A breif history of the Portobello Hotel and Bistro, as well as a list of past licensees
Pub the Spirit of Portobello
By Jim Sullivan
The Portobello Hotel, one of the last great pubs of colonial times- combining the best traditions of a country meeting place and a watering hole for townies- turns 125 this month.
But today's pub, with the 1874 single-storey bar building and later two-storey additions, was not the first hotel in Portobello. As early as 1867 John Groves of the "Portobello Hotel" was advertising a sports programme and this may have been at the hotel owned by pioneer settler James Seaton.
Seaton owned much of what is now the Seaton Rd area and his hotel appears to have been on his "Newlands" property at the bottom of the high road, opposite and up the hill from the present hotel.
During the early 1870s, this "Portobello Hotel" was leased to Nicholas Coneys who had leased the Prince of Wales hotel in Princes St in the mid 1860s. Before Coneys' lease at Portobello expired in June 1874 he had built "a more commodious one" nearby. Local tradition has it that Seaton opposed Coneys' licence application because "Seaton was a wowser", but the fact that Seaton already owned a pub undermines that story. In fact, when the Licensing Bench, established under 1873 legislation, had its first hearing on April 22, 1874, Seaton's objection to Coneys getting a licence was that "a second hotel is not required. (Laughter)".
Coneys' application was granted and when Seaton's application followed, the chairman, John Bathgate, caused another outburst of laughter by pointing out that Seaton had just stated that two hotels were not required. However, Seaton's licence was renewed despite a query about whether a justice of the peace could be a publican. (Seaton had also been a member of the Otago Provincial Coucil).
From then on "Coneys Hotel" dominated, but any rivalry between Coneys and Seaton soon ended with the deaths of both men. Coneys died at the age of 42 in 1879. His funeral was a big event with mourners gathering at the Rattray St wharf for the arrival of the body by ferry before burial in the Catholic area of the Southern cemetery. Seaton, who had become the local MP, died in 1882 when he was thrown from his buggy outside the Caledonian Hotel in Andersons Bay Rd.
The "original Portobello Hotel" was included in a sale of some of Seaton's property in 1878. Ironically, plans for the sale could be viewed by bidders at Coneys' hotel. By then, Coneys' health may not have been good, as Ludwig Mench is listed as a Portobello hotel-keeper in 1877-1878, although Coneys was still in the township.
Coneys' wife, Joanna, continued to run the hotel. She remarried, to local dairy farmer James Doherty, and continued to hold the licence as Joanna Doherty until about 1898.
Peter Nelson was the next in a regular procession of publicans and the hotel continued to be called "Coneys Hotel at Portobello" until about 1912. Eliza Nelson was licensee until 1908 and her descendants describe the busy scene in the photograph of the early 1900s as typical of Portobello at the time.
About the turn fo the century, as Portobello became increasingly popular with crib-owners and ferry day-trippers, the two-storey extension had been added and about 1908 an addition was made on the south side of the original building.
In February 1915, James McClucsky, whose Ravensbourne Hotel had been destroyed by fire some weeks earlier, took over the Portobello Hotel and his son, Fred, who recently compiled a history of the harbour ferries, has strong memories of the hotel of 80 years ago.
"I can never recall females in the public bar, but there was a room with a fireplace which was used as an office and where women would have a drink on rare occasions."
Fred recalls about 30 people could be served in the dining room and there were two small bedrooms for housemaids and waitresses behind it. Bedrooms had no hot water and lighting was by candle. Chamber pots were used in those pre-toilet days and a bunkhouse at the rear was a sleep-out for drovers.
The regular turnover of licensees was interrupted by the 10-year stint of George Walters from 1927-1937 and Francis Ruck for 10 years after him.
Then began a 50-year association with the McAuley Family. Cecil and Eva McAuley bought the hotel in 1949 and, after her husband's death in 1952, Mrs McAuley ran the hotel with the help of her daughter Iris and her husband Ray Robinson, who later took over the lease. Eva and her second husband Nat Peacock then had the pub for a couple of years before it was leased to Alan Wilson.
From 1966, Ray and Iris Robinson leased it from the family until 1975 when DB Breweries took up the lease. Mike and Lorna Tyrell and the Arthur Theyers were lessees until 1982. In 1983 Ernie and Faye Webster (the daughter of Iris and Ray Robinson) took over and when Eva died at the age of 93 in 1993, the hotel was put on the market. Faye and Ernie Webster bought the pub in 1995 and continue the family connection.
Apart from a coat of roughcast, the usual fate of wooden pubs, the Portobello Hotel has changed little in 125 years. Curved bars and billiards rooms have given way to straight bars and and a snooker room. The installation of large picture windows means the bar has a view over the bay and harbour which is hard to beat. The locals, many of them daily visitors for decades, give the pub a lively friendliness.
The Portobello pub has featured in paintings by Robin White and Bill MacCormick and is the setting for a thousand yarns.