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Part one: History of Masterton’s first hotel

In the first of an occasional series, GARETH WINTER traces the history of Masterton’s original hotel, from construction in the 1870s to its demise in the 1950s. First up, he focuses on the chequered history of its first publican, John Tuck.

The first hotel to be constructed in Masterton was the ‘Family Hotel’, owned and operated by John Tuck.

It was erected in Queen Street about 1864 on the site now occupied by Bullick Blackmore, and for some years operated without a liquor license. A license must have been granted some time before April 1867 as Tuck applied for a renewal of his license then. His request was met with strong opposition from a delegation of Masterton citizens led by Presbyterian minister John Ross.

Ross told the magistrate that a public meeting had been held and the adult population was unanimously opposed to any license being granted in the town. Ross said Masterton had been prosperous and quiet before Tuck’s license was granted, but it was not the case now. The delegation was set against any license, especially one to Tuck.

Magistrate HS Wardell, although sympathetic to the townspeople’s cause, said he had to take the interests of travellers into account, and accordingly renewed the license. The application of J Thompson for a hotel in Featherston was postponed.

Masterton’s first publican John Tuck was born in Worsted, Norfolk, England in 1824, and married Mary Smith in New Zealand in 1866. The couple was to have four daughters.

Although he was granted a license, Tuck’s tenure of the ‘Family Hotel’ was contentious, with many complaints about the way he ran the establishment. Things came to a head in late 1871 when it was reported that James Tobin had fallen to his death at the hotel. He had been drinking heavily for several days and was eventually placed in a second storey room. Mistaking his room for a ground floor one, Tobin had clambered out a window and slipped on the wooden shingles. He clattered down onto the ground below, severely injuring himself.

His treatment following the accident caused outrage. He was first placed in the billiard room, then removed to a loose box in the nearby stable and placed on a bed of straw. He was left there to die. Robert Daniel sat with him and later told the inquest that Tobin never asked for any food but pleaded for more drink.

The following April, when applying for renewal, the magistrate severely reprimanded Tuck over the Tobin incident, but the police said the hotel was orderly apart from that one case and they did not oppose his license.

Things did not go so well the following year. In April 1873 the magistrate heard from Constable Donnelly that Tuck had been remiss in giving accommodation to a family group and had refused to release some horses he had given hay to without the knowledge of the owners. Donnelly also said Tuck had used unnecessary violence in removing a man who had become severely drunk. Magistrate Wardell told Tuck his time at the ‘Family Hotel’ was over – he would not renew the license.

Perhaps being aware of what was happening, Tuck sold the hotel to the same J Thompson who had requested a license for a Featherston hotel. He renamed it the ‘Prince of Wales’.

Local cartoonist Edward Wyllie depicts John Tuck’s prosecution under the Rabbit Act. IMAGE/SUPPLIED

However, Tuck’s time in the news was not over. He owned farms at Opaki and Rangitumau, and in 1880 became the first person in Wairarapa prosecuted under the Rabbit Act. The newspaper thought the prosecution [undertaken by local lawyer Arthur Bunny] was unfair, and local cartoonist Edward Wyllie draw an image of the “Awful Rabbit Trustees” who kicked a man when he was down.

His travails continued, as in late 1882 his farm, totalling 1215 acres, was auctioned in a mortgagee sale.

However, within months he was a publican again, at the ‘Railway Hotel’ in Hastings, then a hotel with the same name in Napier.

In 1885 he journeyed to England and the United States, then returned to Wairarapa in 1886, taking over the ‘Eketāhuna Hotel’. His return was not welcomed by everyone. In late June 1886 Henry Phillips opened the ‘Occidental Hotel’ on the corner of Park and Queen Streets.

In an advert, he offered a special treat for most of the public. He said he “… takes the opportunity on opening the above hotel to invite the residents generally, and everybody in particular [excepting Mr John Tuck, late of the Prince of Wales Hotel, Masterton and now residing in the Forty Mile Bush], to call and partake of his hospitality …”

In a letter to the paper the following day Phillips explained – Tuck had persuaded his housekeeper to leave the ‘Occidental’ for the delights of Eketāhuna .

Tuck fell afoul of the licensing committee in Eketāhuna too, following an argument about the hours he kept his billiards room open. In early 1889 he arranged a swap – his hotel for Thomas Parson’s ‘Eagle Brewery’ in Masterton. The new business quickly failed, and in August 1889 the property was offered for sale. Tuck died near Feilding the following month.

Tuck’s role in the introduction of licensed premises in Masterton was not forgotten.

The temperance lecturer John Harding told his Masterton audience he could remember the days of peace and prosperity in their town before “Friar” Tuck was licensed to make people drunk.

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