Publican’s sign becomes his ‘tombstone’

John TReffery sign post

Picture: The Sydney Sunday Herald, July 24 1949


Freemasons Arms Hotel Fitzroy.

Freemasons Arms Hotel Fitzroy. Picture: Supplied

IN a small cemetery in Victoria’s highlands, legend has it that publican John Treffry was buried with his pub’s signboard as his ‘headstone’.

John Treffry hosted the Running Creek Hotel from the late 1860s through to the mid 1870s.

Running Creek, about 60km from Wodonga, was a busy mining town during the palmy days of the Happy Valley gold rushes.

Treffry – also spelt Treffrey – continued behind the bar at Running Creek until the population became so small after the gold petted-out, he was forced to shut his pub in the 1880s.

Treffry came to Australia from Scotland as a 28-year-old man in 1860, making his way to Melbourne where he hosted the Freemasons Arms Hotel on the corner Smith and Gertrude streets in Fitzroy in 1864. By the late 1860s he had made his way to the Happy Valley gold fields, where he was granted a license for the Running Creek Hotel in April 1868.

Gold had been discovered in the area in the early 1850s, and Running Creek was a bustling settlement with stores, pubs and even a racecourse, where Treffry was later employed as a judge.

Today, nothing remains of the township, and the area is farmland.

During the 1880s, when in his 50s, Treffry married another Scot, Ann McIntyre, who was also in her 50s. By this time the gold rush was on the demise, and Running Creek’s prosperity had ended. The town was dieing.

The population of the town plumetted, and the Treffrys were forced to shut their pub and prospect with the other die-hard gold seekers. That though was not the worse of the Treffrys troubles. The Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported on Saturday October 5 1889:


An accident of a very serious nature happened to Mr and Mrs Treffrey of Running Creek. They had been visiting this locality for the purpose of obtaining medical advice for Mrs Treffrey, who was suffering from the effects of an accident which happened to her some time ago and, on their way home, in the vicinity of Happy Valley, the horse took fright and bolted, upsetting the buggy, and throwing the occupants violently out. Mr Treffrey was considerably bruised and shaken, but the most serious injuries were inflicted on his wife. She is at present lying at Mr Rees’s, under the care of the local doctor, suffering from a fractured knee cap and general shock to the system. At one time it was feared the spine was fatally injured, but favorable symptoms have set in, and hopes are held out for her speedy recovery. Wide arid general expressions of regret and sympathy have been expressed at their misfortune, as it is considered that they, Mrs Treffrey in particular, have met with more than a fair share of the accidents allotted to human beings.

Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported on March 12 1902 that John Treffry, 69, and his wife Ann, 71, were granted an old age pension of 7 shillings a week each.

The following year, John Treffry died from a suspected heart attack while travelling from Bright back to his home at Running Creek, though the notorious mountain pass, known as  Eurobin Gap.

The Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported on Saturday March 21 1903:

BRIGHT. From our own correspondent.

A shockingly sudden death occurred on Tuesday last on the gap between Eurobin and Running Creek, by which the district loses another of its pioneers. Mr. J. Treffrey had visited Bright during the day and was returning to his home, accompanied by a young man named Black, when, as they were approaching the top of the gap, he became prostrate and expired in the vehicle in which he was riding. Many years ago when Running Creek was a busy mining town during the palmy days of the Happy Valley, the Root Hog and other mines, Mr. Treffrey conduced one of the hotels, and continued in the business until the population became so reduced that it was no longer profitable. He continued to reside at Running Creek, doing a little mining, until increasing years incapacitated him from following arduous labor. His wife for upwards of 15 years has been confined to her bed, and the medical and other expenses were considerable. Mr. and Mrs. Teffrey were held in high esteem. There were no children. Amongst the elder section of the community to whom they were known, both Mr. and Mrs. Treffrey were held in high esteem, and the old lady is sincerely sympathised with in her irreparable bereavement. Mr. Treffrey was buried in the local cemetery at Running Creek on Thursday. He was 71 years of age.  

Treffry’s wife, Ann died three months later. The Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported on Saturday June 20 1903 that since her widowhood she had “resided with a relation at Harrietville, where she died. Her remains were taken to Running Creek for interment.”

running creek cemetery victoria

Running Creek cemetery, the last resting place for John and Ann. Picture: Supplied

The pair is listed in the burial records of the Running Creek Cemetery, however, no grave stone can be found for either.

In November, 1889 a number of inhabitants living in the area, including Treffry sent a petition to the Minister of Lands requesting that a cemetery reserve be proclaimed on one acre of land in Running Creek for the purposes of a public cemetery.

The area requested was surveyed in 1889 and found suitable for a cemetery. Three acres were approved in October. The Trustees for the cemetery in April 1893 were G Greene, J. Newman, J. Black, G.O. Woolley and John Treffry.

An old newspaper column, printed more than 50 years after Treffry’s death, ends the story of the Scottish publican’s life with a uniquely Australian twist. Believe Bill Beatty, was a weekly illustrated column in Melbourne’s Sunday Herald, revealing interesting and sometimes amusing trivia about Australia. Topics detailing subjects like the world’s only memorial to an insect in Boonarga, Queensland, were featured: “It was erected by grateful citizens to honour the cactoblastis insect which overcame the prickly pear menace.”

But, the interesting piece of trivia I found in Beatty’s column on July 24 1949 explains why there seems to be no lasting headstone for Treffry in the Running Creek cemetery.

“At Running Creek, Victoria, a publican is buried, his signboard is his headstone. It reads: John Treffery, hotelkeeper, licensed to sell spiritous liquors.”

It seems the Scot’s estate was unable to pay for a stone memorial, and the locals simply ripped the timber signboard from his old pub to place over his last resting place.

Bill Beatty 1949

Picture: The Sydney Sunday Herald, July 24 1949

© Copyright 2019 Mick Roberts

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Categories: Publicans, Victoria hotels

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1 reply

  1. Nice post thhanks for sharing

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