Bungendore’s two Royal Hotels

The “new Royal Hotel”, which replaced the original Royal in nearby Turalto Street. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.


THE Royal Hotel in Gibraltar Street Bungendore has remained closed since 2020 when restoration work got underway on the historic building.

The Royal Hotel, about 20 minutes’ drive from Queanbeyan in NSW, opened for business in 1883. However, it wasn’t the first Royal in the township.

The ‘new Royal’ took over from a 16 room coaching inn that has survived as a private residence in Turallo Crescent, to the rear of the current hotel.

The original old single storey Royal Hotel was established by Irishman John McMahon in May 1879. McMahon though wasn’t long at his pub. After just three years behind the bar of the Turallo Crescent pub, he made preparations for a two-storey replacement, and would remove its license to nearby Gibraltar Street.

The Goulburn Evening Penny Post reported on July 13, 1882 that “a young lad named Julian Hirsber, while working at the construction of the balcony of McMahon’s new hotel had the misfortune to fall from one of the scaffolding supports, a portion of which gave way beneath him. Hirsber suffered some nasty injuries to his back when he fell to the pavement, but after gaining his senses he reportedly managed to walk home.

The Goulburn Herald reported on August 9, 1883 that “great improvements in the building line are at present being carried on” in Bungendore, including the new Royal, which was “nearing completion, and is a fine piece of architecture”.

A somewhat narcissistic feature of the new Royal Hotel was four life sized heads of Jack McMahon, made from plaster casts and painted in gold. The publican’s four ‘heads’ were attached to the pub’s façade.

McMahon hosted the pub until his death at the age of 63 on August 31, 1889. Strangely, the date of the publican’s death on his tomb stone in the Bungendore Catholic Cemetery has been altered from August 31, to the ‘Angel number’, August 33. In numerology the number 33 signifies that heaven has sent a message that you have “run out of fuel”.

Jack McMahon’s widow Ann ran the pub until her death at the age of 74 in 1902. Ann was buried beside her husband in the family plot.

Publican John McMahon tomb stone at Bungendore General Cemetery. Picture: Australian Cemeteries Index.
The McMahon family plot at Bungendore General Cemetery. Picture: Australian Cemeteries Index.

The following interesting history of the ‘old Royal’ was published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 17 February 1968:

Front view of the 16-room Royal Terrace at Bungendore — once the Royal Hotel — built in the early 1850s. Inset: Ambrose Reid, the present owner, whose forebears were the lessees of the old Royal, is camping in the building until the sale.


WHEN Royal Terrace, Bungendore, is auctioned next Saturday, the new owner might find it worthwhile to begin a treasure hunt under the floorboards.

For this 16-room, brick home was the original Royal Hotel, built at least 110 years ago in the days of gold currency. On completion of the present Royal Hotel the old hostelry’s takings were carried to the new in buckets overflowing with sovereigns. While gathering this precious hoard, there is just a chance that a sovereign or two slipped un-noticed through a crack in the bar-room floor.

This is one of many stories remembered by Royal Terrace’s spritely 85-year-old owner, Mr Ambrose Reid, who has returned from Sydney with his son and daughter-in-law, Mr and Mrs Eric Reid, to camp in his former home until the sale.

Seated at a kitchen table in what was always called “the ballroom” of the hotel, the memories, almost legendary, crowded in on him and he said: “I hate to sell the place, but what else can I do? It’s too big for one person to look after”.

As a child, Mr Reid lived at Royal Terrace which his parents, Mr and Mrs Joseph Reid, rented from Mr Jack McMahon after the new Royal Hotel opened. Strangely enough, his whole life has been inextricably linked with this old home and now it has come full circle.

It began a long time ago when 6-year-old Ellen Day, born at Bungendore in 1848, waltzed on the foundations of the first Royal Hotel, little dreaming that here she would bring up her family and successively provide a home for seventeen orphan boys.

Ellen, aged seventeen, was working at the Collector Hotel and in later years often told how the bushrangers Ben Hall, Johnny Gilbert and Johnny Dunn took it over on January 27, 1865 for a drinking party after robbing the store. She never forgot the death of Constable Nelson, shot down by Dunn, nor the blood – spattered hands of friends who tried too late to help him.

That same year she married Bartholomew Cullen, originally from Picton, who owned property near Bungendore; two daughters, Louisa and Selena, were born. Like all the early pioneers, Ellen and Bartholomew worked prodigiously hard. Old photo-graphs depict her as a frail soul, but Ambrose recalls her doing a man’s work of stripping wattle bark and shearing her own sheep. All this in a district plagued during the 1860s by the bushranging gangs of Ben Hall and the Clarkes.

Bungendore then was a stopping point for mail coaches three times a week between Sydney and Cooma; there was heavy traffic to the goldfields centre of Braidwood and, by the 1880s, a daily coach service also ran to Captain’s Flat. Quartz reefing for gold was carried on in the nearby hills for many years, and no doubt thirsty miners headed for the Royal, one of four hotels, where lucky finds were discussed and gossip exchanged about the latest exploits of the bushrangers.

Meanwhile, Ambrose’s father, Joseph, was troubled by bushrangers too; he was a teamster carrying hides and wattle-bark from the district, and wool for the Duntroon Campbells, down the dangerous Clyde Mountain road to Nelligen (the Monaro’s main port) for transhipment to Sydney.

Warned on one trip that the Clarke gang was close by, he decided for safety to bury £200 entrusted to him, while he spent the night on the roadside. Next day he was miles along the track before he realised he had forgotten to unearth the money which he eventually did after a long and frantic search.

Joseph and his family lived first at Royal Terrace, and Ambrose, born in 1883, spent his early childhood there before moving nearer to Canberra to become a teamster too, starting at 5/- a week with no overtime pay. Ambrose has vivid recollections of walking nearly 10 miles after school to buy tobacco for his father at the little store at Canberra: he remarked, “We thought nothing of a 10 mile hike in those days”.

Ellen and her husband bought Royal Terrace during the 1890s from the McMahons, as a central point for their grazing properties. Here on May 22, 1901, young Louisa Cullen, Ambrose’s future wife, found her father’s riderless horse at the backgate and ran to tell her mother.

Prior to buying the Sandhills property near Lake George, which he leased, Bartholomew Cullen had ridden to Braidwood to obtain a reappraisal, and returning was fatally injured in a fall from his horse. Ellen brought him home for the last time and he was buried in the little cemetery on the hill overlooking Bungendore.

For the next forty years Ellen looked after the properties with help from orphan boys whom she took into her home and who were devoted to her. Royal Terrace’s “ballroom” was the scene of both her daughters’ wedding receptions when they married brothers Ambrose and Paddy Reid. Ambrose, with a twinkle in his eye, remembers the gaiety and singing on his wedding day which almost rocked the Royal’s foundations. “Though they’re still good for 200 years”, he added.

After his marriage Ambrose continued as a carrier, driving horse teams along the rocky road to Captain’s Flat, to Burrinjuck over almost non-existent roads, and to Nelligen as his father had done. His family is certain that he was the last carrier in the district using horse teams, for he was driving them long after his rivals abandoned horses in favour of trucks. He still looks capable of taking charge of a team.

Royal Terrace, willed to Ambrose by his wife Louisa, looks shabby today, and the garden with its elderberry bushes, once Ellen’s pride and joy, sorely needs attention. But its walls are solid and will probably outlast many built now. The rooms, even in a heatwave, are cool, and some of the doors retain the original, flowered-china door-plates of an almost forgotten era. The kitchen, with a vast open hearth overhung by a blackened kettle and water fountain, is twice as big as that of a modern home and its fuel stove cooks well.

The Reid family – Ambrose and his children, and Mrs Selena Reid of Queanbeyan and her children – all regret the sale, but, as Ambrose remarked, “The place needs someone who’ll really care about it”.

Perhaps the new owner, fired by a little of Ellen Cullen’s indomitable spirit, will give it the care it deserves, and a new Royal Terrace will blossom where she danced more than a century ago.

How the former Royal Hotel at Bungendore looks today (2023). Picture: Google.
Another view of how the former Royal Hotel at Bungendore looks today (2023). Picture: Google.
The Royal Hotel’s “dining room” out the back, 1927. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Jack Cooper’s Royal Hotel, Bungendore, 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The ‘new’ Royal Hotel seems to have ‘jumped the gun’ when it celebrated its centenary in 1982. The Canberra Times reported on Wednesday 22 September 1982:

BUNGENDORE’S Royal Hotel is the town’s most celebrated watering hole this year.

For this weekend, from Friday, the town will celebrate the Royal’s centenary with a host of activities ranging from street dancing to an historical dinner.

The original Royal Hotel is now a private residence in Turallo Terrace. The original land grant for the Turallo Terrace site was dated September 10, 1856, and was issued to Owen Byrne.

Byrne died in January, 1876, and in May that year his wife, Hannah Byrne, sold the property to John McMahon for £15.5s. McMahon was the first licensee of the present Royal Hotel.

An unusual legacy of his time as publican is evident on the outside of the Royal. When McMahon died in 1889 his relatives had a plaster cast made of his features and from this the present four heads above the doorways were fashioned. The tombstone on his grave reads that he died on August 33, 1889.

When McMahon opened the Royal in 1882, the Bungendore district was in the midst of a boom. The drought was over, Lake George was full, the railway was approaching from Goulburn and the colony of NSW in general was prospering.

John McMahon witnessed the arrival of the railway and the opening of the station on March 4, 1885. He anticipated the expansion of Bungendore and that a substantial hotel nearer to the railway than any of its competitors would be successful.

He was so impressed with Bungendore’s future that he bought land on the western shore of Lake George, where he hoped to build a guest house to cater for the tourists he was sure would come when the railway opened.

But he didn’t open his guest house. One called Douglas was opened in 1883 and the steamboat Pioneer was bought to take tourists on lake excursions.

It was just as well that McMahon didn’t invest in lake tourism. The guest house lost money and the Pioneer was left high and dry when the lake dried up a few years later.

It was a blow to the tourist trade and gave the lie to the prediction by The Goulburn Herald of 1884 that Bungendore could become the “Brighton of the Colony”.

By the time unofficial passenger and goods trains arrived in Bungendore in 1884 there was not one vacant house in the town and the Royal’s profits soared.

Fortunes fluctuated and by 1889 McMahon was forced to mortgage the original Royal Hotel for £300.

After he died in 1889 his wife Ann continued to run the Royal. The Temperance Society formed in the town shortly after the hotel opened was pretty active and it is said that a rowdy element from two of the hotels disrupted one of the society’s meetings.

By the 1920s the road to Queanbeyan passed through Bungendore and the Royal was a popular stopping place for motorists in their new cars.

With the opening of Parliament in 1927, every bed in the Royal was taken by people who could not find a room in Canberra and Queanbeyan. About 1930 Mr Charlie McKie built the underground water tank which is beneath the present beer garden. The water was pumped to a galvanised tank on the roof.

Mr Pat Campbell dug the hole for the tank with a horse and scoop and the rest by pick and shovel.

During construction of the Bungendore-Captains Flat railway (1937 to 1939) Mrs Elsie Ayres, who now lives in Rutledge St, Bungendore, worked at the Royal.

Mrs Ayres remembers that, one holiday weekend, she had 60 sheets to wash. She pegged them on the line and the line broke. So back she went to the copper and scrubboard. She was in tears when the publican’s wife, Mrs Free-stone, found her.

Women were not allowed in the bar at that time but Mrs Freestone regularly pulled the beer and sometimes brought out a glass to her staff in the kitchen. Beer in 1939 cost 6d a glass.

It was hard work in the Royal in the early 1930s. Silver was cleaned every day before dinner and the linoleum floors scrubbed and polished. In the bar was a flagon filler and lemonade-making machine. There was a big donkey engine in the kitchen for hot water and a yardman was employed to keep it going at night. There were stables and blacksmiths behind the hotel then. Horses coming to Bungendore by train for the races were stabled at the Royal. Jack McCaren even walked his horses from Moruya for the races and stayed at the hotel.

The early 1950s were still the days of 6 o’clock closing. However, there are stories that the back bar being kept going as late as 11pm.

People were said to actually catch the train out from Canberra and return by train that night for after-hours drinking. The publican frequently made sardines on toast to encourage people to stay. There was also a piano in the private lounge to keep the party lively.

Two men once tried to stay at the hotel without paying. They rose before dawn and push-started their car down the road. But a fowl asleep on the warm motor started screeching — and the men were caught.

There was a betting shop next door in the ’50s which was forced to close one Saturday. Someone had caught some eels in Deep Creek and had left them in the shop for a week! The customers went to the pub to bet because they couldn’t stand the stench.

A clock which used to hang in the hotel had been signed by drinkers, “this is the only thing that gives tick in this pub.”

Sunday drinking was popular but illegal. If police arrived, drinkers would don aprons, pick up tea towels and pretend they were staff. On the first night of 10 o’clock closing, though, the bar was deserted at 9pm; everyone seemed to prefer the thrill of illegal drinking.

The 1960s saw women accepted into the public bar, but one of the patrons remembers carrying a hat pin for any one who became too friendly.

A celebrity became a regular in 1969. Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones rock group was in town to make the film ‘Ned Kelly’.

He is remembered as a “quiet bloke who shouted in his turn and sometimes shouted the bar”.

For the last few years the Royal has been the focus for the annual New Year’s Eve revels. Gibraltar Street is closed off and people enjoy themselves taking part in the animal imitation contest and other activities.

The locals are proud of the hotel and to make people aware of its worth the town’s clubs have planned a comprehensive program, detailed below, for the centenary weekend.

Mr Darryl Southwell, of Bungendore, attempts to ride his four-year-old mare, ‘Bonny’, into the Royal Hotel, Bungendore, during the hotel’s centenary celebrations yesterday. A grand horse parade along Gibraltar Street by riders from five district clubs was one of the day’s highlights. – Canberra Times, Sunday, September 26, 1982.
The Royal Hotel, Bungendore, 1960s. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The Royal Hotel closed for business in 2020 to allow for major restoration work. However, the pub remains closed (2023). The following was posted to the hotel’s Facebook Page on June 9 2020:

We ran into some trouble trying to get insurance for trading, basically the insurance companies have deemed that 50% of the building’s structure is wood and because of the horror fire season we just had they’re refusing to insure it in its current state. As a result major renovation has to take place to bring the building up to a standard that is insurable. So we’ve decided that it makes the most sense for us to go ahead with the full restoration that we had been planning to do later in the year. This means that the Royal will not open again for the foreseeable future. It’s disappointing and definitely not the start that we had envisioned but we’re really excited about restoring the place to its former glory! Hopefully by the time we open all the Covid-19 restrictions will have been lifted entirely and we’ll be able to have a grand opening party. I can’t wait to have a beer with you all when that time comes! Cheers, Stacey

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023

The Royal Hotel undergoing restoration in 2020. Picture: Google

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