By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE host of the Illawarra Hotel, Hilda Condon brought a touch of glamour to the New South Wales Liquor Royal Commission.
The Wollongong socialite splashed a little razzle-dazzle – with her trademark styled blue hair, expensive jewellery and designer frocks – when fronting the government hearings into liquor industry corruption in 1951. She was reportedly asked by brewer, Tooth & Company, the owner of the hotel she leased, to give a favourable report, and as a consequence was rewarded for her loyalty.
At the time Hilda led a team of women – her sister, two daughters and a team of female staff – who kept a tight rein on a hotel frequented by merchant mariners, soldiers, steelworkers and coal miners.
Hilda was one of the more ‘elegant’ of the 411 witnesses called to the Royal Commission, and her flamboyancy contrasted sharply with the mostly drabley dressed male publicans and licensed club managers, called to give evidence to Justice Victor Maxwell.
One by one the publicans fronted the 140 hearings, between July 30 1951 and March 25 1954, giving evidence into the murky dealings of the hotel and liquor industry in New South Wales.
Justice Maxwell was looking into aspects of the administration and operation of the liquor act, delving into the hotel tied-house system, ownership and financial interests, particularly of the breweries. He also looked at 6pm closing of hotels, and how it affected drinking habits, as well as the black marketing of beer.
Hilda, along with publicans from Newcastle, Tamworth and Grabben Cullen, near Crookwell, fronted the Commissioner on the same day in October 1951, giving evidence to the inquiry.
The 63-year-old publican – no doubt, dressed to impress – told the inquiry that despite the quotas forced on her pub by her landlord, Tooth and Company, and that she often ran dry of beer, she never closed her public bar for business during the required trading hours.
Food was supplied to the passing trade, and she had never refused a meal to anyone, she told the Commissioner.
When her regular customers asked for three or four takeaway bottles of beers, they were wrapped in a paper bag, held until the closing closing time of 6pm, and given over the bar when they were ready to leave.
Hilda had a clever system to counter any possible unrest in her bar after the beer had run dry. When handing over the bottled beer purchased earlier, the girls were required to say: “Mr Jones, there are your three bottles of wine”.
Hilda triggered laughter from the inquiry gallery when she explained: “It’s just a little subterfuge”.
Hilda Gertrude Condon was the first licensee of the Hotel Illawarra, located at the corner of Market and Keira Streets, Wollongong. She was licensee from 1938, until her death in 1962, at a time when Wollongong was undergoing massive social change.
The Port Kembla steelworks had attracted thousands of men seeking employment, as production ramped-up for the war effort, and, along with the ever increasing numbers of mariners and military men, Wollongong was abuzz with activity. Hilda, with her sisters, Mabel and Jessie O’Meara, and two teenage daughters, steered the Hotel Illawarra through this dramatic social transformation.
The women, who ran what was considered at the time Wollongong’s ‘swankiest’ hotel, often featured in the social pages of the local press, and attended all the ‘to be seen’ functions and events. They were regular airline travellers, holidaying in all the fashionable resorts.
Hilda and her three sisters Georgina, Mabel and Jessie were born in Richmond Victoria to publican parents, Roderick and Margaret, O’Meara.
Roderick was a Catholic Irish immigrant who did farm work on arrival in Australia, prior to marrying Margaret. He did well and went-on to become the licensee of three hotels in Richmond, Victoria: The Railway Hotel, Swan Street (1882-1902), the London Tavern, Lennox Street (1902-1907), and the Melrose Hotel, Flemington Road, North Melbourne (1907-1921).
Hilda’s mother, Margaret died at the Railway Hotel aged 45 in 1898, and her father Roderick never re-married. He sent his girls to a ‘good school’, and he became a high-profile community figure. He was elected a Labor councillor and served on Melbourne City Council for over 12 years.
Roderick’s eldest daughter, Georgina (1883-1940), was an actress and married a Sydney solicitor, while Hilda, Mabel and Jessie followed in their father’s foot steps, by becoming publicans.
Roderick died while host of the Melrose Hotel in 1921. The Melbourne Advocate reported on Thursday June 2:
Cr Roderick O’Meara, who passed away on May 22, at the Melrose Hotel, North Melbourne, had been one of the representatives of the Hopetoun Ward in the Melbourne City Council since November, 1919. The deceased was in his 71st year. Born in Nenagh, Tipperary, Ireland, Cr. O’Meara arrived in Queensland in 1859. Subsequently he moved to Victoria and became licensee of the Railway Hotel, Swan-street, Richmond. About fourteen years later he secured the licence of the London Tavern, in Lennox-street, Richmond, and during his residence of nineteen years in that suburb Cr. O’Meara took an active interest in civic affairs, and was a strong supporter of Labour aims. For the past 10 years he had been licensee of the Melrose Hotel, North Melbourne. His wife died some years ago, but four daughters, two of whom are married, survive him. Sincere regret was expressed by Cr. J. W. Swanson, the Lord Mayor, at the death of Cr. O’Meara. The Lord Mayor and other members of the City Council attended the funeral to the Boroondara Cemetery. R.I.P.
The Melbourne celebrity newspaper, Table Talk also reported on the publican’s death on Thursday 26 May 1921:
A quiet-spoken, personally pleasant and good business man was the late Cr Roderick O’Meara, one of the representatives of the Hopetoun Ward in the Melbourne City Council. He was not one of the orators of that body, but when he spoke, except on political matters on which we all agree to differ, displayed shrewd sense. As a hotel keeper he had a long connection with the metropolitan district, being associated with the trade in Richmond for a long series of years, and later at Flemington. He was a keen supporter of Labor views, and as such was selected in November, 1919, when a vacancy occurred in the Hopetoun Ward, which is essentially radical, and has since sat with the Labor wing in the council. He leaves four daughters, one of whom, Georgie O’Meara, will be remembered as a promising actress.
With the death of the Irish publican, his daughters took control of his hotel interests. Mabel and Jessie became hosts of the Melrose Hotel from 1921 to 1925, later taking over the Retreat Hotel, Nicholson Street, Abbotsford from 1925 to 1927, and the London Tavern Hotel, Lennox Street, Richmond from 1928 to 1936.
Of the two sisters hosting the pubs, it was Mabel who was the official license holder at each of the watering holes. While the two sisters ran the London Tavern, Hilda moved with her husband, Maurice to Sydney in the 1920s.
Hilda had married Maurice Stephen Condon in Victoria in 1918, eventually divorcing him while living in Sydney during 1937. Following her separation, Hilda and her daughters, Margaret and Pamela, lived at Mosman, operating a dress shop in Sydney.
A year after her divorce came a business opportunity Hilda couldn’t refuse. Tooth and Company – the state’s largest brewery – granted Hilda, 50, and her sisters, Mabel, 51, and Jessie, 46, a lease on Wollongong’s newest hotel.
Having three single middle aged women – two spinsters and a divorcee – running Wollongong’s largest and most modern hotel was a reflection of their capabilities and business acumen. In fact, along with Hilda’s two teenage daughters – Margaret, 19 and Pamela, 14 – the Hotel Illawarra was entirely managed by women.
The Hotel Illawarra opened as a result of the closing of one of the Illawarra’s oldest pubs.
The Illawarra Lake Hotel had traded in Brownsville, near Dapto, since the mid 1840s, before it was bought by Tooth and Company. The brewery was successful in transferring the license of the old pub to the corner of Market Street and Keira Streets in 1938, enabling the Hotel Illawarra to open for business. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Friday November 18 1938:
CLOSING OF HOTEL
After providing accommodation and quenching the thirsts of thousands over a period of many years, the hotel at Brownsville, better known as the Illawarra Lake Hotel closed its doors on Wednesday. Yesterday afternoon the Hotel Illawarra, Wollongong to which Brownsville license has been transferred, was officially opened. The latter is a large and ornate structure situated on the corner of Keira and Market streets, Mrs H Condon, is the licensee, and she will be assisted by her daughters and sister.
The Illawarra Mercury reported when granting the application at the Wollongong Licensing Court on November 17 for the transfer of the license of the Brownsville Hotel to Wollongong, the Magistrate, Mr Laidlaw said he had an opportunity of inspecting the new hotel that morning.
He congratulated Wollongong upon having added to its list of hotels, one which is modern in every particular. It had been furnished with particularly good taste. The addition of such a hotel will materially assist in the comfort of the travelling public, tourists and visitors to Wollongong. The care with which the furniture had been selected made it a particularly desirable place. It is the type of hotel that the Licensing Bench is desirous of seeing established in other towns in the State. An application for the transfer of the license of the Brownsville Hotel the new hotel was granted, also the transfer of the license from Mr Bell to Mrs H G Condon…
The Illawarra Mercury went on to describe Wollongong’s newest watering hole.
Magnificent and Luxurious
Wollongong’s most modern hotel – the Hotel Illawarra – is now open and is under the direction of Mrs H G Condon (formerly of Sydney and Melbourne), assisted by her two sisters, Misses Mabel and Jessie O’Meara, and two daughters, Misses Margaret and Pamela Condon.
The Hotel Illawarra is excellently equipped with the most modern conveniences, which make for comfort and prompt service. A high standard of luxury prevails, with an admirable cuisine. Among the major assets of the hotel are the bedrooms – 43 in all – beautifully furnished and many with communicating private bathrooms.
The Hotel Illawarra is magnificently appointed, and indeed almost palatial, and everything that is necessary for modern comfort has been provided. All rooms and hallways on the three floors are expensively furnished and carpeted throughout, while the bathrooms are almost ultra-modern in their luxuriousness. Ample reading rooms, writing rooms and dining rooms leave nothing to be desired.
The well-being of guests is the personal interest of the proprietress. A visit to the new hotel, in Keira-street will indicate, to visitors that Wollongong and the South Coast have a hotel that they have every right to be proud of.
The bar appointments are most modern, and every detail is arranged for the comfort of patrons.
Hilda was an imposing figure – a formidable, stylish woman – who had a soft spot for the merchant mariners visiting her hotel, as she believed they were “neglected”. With her tinted hair, the mariners named Hilda the ‘blue wren’ – but she was far from wren-like in her looks. A solid woman, she was fast on her feet, giving thought to where the wren part of her name may have been derived.
Another family story has it that an American merchant mariner came looking for the ‘blue wren’ during the war years, and when asked how he knew where to find her, replied that Hilda “was more famous than Frank Sinatra on the west coast of the USA”.
Despite working and living within a male-domain, the women of the Hotel Illawarra were more than capable of handling their many permanent borders and blue collar customers. Mabel O’Meara and employee, Mrs O’Callaghan bailed up ex-serviceman, 28-year-old Tom Horsfall in the hotel after he was caught acting suspiciously in 1946.
Mabel, who was serving in the saloon bar about 9.50pm on June 10, heard voices coming from the vestibule. She went out and saw Mrs O’Callaghan asking Horsfall what he was doing in that part of the hotel. He replied he was staying in room 39, and a feisty Mrs O’Callaghan fired back: “That’s a lie; that room is occupied by a permanent boarder”.
Giving evidence in a court case after Horsfall was charged with theft, Mabel, who at the time was 59 years of age, said she noticed underclothing belonging to her at his feet. The police were called, while Mrs O’Callaghan guarded the door to prevent his get-away.
Mabel told Sergt S. R. Birke when he arrived at the hotel: “This man states he booked in here to-night and I would like you to see what he has on him”. Just then women’s clothing – three black slips – fell to the floor from under Horsfall’s clothing.
Mabel’s niece 27-year-old Margaret Condon also gave evidence, telling the court that she went to her room to find two jewel cases opened and articles strewn about the floor. Margaret’s underwear was also later found on Horsfall when he was searched by police.
Horsfall, a carpenter living in Coniston, pleaded guilty and escaped a jail sentence, receiving a £25, three year good behaviour bond.
The same month as the underwear drama unfolded, Mabel’s sister, Jessie fell ill, and died. The South Coast Times reported on Friday August 23 1946 that although Jessie had not enjoyed the best of health, she was “a bright and cheery personality”, who had “taken a keen and very active interest in raising funds for many district charitable institutions”. She was 54.
During the war years, Hilda’s two daughters also helped out at the hotel. The eldest daughter, Margaret, who had a heart condition, and her younger sibling Pamela, who had left school to help in the business, were familiar faces around the hotel.
Pam met Bob (Robert) East, an AIF lieutenant based at the Mt Keira Military Camp, at the hotel, and they eventually married in 1945. Pam and Bob would eventually take over the hotel from Hilda.
Pam’s daughter, Penny Kearney, 69, who grew-up in the hotel, told me in 2016 that there was never a dull moment growing-up in the Hotel Illawarra. The bar was the meeting place of Australian and American military officers during the war years.
Mrs Kearney said her Grandmother, Hilda Condon was a formidable character, who played a part in getting the Owen gun into production during World War II.
“It was initially rejected by the army, but Evelyn Owen (the inventor) was a friend of my aunt’s and persuaded Hilda to hand the prototype to Vincent Wardell, manager of Lysaght’s Steelworks at Port Kembla, who drank in the public bar on a Friday evening,” she recalled.
“She handed it over the counter in a sugar bag and suggested he might look at it. Wardell was impressed with its simplicity so eventually persuaded the army to have it produced (by Lysaght’s) where it was successfully used in New Guinea, and also Korea and Vietnam. Few people refused Hilda.”
Mrs Kearney also tells the story of how her Aunt Margaret, Hilda’s eldest daughter, was nearly engaged to a handsome US pilot who was killed during the war.
“His family in New York sent Margaret a beautiful amethyst and diamond bow brooch to thank her for ‘looking after him’ – I have the brooch now,” she said.
Margaret did end up finding love, and married Tom O’Connor, the manager of Ashley’s Department Store in Wollongong on August 1 1951. The Sydney wedding was a lavish affair, and was the talk of the town, with Margaret wearing a bridal gown made of white satin. The satin was sent from England and was said to be of the same material chosen by a recently married Royal Princess Elizabeth for her wedding gown.
Margaret’s frail health would not last though, and she was dead within a year of her marriage. The South Coast Times reported on Thursday June 19 1952:
The death of Mrs Margaret O’Connor which took place on Tuesday morning followed an illness of some months. Aged 33 years she was the daughter of Mrs. H. Condon, of the Hotel Illawarra and came to Wollongong from Sydney, with her mother and sister, Pamela (Mrs. East) about twelve years ago. She had taken an active interest in several district organisations. Last year she married Mr. Tom O’Connor who for a number of years prior to leaving recently for Sydney, was manager of Ashley’s at Wollongong and to him and the other members of Mrs. O’Connor’s family sincere sympathy is expressed. A private funeral was held yesterday, the cortege leaving Cole’s Chapel for Woronora.
The death of her eldest daughter played hard on Hilda, and with her sister’s health also failing, she would call on her daughter to take over the running of the hotel.
The Illawarra Mercury reported that “gladioli were spilling all over the place at the Hotel Illawarra this week when they were sent along as a tribute of affection to Miss Mabel O’Meara. It was her birthday and the wishes extended from all her friends were very genuine ones”.
Mabel was reported to be confined to her bed with “a persistent “flu germ”, the social pages of Wollongong’s newspapers reported on several occassions during 1952 and 53. The Illawarra Mercury reported in March 1953 that “after quite a long spell upstairs, Miss Mabel O’Meara is down and about again. So many friends are rejoicing”.
The real fact though was that Mabel’s health was failing fast. Without the help of her sister, Mabel, who “had taken to the gin”, and the recent death of her daughter, Margaret, Hilda was unable to continue as host at the Illawarra.
Hilda’s daughter, Pamela moved back to Wollongong with her family late in 1953 to take over the running of the hotel. Pamela’s two daughters and son were sent to boarding school for a time, and when Hilda returned after a well-earned rest, she did not work in the hotel again, but held court every evening in the front foyer.
Pamela’s rein at the Illawarra was as notable as her mother’s, recalls her daughter Penny Kearney, who lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney.
“My mother, Pam East, was known to have the fruitiest call of ‘Time, gentlemen please’ of all. She had a commanding voice and presence with a posh accent (dreadful that she was aphasic for the last seven years of her life). She was christened ‘Diamond Lil’ because of her predilection to don many diamonds and sapphires for the evening trade which appeared to add power to her calls for ‘Time….’ ”
Mrs Kearney said while her parents, Bob and Pam were at the Hotel Illawarra they carried out renovations, including the addition of a dance floor in the middle of the dining room, to cater for dance parties. The ladies’ lounge was also updated with a modern nautical theme, replete with fishing nets on a wall. They also renovated the bottle shop.
“When at home, I controlled the evening music from a small room under the stairs and sometimes I would ‘mind’ the front reception office.”
Mrs Kearney recalled the interesting people who stayed at the hotel, including the Harlem Globetrotters; musical theatre directors; the architect for the Regent Theatre (“he taught me to knit”); single business men (bank managers) and ‘permanents’.
“Dinner was always a formal event and we had to be ‘dressed’. The food was good for its era. Pam would change in the late afternoon into very dressy clothes for the evening trade. She was also stylish and many of her clothes were made by a Sydney couturier,” Mrs Kearney recalled.
“She was in her element and loved the life of the Illawarra. Bob also enjoyed it and was very active with golf and the UCLA tournaments, etc. However, clubs and motels took their toll on trade at The Illawarra with its large accommodation, dining room, etc., so they sold in 1962.”
Mrs Kearney visited the hotel of her childhood recently and was given a tour by the manager.
“I was able to visit my old bedroom and could remember everything. The family had a flat on the first floor separated from the guest rooms. We had four bedrooms (Hilda, parents, brother, and one shared by my sister and I), my mother’s dressing room for her myriad clothes and shoes, a sitting room, balcony, bathroom, and my father’s office – all led out onto a large private roof garden where there were many parties serviced by another guest room requisitioned by my mother and turned into a swish small bar that also led out to the roof garden. That little bar became my secret private reading room when I didn’t want to be found. Even though the ground floor of the hotel had been gutted, I could still figure all the original bits.”
And what was the outcome of that 1952 Royal Commission? Handing down his report, Justice Maxwell advocated for later hotel closing hours throughout the state, and said there was no evidence to warrant the abolition of the tied house system.
The family story is that Tooth’s Brewery assistant general manager Selby Burt asked Hilda to testify on behalf of the brewery, which had over 1,000 New South Wales’ pubs across the state tied to its products, because of her honesty and loyalty to the company.
Mrs Kearney said that Mr Burt was grateful and her grandmother and the brewer remained business friends until her death.
“I recall going to the brewery on Broadway as a child with my mother on her weekly trips to Sydney (when home from boarding school) to be left in the car while she called in on a ‘Mr Burt’.”
Mr Burt was the first witness to front the Royal Commission, and during his interview revealed a few interesting statistics about the extent of Tooth & Company’s strangle-hold over the state’s pub industry at the time. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday September 11 1951:
The main New South Wales brewery, Tooth and Company Limited, had a total of 1,003 New South Wales hotels “tied in some way or other” to it, the company’s assistant general manager, Selby John Burt, said at the Royal Commission on liquor yesterday. He said the total comprised 429 hotels in the metropolitan licensing area, 120 in Newcastle, and 454 in the country. Yesterday was the first day of the commission’s general sittings. The Royal Commissioner is Mr. Justice Maxwell.
Burt gave this evidence in reply to questions by Mr. W. R. Dovey, K.C., assisting the Commissioner. In reply to Mr. Dovey, Burt said that at July 31 his company held 332 freehold hotels in the metropolitan area, 110 in Newcastle and 186 in the country, making a total of 628. Metropolitan leaseholds numbered 54, Newcastle five and country 26, a total of 85. Company mortgages other than mortgages on hotels as above were 21 in the metropolitan area, two in Newcastle and 154 in the country, a total of 177. Other ties were 23 in the metropolitan area, three in Newcastle and 88 in the country, a total of 114.
Mr. Dovey: Summed up, this makes totals of 429 hotels in the metropolitan licensing district, 120 in Newcastle and 454 in the country, making a grand total of 1,003 which are tied in some way or other to Tooth & Company Limited. Burt: Yes.
Justice Maxwell’s Royal Commission recommendations led to 10pm closing of pubs on February 1 1955, and more registered clubs to open throughout the state.
Pam and Bob East, after hosting the Hotel Illawarra, also held the license for the Town Hall Hotel, Newtown, the Lakes Hotel, The Entrance, the Castlereagh Hotel, Park St, Sydney, and the Cricketers’ Arms, Balmain.
Pam East, ‘Diamond Lil’, the publican with the fruitiest ‘time, gents’ call, died at the age of 80 in 2004. Her husband Bob died in 1984 at the age of 67.
- My sincere thanks to Penny Kearney, grand daughter of Hilda Condon, and daughter of Pam East, for supplying the images and for her assistance in compiling this history.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2016