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 beachfront positions.

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 promote horseracing.

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 transvestitism.

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 trades.

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.


Becky Aizen