Thistle Inn

Thistle Inn (1840)

Pioneering Pub

Grog’s Own Country started early. In 1840 Wellingtonians voted with their throats by giving whaler Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett the prefabricated schoolhouse that had been shipped out in the Adelaide for use as a hotel. By the end of the year, the New Zealand Company’s 1000 unsettled settlers had a choice of 12 hotels and numerous tent and whare grogshops. Depending on the depth of your purse and your fussiness, you could buy rotgut whaler hooch or fine imported brandies, champagnes and ales. Five years later Governor Robert FitzRoy complained that broken glass made ‘the beach’ (modern Lambton Quay) dangerous to walk on.

But hotels were more than just watering holes. In early colonial New Zealand, which lacked specialised meeting places such as town and church halls, people socialised, debated politics, floated companies, held inquests and prepared for war in hotels. Barrett’s shone brightest in early Wellington, but the Thistle is the great survivor. A Thistle has stood here, on Town Acre 515, since 1840, when William Couper served his first rounds. Then it was a single-storey, gabled building with attics above. Until the 1876 reclamation it faced the beach and people walked, rowed or paddled here to slake their thirst. The first Thistle burned down in July 1866, bystanders failing to help the inadequately-equipped fire brigade. This simple two-storey wooden pub had replaced it by the end of the year.

The interior was modernised unmercifully in 1962-3 but more sympathetically updated a few years ago, when most of the dated brewery chain kitsch from previous revamps was removed. Although the owners have done their best for the pub, the same cannot be said for the developers whose unsympathetically-scaled erections now shade it unmercifully. The clientele has also changed. In the early days Te Rauparaha was said – probably fancifully – to have beached his waka on the foreshore to whet his whistle in the Thistle. Katherine Mansfield wrote the Thistle into one of her stories, ‘Leves Amores’. For decades railwaymen and printers from the nearby Government Printing Office drank there. Thorndon has been going upmarket for decades, so these days you are more likely to see civil service ‘suits’ and inner-city apartment dwellers in the Thistle.

Further information

This site is item number 14 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.

Websites

Book

  • James McNeish, Tavern in the town, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1984

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Thistle Inn

What do you know?

Cameron McCulloch

Posted: 24 Aug 2016

The correct spelling for the the name of the first owner is 'Couper', not 'Cooper'. This was only recently corrected by LINZ for Mt Couper out by Titahi Bay. As the great, great, grand son of William, I would be grateful if you could correct this. The land was given to him by Te Rauparaha, which also suggests that there was more of a closer relationship between the two than legend would suggest.