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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 21, June 1977

By Stella Wills

Architectural elegance masks the turbulent history of the large, white building opposite the Prince's Gate entrance of the Rotorua Domain.

The two-storey building is the Prince's Gate Hotel.

Built of kauri and trimmed with cornices it is a showpiece still, despite its years.

Inside, the carved staircase is worn with the touch of countless hands, and the guest letter rack and noticeboard are part of the original fittings. Likewise is the old-fashioned telephone booth and the writing cubicle tucked away at the end of the lounge.

The hotel has its own thermal swimming pool and is only a short distance from the famous Ward and Blue Baths.

With these attractions close at hand, as well as the impressive appearance of the hotel, it is no wonder it was named for many years as one of the best five hotels in New Zealand and the top one in Rotorua. (It has no public bar.)

An hotel built solely for tourists. That is how it looks to the public but if the old building could only speak it could tell you a much different tale...

Ninety miles from Rotorua is Waihi, a town once the third largest in New Zealand (after Auckland and Wellington) and the site of the Martha gold mine, the richest in the world.

It was in Waihi that the Prince's Gate Hotel was first built at the turn of the century, one of many in the town that catered to miners and travellers.

It was one of the finest hostelries in town.

Built by Mr E. Morgan, it had 75 rooms and was called originally the New Central Hotel.

With Waihi continuing to prosper the hotel could not help but do likewise and it soon became well known for its superior qualities. Visiting mine officials enjoyed the hospitality shown by the first proprietors, Mr and Mrs M.G. Power and many distinguished names were to appear in the guest book. Waihi was the railhead in those days, and visitors to the Bay of Plenty would stay at the Central before leaving for Tauranga by coach.

Many of the biggest weddings were at the hotel and Mr E.T.C. Speak, a Waihi resident, vividly remembers going home from school one day just as a bride was walking up the red carpet kept specially for the purpose. It was the era of long trains at the back of the gowns, and the yards of white bridal finery draped right down the flight of steps.

Mr Speak also remembers the smell of cooking which wafted from the kitchen out to the street. He was friendly with the Power children and spent many happy hours in their company.

According to Mr Speak, when Mr and Mrs Power left, their daughter, Mrs Nellie Budd and her husband took over. Mr Power was later Mayor of Waihi. A short time later both he and his wife died in the influenza epidemic.

[Confusion is created because father and son have the same initials.

Maurice Goggan or Groggan Power:

Thames miner (one arm)
Hotel proprietor Paeroa (Ohinemuri Hotel), then Waihi (New Central Hotel).
Registered as elector 1919: hotelkeeper, ratepayer, 337a Stafford Street
Mrs Power (nee Milgrew) died Feb 10 1908
Raised a family of six girls and six boys
Maurice died March 29 1920

Maurice Gilbert Power:

Son of above
Aka Bert Power
Wife: Olive
School Teacher
Share Broker
Waihi Borough Councillor (nine years)
Waihi Mayor 1913-1915 (four years?)
Town Clerk Waihi?
Town Clerk Taumarunui
Died with wife in 1918 'Flu epidemic (Nov 18)
Sister (Nancy or Nellie) married Mr (Frank) Budd - E]

Mrs Budd had a beautiful voice and was a member of the operatic society. Often she would entertain her guests with her singing.

When Mr. Moss Davis (father of Sir Ernest Davis) bought the hotel in 1906 for nearly $9,000 one of the most popular proprietors of Waihi was behind the bar. Mr "Shorty" Buckland's name is still revered in Waihi, and but for the stubborness of man, probably he would have spent the rest of his working life at the hotel.

In 1908 Waihi was thriving. The crowds in the business area were often so thick that the footpaths were not wide enough to cope. As miners made up the largest part of the population the hotel bars were always busy and it seemed that nothing could go wrong.

The trouble started at the Rob Roy hotel, which drew much of the bar business because of its position in the main street.

Orders came from higher up that the price of beer must be increased despite the proprietor's plea that it would cause discord. However the owners were adamant and before long the unhappy proprietor had to impart the disastrous news to his huge clientele.

The reaction was as he expected. Angry threats were made to boycott the hotel. In fact it was threatened they would go one better and vote for prohibition at the forthcoming election.

The last statement was really only bravado and it is quite sure that many of the miners could not bring themselves to carry it out when actually voting. Many did though, and others solved the problem by simply not voting at all, thus lessening the numbers against prohibition.

What they did not realise was that the women would also vote for prohibition. They had only recently been given the vote and resented their men spending so much time in the bars.

The bombshell came when the votes were counted and it was found that prohibition had won by 86 votes. A recount was held but it still did not alter the score and the entire Ohinemuri County was declared "dry".

Six months was given for the hotels to close their bars and never were there so many thirsty and bitter men in Waihi. The very mention of the word prohibition was enough to start a brawl.

In 1909 the bars closed for the final time leaving a sullen band of disappointed drinkers. The Central was able to close with dignity but the Rob Roy was the target of stones and bottles. To the men this was the hotel which had started all the trouble.

Some solace was found in making home brew and it is said that every second house had a plant going. The results varied from reasonable to putrid and no doubt there were many wives secretly wishing that the bars were still open.

Sly grogging was rife and the police were kept busy. One man was well known as an offender but always managed to evade the law. Despite many searches his store of drink was never found at his home and it was only in later years that the secret hiding place was revealed. Upturned bottles presumably empty, buried with only the bottoms showing, had always lined his pathway. But now they were replaced with full ones. The customers would swap an empty bottle for a full one; the money would change hands and all was well.

The nearest hotel with a licence was 16 miles away in Katikati but could only be reached by horse or horse-drawn vehicle. This meant a long journey over a winding and often muddy road, not exactly suitable for men returning from a binge. The nearest on the other side of the county was at Hikutaia, a tiny town 25 miles away on the railway to Thames.

It did not take the rail officials long to see a chance of making money. Excursions were arranged between Waihi and Thames, with a stop at Hikutaia, and soon men by the hundreds were racing to board the "Booze Express". Women too, took the advantage of spending time shopping in Thames.

It was not long before the little town was called "Shickertaia" and if prohibition meant doom for all the hotels, including Paeroa, in the Ohinemuri County, it spelled prosperity for the owner of the Hikutaia Hotel, Mrs Julia Corbett.

Meantime back at Waihi the Central was on the decline. Used to throbbing with life, the huge and almost empty building took on almost a ghostly appearance and Mr Speak said that subsequent owners did not stay long because the empty rooms had a depressing effect.

Although run as a private hotel it did not have the same appeal. Travellers, it seemed, preferred licensed hotels.

For the next three years the Central went along quietly but in 1912 became busy again when the infamous Waihi miners' strike started. The hotel housed the extra policemen who were sent from Auckland to help quell the riots. All the miners wanted was better working conditions and pay, not an unreasonable request as the mines were thriving. The bitterness stayed with the men even after law and order was restored, and many moved away.

With a declining population the Central lost even more trade, but once again a tragedy brought it temporary relief. When the influenza epidemic hit Waihi after the First World War the hotel became a hospital. Patients who recovered may have appreciated their elegant surroundings but all too many were taken down that curved staircase in coffins.

Not long after the epidemic it was decided to move the hotel to Rotorua where it would be suitable for tourist accommodation.

Mr Joe Ashby, who still lives in Waihi, was the man who carted the sections of the hotel to the Waihi station in his horse-drawn wagon. It was taken to pieces board by board, and every nail taken out as well. A Waihi builder, Mr N. Rowe, supervised the operation.

The timber and fittings were taken to Rotorua by rail and it is believed that the original builder, Mr Morgan, was again employed to reassemble it.

The structure remained almost unchanged and when finished was named the Prince's Gate Hotel to complement the gates at the domain.

Today, if one looks carefully, the joins can be seen but the twice-built hotel is as solid as ever.

In Waihi children's playground at the corner of Kenny St and Barry Rd marks the site where the hotel stood a lifetime ago.