In 1908 with the family farm having been sold in 1902 and her mother retired, Sena then aged 27, in partnership with a friend Mary Synott, bought a restaurant in Napier, New Zealand.
By Kendall Gibson
My grandmother Sena made delicious toffee, in thin slices, sugary and crunchy. She nibbled on a piece with her cup of tea and shared it (sparingly) with grandchildren. My mother said that Gran had been a very good cook in her day, she’d even owned a restaurant. It wasn’t until recently, while researching the online newspaper archives, that I found the full story of my grandmother’s restaurant.
Sena’s parents Hanna and Nicolai Larsen, had emigrated from Norway to New Zealand in 1873. Of the 11 Larsen children, Sena was one of the 7 younger ones born in NZ. She would have learned to cook working alongside her mother and two sisters in the kitchen of their farmhouse.
The Dominion Tea Rooms, Hastings St, Napier.
In 1908 with the family farm having been sold in 1902 and her mother retired, Sena then aged 27, in partnership with a friend Mary Synott, bought a restaurant in Napier They paid £100 ($17,000 in today’s NZ dollars). They may have chosen Napier as Sena’s brother Gus was working at the port there. It was a bold move for two single women in those days.
Sena and Mary welcomed Maori [i] customers to their dining rooms (this might not have been the case in some other local restaurants). In fact, most of their customers were Maori. Fish was a popular menu choice. ‘Robbie’ Roberts the fishmonger who supplied them, was also a frequent customer and became friends with the young women. (His actual name was William Charles Roberts. He claimed he preferred to use his nicknames of ‘Bob’ or ‘Robbie’ as his initials ‘WC’ were a well-known euphemism for ‘toilet!’)
The business did quite well for a couple of years. A neighboring business in the same building was a ‘Fancy Goods’ store run by James Koorey. In February 1911 Sena and Mary needed to fumigate the restaurant, which they did occasionally to kill cockroaches. When Mr Koorey saw the smoke coming out the windows of the Dominion Tea Rooms he thought the building was on fire and raised the alarm. (The fire brigade was probably manned by volunteers who were required to drop what they were doing and report for duty whenever they heard the alarm.) The town did not take kindly to the disruption caused by false alarms. In the days after calling the false alarm, James Koorey was subject to abuse and jeering in the street. ‘He got annoyed after being “barracked” about it.’ [ii]
Mr Koorey was so annoyed at the attitude of the town toward him that he took revenge on Sena’s and Mary’s business by spreading false information, particularly to Maori customers, about the quality of the food. He had been in New Zealand for 16 years and could speak Maori. From that time business at the Dining Rooms began to fall off. By the end of April Sena and Mary had to surrender their lease and sell the fittings. They had a debt of £120. They were disappointed at losing their business and felt bad about owing money. They now had to find work in domestic service to pay off the debt. Sena and Mary decided to take Koorey to court, seeking damages for the loss of their business. On 23 June 1911 the local paper ‘The Hastings Standard’ published this notice –
- The first Court Case
Before Sena and Mary’s case against Koorey came before the court, there was another related case, reported on 3 April 1911 in ‘The Hastings Standard’ –
‘Robbie’ Roberts clearly couldn’t contain himself. His friends’ business had been ruined and also the reputation of the products he had supplied.
- The Second Court Case (in the Supreme Court).
On 11 July 1911 the case of alleged slander against James Koorey Fancy Goods dealer was opened before a judge and a jury of 11 men.
The Case for the plaintiffs-
‘The plaintiffs were two young women who had opened a restaurant in Napier and had a particularly good connection with Maori. Towards February last the Maoris began to keep away and business became so scarce that they had to shut down. Investigations showed that the man Koorey had gone about amongst the Maoris and said that Misses Larsen and Synott supplied rotten fish and kept it from 3 to 6 weeks. The man had gone further and had openly boasted that he would shut them up.’
Witnesses testified that Koorey had offered them money if they would testify against the Dining Rooms in court. One witness who owed Koorey money, was promised the debt would be forgiven in exchange for testimony against the Dining Rooms.
The case for the defence-
Koorey put up a robust defence. He denied claims he had turned people against the restaurant saying ‘he had never told any Maori in Hawkes Bay that the food in Larsen and Synott’s was bad.’ Koorey denied trying to bribe five witnesses, calling them all liars. His lawyer ‘deprecated the worth of the Maori evidence.’ The judge summed up and the jury retired.
Sena and Mary won their case. They didn’t get the damages they’d asked for but £200 was enough to cover their debts.
A Happy Ending
In July 1914 Sena Larsen, the ex-proprietor of the Dominion Tea Rooms, and Bob Roberts, the fishmonger, were married in Palmerston North. The best man was Ted Beresford, a colleague from the fish shop. The bride was escorted down the aisle by her eldest surviving brother Nils Johan (Jack) Larsen. The bridesmaids were the daughters of her sister Martha Helma Marie (Larsen) Brown.
In 1925 Sena and Bob Roberts moved from Napier to Christchurch with their three children. They set up a fish and poultry business in Cashel St. The two eldest of Bob and Sena’s children, helped out in the business (see photo below).
Thanks to ‘Papers Past’ (the online newspaper archive) I now know the full story of how my grandparents met.
[i] Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand
[ii] ‘barrack’ Cambridge Dictionary Definition: to shout loudly in order to interrupt someone that you disagree with.
The National Library of New Zealand online newspaper archive