Roll-up, roll-up, a pub once owned by the circus: Ballina’s Occidental Hotel

Occidental Hotel Ballina 1925 ANU
The Occidental Hotel, Ballina 1925. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University


SOME would describe rowdy nights at the pub – especially towards ‘last drinks’ – as a bit of a circus. So, it seems kind-of appropriate the matriarch of the famous Perry Brothers Circus, Mary Ellen Perry, would buy a pub.

Joining the Perry Brothers Troupe at the age of 12, Mary Atkinson at 18 married the boss’ son and went on to raise seven children while touring Australia and New Zealand as a circus act. She swung from high-wire trapezes, tamed tigers, rounded-up runaway lions, before eventually becoming the manager of the circus – and in her later years, buying a pub in the northern NSW town of Ballina.

The Occidental Hotel overlooked the mighty Richmond River, trading for almost half a century before closing for business in 1932. Located in what is today Fawcett Street, Ballina’s Occidental Hotel was established by Richmond River pioneer, Thomas Mobbs in 1883.

The timber two-storey pub sat on a parcel of land with frontages of around 100 feet to both River and Fawcett Streets. It faced north onto the Richmond River, on what is today a car park, just east of The River Walk, opposite Fawcett Park.

Mobbs engaged local builder, George Bond to construct his two-storey weatherboard pub. When making the application for his license the 53-year-old businessman reportedly walked from Ballina to the Lismore Courthouse to make the application.

The police opposed Mobbs’ application, who considered the hotel unnecessary. At the time, the Commercial Hotel and the Royal Hotel were already operating in Ballina. Despite the opposition, Mobbs was granted his license, and he remained licensee for over a decade.

Mobbs was an old identity of the Richmond River, having settled in Ballina in 1852. He was the first shipping agent, as well as a storekeeper, before taking up business as an hotelier. His pub, like himself was closely linked to the river trade, facing the Richmond, immediately opposite Foster’s Boat Sheds and public oyster wall.

The Occidental Hotel directly overlooked the wharf, where the steamer, Lady Margrave, engaged in trade three times a week.

The pub’s close proximity to the wharf also meant the pub became a convenient holiday destination for visitors arriving in Ballina by steamer.

Thomas and Eliza Mobbs retired as licensee in 1894, although he continued to own the freehold of the Occidental until his death at the age of 67 in 1904.

Fred and Margaret Priddis took a 15 year lease of the Occidental Hotel on January 20 1922 at £6 per week. Fred, who was 39, was an experienced businessman. Previously he had been a grocer at Trangie, in western NSW, before purchasing the freehold of the Carrington Hotel at Peak Hill in 1920.

Priddis was at the helm of the Occidental when the circus came to town in 1923. The freehold of the property, owned at the time by Frederick Bradstreet, was up for sale, which caught the attention of Mary Ellen Perry, the matriarch of the famous Perry Brothers circus family.

The hotel at the time consisted of 40 rooms, groom’s rooms, spirit room, two feed rooms, billiard room, large store room, and a blacksmith’s shop. Mary purchased the Occidental Hotel in 1924.

Occidental Hotel Ballina 1931 ANU
The Occidental Hotel, Fawcett Street, Ballina 1931 shortly before demolition. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Mary Ellen Perry Launceston Examiner April 2 1947
Mary Ellen Perry. Picture: Launceston Examiner April 2 1947

Mary’s story goes back to 1888 when as a little girl of 12 while working as a nursemaid for a Blackall storekeeper in Queensland, she experienced her first circus.

Mary immediately was attracted to the colour and excitement of the circus, and within 24 hours she was a member of Perry Brothers’ troupe, eventually becoming their star contortionist and trapeze artist. She married one of the Perry boys, James in 1895 and eventually the control of the circus passed into the couples’ hands.

Fred Priddis remained licensee of the Occidental Hotel after the Perrys’ purchase, and he remained as host until 1927. From Ballina Priddis hosted a pub at Junee before assuming the license of the Imperial Hotel at Coonabarabran in 1929, which he held till the time of his death in 1947 at the age of 64.

Mary Perry leased the old pub to Mary Catherine Gray in 1928, who would become the pub’s last host.

The Occidental Hotel was condemned in 1930, and a plan was put forward to rebuild it on the River Street frontage of the allotment within two years. However the plan never eventuated and the license of the old pub was surrendered. It closed for business on December 31 1932. For surrendering the license to the NSW Government, the owner, Mary Perry was compensated £1,220, while the licensee, Mary Gray received the sum of £770. The hotel was demolished in 1937.

Mary Perry, the last owner of the pub, continued as manager of Perry’s Circus until she fell ill while touring in Tasmania, and she returned to the family home in Mentone, Victoria in April 1947. By the end of the month, her husband, James, who had retired some years earlier, died at the family home at the age of 74.

Mary died the following year, in February 1948, aged 71. A large family continued the legacy of the Perry Brothers Circus, which operates to this day (2022).

Occidental Hotel site Google
The site of the Occidental Hotel (The car park in front of the Riverwalk). Picture: Google Streetview

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020

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