24 London Street, Harbour Light Theatre

Harbour Light, ca. 1980s

Harbour Light, ca. 1980s

Former Movie Theatre/Cinema

Date of building: 1916
Architects: reputed to be J.S. and M.J. Guthrie
Materials: Brick, stucco facade
Style: Californian style with art nouveau details
Situated on Part Section 37, Town of Lyttelton

In October 1855 Town Section 37 was part of the land granted to Jesse Watts Russell and two others. In 1862 the lease of TS 37 was assigned to a surgeon, John Thomas Rowse. The Land Deed includes mention of a building on the site and a mortgage raised on it. By 1878 the land had passed to Alfred Creyke after his marriage to Elizabeth, widow of John Charles Watts Russell. Elizabeth regained title to the land when Alfred died in 1898.

TS37 was sold in July 1916 for the sum of £550 to Arthur William Lane, then transferred to Lyttelton Pictures Ltd. in September. Mr Lane was the manager of the new Harbour Light Theatre when it was opened on 20 March 1917 by the Deputy Mayor of Lyttelton Mr. J. T. Norton.

Before the opening of the Harbour Light travelling theatrical companies would use one of the other halls in the town to present their shows. The opening of the Harbour Light Theatre by the Lyttelton Picture Company meant that motion pictures could be screened in the town, much to the delight of the locals.

The Harbour Light Theatre was thought to have been designed by J.S. and M. J. Guthrie and purpose-built as a picture house and theatre for the Lyttelton Picture Company. It could seat 550 people in both stalls and circle. The front of the building was two storeys high, with a mezzanine floor, and two decorative brick towers topped with spherical domes on either side. The entry was framed by large Tuscan columns, with quoin stones on the corners of the building. The material of the building was mostly brick with a stucco finish on the facade painted white in the “California style”. The entrance featured an art nouveau style etching of a pattern above the verandah roof.

At first the theatre management had concentrated on screening of films three times during the week. Then in 1920 they decided to extend the back of the theatre building and erect a stage with up-to-date fittings and lighting effects. The first performance on the new stage in December 1920 was delivered by the first “big-town” company to appear in Lyttelton, and apparently lived up to all expectations.

Having the stage meant that the Harbour Light could be used for fund-raising and benefit concerts, public talks and other social occasions, not just to screen films. Attractions presented on the new stage included illusionists and hypnotists, even vaudeville from the “Jolly John Larkin Happy Folks Company”. In July 1920

Albert Steele succeeded in his attempt to break the world record for playing the piano for 100 hours without sleep or rest at the Harbour Light.

In 1925 the theatre building was seriously damaged when a clay bank at the rear of the theatre collapsed into the wall at the rear of the stage extension. Heavy rain had made the bank unstable, with the result that several tons of earth and bricks fell onto the stage causing hundreds of pounds worth of damage. The main building was undamaged and it was possible to continue film screenings although the stage was out of action for some time.

‘Talkies’ arrived in Lyttelton in April 1930, and attendance at the theatre continued to be a regular social activity for the townspeople.

In 1944 Lyttelton Pictures Limited advertised the Harbour Light Theatre property for lease (for 10 years) or purchase. However the property title remained unchanged until 1965 when it was transferred to Masters’ Enterprises who kept the Harbour Light operating as a cinema. In March 1972 Leo Quinlivan took ownership of the dilapidated and run-down building and after a major refurbishment of the building reopened it in 1973 as a theatre.  It was sold again in 1980 to Frederick E. Read, a film librarian, who was the last owner to use the theatre as a cinema.

In 1983 it was sold to Peter Harris who carried out extensive changes to the interior, including the building of a squash court in the back stage, the stripping out of the auditorium and stage area and the removal of the original plaster on the walls as well as the projection box. The refurbished building reopened in April 1985 as a BYO restaurant complete with stage.

However by 1988 the Harbour Light had again changed hands, with the new owner Tom Jones using the theatre as a night club and for performance theatre. By 1992 it had evolved into a licensed entertainment and function venue.  It continued to operate as a function venue until the earthquake in February 2011 caused extensive damage to the building. The Harbour Light Theatre was demolished in April 2011.


  • Lyttelton Library Information File: 24 London Street, Harbour Light
  • Johnson, John. The story of Lyttelton, Lyttelton Borough Council, 1952
  • Ussher, Tony. Harbour Light Theatre, Lyttelton: conservation plan; second draft , 24 June 1998, Skew Hey Ussher Architects, 1998
  • Papers Past
  • Rossie, Liza. Original research notes and material on Lyttelton built heritage.

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