Another Look at the Ashburton Arms

As the principal pioneer of the area that came to be Ashburton, William Turton held a lot of responsibility.

From 1858, he established himself as the ferryman of the Hakatere/Ashburton River, and soon enough he was granted a license to operate an accommodation house, which became the hub of the area during the early days.

As the pre-eminent option for accommodation and services in the region until 1869, the Ashburton Arms was of great importance when Ashburton was in its infancy. In 1859, Turton was even appointed postmaster, and all postal business was conducted from the accommodation house.

A well-known view of Turton’s accommodation house (right), and the Cobb & Co stables (left). Eventually, the Arms became the police barracks and post & telegraph office, before being dismantled.

In previous posts, we have discussed details such as Turton’s duties as an innkeeper, hospitality at the inn, and what it was like to take a coach over the river as described by Lady Barker. This time we will look at some more obscure information about Turton’s early activities, including discussion about some archaeological finds from an excavation of accommodation house site in 2016. Finally, we will take a brief look at a fictional account of what it was like to stay at a rowdy accommodation house in the pioneer days, for the sake of discussion.

Turton and the Pastoral Association

The Lyttelton Times was the first newspaper of the Canterbury Settlement, and it is where we find contemporary accounts of William Turton’s varied activities as the proprietor of the Arms.

In 1860, it was announced that the annual Pastoral Association’s Sheep Show would be held at William Turton’s accommodation house that August – an important occasion that Turton would have had to go all-out for. For the occasion, Turton had erected a large marquee to be used as a meeting space by the members of the Pastoral Association, which seemed to suffice.

Even though the show moved away from Turton’s not long after, he must have left an impression as he ended up being a judge at the Association’s show two years later.

The Ashburton Arms, as shown on Robert Park’s second map of Ashburton, 1864.

It seemed that Turton enjoyed playing host to events and entertainments, since according to the Lyttelton Times, when the Association concluded their business they “took advantage of the opportunity of meeting to get up a most creditable afternoon’s racing.” Turton, obviously excited at the idea of rivalling the races in Timaru and Kaiapoi, promised “a very handsome Cup to be run for, and subscriptions to a considerable amount were collected on the ground.”

More serious matters

When somebody passed away under unusual circumstances, it was not uncommon for inquests to be held at provincial hotels.

In November 1861, it was reported by the Lyttelton Times that an inquest was held by Dr Rayner, Timaru district coroner, at Turton’s accommodation house. The case was the drowning of Hellen Lane, daughter of an employee of George Hall, Ashburton Forks.

It was an open-and-shut case – a freak accident – and the coroner thanked Mr Turton “for the promptitude with which he collected a jury, and his civility and attention at the inquest. We hear this is one of the best connected houses in the road.” Turton’s professionalism was compared to the sloppiness of the neighbouring Ward and his management of the Rangitata punt – clearly Mr William Turton had built himself a stable reputation.

All sorts of meetings took place at Turton’s, including gatherings of local electors, and other public meetings of all kinds.

Archaeological evidence

We know without a doubt that Turton’s accommodation house was an important transport nexus, post office, and even an events venue.

Written accounts are plentiful, but one thing that adds more validity to a historic site’s importance is physical evidence – building remains, land features, and archaeological evidence. Archaeological survey work was conducted in 2016 around the site of the Ashburton Arms, in preparation for the construction of the new Countdown supermarket on the site. A paleochannel (remnant of an inactive stream channel) along the north-west edge of SH1 at the intersection was excavated, and extensive work at the site of the current Countdown carpark revealed much evidence of past activity.

Reconstruction of a room at Turton’s accommodation house, at the Scottish Hall, made up of items lent by various Ashburton families. This display dates from the 1970s.

As you would expect, glass bottles and ceramics were prevalent at the site, but in my opinion the most interesting artefacts came from the paleochannel. The channel contained leather items such as a shoe, possible blacksmith’s glove, and metal items including horseshoes and stakes – evidence of a smithy at work.

A fictional visit

Philosopher Dick: Adventures and Contemplations of a New Zealand Shepherd is a satirical, semi-biographical novel written by George Chamier in 1891, and it details a group of traveller’s experiences in early New Zealand.

The book describes a scene of drunken, depraved chaos at an unnamed country hotel which may seem outrageous, but some bits and pieces may match up with reality. By examining this piece of fiction, it is possible to pick out the details which may be more authentic, giving us a bit of a glimpse into staying at an early accommodation house.

In chapter 15 of Philosopher Dick, the travellers reach an accommodation house which is described as being “bare and unsightly, and standing by itself on a wide reach of arid plains,” a description which is reminiscent of Turton’s inn in the early 1860s. They find the hotel packed to the brim, with numerous drunken patrons scattered about the place either lying dead drunk, having a brawl, or making up post-fistfight – perhaps this description is gratuitous, but drunkenness was not exactly rare in early Ashburton!

The focus of the whole scene is the drink, which seems to take the role of an abhorred villain that claimed all who entered that wretched place, where refusing a shout would have surely caused a commotion. The place was fly-infested and filthy, with one character being forced to find refuge from the chaos in an outhouse, among the rats and hay.

This portion of Philosopher Dick paints a grim picture, but you can imagine that in some places scenes such as this would have been possible – perhaps not to this degree at Turton’s inn though, given his glowing reputation!

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 27 March 2021.

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