It was around 9am on Boxing Day 1879 that the owner of the Barretts Borough Hotel (the New Excelsior Backpackers), John Barrett, heard the band music of an approaching parade that was coming south down Manchester Street.
As he looked out the hotel windows, he could see ‘The Protestant Alliance Friendly Society’ (known as Orangemen) parade file past High and Lichfield Streets with their banners held high. They were on their way to the Railway Station to catch a train to Prebbleton. A grand picnic awaited them.
As Irish and Catholic as he was, Barrett had no problem with the gathering – the Catholics had held their green parade just a few days prior. But unbeknownst to him, about thirty other Catholics were hiding behind his building in secret, waiting for the Orangemen to pass by – some carrying weapons.
To the horror of Barrett, the attackers ran out onto Manchester Street, some customers even climbing out the very windows. The street was suddenly thrown into madness, angry shouts of “Don’t let them pass!” and “Bring down the colours!” filled the air. To the credit of the Orangemen, they attempted to stand their ground, backing away into High Street, beside the Strange’s Department Store.
Ironically, Christchurch’s police force were a hundred men down as concerns of clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Timaru were at an all time high. By 2pm, all the ringleaders were under arrest, 2.30pm Barretts Hotel was closed until further notice and at 3pm the Mayor, Henry Thomson, addressed the angry crowd that was now about four hundred people. The Mayor could do little to calm the rioters – rebel songs were sung and stones were thrown at the hotel. More arrests took place.
It was 1am before Manchester Street emptied. Poor, peace-loving John Barrett, in tears, claimed his innocence about the attack but it did little good. The Barrett Borough Hotel reopened on New Year’s Day. The real trouble came when Barrett went to renew his hotel license in 1880. He was denied and was advised to hire a new manager. Barrett, who was the owner of the hotel, did more than that. He had the old timber structure pulled down and had a new brick establishment erected. The new building and manager worked; the borough hotel carried on. Badly damaged in the February earthquake, with only the west facade surviving into 2015. Sadly, this has since been demolished.