Most of us walk by the ruins of a building’s foundations that sit between Smithy’s garage and the waterfront and don’t know much about the long history of the Mount Earnslaw Hotel that stood on that spot for nearly eighty years, from 1880 – 1959.

This month, thanks to a wonderful visit from Eric Livingstone over Easter weekend, we thought we’d feature a history of the hotel. Eric’s family owned the Mount Earnslaw Hotel at the time of the fire that left it in its state of ruins in July 1959. Eric brought a trove of pictures and newspaper articles that helped us to bring this piece of history back to life for all of us. 

According to the Head of Lake Wakatipu School’s Centennial (a must have for every GY History fan!) there were records of hotels in Glenorchy going as far back to some sort of hotel for goldminers in the Bucklerburn in 1863. When Thomas Buteman first came to live in Glenorchy in 1866, he wrote that their first home was an abandoned hotel so there must have been something here at the time.

The first storey portion of the Mount Earnslaw Hotel was built in 1880 on behalf of Joseph Birley, who’d been a successful gold miner and storekeeper. In 1885, the same year that two other hotels went up in Glenorchy (the Alpine Club and the Glenorchy Hotel), he added a two-storey section that cost about a thousand pounds to build. Birley and his son, Harry ran the Mt. Earnsaw until 1907, when they sold the hotel to Alfred Groves for four years. One of the highlights of their era was a buggy shed that was converted into Groves’ Hall, which had a good dance floor and became the center for many Glenorchy social functions.

Fourteen different owners took on the Mt. Earnslaw Hotel between Alfred Groves in 1911 and Joe Hussey, who would be its last owner in 1959. Some of the familiar family names of owners include George Paulin, and James and Stan Knowles.

Much like our own experience of the Paradise fire in recent years, fires were the cause of the demise many of the old wooden hotels. The Alpine Club burned down in 1901, the Glenorchy Hotel in 1923, and the Mount Earnslaw Hotel in 1959. At the time of the fire it had 23 rooms, a dining room, and the community liquor license. After the fire, the community kept the license going through creative means (as Mona’s story below shares) and photos below show the replacement bar that appeared the day after the fire to ensure that the community still could carry on. The pub (pictured below in its 1960s glory) followed on after the Mount Earnslaw Hotel and the history of the license is a story for another time!

We are fortunate to have an account of the night of the fire written by Mona Townson. She was 14 years old at the time of the fire and her family were running the hotel at the time. Here are her recollections:

My father Joe (Emmett) Hussey, my mother Mona Hussey and three of their children – Melva, Mona, and Emmett moved up to Glenorchy to take on the project of the Earnslaw Hotel in 1959. Joe had two shops in Dunedin, one in Maclaggan Street, which was a grocer and dairy shop and another on Musselborough Rise which sold fish and poultry. These businesses were sold and no doubt with the aid of a mortgage from a bank enabled Joe to take on the role as a proprietor of the Earnslaw Hotel.

On the evening of the 3rd of July, after all the customers had gone home (no such thing as six o’clock closing in those days) the hotel burst into fire.

The three children had been sleeping in their large bedrooms which were set up to enable the two girls to do correspondence school work (they were in third form) and to have enough space for hobbies. Emmett junior attended Glenorchy Primary School. These rooms were in a separate building just feet away from the main hotel accommodation block.

Mona had been engrossed in reading a book until about 2am and had the pet dog as company on the bed – both a no, no! All of a sudden the sound of glass breaking and cracking was heard and not being able to identify this noise with anything obvious, she opened her door. The two story decorated glass window that gave light to the stairs leading up to the second floor of the accommodation block of the hotel had huge flames coming out of the spaces where once was glass.

The dog went out the window which led onto a paddock (he survived) and then both Melva and Emmett were open with her shouts. All of the children went round to the front of the hotel where Joe was sleeping and as they could not enter the hotel because of the flames, and they were too small to reach the window, they all shouted and threw things at the windows until Joe’s face appeared. (Mona Senior, his wife, was visiting family at the time in Dunedin, even though the paper said that she had been in Glenorchy!).

Mona ran over to the shop/post office to get help from Nancy and Donald Watherston, who could ring up all of the locals to help put out the fire. Then she went to help ring the bell which was outside the garage but none of the three children were able to reach the bell as it was too far from the ground. The next job was to wake up Laurie Smith, the garage owner, who appeared in his pajamas and quickly took the situation at a glance. The bell was rung and people appeared, but nothing else could be done. 

The Hotel was made of very old and dry wood and it was well alight before any of noticed that there was a fire. In 1959, there was no fire brigade and people did not have the ability or the equipment to control such a fierce blaze in such a remote area. It snowed the next morning and so as the smoke rose, the snow fell and created an eerie picture.

The local community was wonderful and to this day their support is appreciated. Also, people around New Zealand sent clothes and money to the family. Otago Girls High in Dunedin, where the two girls had attended Form Three held a stall and set the proceeds to them. Everything was gone – no clothes, no personal belongings, no equipment except an old shed which was converted into a bar within a day (4th July 1959) as the license to the hotel would have been lost if the bar had not reopened within 24 hours. The locals manned the bar, brought their own drinks, and no change was given for a drink in order to raise some funds for the family. The local families took in the three children, clothed and fed them for at least a week until new accommodation could be found (in what is today Shelly’s house next to the library).

The Earnslaw Hotel fire was big news around New Zealand, as there had been a number of other hotels burnt in the last few years. The Insurance Company and the Police investigated to discover the cause of the fire. It took many months before they came to the decision that it was the heat from the kitchen coal ranges that had penetrated the grout, which must have been crumbling between the bricks of the chimneys. Backing onto these chimneys was the large linen room which used the heat to air all the linen and towels. Apparently the linen must have gradually caught fire and developed into the dramatic incident where our home was lost. The ring of soot found at the base of the chimneys also indicated that the incident was an accident. Eventually the insurance company paid Joe Hussey the money that was due (had the hotel not been co-owned by the bank, this might not have been the case). The license was sold and the Hussey family moved to Christchurch in 1960. 

With thanks to Eric Livingstone for stories, photos, and newspaper clippings; Mona Townson for her wonderful recollections; Peter Chandler and the Schools Centennial Committee for early history of Hotels in Glenorchy.