Baron Alzdorf and the Wellington earthquakes

Charles Ernest von Alzdorf was one of the few people killed in Wellington’s massive 1855 earthquake – he was killed in his Wellington Hotel. Charles Alzdorf (sometimes spelled Alsdorf) arrived in Wellington on the Adelaide in March 1840. He had land in the Hutt Valley, but it seems he preferred being a hotelier to being a farmer. Sources vary as to whether he was Austrian or German, but he most likely lived in London during the 1830s.[1]

Alzdorf hotel Pearse 1850ishThis drawing by John Pearse supposedly takes place just outside Alzdorf’s Hotel, which is shown as a single-storey building (or probably one-and-a-half – with an attic room). The caption reads:

View from the beach of the North end of Lambton Quay, just outside Alzdorf’s Hotel and John Pearse’s early residence. Alzdorf is speaking to Pearse: ‘Exclamation of Baron Alzdorf on observing J[ohn] P[earse]’s boot hung out from his bedroom window to dry when wet through; J. P. having forgotten that the signs of ‘The Golden Boot’ [a bootmaker’s] and ‘The Mouldy Boot’ were not far off. ‘De Debil! dere is de gold boot – dere is de mouldy boot – and dere is de dirty boot!!’[2]

The hotel apparently had a steam bath-house – one room had a vapour bath, which had three shelves to enable patrons to adjust themselves to the various temperatures, and the other room was a dressing room. “If one required titivation a whisk was available, a brush made of manuka twigs.”[3]

In 1848 Colonel William Wakefield (the main New Zealand Company official in Wellington) is said to have had an epileptic fit at or near the Baron’s Wellington Hotel and was taken to a room there, where he died four days later. The suspicious who saw this as a bad omen would have had their belief confirmed when the 1848 earthquake struck a month later. Alzdorf’s hotel (or sometimes called a tavern) was damaged in this earthquake and in the list of damaged buildings it was described as a one-storey brick and clay building and the brick work was cracked.[4] However, in November 1849 there was a meeting in the ‘large room of the Wellington Hotel’ so presumably it was repaired, or rebuilt, by then. In April 1850, the licence of ‘Alzdorf, Wellington Hotel’ was renewed.[5] He opened a grand two-storey hotel in September 1852; the architect was a Mr Roberts and the builder a Mr Cotter.[6] This is said by Hilda McDonnell to be his third on the site.[7]

Alzdorf Pearse 1852 John Pearse, 1852, Wellington [detail]: ‘a’ = Baron Alzdorf’s new hotel; ‘g’ = government house; St Paul’s above, Alexander Turnbull Library, E-455-f-030-1: http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22478067

This image shows Alzdorf’s hotel on ‘the beach’ – as Lambton Quay was often called then, before harbour reclamations have made it some hundreds of metres from the sea. This is a detail from a larger image, and although it is not very clear, the hotel was clearly larger than its neighbours. Readers will be pleased to note that the bath-house was reinstalled in the new hotel.[8]

In 1853 a Canterbury settler, Henry Sewell, described Alzdorf and his hotel (taken from McDonnell pp. 97-100):

‘The most pretentious we have yet seen in New Zealand, a Classical front with a portico. It might be a respectable town hall, quite new and raw, but apparently substantial, the rooms good. They give us a comfortable little room with plastered walls and oil-clothed floor, but [the mirror is] disfigured by an ugly crack… I dined at the table d’hote… the Baron seemed perfectly in his element – a shrewd, broad-faced, large bodied, German looking person, evidently accustomed to society… great upon the subject of cookery and good living…the Baron discreetly avoids all political talk….

(On another day) We got miserably wet and dirty returning to our hotel after dark. The place is utterly unlighted and the paths which should be paved streets are here and there quagmires. (Some months later) The old baron is as corpulent and shrewd as ever. They talk of buying his house for the provincial government, which I think is a wise idea… He is mightily entertaining now and then and gives most amusing accounts of his early days with the Maories. He understands Maori very well and is a favourite with them.

(May 1854) Sewell noted that the ‘poor Baron’ had had a paralytic stroke and the hotel was at ‘sixes and sevens’. Baron Alzdorf was one of the few people who died in the January 1855 earthquakeSewell reported that he had been standing near the chimney when the side of the wall fell in, carrying with it a mirror that broke over him, cutting him. He was buried in an unmarked grave (at his request) in Bolton Street cemetery. I don’t know of any image of him.

The hotel seems to have been repaired and became the Criterion Hotel for a few years before being used by the Wellington Club and later by retailers. The site was the Kingsway Carpet Centre before being demolished in the late 1970s to make way for Bowen House.[9] Pat Lawlor, however, says that the building was later called the Commercial Hotel, which seems incorrect – this may have led to later confusion with another Commercial Hotel in Willis Street.

Map ref. Aldorf Hotel sec 491 larger [10] The hotel was located on original Town Section 491,[11] seen here next to the pink ‘Govt House’ block. This hand drawn sketch was made by Louis Ward in the 1920s taking the original survey plan of Wellington and adding names of original purchasers and some subsequent purchasers. For those who know Wellington, but don’t recognise many of these street names – Kumutoto Street has become Bowen Street (since extended); Charlotte Street has become Molesworth; Sydney Street has mostly disappeared into a larger Parliamentary complex and ‘Strand’ is Lambton Quay. Alzdorf didn’t own the section the hotel was on. McDonnell says he probably leased the building in 1843 – it was opposite Taine’s jetty (which later became known as Alzdorf’s wharf).[12]

Alzdorf late hotel

This is another John Pearse image and he has helpfully labelled buildings – No. 10 (arrowed) is the “Wellington Hotel (late Baron Alzdorf’s)” – from the ‘late’ we can assume the sketch was made after the 1855 earthquake, or at least labelled after it. (Pearse, John, 1808-1882: Wellington (Thorndon Flat end) taken from JP’s land on Wellington Terrace [1855 or 1856]. Ref: E-455-f-032-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22301871)

In the late 1970s when construction was beginning on Bowen House, an archaeological excavation (see footnote 9) found remains of Alzdorf’s brick cellar – you can see a display in the ground floor entrance foyer of Bowen House today.

In a few different sources it is said that the remains of Alzdorf’s hotel (the one damaged in the 1855 earthquake) can be found in Willis Street (in the Grand Arcade, formerly the site of the Grand Hotel). As far as I have established, Alzdorf’s hotels were always on the same site at the northern end of Lambton Quay. I think the confusion has arisen because a hotel on this site was called The Commercial, and according to Pat Lawlor, so was Baron Alzdorf’s hotel at some later time called The Commercial.[13] He said that trying to disentangle the various Commercial hotels gave him ‘a mild hangover’! I haven’t tried; but other sources suggest that after Baron Alzdorf’s demise the Wellington Hotel became the Criterion Family Hotel (for a few years)[14] and not the Commercial.

Later, there was a Wellington Hotel in Molesworth Street – it is visible in a photograph showing the 1907 fire in Parliament Buildings across the road.

Alzdorf - another Wellington Hotel 1907

11 December 1907: 1907 fire at Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-022885-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22688761, unidentified photographer; Wellington Hotel on corner – forerunner of the Backbencher Hotel.

Footnotes:

[1] Hilda McDonnell, Publicans of the Port Nicholson District in the Colony of New Zealand, Vera Publications, 2014, p. 93. It seems he knew Thomas Carlyle.

[2] Pearse, John, 1808-1882 :Lambton Quay, Wellington. The Mouldy Boot. The Golden Boot. [1852?]. Pearse, John 1808-1882. Ref: E-455-f-052-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22908018

[3] Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington Hotels, Millwood Press, 1974, p. 68

[4] Louis Ward, Early Wellington, 1928

[5] McDonnell, p. 96

[6] Wellington Independent, 4 September 1852, Page 3

[7] McDonnell, pp. 93-100

[8] Pat Lawlor, p. 68

[9] Pam Chester, The History and Archaeology of 76-84 Lambton Quay… available as a PDF (2.8MB) here: AINZ32.4.193-207Chester Alzdorf hotel This also gives a history of the site and buildings on it.

[10] This map is useful for anyone wanting to identify early landowners in Wellington. It can be found online in Turnbull Library collection, if you put this reference into the search box: MapColl-832.4799gbbd/1840-1916/Acc.16123. Alternatively search under ‘Louis Ward sketch plan of Wellington’.

[11] A map from the early to mid-1850s showing a planned harbour reclamation, specifically puts ‘Wellington Hotel’ on section 491. (Turnbull Library: http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23048787)

[12] McDonnell, p. 95

[13] Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington Hotels, p. 32 & 68.

[14] The Criterion Family Hotel appears in a photo from about 1867 located at the intersection of Willis and Manners Streets! I have no ambition to unravel the history of hotels in Wellington.

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