Port cities usually have their more lurid attractions and more than their fair share of characters. Wellington was no exception. The city has a rich maritime history dating back to the 1840s.
Where there are ships and sailors there are usually bars. Auckland had the notorious Snake Pit but Wellington’s Bistro Bar at the Royal Oak Hotel was world famous amongst seafarers. Once off the boat on the Wellington docks, it was a rush to the Bistro.
Rumour had it the Bistro was one of the seven most famous sailors’ bars the world over, a must see and do for mariners. John Steinbeck, it is said, would have recognised Wellington and the Bistro Bar; it was full of characters, night and day.
The Bistro Bar was the haunt of prostitutes, pimps, transvestites, junkies and sailors. Someone once said it was “like a scene from a Federico Fellini film, even at midday”. News of the Bistro Bar spread across the globe by word-of-mouth; port to port, ship to ship. Not that the Bistro Bar was alone. The local underworld gathered at one nearby bar where the publican was once convicted on the rare charge of allowing the premises to be frequented by habitual criminals.
But the Royal Oak was special. It was one of the finest hotels in Wellington along with the Midland, the Grand, the Waterloo and the St. George. Sadly, three were later demolished including the Oak, and the other two live on but as backpackers and student accommodation
The Royal Oak received many visiting dignitaries and was noted for its fine dining and many banquets. It was popular, had frontages on three streets with ‘handsome solid masonry throughout and splendidly decorated and furnished within; with a table second to none.’
The hotel had a number of bars including a lounge bar (for ladies), a cocktail bar, public bar (for men) and the Bistro Bar. But it is the Bistro Bar that is remembered most.
Dave is originally from Redcar in Yorkshire, famous for its race circuit. These days he runs a barber shop in the old James Smith’s department store building across the road from where the Royal Oak once was. During downtime in the shop he’s busy writing his life story, in long hand.
He’d been a regular at the Oak and the Bistro in particular. Dave has travelled the world and previously lived in Los Angeles and New York. He fell in love with Wellington “years back” and has been here ever since. “My brothers still live in America, but I couldn’t stand the place.”
He lamented the passing of the Royal Oak, and others like it. “Back in those days pubs were your local. People knew who you were, your name, and you knew them,” he said. “You don’t get that in pubs now, if you can call them pubs. Nobody knows who anyone else is, and they don’t really care.”
Dave told me when they demolished the Royal Oak he paid $20 for the mirror from the Bistro. “It still had the hole from the shotgun blast” he explained. “One day a bloke came round, poked a gun through the window and took a shot at someone.” The shot missed but struck the mirror, which miraculously failed to break. Today his barber shop features a large backed photo of the Royal Oak during the hotel’s prime.
Like most drinking places in Wellington, fights weren’t uncommon in the Royal Oak. “There was no security, just the manager and a barman,” explained another former-Royal Oak regular, Malcolm. Malcolm is a mate of mine. He recounted one episode when the royal yacht Britannica visited and the crew turned up at the famous bar in their dress whites. Shortly after some Kiwi navy sailors arrived a brawl started. “One English guy flew across the room, airborne, horizontal on his back” he recalled. “I can’t remember much else, just this guy flying across the bar.”
Back in the day, Malcolm worked on an inter island ferry, a vessel called the Maori. He explained that members of the crew had an apartment in the Royal Oak booked on a permanent revolving basis. “It was expensive,” he said, “it probably cost about a week’s wages. But it was nice, lounge room, bedroom, and a bathroom.”
Malcolm explained that the international feel of Wellington back in those days was wonderful. “It was day when a guy could go to the wharf and look at the board of outward bound vessels and pick somewhere to sail he hadn’t been. He’d sign on and could be gone that afternoon.”
At the Bistro the transvestites were colourful and immaculately turned out. “They were better dressed than anyone else there. They obviously spent a lot of time – and money - on their appearance,” Malcolm said. They came in all shapes and forms. During these years Wellington experienced an influx of Polynesians. With them came the phenomena of the Fa’afafine. Samoan but known by a number of names across the Pacific Islands, these were effeminate young men who engaged in cross-dressing. Like Thai ladyboys but twice the size with wide shoulders and biceps in miniskirts, quite a sight.
Early morning would see the arrival of performers from the nearby revue bars; Carmen’s and the Purple Onion. Carmen’s was owned by a larger-than-life Maori, Carmen Rupe. Carmen was a transsexual champion of gay rights, mayoral candidate, brothel-keeper and business woman.
Malcolm explained that often the performers would come in to wind down or, for those who were working girls on the side, may be pick up a customer before heading home to sleep off the night.
There was never usually a dull moment at the Bistro.
For the record there have been two Royal Oaks. The first was on the location of the Market Hall which in 1839 was the site of the city markets. Forty years later in 1879, though some records say 1889, fire destroyed the hotel, the Nags Head Inn and the Opera House, as well as up to 80 other building and killing two people, though accounts differ.
The hotel was later rebuilt by owner Sam Gilmer. The Oak stood with Cuba Street to the west and Dixon and Manners streets south and north respectively. Manners Street was once the waterfront. Today the harbour is 300m away. It backed on to what was known as Pigeon Park now Te Aro Park and dominated by a large Pohutukawa tree. Pre-European, the whole site was once a major Maori pa, or settlement.
Gilmer ruled the hotel with a firm hand, standing for no nonsense and wouldn’t permit children on the premises. The hotel passed through several owners over the years, mainly down through families until it was bought by Leopard Breweries in 1961 for £100,000.
The Royal Oak was one of many hotels located in Cuba Street. Other hotels included the Alhambra, frequented by Irish Catholics, the Wakefield Hotel formerly known as the White Swan, affectionately known as “The Dirty Duck”; the Imperial; the Masonic, and the Star and Garter.
In 1937, The Royal Oak was enlarged to consist of three stories with accommodation, a dining room and four bars. From the 1950s to 1979, the upstairs bar was home to Wellington's gay community. In those days homosexuality was illegal and gay men and lesbians would enter the hotel looking like heterosexual couples. Both parties then found more interesting company once they were inside.
The bars were also famous during this time as a place where heterosexual junkies and drug dealers could score. It is said that when the local police stepped into the bar you could hear the bottles of pills falling to the floor.
During these years New Zealand was home to 6pm closing, which became known nationally as the “six o’clock swill”. The 6pm swill stayed until ended by national referendum in 1967 when closing hours returned to 10pm.The Bistro Bar was one of the first to bend the licensing laws. About 1963, it offered a token meal (a bowl of rice for 2/6) and so becoming a licensed restaurant where both women and men could drink until 10pm.
Sadly, Wellington’s building heritage has fallen victim to the wrecker’s ball. Pubs and hotels often occupied corner sites making them prime targets for development. Many developers seemed to enjoy a brazen period building faceless, charmless structures as architectural contributions to the throwaway society.
The Royal Oak was demolished in 1979. A depressing feature of recent Wellington was the old giving way to the new. Council preference, pressure from developers, changing fashion, increased requirements for earthquake strengthening all contributing factors, some more than others. The passing of the Royal Oak also mirrored changes on the city’s wharves. With the advent of containerisation, many of the old work practices were passed over. Fewer ships made port too.
After the hotel was demolished, the site was redeveloped into a shopping complex known simply as “the Oaks” with 28 shops with tavern and restaurant. A “feature” was the footbridge connecting the complex with James Smith department store opposite. But James Smiths, which billed itself as "the store of the century", closed in May 1993 a few years after the Smith family sold their 60 per cent holding. Later the footbridge went too.
The Oaks complex tavern was known at one time as the Sol Bar. Next door was the reincarnated Bamboo Bar also known as the Toledo. The gay tradition in the area has continued with the Ivy Cabaret now in the James Smith’s basement. Later the Sol was reinvented as the Oaks, a band venue. Downstairs was the Sidewalk Cafe frequented by “posties and dropouts”. The eastern end has seen various nightclubs come and go, but none of these bars has ever lasted.
The current Oaks is ugly. Apparently the Council only allowed construction on the understanding that it was to be a temporary building. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proved a very binding agreement. Where the Bistro and Tavern bars once stood on the Dixon Street side there is now a coffee shop and two Asian restaurants. Next door is a clothes shop. Upstairs is an internet cafe, a noodle bar and most of the Manners Street side is given over to a second hand bookshop.
There’s Flight Centre, the Body Shop, and you can get your hair braided in another shop. All pretty bland and tacky when compared to the vibrancy of the Royal Oak.
With the passing of the Royal Oak, as with many of the grand old hotels, Wellington lost a colourful piece of its character and a slice of history. A prime part of Wellington has been turned into an area largely to be avoided. Proof then progress isn’t always for the best.