My dear old school friend Anthony hadn’t been working at the Christchurch Town Hall very long when he first heard about the haunted dressing rooms of the James Hay Theatre. I can’t recall whether he had been uneasy within himself when his duties called him to that part of the Town Hall or whether he had heard it during the banter over afternoon tea but by the time he took me into those rooms – so I could get a feel for myself – he wasn’t comfortable at all with being behind the old stage. Haha, this didn’t stop him though from freaking himself out even more by walking through the place in the dark with the War of the World’s soundtrack taunting his fear further through his ear plugs – to turn on the lights was a sign of weakness…classic!
What Anthony told me as never left me till this day. The dressing rooms of the James Hay Theatre had been where the morgue of the old Limes Hospital had been situated. The young historian in me stirred! One could easy imagine that this was just one of those creepy stories passed on from staff member to staff member since the Town Hall opened in 1972 – maybe even originating from the builders themselves. But even those who used the dressing rooms as performers had passed on stories of being cold or having the feeling of being watched. 80 years of being a hospital that even took care of the returned crippled soldiers of the World’s Wars, I am not surprised that the Limes was a place of great sorrow.
If the name of Limes rings any bells of those familiar with the Town Hall, the old hospital is remembered in the naming of the Limes Room – a function area that has been hosting many of Christchurch’s parties and get-togethers since the 1970’s.
The first signs of life for the site that would become the hospital came at the hands of a gentleman called John Plank in 1862. He built a two-story boarding house on the south bank of Cambridge Terrace, close to Market Square – now known as Victoria Square. It was demolished in 1880 so a new brick hospital could be built. Behind this was a Scottish doctor named James Irving; he had only arrived in Christchurch the year previous and began his life in the city with huge dreams. He named his hospital after the Lime trees that grew by the Avon River, along Cambridge Terrace (‘Cambridge’ is the name of the Town Hall’s other function room).
But James’ interests in Christchurch did not stay purely within the interests of its medical care. He was a member of such organizations as the Social Purity Society, Christchurch Beautify Association and even gifted the High Altar of the Christchurch Cathedral in gratefulness of his family’s safe arrival to New Zealand. He also served the country as the Surgeon-Major of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles.
On the night of the 26th October 1900, in spite of suffering from a bad chill, Dr. Irving went to work as per usual. After finishing his rounds, he took a break in his favourite armchair in his office. Found passed out by other staff members, efforts to revive him failed. He is buried at Barbadoes Street Cemetery.
Unfortunately for his son, who was only 3 years into his medical training and considered not experienced enough, the Limes was passed on to a Dr. Alexander Paterson.
The most well-known birth to have taken place at the Limes was Sir Hamish Hay, born on the 8th December 1927. Hamish – who is now remembered in the naming of the Hamish Hay Bridge, the old Victoria Street Bridge – became Mayor in 1974 and remains the longest serving Mayor to date. So fitting that he is remembered today just metres from where he entered the world and that his own father is remembered in the naming of the infamous haunted theatre.
The Limes Hospital was demolished in 1963 to make way for a car park. With the beginning of the construction of the Town Hall in 1969, the site of the old hospital just seemed to be swallowed by the project and glad for that I am. A car park? – YIKES!
With the arrival of 2014 and a promise from the C.C.C. that the Town Hall will be restored to its former glory, those that linger in the darkened dressing rooms of the James Hay can rest assured that life will return to them, in the colours and flare of performance art.
*image courtesy of http://canterburyheritage.blogspot.co.nz*