former All Blacks Frank Freitas and Ron King, the latter employing Cliff Marsh, a former national heavyweight boxing champion, as barman. From 1939 to 1985 the Gilmer was one of many West Coast hostelries owned by Westland Breweries. This company had a significant presence on the West Coast (and beyond), both in terms of its contribution to the local economy and the popularity of its product. It developed with the amalgamation of a number of small breweries established from 1868. In the 1970s it was taken over by Dominion Breweries and is now known as Monteith's.
Among the longest serving licensees were Raymond (Tunny) and Marie Williams from the 1960s until the 1980s during the period of the brewery's ownership. They were succeeded in the 1990s by Graeme and Wendy Larsen and it was from this period that there was recognition that the traditional accommodation role for hotels, that had been a large part of the original hotel's fame, had changed. Greymouth still has about six old hotel buildings along Mawhera Quay, some continuing with public bars. Restaurants with liquor licenses are common now while motels and major modern hotel complexes have largely taken over the accommodation role once held by the town's numerous hotels. The Gilmer, its near contemporary the Duke of Edinburgh and other long established hotels now provide backpackers' accommodation, a tendency which can be seen throughout New Zealand. The Gilmer has now become Neptune's International Backpackers with its bar retained along with many features which identify it as one of Greymouth's much revered old hotels.
Historical Significance or Value
The Gilmer has historical significance because of its links to the chain of hotels established by the Gilmer brothers, stretching through the West Coast to Christchurch, Nelson and Wellington. The first Gilmer Hotel (1868) in Greymouth, at the corner of Mawhera Quay and Tainui Street, was among the town's finest at a time of prosperity. Its successor (the subject of this report) though owned and operated by a different proprietor, continued with the earlier Gilmer Hotel's reputation and status. Built c.1905, it successfully operated as one of the town's most prestigious hotels beyond what had been the original town centre around Mawhera Quay. Its location illustrates the business area's development as the port area expanded downstream and grew in importance.
ARCHITECTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OR VALUE:
Greymouth's former Gilmer Hotel has architectural significance, dating from the early 20th century when Greymouth was developing from its gold rush town timber-and-iron origins into a well-built town incorporating a greater percentage of 'permanent' material structures. The first buildings were erected in haste to cater for the swelling population and indicated little concern for appearance or durability. By the turn of the century, when the earlier timber structures had proved vulnerable to frequent floods and the town was establishing itself as a permanent settlement, the design and construction of the building reflects traditional hotel planning but with the more substantial construction material of plastered brick. With the ready availability of timber the use of permanent materials developed slowly and this is one of the town's early examples. The two-storeyed building is well proportioned and features some fine iron lacework on the verandah. Minor internal changes have not greatly impacted on the hotel's overall design.
SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE OR VALUE:
As a hotel that catered for a wide, mostly working class clientele, the Gilmer has great social significance. It is one of Greymouth's large number of hotels which has contributed to the widely held view of West Coasters as heavy drinkers. This has evolved to the concept of the West Coast's particular 'pub' culture, with hotels as principal social gathering places. The Gilmer's publicans, who included two former All Black rugby players, were renowned in their time and remembered long after their involvement here. It has been claimed that the New Zealand Premier, Richard John Seddon, opened the hotel, although this has not been verified. Seddon visited the West Coast in January 1906 for the occasion of turning of the first sod on the Westport-Inangahua Railway. He had long been acquainted with the Gilmer Brothers, remaining in political contact with Hamilton Gilmer in Wellington. He had frequently stayed at the original Gilmer Hotel and would have had an interest in this new hotel that continued the Gilmer's name and tradition of hospitality.
Category of historic place (section 23(2)): Category II (Two)
Criteria: a, b, g and k.
a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspect of New Zealand history.
The Gilmer Hotel is an example of the many hotels built in Greymouth, initially to cater for the needs of the great tide of gold prospectors who rushed to the West Coast in the mid-1860s. This hotel, built in 1905, was constructed at a time when Greymouth was becoming the key settlement in Westland. The need for numerous hotels had continued over the decades in a town where liquor consumption was high and a distinct 'pub culture' had evolved. The Gilmer reflects a period when the port of Greymouth, which had been established during the gold rush 40 years earlier, was becoming one of the country's leading coal and timber ports, before the opening of the Otira rail tunnel in 1923 diminished its importance.
b) The association of the place with persons or ideas of importance in New Zealand's history.
It is associated with the Gilmer brothers, owners of one of the country's first hotel chains. Hamilton Gilmer, who rapidly established hotels in Greymouth and the West Coast brought prominence to the Gilmer name in the region before moving to Wellington in 1881 where his wealth and status increased. One of the brothers, Sam Gilmer, was well known as the owner of Wellington's Royal Oak Hotel and as a leading mining speculator from the 1880s to the 1920s. Among the later publicans was Ron King, one of the great All Black forwards of his era and captain against the 1937 Springboks. The building has a possible association with 'King Dick' Seddon, New Zealand's longest serving prime minister.
g) The technical accomplishment or value or design of the place.
The hotel is significant as it is one of Greymouth's early buildings constructed from permanent materials (concrete and brick). It has survived two major earthquakes and countless smaller tremors. It is a good example of an early twentieth century hotel with its fine proportions and typical planning. Its lace iron work and ornate verandah posts are notable design features, still almost completely intact.
k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical or cultural complex or historical or cultural landscape.
The hotel forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex as one of Greymouth's numerous hotels and part of the West Coast's renowned 'pub culture'. Nearby in Gresson Street there are two other distinguished heritage buildings. These are the former Grey County Council Building, built in1924 with an earlier timber storage and stable block remaining alongside, and the former Harbour Board Office, 1885, currently used by the Port Company.
Viewed from the street, the hotel is immediately recognisable as an early twentieth century structure. It is a two-storeyed rectangular building with hipped corrugated iron roof and it dominates this section of Gresson Street with its location at the prominent corner with Arney Street. Gresson Street extends away from the town centre. Near neighbours of heritage value and architectural quality are the former Grey County Council offices (1924) where History House is now located, and the former harbour Board Office (1885), now occupied by the Port Company.
The verandah and balcony across the principal façade of the Gilmer Hotel are supported by decorated iron columns and feature cast iron filigree, most of which remains. The symmetry of the double-hung, timber-framed sash windows that articulate the street frontage remains largely as built. Some changes have been made in the positioning of exterior doors and the shape of the balcony roof and decorative detailing around the window frames has gone. The timber corbels that support the roof framing have been retained on the northern and eastern facades. Windows on the ground floor of the east wall have been replaced with modern aluminium ones. These minor changes have not diminished the overall historic external appearance of the building.
Downstairs are the former bar (now a lounge room) and bedrooms, with most of the upstairs comprising bedrooms. The interior has been greatly modified, with recent panelling widely used and ceilings lowered in some places, but the upstairs doors may be original apart from stained plywood covering the panels.
Hotel built to replace the original 1868 Gilmer.
Brick exterior plastered.
A series of minor interior modifications. The iron on the balcony roof has been replaced and the original bull nosed form is lost.
Concrete foundation, plastered brick walls, corrugated iron roof.
17th July 2007
Report Written By
Pam Wilson, Les Wright
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1906
Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 5, Nelson, Marlborough, Westland, 1906
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Harry Evison, 'James Mackay', Vol.1. Bridget Williams Books, Department of Internal Affairs
Don Donovan, The Good Old Kiwi Pub. Saint Publishers, Auckland. 1995
Grey River Argus
Grey River Argus
17th January 1906, p.2, C9, general news.
John Hewstone, The Hotel That Sam Built, self-published, limited edition. 2002.
Philip Ross May. The West Coast Gold Rushes, 1962.
Second (revised) edition. Pegasus Press, Christchurch 1967.
James McNeish, Tavern in the Town, A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1984 [first published 1957]
A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region office
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.