John (Jack) Etherden Coker (1831 – 1894)

Jack Coker would be the first one to tell you that life didn’t always deal him a fair hand of cards but I think the real heartbreak of the Coker story is that his numerous legacies were ALL stolen away by the earthquakes of 2011. This bubbly, life-loving fellow is now in danger of being forgotten by the city that he only ever wanted to entertain and bring pleasure too.

John Etherden Coker was born in Bath, England in 1831. As an adult, he was on the high seas, playing his part in the Crimean War while serving in the Royal Navy. At the age of 30, he arrived in Lyttelton, ready to seize any opportunities that came his way. He found work as a butcher in Lyttelton, eventually going into a partnership with George Waldock Ell – the father of Harry Ell whose conservation passions are the reason we have the Summit Road and the Sign of the Kiwi, Packhorse, Bellbird and the Takahe. Unfortunately, the pair failed at their enterprise and faced the courts under the stain of bankruptcy.

Not one to stay down for long, Jack reappeared for life’s next adventure in Christchurch. He had always had the dream of opening a Gentlemen’s Club or a hotel of grand scale, even as he worked as an Inspector of Public Nuisances for the C.C.C. To look at him and hear him talk, one could believe that he could do it. He always wore a top hat and strangely, riding gear – but he was likable. No doubt this was how he got financial backing to design and build ‘Coker’s Commercial Rooms’ in the North Western corner of Cathedral Square. The grand opening was on 7th July 1863.

Things started off very well for Coker, the crowd from the nearby Royal Princess Theatre (the Isaac Theatre Royal) making the hotel their own. Also an enjoyer of the arts, Coker himself took to the Royal’s stage, bringing his love of entertaining and service together under the theatre’s bright (candles or gas???) lights.

Sadly just a year later, money trouble plagued Coker again and he was forced to sell his dream. The hotel was brought by a William White who then sold it on to William Francis Warner who renamed the establishment after himself – the ‘Warners Hotel’.

To pay the bills, Coker took a job managing the City Hotel (that sat along the northern side of the Triangle Centre) and he was actually putting his life back together. But boredom got the best of him and again, he went out to find more backing – which he did – and not far from his beloved ‘Cokers Commercial Rooms’, he built the ‘Criterion Hotel’ in 1865. Again, bankruptcy raised its ugly head and the Criterion was taken out of his hands. The Criterion was later known as the Dominion Hotel, the Coachman Inn and in the late 1990’s, ‘Excalibur’s’ – still in Cathedral Square.

Next came the ‘London Ham and Beef Shop’ which became a roaring success but again, Coker found himself yawning behind the counter and he couldn’t quiet down his dreams. He sold the delicatessen and opened ‘The Pleasure Garden’ on Manchester Street, between Gloucester and Worchester Streets in 1867. It proved to be quite a hotel, even housing a concert hall. Out in the gardens, there were aviaries and gaming areas.

Tragically, the following year, Coker lost his wife after a long illness and the great 1868 flood caused so much damage to his hotel, he was declared bankrupt. What followed was the management of the Rakaia Accommodation Hotel, the Theatre Royal Café but then something of real interest brought Coker to a complete standstill –an actress, ex-governess, by the name of Lizzie Allen.

Lizzie had arrived in Lyttelton in 1859 seeking fame and fortune. She soon became part of the crowd at the Theatre Royal. She married ‘Charlotte Jane’ settler George Allen who made his fortune with his market gardens. He died in 1871, leaving Lizzie a very rich woman and with land to boot. The nine years age difference (Lizzie being older) obviously meant nothing as Coker and Lizzie married in 1872.

I’m sure being a newlywed and back behind the bar as manager at Warners Hotel (his Coker’s Commercial Rooms) made him do more than just smile. BUT, yep, you guessed it; money problems forced him to cut his losses and leave. The Coker’s decided to wash their hands of Christchurch and its bad luck and moved to Wellington. There, Coker took over ‘The Occidental’ (Chris and my drinking hole while living in Wellington in 2010) but by 1878, they were back in Christchurch and things were about to change – for the better.

Lizzie finally stood her ground and took over all the financial decisions for the family. On some of land left to her by her first husband that sat between George and Allen Streets (both named in his memory) with frontage along Manchester Street, the Coker’s built and opened the ‘Coker’s Family Hotel’. After years of watching Jack open and manage his hotels with every grandeur imaginable, Lizzie paced the process, making sure there was enough money for everyday expenses after the grand opening. The hotel was a success! Author and poet, Rudyard Kipling (who wrote ‘The Jungle Book’) even stayed there!

In 1890, with Jack’s failing health, the Coker’s sold the hotel to Captain William Popham. But in true style, Coker found retirement boring and took over the New Brighton Hotel. Four years later, Coker finally bowed out of public life and passed away that same year. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery.

Lizzie remarried in 1896 to Frank Hurd, a man 30 years her junior. The two travelled a lot overseas, but when Lizzie died in 1910, she was buried with Coker at Linwood. As for Coker’s Family Hotel, the name Coker remained for decades after. Even with the businesses that came and went, the building still carried the name until the earthquakes stole it away.

In my own memory, it has been the Coker’s Backpackers, the Fat Ladies Arms (the best nightclub EVER) and finally, a Lone Star Restaurant.

*Image of Coker’s Family Hotel courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 13, IMG0029
* Image of Coker’s Family Hotel courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com – File Reference CCL Photo CD 10, IMG0060
*Image of Warner Hotel courtesy of Low-Latitude Antarctica Gazetteer – http://www.antarctic-circle.org
*Image of Coker’s Building after Quakes courtesy of Woza Wanderer – http://wozawanderer.blogspot.co.nz*
*Photo of Coker grave at Linwood Cemetery taken by Annette Bulovic*

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