Rocklea Hotel, Rocklea


The Rocklea Hotel, Rocklea. Photo: Google Streetview.

Rocklea’s skeleton in the closet


FOR a pub that has served up beer for more than a century, there’s sure to be a few good yarns, and a skeleton or two in the closest, when researching its history. The Rocklea Hotel’s skeleton in the cupboard yarn is a beauty.

The Queensland pub has sat on the corner of Ipswich Road and Medway Street at Rocklea, providing accommodation, refreshments, and meals, while gaining a reputation as a meeting place for sport fans, since 1886.

While its reputation as a sporting pub has endured, there’s another page in its history that’s not widely known. During the late 1920s the manager of a private museum within the pub purchased what was claimed to be the skeleton of bushranger, Frank Gardiner. We’ll get into that controversial yarn a little further into our look back at the Rocklea Hotel.

The two storied brick hotel was built in 1886, replacing a timber building which, the Brisbane Courier reported in 1936, had been established since the 1860s.

In those early days Cobb and Company’s coaches used to pass the original structure on their way to Ipswich. The present hotel has seen many changes in the growth of Brisbane. In the days long before motor cars it was outside the five mile limit, and under the licensing laws of those days travellers from Brisbane could get refreshments there at any time. Old-fashioned buggies, pony traps, and conveyances of all minds used to convey thirsty men from Brisbane, Beenleigh, and other places to its inviting purlieus.

In January 1936 the newspaper visited the bar of the hotel to chat to a few “old timers” about its history.

In the cool bar yesterday morning was an interesting group of four old timers of the district, Mr. James Tuckett, who came there in 1876, and Messrs. J. T. Williams, G. Kinghorn, and J. Walker, who came there in the ’80’s. They had come to see the place they had known for so many years, change hands. Mr. Walker recalled that in the flood of 1893 the water was level with the hand rail of the balcony of the hotel, and the then licensee, a man named Fitzgibbons, had removed all the stock he could to the upper story of the hotel. Mr. Williams remembers calling for a drink in a boat and standing waist deep in water on the balcony while he imbibed something to counteract the wet outside. Mr. Walker remembers in 1883 being surrounded by din-goes, of which there seemed to be thousands, in a paddock not far from the hotel. The party he was with had an old muzzle-loader gun and a powder flask, the powder in which had got wet, and Mr. Walker admits that on that occasion he “had the wind up.” In the early days Rocklea was a busy centre. There was a sugar mill, the plant of which was later transferred to Pimpama, and the building was used as an arrowroot factory. Also there were four or five brick kilns in Moorooka. Almost every evening there were sports on the green close to the hotel, so that it is bound up with the athletic history of Brisbane.

The sporting reputation of the pub grew further when 49-year-old John Patrick Kelly, his wife, Bridget and their four boys took-up residence at Rocklea. Bridget was granted the license of the pub in March 1921, while John continued his career as a newspaper compositor and reporter.

Born at Emu Vale, near Toowoomba, as a young man Kelly joined the staff of the Western Star, newspaper at Roma. He later joined the Sportsman newspaper, and during the mid 1890s joined the Brisbane Telegraph. He also took an active interest in athletics, and, as owner of the Rocklea Hotel, donated the Kelly Cup, which carried with it the foot racing cross-country championship of Queensland.

The Kellys also introduced a bizarre attraction at the Rocklea Hotel during 1929 when they engaged Mr. A. Wakefield to manage a “private museum of curios”. The Kellys gained approval to have a section of the hotel’s yard de-licensed and used as a “garden café”, where the zoo, and weird and wonderful exhibits were placed on show. The Brisbane Courier reported on July 22 1929:

Strange Pets

A man fondling a huge carpet snake outside the Rocklea Hotel was the centre of a curious crowd on Saturday afternoon. They increased their distance from him another yard or so when he shifted its glossy bulk – as thick in the middle as a man’s leg – to a more comfortable position round his neck. Its big spade-shaped head rested lovingly against his upper lip. The snake-fondler is a celebrity in the little Rocklea district. He is a man of culture, kindly, and considerate in his dealings with man and beast. His chief occupation is the superintending of the magnificent fernery and “zoo” at the Rocklea Hotel, where the visitor can see at one corner a family of turtles joyously plunging into their ice-cold pool, alongside a galah that is an amiable conversationalist. Doves and pigeons are here, too, and when their guardian comes to feed them they flock to his shoulders in fluffy white droves. They love him just as much as the carpet snake, which did not in the least, resent being unceremoniously pulled out of its cosy bed of straw on Saturday night for the not-too-close inspection of a “Courier” reporter. Underneath the snake’s house, a big iguana has his home, but his is not the affectionate nature of monsieur the carpet snake, and he has to be warily handled. Its keeper added, casually, as he gave a genial farewell, “Next week, a chap has promised to send me two black snakes. Won’t there be some fun when I get them on the lawn outside?” The reporter was non-committal, but ventured to ask whether his acquaintance possessed an antidote in case he should be bitten. “No,” was the reply. “Then what would you do if you were bitten?” The little man’s eyes twinkled merrily, “Ring up the undertaker!” he said, and the dumb-founded pressman left it at that.

Through the first half of the 1930s the grounds of the hotel featured “The Glenrowan Cabaret and Dansant”, where dancing was held every Saturday night. Interestingly the cabaret was named after the Victorian town, almost 1,500kms away, made famous by the bushranger, Ned Kelly. It was Glenrowan where Kelly made his last stand, and was eventually captured in 1880 after a siege and shootout with police.

The naming of the cabaret after Glenrowan is an interesting twist to the story. Was it a tongue-in-cheek gesture at John Kelly’s surname? Was he related to Ned, or was the human skeleton, claimed to be that of Frank Gardiner, purchased at auction to establish a bushranging theme in the pub’s garden? These are questions yet to be answered.

The chances of Gardiner’s skeleton ending-up in a beer garden in suburban Brisbane are slim to say the least. He died in the United States of America, and like this tale, his life is riddled with mystery.


Bushranger, Frank Gardiner

Sources differ as to Gardiner’s origins. Some have him as being native-born near Goulburn, NSW around 1830, while other research says he was Scottish-born, and migrated to Australia as a child with his parents in 1834.

Gardiner’s bushranging career though is certain. It spanned through the 1850s and 60s, and he was imprisoned a number of occasions for robbery. His big one was in June 1862, when he bailed up the Lachlan gold escort near Eugowra with a gang, including Ben Hall, Dan Charters and Johnny Gilbert. This hold up is considered to be one of the largest gold robberies in Australian history. The total value of the 2,700 ounces of gold and bank-notes taken was estimated at £14,000. Much of the gold was recovered by mounted police after they surprised the gang near Forbes. What happened to the remaining gold is still the subject of much speculation and rumour. Treasure hunters still visit the area.  It is even said that two Americans, who were thought to be Gardiner’s sons, visited the area in 1912 claiming to be miners, in search of the gold.


Artist impression of Gardiner’s robbery of the Lachlan gold escort

While in hiding in Queensland during 1864, Gardiner was recognised, and reported to police in Sydney. He was apprehended in controversial circumstances by NSW police operating outside their jurisdiction, and taken back to Sydney, where he was sentenced to 32 years hard labour.

Gardiner served 10 years of his sentence after successful appeals. He was granted an early release, conditional on his leaving the country. In late 1874, Gardiner arrived in California having travelled via Hong Kong. He ran and owned the Twilight Star Saloon on Kearny Street in the Barbary Coast area of San Francisco for the remainder of his life.

There are many rumours about his life there, including a claim he had two sons who may have visited Australia in search of their father’s gold. None have been proven.

The circumstances of his death are not known with any degree of certainty, due in large part by the destruction caused during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There are various reports of his death ranging from 1882 (as reported in the Sydney Evening News) to 1904 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

This is where the story becomes interesting. The Rocklea Hotel’s private museum manager, Mr. A. Wakefield, purchased the skeleton said to be that of Gardiner in 1929 almost 40 years after the first reports of his death in the United States. Did Gardiner’s two sons bring his remains back to Australia? Did he have two sons? Were these really the remains of the infamous bushranger, who pulled-off Australia’s largest gold robbery?

The Brisbane Telegraph, where the owner of the Rocklea Hotel worked as a compositor and sports reporter at the time, reported the purchase of the skeleton on Wednesday November 27 1929:

Sale of a Skeleton

Gardiner, the Bushranger’s?

Cold, gruesome, awe-inspiring, a human skeleton gazed with sightless eyes and loose-Jawed, sneering mouth, at the crowd of bargain hunters and others who thronged the large auction room of G. P. Loon and Co., at Grey Street, South Brisbane, on Tuesday, its bones, rattling feebly, as though in an attempt to force upon the company its dread reminder of death. The auctioneer state that they were the bones of Frank Gardiner, a noted bushranger of the last century, who, he added, was sentenced to 33 years’ imprisonment In New South Wales, but who was released after serving a short period. Many remarks were made, but few were the bids. A number of people however, closely examined the gruesome relic. Notable absentees from the company were representatives of the University or the medical profession. Women shuddered and turned away, to other and brighter exhibits, eager to banish from their minds the thoughts that the creaking joints and grisly appearance of the exhibit had conjured up. The auctioneer worked hard to get a bid, but it was some time before a tentative, almost meek, offer of 19 shillings was made. Bidding lapsed then for a few moments, but by degrees it rose to £2 5s, when it was “knocked down” to Mr. A. Wakefield, of Kelly’s Hotel, Rocklea. “I had no skeleton in my cupboard and I felt the need of one,” said Mr. Wakefield when asked his reason for making the purchase. “You see,” he added, “I have several cupboards all full of curios and various animals, and snakes that have charge of the private museum at the hotel at Rocklea, and this specimen will enhance the value of it.”

The entrance to the Glenrowan Cabaret, where the skeleton was more than likely exhibited, was through a large bush-house, containing a collection of ferns, and “quaint alcoves, fitted in a rustic style”. There were waterfalls; fish and duck ponds, and there was a zoo, containing monkeys, a variety of birds, wallabies, opossums, and other marsupials. The cabaret was said to have had an excellent orchestra, and a first-class dancing floor.


Paul B. Dowd

The authenticity of the bushranger’s skeleton was widely ridiculed in the media, with the colourful Truth newspaper going as far as to say that it was offered for sale by a convicted fraudster by the name of Paul B. Dowd.

Dowd, who had been convicted of practicing medicine without qualifications, was fined for professing to have miracle cures for various diseases and complaints. The Truth labelled him a “quack parasitical healer”, and a “humbug”. They also accused Dowd of selling what he claimed was the remains of Gardiner through the Brisbane auction house, throwing further doubt on its authenticity. Whatever the truth, the end result and publicity that followed was a bonus for publican Kelly, who by the national coverage of the story, undoubtedly boosted business at his outer suburban pub.

John Patrick Kelly died aged 64 in 1933. By 1937, the Glenrowan Cabaret had closed, and his widow had sold the hotel. The fate of the skeleton remains a mystery, while Rocklea Hotel continues a popular drinking hole on the corner of Ipswich Road and Medway Street in suburban Brisbane.

© Copyright 2017 Mick Roberts

Categories: Brisbane hotels, Queensland hotels

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