The ‘Aussie Pub’ has long been part of our cultural
iconography. Images of mateship, larrikinism and ‘sculling’ have been so much a
part of our recreational life that they have come to be seen as characteristic
of Australian identity, and much of this is centred on ‘the local’. Like the
British tradition from which it emerged and was modelled upon, the concept of
the corner hotel catering to its nearby residents or workers, and accessible by
foot, was realised in the early settlement of Victoria.
Despite the closure of many hotels, the Melbourne ‘pub scene’ still flourishes
in places like St Kilda and South Melbourne. St Kilda is one of the best-known
bayside suburbs in the country. South Melbourne, once part of the City
Melbourne, is rich in industrial heritage given its proximity to the docks and
the central business district. Both suburbs have given birth to a variety of
hotels with rich cultural histories and, in some cases, extraordinary longevity.
It may surprise loyal patrons of the ‘Espy’ in St Kilda and the Golden Gate in
South Melbourne to know that their waterholes of choice have been around since
1853 and 1863 respectively.
Many other hotels in St Kilda and South Melbourne have also been operating as
licensed venues for over a century. The names may have changed, the interiors
altered, yet they remain a vital part of our history. Today, there are still
fifteen hotels remaining from the thirty-four hotels that once existed in St
Kilda. Of the ninety-two hotels that have operated in South Melbourne,
twenty-eight remain. Although many of the de-licensed hotels have now been
converted into private residences, most of the original buildings remain.
Given their centrality to our nation’s social character, hotels have come to
represent a tangible, physical site on which our cultural identity can be
located, and as such, a key entry point into an examination of the social and
communal aspects of our local history.
Modern suburbs exist on ancient sites. The land, on which these hotels in the
city of Port Phillip stand, historically belongs to Koori tribes, specifically
the Bunurong and Woiworung people. St Kilda, known as Euro-Yroke to its
traditional owners, was called Fareham in the first Anglo Government Surveys,
and was then renamed because of a schooner The Lady of St Kilda, which was
anchored long enough to warrant an immediate association with the area.
In the current era hotels are seen primarily as social venues, however prior to
the erection of town halls, community buildings and other spacious interiors,
only pubs provided enough space for large gatherings. The term ‘pub’ itself is
an abbreviation of ‘public house’, an allusion to its earliest function as a
place where the public could meet, although it is important to remember that the
reference to ‘public’ was limited to men. Women were denied access to public
bars until 1966, the same year that ten ‘o’clock closing was introduced.
The first meeting of the St Kilda Council was held at a room in the Junction
Hotel in 1857. Even an early Church of England meeting is recorded as being held
at the Grosvenor Hotel on Brighton Road. Several hotels were at times used as
morgues; there are records of burials proceeding from the Junction Hotel in St
Kilda and the Builders’ Arms in South Melbourne, among others. Far from only
serving drinks, meals and providing entertainment, all nineteenth century hotels
offered accommodation. Few hotels today offer ‘room and board’, although there
are still a few ‘old timers’ residing upstairs at pubs such as the Village Belle
and Inkerman hotels in St Kilda and the George Hotel in South Melbourne. A few
hotels however have surpassed the tradition of the humble hotel lodgings: the
Wales Hotel established in Fitzroy Street in 1862, opened a 40-room luxury
boutique hotel ‘The Prince’ in September 1999.
Hotels reflect the broader changes in their local communities. St Kilda began as
a relatively affluent seaside resort, and hotels similar to the Esplanade (then
the New Bath) and the Victoria on Beaconsfield Parade capitalised on their
South Melbourne’s location directly opposite the CBD across the Yarra, meant its
population included many wharf workers and seamen, given its proximity to the
port. As a result, a very working-class character developed, and the pubs that
emerged reflected this culture.
The success of the Temperance Movement’s campaigns against the evils of drink
ultimately affected the number of hotels in these areas. Between 1906 and 1916,
the Licensing Reduction Board closed 1527 hotels in Victoria. In 1908, thirteen
hotels were closed in South Melbourne alone. In response to these closures,
hotel owners knew that in order to survive, they would need to upgrade their
services and premises, and renovations to existing hotels reflect these changes.
The tensions of the painters and dockers’ union played out in violence in hotels
in South Melbourne and culminated in the 1973 shooting of union secretary Pat
Shannon at Druid’s Hotel in Park Street. Crime waves in St Kilda were also
reflected in local pubs: bushrangers favoured the strip of hotels along Brighton
Road in the mid-nineteenth century. More than a hundred years later,
gun-wielding gangsters frequented the same strip in the 1960s!
Sports have featured heavily in the history of hotels. The popularity of
greyhound racing found expression in hotels such as the Greyhound and the Hare
and Hounds hotels in St Kilda, while pubs like the Queen’s Arms in South
Melbourne capitalised on their proximity to the Emerald Hill Racecourse to
Melbourne’s burgeoning gay scene was realised in the Prince of Wales Hotel as
early as the late 1930s, while the first drag shows in Melbourne were performed
at the Ritz in 1970, creating a previously non-existent space for
Music trends also emerged from the pubs. Pubs in Melbourne, particularly in
places like St Kilda, are traditionally home to many bands and are lively music
venues. Pubs like the Espy and the George have helped the genesis of many music
groups. The rapidly increasing popularity of jazz and ragtime in the 1920s found
a home in local pubs, which was later consolidated by the presence of American
GIs' in the area during the 1940s. There is an inextricable link between the
rise of punk in the 1970s and the George Hotel in Fitzroy Street, where many
punk artists were given their first opportunities to perform. The 70s punk
movement and the emergence of bohemian culture both found expression in St Kilda
hotels, which were dogged by the less-than-savoury aspects of the drug and sex
Over the years many have wept over the apparent imminent demise of the
relatively humble hotel. The live music scene is often under threat by
opposition from neighbouring residents. The advent of techno music and gambling
has also raised many concerns. Changes to licensing laws and the growth of
alternative venues to consume alcohol have also changed the traditional role of
the pub. The gentrification of St Kilda and South Melbourne has meant new
residents with different needs. Several hotels, including those on Fitzroy
Street, have become ‘up-market’ venues with more expensive wine lists, catering
to younger and more affluent drinkers. The Gunn Island Brew Bar, formerly the
Middle Park Hotel, even has its own micro-brewery and attracts the Grand Prix
crowd. The commercial modern developments that accompany this gentrification may
threaten heritage buildings or places that have important social associations
that the community wants to preserve. The vociferous campaigns against the
proposed changes to the Esplanade and Victoria hotels over the past decade
reflect the strong community concerns about these changes.
Despite the pessimism, many of our oldest public buildings - the pubs - have
weathered all these changes. Go down to one of the many hotels listed in this
book and experience the historical ambience. Stand on the footpath and visualise
past events in pubs converted long ago to private houses. Alternatively, try a
local survivor that is still open today. In some, the carpet may be a bit grotty
and the scent of stale beer may prove a bit overpowering. In others, perhaps,
the place has been refurbished with trendy lime-green walls, marble bathroom
sinks, and even its own microbrewery. Either way, it is impossible that there
will not be at least a few good stories in its past.
While this book includes many historical accounts, there are doubtless a million
more stories to be told. Ask the old-timers, or examine the architecture for
signs of the past. Perhaps its name gives you some clue as to the nature of its
original clientele (the Cricket Club or the Greyhound, for example). Transport
yourself back to a time when bushrangers overran the Elsternwick Hotel, or when
the Golden Gate was a popular late nineteenth century post-football match venue.
Celebrate their rich and varied pasts and drink to their future.