The death of pioneering publican Reg Tolley
By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE suspicious death of a publican, who was pioneering improvements in the drinking habits of Australians, made headlines around the country in 1952 when detectives ordered the exhumation of his body.
The day after friends and family gathered to farewell 59-year-old Reginald Donald Tolley at the Wollongong Cemetery, the publican’s remains were ordered to be unearthed for examination after suspicions were raised about his death.
Tolley was part of a family many considered to be Australian royalty when it came to the wine and liquor industry – especially in South Australia.
In 1949 Tolley became the first publican of the Open Hearth Hotel, Warrawong, a newly established suburb to service the burgeoning Port Kembla steelworks, south of Sydney. He had only been at the helm of the highly-successful new pub for less than three years when he died under suspicious circumstances.
The Tolley family were successful winemakers, merchants and distillers in South Australia at the time. They had large business interests in the liquor industry.
Reginald Douglas Tolley was born in South Australia in 1893 and married in 1914 before establishing his own brandy distilling company, Tangari, and wine store in the mid 1930s. He was one of two sons of Douglas A. Tolley, chairman of directors of Tolley, Scott & Tolley, distillers, of Stepney, South Australia. Besides Stepney, the Tolleys also had a distillery at Nuriootpa, and had several vineyards.
After going into business on his own, Reg struck financial troubles, and was declared bankrupt in 1937. After what seems to have been a fall-out with the family, Reg, with his wife Alma, left South Australia for NSW in 1938.
The couple established a boarding house in the newly created residential suburb of Warrawong, south of Wollongong, in 1939.
Due to Reg’s bankruptcy, his wife, Alma was the registered owner of the business, which operated from the newly completed ‘Comrol House’, at the north-east corner of King and Cowper Streets, Warrawong.
Warrawong was borne from the growth around Port Kembla, primarily due to the establishment of the steel industry when several subsidiary industries were established in the area. During 1939 over 1,000 new homes were built in and around Port Kembla to meet demand for housing accommodation.
Public works fought hard to keep pace with the development of the new industrial centre. To accommodate the exploding population a large three-storey cream brick structure known as Comrol House was built by W. C. Wentworth at a cost of over £20,000 in 1939.
The completion of Comrol House marked the foundations for the future business and commercial centre of Warrawong. The building had a frontage of 60 metres (200 feet) to the newly completed 24 metres (80 feet) wide King Street, and 18 metres (60 feet) to Cowper Street, the main east-west arterial road to Port Kembla.
In the building were six shops fronting King Street, with 20 rooms and a spacious restaurant, for the requirements of the entire building, as well as for the use of the bus station on the ground floor, and the general public. The first floor also contained three large flats and a club room for the executives and staff of the Commonwealth Rolling Mills. Comrol House was built by contractors, H. W. Thompson and Co to plans of architect, R. J. Magoffin of Sydney.
While Alma Tolley ran the boarding house part of the business, it seems Reg was also operating an unlicensed wine shop in part of the building. He pleaded guilty and was fined £5 in 1941 for using the premises for betting.
Tolley was arrested at Comrol Boarding House after the police found him with a book showing 109 bets of one shilling each. Tolley told the court that the bets were confined to boarders of the house. He said he was a punter, and usually telephoned through bets on a Saturday. Some of the boarders had asked him to place bets. He said he didn’t receive a commission, but charged the punters for the phone calls.
In 1946 Reg Tolley tried unsuccessfully to gain a wine and spirit merchant’s license for part of Comrol Boarding House. However, after that set-back, grander plans were put forward. First though, Tolley had to be discharged from his bankruptcy.
In 1948, with help from his family in Adelaide, Tolley was discharge from his bankruptcy, and plans got underway to transform Comrol Boarding House into a state-of-the-art hotel.
The Illawarra Mercury reported on Thursday June 23 1949 that the final order was granted at the Wollongong Licensing Court to allow Patrick Foster Rodgers to remove the license of the Post Office Hotel, Quambone to Comrol House.
After reading the Licensing Inspector’s report, which stated that alterations and renovations had been satisfactorily carried out at the boarding house, the Licensing Magistrate made an order for the removal of the license from Quambone, 30 miles from Coonamble in the state’s west. An application for the transfer of the license to Reginald Douglas Tolley was also granted.
The Magistrate warned Tolley, who had not previously held a hotel license, that under the Act he must supply meals and accommodation to the public. Tolley said he had supplied meals at Comrol House for eight years.
An application to change the name from the Post Office Hotel to the Open Hearth Hotel and to supply and sell liquor from two additional bar rooms, and for permission to sell liquor for consumption with bonafide meals, were also granted. The Licensing Inspector reported that the two additional bar-rooms were essential.
The new Open Hearth Hotel, with Reg Tolley as licensee, opened as a “free house” on June 16 1949. The Free House meant Tolley’s pub, unlike many in the district, was not tied to any of the big breweries and was able to sell all types of beer.
Warrawong’s new pub was an instance success, with huge crowds packing its bars. Tolley was forced to make further improvements and extensions to the Open Hearth Hotel in the 1950s. The South Coast Times reported on September 24 1951:
THE OPEN HEARTH
A SUCCESSFUL WARRAWONG VENTURE
Warrawong’s “Open Hearth” hotel is as unique Warrawong itself. Here is no mere hotel, such, as the ones drinkers are clenching their teeth about and muttering into their glasses. In days such as these, when a Royal Commission is enquiring into the liquor question and “tied houses”, the “Open Hearth” looms up on the horizon like an oasis on a hot, dry desert.
The “Open Hearth” is what is termed in the trade a “free house”. Meaning it is not “tied” to any particular brewery. Here a sincere attempt has been made to provide patrons with something more than merely liquor in a glass container. There is a friendly word, a cheerful smile and pleasant surroundings for the customer, and a homely atmosphere and comfortable accommodation for the house guest. Responsible for all this are the genial licensee, Reg Tolley, his wife, and their staff. Mr Tolley has had extensive experience in the liquor business — he is a member of the well-known, brandy manufacturing Tolley family. The excellent taste of Mrs. Tolley and her efficient management of the ‘house’ side of the business is expressed in the furnishings and decorative flower arrangements in lounges and dining room, Mrs Tolley also controls all catering for guests and staff. Executives from large Port Kembla industries and others besides guests dine at the hotel daily in quiet comfort. The menu is excellent and all food is prepared in the hotel’s spotlessly clean, well-equipped kitchen.
According to Mr James Calder, bar manager at the “Open Hearth”, the licensee is an “out-standing hotel manager”. Mr. Calder should know – he has worked as a score or more hotels in both the metropolitan area and all parts of the State. He said: “Mr Tolley is the only publican I have ever worked for who really has the needs of his customers at heart.” Actually, the “Open Hearth” has enjoyed an extraordinary popularity since its doors first opened to the public on the 16th June, 1949. Mr. Tolley admits the hotel has proved even more popular than he expected. Today the hotel has two public bars, a saloon bar, a large beer garden, a lounge and a palm court. Stroll through the hotel, say, on a Saturday afternoon at 4pm, and two thousand people could be counted drinking on the premises — at least half of them seated in attractive, pleasant surroundings. The beer garden and palm court have seating accommodation for nearly a thousand. In the beer garden, men and women enjoy their drinking under the very best of conditions. Here they sit in the open air at tables beneath gaily-coloured beach umbrellas sipping any one of a hundred cool drinks, from beer to Scotch. Eighteen months ago, when it was first opened, Mr. Tolley announced that he intended to try and make it one of the finest beer gardens in Australia — few would disagree that he has succeeded in this. For those who don’t like to drink right in the open, there is a canopied awning in the Mexican style, which has splendid scenic murals on its interior walls, and vines trained up its supporting posts. The large beer garden is flagged with sandstone and features well-kept lawns and shrubs. The palm court, which leads off the beer garden, has seating for four hundred. Here patrons may dance on the specially-constructed dance floor or merely listen to the music provided by the hotel orchestra. The large walls of the palm court are decorated with immense murals typifying Australian bush scenes and bird and animal life. Natural lighting is ensured by a glass roof. The beer garden and the palm court each has its own serving bar, employing a total of five girls and five drink waiters.
Staff Number 26
The total permanent bar staff is ten, while another nine casuals go along to help on Saturdays. Three kitchen staff and two housemaids and two waitresses, brings the total staff of the hotel to twenty-six. According to Mr Calder, both Mr and Mrs Tolley are strict in their instruction that very best of service must be provided “at all times” to patrons. Mr Calder said few hotels in Sydney can offer such pleasant drinking conditions. In fact, scores of Sydney people travel down to the “Open Hearth” every week to partake of Host Tolley’s “quiet noggins”. The irony of it all is that Mr and Mrs Tolley seem to have done TOO good a job, and, in so doing, have set themselves a problem. Apparently they have made the “Open Hearth” so popular that they now have almost too many customers. But they have plans to further extend the facilities at the hotel. More bars will be added as soon as possible. When this is accomplished the “Open Hearth” will undoubtedly be the biggest hotel in the entire district.
Beer at the “Open Hearth” always served at just the right temperature”.
There are chilling rooms behind each of the main bars. Kegs are rolled in, connected up and the beer is piped a mere few feet through the bar. Customers get the beer “almost off the wood”, as they say. Beer served in the beer garden, palm court and saloon bar is chilled by the “Temprite” system.
Reg Tolley was way ahead of his time as an hotelier with his dining rooms, beer-gardens and pleasant drinking spaces. The Open Hearth Hotel offered civilised drinking conditions in deep contrast to other local pubs with their cramped, crowded bars, catering for ‘beer-swilling’. There’s little doubt Tolley was stepping on toes.
The Warrawong publican’s plans though were to be cut short. Tolley’s dreams of further innovation at the Open Hearth Hotel would never be realised. He died at the pub at the age of 59 on March 11 1952 after a short illness, leaving a widow, Alma and three grown-up children.
However, there was one more twist to the story of the innovative hotelier.
Although Tolley was ill, and was on medication, rumours circulated that the successful hotelier had been poisoned. The day after his burial at Wollongong Cemetery, Sydney and Wollongong police detectives were given permission to exhume his body so that they could investigate his death.
They sent the contents of Tolley’s stomach to the Government Analyst in Sydney. Although the publican had been seriously ill, the detectives believed there was reason to suspect that he did not die from natural causes.
The analytical test of Tolley’s stomach contents failed to reveal any traces of poison and police discontinued their investigation into claims of foul play. His widow, Alma continued as host of the Open Hearth until 1954 when the license was transferred to Stanley Oliver.
Alma Mary Tolley died in Newtown in 1971.
Although Comrol House, where Tolley established the Open Hearth Hotel in 1949 remains at Warrawong, today the hotel business operates from a nearby building, on the south-east corner of King and Montgomery Streets.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020
Footnotes: During the 1960s the Open Hearth Hotel became known for its hot-dog boys, outside on the footpath, with their ‘cans’.
One seller was Warwick Lynch who posted on the Lost Wollongong Facebook Group on February 17 2020: “Reg’s wife Alma ran the pub after he was gone. She was a rather stern woman who wouldn’t stand any nonsense. Bill Dallas was her barman. And capable he was… I went to school with his son “Biggy” . Sold hot dogs there of course, a couple of years after Reg was gone.”
Bill Cole also posted that he had sold hot dogs from in front of the pub between the years 1964 and 1965 for Sam Lynch. Patrick Deegan also added: “Me and Bruce Neaves sold newspapers for Jarretts’ Newsagents (outside the pub). I remember the pub was the biggest beer selling country pub in NSW at one stage.”
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