This week we’re delving into the seedier side of the life in early Christchurch with the story of the Standard Hotel, an establishment that found itself on the fringes of Victorian respectability during its short existence in the 1860s. At the heart of this tale are two brothers, James and William Willis, who appear to have trod very different paths to success (or not, as the case may be) after their arrival in the city.
The story begins with James Willis, a printer by trade, who arrived in Christchurch in the early 1850s (Lyttelton Times 7/5/1853: 6). By 1855, he was the official printer to the Canterbury Provincial Council (Lyttelton Times 20/01/1855: 4). It’s here that he probably made contact with Joseph Brittan, one of Christchurch’s prominent early citizens and the founder of the Canterbury Standard, the third newspaper to be established in the city (Lyttelton Times 13/8/1853: 12). James went on to work with Brittan on the paper, becoming the printer, part owner and eventual proprietor of the publication in the late 1850s and early 1860s (Burke Manuscript n.d.: 114).The Canterbury Standard was produced and printed in a building located on the corner of Hereford Street and Oxford Terrace in central Christchurch, just across the road from Brittan’s home on the other side of Hereford Street. Early images of the building show a two storey façade at the front, facing onto Oxford Terrace, with the printing sheds (to house the printing press) extending along Hereford Street.
James continued to operate a printing press in this location until his death in 1866, under the eventual auspices of the Telegraph Printing Press (Press 8/12/1866: 2). During the last few years of his life, however, he shared the premises with his brother, William Willis, who took the old Standard offices at the front of the building and transformed them into a hotel.
Well, I say hotel…
The Standard Hotel, which opened in July 1864 (Lyttelton Times 9/7/1864: 5), appears to have had very little to do with offering accommodation and a great deal more to do with drinking beer and providing ribald entertainment. Only one reference to accommodation at the hotel was found in the newspapers of the period and this from an unemployed man staying at the hotel, suggesting that the accommodation available was fairly cheap (LytteltonTimes 6/8/1866: 1). In contrast, advertisements for the opening of the hotel in 1864 place particular emphasis on the selection of ales and wines available for consumption (Lyttelton Times 9/7/1864: 5). We excavated the section next to the hotel earlier this year, where we found a lot of beer bottles. While many of these are associated with the warehouse on that section in the 1870s, some of them may also have been debris from drinking sessions at the Standard in the 1860s.
The tone of this particular establishment becomes clear when we look at historical records for William Willis’s Assembly Rooms, opened in 1865 and located next to the Standard Hotel on Oxford Terrace (Press 8/11/1865: 1; 15/02/1866: 1). Although these rooms hosted public auctions and were used by the Canterbury Jockey Club for meetings (Lyttelton Times 1/01/1866: 3; Press 8/11/1865: 1), they were also the setting for a variety of musical entertainments, from vaudeville-style theatre and burlesque to the more risqué Poses Plastique (Lyttelton Times 10/3/1866: 2; 12/3/1866: 2; Press 10/4/1866: 1).
While vaudeville theatre may be a form of entertainment familiar to many, the term ‘burlesque’ didn’t mean quite the same thing in a 19th century context as it does now. Rather than involving Dita von Teese-like figures and the sultry dance routines it’s now known for, burlesque in the mid-1800s was simply a form of musical entertainment, often involving elaborate or farcical costumes, parodies and caricatures of well-known historical and literary figures (Oxford English Dictionary).
Poses Plastique, on the other hand, was definitely a form of entertainment that only flirted with the notion of respectability. It was a form of Tableau Vivant, or ‘living scene’, a 19th century performance in which the performers, both women and men, acted as living statues on stage. These performances often involved various states of undress, justified and made ‘classy’ by references to Classical mythology and the imitation of Greek and Roman statues (Anae 2008). Sometimes the performers would wear nude body stockings, so as to give the appearance of undress yet not be completely indecent.
I should mention that while Poses Plastique was a form of Tableau Vivant, not all examples of the 19th century living statue involved the same degree of undress or risqué material. Tableau Vivant was often used to present famous literary, artistic or historical scenes, such as battles, famous paintings or moments from well-known works like Cinderella (Poverty Bay Herald 25/5/1881: 3).
The performance at Willis’s Rooms in 1866 is one of only two examples of Poses Plastique advertised in New Zealand newspapers before 1900 (Nelson Evening Mail 25/2/1884: 2), although there are numerous references to burlesque and vaudeville shows being held throughout the country (see Papers Past). Clearly, the semi-nude living statue never really took off here, despite enjoying great popularity in London and Australia during the same period.
In Christchurch, at least, one reason for this may have been the disapproval with which such entertainment was viewed by the general authorities and community. While it was not illegal (that we’ve been able to find), we did note that William Willis had his liquor license refused in 1866 due to reports of “objectionable entertainment, low women and noisy people” in the vicinity of his Assembly Rooms late at night (Lyttelton Times 2/5/1866: 2). Interestingly, this notice came soon after the advertised performances of Poses Plastique. Coincidence? I think not.
The Standard Hotel, along with Willis’s Assembly Rooms, closed its doors in 1867 after only three years of operation (Lyttelton Times 4/7/1867: 1). Later that same year, a fire in the offices of the Telegraph Printing Press next door so badly damaged the building that it was abandoned and moved to Bealey Avenue in early 1869 (Lyttelton Times 4/1/1869: 3). For reasons unknown to us, the section on the corner of Hereford Street and Oxford Terrace remained empty and unused during the following decades, until a suite of offices was constructed there in the early 20th century (Press 16/9/1905: 9).
During its life the Standard Hotel building was home to two very different sides of the social and commercial spectrum, personified in the figures of James and William Willis. From its origins in Joseph Brittan’s, and later James Willis’s, Canterbury Standard, with its guiding principles of “public good [and] the advancement of the province”, to its eventual demise in William’s den of alcohol and “low women”, it showcases a diversity of character and commerce in Christchurch’s early history that we don’t always get to see. Hopefully, as we work our way through the rest of the archaeological material from this site, even more of that variety will be revealed.
Anae, N. 2008., Poses, plastiques: the art and style of ‘statuary’ in Victorian visual theatre. Australasian Drama Studies. Available at http://eprints.usq.edu.au/7003/.
Andersen, J. 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Ltd: Christchurch.
Burke Manuscript, 1860s. [online] Available through the Christchurch City Libraries Digital Collection at http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Digitised/Burke/
Canterbury Museum Digital Collections
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Nelson Evening Mail. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Observer. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Oxford English Dictionary. Available online via the Christchurch City Libraries subscription service.
Poverty Bay Herald. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Press. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Star. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.
Wikimedia Commons. [online] Available at http://commons.wikimedia.org.