Bushfires were a constant threat to ‘The Eagle on the Hill’

eagle on the hill 1880
The Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel C1880


BUSHFIRES were a constant threat to the Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel in Adelaide’s Lofty Ranges.

Fire destroyed the pub on two occasions, but each time it was rebuilt on the mountain road over the Adelaide Hills to trade another day.

While fire was unable to keep the bar door closed for any length of time for over a century, a new motorway, which diverted traffic via a tunnel underneath the ranges, would eventually sound its death knell.

The pub was built as a coaching inn, catering for passing traffic, and without that, it would be starved of its necessary lifeblood.

The Eagle-on-the Hill – a world away from city life, yet just eight miles from the Adelaide CBD – was originally opened as ‘The Anderson’s Arms’ in 1853.

William Anderson was one of Adelaide’s pioneering publicans, hosting the Catherine Wheel in Kensington Village in 1843, and the Traveller’s Rest at Little Para, before establishing the Mountain Hut Inn at Glen Osmond in 1845.

With the surveying, realigning and building of the Great Eastern Road over the Adelaide Hills from Glen Osmond, Anderson had licensed the Mountain Hut Inn as a resting stop for travellers before they commenced the steep ascent into ‘mountains’.

Anderson had a short stay at the Mountain Hut Inn, moving onto other pubs in the Adelaide region. He returned seven years later to the mountain pass, this time to establish a pub at its summit, rather than at its base.

Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let’s return to the Mountain Hut Inn. After Anderson’s departure from the inn, notorious publican, Robert Spearman would take the reins.

Spearman would go down in history as the pub’s most infamous host.  In 1848, he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for highway robbery upon an unsuspecting customer, Strathalbyn bullocky. 

The Adelaide Express reported John Rounsevell’s memories of the Mountain Hut Inn and the notorious publican on August 5 1899.

“It was kept by a notorious character named Spearman, who cleverly robbed a farmer, but was as cleverly caught and convicted of the crime. The farmer called at the hotel, and having, been served by Spearman continued his journey, up the hill by the longer way round the Devil’s Elbow. Spearman followed his man, and taking the short cut, intercepted him and robbed him on the top road. He got back to the hotel as quickly as possible, and the farmer came back and reported the robbery to the very man who had robbed him. The police suspected Spearman, and Harry Alford and another constable watched the house. One night they overheard Mrs. Spearman tell her husband that she had the money sewed in her stays. Next day a trap with four constables in plain clothes drove up to the hotel, and drinks were called for. At an opportune time both Spearman, and his wife were arrested, and consented to go with the police. The lady, however, expressed a desire to change her dress first. This of course was refused, and later on she learned why the police liked her best as she was.”

The Mountain Hut Inn traded for 60 years as pub. In 1909 the last publican, W. Forrest, had his licence revoked after local option polling. The nearby mines had also closed and the passing trade from timber cutters would also have disappeared. The property operated as the Mountain Hut Temperance Hotel until the mid-1950s and today it’s a pet boarding kennel.

Anderson meanwhile had returned to the summit of Mt Barker Road where he renovated an old coaching stop into a licensed hotel.

Abraham Fordham

The Anderson’s Arms was licensed in June 1853, and like at the Mountain Hut Inn, Anderson didn’t stay for any length of time. The license was transferred immediately to Isaac Gepp, who also had a short stay and by the end of the year Abraham Fordham was at the helm.

Fordham had arrived in Australia at the age of 34 in 1837 and established himself at a respected hotelier in Adelaide. He opened the Fordham’s Hotel, later known as the Sturt Arcade Hotel, in Grenfell-street, before he was granted the license of Anderson’s Arms in September 1853.

Fordham’s Hotel, his grandson said in a report in the Adelaide Register on March 25 1908, was originally built out of packing cases in which port wine had been brought out from England and for many years was one of the principal coaching rendezvous in Adelaide.

An artist impression of the Eagle-on-the-Hill when it was built from old packing cases in which port wine had been brought out from England. Inset: Abraham Fordham. Pictures: Kevin Stewardson (from an old poster)

Fordham advertised that he intended “to renovate and add more, accommodation” to the Anderson’s Arms. Soon after Fordham became host of the wayside inn, the Adelaide Times reported on November 7:

Curious Phenomenen—At the Anderson’s Arms Inn, situated on the Mount Barker Road, where it emerges from Glen Osmond and on the ground of which the Bachelor’s Picnic Party was held, may seen a litter of kittens, half cat and half oposum. They have the tail, the fur and fore claws of the latter animal.

Now if that “curious phenomenen” never attracted a few more visitors up the mountain to sample Fordham’s hospitality, the grand scenery and waterfalls that he developed with walking trails and picnic shelters, would soon provide the publican with a respectable  tourist trade.

The promotion of the Adelaide Hills as a summer retreat was a boon for business at Fordham’s pub. The influx of tourists though would also heighten the risk of bushfires in the mountains.

Less than six months after the pub was licensed a bushfire was licking at its door. The Adelaide Times reported on December 29 1853:

Fire at Glen Osmond – Scarcely a day passes but we have proof of the dangers arising from the recklessness of persons in the use of fire in the country districts. On Monday, a party of picnickers in search of pleasure, made an excursion to the heights above Glen Osmond, near the Anderson’s Arms, and most imprudently lighted their bivouac fire amidst the dry grass on the side of the slopes leading down to the waterfall glen. In a short time the whole hill side was in a blaze, and the flames were making rapid progress towards the Anderson’s Arms Hotel and outbuildings. Fortunately their progress was arrested by the proprietor, assisted by a number of gentlemen who were dining there. Several fires were visible on the hills during the course of Monday and Tuesday. Not only are these fires of serious consequence from the danger to homesteads and fence, but also from the destruction of feed for cattle.

Fordham officially changed the name of Anderson’s Arms to Eagle-on-the-Hill in 1855. It is said named the hotel after a large eagle hawk which often sat on a flagpole at the entrance of the hotel.

After the eagle was killed in a bushfire, Fordham was said to have kept another in a cage in front of the house.

The Adelaide Mail reported on May 3 1947 that Fordham created a precedent that many owners have followed. “It has been the policy of nearly all licensees to keep a live eagle on the premises,” the newspaper reported.

“The ‘Eagle’ is exactly eight miles from the GPO, and is built near the highest part of the hill from which it gets its name. This hill, and the ones surrounding, were known in the old days as the Stringybark Ranges. Because of its position, the hotel was first called the Eyrie, on the Hill. The name was changed when the first owner kept a magnificent eagle hawk in a cage in front of the house, creating a precedent that many previous owners have followed.”

The Adelaide Mail reported that drovers and their cattle rested there after the hard trek up the road from Glen Osmond.

“In those days the house was a quaint, old fashioned, rambling structure, built somewhat after the style of some of the wayside inns and taverns of old England. Bushrangers, runaways, two notorious bushrangers, Guppy and Nicholls, were once the terror of the road near the hotel and held up many travellers. Runaway sailors also used the hotel as a hide-out. They would sit on top of the roof with a spyglass and watch their ships sail out of Port Adelaide. Then they would return to the city.”

Fordham also placed a large effigy of an eagle hawk at the front of the hotel. He changed the name of the hotel to Eagle’s Nest in 1859 and, then back to Eagle-on-the-Hill in 1860.

Abraham Fordham, who had been suffering with carbuncles, died aged 61 while host of the Eagle-on-the-Hill in August 1864. His wife and son, William took over the running of the pub until 1869 when James Tighe was granted the license.

Tighe hosted the Eagle-on-the-Hill until 1873, when he moved to the Old Colonist Hotel at Norwood.

The Sharp family were the next at the helm of the Eagle-on-the-Hill when another fire threatened the pub in 1878. The Adelaide Express reported in January 1878:

During Saturday night and Sunday morning the ravages of the fire were concentrated round and below the Eagle’s Nest, and the scene was a very grand one as the flames leaped from tree to tree, and shot up with a lurid glare 30 or 40 feet above the heads of the tallest gums. Dense volumes of smoke and flame rolled upwards, and at one time threatened destruction to the Eagle-on-the-Hill, of which one of the out-houses caught fire, but the danger here was soon grappled with and the fire subdued.

Samuel Lewis and his family hosted the Eagle-on-the-Hill for almost a decade, before transferring the license to William Jones in 1886. It was under Jones tenure that a bushfire eventually claimed the pub. The Adelaide Express and Telegraph reported on Saturday August 5 1899:

The massive walls alone of the Eagle-on the-Hill Hotel resisted the fury of the fire on Thursday evening, and the proprietor, Mr. Toby Jones, is a heavy loser. A bundle of bank-notes, which had been placed in a recess in the bar, two pianos, several watches, and the bulk of the household furniture were destroyed. 

The fire broke out at about half-past 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Mr. Jones was in the bar, attending to two customers, and he observed a little smoke pass the door, but did not take much notice of the incident at first, thinking that it came from the kitchen chimney. After a minute-or two Mr. Jones, thought he could smell palings burning, and the next minute he made the discovery that the hotel was on fire. There was a shingle roof on the building, and galvanized iron had been placed over it. Mr. Jones saw that the fire had obtained a firm hold, and he was practically power-less to check it, because of the absence of tools to rip off the sheets of iron to get at the seat of the flames. The men in the bar and others were immediately summoned to assist, and the taps were knocked off the tanks in the yard, to allow the water to run out quickly into the buckets. The amateur fire brigade was soon hard at work, but it was a hopeless task from the start. The flames were too well fed by the dry shingles, and the fire-fighters soon abandoned the idea of saving the front portion of the hotel. They then turned their attention to the back rooms, which were saved. In the meantime an effort was made to rescue some of the goods in the doomed premises, but unfortunately the bulk of the furniture and stock had to be left to the flames.

“My opinion is that the fire originated through, a piece of soot blowing from the kitchen chimney on to the shingles,” said Mr Jones to “The Advertiser” representative who went up to the scene of the fire, “and the occurrence was purely accidental in any case.”

While Mr. Jones was taking out some things from his bedroom, the roof fell, and he had to make a hasty retreat. The dining-room, storeroom, three parlors, three bedrooms, and the bar, and their contents, were destroyed. Amongst those who rendered valuable assistance in the endeavor to extinguish the fire were Messrs. Edwards, Winter, Kelly, Williams, Logan, Chester, Slater, Cooper, Young, Walters, Smith, Fraser, and Hassets.

The fire broke out at half-past 4, and at 7 o’clock it had burned itself out. It was difficult to get near enough to pour water on to the burning timbers, so blinding was the smoke and intense the heat, although it might have been possible to save the building had there been hoses available. Neither the premises nor the contents were insured, the policies haying been allowed to lapse about seven years ago.

The total damage through the fire is estimated at about £1,000, but Mr. Jones lost many interesting family documents and relics, which he valued greatly, and which, of course, cannot be replaced. The building, which was erected in the fifties, was the property of the proprietor’s father, and he also lost nearly all his clothing in the flames.

In order to save a quantity of chaff and some sheds and contents from the flames the proprietor smashed down a part of the aviary in which the well-known eagle was confined, and it flew away. The bird was 15½ years old. It walked about in the vicinity of the burning building for some time; as if loth to depart, but it soon discovered that it was free once more, and took full advantage of the opportunity to escape…”

The South Australian Register reported on August 24 1899 that the old hostelry, “which was destroyed by fire recently, is rapidly being rebuilt”.

The whole of the nine rooms which were gutted have been roofed with iron instead of thatch, with which they were formerly covered, and the workmen are now at work on the floors.

eagle on the hill 1915
The rebuilt Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel C1915

With Jones death the ownership of the hotel went to his daughter, but not before a challenge over the publicans “curious will”. The Clarence and Richmond Examiner reported on October 6 1906:

William Jones an old man, well-known in and around Adelaide, formerly the proprietor of a very picturesque little hotel called the Eagle on the Hill, situated near Mount Lofty, a few miles outside Adelaide, died on October 15, 1905, leaving estate to the value of about £12,000. He left a will by which, after giving the income of his estate to be divided equally between his two children, he left the whole of his property to the Incorporated Body of Free-thinkers of South Australia. He appointed the public trustee of South Australia his sole executor and trustee. The only society which the public trustee was able to find on the registry of incorporated bodies was the South Australian Free-thought Society, Incorporated. When inquiries were made, it appeared that this society was no longer in existence, so the public trustee referred the matter to the Supreme Court of South Australia for advice mid direction. The Supreme Court directed a trial of the facts. The presiding Judge, Mr. Justice Gordon, there at directed that an advertisement should be circulated through the various newspapers in the Commonwealth for information as to the whereabouts of persons who claim to be either life members or honorary members of this society. It appears that by the rules of the society there are now no ordinary members, as no subscriptions have been paid by any member for many years, and the rules provide that any member whose subscription shall be six months in arrear shall cease to be a member. The rules also provide that five members (including the president) form a quorum. Up to the present the public trustee and his solicitor have failed to find five life or honorary members, but an effort in that direction is now being made.

After a legal battle, Jones’ daughter sold the pub to the Pike Brewing Company in 1909.

Fire again threatened the pub in January 1912 when “the flames were so near the Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel that water had to be poured on the balconies to keep the paint from blistering”. The Border Watch reported on January 6:

“The inmates of the hotel hurriedly packed up their belongings in readiness to quit, but the fire was overcome by a large party of willing workers. Had the wind been stronger the hotel must have caught fire, and if it had, with the existing inadequate water supply, it would probably have been burnt to the ground.”

Alf Berchmore leased the Eagle-on-the-Hill from the brewery in 1926, and his wife, Ethel became licensee. Ethel made the news when she was fooled into providing a free drink to a travelling publican, George Wotton. The South Eastern Times reported on December 25 1928:

How a middle-aged man’s celebrations at the birth of his first-born led him to impersonate the police, was told at the Stirling West magistrates’ court, when George Wotton, hotelkeeper, of Naracoorte, was fined £10, with £3/14/ costs, by Mr G. W. Halcombe, S.M., for having impersonated a police inspector at the Eagle on the Hill Hotel on October 5.

In outlining the case, Inspector Shea, who prosecuted, said defendant visited the Eagle on the Hill Hotel about 6.15 p.m. on October 5, entered the premises and told the licensee that he was Inspector Allchurch and that he wanted to inspect the bar.

After admission he had examined several bottles and helped himself to drinks. He asked her to bring four men, who were in the roadway, into the hotel to give them drinks. She refused. He again said he was Inspector Allchurch, but the licensee said she knew that officer, whereupon defendant said: “I didn’t say Allchurch, I said Church.” He then went outside and after drinking with the men drove off in his car. Mr Thomson, for defendant, said hat it was a pity that the police had reacted the matter so seriously, -while others had considered it a huge joke. Mr Shepherd, M.P., gave evidence of good character of defendant whom, he said, he had known for seven years and had never seen him under the influence of liquor. He had a high reputation in his district. Defendant said that occasion was the first time he had ever been drunk in his life. Mrs Birchmore, licensee of the Eagle on the Hill Hotel, said that Wotton had expressed his regret the day after the incident, and she was quite prepared to accept his apology and wanted the matter to go no further. His Honour said the affair had not been regarded as a joke by the licensee of the hotel, who, at the time, had taken the impersonation seriously. Drunkeness was no excuse for crime, but it was in favor of the defendant that he had apologised. He had, however, committed a public offence, and he would inflict the maximum penalty of £10, in default imprisonment for three weeks.

Over the following summers bushfire continued to threaten the pub. The Adelaide Advertiser reported on March 13 1929 that the pub narrowly escaped being destroyed by a bush fire.

eagle on the hill 1936
The Eagle-on-the-Hill, 1936
The Birchmore girls fighting the bushfire in 1933

“So serious was the fire menace that all traffic up and down the Mount Barker-road was held up for some time.

The daughters of the Birchmore girls were photographed in the Adelaide News fighting off a blaze that threatened the pub in March 1933. Miss G. Birchmore described how she and her sister fought the fire with wet bags:

“I was feeding a calf when I heard the roar of the fire,” she said. “I called to Hilma, and told my father. There is a district road below the hotel and we were able to stop the fire there. It crossed the road, but we burnt a break, and it did not get any further. Our sheep were stupefied, and would just as soon have walked into the flames as away from them. We drove them away to safety.

“The fence of the Waterfall Gully reserve was burnt on one side of the road. I got my overalls torn so badly on blackberry bushes that I had to change them. Hilma wore overalls, too.

“People seemed to come from nowhere to help. We got them some tea and biscuits about 4 o’clock, and the worst was over by fire. We watched until 10pm for fear the flame might break out again. If we had not stopped the fire at the lower road it would have swept right up to the hotel as it did several years ago.”

The pub continued trading through the war years, with several different publicans hosting the historic premises. Publican Naza Stephens was refused a renewal of the pub’s license in March 1945 after several breaches of the liquor laws, including Sunday trading. The judge described Mrs Stephens as “not a fit and proper person to be licensed, and that the management of the hotel was unsatisfactory”.

The pub remained unlicensed to sell liquor for over a year before Reginald Aubrey Ellison bought the pub with intentions of redeveloping the site. Ellison was fined £1 with £5 14/ costs in December 1946, for “having on or between April 18 and July 20 caused a sign to be erected or painted on the hotel without first obtaining a licence”.

The Eagle-on-the-Hill was trading again as a pub in 1947, with the Adelaide Mail reporting in May that Ellison planned to rebuild the hotel on a site as near as possible to the junction of the new road from Buraside and the Mount Barker road.

It has been the policy of nearly all licensees to keep a live eagle on the premises, and Mr. Ellison intends to have a large aviary built to house a bird. The last bird died three years ago, and although Mr. Ellison has received many offers of an eagle, he does not intend to get one until he is ready to house it in the new cage. When the new hotel is built Mr Ellison intends to remove the effigy of an eagle hawk, from the old building and install it with due ceremony in a prominent position on the new hotel… On its old site or its new, the hotel will still be a stopping place for motorists who wish to enjoy the magnificent view of the Adelaide Plains commanded from the hill.

The next prominent publican was Arthur Hodges, who took over the license of the pub in 1948. He remained as host well into the 1950s. The Adelaide News reported on October 26 1948:

EVERY morning, before the Eagle-on-the-Hill bar opens, two-year-old Terry O’Toole, a red setter, puts his paws on the counter and begs for a drink. Mr. Arthur Hodge, his owner, who runs the hotel, gives him a pint of beer. Then Terry is a teetotaller for the rest of the day; unless, as Mr Hodge says, “someone comes in and says, ‘Give the dog one, too’.”

This, on hot days, when the bar is crowded, happens very often: so often, in fact, that Mr Hodge has to bar Terry from the bar. He had his first drink at a party, a while ago, when somebody poured beer into his drinking dish. Now he drinks from an old pint glass, that’s wider than the ordinary glass. He laps up a pint in three or four minutes. Mr Hodge limits him strictly to three or four pints a day, an amount that doesn’t seem to affect him. The photograph shows Terry at the bar door, begging for admission.

Another summer meant another fire came knocking at the door of the Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel. Like in previous incidents, the pub’s customers and borders were instrumental in saving it from burning to the ground. This time, in March 1950, seven men drinking in the pub fought off a bushfire threatening the pub. Later the men were treated to a dinner by Hodges, with two of them, Laurie Bahnisch and Stan Hampton presented a pair of trousers after their own were damaged fighting the fire. The seven men were also shouted a dozen bottles of beer for their efforts by Hodges.

eagle on the hill hotel 1950 b
Arthur Hodges (right) handing over new trousers to Laurie Bahnisch (left) and Stan Hampton at the dinner he gave at the hotel.
1983 Eagle on the Hill Hotel
The burnt-out hotel after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983.

The hotel was completely destroyed a second time during the infamous Ash Wednesday bushfires on February 16 1983. It was rebuilt and operated with much success until its closure after the construction of a new motorway in 2000.

The Eagle-on-the-Hill was able to withstand the bushfires, but could not fight-off the construction of a new motorway, driven through the hills as a tunnel underneath where the pub traded.

The road diversion spelled the death knell for the historic watering hole, as less traffic passed and fewer people called in for refreshments. It shut its doors 2005.

eagle on hill 2016
The rebuilt Eagle-on-the-Hill C2010 (now closed)
This old poster was discovered by Kevin Stewardson when he was cleaning his late father-in-law’s house. Kevin says his father-in-law’s ancestors go back about four generations in South Australia.

Licensees 1853 – 1954

Anderson’s Arms

Eagle-on-the-Hill Hotel

 1853 – William Anderson

1853 – Isaac Gepp

1853 – 1864: Abraham Fordham

1864 – 1866: Mrs E. Fordham

1866 – 1869: William Robert Fordham

1869 – 1873: James Tighe

1873 – 1876: G. Sharp

1879 – 1886: Samuel Lewis

1886 – 1900: William Jones

1900 – 1904: Harry Small

1903 – 1905: Emily Small

1905 – 1907: Charles Barnett

1907 – 1908: Walter Mason

1908 – 1910: John Sandow

1910 – 1911: Henry J. Mott

1911 – 1920: Colin Campbell Cowie

1920 – 1921: Robert F. Partridge

1921 – 1922: Charles E. Pinchbeck

1922 – 1926: Thomas Joseph Canny

1926 – 1926: William G. Kerr

1926 – 1935: Ethel Elizabeth Birchmore

1935 – 1936: Lily H. McCauley

1936 – 1943: Vivian Claude Green

1943 – 1944: Naza and Tony Stephens

1944: Hotel de-licensed

1946 – 1947: Reginald Aubrey Ellison

1947 – 1954: Arthur Hodge

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2016

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Categories: Adelaide hotels, Publicans, South Australia Hotels

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2 replies

  1. used to dine at Eagle-on-the-hill several times a year with my two young sons, a short trip from our home in Belair. We move through time, but am so sad to find I’m thirteen years to late to revive that experience when I return to Adelaide soon for the first time in twenty years.

  2. Have a A3 size poster entitled the story of a inn. The eagle on the hill with a picture of a.fordham esq.

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