By MICK ROBERTS ©
A HUGE crowd gathered at Billy O’Connell’s remote pub in the Victorian highlands waiting for its official opening – and free beer. They were to be disappointed.
The Melbourne Herald reported on June 15 1937 that there was to have been a free opening night at the Blue Duck Inn, which according to records opened in 1910.
The word was passed round and a wire confirming the licence was expected on the opening day. All the lads of the village from miles round collected there for the housewarming, but the wire did not come and nobody could be served. It transpired subsequently that a rival had collected a large supply of liquor at another place and advertised the fact. The free night at the Blue Duck would have left him with most of it on his hands, for the road gangs were leaving. He knew the wire confirming the licence was expected, so he cut the telephone wire. That was why the wire did not come. The first-nighters waited for some time impatiently and then someone said: ‘Let’s go to So-and-So’s’. There was a stampede and ‘So-and-So’ got rid of his liquor and made a handsome profit.
Located about 28km north of Omeo, The Blue Duck Inn is surrounded by the magnificent Alpine National Park wilderness, and for over a century has been an attraction for anglers and residents of the highlands. The pub stands at the confluence of three trout rivers – Cobungra, Bundarra and Mitta Mitta.
Billy O’Connell was born in the goldfields of Buckland Valley, Victoria in 1874, where his father was a school teacher. William Snr left his family, including his wife, Annie and his eight children, “destitute” when he mysteriously drowned in India while in pursuit of gold as a miner in 1882. Billy was just eight years of age at the time.
Billy’s mother, Annie lived to the ripe old age of 82, and died at Tangambalanga, near Kiewa, Victoria in 1924.
As a young man though, Billy – unlike his father – had better luck in his pursuit of gold at Sunnyside, Mount Wills, about 40kms from Anglers Rest. His success enabled him to eventually establish the Blue Duck Inn.
Billy’s brother Frances had the license from 1910 to 1913, and his sister Mary from 1913 to 1914. Billy’s sister, Mary, received the license of the Blue Duck Inn at the age of 43, and held the license until 1914 when Billy’s name was again officially hung over the door.
Mary was unmarried and likely lived with her brother, Billy and his wife, Lillian at Anglers Rest. Mary O’Connell remained unmarried for the rest of her life, and died at the age of 74 in 1947.
There’s a few versions floating about on how the Blue Duck got its name. All versions though lead back to the old goldfields’ vernacular, ‘Blue Duck’ meaning ‘of forlorn hope’. The slang expression was synonymous with “Buckley’s chance” – a description of utter hopelessness. The story that seems most plausible, and published while Billy was still hosting the Blue Duck, relates to the construction of a new road between Omeo and Glen Wills in 1909.
Where the Blue Duck Inn now stands was the road-builders’ camp. It was supplied with meat by a butcher named Jack McGrath. Jack saw possibilities in what was then known as Cobungra Crossing, and he pegged out a reservation. On one of the pegs he nailed a board which proclaimed his intentions of applying for a pub license.
The Melbourne Herald’s 1937 story reveals Jack’s pegs had not been up for very long when a wag from the camp chalked on a board, “F. P. McGrath’s blue duck pub” – Blue duck, being the miners’ colloquialism for a hopeless intention. The wag was partially right.
Jack never opened his pub, and the property was eventually sold to a cashed-up Billy O’Connell in 1910. The Herald reported:
THE road work went on. The camp shifted further along. Then Mr O’Connell came along, bought the site, put up a building and applied for a licence. The hotel was opened with the road, and the sign, ‘The Angler’s Rest’, went up in front of it, but patrons would have none of it. The hotel to them was the Blue Duck, and the Blue Duck it has remained. If you want to send a letter there you should address it “The Angler’s Rest,” for that is its postal address; but an efficient Post Office will take care of you if you should happen to direct your missive to the Blue Duck. An official will cross out the Blue Duck and write on the envelope: ‘Try Angler’s Rest’.
A much older Billy married 16-year-old Lillian Agnes Harvey in 1911, after his success on the Sunnybank goldfields. He was 37.
In the early 1920s Billy transported a couple of houses from Omeo on horse drays to Cobungra Crossing, which by now was officially known as Anglers Rest. One of those buildings is today’s Blue Duck Inn, while the other was the residence where Billy and his wife Lilian raised their nine children.
The small log structure behind the pub was a public school where the O’Connell children were educated. A teacher was shared with Glen Wills.
The hotel was discovered and patronised by keen anglers by the 1920s. Billy, who was also handy with the rod, was regularly host to the head of the Victorian Railways, Sir Harold Clapp during the 1920s. It was Clapp who had the bronze blue duck cast and presented to the O’Connells in the 1930s. This stands at the entrance to the pub to the present day.
Over the three decades Billy hosted the Blue Duck Inn, he at times leased the business to other publicans. He seems to have also hosted a wine saloon at Mooroopna for a period of time between his lengthy reign at ‘The Duck’. His sister Mary also hosted the wine saloon at times.
While at the Blue Duck Inn, Billy lost his wife, Lilian at the age of 48 in 1942. He continued as host of the pub until 1946, when he transferred the license to Edwin Wilcox before his death on May 19 1948 at the age of 74.
After the O’Connells, many a publican hosted the old inn. The Blue Duck’s license was relinquished in 1967 when the gold petered out and business became scarce. However, the Blue Duck gained a second wind when it was re-licensed in 1998, and today, comfortable accommodation and hearty meals can be found in the original pub, as well as the same High Country hospitality.
The Blue Duck is renowned for its wholesome local food and wine served in the friendly atmosphere of this traditional country pub, enjoy the open fires or relax on the veranda overlooking the Cobungra River. The Duck offers accommodation in six two bedroom self-contained cabins.
The Melbourne Herald’s story in 1937 best sums-up ‘The Duck’: “There is nothing within ‘cooee’ of the Blue Duck – no town, little or no settlement; only rugged mountains and the clearest, liveliest mountain stream you could wish to see… Even if you are not an angler this is still an idyllic spot, far away from the world among hills of peace and content.”
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019
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Categories: Victoria hotels