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According to the architectural historian, J.M. Freeland, hotels constitute 'one of the most socially significant, historically valuable, architecturally interesting, and colourful features of Australian society'. Melbourne's hotels - or 'pubs' as they are commonly known - have been community centres for the consumption and sale of drink, and providers of accommodation (most typically, but not always, for travellers) since foundation and early settlement. Often they face each other on a corner or intersection, with subtle differences in style and clientele, and trade barely enough for all. Hotels quickly assumed an enduring role in the provision of food, leisure and entertainment. A typical counter lunch around 1900 comprised 'Roast Beef; Ham; Cheese; Fish; Rissoles; Sheep's Trotters; Ox Tongue; Corned Beef; Sausages. Vienna Rolls or Bread Slices; Pickles and condiments - your choice of these viands with a full pint of Beer, all for THREE PENCE!' Hotels were also a trap, encouraging drinking and leading to poverty and alcoholism and linked with prostitution and crime.

The distinctive features of the 'Australian Pub' have been shaped by liquor licensing legislation. Legislation in the 1830s required that licensed premises should provide accommodation for public use, with general retailing functions restricted to selling liquor for consumption on the premises. Pubs were not required to be elaborate or luxurious. Edwin Booth in Another England (London, 1869) observed that any building 'formed of weatherboards, measuring ten feet by twelve, with a recess at the back large enough to contain an American cooking stove, and frontage sufficiently long to display a signboard is, in a "colonial sense", a hotel'.

Twenty annual licences had been issued by 1839. Well known was George Smith's Lamb Inn in Collins Street west, 'a series of low shingled weatherboard cottages joined together with dark passageways' on a site purchased at the first land sale in 1837. 'A roystering place for shepherds with cheques' its large dining-room was used for meetings. Here sporting clubs and companies were founded, coroner's inquests held and duels organised. Sold in 1840, the licence lapsed when the new owner went bankrupt. Reopened in 1849 as the Clarendon Family Hotel, it was rebuilt as Scott's Hotel in 1861 and became a Melbourne institution.

J.P. Fawkner opened Fawkner's Hotel in a single-storey timber and brick building on the south-eastern corner of Collins and Market streets. This was leased to become the first home of the Melbourne Club in 1839. Other early public houses were run by ordinary folk. Michael Pender was a rough Irishman whose original Shamrock Inn in Flinders Lane was a sod hut. James Connell's Highlandman Hotel in Queen Street and John Moss' Ship Inn in Flinders Lane were wattle and daub. Women were also active. Former Tasmanian convict William McGuire established the Red Lion Inn in Lonsdale Street. When he died in 1844 Elizabeth McGuire took over the licence to support her four children.

Hotels were also staging posts for travellers. Benjamin Levien offered a punt service across the Maribyrnong River in 1840. His Victoria Hotel was on the Footscray side. As the main early port for ocean-going ships, Williamstown had some low public houses, notably Thomas Field's shanty 'the Bucket of Blood' (later the Williamstown Inn). A former Horse Guards Captain Wilbraham Liardet and his wife, Caroline, emigrated in 1839 and established the Pier Hotel on the beach at Sandridge (Port Melbourne). By the end of the 1840s new hotel development clustered around the theatres in the city's east. Bayside hotels like John Mooney's Royal Hotel at St Kilda were linked by coach to the city and in 1850 he advertised bathing boxes for clients as well.

The gold rush saw Melbourne's hotels fully occupied. Hotels were money-makers in the early gold rush years with annual rents of £5000. In the peak immigration year of 1853 one licensee claimed he made £20 000 profit. Publicans gained influence over licensing bench magistrates and in the Melbourne City Council where polls were still held in hotels. Seven-times mayor, John Thomas Smith benefited from publican support. A pioneer storekeeper, hotel and theatre-owner grown rich, he craved respectability but both he and his wife Ellen - the daughter of pioneer publican Michael Pender and of convict descent - were snubbed by society.

The burgeoning hotel trade reflected the wealth and mobility of the immigrant community, and the city's exuberant frontier character. The 'great popular central tap' of the day, according to traveller William Kelly, was the Bull and Mouth in Bourke Street, its bar 'a sight for a stranger, with its close packed crowd in front, skirted by outsiders, who were served out over the hats of the inner ranks'. Americans Samuel Moss and Charles Wedel renovated the Criterion on the south side of Collins, between Elizabeth and Queen streets. In 1853 they built a three-storey frontage and 28 bedrooms with bars, dining-rooms, billiard saloon, bath-house, hairdresser, bowling saloon and a vaudeville theatre to the rear. The bridal suite had amber satin sheets. Government profited, increasing liquor licensing fees and fining unlicensed or after-hours traders. Spirits consumed in hotels as 'nobblers' attracted import duties. Trading hours were 6 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. Monday to Saturday but illegal 'after hours' and Sunday trading was common. With the police little inclined to act, 'sly grog' activity gained public acceptance. Mac's Hotel and the Duke of Wellington (the city's oldest licence) and Young & Jackson Hotel date from this period.

Many successful early publicans were ruined when immigration declined. Investments were made in large hotels which, when completed, passed to new owners but trade consolidated in the 1860s and 1870s. The Menzies Private Family Hotel, founded by Archibald and Catherine Menzies at 235 La Trobe Street in 1853, was rebuilt in grand style on the corner of William and Bourke streets in 1867. Aimed at the wealthy country visitor, the three-storeyed complex attracted international visitors and remained the city's leading residential hotel into the 20th century. The inappropriately named John Tankard operated Melbourne's first Temperance Hotel on the south side of Lonsdale Street, between Queen and William streets. Undoubtedly, certain hotels were places of prostitution and many more were places where clients could be gathered or visited. The infamous 'saddling paddock' at the Theatre Royal was its vestibule bars. The front bar of the Australia Hotel was a meeting place for gay men in the 20th century.

Social reformers and temperance activists were eventually successful in reducing trading hours and hotel numbers. On Melbourne Cup eve in 1876, George Meudell toured the hotels and found 'no repression of drink or of gaiety'. The Exchange in Swanston Street was 'filled with well-dressed hetirae, gay, laughing and chatty'. But, he complained, after 1881 'joyousness of Melbourne's night-life was silently squelched' by police under the leadership of Chief Inspector H.M. Chomley. Many of the older hotels of Central Melbourne were ill-kept and run-down, out of step with the land boom ethos and the exhibition culture. In January 1883 the Age newspaper divided hotels into three classes: large and mainly respectable establishments, into which their proprietors had sunk considerable sums of money; 'tied houses' offering inferior service and liquor, with the licensees indebted to wine and spirit interests or brewers; and the 'low dens' of the 'back slums', 'dirty, badly furnished, badly conducted, devoid of accommodation ... resorted to by besotted drunkards, loafers, vagabonds, thieves and prostitutes' with 'the liquors sold in them ... abominable trash'.

The 1885 parliament debated a new licensing Act which sought to prohibit barmaids, fix a statutory number of hotels for a district according to population and provide for local option, enabling communities to limit the number of hotels. Working-class inner-city districts had many more hotels than the new suburban areas. Collingwood had 87 hotels, Richmond 64 and Footscray 33, while Hawthorn and Kew had nine and seven respectively. Opponents of reform argued that attempts to close inner-suburban hotels were discriminatory but the variation in hotel numbers was explained as much by the different drinking habits of middle-class suburbanites as by a greater working-class preference for drinking. Coffee palaces reflected the values of a new breed of entrepreneurs. In 1886 temperance leader James Munro headed a company that took over the Grand Hotel in Spring Street, burnt its licence and turned it into a coffee palace.

From 1907 the Licences' Reduction Board reduced the number of hotels in all districts to 1885 statutory levels, with compensation paid for by the trade. The Liquor Trades Defence Union was formed to counter the prohibitionist tide. 'No licence' referenda held in 1930 and 1938 were both won by the 'wets' but prohibitionists had some successes - in 1920 when Nunawading and Boroondara voted to become 'dry areas' and in 1915 when hotel trading hours were reduced to 9 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. and further reduced to 6 p.m. in 1916. Presented initially as a temporary wartime measure in 1919, six o'clock trading was made permanent, bringing the liquor trade into line with general retailing. This 'early closing' of hotels created the six o'clock swill, accommodated by hotels with large public bars with tiled areas that could be hosed down afterwards. The regular visiting of hotels and the exchange 'shouting' of beers for one's 'mates' remained an institution. Historian Janet McCalman argues that for men 'that hour of shouting, riotous swilling before six o'clock was a biological necessity. It was as fundamental to survival as food and sleep; it was more cathartic than sex.' A referendum in 1956 saw voters opposed to an extension of trading hours to 10 p.m., a change that was not made until 1966.

Melbourne's hotels have been informal meeting places to a wide range of community and professional groups, and important to sport, literature, politics and bohemia. The influential historian, civil libertarian and publicist Brian Fitzpatrick (1905-65) held court in Melbourne hotels, and the John Curtin Hotel in Lygon Street (Carlton) opposite the Trades Hall is an unofficial citadel of the Australian Labor Party. Often run as small businesses, hotels are extensive employers of young people, and experiences of growing up and working in hotels are common. Writer Hal Porter recalls his experiences as assistant manager of the George Hotel, St Kilda, in The paper chase (1966). Frequently, sporting, and particularly football, identities have become publicans on the conclusion of their playing careers.

The 1960s saw the opening of Australia's first high-rise American-style hotels. The Southern Cross opened in 1962, followed by the Hilton in East Melbourne, which replaced Sir William Clarke's lavish town house, Cliveden Mansions. The building boom of the 1960s and 1970s threatened the large older style hotels in the central city. Heritage legislation has been only partly effective in saving Melbourne's older style pubs. Menzies in Bourke Street, the Federal, the Oriental, the Occidental and Scott's in Collins Street, and the Cathedral in Swanston Street were demolished before the legislation came into effect, but as late as 1990 the City Court Hotel dating back to 1849, on the south-eastern corner of La Trobe and Russell streets, was demolished overnight without a protest. However, some old hotels live on in the city and the inner suburbs as delicensed shells, refurbished as housing or offices, coffee lounges, restaurants and cafés. The Ship Inn, a former hotel from Melbourne's earliest years, still stands at 383 Flinders Lane. Among the licensed survivors, brewery, health, licensing law and fashion-inspired renovations have provoked considerable changes, particularly to the interiors.

Suburbanisation changed the character of Melbourne's hotels. The 1960s saw the appearance of massive 'beer barns' in outlying areas, reflecting, along with motels, the influence of motor cars. The Burvale on the corner of Springvale Road and Burwood Highway seemed to be a harbinger of a new era. Increased police surveillance of drink driving and safety advertising campaigns have also had an impact, but hotels as centres of entertainment, fine dining and betting and gambling, are patronised at all hours by both sexes. They are nightclubs and music venues and expressions of youth culture and locations for the performance of rock music. An expansion of large high-rise international-style facilities reflects a rise in tourism in recent years.

A trend to themed experiences has seen Irish and English pubs, Spanish 'tapas bars' and 'wild west' saloons, in addition to designer pubs serving expensive wines and cocktails in sophisticated settings. Individual hotels cater to homosexuals, women, Aboriginal people, folk and jazz music enthusiasts, New Zealanders and a variety of other national and cultural groups. The public bar the heart of a traditional Melbourne hotel is no longer an all-male preserve. Trade peaks at lunchtime or after work, or on Friday or Saturday evening, particularly when the weather is hot, or after sporting events.

David Dunstan

Béchervaise, John, and Bill Beasley, Old Melbourne hotels sketchbook, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973. Details
Cole, Robert K., Index of Victorian hotels (manuscript), Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria. Details
Wright, Clare Alice, Beyond the ladies lounge: Australia's female publicans, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2003. Details