By MICK ROBERTS ©
DURING the days of the ‘six o’clock swill’, after last drinks were called at Thirroul’s Ryan’s Hotel – at the time, the town’s only pub – swards of men would stagger down the road to continue their drinking at Riley’s wine saloon.
The wine bar, which traded on the NSW South Coast, hit its peak in popularity during the 1920s and 30s, becoming a-much-loved social institution until its closure in 1962.
Australia suffered terribly as a result of the Great Depression of 1929-33, with exports falling by 50 percent, businesses failing, and unemployment becoming widespread, but there was always a quid for a drink to forget the hardships – and establishments like the Thirroul saloon prospered during these times.
A regular of the saloon, which traded from the corner of The Esplanade and Lawrence Hargrave Drive, was Dick Oakley, who would sit in the bar with his mates at crude timber benches enjoying ‘noggins’ of wine, entertained by popular hits of the time, such as ‘I Got Rhythm’, played on an upright pianiola.
The bar was a fashionable destination on a sunny Saturday, well lit by a large north facing bay-window, a 81-year-old Mr Oakley told me in a 1996 interview.
It was a time when patrons of the saloon would gather around the radio listening in awe at the feats of cricketing legend Don Bradman; when a small glass of wine would set you back six pence, a large, a shilling; and a bottle of house wine, six shillings.
Caldwell’s wines were fashionable, Muscat or Port a favourite with the men, while the ladies preferred the socially acceptable Sweet or Dry Sherry in their own segregated bar on the southern side of the building.
Michael McGrade first received a wine license at Thirroul in 1913, when he rented premises, near the Ryan’s Hotel, from David Birch.
Thirroul’s population growth as a railway workers’ town and tourist resort resulted in a huge trade increase for McGrade forcing him to relocate to purposely built premises on the corner of The Esplanade and the main road in 1917.
The proposal caused uproar and was opposed by many residents.
Most believed the proximity of the bar to the beach would lead to drunken patrons drowning. However, not everyone was against the move.
Surprisingly, Constable Easterbrook, stationed at Thirroul, was in favour of the relocation, telling the court the new bar was much more suitable, prompting the magistrates’ approval of “Ocean House” saloon.
The 1920s was kind to Thirroul with manufacturing and primary production expanding, and wages rising. An immigration program brought hundreds of thousands of people from Britain to Australia – many to the northern Illawarra.
Dance halls proliferated; radio broadcasting became widespread, cinemas opened.
Ragtime revellers from the nearby open air dance pavilion, The Arena, packed the dining room of the Thirroul Wine Saloon, enjoying food and drinks, tapping their feet to Duke Ellington tunes from the Pianola, tourists filling the glassed north facing verandah on weekends – business was good.
The best known hosts of the Thirroul saloon, Albert and Winifred Riley, took the reins in 1923.
Mr Riley, a publican from Nyngan, was a country boy at heart and seaside living did not agree with him, so after two years at Thirroul, the family moved to Mittagong to host the Exchange Hotel.
In an interview with Albert Riley’s daughter, Dorothy James, in 1996, she explained how the family loved living by the sea and persuaded their father to return to the Thirroul Saloon in 1927.
Mr Riley had a short stay as host though, and he died in 1934.
On one of his regular shooting expeditions in the Broken Hill region of western NSW his appendix burst. He was rushed back to Bulli Hospital in a critical condition where he died.
Local cop, Sergeant Breeze, was sympathetic towards the grieving widower, and was favourable to the widow continuing as host at the Thirroul wine bar. According to Mrs James of Austinmer, her mother, Winifred Riley was the first women in NSW to hold a wine license in 1936.
During the interview, fond memories as a young girl came flooding back for Mrs James, recalling her and her sisters filling pint and quart bottles from wine casks in the “cellar room” for customers calling by with their “empties”.
The introduction of six o’clock closing of hotels in 1916 was a godsend for their saloon, Mrs James said. Drinkers at local hotels were forced out at 6pm and many would call into Riley’s to continue their drinking sessions.
Although the saloon was supposed to be closed, the side door at Riley’s became known for “after hour” take aways, or a place to join a favoured few who were allowed to gather in the small public bar for a drink.
Mrs Riley answered the door with her signature flash light which she shone in the expectant customer’s face. If you were a regular you were allowed entry, if not, and a fuss was made, the large torch came in handy as a threatening weapon of deterrent.
Mr Oakley told me that Mrs Riley’s regulars included employees of Williams’ Funeral Parlour, at nearby Bulli, who after burying an unfortunate customer, would adjourn to the saloon, dressed in top hats and tails, for their own “wake”.
Mrs Riley retired at the age of 60 in 1954, and died at Phillip Lodge (Lawrence Hargrave) Hospital, Thirroul in 1979, aged 85.
The last host of the wine bar was a F. E. Gillmore who operated the famous landmark from 1955 to 1962. The saloon was demolished to make way for a block of units in the 1970s.
*Do you have memories of the Thirroul wine saloon? Or Can you tell me more about the Gillmores, who were the last hosts of the saloon? Scroll down the page to the comments section to leave your memories or thoughts.
First published 2014. Updated 2021
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021
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