Hides Hotel: How the O’Haras lost their Cairns Hotel legacy

Hides Hotel, Cairns, 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Hides’ Cairns Hotel, 1886. Picture: State Library of Queensland.

By MICK ROBERTS ©

THE O’Hara family just couldn’t shake the legacy of their predecessors.

Despite the Hides not building or hosting the landmark hotel at the corner of Lake and Shields Streets, in the northern Queensland city of Cairns, their family name is displayed on the facade of the building.

The Hides family though never had anything to do with the grand corner heritage building. Contrary to belief, the hotel was not built or operated by legendary Cairns businessman, George Hides, but by an Irishman, Denis O’Hara.

On the eve of the completion of the new three-storey hotel in 1929, it was planned to name it O’Hara’s Cairns Hotel. However, in a wise marketing move, O’Hara decided to go with the trusted name of his predecessors, who operated the hotel next door. And Hides it has been for over 90 years.

Hides Cairns Hotel was originally built by Englishman, George Parker Hides, and Scotsman, Duncan McColl on an isolated patch of land on Lake Street in 1885.

The earlier hotel, a substantial, 20 bedroom, two-storeyed timber building, with double front verandahs and an observation tower, was constructed by Townsville contractors Hinton & Company, for Hides and McColl, who also were in partnership in the Royal Hotel at Herberton.

Officially licensed as the Cairns Hotel, it soon became known as ‘Hides and McColl’s’, and later, simply, ‘Hides’.

The pub was built during the second wave of development activity in Cairns (the first being the 1876-77 establishment of the settlement), following Cairns’ proclamation as a municipality in 1885 and its designation as the destination of the Tablelands rail link to the interior goldfields in the same year.

It was gold that enabled the establishment of the hotel, after Hides and McColl struck it lucky on the Palmer River goldfields, on Cape York. They had previously prospected together on the Victorian and New Zealand goldfields before they’re new found wealth enabled them to go into partnership as hoteliers.

Prior to opening the Cairns Hotel, Hides and McColl had established the Royal Hotel at Herberton, a rural town on the tablelands, about 90kms south-west of Cairns, in 1880. The historic hotel continues to trade to this day (2021).

The pair built the Royal Hotel after the population of the Herberton exploded with the discovery and successful mining of tin.

Royal Hotel, Herberton, that McColl and Hides established in 1880. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection, 2020.

Hides and McColl leased the property on which they built their Cairns hotel from Dr Edward Albert Koch. With its construction, the publicans pioneered Lake Street as a new retail centre for Cairns.

Hides and McColl’s Cairns Hotel played an important role in the retail and social life, catering for commercial travellers as well as local trade. Meetings to establish a Cairns School of Arts and a Masonic Lodge were held at the hotel in November 1885, and the Cairns Chamber of Commerce held its inaugural meeting there on May 13, 1886.

McColl was the first host of the Cairns Hotel, after he was granted a license in August 1885, and a grand ball was held to celebrate the occasion.

McColl was also granted a billiard license for the hotel the same month. It seems that over the following years the two men swapped positions as hosts of the Herberton and Cairns’ pubs until their business partnership was dissolved. The pair though remained firm friends.

With the business partnership dissolved, the license of the Cairns Hotel was officially transferred from McColl to Hides on August 10, 1888.

McColl took control of the Herberton pub, while Hides went to work undertaking massive additions to the Cairns Hotel, completed in August 1888. The Cairns Post reported on August 15 1888:

The additions to George Hides’ well-known Cairns Hotel are now completed, making the establishment one of the largest and most comfortable North of Brisbane. The additions comprise sixteen single bed-rooms, sitting-rooms, bath-rooms, and three sample-rooms. Each room is ceiled and lined, and the comfort of visitors has been studied in every way, even to the fixing of Venetian blinds on the verandah. The sample-rooms are probably the largest and best fitted in Queensland, and commercial travellers are loud in their praise. At present the resources of the hotel are being severely tried; the new bedrooms are all full, and rows of stretchers in the aforesaid sample-rooms are barely sufficient for the accommodation of visitors.

The following year, Hides’ long time business partner and friend, Duncan McColl died after suffering a stroke at the age of 54, while host of the Royal at Herberton. Hides, who was an executor of McColl’s estate, ended-up owning the Royal, and put his younger brother, John in at Herberton as licensee and host.

John Parker Hides arrived in Cairns in 1883 with his older brother George from the Victorian goldfields.

John was an engineer in the Herberton Tin Mine until taking over as host of the Royal Hotel in 1891. With his wife, Mary and children he hosted the Royal until his retirement in 1898. He died in Cairns aged 69 in Cairns in 1903. 

Meanwhile George, at the age of 58, had married young widow, 29-year-old, Elizabeth Headrick in 1889.

Elizabeth Moir Patterson was born in Scotland in 1860 and came to Queensland as a young woman before marrying David Headrick in 1878. After the death of her first husband, she married publican, George Hides, who at the time was host of the Cairns Hotel. The Queensland Figaro and Punch reported on April 13, 1889:

Mr. George Hides, whose name is a household word in both Cairns and Herberton, has been and gone and done it. I am glad of it. On all sides I hear excellent accounts of the fair lady of his choice, a young widow, Mrs. Headrick. The bride was dressed in a beautiful grey costume, handsomely trimmed with plush. The wedding took place at Petersen’s, at the Four-mile.

Six months later the Hides celebrated the birth of their first child, George Junior, and the pair became well-known for their hospitality in the tropics. The Queenslander reported on May 16, 1891: 

The Cairns Hotel, or Hides and McColl’s Hotel, as it is better known, is situate in Lake-street, and is one of the best, and certainly the most popular house in town. Mr. Hides, the proprietor, is one of the oldest miners in North Queensland, a veritable rough diamond, full of stories redolent of the “good old days”. The house throughout is most comfortable, and Mrs Hides welcomes her visitors in homely fashion.

George Hides died at the age of 64 in December 1895. In his obituary, published in the North Queensland Register on December 18, 1895, George was described as hosting “the finest establishments of its kind in the north”.

Though never a wealthy man, the deceased had generally a few pounds to spare, and his kindness to those in poor circumstances was proverbial. He was a true John Bull, and loved an Englishman’s privilege, a grumble. His pessimism, indeed, was occasionally humorous but it never prevented him from doing capital work in the interests of the town in which he was located. Mr. Hides was about sixty years of age, and leaves a wife and young family. Though in the vicinity of three score he was hale and hearty, and his sudden death came as a great surprise to his numerous friends.

At just 35 years of age, his widow, Elizabeth, with a young family of six children (aged between 4 and 16) took control of the Cairns Hotel, and went on to capably host the business for over 30 years.

Hides’ Cairns Hotel, C1890. Picture: State Library of Qld. Inset: Elizabeth Hides and her children. Picture: Supplied.

Large crowds would gather in the streets around the balcony of Hides Hotel during the 1890s and early 1900s, from where election results were projected onto screens. The balcony was also a favourite with politicians to deliver speeches during these times.

An amusing story was revealed in the Gympie Times newspaper on April 30, 1896 when the Member for Cairns, Isidor Siegfried Lissner delivered a speech to his constituents from Hides’ balcony.

Member for Cairns, Isidor Siegfried Lissner delivered a speech to his constituents from Hides’ balcony. Picture: State Library of Qld

The whole of the balcony at Hides’ Hotel was enclosed with a calico screen, on which the result of the elections were being printed, but one small place was reserved for the announcement that Irish Stew, a Cairns owned horse, had won a Brisbane handicap. When the Atherton returns came in, and ensured Lissner’s return, there were cries of ‘Lissner! Lissner!’ In response the Irish Stew marked calico was cut away, and the elected one popping his head through the screen, said : ‘I thank you for returning me as your member. I thank all those that voted for me, and will do my best to represent you in the House. I thank all those that have voted for me today. Those that have voted for Givens, never mind; you can have Givens next time.’

On another election night in 1906, during an interval waiting for wires to display the candidates’ numbers in electorates, the operators played a joke on the large crowd gathered under the balcony of Hides Hotel.

The figures of an underdog candidate, who happened to be an undertaker, were displayed higher than the sitting member, who was expected to romp in his election win. One of the bemused crowd was heard to say: “Good heavens! he must have been polling the graveyards”.

Elizabeth Moir Hides purchased the hotel site, which had been leased for over a decade, from Dr Koch, who was also their family doctor, in 1899.

The Cairns Post reported on October 26, 1899 that Elizabeth Hides bought the quarter of an acre on which the original hotel was built for £1500 cash. The Hides had leased the property from Dr Koch at an annual ground rental of £75.

In 1900-01 she also acquired an adjoining allotment on the corner of Lake and Shields Streets, on which the present Hides Hotel stands.

A single-storeyed timber shop on this site was demolished and replaced with a beer-garden that became a popular venue for fetes and other outdoor events.

The Queenslander reported on December 17, 1904 that “every commercial man, tourist, cane grower, or mining man visiting Cairns is acquainted with the homely and comfortable” Hides Hotel.

In the inside the menu, bedroom accommodation, baths, balconies, &c. combine in giving a maximum of comfort. The hotel is situated conveniently to the wharves and railway station. The locality is quiet, and a drunken person is rarely if ever seen about the place. This makes Mrs. Hides’s hotel a particularly agreeable resort for ladies, a desideratum not always obtainable in some of the towns in the North. Mrs. Hides ban been established here twenty years, and as far as practicable has made her hotel to suit the requirements of her guests. Tennis court, billiards, ferneries, &c., are found about the premises. The dining-rooms are large and well ventilated. A porter meets all trains and steamers, and attends to the luggage of departing guests. The Cairns Hotel can accommodate sixty people.

Unlike other landmark pubs in the Cairns region, Hides’ original hotel was relatively lucky when it came to escaping major damage from north Queensland’s notorious cyclones.

Hides Hotel was damaged from a cyclone in January 1906 when the whole of the wide balcony at the northern end of the hotel was carried away and a portion of the roof of the front balcony. Minor damages were also sustained to the building.

Elizabeth continued as host through most of the Great War when many of her young customers signed-up to fight in foreign lands – including two of her three sons.

Elizabeth’s son, John Gordon Hides, who was killed in action during the Great War. Picture: The Northern Herald June 18,1915.

The widowed publican would experience the grief of losing both her sons, and a nephew, to the war. Her 25-year-old son, John, was killed in the Dardanelles in 1915, while her 26-year-old son, Robert and a nephew, Jack were also killed in action in France during 1917. Both her sons were reportedly popular young men in Cairns, who had both worked in the hotel.

Not surprisingly, Elizabeth was a strong supporter of the Patriotic Fund, a trust fund created when communities raised money to assist soldiers and their families in their respected regions. The funds provided welfare services and clubrooms for returned service personnel and their dependants. The widowed publican donated large sums of money to the Northern Queensland fund, first giving an impressive £50 in August 1915.

Elizabeth would go on to host the Cairns Hotel for another 27 years before remarrying commercial traveller, Charles Walls at the age of 56 in 1916.

In 1917 the pioneering publican ended her association with the business, leasing the hotel to Daniel McGuiness. McGuiness had previously hosted His Majesty’s Hotel, Sydney, before relocating to Queensland where he operated the Mondure Hotel, Wondai and the Irvinebank Hotel on the Atherton Tablelands.

McGuiness and his wife remained as hosts of the Cairns Hotel until 1919 when C. L. Hansen took the license.

The freehold of Hides’ Cairns Hotel was sold by Elizabeth Moir Walls to a well-known north Queensland business family in 1920. The Cairns Post reported on June 3, 1920 that 53-year-old, Denis O’Hara and his wife, Bridget had become registered owners of Hides Cairns Hotel.

Elizabeth Walls and her new husband moved to Brisbane after the sale of Hides Hotel, and she died at Wooloowin, aged 82 on September 12, 1942. The Cairns Post reported on September 14, 1942:

OBITUARY MRS. C. WALLS

The death occurred in Brisbane on Saturday evening of Mrs. C. Walls, a well-known identity of Cairns some years ago. Deceased, who was over 82 years of age, was born in Scotland, and came to Queensland as a young woman. After living in Toowoomba for some years she came to Cairns in 1886, and in 1890, as Mrs. Hides, took over the business which to-day is still known as Hides Hotel, and which she conducted for over 30 years. About 15 years ago she left the North to take up residence in Brisbane, where she remained until her passing. She is survived by two sons, Mr. George Hides, of Brisbane, and Mr. Dave Headrick, of Cairns. Her only daughter, Mrs Kemmis, of Tully, predeceased her four years ago, and two sons paid the supreme sacrifice in the 1914-18 war. The body will be cremated in Brisbane today.

A third period of intensive building activity was about to get underway in Cairns when the O’Haras took control of Hides’ Hotel in 1920.

The 1920s saw the expansion of the town as the port servicing the new soldier settlements inland; the upgrading to city status in 1923; the establishment of Cairns in 1924 as the terminus of the North Coast railway from Brisbane.

An Irishman, Denis O’Hara came to Australia at the age of 15 in 1882 to carve his fortune in the then mainly undeveloped region of north Queensland.

Denis married Bridget McCoy in 1891 and the couple – both aged 25 – went on to host the newly licensed Barron River Hotel at Biboohra, near Mareeba, the following year.

Bridget had arrived in Cairns from Ireland in 1888, and the couple, with their young family, went on to become successful hoteliers in the region after their marriage, hosting the Mulgrave Hotel at Gordonvale and the Exchange Hotel at Mareeba.

The O’Haras bought the freehold of the Criterion Hotel in Abbott Street in 1899 for £3,350, and in 1907 they had the old Cairns landmark completely rebuilt.

In 1912, O’Hara selected a property of virgin scrub at Babinda, south of Cairns, to grow sugar cane and spent many arduous years in developing it into a successful enterprise. Later he took up sugar farming at Jungara at which he continued to work while managing his hotels.

The family registered the company of O’Hara Limited in 1925, for the purpose of operating their hotels, with Denis and Bridget as managing directors and majority shareholders. Their children held the remainder of the 100,000 shares, valued at £1 each.

The O’Haras had grand plans for the old Hides Cairns Hotel. The ownership of the old hotel and the corner site of the beer-garden were transferred to O’Hara Limited, with plans for a modern replacement tourist hotel. The Cairns Post reported on January 10, 1928:

FAITH IN CAIRNS.

NEW UP-TO-DATE STRUCTURE.

O’HARA’S CAIRNS HOTEL.

In these days when dislocated trade communications and slack markets are the cause of frequent lamentation, it is refreshing to meet business men who have sufficient faith in the North, and in Cairns particularly, to invest heavy sums in building operation.

THE BUILDING

Mr. D. O’Hara has that faith, and is demonstrating it in a definite manner. Upon the corner block next Hides Hotel, he is constructing a magnificent up-to-date establishment that should be finished by January, 1929. The architect is Mr. Oxenham, of Cairns, and the building contractor Mr. McGarvey, who also has the contract for the fine church of St. Monica. Mr. Garvey outlined the scheme and scope of the new hotel building yesterday. The initial work of foundation building, he said, was difficult, owing to the softness of the soil and of the massive structure that it would be called upon to bear. He said that the building would be over an area of 125 feet by 60 feet and would be three storeys of reinforced concrete. A verandah and a balcony would ex-tend the whole length of the Lake-street, and Shields-street sides, and the whole would be electrically lighted.

An electric lift would also be installed. Private suites would consist of bed- rooms, bath-rooms, sitting rooms and, in common with all the rooms, would be fitted with hot and cold water facilities. The latest septic tank arrangements are to be installed, and telephones will be provided in all main rooms. About 15 telephones will he in service throughout the hotel.

The bathrooms and other conveniences would be tiled, and a large lounge would be constructed on each floor. On the ground floor, in addition to the lounge, space would be reserved for a fine, up-to-date jazz floor and a dining room.

A LARGE PILE.

Mr. Garvey has great faith in the job and assured his interviewer yesterday that it would be one of the greatest buildings in the North. It was certainly the greatest building contract let in the Far North. The contract price was well over £30,000. Mr. O’Hara, Jnr., said that the confidence in Cairns’s future shown by the investment of so much money in building would he justified. He was satisfied of that.

The only indication that ‘Hides Hotel’ was built and operated by Denis O’Hara. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
Hides Hotel Cairns advertisement,. Picture: The Brisbane Courier, May 4, 1929.

The foundation stone of the new Cairns Hotel was laid by Denis O’Hara on May 16, 1928. The building, estimated to cost £30,000, was designed by Cairns architect Sydenham Stanley Oxenham, and was erected by Toowoomba and Cairns contractor Michael Thomas Garvey. Garvey also built the Malanda Hotel, and Yungaburra Hotel on the Atherton Tablelands, St. Monica’s School in Cairns, and the Christian Brothers School in South Cairns. He was also involved in the construction of the Cairns’ Soldiers’ Monument.

Local north Queensland timbers were used throughout. At the time of construction, it was one of the largest buildings in Cairns, and was one of only two three-storeyed structures in the city, the other being Boland’s store at the corner of Lake and Spence Streets.

On completion of the grand hotel in August 1929, Denis O’Hara Junior became licensee.

The original plans for the hotel was for a frontage of 120 feet (37m) to Shields Street, but the building extended only 87 feet (27m) along Shields Street. However, it would be another six years before Denis O’Hara’s vision was finally completed.

Construction began in December 1935 to complete the original concept, with the addition of two shops at ground level and two levels of bedrooms above and along Shields Street. The extensions were completed in time for the 1936 tourist season.

Hides Cairns Hotel, 1936, showing the original hotel to the left and the Shield Street extensions under construction. Picture: Cairns Regional Library.
Hides Cairns Hotel, C1938, showing the original hotel to the left and the completed Shield Street extensions. Picture: Cairns Regional Library.
Hides Cairns Hotel, C1948, showing the original hotel to the left. Picture: Cairns Regional Library.

Less than three years after realising his dream, the old pioneering publican and cane farmer, Denis O’Hara died at the age of 72. The Northern Herald on March 25,1939:

LATE MR D. O’HARA.

General regret was felt last Tuesday throughout North Queensland in the passing of Mr. Denis O’Hara, one of Cairns’ oldest citizens, a pioneer who came to the North over 57 years ago, and who lived here till the time of his death, which occurred after a very short illness… The late Mr. O’Hara had unbounded faith in the future of Cairns and at the age of 62 years, when many men might justifiably feel entitled to a well-earned rest from worry and labour after a life time of achievement, he embarked upon his greatest undertaking, the construction of the fine building of Hides’ Hotel. Mr. O’Hara developed for the land of his adoption a love that might well be an example to many native-born. He was never tired of advertising the merits of the Cairns district and towards the end of his life his greatest joy was meeting and conversing with the few old-timers of the early days who still are left, and recalling the days when the test of a man was hit capacity for straight dealing and fair play however poor his circumstances might be. Many will miss his familiar figure or the streets of Cairns, and none who knew him will deny that he was a man who never turned his back but marched breast forward, never doubting clouds would break. Mr. O’Hara is survived by a widow and a family of two sons and six daughters, his eldest son, Frank, well-known in sporting circles, having predeceased him 13 years ago.

Bridget O’Hara, his widow, died in Brisbane in 1951 at the age of 84. Denis O’Hara Jnr., the last of the family to host Hides Cairns Hotel in the mid 1930s, died at the age of 70 in 1968.

Hides Hotel 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
PJ O’Briens Pub now trades from the Shields Street side of the building. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.
The bar of PJ O’Briens Pub inside Hides Hotel, Cairns, 2021. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

Although the O’Haras intended placing their family name on the facade of their impressive hotel, for a number of reasons, including no doubt marketing and promotion purposes, it was decided instead to stick with the old trusted name of Hides. The name of Hides had been associated with capably catering for the tourist trade in Cairns for over 45 years.

It was a wise decision, with the ‘new Hides’ becoming pre-eminent amongst Cairns hotels, catering largely to visitors and ‘society’.

The O’Hara family retained the property until 1946, when it was sold to an Australian shipping line and merchant firm, Burns Philp & Company Ltd, which held the title of Hides Hotel until 1976.

Alterations to the ground floor of the hotel were made in 1967, at which time also the first Cairns Hotel, built in Lake Street in 1885, was demolished and replaced with a modern accommodation wing.

The 1936 extension of the hotel, facing Shields Street, leased as shops, was converted to a bar in 1976. In the early 1990s, the Shields Street bar was converted to P.J. O’Brien’s Irish Pub, which continues to trade from the site. Somehow I think Denis O’Haras, the old publican from the Emerald Isle, would be pleased to see an Irish pub trading in part of his hotel.

Hides Hotel continues offering guests high quality, budget conscious accommodation in the heart of Cairns. It is made-up of two adjoining buildings – the heritage listed three storey corner building, containing PJ O’Brien’s Pub (facing Shields Street), and the modern hotel, opened in 1968, in Lake Street.

Can you help with a picture of George and Elizabeth Hides, or Denis and Bridget O’Hara? I would love to include an image of the legendary Cairns’ hoteliers with this story. Scroll down to the comments section if you can help.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021


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