Flames finally claimed the Royal

royal hotel Mossman c1900

The first Royal Hotel, Mossman Queensland. Destroyed by fire 1931. Picture: Port Douglas and District Historical Society


royal hotel mossman backyard 2007

The Royal Hotel before it was destroyed by fire. A skull is said to be buried somewhere in the backyard of the hotel. Picture: Supplied

ellen thomson bogo road historical society copy

Ellen Thomson, the only woman hanged in a Queensland prison. Picture: Boggo Road Historical Society 

LEGEND has it that the skull of murdered far north Queensland farmer, William Thomson was buried somewhere in the backyard of Mossman’s Royal Hotel.

The Royal Hotel closed for business in 2007, and the historic building was sadly burnt to the ground in 2011.

The story of Thomson’s skull and the Royal though remains. It arose after he died of what was first thought to have been suicide in 1886. There was suspicion that he had been murdered by his wife, Ellen, so his body was exhumed from the Port Douglas cemetery, and his head taken for examination.

Two bullet holes were found in the skull, which eventually led to the arrest of Thomson’s wife and her lover, John Harrison, who were both hanged in June 1887 for murder. Ellen Thomson is the only woman ever hanged in Queensland.

Apparently the local policeman kept the skull after it was exhumed, and often brought it to the Royal, sitting it on the bar. After a while he left it there, and finally – the story goes – the publican buried it in the backyard of the hotel, once a populat haunt of cane cutters and workers from the nearby sugar refinery.

The history of the Royal begins when the son of Danish immigrants decided to purchase an old single storey pub that traded on the Mowbray Road, Mowbray.

Christian Frederick Jensen was born in north Queensland in 1873. He was 27 when he married English born Florence Pratt at the Mossman Private Hospital in 1900. She was 26.

Known by his friends as Fred, he reportedly bought the old Mowbray pub in 1892, and had it shifted to Mossman. Fred was said to have already had a pub at Port Douglass, and to avoid competition, he had the building moved further north to Mossman.

mossman queensland 1912

The first Royal Hotel (far left) was relocated from Mowbray to Mossman in 1892. The pub to the right (behind the centre telegraph pole) is the Mossman Hotel. Picture: Port Douglas and District Historical Society

The pub was single storey and rose on stumps about a metre off the ground.  There were water troughs and hitching rails outside for the horses and entry was through classic bat wing doors, so popular in far north Queensland pubs of that era.

Determining the exact year the Royal was licensed in Mossman has proved difficult, although there is little doubt it opened during the late 1890s. There are reports the pub began trading in 1898 with the first licensee a M. Scanlan. Licensees who followed included Christina Black (1899); Mary Pringle (1903) and Patrick Joyce (1904). The Cairns Morning Post reported on January 28 1902:

The Mossmanites have every reason to be proud of this little place, which has been converted from a wilderness into a thriving locality in the apace of five years. The change has been caused by the erection of a Central (sugar) Mill. There are two comfortable hotels (Messrs Williams’ and O’Brien’s) and two smaller ones, a School of Arts, Church, Jack and Newell’s and Walsh and Co.’s stores, and several minor houses.

Fred Jensen, who had opened a cordial factory behind the pub in 1905, was licensee of the Royal from 1907 to 1910. While publican he also established a mini-zoo in the yards, collecting snakes, birds and animals for display. The Cairns Post reported on December 21 1908:

Mr. Geo. H. Gallwey, solicitor, of Mossman, caught a 10-foot carpet snake in his fowl-house on Tuesday evening last, the 15th. instant. The snake has been acquired by Mr. C. F. Jensen, of the Royal Hotel, Mossman, who has added it to his collection of birds, animals, and reptiles.

The Queensland Times reported on February 11 1909:


A very instructive illustration of the deadly nature of the bite of a death adder (says the “Port Douglas, Record”) was given at Jensen’s Royal Hotel, Mossman, on Friday last, the 22nd instant. Mr. W. H. Dorratt liberated two white mice in the cage of the death adder, in the presence of Mr. C. F. Jensen and others. The snake bit the first mouse, and, after turning over twice, the mouse was dead. The second mouse was afterwards bitten by the snake, and only turned over once before it expired. On examining the watch it was found that, the whole process had only occupied 30 seconds. This information should prove an invaluable caution to cane-cutters and others who work in the fields, as well as to residents of the district generally, for it shows the deadly nature of a bite from a death adder.

Fred took over the license of the hotel again in 1917 from ‘Sandy’ McLean before his death in 1921 at the age of 48. Fred reportedly died after falling from a gaslight pole outside his pub on Front Street.

The Northern Herald correspondent reported on February 9 1921:

I regret to have to report the demise of Mr. C. F. Jensen, which took place on Monday, January 24th., at 8.50am in the Douglas District Hospital. Mr. Jensen bad been, ailing for some time past, and in my letter I stated his condition was critical, but did not think the end was so near. Deceased was licensee and owner of the Royal Hotel, and also had a cordial manufacturing business adjoining the licensed premises. Having been in the district since childhood, Mr. Jensen was well known, and leaves a wife and large family to mourn their loss….

The original Royal Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1931. The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on Saturday February 21:


Royal Hotel Gutted.

MOSSMAN, February 20.

The Royal Hotel was destroyed by fire at 9.30 last night. A bucket brigade saved Jensen’s dwelling next door. The fire was first seen by children in the street who gave the alarm. Those first on the scene, found the back of the lounge in flames.

The cause of the fire is stated to be a lamp igniting curtains and papers, in the temporary absence of Mr. Aldridge.

The building was insured for £1,100 with the New Zealand Coy., by the owner Mr. C. F. Jensen, whilst the stock, furniture and fittings were insured by the licensee, Mr. [Joe] Aldridge for £680 with the same company.

Times were tough due to the economical depression and there was rumour the pub was deliberately torched for insurance purposes.

The young yardman who came home after a night at the picture theatre and saw a flame in the kitchen, went to the woodheap to get an axe to break the door down. Legend has it a voice from the darkness told him to “come away you silly bugger, there’s ten gallons of petrol in there”.

Royal Hotel Mossman 1996

The Royal in 1996. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The Royal was rebuilt in 1932 as a two-storey hotel from chamferboard, with red cedar upstairs, a large wooden veranda and external stairs. The Cairns Post reported on Friday July 15 1932:


July 11

The Royal Hotel was opened to the public on Saturday evening. Free drinks were dispensed by the licensee, Mr. J. E. Eldridge. The new hotel, which is a two-storied wooden structure, was erected by Mrs. F. C. Jensen to replace the building, which was destroyed by fire last year. The new building is a lofty one and brightens up the end of Front-street.

Florence Jensen, who with her husband Fred, opened the original Royal back in the 1890s, died at Mossman on August 14 1953 at the age of 81. Her four children – Dave, Lennie (who ran the pub for a time after his father’s death in 1921), Ivy and Grace inherited the pub. None of the boys married. Grace married into the Ramsay family who continued ownership of the hotel.

The Royal surrendered its licence and closed for business in 2007. The building was placed on the Cairns Regional Council’s Register of Cultural Heritage and Valuable Sites, as was the Jensen family house next door.

royal hotel mossman 2007

The Royal after its closure in 2007. Picture: Supplied

A Melbourne businessman bought the pub from the family in November 2009, with plans to redevelop it as shops. Unfortunately for Mossman, the Royal burnt to the ground on September 29 2011 and has never been rebuilt. It was 80 years and six months since the original Royal was destroyed by flames.

royal hotel mossman fire 2011

The second Royal Hotel, Mossman Queensland. Destroyed by fire 2011. Picture: Supplied

The ABC online reported on September 30 2011 that police had described the fire as suspicious. Senior Sergeant Chris Ferguson says no-one was injured. “It has undergone partial renovations in the past 12 months and it has been unoccupied pending further building works,” he said.

“It’s currently being guarded until the fire scene examination is completed later today.

“The cause of the fire is unknown at this time.

“It is, however, being treated as suspicious and Queensland Fire and Rescue and Queensland Police scientific [unit] will conduct a fire scene examination this morning, with further investigations to continue.”

The Cairns Post’s Laura Packham reported on September 30 2011:

MOSSMAN’S historic Royal Hotel was destroyed by fire on Thursday night. The two-storey building collapsed after it was engulfed by flames.

Fire crews from Mossman, Port Douglas and Cairns battled the fire, which started about 7.40pm.

The pub was built in the 1930s.

About 150 residents crowed onto Front St to watch the building burn.

royal hotel mossman fire after 2011

The Royal Hotel, Mossman, the morning after the fire. Picture: Supplied

Fire investigators will today try to determine what caused the fire.

A Mossman tradesman said the building was made from solid timber and provided the perfect fuel to feed the fire.

“It was pretty wild, there were explosions, a big bang and then there was just the most roaring fire,” he said.

“It’s just an old timber frame hotel that’s been stripped out. It’s full of timber and old carpet so it was totally taken ablaze.

“There was nothing stopping it.”

Today the site remains an open paddock.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

With thanks to the Port Douglas and District Historical Society.


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