Resurrection of Clifton’s lost pub: return of the Imperial

imperial restored clifton
The former Imperial Hotel under restoration last year (2017).


We were invited to a ‘meet and greet’ at Clifton’s former Imperial Hotel on the NSW South Coast in 2015 to hear about plans for its restoration and transformation into an eatery and function centre. Almost six years later those plans are nearing completion.

There was a good turn-out, with old faces and identities sharing stories, enjoying a few drinks (good to see the bar back in working order), and finger food, as well as a bit of musical entertainment, bringing to life the deserted and dusty corridors of the grand old lady.

The pub is undergoing restoration work after new owners, Shellharbour Workers Club bought the premsies from the WIN Television Corporation in 2015.

The Workers Club, while not relicensing the Imperial as a pub, have restored and re-opened the historic building into an eatery and function centre.

The pub’s license was ‘frozen’ by owners WIN Television (and later sold) when the closure of the Lawrence Hargrave Drive, after a landslide in July 2003, forced it to shut shop.

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.

Clifton Village 1880 Original
Coastal village, Clifton, New South Wales, C1885. The Imperial Hotel is circled. Photograph by Charles Kerry. Picture: State Library of NSW
Clifton Inn 1880
A closer view of Clifton, showing the Imperial Hotel (circled), C1885. Photograph by Charles Kerry. Picture: State Library of NSW

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.

The single storey timber Imperial Hotel in 1905. Picture: Supplied.

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”.

Clifton Inn 1880 2
The Imperial Hotel, Clifton (centre of image), C1885. Photograph by Charles Kerry. Picture: State Library of NSW

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 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 Imperial Hotel, Clifton C1912. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Imperial Hotel Clifton NSW C1930 NBA ANU
The Imperial Hotel Clifton C1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Imperial Hotel Clifton NSW 1939 NBA ANU
Imperial Hotel, Clifton, 1939. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

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.

Imperial Hotel publican, Jack Hargrave, (holding a tray), Eric Chennel (wearing glasses at back) and Helen King standing next to Hargrave, 1960s. Picture: The Chamberlain Collection.
The Imperial under restoration. Picture: Mammoth Projects
The completed Imperial at Clifton, 2021. Picture: Google

The transformation of the former Imperial Hotel as a licensed restaurant was completed in December 2021.

© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2021

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Categories: Breweries, Illawarra Hotels

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5 replies

  1. I am the daughter of the late Robert [BOBBY] Brown and Janice Brown…….My nan and pop where Cecil and Mary Brown……that resided in Clifton….and raised their family of 4 Doris, Ethel, my dad Robert and Mary…my nan resided right next door to the Clifton hotel and my dad was born in the house on the other side……My name is Anne, I am 55 born in 1963……I resided at 434 main road scarborough….my dad worked at coalcliff pit on dog watch……What a great place….. Valbusa’s….Peles…….Van Loo…..Declouettes……Mitchell”s Cocky Smith…the buzzar Brooks….Harvey’s…Forbes and the nicest of men Mr Dennis Ross……OH and who can forget the larrakin BOWIE from Clifton…..Anne and bob Johnson, Anne and Terry Dodds…Maureen White..what AN AMAZING, EXCITING, NUTURING,UPBRINGING I HAD….I HAD THE BEST PARENTS ANY GIRL COULD DREAM OF. …….I HAD IT ALL……CARING PARENTS THAT LOVED ME….fun….mini bikes….skateboards…..great friends…..fantastic grown-ups around me…..Scarborough and Wombarra was the best thing to have been in my life….crochet bikinis….sunburn…sand….leeches….coal dumps… boards and wax…..!940’s Willy jeep to cruise in thanks to the hands of a true master at work….not too much Bobby Brown couldn’t build or fix, mate……I attended Scarborough school….under William Straker….Bulli High under EC lynch……And a teacher that is responsible to this day for my desire and love of learning..MR Bill Waterhouse…..his influences are a major contributing factor to the character and traits I have today..I haven’t turned out to bad SIR..Now he is still caring for wombats….brilliant man. So, talk more about your past….enjoy all the great things of our yester years….life has sadly changed……I was once an adventurous little girl in all sorts of strife fun and games…WOW how we mellow…’s short and getting slower…enjoy it….think of your youth and SHARE…thanks for the chat…..see ya all Annie….nee Brown

    • Hi Anne, I don’t know if you’ll ever see this but we are in fact family! Doris was my nan, which I suppose makes you my great aunt? I also went to Bulli high and I know the Lynch family through school! how cool!

    • Phil Hiles Witney Oxon UK

      Just come across an old Illawarra article dated 31st December 1983 showing the “Imperial Hotel” toasts the century. My uncle, Frank Wilson with his wife Margaret and son Ted having just acquired the Imperial which celebrates its 100 anniversary in 1984. Interesting photo of all three of them in front of the Imperial which looks impressive. The other interesting aspect is that Frank I believe is in the photo group showing Jack Hargreaves the publican back in the 1960s and is stood center back next to Eric Chennel. My my, I just wondered how did Frank become involved with the Imperial and of course working there he had first choice.

  2. I thought the exterior renovation looked sensational and cant wait to see inside

  3. I am a retired Police Licensing Sergeant. We had Police records dating back many years on all the hotels in the area. I recall reading one on the Clifton Hotel where in the 1930’s the licensee was fined for having all the toilets and sewer outlets linked up to a pipe that went untreated directly over the edge into the ocean. Not sure what the Council requirements were in the day but that was a no no.

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