The Hornbrooks

As the Bridle Path was being sliced into the side of the Port Hills, above Lyttelton – which was well under construction, at the foot of the path, another structure was rising; under the watchful eye of its owner, Major Alfred Hornbrook. It was Canterbury’s first commercial enterprise, hotel and humble grog stop – to be known as ‘The Mitre’.

The Major who had served both in the English Army and Royal Marines, first arrived in New Zealand aboard the ‘Oriental’ – one of Wellington’s First Four Ships in 1840. Strangely, on the ‘Oriental’ passenger list, the Major is listed as Alexander Hornbrook rather than Alfred.
He must have liked what he saw of Wellington as he married Mary Anne Hodges that same year and in 1842, he was joined by his brother William. William made his living as a store owner.

There is little clue as to what brought Alfred down to Canterbury in 1849. He soon became a business partner of George Rhodes of Purau and took over the ownership of the Mt Pleasant Station, which stretched around the top of Sumner to the Scarborough Heads. The Mt Pleasant Homestead (lost to fire just before WWI) once sat at the junction of Mt Pleasant and Summit Roads. Amongst his farming duties, he also found the time to have ‘The Mitre’ designed, built and established as part of the Port by the time the First Four Ships arrived a year later. The place was soon famous for its great food and service – even praised by Canterbury Founder, John Robert Godley!

No doubt it was through George Rhodes that Alfred heard about the land available further down south. In 1851, Rhodes and his brothers (William and Robert) had purchased 75,000 acres and named their run ‘The Levels’. The town of Timaru now sits in some of ‘The Levels’ original acreage. Alfred seized the opportunity and also purchased some land beside the Rhodes, naming it ‘Arowhena’.  This was at the cost of ‘The Mitre’ which was sold to fund this new adventure.

‘Arowhena’ was under the management of William Hornbrook, who had just recently arrived in Lyttelton from Wellington. He and his wife Margaret Smith sailed down the coastline to Timaru, earning Margaret the title of being the first European woman to step ashore there. Margaret had arrived in Wellington as a 13 year old with her parents in 1843. She married William in 1848 and the pair went on to have 9 children. One was an infant in her arms as she was helped ashore for her new life in the South Island.

Meanwhile, Major Alfred continued his life in Lyttelton until 1871, when he was forced to declare bankruptcy – unbelievable for a man who owned roughly 47,000 sheep. All of his properties were put on sale including ‘Arowhena’.  Mt Pleasant Station was sold to Richard Morten, the man believed to be behind the naming of today’s suburb of Hillmorten. Alfred moved on to other farming projects with his second wife, Frances Anne Hewitt. There seems no clue to what happened to Mary Anne (his first wife) or whether she was even around for the move to Lyttelton. Death in childbirth maybe? But by 1854, there was a new Mrs. Hornbrook.  Eventually, Alfred moved his family to Australia where he died in 1893.

As for ‘The Mitre’, she has been passed on from owner to owner over the years. In 1870, she narrowly escaped the Lyttelton Fire that destroyed many of the the Mitre’s main competitors. As lucky as the hotel had been that day, just five years later, she was gutted out by fire anyway. Rebuilt in New Zealand’s finest timbers, she was to be destroyed by fire again in 1926. ‘The Mitre’ we know today was rebuilt and constructed with concrete; this is believed to be the main reason the hotel wasn’t lost completely to the quakes of 2010/2011.

After the forced sale of ‘Arowhena’ in 1871, William bought a new property named ‘Seadown’. He died in 1882 and Margaret stayed on in Timaru until her death in 1913. She was always remembered as a kind lady who acted as an unofficial nurse to neighbours or those passing by who had an ailment of one description or another.

Alfred is still remembered in Christchurch today by the naming of not only the Major Hornbrook Road but also the old Mayor Hornbrook track that still marks the slope of Mt Pleasant down to Lyttelton today. This was once used to transport wool down to Lyttelton.  It was also the location of one of the recaptures of the infamous sheep stealer, James McKenzie, who still in leg irons, was making a dash for freedom from the Lyttelton Gaol in 1855.

*image of Major Alfred Hornbrook courtesy of the Late Johannes Andersen*
*image of William and Margaret Hornbrook courtesy of –
*black and white photo of The Mitre courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library –
*image of The Mitre today courtesy of Kete Christchurch –

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