The Grand Old Duke

by Sandy Myhre

This history of this most famous pub is an intrinsic part of Russell’s time-past in the Far North of New Zealand.

The hotel began life in Kororareka in 1827 as Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop. These were the “Hell Hole” days when the largest industry (whaling) was literally entwined with the second-largest industry (prostitution) and very little, if any, law enforcement.

Johnny wisely changed the name to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, in a nod to the world’s richest man at the time thus generating an air of much-needed respectability.  He was finally granted an official licence after 13 years of trading and that licence is now hanging in the Duke’s bar.

The Duke of Marlborough has seen 14 different owners and has been burnt down twice – first in 1845 during the battle of Kororareka and rebuilt by Johnny Johnston and again in 1931.  The current structure was built in 1875, shipped from Cable Bay and dragged into place by a steam traction engine in 1932.

Although there’s a certain romanticism attached to the hotel, back in the day it would generously have been called “rustic” with saw-dust on the floor, basic amenities and a somewhat rough crowd. Maori weren’t invited in.

Current owners Jayne Shirley, Rikki Kinnaird and Bridget and Anton Haagh are now refurbishing the grand old architectural aristocrat.  A balcony and portico will be added to the front, ten more rooms will be added to the rear and aluminium joinery will be replaced but structurally the old Duke will remain the same. The brief to the architect is to bring back the beauty of the establishment of 150 years ago.

That ethos extends to the furniture and fittings. If everything inside looks a natural part of the place it has, in fact, been carefully chosen over the past seven years and the owners consciously researched the hotel’s history to recreate appropriate aesthetics.

“We’ve sourced from Trade Me and major suppliers, some people, including the previous owner, donated photos and memorabilia, we got some photos from the Russell Museum and we’ve added some things ourselves so it’s all in keeping with the style of the structure,” says Anton Haagh.

The hotel is a major tourist drawcard with the restaurant catering for 100,000 diners a year.  As such, it’s also a significant local employer and the successful business model has been achieved from a passionate commitment to the region and hard work.

“We wanted to give the hotel some love and attention and show we are proudly New Zealand,” says Mr Haagh.


The Grand Old Duke of Marlborough, an intrinsic and famous part of the Russell foreshore in the Far North of New Zealand.

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