Monday, October 27, 2008

For the comfort of members – New Zealand’s Bellamy’s

This was first written to go straight onto a message board around 4 years ago. Now, it's on my own blog. Funny how life goes.

The House, an extremely good history of New Zealand’s House of Representatives from 1854-2004 published last year, is a record of our centralised form of government which at first started out alongside provincial councils, then from 1875 came into its own. Dotted in amongst the stories of parliamentarians and buildings past and present, is that of Parliament’s catering service, known as Bellamy’s. This is a place that’s always been mentioned when satirical comment is made on the foibles of our leading citizens down in Wellington, especially in the early 1980s when there was speculation that Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon had stopped off at Bellamy’s for a few before he called the snap election of 1984 (which he subsequently lost). Possibly drunk in charge of a country.

The first Bellamy’s was part of the British parliament, an idea started by Deputy Housekeeper John Bellamy in 1773. It was in response, some say, to the proliferation of taverns in London Town at the time (I hardly think 1773 was any different than other periods in that city’s long history, but that’s the story.) The purpose of the original Bellamy’s, as has been that of its New Zealand counterpart, was to provide “for the comfort of members”, supplying them with food and drink while parliament was in session. The food part of that arrangement has hardly ever been a problem, except in terms of public expenditure in this essentially private club. The raised eyebrows, especially in 19th century New Zealand, have always been over the booze.

According to Jim Sullivan in his 1977 article for the NZ Listener called “A few drinks at Bellamy’s”, the original British Bellamy’s was destroyed by fire in 1834, and when facilities were rebuilt there the catering services were taken over by a Kitchen Committee; the name “Bellamy’s” was officially dropped. But the colonials on the other side of the world in Auckland (our second capital, before Wellington), decided the name was good enough for them. Or, perhaps, they were good enough for the name.

The first Bellamy’s in 1854 was a simple affair – a lean-to attached to the rear of the General Assembly buildings on Eden Crescent, staffed by a woman employed as a housekeeper who also rented out rooms to members in her cottage to the back of the lean-to. Inside this Bellamy’s, the catering facilities were basic – the table consisted of a board supported by two trestles, a clean tablecloth, with cups, saucers, and a few plates of butter. I wonder if the name “Bellamy’s” was actually attached to this rudimentary set-up as a bit of joke.

A joke or not, this first Bellamy’s was the subject of the first Act under representative government in the colony, the Liquor Amendment Act (which was also the only Act passed in the first session). The sale of liquor at Bellamy’s was not only legal from that point, but retrospectively so. The parliament was mocked by newspapers of the time for this, with Frederick Whittaker of the Legislative Council accusing them of having set up “a grog shop for members.” By the early 1860s, Bellamy’s was enlarged, a proper caterer appointed (who had a wine shop of his own on Fort Street, where members of parliament tasted his wares while negotiating the scales of charges for Bellamy’s).

When Parliament moved to Wellington in 1865, Bellamy’s moved south with it. Towards the end of the 1860s, the temperance movement in the country began to gain ground. One of the targets for the ire of those opposed to the demon drink, of course, was Parliament’s own club. According to Jim Sullivan:
In 1869, the Member for the Bay of Islands, Hugh Carleton, moved that Bellamy’s be closed. He felt that the public had gained the impression that Members were too solicitous about their own comforts and, what was worse, the availability of liquor helped many debates to drag on far too long. His proposal failed, but he bounced back next year with the motion that no alcohol be served between one and two in the afternoon and five and seven in the evening. His main reason for the restrictions, he claimed, was the painful memory of a “disgusting scene” a couple of years earlier when some Members “forgot themselves” during an all-night sitting. The next speaker promptly accused Carleton of no sooner putting the motion on the notice paper than he was off to Bellamy’s to take his brandy and water.
Talk that much of the colony’s legislation of this period was “considered in a miasma of whiskey fumes” was widespread.

From’s page on Bellamys:
”Bellamy's stocked the best liquor in the country and MPs did it proud. In 60 sitting days the short session of 1871 got through 50 dozen bottles of champagne, a hogshead and 72 bottles of claret, 4 casks of sherry, a cask of port, 4 casks of wine and £100 of spirits, to say nothing of the selection of ales, wines, and liqueurs. Bellamy's kept a cellar, tested the proof of imported spirits, and broke down and bottled spirits for sale both over the bar and by the bottle or case to MPs. Its own brand of liquor was exclusively for the parliamentarians.”
One notorious incident involved Edward Jerningham Wakefield who was, sadly, a renowned alcoholic. Sir William Fox’s government in 1872 desperately needed his vote, so the government whip locked him in a committee room (perhaps to keep him away from the opposition). However, when the opposition whip heard of this confinement, he climbed up onto the roof, and lowered a bottle of whiskey with the cork conveniently loosened down the chimney. By the time the government whip returned to collect his sure vote, said vote was “paralytic” under the table. The government whip tried plying Wakefield with even more alcohol, but Wakefield voted to throw out the Fox government anyway. No wonder that (and perhaps also with a touch of irony) Sir William Fox devoted much of the rest of his life to the cause of prohibition.

Belts were tightened at Parliament with the onset of the Long Depression (1879-1895). Bellamy’s was one of the targets of those who decried the ‘division of the House into “nobs” and “snobs”,’ and from 1880 while the liquor supply was assured, the cook was fired, subsidies removed, and prices increased. However, the atmosphere of economy didn’t last all that long. On the menu for Sir William Larnach’s farewell in 1887:
”… roast turkey, braised duck and olives, saddles of mutton, fillets of beef with Madeira sauce … (and) quail on toast were followed by nougat a la crème, Rhine wine jelly and diplomatique pudding.” The bar at the time still supplied “the finest liquor in the Empire City.”
Despite the cost-cutting and self-funding, Bellamy’s was still in financial strife by the early 1890s. The temperance movement by now was now in full cry. The bar was closed at 11 pm from 1893, the year anti-prohibitionist and former hotelkeeper Richard Seddon came to office as premier. The ascendency of Dick Seddon probably saved Bellamy’s from shutting completely as a liquor provider for the House. Despite the commotion when new member John McLachlan took a step too far off a pier while heading for home from The House while drunk in 1894, despite also the likes of the Otago Daily Times chiding that New Zealand might acquire “the reputation of a community which returns a Parliament which cannot be trusted in the presence of strong drink”, it was agreed to keep the liquor supply going at Bellamy’s as stocks for that session had already been ordered from Britain.

Given that breathing space, Seddon amended the legislation allowing for a poll to take place at the start of each Parliamentary session to determine whether liquor should continue to be supplied; such vote only needed a bare majority for prohibition. While on the surface it appeared he was siding with the temperance movement, he actually assured continuance in the House because while perhaps only half the lower House may support continuance, virtually all of the Legislative Council would vote with their glasses charged in toast. The restrictive laws as to hours and provision for a poll each session was repealed in 1960.

Bellamy’s has thus remained as an institution of the New Zealand Parliament. And so it remains; a connection between the need to find a better place to wet the whistles of eighteenth century British politicians, and one of the Empire’s distant colonies. If it was meant to be just a joke in 1854 -- that has been long forgotten.

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