The second in a series of posts that looks at the history of the central Christchurch sites on which your new library, Tūranga, has been built.
Today you can enter Tūranga via a door on Cathedral Square but in 1851 this was part of Town Section 704.
Purchased from the Canterbury Association by a Mr Read, he then sold the section to John Bilton, school teacher. In 1856 John Bilton leased a retail space in his two-storey weatherboard building to William Hobbs.
William Hobbs, master tailor, arrived in Canterbury in 1855 from Hambleden in Buckinghamshire. Hobbs initially intended to start afresh in a new industry but soon realised that there was great demand for locally made clothing, and loot to be made.
William wasted no time setting up his business and cannily painted “Hobbs & Sons” prominently on the top floor.
He took over the full building lease in the mid-1860s and the building became known as Hobbs’s Building and later as Hobbs’s Corner. His sons Fred and William were both involved in the business, although Fred had civic and political aspirations too. In 1874 he became the eighth mayor of Christchurch and held office for two terms. Newspaper reports show Fred was particularly passionate about drains…
The Hobbs partnership was dissolved in August 1872 and Fred, in a Press advertisement, sincerely thanked “the very liberal patronage bestowed on the late firm during the past sixteen years”.
On Sunday 10 June 1883, fire, a constant danger in weatherboard colonial Christchurch, broke out on the corner of Gloucester and Colombo. Alerted by early morning revellers, the Chester Street Brigade speedily attended and focused their attention on stopping the fire from spreading to the Central, Criterion and Commercial hotels, The Lyttelton Times, Lennon’s Oyster Saloon (sounds like quite the place!) and Gaiety Theatre.
Through the sterling efforts of the fire brigade the hotels were saved but the corner block with Hobbs’ Building was gutted with only the outer walls left standing. The businesses destroyed by the fire included those of a draper, a fruiterer, a hairdresser, and the rooms of the YMCA. The greatest tragedy of the fire, to this librarian, was the loss of the Association’s library and much of the stock of one Mr Fountain Barber, bookseller, whose premises were on the Colombo St/Cathedral Square corner (where Tūranga’s magazine collection now sits ).
With 40 years left on the lease Fred Hobbs, William having retired, immediately proposed a new building, and plans for a new three-storey building were hastily acquired. Designed by Messrs Armson, Collins and Lloyd, the lavish description in the Press highlighted the building’s dimensions, construction materials and most importantly the provision of “fire-places and lavatory accommodation”!
The foundation stone for the new building was laid by Fred Hobbs in February 1884 with a projected construction cost in today’s money of $2,212,249.80. The building hosted 9 shops, a variety of office suites, space for a gentleman’s club and a large meeting room.
The rooms of Cathedral Chambers would come to be used by groups as varied as the Christchurch Metaphysical Club, the Canterbury Women’s Institute, and the Atalanta Cycling Club – not to mention once hosting a concert for “the largest gathering of footballers ever seen in Christchurch” (by 1890 standards, that is). The numerous businesses to operate from the building included estate agents and dentists but also the “Central Pork Shop” which in an an 1888 advertisement boasted a “large and commodious cellar…fitted up in first-class style”. Fancy.
Cathedral Chambers was built with bricks from the St Martin’s brickwork, Oamaru stone and with blue stone piers, the effect of the contrasting red brick and pale stone was of “the gingerbread order of architecture”. A handsome veranda of iron and glass ran around the ground floor.
Under the headline of City Improvements, the Press praised Fred’s audacity in building such a handsome and substantial building during “the present period of depression”. Sensibly, special precautions against fire were included with water filled roof tanks and hydrants fitted around the building.
Interestingly, despite the completely new building and new name, “Hobbs’ Building” seems to have stuck in people’s minds and it continued to be referred to by this name for many years.
Lack of care taken
A small enclosed tower on the roof of the building contained rooms for a caretaker and was sadly the scene of two tragic accidents involving their offspring.
First in May 1907 a little girl called Dolly Ryder fell 30 feet through a skylight at Hobbs’ Building while chasing a cat. Incredibly she survived although there was concern she had sustained spinal damage. Dolly’s brush with death may have been a contributing factor in her later career of minor crime, aged 18 and 19 she was in trouble with the law for petty theft and absconding from a reformatory home. Go Dolly!
In 1929 Frank Otten, aged 19, was less lucky. Frank and his mother Blanche had gone up to the roof to check for damage after a chimney fire. Using an electric torch Frank crawled across the roof and mounted one of the parapets. He overbalanced and fell, striking the fire-escape several times, and landed in the concrete basement of the Masonic Hotel. Death was instantaneous.
A variety of businesses operated from Hobbs’ Building now renamed Cathedral Chambers. One of the best known was the Broadway tearooms which operated from the first floor.
Run by William and Edward Broadway, confectioner and pastry chef respectively, the Cathedral Chambers area was informally called Broadway Corner for many years.
After Edward’s death the business name was changed to Beresford’s and it operated until 1974.
The arrival of electric trams caused chaos in the Square (plus ça change). Extensive excavating in 1905 created the double tracks necessary (note use of shovels and picks in the image below) for the tram lines.
The network officially opened on 5 June 1905 – a slightly over-excited Press article called it a day “writ large in letters of scarlet…an epoch marking day”.
When the first electric tram pulled in at the top of High Street, “a thronging human mass filled every inch of space from below the Bank, down Colombo Street, in front of the Cathedral, around the Post Office, and on every side in fact”.
The trams stopped close to Broadway Corner and there were frequent reports of tram, and later car accidents around this bustling spot.
Fred Hobbs died in 1920, his son continued the business but at another location.
In April 1936 the building was acquired by The Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd for the princely sum of $11,630, 215.50. The owner of the building by this time was Mr C G McKellar, and the new owners were expected to extensively re-model it to accommodate their growing staff.
The Cathedral Chambers were demolished in 1974/1975 and the new Colonial Mutual Life (CML) building was constructed to a design by Christchurch architects Warren & Mahoney. The building later operated as the Camelot Hotel and offered assorted tourism related retail space at street level.
The CML building was demolished in 2015 to make way for Tūranga.
Back in the present, we welcome those who’d like to honour the spirit of William Hobbs, master tailor, by trying out our sewing and embroidery machines in Tūranga’s Production Studio, or book one of our rooms for hire for all your footballer concert/metaphysical club meeting needs.
Next week: The Lyttelton Times and The Star
- Round the Square: A History of Christchurch’s Cathedral Square
- Our pages about Early Christchurch
- About Tūranga, Christchurch’s central library