Olive’s three ‘petticoat pubs’ were run entirely by women

Olive Edgar (right) with her all women staff at the Gippsland Hotel, St Kilda. Picture: Melbourne Herald, June 20, 1946.

THE year before Olive Kathleen Cummins married she became the licensee of South Melbourne’s Caledonian Hotel at the age of 25.

Olive was granted the license of her first pub, the Caledonian in 1919, and had a short stay after it was forced to close in 1920.

The pub survives today as a residential building near the corner of Coventry Street and Nixon Place, South Melbourne.

The Caledonian was first licensed as the Freemason’s Four Hotel in 1857 before it was renamed the Caledonian by publican, Mary Marsden in 1861.

The current building, constructed in 1889, was made of brick and comprised 16 rooms before the License Reduction Board forced its closure on December 31, 1920.

Former Caledonian Hotel, South Melbourne. Picture: realestateview.com.au

Unlike NSW, in Victoria an unmarried woman over the age of 25 was legally able to apply for a hotel license during these times, although the magistrates did not always look favourably on applications.

Olive though had experience in the trade, and was brought-up in pubs by her parents, Jim and Elizabeth Cummins, who hosted a number of Melbourne hotels.

Interestingly the Caledonian had several women licensees, including Minnie McDonald, whose husband John died when he fell into one of the pub’s fireplaces.

A heavy drinker, John had fallen asleep in a chair in front of the fire place before he was found by Minnie face-down in the flames. The coroner found that 62-year-old John had died accidentally.

At the age of 26, Olive married World War One veteran, Leslie Edgar in 1920 before unsuccessfully fighting the License Reduction Board’s decision to close her pub.

Olive Edgar seems to have left the hotel industry after losing her high court challenge to keep the Caledonian Hotel open, re-appearing over 20 years later as a hotelier at the age of 50.

Olive Edgar would go on to host a number of hotels entirely run by women, which earned the title of ‘Petticoat Pubs’.

Recruiting her two daughters, Pat and Leslie to help her run the pub, Olive gained the license of the Gippsland Hotel in Chapel Street, St Kilda in 1944. She hired staff made-up entirely of women.

The staff of six, which included her two daughters, did all the heavy work, Olive told newspapers in a 1947 story.

“They can roll and tip kegs up to 36-gallon capacity with ease. It’s just a matter of practice. The same applied to heavy yard and cellar work.”

The Melbourne Herald reported on June 20 1946:


The regular customers call it ‘Petticoat Pub’. It is a St. Kilda hotel where women comprise the entire staff.

But the “regulars” wouldn’t change the system for worlds. The licensee (Mrs O. K. Edgar) says that women are quicker and more courteous than men at hotel work. Among the staff of six are her two daughters, Pat, 22, and Leslie, 19.

“The girls do all the heavy work,” said Mrs Edgar. “They can roll and tip kegs up to 36 gallon capacity with ease. It’s just a matter of practice. The same applies to the heavy yard and cellar work.”

According to Mrs Edgar, crowds of men are more easily controlled by women. She is quite capable of running an obstreperous drinker out through the door, and has done so on several occasions. None of the women at the hotel drink or smoke. When the day’s work is done, the bar is cleaned the money counted, and then they have a cup of tea at the bar.

After three years Olive Edgar took her all girl team from the Gippsland Hotel to operate the Echuca Hotel in 1947.

Echuca Hotel, undated. Olive transformed the Echuca pub into another of her “petticoat pubs”. Picture: State Library of Victoria

Edgar took the license of the historic hotel from J. J. Ryan in March. The Ryan family had been running the pub for over 52 years.

At the age of 59, Olive lost her husband, Leslie who died in 1953.

The publican though had one more pub left in her, and that same year she took over the license of an old wayside inn known as the Paradise Valley Hotel at Clematis from Catherine O’Connor.

The Paradise, established in 1903, became Olive’s last “Petticoat Pub’, and she retired as publican in March 1954.

The Victorian representative for Greater Union Theatres J J Collins hands across a cheque for £670 to the president of the Easter Ball Committee O. K. Edgar. Picture: The Melbourne Herald November 9 1948

The Mountain District Free Press reported on March 11 1954 “the Edgars set the Paradise on its feet when it was just another wayside pub.”

The ‘Petticoat Publican’ died at Balwyn North in 1973 aged 79.

Damien Coleman writes: “Thank you for this article about my grandmother. Apparently her method for “running an obstreperous drinker out through the door” was to announce to the pub that “no more drinks will be served until this gentleman leaves the premises”. So the other patrons would help remove him if necessary. My mum was only 9 when they left the Echuca pub. Outside the official opening hours she would play with her ball against the pub. In the event that she would see members of the constabulary approaching she would throw the ball against the window of the hotel to alert any patrons inside the hotel to clear out (I trust she doesn’t mind me mentioning her nefarious activities over the internet).”

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Categories: Melbourne Hotels, Publicans, Victoria hotels

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