Community focus now at port pub

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied

The Great New Zealand Pub Crawl  features  some of the country’s best and least-known pubs, including some in Otago and Southland.  Authors Ned Bartlett and Jono Corfe pay  homage to those who run the pubs, as well as the regulars who transform rooms into communities. Today’s edited extract features the Portsider, in Port Chalmers.

Owners Pip Honeychurch and Hanz Dekker have given the Portsider a face-lift since they bought it...
Owners Pip Honeychurch and Hanz Dekker have given the Portsider a face-lift since they bought it in 2013. Photo: supplied

For most of Port Chalmers' history, it's been a place where dreams have been made or broken. As Otago's only commercial port, in the 19th century it was the landing point for many a young man (and a few young women) who came to this country to seek their fortune, be it from gold, the land or merchant trade. Most who landed didn't stick around. The few who did tended to be hardy souls, their lives entwined with the trade that went on at the port.

While the port, with its massive cranes and multitude of containers, still dominates the town, in recent years it has almost become another suburb of nearby Dunedin. In the old days, though, there was enough in Port Chalmers itself that visiting sailors had no need to travel into the city. The ships in dock provided more than enough patrons for the multitude of local hostelries, and there were plenty of them. Once upon a time Port Chalmers had the largest number of pubs per capita anywhere in New Zealand. One of those was the somewhat obviously named Marine Hotel.

While it was being built in 1880, the Otago Daily Times reported, "The style of the building is the decorated Italian, and is from the pencil of a young though very capable architect, Mr Gordon McKinnon, who, although not a native of the Port, has been connected with it from his earliest infancy, and it affords us very great pleasure to record the fact of so fine a building being erected from the designs of this meritorious and rising young artist. The edifice is of the most solid character, being composed of Port Chalmers bluestone foundation, with brick and cement upper works''.

The edifice might have been of solid character, but the clientele of the hotel, largely, were most certainly not. Almost as soon as it was opened in September, 1880 there are records of the publican appearing in court to answer charges of permitting disorderly conduct, selling liquor out of hours and supplying alcohol to someone who was intoxicated, among other misdemeanours. It wasn't all one-way traffic, though; there was the odd occasion when the licensee appeared in court as the victim of theft or assault.

Photo: supplied
Photo: supplied

Such was the reputation Port Chalmers attained that in 1902 the residents voted for the town to go dry. The mayor at the time was deeply concerned about the new law, worried that passing crews would choose to stay on board rather than come ashore. The prohibitionists saw value in the social improvement of the district over any financial impact. The mayor was half right. The visiting crews came ashore but headed straight through Port Chalmers on their way to the drink and delights offered in Dunedin.

The no-licence period lasted until 1905, with the Marine being one of the hotels that survived the lean pickings that the lack of alcohol sales brought. The reason could have been to do with one Cecilia Furk, the wife of the hotelier at the time. For in April, 1904, Mrs Furk found herself in court accused of selling intoxicating liquor in a no-licence area. Even with renowned lawyer Alf Hanlon defending her, she didn't stand a chance. Mrs Furk had sold beer and whisky to a couple of undercover policemen at breakfast time. She was found guilty and fined 20, the equivalent of about $3000 nowadays.

One of the hotel's longest-serving publicans, Edward McKewan, who ran the place from 1909 until 1923, came to an unusually sticky end. He boarded the train to Dunedin one day, smiling and cheerful, and instead of going into the carriage he remained on the outside platform. As it passed through Mussel Bay, just outside of Port, he fell off and knocked himself out on the stone batter of the embankment before falling into the water and drowning.

The Marine Hotel became the Marine Tavern in 1967, reflecting the changing focus from bed and board to beer and, well, more beer. It finally closed in 1976 and reopened as the Portsider in 1977.

With the evolution of technology, sailors now have much shorter shore leave than their predecessors. Where a week in dock used to be the norm, ships can now disperse their cargo, refuel and be back at sea within a matter of hours. This has meant that the town's bars now have to appeal to the local community rather than rely on visiting sailors to pay the bills.

The Portsider is definitely a place that the locals have taken to heart. Bought in 2013 by Pip Honeychurch and Hanz Dekker, it has had a complete facelift. Where once lay old, sticky, grey carpet and greasy, illuminated TAB machines now sits a clean, comfortable, modern bar. Wooden floorboards and leather seating enhance the cosiness brought by the large woodburning stove in the middle of the room. No secret is made of the pub's nautical history, with old model ships, netting and sundials lining the bar, a perfect accompaniment to the giant anchor painted on the period pub sign hanging over the front door. Gone is the staircase that once led to 17 upstairs bedrooms; the space has now been converted into apartments. After all, without all those seadogs around there's probably not such a need for all those lodgings any more.

While in the past it was always the booze that attracted people to the Marine, the Portsider is all about the food. Owner Hanz is an accomplished chef whose mission it is to convert Port locals to the specialties of his native Amsterdam. His enthusiasm for Dutch food is definitely catching as the locals here all seem to have developed a chronic addiction to Hanz's bitterballen, delicious little balls of meaty goodness served with a wonderful Dutch mustard, which are the perfect accompaniment to a pint of locally brewed Emerson's.

If you're planning a visit to the Portsider and you're worried about not being able to get your hands on Hanz's bitterballen, don't be. Pip and Hanz so love being at the tavern that on the rare occasion when they go away, they close the doors rather than leave their customers sitting staring forlornly into the fire, almost able to taste that mustard, but not quite.

 Reprinted from The Great New Zealand Pub Crawl, by Ned Bartlett and Jono Corfe (Random House), RRP $60.

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