Myth Making & Myth Busting: the case of Wain’s Hotel, Princes Street, Dunedin.

An astonishing fragment of history flashed from my Twitter feed yesterday: the Mercure Dunedin Hotel is 148 years old! Really? Both astonished and impressed that Dunedin should have such a globalised foothold in the 19th century hospitality industry, I replied to  Mercure Dunedin’s tweet, exhorting the tweeter to ‘fess up’: Reveal the true identity of a grand old dame I knew by her original name. And so, back came the reply, “The Wains Hotel” of course.

Of course – everyone knows that Wains Hotel is ‘rebranded’ Mercure Dunedin, don’t they? Everyone, that is, except the person who wrote the content for the Mercure Dunedin website. No mention, whatsoever, of the name by which that outstanding, eye-catching, ornately articulated expression of Victorian architecture has graced Princes Street for as long as anyone can remember, and longer. And the claim to ‘148 years old’ stretches the truth so far it borders on myth – which is just a wee bit too far methinks! Here’s why …

Frank Tod’s 1984 publication, “Pubs Galore, History of Dunedin Hotels 1848 – 1984” credits Andrew Moir with the July 1862 opening of Moir’s Family Hotel on the east side of Manse Street. It was then, 148 years ago “… one of the largest hotels in the town and offered first-class accommodation.” These days, the stained glass windows of a Mercure meeting room grace the Manse Street wall of this room. Curiously, these days, there’s no evidence of an hotel entrance on this side of Manse Street.

In 1864, that’s 146 years ago, Tod writes that Job Wain took possession of Moir’s premises and renamed them ‘Wain’s Hotel’. However, the entry for Mr Job Wain in The Cyclopaedia of New Zealand, Volume 4, Otago and Southland records that he “…opened a hotel in Manse Street” in 1863 – that’s 147 years ago!

Job Wain’s enthralling life history must, for the moment, be set aside as a subsequent blog topic. Suffice to say, he is recorded by Tod as the licensee of his own establishment from 1866 until 1873, and again from 1885 until 1889. However, the Wain’s Hotel which still graces 310 Princes Street, Dunedin was not built until 1878 – that’s 132 years ago!

Most licensed premises of any significance or proportion in this period of history in this part of the world, at least, played host to numerous groups and societies. Wain’s Hotel was no exception. Frank Tod describes Dunedin’s first Press Club occupying a suite of rooms wherein the editors and reporters of various local newspapers met, and a library was established. Thomas Bracken, poet, author of the New Zealand National Anthem’s five verses, and then editor of the Saturday Advertiser numbered among these journalist patrons. Appropriately, one of the Mercure’s two meeting rooms is named in his honour. But Tod ‘fudges’ the record somewhat, offering only a vague decade – the 1870s – during which the Press Club occupied their suite of rooms in Wains. Would those rooms have been in what was originally Moir’s Family Hotel – old Wains – on Manse Street, or new Wains, built 1878, in Princes Street? The investigative plot thickens and the myth busting process intensifies.

For the greater part of her illustrious life during which Wain’s Hotel was known as such, there are at least two other family names associated with the business. The Hazlett family owned Wain’s for more than 35 years before selling to the Farrys in 1962. Corporate ownership of this now historic Dunedin landmark began 40 years ago when it was purchased by Dominion Breweries – but we still knew her as “Wain’s”. Thank you, DB. Not a myth in sight and ‘busting’ pertained only to after-hours drinkers in the belief that they deserved ‘a DB’.