A Brief History of Poverty Bay Club
Wednesday 3 December 2003
A Brief History of Poverty Bay Club
After four fires, three earthquakes, and the introduction of women to its inner folds the Poverty Bay Club and its buildings have weathered many social and environmental storms since the Club was formed in 1874.
At 105 years old the building most linked with the gentlemen’s club is the “grand lady” on the corner of Customhouse Street and Childers Road in Gisborne.
A fine original example of late nineteenth century provincial architecture, the Poverty Bay Club building is an intrinsically valuable landmark in New Zealand’s most eastern city.
The building, erected in 1898, is the work of noted local architect William Peter Finneran.
With its high balcony, supported by heavy pillars on solid pedestals, and neat verandah with fancy iron brackets, cornices and fretwork ornamentations, the Poverty Bay Club leaves a handsome impression.
Once built, it became the latest home for the Poverty Bay Club which in its first 14 years of existence was forced out of former locations by a bevy of fires.
The Gentleman’s Club itself, was formed by Dr William Nesbitt, an Irishman, a doctor, a coroner and by the 1870s - Gisborne’s Resident Magistrate.
Dr Nesbitt, who was a man known for his impressive beard and described by club records as the “esteemed founder,” established the Club for ‘men well respected in society’.
Historical accounts from this time strongly suggest the club was founded as a social organisation and most likely the discussion of business and religion in the Club was vetoed.
Business however must have been discussed by Club members throughout history as the financial success of the Poverty Bay Club has ebbed and flowed.
At times finances were tight but in 1894, the Club was comfortably in the black and Club minutes record that members’ one pound levy was paid back to them!
Four years later the Club was in the position to pay the 1805 pounds it cost to build the “grand lady” or current Poverty Bay Club. A grand ball attended by around 200 people marked its opening.
For the next 20 years the Poverty Bay Club enjoyed a high point in its history. Club members finally had a home of their own and membership, which totaled 100 in 1899, had soared to 300 by 1921.
Increased membership led to diversified activities and during this time the building’s billiards room was enlarged twice. The card room and the bar were expanded and a squash court was constructed out the back.
The Club’s progress not surprisingly however was curtailed during the Great War. Five of the 44 members who served overseas were killed and there was a steady drop off in membership.
During World War II eight of the 59 members who served overseas were killed. Club finances had to be carefully managed.
Fortunes changed and after the war there was a sharp rise in membership. In the fifties another billiard room, called the Churchill Room was built.
The Churchill Room was named in honour of Sir Winston Churchill, born the same year as the Club was founded. The Club still has a copy of a letter from Sir Churchill himself.
Around the sixties it may not have been the 1966 earthquake and damage that it caused that occupied the minds of members. What may have commanded greater consideration was whether members should open the Club to women.
Ten years on things started to look promising for the inclusion of women as plans were drawn up for converting the upper rooms into a separate women’s area.
A little later however the cost was deemed too high, and the plan was shelved. The opening of the Club to women did not eventuate until 1988.
During the nineties the Club once again experienced a downturn in members.
Aging and declining membership issues were similarly faced by many clubs around the country. It became increasingly difficult for the Poverty Bay Club to attract younger members who preferred perhaps less formal methods of socialising.
In early 2003 the Club could no longer ride out the storm and Poverty Bay Club members decided to sell the historic building to the Witters Family Partnership.
The Poverty Bay Club continues to operate, and currently holds its meetings in a room within the old building the Witters Family Partnership has retained for its use, along with the memorabilia and history of the Club.