History Ngā Kōrero Nehe

Robert Hannah
Robert Hannah about the time he lived in Antrim House. Image: Antrim House Collectionexpand/collapse

Robert Hannah and his family

Robert Hannah (1845-1930) was born in County Antrim, Ireland on the family farm. He was apprenticed to a bootmaker as a youth. A family legend says that an argument with his father caused him to leave home and emigrate to Australia at about 18. However, given the times and circumstances he would have faced as one of four sons on a small farm, emigration was always a possibility.

About three years later, Robert Hanna* was headed to New Zealand, arriving at Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island. Hokitika was booming with the gold rush, and no doubt this, or the business opportunities it offered, attracted the young man. He is known to have settled in Charleston, about 27 miles south of Westport but did not immediately work at his trade as a bootmaker until he had sufficient funds to open his first shop in 1868.

By 1873, the gold output from Charleston was dropping, the population declining and within a few months Robert was on his way to Wellington. It may be that he was planning to head to California, perhaps following the gold miners, but changed his mind, and remained in Wellington for the rest of his life.

Advertising in The Evening Post during June 1874 announced the opening of Robert Hannah & Co on Lambton Quay. The business prospered quickly and by 1879 there was another branch (and factory) in Cuba Street, followed by stores in Molesworth Street and Willis Street a few years later. By 1897, there were 10 stores in the North Island, set up with the assistance of Robert's younger brother, William, who had come out from Ireland in 1879.

In 1875, he married Hannah Ferguson (1852-1928); a milliner recently arrived from Ireland via Melbourne. Little is known of Hannah, why she emigrated, or how and when the couple met. Robert and Hannah had eight children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. Antrim House would be the third house in Boulcott Street that the Hannah family called home. They lived for a time in the central city, Khandallah, later keeping a small weekend cottage there, and a farm in the Hutt Valley that Robert would visit regularly, bringing produce home. 

Hannah's unmarried sister, Jane, came out from Ireland to help her sister with the supervision of the household. She remained with the family for the rest of her life, outliving Robert, Hannah and five of their children. 

The Hannahs were regular attendees at St John's Church in Willis Street, and Robert served on its management committee for 25 years. He was interested in the orphanage and other church institutions, the Boys Institute and YMCA. While living in Khandallah, he was a member of the Onslow Borough Council, one of few public involvements outside his business.

By 1898 the family had moved back to Boulcott Street, to a house remembered as Tera tangata, located on property adjacent to where Antrim House is today. They acquired this section in 1901, and Robert commissioned Thomas Turnball and Sons to design the new house. Construction commenced in 1904, and Robert, Hannah, their seven children (mostly all adults by now), Aunt Jane and three servants moved to their opulent new home in 1905. 

Although Robert was a manufacturer and retailer of footwear, he was also an importer, and claimed this was the profitable side of the business. The top floor of the Cuba Street premises was originally a small factory but by the early 1890's it had become too small, and the "Palace G" boot factory (five floors) was built behind the Lambton Quay premises. This building was designed by Thomas Turnball, and began a long business relationship between the two men. Some 124 staff were employed here, and its weekly output was about 3000 pairs of boots - or about half the boot trade in New Zealand at the time.  By 1908, business was so good that a combined factory/warehouse (2 floors) was built behind the Cuba Street premises. This was further expanded when adjoining properties were purchased. The building was also the company's head office for many years.

By the time of his death, there were 19 branches in the North Island and 11 in the South Island. He was certainly one of the country's wealthiest citizens, who had the reputation for being a shrewd and hard businessman. None-the-less, he was proud of his staff and paid them above the going wage, even going so far as to secretly place orders with the firm to keep up production and thus keep staff employed as the Depression years approached.

Hannah herself kept poor health during later years, and was usually confined to bed. She died before her husband in 1928. Less than two years later, Robert caught pneumonia after a visit to the farm and died at home a short time later, aged 85. He is remembered by his grandchildren as a vigorous man who had never retired or given up his interests and who had never "behaved like an elderly person who was failing".

His death meant that Aunt Jane was the last member of the family still living at Antrim House, drawing to a close its time as a family home. She went to live with her nieces and nephews, none of whom wished to live in such a large mansion. Double death duties incurred by the short space of time between their parents' deaths meant a decision needed to be made by the family, and this was to herald a new era for the house.

Hallway at Antrim House
Hallway during the 1940s. Image: Antrim House collection expand/collapse
A gracious home.... a colourful history, a thousand stories.

Later Uses: Hotel and Hostel

As the economic depression deepened in 1931, the remaining family was in a quandary. It was hardly the best time to sell yet double death duties were a significant onus. In consultation with the Public Trust which was administering the will, it was decided to lease Antrim House as an exclusive residential hotel.

Mrs Florance Radcliffe, a widow with two young sons became the proprietor. She had exciting plans for Antrim House, and things looked promising. Guests were generally professional people and no expense was spared in creating a high class and comfortable establishment. Certainly, the house enjoyed an excellent reputation for its high standards, smartly dressed staff and quality of cuisine, but guests were often squeezed in doubling or tripling what would otherwise have been considered normal occupancy levels. The reason for this quickly became clear.

Mrs Radcliffe struggled to pay the bills throughout the three years of the lease. She had put money of her own into the refurbishing of the house, some of which was in expectation of receiving an insurance payment from her husband's death which was subsequently disputed and took some 12 months to resolve. Eventually, the Public Trust stepped in, the rent was reduced, and a public accountant took over the business finances. Mrs Radcliffe did not take up the option of a two-year renewal of the lease when in expired in 1934.

Antrim House was leased to Gertrude Wimberley, who continued to manage it as a high-class private hotel. Very little is known of her and her husband, Jack or how she came to take on the lease.

Guests were still mostly professional people who stayed long-term including the Bradleys (National Cash Register Company), the Johnsons (Dunlop Tyres), the Fotheringhams (Bank of New Zealand) and the Carters (McKenzies Shops) - a snapshot of the who's who of the New Zealand business world would find themselves around the dining table each day. Kathleen (nee Hannah) and her husband, Edward Liddle lived here until Edward's death, occupying her mother's former bedroom on the second floor.

Mrs Wimberley turned it into a successful business, and reportedly was reluctant to let prospective buyers see over the house when Antrim House was finally put on the market in 1938.

Fire at Antrim 1941
Smoke billows from the turret window, July 1940. Image: Antrim House Collectionexpand/collapse

The Hickson Years

At some time during the Radcliffe or the Wimberley years, Marion & Keith Hickson visited a friend staying at Antrim House. Mrs Hickson was charmed by Antrim House and commented that she would love to live in it. Much later, Keith paid a visit to Wellington and discovered that Antrim House was for sale. He wasted no time - it was quickly purchased and remained in the Hickson's ownership from 1938 until 1949.

The Hicksons managed Antrim House as a bed & breakfast hotel, with mostly long-term guests. There were occasions when they picked up the overflow from the St George and other hotels. Life was much like being part of a large family - there were social occasions, group outings and great friendships developed between the guests.

Marion Hickson looked after the grounds, and one day in 1939 while working in the garden with Keith, they were approached by a German, Kasper Wild, looking for accommodation. He took a lot of photographs during his stay, entertained often and travelled frequently to Auckland. This took on sinister connotations when the war broke out especially when it was discovered his well-to-do family were involved in the German war effort. Kasper was arrested and interned on Somes Island for the duration of the war, where Keith would visit him. There is nothing to suggest that he was a spy, and a lady whom he had considered marrying explained the frequent trips to Auckland.

A far more traumatic event was to occur during the war years. In July 1940, a guest cleaned out the ashes in her fireplace, and believing them to be cold, placed them in a cupboard at the top of the stairs. Just before 9 a.m. a fire began, and quickly spread. The fire brigade's quick response and a lack of wind prevented what might have been the destruction of the house. All escaped unharmed.

Every room on the second floor was damaged, and the stairs and tower room were badly burned. The ground floor received smoke and water damage, and this was cleaned without much difficulty. With the war on, many materials were in short supply or unobtainable so most repairs were done in the 1940s style with what was available, rather than in true Edwardian style, as the Hicksons would have preferred. Guests needed to be accommodated elsewhere, and it was not until late 1941 that Antrim reopened and was as popular as ever.

Early in 1949, the New Zealand Government made an approach to buy the house to use as accommodation for visiting VIPs. The Hicksons had made a difficult decision to return to farming, and it was on this basis that they agreed to sell Antrim House. Its subsequent role must have come as a great surprise.

Christmas dinner during the hostel years
Christmas dinner during the hostel years. Image: Antrim House Collectionexpand/collapse

The Hostel Years

In March 1949, the newspaper ran a story that Antrim House along with two houses adjacent would be used to provide hostel accommodation for public servants. Antrim House would remain a hostel for young men in the public service for 28 years.

It was modified to take up to 46 boys with as many as seven sharing a bedroom. The Department of Labour ran the hostel, as it did for numerous camps and hostels throughout New Zealand.

Hostel life was the norm at that time, flatting away from home was not. The policy provided for boys to stay until aged 21, board was a little more than half their wages and provided three meals a day as well as a home. Boys as young as 16 must have found this an exciting if daunting experience, with parental authority being replaced by the hostel's matron.

Stories abound from the "old boys" who occasionally call into Antrim House and recall their hostel days - sporting teams who played other hostels, hallway footy games, Christmas dinners, pranks played and the many lasting friendships formed.

A ghost story hails from this period of a man from an earlier time hanging himself from a chandelier or in a cupboard, and haunting the house - but was probably invented by the older boys to frighten their younger, newer chums.

Never run at a profit, the hostels including Antrim House eventually became a financial burden. The Department of Labour found that numbers dwindled over the year, making a further drain on what was essentially a social service. Eventually economic measures needed to be taken, and with changing social attitudes to flatting, the Department eventually announced the closure of Antrim House in November 1977.