Bushfires have been a constant companion of the Kinglake Hotel

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Kinglake Hotel, Kinglake Victoria, 2017. Picture: Google Streetview
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National Park Hotel (Former the Kinglake Hotel) during the 2009 bushfires. Picture: Flickr
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Kinglake Hotel, undated. Picture:  Eltham District Historical Society


THE terrifying roar of an approaching bushfire is a sound familiar to many a publican at the Kinglake Hotel – a small Victorian pub established in 1908.

Located 56 km north-east of Melbourne, the pub is surrounded by the forests and farmlands of the Kinglake Ranges, on the Great Dividing Range.

The small township has a long history of bushfires, the most notable being the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, when 38 people were killed, and more than 500 homes were destroyed. The pub escaped that catastrophe – but only just.

Publican Sharon McCulloch and her husband came close to losing everything – their business, their home and their family.

The couple hosted what was then the National Park Hotel, and told the Bushfires Royal Commission about their desperate battle to save the historic building on February 7 2009.

“I never thought a fire would come into town and decimate the main street. I always believed that we would be safe in the main street, have some sort of protection,” Ms McCulloch said.

As the fire approached she told her mother to take their four-year-old son out of Kinglake to safety and they locked up the hotel. She told of the panic when a group of locals broke down the pub’s front door to shelter inside.

Ms McCulloch found about a dozen people sheltering in the bar, and told them to move to the nearby Country Fire Association (CFA) shed, where others had already gathered. They refused until CFA captain Paul Hendrie convinced them to move to the CFA shed. The hotel survived the fire, but it sustained $160,000 of damage.

The pub had previously survived severe bushfires in 2006, when over 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) were burnt out, again in 1982, and earlier again during the 1960s.

The major bushfires of 1939 also placed the community at risk and before that in 1926. This time though the pub didn’t survive.

The 1926 fire caused significant losses; the post office being the only building left standing in the town.

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The original Thomson’s Kinglake Hotel, Kinglake, C1910. Picture: Eltham District Historical Society 
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The site of Kinglake Hotel after the 1926 fire. The arch above the front corner gate is the only recognisable remnant of the pub. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  

The Kinglake Hotel was established by 51-year-old Harry Thomson and his wife, Elizabeth, know locally as “Lill”, in 1908. The couple were married in 1883 and worked a Kinglake farm known as The Oaks, before moving with their young four young children to nearby “Aurelia Villa” in 1898, where they ran a guest house to cater for the growing number of tourists visiting the spectacular mountain scenery.

Harry was also the mail contractor to and from Kinglake and remained so for 25 years. The mails were first carried from Queenstown on horseback, then three times a week from Steel’s Creek and later daily from Yarra Glen. He was said to have been a fearless horseman, and had sheltered an outlaw or two in his stables.

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Harry and “Lill” Thomson  standing on the site of the hotel they established after the 1926 bushfires. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  
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The remains of the Kinglake Hotel after the 1926 bushfires. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  

Harry and Lill also ran the Kinglake Post Office from the guest house, which would hamper their attempt to have the building licensed as a pub in 1908.

The police and some residents argued that having a post office operating in the same building could be harmful to young children, and was not appropriate.

The magistrates agreed, and the first attempt to have “Aurelia Villa” licensed failed.

Later that year Harry tried again, and built new premises to house the post office, which his wife was now running. He told the court that the nearest pub to Kinglake was at Queenstown, between eight and nine miles away.

There were 11 rooms in the house and he could accommodate 25 people overnight. His wife’s new post office, 10 by 12 feet, had been built 80 metres away on another road, and the old post office would become the bar of his proposed pub.

Although there continued to be some opposition to the guest house becoming a pub, the magistrates this time agreed, and the Kinglake Hotel was granted a license on Friday February 7 1908 at the Lilydale Licensing Court.

Harry retired from the bar of the Kinglake Hotel at the age of 57 in 1914, and his son, Frank to the reins. Harry and Lill continued running the nearby post office.

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Frank Thomson sorting plates and other items from the ashes of the hotel 1926. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  
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Host Annie Thomson sorting through the debris of the burnt hotel, 1926. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  
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A touching incident at Kinglake after the fire. Frankie and Arthur Thompson, sons of the publican, and their little cousin, Ernie McDonald search through the remains of their toys in the ruins of the Kinglake Hotel. Picture: The Melbourne Argus, February 26 1926.

Frank was the only son of Harry and Lill, who married Annie Cath Power in 1914.

Frank and Annie ran the Kinglake Hotel for 20 years, ever aware of the constant threats of bushfires. The pub survived major fires in 1914, 1919, and 1923. However, that was all about to change.

In February 1926 reports reached Melbourne that hot winds had fanned bushfires and the mountain settlement had been practically wiped out. Only the store and post office remained.

Residents of the picturesque little township surveyed a scene of desolation on the morning of Thursday February 25 1926. Smouldering ruins marked the sites of the town’s chief buildings after the fire swept down from Glenburn the night before, destroying over half a dozen structures, including the Catholic church, the pub and the community hall.

Thankfully there were no lives lost. However 30 people, chiefly women and children, spent a terrifying night cowering in the Kinglake Post Office, which for a time was surrounded by flames. They were found shaken, but unharmed.

The Kinglake Hotel, also surrounded by fire, was not as lucky, and began to burn about 8.30pm after it was showered in ambers.

The fire spread rapidly from the old timber single storey pub to the adjoining general store, and within half an hour both were in ashes.

There were two boarders at the pub, who retreated to the post office for shelter.

Frank had jumped on his horse earlier in the afternoon to ride to Kinglake East school to bring home the children. Fearing for their safety though, he didn’t return to Kinglake, and took the children out of the path of the fire.

The publican returned the following morning to find his pub and general store burnt to the ground. That morning his children were photographed scrounging through the debris of the pub, in an effort to find their toys.

Within a few days Frank converted a shed near what was left of his pub into a temporary bar, and the following month he received permission to rebuild.

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Kinglake Hotel temporary bar March 3 1926 (Harry Thomson third from right). Picture: Eltham District Historical Society
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Kinglake Hotel temporary bar. Picture: Melbourne Weekly Times, March 6 1926.  

The new pub was completed in December 1926 at a cost of cost £3,200.

The new structure, built from fibre cement and timber on the site of the old pub, consisted of 30 rooms, which included 20 bedrooms.

The dining hall seated 120 guests. There was also a second dining room, which seated 30 persons, and both rooms were placed in the opposite direction to the bar.

The electric lighting was provided from a small plant at the rear of the hotel, which also pumped the water for the sewerage, and supplied water to every room. There was a billiard room, a bar about 20 feet square, and sitting rooms. There was a wide verandah all round the house, with electric lights, and in the evening visitors could watch the lights of Melbourne.

The Thomson family’s connection with the Kinglake Hotel ended in 1934, although they continued to live in the area for years to come.

They sold the freehold of the pub to Augustus Dundee Oliver in 1934, and he ran the Kinglake Hotel for a few years before leasing it to various publicans.

Meanwhile, Harry Thomson, who had established the pub in 1908, met his maker in 1941.

kinglake hotel after the fires
The 1926 replacement Kinglake Hotel. Picture: Eltham District Historical Society

The last 25 years of his life was spent with his wife running the post office “La Mascotte” at Kinglake. He died in Melbourne on March 31 1941 aged 84. He had called Kinglake home for over 60 years.

Just six months later, his widow, Lill also died, at the same age, at her home “La Mascotte”. For 55 years she was post-mistress at Kinglake, although for the last three years of her life she had been an invalid.

Frank Thomson died at the grand old age of 94 in 1982, while his wife Annie died in 1962.

The pub, although operating under the name of the National Park Hotel for a period of time, has reverted to the Kinglake Pub, and continues trading.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2018

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