Melbourne’s historic Mitre Tavern has served-up beer for over 150 years

The Mitre Tavern, Melbourne. Picture: Pat Adams

LEGEND has it that Melbourne’s historic Mitre Tavern spawned the name of a well-known Australian hardware store.

The story goes – well, according to the pub’s folklore – that two of the founding members of the hardware store, Mitre 10 were drinking at the tavern when inspiration struck: ‘mitre’ is a hardware term. The ’10’, well it had a nicer ring to it than Mitre 2. We’ll let you be the judge of the authenticity of this yarn.

You could be forgiven for thinking you are looking at an old English inn, and not an inner-city Melbourne pub when first setting eyes on the Mitre Tavern.

Melbourne City Council documents the inner-city pub as its oldest building.

Less than five years after Melbourne was founded, a private residence was built in a subdivision on the corner of Collins Street and Bank Place. The two-storey structure would serve as a residence for 28 years before becoming the Mitre Tavern in 1868.

The pub was likely named after the historic ‘Ye Old Mitre’ in London, England, built about 1773, and which continues to trade to this day (2021).

William Thompson, a vintner or wine maker gained a publican’s license for an established residential property in Bank Place, Melbourne on April 3, 1868, to be called the Mitre Tavern. Two months later, on June 9, Henry Thompson, who was managing the pub, took over the license. Henry Thompson hosted the tavern until 1872, later going on to run the Railway Hotel at the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Street.

Under a succession of licensees the Mitre has remained a tavern for over 150 years. The Melbourne Dog Club had its inaugural meeting – and many more followed – at the Mitre Tavern. The patronage of hunting, coursing and racing men made a sportsman’s rendevous of The Mitre and the first Victorian Polo Club, regularly met there.

Then, as now, the courts and officials of law were to be found in the vicinity, and from nearby Temple Court and Chancery Lane came distinguished patrons. Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, J.L. Purves, K.C. Charles Miller and Walter Coldham, all knew The Mitre well.

The little tavern stayed as the city grew and, in 1923, an order was issued that six bedrooms had to be be added, the kitchen renovated and the words ‘Accommodation for Visitors’ be painted on the front wall.

The licensee contested the order, maintaining that the number and quality of the meals served there compensated for the lack of accommodation, and that any alteration to the historic building would be an act of vandalism. The magistrate agreed, and the licensee’s appeal succeeded.

The Mitre Tavern, Melbourne, 1930s. Picture: Mitre Tavern website
The sign outside the historic Mitre Tavern, Melbourne. Picture: Pat Adams

The Melbourne Argus published a detailed history of the pub on August 30 1930:




No hotel in Australia is quite like The Mitre Tavern in Bank place, Melbourne. In all the years I have known it it has never changed. Other hotels have been rebuilt or renovated but The Mitre is as it always has been. You go into the little bar parlour through a low door under the staircase. The doorway is so narrow that there is room only to admit one person at a time and then not a giant. The building is of two stories, surrounded on two sides by lanes. The front is upon Bank place and the back nestles under the high walls of Temple Court. It reminds one forcibly of some of the little hotels in Fleet street London. Its history is crowded with reminiscence. It has filled a place in the life of the west end of the city for more than half a century.

Mr. George Ross Fenner, who speaks with personal knowledge of the establishment of the Athenaeum end of the Victorian Amateur Turf Club, can tell of the habitues of The Mitre away back in the ‘seventies. He talks of the Dog Club, which met there more than 60 years ago. He recalls intimately such well known coursing and racing men who gathered there as the Whittingham brothers, John Wagner, C. B. Fisher and his brother Hurtle, A. W. Robertson, Arthur Blackwood, Tom Haydon, who was the licensee and was succeeded by H. Greville, the caterer, and George Watson, the prince of starters. What a wonderful hunting family the Watson’s were!

Mr. George Watson was master of the Melbourne until he handed over his whip to his son Godfrey; and, says Mr. Fenner, “at one and the same time, while George Watson was master of the Melbourne, his brother Robert, was master of the Carlo and Island in Ireland, and another brother, William, was master of the Cotswold in England, and his grandfather and father had been masters of the Carlo before that. His nephew, John, was master of the Meath, in Ireland.

“I shall never forget George Watson”, adds Mr. Fenner.

“I bought several hunters from him and he never sold me a bad one, and never charged me full price”.

Hunting and coursing men made The Mitre their headquarters in those days.

The first polo club established in Victoria, in 1874, held its meetings at The Mitre under the presidency of Sir Redmond Barry. Captain Standish was vice-president, and the committee included such well known men as Robert Power, Reginald Bright, Finlay Campbell, Edward Fanning and Herbert Power.

Membership extended far and wide, and the club had many of the members at its headquarters in The Mitre including Hastings Cuningham, James Grice, James Graham, Alex. Landale, Herbert Henty, Hickman and Robert Molesworth and Robert and Colin Simson.

Some Legal Lights

Later The Mitre became the rendezvous of lawyers and business men associated with the law. It was only a step from Temple Court and from Chancery lane; Selborne Chambers had not then been built.

Sir Bryan O’Loghlen had his office in Temple Court, later occupied by Charles Miller. J. L. Purves, K.C.—”The Emperor” they called him—and his right-hand man Walter Coldham, were regular patrons. There are many who can recall “J. L.”, surrounded by a little crowd of admirers telling some of his stories—of his first case, in which he defended a girl for shooting at her lover at Benalla, or of his electioneering experiences. With him would be some of the pigeon shooting men, such as William Sayer, Bill Gannon (from Sydney) and Lewis Clarke.

The Mitre was a great haunt for men from Dalgety and Co. Ltd. In those days the lane into Dalgety’s bond, since closed to make room for the Stock Exchange, provided the back entrance to the offices.

Every man in the service of the company was given his luncheon free. The staff used to lunch in the office, but later it lunched at the office’s expense. Each Monday morning, everyone was supplied with five luncheon tickets—funny little parchments they were—which entitled the holder to luncheon at The Mitre or at the Mia Mia, the first of Melbourne’s tea-rooms.

Day by day, one could see W.G. Watson, the manager; Edward Simmonds, the accountant, who was for so many years a member of the Liedertafel choir; George Simpson manager of the produce department; Harry Wood, Harry Brush, the cashier of the wool department; Charles Bucknill, manager of the bond, in top hat and frock coat, and his boon companion Edward Kenny; Joseph Woolf McCheane, who had the reputation of having fished more and caught less than any other man in Melbourne; J. T. Cosgrove, manager of the shipping department and secretary of the chartering firm of Blackwood, Knox, and Brown; T. S. Huggins, who recently retired from the secretaryship of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club; J. T. P. O’Meara, now secretary of the Honorary Justices’ Association; A. G. Leeds, afterwards manager in Perth; Frank Guthrie, later manager at Geelong; David Luke, Tom Borwick, C. E. Howard, afterwards manager of the Melbourne office; George L. Aitken, the present manager; George Officer, Harry Ford, Joe Hallows, W. P. Whitney, still cashier; Tom Cochrane, and so many more.

The Mitre was and is a great Dalgety house, for the system of issuing luncheon tickets to the staff still prevails.

Some Politicians.

There was one little coterie which one could always be sure to see some time in the day, usually in the morning—Thomas Bent, then Speaker, but later Sir Thomas, the Premier with J. F. Hamilton, H. H. Budd, Arthur Walstab and W. Park of the Colonial Mutual Insurance Co., and occasionally A. E. Clarke, especially if there were anything to be done for the East Melbourne Cricket Club. With them, often one would see David Gaunson. I wonder how often he played the piano in the old parlour, standing up, and with him his right hand man John Cullen.

Another politician often noted was Joseph Tilley Brown, who represented a constituency in the north-east of the state, and was also in the Federal Parliament, and I recall Cornelius Bannister, in a grey belltopper, a morning coat, and black tie, followed by two cocker spaniels which never seemed to leave him. A little athletic man with his hat tilted to one side, he always looked like a Dickensian character.

J. G. Pearson, the wine and spirit merchant, sportsman, and athlete, is also recalled. Other names and faces flit across my memory— Hugh Montmorency, from The Trustees, Executors Company, and his brother Jim, who established a tea agency in Temple Court; O’Hara Wood, the barrister; Fred Neave, W. H. Woolcott and Harry Graves, the solicitors; W. W. Gaggin, cricketer, fisherman and field game shot; Robert John de Courcy Talbot, who lunched there day by day with Hector McDonald, Smith McDonald the land valuer; Fred Saunders, one of the founders of the Savage Club which has its quarters in Bank Place nowadays; Sir Rupert Clarke, who had his flat nearby; Arthur Harston and his partner George Partridge, the law stationers; Scobie Gair, William Jardine, the Irish solicitor, who used to drive a jaunting car; and Claude Hamilton from Gisborne, looking for his brother J. F., whenever he came to town.

One feature of the Mitre Tavern was the number of old associations it collected round it. The “Boobook” Club was composed of barristers, some of whom have been elevated to the Bench, and of University men.

The Canoe Club’s existence is recalled by a trophy hanging over the mantelpiece in the bar parlour. The Melbourne Gun Club had its headquarters there for many years, with Arthur S. Woolcote, A. Norman McArthur, Guy Madden, Harold M. Umphelby, and Donald McIntosh as its leading members. What tales of quail and snipe and duck shooting have been told within those old walls! Luncheon at midday and dinner at night attracted their patrons and night by night there was a “smoker” or a “sing song” by some little party, which enjoyed the homeliness of it all.

Mitre Tavern, Melbourne, 1940. Picture: Mitre Tavern website

In 1930 a huge crowd of bidders attended an auction which saw the tavern passed in at £22,250. It was subsequently bought by the Royal Insurance Company which planned to demolish it to make room for additions to its Collins Street building.

The Mitre stubbornly hung on until 1937 when the Company had a change of heart and reprieved the little inn again.

Mr W.K. Fethers, then Manager of the Royal Insurance Company, described the Tavern’s Gothic façade as a splendid example of the architectural period. He was supported by a contemporary newspaper which said the Mitre Tavern is an architectural gem and a relic of the pioneering and hunting days. The venue was once a base for hunting deer that roamed the nearby bush.

Few people who enjoy a beer in the historic pub are aware of the fact that it spawned the name of the Mitre 10 hardware chain. Two of the founding members were drinking at the tavern when inspiration struck: ‘mitre’ is a hardware term.

The ’10’ – well, it had a nicer ring to it than Mitre 2.

Across the road from the Mitre stands the Savage club, which was built by Sir William Clarke, Australia’s first baronet. The Mitre’s connection to The Clarke family is a bit unfortunate with Sir Rupert Clarke’s mistress, Connie Waugh, said to have hung herself in the Mitre. Her ghost is believed to have been seen, haunting the rooms and halls of the tavern even now.

Today the pub has become patronised largely by business people looking to escape the rush of the city or to enjoy a meal upstairs in the newly refurbished Steakhouse.

– With thanks


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Categories: Melbourne Hotels, Victoria hotels


2 replies

  1. I can vouch for this one, a great little pub and so out of character with the modern buildings that dwarf it.

  2. The Mitre Taven did NOT inspire the name for Mitre10 hardware chain. They did not meet there. The original 8 gentlemen met at a house in Surrey Hills and the ‘Mitre’ term came from the woodwork terminology, not the Tavern name. Theo’s information was given directly to me by the daughter of the founder of the original Dahaner’s Mitre10 in Heidelberg.

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