By MICK ROBERTS ©
A CANNY Scotsman with a reputation for being careful with his money, Jimmy Richardson, was one of Australia’s most successful hoteliers.
Jimmy built an empire of Melbourne hotels, before selling them all – with the exception of his headquarters, ‘Richardson’s’ – to the breweries in 1944.
James Richardson arrived in Australia, with just £20 in his pocket, in 1886 from Ayrshire, Scotland at the age of 21. He gained employment at the Wentworth Hotel, Sydney as a ‘useful’ or ‘boots’, doing odd jobs, before making a move to Melbourne, where he worked as a barman at the Hotel Windsor.
So frugal was Jimmy, less than six years after arriving in Australia, he had saved enough money to buy the lease of ‘Morrell’s Hotel’ at the corner of Bourke and Russell streets, Melbourne, in December 1892.
While hosting Morrell’s Hotel, Jimmy had an encounter with a couple of burglars in 1894. The Bendigo Independent reported on Monday August 20 1894:
MURDEROUS RESISTANCE BY BURGLARS
Melbourne, Sunday, August 19
At 3.45 o’clock this morning, Mr. Richard-son, licensee of Morrell’s Hotel, corner of Bourke and Russell streets, awoke through hearing a noise at his bedroom door. On opening it he was struck on the head with an Iron bar, inflicting a severe wound and temporarily disabling him, Recovering him-self, he raised a window and called police. Constable Mercer and Byer rushed across. Byers remained in front. Mercer, entering by a right-of-way at the rear, was met by two young men. Mercer hit one on the shoulder with his baton and staggered him. The other then fired three shots at Mercer, one striking him in the back of the hand, another on the shoulder, and a third in the neck where the bullet is lodged. They then ran away. Constable Collier joined in the pursuit, and Mercer ran a hundred yards before he dropped from faintness. An examination showed that entrance was gained by scaling the back fence, thence through a fanlight near which was a splash of blood, and then over the back door, which they wrenched off. Mercer was taken to the hospital where one large bullet dropped from his clothes. The burglars escaped up Little-Bourke street. Richardson was also taken to the hospital where his wound was stitched up.
During his time at Morrell’s Hotel, Jimmy struck up a relationship with Charlotte Lewisa McLeish. They lived together for a number of years before marrying in 1893. When Charlotte discovered that her former husband was alive and well, after believing he had died, Jimmy filed for divorce, which was granted in 1898. He never married again.
At the age of 33, the same year of his divorce, Jimmy bought the freehold Morrell’s Hotel. It had a long history and became an unpretentious headquarters of Jimmy’s chain of hotels. He would call the old corner pub home until his death.
The first hotel established on the site was known as the “Australia Felix”, built in 1846. Australia Felix was the name given by early settlers to the fine pasture lands of Victoria. The pub was rebuilt in 1860 and became known as ‘Morrell’s’ during the mid 1880s. It originally had a concert and dance hall on the first floor, which was known as the Alhambra. It was later remodelled for residential purposes.
The extensive basement portion of the hotel was formerly a billiard room, which later became Jimmy’s bond store, cellars and despatch room.
The Scotsman became one of Australia’s leading connoisseurs of wine. He bought direct from famous vineyards in Australia and overseas, and his spacious cellars were always stocked with rare vintages. Jimmy was also managing director of the Richardson Wine and Spirit Stores, where “favourite brands were sold in single bottle at wholesale price”.
In 1928 his one extravagance, the 10-storey Hotel Alexander, in Spence Street Melbourne, was opened. It was the first hotel with a bathroom and hot and cold water to every bedroom.
By 1936 he owned the Hotel Alexander, Richardson’s, the Exchange, the Town Hall, the Cathedral, Hosies, the Cosmopolitan, the London, the Kerry, and several wine and spirit stores. He was the managing director of the largest chain of first-class hotels in the Southern Hemisphere, and had been termed Melbourne’s premier host. He was also a director of the Carlton and United Breweries, the Melbourne Co-operative Brewery and the Corio Distillery.
Within 24 years of arriving in Australia, through hard work and frugal living, Jimmy had a chain of seven hotels, with four wine and spirit shops. By 1944 that had increased to nine hotels. That same year he sold five of his hotels to the Carlton United Brewery, but continued operating the rest of his hotels himself – including his first hotel at the corner of Bourke and Russell Streets, and The Alexander.
Old Jimmy was 84 when the Melbourne Herald paid a visit to the old hotelier to write a profile story. The story, published on 26 June 1948, reveals a somewhat lonely life of a millionaire who never married.
FROM GROCER’S BOY TO MILLIONAIRE
By E. W. TIPPING
James Richardson’s office is picturesque, which is understandable enough because you expect a millionaire’s office to be picturesque. To get to it you need a guide. “Mr Richardson will see you in his office,” says the girl. “I’ll get someone to show you down.”
And down you go. Down a dark uncarpeted stairway, over trapdoors, through the liquor fumes, until eventually you come out in a dingy cubicle, somewhere in the cellars of the hotel at the corner of Bourke and Russell Streets, which has carried this legendary publican’s name for 56 years. On the wall is one of those telephones with the curly mouthpiece which you still find, in out-of-the-way country stores. The radiator is of the sausage tube variety. But there is no ash-tray in the office, so Jimmy Richard-son — as Melbourne knows him — decides we’ll have the inter-view in his private sitting-room upstairs. The guide follows as we grope our way up. You be-gin to wonder if he’s the famous bulldog who always shadowed the hotelkeeper as he hiked his way around the city every night, picking up the takings from the Alexander, Hosiers, the Cathedral, the Town Hall and other units in the celebrated chain. He brought out the ash-tray when we settled down. It was branded: “Stolen from Richardson’s Hotels.” If anything, Mr Richardson’s sitting-room is more picturesque than his office. The furnishings are circa 1890 – long, wide, table, davenport bookcase with a broken pane, straight-backed horsehair chairs… a row of those veined marble wash-hand basins beloved of Railways Commissioners, in the passage outside. But the gloom is the same.
The millionaire hotelkeeper sits himself opposite you at the table, shoots his starched cuffs, fondles his goatee beard and tells you his life story… Then you find that this 83-year-old Scot, who boasts that he never saw a pressman until he announced the sale of his chain four years ago, is surprisingly easy to interview. He has pencil and paper to see his dates add up. James Richardson was born the son of a village grocer — who didn’t sell wines or spirits, by the way— at Hurlford, in Ayrshire (Scotland) in 1865. There were 11 in the family. He was the eldest boy. He left school at 13, got a job as a grocer’s boy in the neighbouring village of Kilmarnock at 4/ a week, walking two miles to work; later rose to grocer’s assistant with the well-known James Lawson firm in Glasgow. When he was 21 he decided to try his luck in Australia, selling pianos. He arrived at Williamstown in the wind-jammer Westgate in 1886 with £20. but after a quick look around decided to go on to Sydney, where he took a temporary job as a grocer’s assistant.
In two years he returned to Melbourne to become a barman at the old White Hart Hotel at the corner of Bourke and Spring Streets (now the Windsor Annexe). Keen to make money, he says he saw the best opportunity was In the hotel business rather than in pianos, provided he could scrape together enough money to get a hotel of his own. He did — out of £2/5/ weekly wage — in four years. He got a lease of Morell’s Hotel, known as Richardson’s Hotel to three generations, in 1892. The father of the late Sir Stephen Morell helped him finance a five-year lease. He has never looked back. Two years later he decided to add a wine and spirit store to the hotel, the first of its kind in Melbourne. This, he says, is where his grocer’s training stood to him. Up to then, grocer wine and spirit merchants were the only retailers of bottled liquor and Jimmy decided to challenge them. He added a wine and spirit store to his Russell Street frontage, thought up his famous slogan “Single bottle at wholesale price” (which he still uses) and had made enough money by 1898 to buy the freehold of his hotel. Surviving the bank crash, his next extension was a 20 years’ building lease of the Exchange Hotel and Cafe Francais at the corner of Swanston and Little Collins Streets. He bought the Town Hall Hotel in 1910, by which time he was already a wealthy man. Mr Richardson recalls the keen competition of those days — with Young and Jackson’s, Morell’s (the Orient, on the present site of Foy’s), Hosie’s and Parer’s. That was when you could get an imperial pint of beer for 3d. and a free counter-lunch of ham, sausages, frankfurts, black and white pudding — even turkey some days — with bread and cheese. He did most of his own buying at the Victoria Market, taking the produce to his hotels by horse, and buggy. After the First World War he added the Cathedral, Hosle’s, the London, and the Kerry Family (in King Street) to the chain. He had four wine and spirit stores in Swanston, Flinders and Lonsdale Streets.
In 1924, he decided to give Melbourne its first hotel with a bathroom to every bedroom; so he took Mr Leslie Perrott, outstanding hotel architect, with him on a tour of the U.S. before beginning work on the Alexander. He spent £300,000 on his dream hotel, another £50,000 on furnishings, £10,000 on carpets alone. But he denies that his aim was to break the secure hold of Menzies Hotel on the better-class trade. He points out that he has got back more than his outlay on his biggest hotel. He — and he alone — supervised the running of every hotel. He did the ordering, kept the books, personally selected every barmaid — on her ability, not on her looks — and, at 83, still runs the Alexander, Richardson’s and the wine and spirit stores himself. They were all he retained after the 1944 sale of the others to the breweries at a figure “something over half a million.” Mr Richardson still inspects the bars, the lounges, kitchens and cellars every day, just as he inspected them all when he had the chain. And he still walks on his rounds, or takes a bus or tram. He has never had a car. James Richardson has never had a partner. He admits he has had some good managers, but never a business associate. The vendor in the big sale of 1944 was Iona Pty. Ltd., in which there were 508,000 shares. The Finance Editor says Richardson held 507,998 of them, the other two be-longing to his sister’s husband, Dr. G. R. Wickens, who recently retired from practice in Hawthorn, and Mr G. J. Forsyth.
He never married. He says he never had time. He has never been home to Ayrshire, because he has never had time. He has never smoked, has never bad more than one drink a day. He still has that — a glass of Scotch, “any one. of the good brands” — after dinner of an evening. His only recreation, he says, has been his reading, and he points to the books on his old-fashioned shelves. The only titles you can make out in the gloom are “Work,” “Business Practice,” various works on economics. He rarely has a fire in his lonely sitting room, where he sits reading by his radiator until 11.30 each night. He sometimes reads in bed. . Always a Sandow enthusiast, despite his lack of height, he still does 10 minutes setting-up dumb-bell exercises after a warm bath, followed by a cold shower every morning. “It keeps me fit,” he explains. “They’re a good substitute for outdoor exercise for which I’ve never had the time.” He rises at 6.45, break-fasts at 7.45 “on the dot,” and settles down to his ordering for the Alexander and Richardson’s immediately afterwards. His plans? To go on doing the same thing for many years to come.
True to his life long principles of hard work and frugality, Jimmy was at his accounts, and signing of cheques until the eve of his death. He died in August 1951 at the age of 87 in his bed at the Hotel Alexander after a month’s illness.
Jimmy was worth around £2 million at the time of his death, and was survived by a sister and a brother. He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery.
The National Bank of Australasia bough Richardson’s Hotel – the last of Jimmy’s chain of pubs – from his estate in June 1954 for £131,500. The license was surrendered in 1954 and with a likely nod of approval from Jimmy, his old pub became a bank.
The former pub has survived to this day on the busy intersection of Bourke and Russell Streets in Melbourne, and trades today as a McDonald’s Restaurant. Somehow, I think Jimmy would have preferred the bank.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019
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