By ERNEST McCAUGHAN
TO ANYONE ACQUAINTED WITH MELBOURNE in the last century nothing is more striking than the disappearance of many popular city hotels. Few today recall their whereabouts, much less their hosts, though some were personalities.
The Union Club, at the corner of Market st, built on the site of Fawkners Shakespeare Inn, has given place to the AMP offices. For some years it was kept by Thomas Asche – father of Oscar, of theatrical fame – a tall, handsome, bearded Norwegian, who might have served a sculptor as model for a Viking, and who, were rumour to be believed, must have had a constitution in keeping with that of those hardy Norse rovers, for he was credited with consuming two bottles of brandy a day.
The house was much patronised, and an habitue was Alfred Tennyson Dickens. I see him now, with frock coat and top hat, nonchalantly leaning on the bar, listening to the barmaid, reminding one of George du Maurier’s superb illustration of Trilby’s father.
The Criterion, formerly on the present site of the Union Bank’s head office, was the most popular resort in the gold era, and was much patronised by the numerous American colony. Tradition has it that cocktails first made their appearance in its bar, the enterprising licensee having brought bartenders from California to concoct those mysterious compounds, which bear a somewhat similar relationship to good liquor that sausages do to prime meat.
Though the Criterion had passed before my day, I remember as a boy seeing its rival, the Clarence, at the south-east corner of Elizabeth and Collins sts. It was then leased by Wolstenholme, but the man who made its name was his predecessor. John Whiteman, a versatile individual, who in turn had tried prospecting, mining, veterinary surgery, and blacksmithing before taking the Clarence. In his leisure he indulged in the somewhat incongruous pursuits of politics and poetry. The time devoted to the former – he was for some years member for Emerald Hill, now South Melbourne – evidently led to his neglecting the hotel, and in 1888 he was back at his original trade, blacksmithing.
The older generation may recall the sensational stories of his wife’s daring and successful operations on ‘Change in the ’80’s. From these profitable speculations, and from the Midas mine, discovered by her near Smeaton, she became known as Madame Midas.
One of Melbourne’s most popular hosts was John Cleeland, of the Albion, in Bourke st, on the north side a little east of Buckley and Nunn’s. It was the coaching house, and many of the squatters made it their headquarters. Cleeland, like most Ulstermen, was enterprising, and had taken part in the early rush to California. He made money there, and, having bought a schooner, traded for some years in the South Pacific, a hazardous calling today, but infinitely more so at that period. His luck followed him to the Albion, and he purchased a property on Phillip Island, where he bred cattle and kept a few racehorses, and with one, Woolamai, he won the Cup in 1875.
It is not generally known that three Melbourne publicans became notable figures in England. Messrs Spiers and Pond, who kept the Theatre Royal Hotel, and the somewhat notorious Cafe de Paris in the ’60’s and ’70’s, on their return to London ran the Criterion, in Piccadilly Circus. Universally known as the Cri, under their management, it became, as did the Rajah of Bong, “renowned alike in story and song,” and during the ’80’s and ’90’s was the favourite resort of London’s gilded youth.
JOE THOMPSON, the well-known bookmaker, owner of Don Juan, which had won the Cup in 1873, who once kept the Royal Charter in Bourke st, which he renamed Tattersalls, also went to England, where he became a leading, if not the leading, bookmaker. Another celebrity, who kept Tattersall’s, again renamed, the VRC Hotel, was Jem Mace, ex-champion of England.
But it was during the boom years that the licensed victualling trade reached its zenith. In 1888 in Swanston st alone, between Flinders st and Lonsdale st, there were no fewer than 21 hotels, and excellent some of them were.
And what characters some of the landlords of that era were, and what stories one could tell of them did space permit, of Abe Hicken, the ex-pugilist; of Pollock, a rotund little Jew, who kept Her Majesty’s, and who always wore a white waistcoat; and of Paddy Reynolds, host of the Royal Mail, who initiated the custom of presenting a gold-mounted whip to the jockey winning the Cup; of Madame Lacaton, a masculine-looking French-woman, who kept the Maison Dore, in Lonsdale st; and of Halasey, an Hungarian, who opened the Cafe Anglais in Collins st, and demonstrated to Melbournites the distinction between a gourmand and a gourmet.
But they’re all past like those festive times when six o’clock closing was un-known, and the quality of the liquor enabled one to understand old Omars’ curiosity concerning what the vintners bought.
-Argus (Melbourne), Saturday 25 August 1945