CLIFTON’S old Imperial Hotel sits on the cliff edge a sorry sight.
The pub’s license was ‘frozen’ by owners WIN Television after it was shut due to a decline in business resulting from the closure of Lawrence Hargrave Drive after a landslide in July 2003.
The popular tourists’ road remained closed to traffic for over two and a half years while the NSW Government built the $40 million Sea Cliff Bridge to bypass the land slide prone thoroughfare between Clifton and Coalcliff.
The road closure caused a dramatic loss in business, forcing publican Cornelia Ignjatovic to call last drinks at the historic watering hole on November 23, 2003. Despite continuing reports that WIN Television plan to have beer flowing again at the old pub, almost a decade later (2013) it remains closed.
The pub’s history dates back to 1884 when a single storey timber inn was opened on the site.
The Imperial was the village’s second pub, joining the Clifton Inn, which had been servicing the big thirsts of the local coal miners since 1879.
Originally built by Henry and Mary Kane, the Imperial was licensed by 30-year-old Wollongong baker Alexander Osborne in April 1884.
Big changes were in the wind during 1910 when the Kanes sold the 12-roomed inn to Sydney brewers, Reschs for £1200.
During 1911 the brewery replaced the inn with an impressive two storeyed brick hotel, with 25 rooms, five bathrooms, and two large balconies – one overlooking the ocean to the east.
The contractor struck a few problems during construction work, the local newspapers reporting that explosives were needed to blast away sandstone for the foundations, and local ‘brickies’ “would not think of starting work for under 13 shillings and sixpence a day”.
After the dispute was settled and work proceeded on the new Imperial, the miners were given a temporary bar beside the pub. The village’s other pub, the Clifton Inn had shut shop earlier in the year, and there were probably a few anxious drinkers watching the demolition of their only remaining pub. The South Coast Times reported in August 1911:
The bar portion of the new Imperial erected at Clifton for (licensee) Mr Williams was expected to be in use this weekend. It has been constructed in accordance with the most modern ideas…
George Williams, the new host, was operating one of the region’s most modern hotels by Christmas 1911, but further problems were around the corner. A savage storm ripped the roof of the pub in 1913 causing an estimated £2,000 worth of damage.
The newspapers of the time reported that it was nothing short of a miracle that no one was killed. The Daily Telegraph reported:
Men sitting in the hotel parlours were smothered with falling plaster and broken glass from the gas fittings overhead, and many thought their last moment had come. As soon as the last gust had passed, a rush was made for the bathrooms occupied by wives and friends, and, strange to say, although almost every bedroom in the hotel had been more or less wrecked, no one was injured.
Just two years later the drinkers at the Imperial were plunged into darkness when “in some unaccountable way” the gas plant caught fire. “Kerosene lamps had to be requisitioned for the time being”, it was reported.
The bar of the Imperial played host to many a character. Stories of blokes bringing snakes into their local pub are interestingly commonly told in Australian pub yarns. The Imperial contributes to these, with the true story of the death of Aubrey Grieveson in 1914. Grieveson was found dead on the road in front of the Imperial.
An inquiry found a local coal miner, Frank Tully called into the pub one December day in 1914 after catching a snake in bushland. Opening a bag, he showed the crowded bar the snake and asked if it was venomous. Barman Fred Atkinson told Tully to get the snake out of his bar, but Grieveson, who already had a few under his belt, was adamant the snake wasn’t deadly and stuck his finger in the reptile’s mouth. Grieveson was wrong, and he paid the ultimate price.