Mayor redeveloped Ballina theatre into the Australian Hotel

The Australian Hotel, Ballina, 1898. Inset: William Webster. Pictures: Sydney Mail, March 12 1898 and Sydney Mail, March 29 1902.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

THE tamed applause from opera at a Ballina theatre, was replaced with the raucous shouting, laughter, and bawdy tunes of a pub in 1895.  

Where Gilbert and Sullivan’s lolanthe had entertained from the stage, beer suddenly reigned supreme in the NSW Northern Rivers town, when wealthy mayor, William Webster bought the Gaiety Theatre, transforming it into a pub.

The Gaiety Theatre, at the corner of River and Cherry Streets, was established in the early 1890s before Webster’s grand redevelopment project.

Webster was no publican though, and he was likely persuaded to enter the hotel trade by his new wife, Annie.

Born at Cassilis in 1845, William Webster came with his father to the Northern Rivers Region at the age of 10, and settled at Tomki, near Casino.

At an early age he went to work on Tomki station, and subsequently followed the callings of timber-getter and teamster. Meeting prosperous times, he took up land at Tunstall, Hanging Rock and Bungabee, and in 1870 married Ann Taylor.

About the year 1882 he entered into partnership with his brother-in-law, in the sawmilling business, and acted as representative of the firm in Brisbane. He later moved to Lismore, where he established a butchering business, with Mr. T. Armstrong, of Disputed Plains.

In 1890 he made Ballina his home, purchasing valuable town blocks, and continued his butchering trade. A year later his wife died, and the Ballina butcher was left a family of young children.

Widower Webster, now 47, subsequently married again, this time a young woman involved in the hotel trade.

Annie Moore, born in Derrygreen, Ireland, came to Australia at the age of 20 in 1886. In 1891, about the same time as Webster, she also made Ballina home, where she gained work at the Commercial Hotel. Her brother at the time was licensee of the Freemasons Hotel at Lismore.

Annie was 26 when she married the wealthy mayor of Ballina. There’s a good chance that she may have persuaded her cashed-up hubby to redevelop the old theatre into a pub. The Richmond River Herald reported on August 23 1895:

Australian Hotel. — Work in connection with the alteration of the Gaiety Theatre premises is progressing, and in about three or four months the proprietor, I am given to understand, expects to be prepared to open this new hotel. The altered condition of affairs robs Mr Webster of his well-appointed butcher’s shop, to meet, which, however, he is already building one equally as complete on the opposite side of the street.

As is customary, the newly married couple offered free beer on the opening of their new Australian Hotel on Friday October 18 1995. The Richmond River Herald reported on October 25 1895:

Hotels.— The old Gaiety Theatre, after a complete transformation, was opened last Friday evening by Mr Webster as the Australian Hotel, and it was wonderful to remark the intense thirst apparently generated by the event. The bar and other avenues leading to the beer-engine were thronged by a thirsty crowd, intent on testing the new purveyor’s stock, which, I need scarcely say, was pronounced A1, and “Fill ’em up again, landlord,” was a frequent request. However, it is not supposed that this run will continue after the cessation of the free drink or house-warming period.

William Webster was an alderman on Ballina Council for many years and mayor on nine different occasions. As mayoress of the town Annie Webster excelled and she displayed a keen interest in the civic and sporting activities of the town. She officially opened the Double Bridges on the main Lismore road.

Sporting organisations were generously assisted by the Websters from their pub. Annie was reportedly interested in lawn bowls and football, and was an enthusiastic member of the Ballina Turf Club, and an associate member of the Ballina Lighthouse and Lismore Surf Club.

The pair owned a number of properties in the business section of River Street in addition to other properties in the town.

William Webster (centre) supported many of the town’s sporting clubs, including the Ballina Cricket Club, of which he was president. Picture: Sydney Mail, July 12,1902

The couple held the licence of the Australian Hotel from 1898, until William Webster’s death in 1910. He fell ill and retired from the hotel to their home, ‘Garr House’. He died the same year aged 65, leaving two sons and five daughters from his first marriage, and one son and three daughters from the second. His funeral was largely attended at the Ballina cemetery.

The Australian Hotel was leased to a number of licensees over the following years after William Webster’s death. However, in 1919, Annie Webster’s only son, 25-year-old, William ‘Jack’ Webster took the license of the pub.

Jack was a returned soldier from the Great War. He signed-up in 1914 at the age of 20, serving in France as a private, before returning from the front in 1918 as an “invalid”. The Richmond River Herald reported on Friday November 15 1918:

Driver Jack Webster, of Garr House, Ballina, was given a stirring welcome home on Friday night. Delicate, and under the military height, he was rejected when he first enlisted, but when he declared his intention of going over seas to join the ‘Bantams’ the military authorities decided that a man so determined to do his bit was worthy of a place in the AIF. “Somewhere in France” he toiled with his mules back and forward to the front trenches, having the soldier’s usual narrow escapes, till laid low with gastritis and other troubles which almost ended his life. Speaking on Friday night, “Jack” said he was glad to have done his bit, for, though on the small side, he had done like the rest of the soldiers, his very best, and could look the whole world in the face.

After returning from war, Jack married Agnes Moloney at Wagga Wagga in 1919, and a new generation of Websters looked set to take the reins of the Australian Hotel. Over the following years while the couple hosted the pub they would have two children.

Jack had big plans for the hotel, and spent a considerable sum of money on renovations, including installing electric lights in every room, and structural alterations to improve the comfort and convenience of customers.

Jack and Agnes Webster’s plans though were cut short in 1925. A double tragedy would strike family matriarch, 60-year-old Annie Webster that year.

In January, Annie’s only son, Jack sadly died at the young age of 30, most likely from his injuries received in war. He left a widow and young children.

Just two months after Jack’s death, Annie also lost the pub her late husband had built, when it was reduced to ashes. The Macleay Argus reported on Tuesday March 24 1925: 

Late on Monday night one of the largest fires ever experienced in Ballina raged for two hours, doing £30,000 worth of damage. The fire consumed McCartney’s store, the Australian Hotel, Moore’s store and the business premises of Messrs. O. Denirig, H. Griffin and F. Fuller. The Lismore brigade hastened to assist but had a breakdown at Alstonville. It was only the superhuman effort of the firemen that saved the balance of the business premises.

The temporary bar of the Australian Hotel, Ballina after it was destroyed by fire in 1926. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

Annie Webster was a strong woman though, and despite losing her only son, and her pub within three months of each other, the pioneering publican looked to the future. She immediately built a temporary bar on the site of the Australian Hotel, and in January 1926 lodged plans with the Ballina Council for a replacement pub, estimated to cost about £12,000. The Grafton Daily Examiner reported on Tuesday 16 March 1926:

NEW HOTEL AT BALLINA.

On Thursday morning Miss Doreen Webster laid the first brick of the new Australian Hotel at Ballina. At the conclusion of the ceremony a considerable number of townspeople were the guests of Mrs Webster and Miss Doreen Webster, and refreshments were partaken of. It will be remembered that the old hotel was destroyed by fire in March of last year, and a contract was let a few weeks ago to Messrs. Hughes Bros, for the erection of a brick two storey building. Good progress is being made with the foundations, and very much material is on the ground. Mr. Wallace Diehl is the present holder of the license.

The builders, Messrs R. Hughes and Sons, completed the hotel, which was officially on Christmas Eve by the lessee, Mr. J. H. AV. Diehl.

On completion the new Australian Hotel was one of the most modern on the North Coast of NSW, and the fittings and furnishing throughout, “were on a most elaborate scale”. The spacious balconies reportedly contained the largest space of any hotel balcony in NSW, and commanded a view of the river, ocean and town in general. The Northern Star gave this descriptive report on February 5 1927:

RISEN FROM THE ASHES

AUSTRALIAN HOTEL, BALLINA

The new Australian Hotel, which has just been completed at Ballina at a cost of over £12,000, is one of the most modern hotels on the North Coast. The owner is Mrs W Webster, widow of the late Ald Webster, who occupied the Mayoral chair in the Ballina Council for over 11 years. The old hotel, which was destroyed in the big fire on March 22, 1925, was a building of wood and iron, but the new hotel has been built of Coombell bricks, and occupies a frontage of 99 feet to River-street and 82 feet to Cherry Street. The building is two storied, with a wide balcony running over the whole frontages to both streets. The ground floor space is taken up with a spacious bar 60ft by 30ft, a bar counter of 45 feet allows plenty of space for accommodating the largest crowd. The walls of the bar are all tiled, also the bar counter, while Mrs W Webster from above a suspended canopy of modern construction sets the furnishing off with panelled mirrors. Adjacent is a commodious commercial saloon bar. A fine commercial parlour and writing room, 20ft by 16ft comfortably furnished caters for guests. The commercial dining room is 28ft by 22ft, the public dining room 26ft by 16ft, and the kitchen 26ft by 16ft, and there is a vestibule and private entrance from Cherry-street. The hall affords ample space for a comfortable lounge. Two store rooms each 15ft by 11ft, are provided near to the bar, and two sample rooms, each 10ft by 16ft, are located conveniently at the rear of the main rooms. Three shops, each 26ft by 12ft, facing River-street complete the ground floor. Upstairs are provided 27 bedrooms, five bath-rooms and sitting room and lounge. All the rooms are fitted with built-in linen cupboards and fixture wash basins. A splendid hot and cold water service extends through out the whole building. The spacious balcony space of 200 feet is admirably suited for sleeping out accommodation. An excellent light area is provided at the rear in the centre of the building, and is connected with a cemented yard. Four large lock up garages, loose boxes and stalls for horses are conveniently situated at the rear, having the entrance, from a lane. A large laundry and man’s room complete a well laid out hotel suited to modern requirements. The building is served with a splendid outer sewerage system connected with a large, septic tank. The whole of the timber, excepting Oregon, was grown on the North Coast, and was supplied by Messrs. Bagot Bros. The ceilings are of local manufacture, and are of artistic design. They are the work of the new State fibrous plaster works at Ballina. The sanitary plumbing was executed by E. A. Parker, of Lismore, and the roof plumbing by G. Harris, of Ballina. The painting was carried out by Fred Melvaine, of Ballina. The joinery was supplied by Jones and Brewster, of Lismore. Mr George A Marsh, Sydney, was the architect, and the contractors Messrs J. Hughes and Sons, the well-known North Coast builders. The interior has been exquisitely furnished with all new furniture, which provides every comfort for the traveller. It is of mission oak. The electrical work was carried out by Mr Juan Flodin, of Sydney, and the roomy halls and rooms, are provided with beautiful shades, giving brilliant finish to the whole. The owner, Mrs. Webster, is to be congratulated on her enterprise in providing Ballina and district with a hotel which will compare with anything outside the metropolis…

The newly completed Australian Hotel, Ballina, 1928. Inset: Annie Webster, 1927. Pictures: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University and Northern Star, February 5, 1927

On completion, the new hotel became a Toohey’s pub, and remained tied to the brewery for two or three decades. Career hotelier Wallace Diehl was licensee from 1927 until 1930. After leaving the Australian, Diehl would go onto host a number of NSW pubs, the Wauchope Hotel and the Lansdown Hotel, Chippendale.

Meanwhile, after an illness of only a few days, Annie Webster, who had retired to Garr House, died in a private hospital on September 3 1936, at the age of 70.

The following year the hotel was sold to Martin Kelly, who nearly lost the building to flames for a second time in 1939. Four Buildings in Ballina’s shopping centre were completely destroyed by fire on October 13 when flames leapt 100 feet into the sky, threatening the Australian Hotel. Kelly’s pub was severely scorched, and windows shattered, before the fire was brought under control.

Martin would host the pub on and off for over a decade, before selling it in 1950 for £40,000 to a business consortium, which included Ansett Transport Industries Ltd.

Today, known locally as ‘The Aussie’, the pub has Jackson and Sarah Quinn at the helm. Since 2019 the husband and wife hosts have worked hard to return the pub into one of Ballina’s favourite destinations. A fact, I’m sure, Annie Webster would undoubtedly approve of…

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2020


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