Jun 2, 2008

A Lost Institution

Like the renowned philanthropist Thomas Edmonds (1858-1932), George Robert Fail (1866-1937) was a native of suburban Poplar in London's East End. By the age of fifteen he was the cook aboard the Suffolk, a steam tug that towed sailing vessels from Dungeness at the mouth of the Thames river to the docks to the east of the city.

Twenty-two year-old George arrived in Christchurch in 1884 and in 1897 married Akaroa born Annie Ethel Cashmere (1882-1935). Annie's father was French labourer and her mother was Irish. Annie bore four sons and five daughter, of whom seven survived into adulthood. By 1906 they were living in William Street (now part of the Christchurch Polytechnic site), moving to Salisbury Street by the following year.

Listed as the keeper of a fish shop in 1894, by 1898 George had opened a Fish, Game and Poultry restaurant on the ground floor of the Colonial Mutual Life building on the eastern side of High Street near the Cashel Street corner (the old building is still there).

Business was good and in 1907 they moved to larger premises on the south side of Cashel Street near the Durham Street corner. Originally known as the Rio Grande, the flourishing restaurant's premises were substantially enlarged and the bespoke dinner ware was made by W H Grindley & Co of Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent in England.

George and Annie occupied the upper floor as an apartment. It's understood that at some time they also had a house in the same street where George had an astronomical observatory, apparently the telescope was commandeered by the Army in World War II.

"Pop" Fail died in 1937 and his eldest surviving son Robert Mather Fail (Bob) took over the management of the restaurant. Renamed Fail's Café, the ground floor facade and interior of the early 1870s building was remodelled to the Art Deco style.

Famous for its fish and unique chairs, New Zealand's oldest Seafood restaurant was a much loved Christchurch institution. However, by the late 1980s tastes in restaurant dining had undergone significant change and the business closed. The distinctive furnishings and dinner ware fell to the Auctioneer's hammer.

82 Cashel Street has subsequently undergone a number of morphoses. Now sporting an inappropriate paint job and much structural alteration, the historic building is currently the premises of The Bog.

Gordon Collingwood, for historical information.

The Auckland War Memorial Museum for Robin Morrison's 1979 interior of the restaurant (top Right).

Derrick F Donovan of Albany, Auckland for his illustration from New Zealand Odyssey by Euan Sarginson (top Left).

Christchurch Public Library, Heritage Photograph Collection for the circa 1955 photograph of a waitress serving expresso coffee (bottom Right).

See where these pictures were taken.

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