Road trip: The pubs of Queensland’s Cassowary Coast

Publican, Ian ‘Cambo’ Campbell chats with customers from behind the bar of the Garradunga Hotel last year. Picture: Mick Roberts


THERE were plenty of history, yarns, and characters to meet on our 145km road trip south from Cairns to Feluga.

There was the pub in the sugarcane-fields at Garradunga, said to be haunted by Athol the ghost, and the Mourilyan Hotel, where, in 1936, one cane-cutter spent six months in hospital after he was stabbed with a fence paling!

Then there’s the Criterion at South Johnstone, which was required in 1927 by the local magistrate to place a barbed-wire fence around its perimeter on opening day to protect the rest of the town from drunken customers!  “There are some wild men out at South Johnstone and they’ve never had a hotel there before,” the magistrate quipped.

Come with us on our 2020 road trip visiting five colourful pubs on the Cassowary Coast of north Queensland, where we explore their history, enjoy their hospitality, and chat with their publicans and customers.

The Cassowary Coast road trip south of Cairns, 2020. Picture: Google

Our first stop was at a pub literally sitting smack-bang in the middle of a sugar-cane plantation. While it was tricky finding this pub, like many we have visited in the past, it was well worth the effort.

Just north of Innisfail, the Garrundunga Hotel is truly worth the detour.

Garradunga Hotel, about five miles north of Innisfail, well worth the detour. Picture: Mick Roberts
The bar of the Garradunga Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts
Garradunga Hotel, Garradunga. Picture: Mick Roberts

Guests immediately feel right at home at the Garradunga Hotel, with a warm welcome, great food and friendly service.

Work on building the Garradunga Hotel, on the North Coast Railway about five miles north of Innisfail, was well-underway in October 1928, when an advertisement appeared in the Cairns Post calling for tenders for a five to 10 year lease.

The hotel was built on part of Greek immigrant Christos Panagakis’ cane farm.

The advertisement stated the pub, due for completion in January 1929, would be the only hotel between the 30km distance from Innisfail to Babinda, in the “rich sugar growing district on the main road” to Cairns, opposite the Garradunga Railway Station.

Panagakis, who had come to the Innisfail district about 1919 and was farming at Garradunga as early as 1926, seems to have had difficulties securing the funds to complete the hotel as it would take another four years before the license was granted.

Timothy Fallon applied for a licensed victuallers’ license for an uncompleted building in February 1929. However, the licensing magistrate asked Fallon to come back in March when the hotel was properly finished.

The hotel was completed the following month at an estimated cost (including furniture) of £4,000. Fallon got the license at the Innisfail Licensing Court on Saturday, March 23, 1929. But he never seems to have poured a beer from its bar.

In April 1929 Panagakis secured a contract with Thomas Scanlan to lease the hotel property for 10 years at £4 a week. With the lease, Tim Fallon transferred the license to Tom Scanlan on April 6, 1929, and the pub opened for business – but not for long.

Less than two years later – in what will be a re-occurring theme in this road trip story – the hotel was totally destroyed by fire in the early hours of the morning of September 21, 1930.

Despite some conjecture on how the pub was reduced to ashes, an official inquiry later found that the fire was accidentally caused, and “the evidence disclosed no suspicious circumstances”.

Panagakis was given approval to rebuild a replacement hotel from concrete on the site on May 27, 1931. In the meantime, Cairns builder, Edmond McCoombe was given approval to trade from temporary premises until the new premises were completed.

McCoombe built the replacement hotel and was licensee until his death in January 1932. He left a widow, Margaret, who took over as host, and three young children.

Christos Panagakis advertised the hotel for sale in January 1939.

Margaret McCoombe remained as host of the pub until the sale of the hotel in April 1939, when Mary Sanderson took over as licensee.

Horace and Mary Sanderson took over as hosts until May 1940, when the license was transferred to Alexander Gardner from Mackay. Alex and Amelia Gardner were previously host of the Range Hotel at Eton. They hosted the Garradunga Hotel for around a decade before their retirement to Rockhampton.

The hotel survived unscathed from cyclones until ‘Larry’ hit in 2006. Like many of far north Queensland’s pubs, the Garradunga was almost completely flattened by the cyclone. It has since been rebuilt, and retains much the same look as its predecessor, with a shady beer garden, barbecue area and bistro restaurant.

By the time this story is published, long-time host of the Garradunga Hotel will be taking it easy, retired to his five and half acres in the Queensland seaside resort town of 1770.

Ian ‘Cambo’ Campbell hosted the pub at Garradunga for just under a decade before selling the pub in late 2020. After a few health scares, including a mild stroke, Ian decided to put the freehold and business on the market in 2020.

Garradunga Hotel, Garradunga. Picture: Mick Roberts
Garradunga Hotel, Garradunga. Picture: Mick Roberts

We visited the Garradunga Hotel in August 2020, on the eve of Ian’s ninth anniversary as the historic pub’s licensee.

At the age of 66, he was in the process of finalising the sale of the hotel to Steve Tyler.

“I’ll be taking is easy, doing a bit of fishing,” he said.

At the age of 56, the former earth-mover from Murwillumbah, sought a tree-change, and bought the pub, just north of Innisfail.

“I always wanted a pub,” he said.

“My cousin tipped me off that the pub was up for lease. I’d been here before, and knew it was a great old pub.”

Ian leased the pub for two years before buying the freehold of the property. He introduced a caravan park to the grounds of the pub, attracting a new clientele besides the usual sugar cane and banana farmers.

“I’ll miss my customers the most,” he said.

There’s one pub guest though that he won’t miss.

“Athol is our resident ghost,” Ian explained.

“A few locals and backpackers reckon they have seen something but I think it depends on how much they’ve had to drink.”

Athol, says Ian, died at the hotel many years ago.

“I saw him once and I stuttered, At…At…Athol… and he disappeared… and then I woke up. I was dreaming.”

The next pub on our road trip south was another steeped in history. Mourilyan is about 20km south of Garrundunga.

Mourilyan Hotel

Mourilyan Hotel, Mourilyan. Picture: Mick Roberts

Mourilyan, a rural town, is 10km south of Innisfail and 90 km south-east of Cairns. It was named by Captain John Moresby in 1872 after one of his officers, Lieutenant Mourilyan.

In the early 1880s the Mourilyan Sugar Company was formed, and a harbour town was formed, with the notorious Blackbirders Retreat hotel providing plenty of refreshments for the cane-cutters and mill-workers. It was around the mill, away from the coast, though that the permanent Mourilyan township eventually grew.

The history of the Mourilyan Hotel begins early last century.

In October 1910, 30-year-old, Theresa “Tottie” Henry applied for a provisional license for an uncompleted hotel at Mourilyan. Miss Henry was refused the license and asked to come back to the magistrate when the building was completed.

At the same sitting John Savage was also refused conditional approval for a license at Mourilyan Harbour, while John Castor withheld his application for a license at Mourilyan. The same John Castor – 17 years later – established the Castor Hotel, which in recent history was destroyed by Cyclone Larry in 2006. More on the Castor Hotel later in the story.

Meanwhile, Tottie Henry had another attempt at a provisional license for a pub at “Mourilyan Plantation” on February 1, 1911. This time, along with John Savage at Mourilyan Harbour, Miss Henry was given approval for a conditional license.

Theresa Henry was given confirmation of her provisional license for the completed Hotel Mourilyan at the Innisfail Licensing Court on Friday November 3, 1911. The licensing inspector of the day raised no objections.

The Brisbane Telegraph reported on November 5, 1911 that the “new hotel at Mourilyan plantation” had been completed, and the licensee is in occupation”.

The pub at Mourilyan Harbour, known as the Tourist Hotel, was also given the green light at the same licensing meeting. The Tourist Hotel traded at Mourilyan Harbour for less than 30 years and was completely destroyed by fire in 1930.

The Tourist Hotel at Mourilyan Harbour was destroyed by fire in 1930 and never rebuilt. Picture: Supplied.

Meanwhile Theresa Henry had a short stay as host at the ‘Mourilyan Plantation’ pub and sold the hotel in November 1912, less than a year after gaining the license, with John Thomas and his wife taking over the pub.

Thomas, who was previously the chief engineer at the nearby Mourilyan Sugar Mill, also had a short stay at the pub, and died after a short illness in November 1916 at the age of 53.

After his death, his wife took over the license of what was then one of the toughest pubs in the cane fields.

The pub was almost flattened in the 1918 Innisfail cyclone.

The cyclone made landfall in the area around Innisfail on March 10, 1918. Only 12 houses survived in the town, with most being unroofed or totally destroyed. Damage was also sustained in Cairns, 100km to the north, and inland to the Atherton Tableland. Thirty seven people were killed in Innisfail, and an estimated 40 to 60 more in outlying areas.

The Mourilyan Hotel after a cyclone in 1918 almost completely destroyed the pub. Picture: Supplied

The pub was rebuilt, and continued serving the surrounding community of cane cutters and sugar mill workers into the 1920s.

Mourilyan’s population grew when the North Coast Railway was completed to Cairns from Brisbane in 1921. The post office directory recorded in the 1920s that the town boasted a school of arts, numerous sugar planters, and the Italian Progressive Club. Many Italians had settled in the area to work in the nearby sugar mill and cane fields and confrontations were common in the bar of the town’s only pub, The Mourilyan Hotel.

Clashes between those of British, Italian and Greek heritage were a regular occurrence in its rowdy bar. Razors were reportedly a favoured weapon of the Italians when fighting and the bar of the Mourilyan was definitely not a place for the faint hearted.

Texas Jack, a regular at the Mourilyan Hotel, was often fronting the local magistrate for his drunken behaviour during the mid 1920s. His real name was John Donnelley, and while appearing at the Innisfail Court in April 1924 for vagrancy he revealed the racial tensions between the cane-cutters, sugar mill workers and others at the pub.

“Foreigners can do as they like at the Mourilyan Hotel,” he said.

“They use knives and tear the shirts off people, yet the police do nothing. I am a Britisher, yet the police victimise me.”

Texas Jack, who police said slept at the railway station and sports ground, made a nuisance of himself by asking people to ‘shout’ for him at the bar of the Mourilyan Hotel. As a result of his vagrancy charges, he spent three months in gaol with hard labour.

A quarrel in the bar of the Mourilyan Hotel ended up in a fierce fight in the yard during October 1925.

The fight was reportedly between a “Britisher”, William McNeil and an “Italian”, Guiseppe Ambrosi.

Ambrosi was described as “a big powerful man, about 36”, and didn’t take kindly to McNeil demanding him to ‘shout’ him a drink.

Ambrosi, according to reports, ripped a paling off a beer case, swinging it into McNeil’s head, fracturing his skull.

The Italian then stabbed his opponent with the paling.

Ambrosi was charged with attempted murder, and McNeil spent six months in hospital, remembering little of the fight.

The pub was also often the scene of conflicts between drinkers and the police force. The Mourilyan was a known ‘bloodhouse’, with only the toughest of cane-cutters daring to frequent its bar.

The Mourilyan Hotel came up against some competition in 1927 when John Julius Castor was granted a provisional license for a new pub in Mill Street.

Known as Innisfail’s No 1 citizen, ‘Jack’ Castor, was a resident of Mourilyan for over 50 years. His life was an active one, from cane farmer, hotel keeping and in his later years, chairman of the Johntone Shire Council.

John J. Castor was born on the Herberton ‘tin field’, where he spent his early years before arriving in Mourilyan in 1907.

They were the days before Mourilyan was connected by rail with the outside world. As a young man Castor cane farmed with his father until 1915, when he went out on his own.

As a cane farmer in his own right, he took a keen interest in the organisation of his fellow growers, and was elected vice president of the United Cane Growers’ Association (UCGA).

The UCGA was the forerunner of the Queensland Cane Growers’ Association. He was also the first chairman of the Innisfail District Cane Growers’ Executive, which was formed in 1926 – the same year he began building his grand two storey timber pub at Mourilyan.

The Castor Hotel was completed the following year, with Jack and his wife Pearl, becoming hosts. The confirmation of the license was granted in July 1927.

Jack Castor was host of the pub for many years before he sold out in 1948 to Burns Philp and Co. for a reported £10,000.

Hotel Castor, Mourilyan. Inset: John ‘Jack’ Castor. Pictures: Supplied

The old publican turned his hand to local politics and was appointed to the chairmanship of the Johnstone Shire Council in 1952. He died on April 1, 1956, a day before his 61st birthday.

The landmark hotel traded for almost 80 years, surviving a number of cyclones, before Mother Nature had her with way the Castor in 2006.

The Castor was destroyed by the force of Category 5 Cyclone Larry, which had wind gusts reaching 240kmh.  Mill Street was lined with badly damaged and demolished houses, and the Sugar Mill was also damaged sufficiently to cause its permanent closure.

As a result the Castor Hotel never re-opened and was demolished shortly after Cyclone Larry. Another pub in the district, the Innisfail Hotel was also forced to close as a result of damage from the cyclone.

The Mourilyan Hotel thankfully survived Cyclone Larry; however, it suffered extensive damage.

The Mourilyan is a lot more sedated than its heady days as a cane-cutters pub. In its hey-day it was full of big drinking men who worked on the trawlers, and the many immigrants from Greece and Italy heritage, who had come to north Queensland seeking work on the cane fields.

Mourilyan Hotel, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
Regular customer, Arina Bandiera with publicans of the Mourilyan Hotel, Lloyd Woods and partner Anita Toffoli. Picture: Mick Roberts

A descendent of one of those Italian cane-cutters is 80-year-old Arina Bandiera.

Arina is a regular customer at the Mourilyan. She’s obviously much loved by current hosts Lloyd and Anita, who were eager to introduce us to the local legend.

“Dad worked cutting cane,” Arina said.

“Back in the day when the mill was working, the pub was full of Italians and Greeks, who loved playing boche on a court out the back, and cards inside,” Arina said.

“It’s a lot quieter here these days. Most people have drifted away.

“Although – in saying that – there are still plenty of personalities, who regularly drink here. They’re all rogues, but good hearted people.”

The bar of the Mourilyan Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts

The Mourilyan Hotel even once had its own swimming pool!

Current hosts Lloyd Woods and his partner, Anita Toffoli got rid of the pool in 2006 when customers from the Castor Hotel, across the road, helped themselves for a dip after closing.

Maybe getting rid of the pool though was a little hasty, as that same year the Castor Hotel was badly damaged by Cyclone Larry, and demolished.

Lloyd and Anita are unlikely first time publicans.

A retired bank manager, Lloyd and Anita took over the Mourilyan Hotel in June 2002.

Lloyd said he had retired from banking in 1997, and was living on the Sunshine Coast when they decided to become publicans.

“I was looking specifically for a pub with pokies,” Lloyd said.

“We had looked at pubs at Roma, Mt Isa, Julia Creek, when this place came up for sale. It was just what we were looking for. It was the right price, had 10 pokies, and good figures too.”

The customers at the Mourilyan are now made-up of all sorts, including the dwindling fishers and council workers.

“After the deregulation of the trawlers though we don’t get as many fishers in these days,” Anita said.

When we called into the Mourilyan Hotel we were made welcome by our hosts and the locals sitting at the bar. We chatted with locals over a couple of drinks before hitting the road to our next destination at South Johnstone.

Criterion Hotel, South Johnstone

Criterion Hotel publican Shirley Vincent take a break from the bar. Picture: Mick Roberts
Criterion Hotel, South Johnstone. Picture: Mick Roberts

After finding a wide shady tree to park our car underneath, an unusual sight greeted us at the Criterion Hotel, South Johnstone.

Hanging by its hind legs from a tree was a freshly shot 67-kilo bush-pig.

“We shot this one in the cane fields,” the young man proudly told us.

“She’s a small’en. Last week we shot a 97-kilo pig.”

The Criterion is home to the local shooters club, he explained.

“Shirley said to tell you, she won’t be long; she’s just gone up the road for a bit of shopping.”

The bush-pig out the back of the Criterion Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts

Shirley Vincent, who has been at the helm of the Criterion Hotel for 16 years, is one of its long line of hosts.

Shirley’s pub was undoubtedly the most colourful and entertaining on our road trip.

The Criterion’s history – and Shirley’s – is worthy of its own book; however let’s try to do her pub justice in this summarised history.

Not surprisingly the pub’s history is closely linked with the sugar cane and timber cutting industries, unionism and the big drinkers they spawned.

A number of attempts were made at the Innisfail Licensing Court on January 20 1927 for provisional licenses for South Johnstone, with Francis Michael Carey being the successful applicant.

Frank Carey, a 36-year-old Townsville clerk, was the first licensee of the newly opened South Johnstone Hotel.

The accountant’s profession may have made him look an unsuitable candidate for a publican’s license in such a frontier settlement, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Frank, you see had a family history in pubs.

Frank’s parents, Jim and Mary briefly hosted a hotel, and his grandmother was a pioneering Irish publican.

Frank’s grandmother, Annie Carey came from Nemagh in County Tipperary to Queensland as a single mum, with six children in 1888.

Annie’s husband died in Ireland in 1877 when she was in her 20s, and at the age of 35 she made the brave journey to Australia to start a new life with her children. 

Soon after Annie’s arrival in Queensland, she took over the operations of a well-patronised wayside inn frequented by teamsters, wood-cutters and mill-hands. The Grassville Hotel, also known as the 10 Mile Hotel, was located about 15 kilometres north of Gladstone.

Annie’s old timber pub was also where coach passengers and horsemen stopped and refreshed while travelling between Maryborough to Gladstone.

The pub was once described as having separate rooms for first and second class boarders. There were 10 bedrooms in addition to the family rooms, but the boarders were mostly casual. The pub was said to be once a popular weekend destination with visitors from Gladstone.

At the age of 39, Annie took over the Grassvale Hotel from her sister in 1892, and remained licensee until 1897, before going on to host at least another six pubs in the Bundaberg and Rockhampton regions.

More on Annie Carey a little later in the story.

Meantime, Frank Carey, following in his grandmother’s foot-steps got to work building the first pub at South Johnstone.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported in May 1927 that the frame work of “Carey’s hotel” was quickly taking shape, “and given no delays for want of timber that building should be erected well within the contract time”.

Carey’s two-storey timber pub was completed in August 1927 at a cost of £6,300. It was located on a site opposite the current Criterion Hotel.

When Carey went to gain confirmation of his provisional license on September 21, he was required to jump through a few unusual hoops by licensing court magistrate A. E. Aitkin.

Aitkin asked Carey to place a temporary barbed wire fence around the pub on opening day to protect neighbours!

“There are some wild men out at South Johnstone and they’ve never had a hotel there before,” Aitkin’s said.

The court reportedly burst into laughter at the magistrate’s remark.

“The usual practice on the occasion of the opening of a new hotel is for the beer to flow pretty freely and gratuitously,” he said to more laughter.

“I am very much concerned about the next door neighbour. I think some sort of protection should be put there today such us temporary barbed wire.”

Carey gave assurances he would place fencing around the pub on opening day, and the license was granted.

The pub opened for business on September 26 1927 with the Northern Herald reporting that the first hotel at South Johnstone opened and “the event was duly celebrated many times by a large number of men”.

Magistrate Aitken’s needn’t have worried about disturbances on opening day with experienced publican Ellen McAlpine placed in position as ‘mine host”

Frank Carey never actually hosted the pub, and when the license was granted it was immediately transferred to his aunt, Ellen McAlpine.

Ellen was the daughter of Annie Carey, Frank’s grandmother, who had come from Ireland in 1888 at the age of 17. She had worked in most of her mother’s pubs, including the Grassville Hotel, 15 kilometres north of Gladstone.

At the age of 26, Ellen Carey married 35-year-old James Griffin in 1897, and together they hosted their first pub – the Post Office Hotel, Rockhampton.

While James Griffin was the licensee, there’s little doubt who was in charge, with Ellen having been in pubs since a teenager.

The following year the pair would host the Golden Age Hotel at Rockhampton until 1910.

While at Bundaberg’s Golden Age Hotel (which later became the Exchange Hotel), Ellen’s pioneering publican mother, Annie Carey moved into the Golden Age Hotel in 1905.

Annie had had a long and successful career as hotelier since 1888, hosting numerous pubs, including the Ocean View at Bundaberg, Turf Hotel, Rockhampton, the Bush Inn, just outside Rockhampton and the Mount Chalmers Hotel. Her final pub was the Sportsman’s Arms at West Rockhampton, where she lost her license after “abandoning the premises” in 1904.

At the age of 50 she moved into the Golden Age Hotel with her daughter, Ellen and son-in-law, James. She died of Typhoid on January 11 1907 at the age of 54, and is buried in the Rockhampton Cemetery.  

After the Golden Age Hotel, Ellen and Jim’s next business venture was the Customs House Hotel at Bundaberg.

This time, Ellen would become licensee. It was her first hotel license – although far from her last. The Bundaberg Mail reported on May 27 1910:

“Mrs. James Griffin, a lady not unknown in Bundaberg, but who during past years has owned the Post office and Golden Age Hotels, in Rockhampton, took possession of the Customs House Hotel in Quay Street, having secured the lease, license, and goodwill of that hostelry from Mrs. Dan Ryan… Both ladies are well and favourably known in the trade, and we predict a successful career in their respective ventures….”

From Customs House Hotel, Ellen and James went on to host another two Bundaberg pubs, the National (1912-1914) and the Sydney – all with Ellen as licensee. It was while hosting the Sydney Hotel that tragedy struck.

Ellen, at the age of 43, lost a child in birth in March 1914, and less than a year later, her husband James died at the Sydney Hotel, Bundaberg, aged 53 on April 23 1915.

Ellen was left to grieve with four children, Jim, 17, Pat, 16, Martin, 13 and Nellie 9. The publican hosted the Sydney Hotel another four years before moving to Cairns, where she hosted the Newmarket Hotel in 1919. That same year, at the age of 48, she remarried Andrew McAlpine at Bundaberg and a new chapter in her career began.

Ellen turned her business skills to the land, buying a sugar cane farm near what is today Currajah. With her new husband, Andrew as manager, it didn’t take too long before Ellen was called back to the pub.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on December 4 1925:

Mrs. E. McAlpine is applying for an hotel license at the five mile. This is at the junction of the South Johnstone and Fisher’s Creek Roads. No doubt an hotel would form the nucleus for a new township in this part of the district. Mrs. McAlpine has been in the hotel business before.

At the age of 55, Ellen’s new business venture, the Currajah Hotel opened to the public on Monday, December 6, 1926. Earlier in the day she had been granted approval of her provisional license at the Innisfail Licensing Court.

The Cairns Post reported on December 7, 1926 that the “hotel is situated on the main road between Innisfail and South Johnstone, and is the first in that district. The Magistrate granted the license and assessed the annual value at £350. Magistrate Aitkin complimented Mrs. McAlpine on her “substantial building”.

From the Currajah Hotel, Ellen hosted the recently opened Criterion Hotel at South Johnstone. Her husband, Andrew gained the license of the Currajah pub, while she took-over the license of the Criterion from her nephew, Frank Carey, in 1928.

Ellen was licensee of the Criterion Hotel when she launched legal action against the North Queensland Register for publishing the following story in July 1929. The story appeared in a number of newspapers of the day, and claimed that Ellen’s mother, while publican of the Grassvale Hotel ran a notorious business where ‘lambing down’ (adding dodgy ingredients to liquor to make it go further) and other dubious business practices were often undertaken. The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on Saturday, July 27, 1929:

At this time the hotel was conducted by a certain Mrs. Carey, and, she was assisted by two stalwart sons, Dan and Jack. Carey, senr., had never been seen in the district, and it had been said that he had died in South Australia. When the best of the timber in that locality had fallen to the axe, the mill was removed, while teamsters, cutters and others connected with it drifted elsewhere. Eventually the hotel closed its doors, but the removal of the mill may not have been responsible for this. Mrs. Carey was refused a renewal of her license, as many and ugly were the stories told of the treatment of customers. “Lambing-down” was conducted openly, and cheques passed over the bar were soon put out. Then a surveyor named hunting selected a large area of country in the district, and included in it was the 20-acre block on which the hotel had stood. The old building had now become a camping place of travellers and swagmen, and the bar walls testified to their literary and artistic ability. Neatly inscribed over the door in perfect sign-writing, and executed with the assistance of charcoal, were the words, ‘At the close of day Mrs. Carey will shout you a pot of her own brew.” On one wall was a cleverly executed charcoal drawing of Sydney Heads, while scrawled here and there were quotations from well-known poets and much original doggerel. A few years after the closing of the hotel Dan Carey returned to the locality, and called at Bunting’s house. He told the now owner of the land that he had gone broke, but had secured employment at Skyring’s sawmill which had been erected some miles away. He asked permission to put his horse in the old shanty paddock, explaining that it was closer to the mill. Bunting offered him other and better grassed paddocks, but Carey insisted on keeping the animal in the vicinity of the old hotel. Thinking it was a matter of sentiment, Bunting granted his per-mission. This happened to be on a Friday, and when Bunting passed the old building the following Monday morning, and thinking of Carey’s return, he pulled up at the old hotel. Going in-side he noticed that the floor behind the old counter in the bar had been pulled up. Closer investigation revealed that a case, or chest of some kind had been securely fastened under the floor boards by copper wire, but it had recently been removed. Bunting then went in search of Carey’s horse, but it was not to be seen. Inquiries at Skyring’s mill revealed that Carey had not been employed there, nor had he visited the place. Carey was never again seen in that locality, and what ever was concealed under the bar floor of the old Grassvale Hotel was probably taken away by him. No doubt many a penniless traveller who camped in the old building had fallen asleep above concealed riches of which he had no knowledge.

Ellen successfully sued the newspaper, claiming the story was a complete fabrication, and that she didn’t even have brothers by the name of Dan and Jack. Ellen was eventually awarded £500.

The original Criterion Hotel, South Johnstone, destroyed by fire in 1929. Picture: Townsville Daily Bulletin, November 2, 1929
The original Criterion Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1929. Picture: Townsville Daily Bulletin, November 2, 1929

Less than three years after the grand Criterion Hotel opened at South Johnstone it was reduced to ashes – a common thread in the story of far north Queensland pub histories.

The Criterion Hotel was totally destroyed by fire at 2.45am on October 22 1929.

Although Ellen McAlpine held the license, she had left the pub in the management of Leslie Thompson, who was in the process of taking over as host of when the suspicious blaze destroyed the Criterion.

A magisterial inquiry into the fire in December 1929 found that the evidence did not disclose definitely the cause, although A. E. Aitkins made the following remarks:

“There are certain suspicious circumstances disclosed in the evidence which I propose to bring under the notice of the Attorney-General. This inquiry stresses the necessity for a close scrutiny of the antecedents and character of proposed licensees. It must have been refreshing to the public to know that the Licensing Inspector (Sub-inspector Cahalane) does take these things seriously. People who take charge of an hotel have a duty to the public, and they should be people capable of taking the responsibility of keeping licensed premises.”

McAlpine, who held the Criterion’s license, successfully applied for its removal from a temporary bar from the site to the opposite side of the road in February 1930. The following month the license was transferred from McAlpine to James Hing with work beginning on the new hotel in May 1930. This would be the hotel that operates to this day (2021).

McAlpine continued as host of the Currajah Hotel while her husband managed their cane farm. The old pioneering publican retired as host of the Currajah Hotel in 1935, and died in 1951.

Just five years after the destruction of the Criterion Hotel, the only other pub in South Johnstone was also destroyed by fire. Fourteen persons narrowly escaped with their lives when a blaze completely destroyed the South Johnstone Hotel. That pub was never rebuilt.

Fast forward more than 60 years, South Johnstone was used as the backdrop for the film “All Men Are Liars” in1995. All secondary characters were played by locals, and some lines in the film were ad-libbed, as they reportedly couldn’t remember the script!

The Criterion Hotel, South Johnstone, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
The bar taps at the Criterion Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts
The public bar of the Criterion Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts
The bar of the Criterion Hotel. Picture: Mick Roberts

The current host, Shirley Vincent took over the pub in 2004.

“It was my ex’s idea (buying the pub). I shouldn’t have listened to him,” Shirley told us as she unlocked the pub for business and lit a cigarette.

“I’d worked as a barmaid by night, and a car detailer by day before my ex-partner talked me into buying the place,” Shirley explained.

“Let’s just say the relationship never survived, and now I’m stuck running the pub on my own. It’s hard work.”

Despite this, the 59-year-old says she can handle her customers – who consist of equal parts banana and sugar industry workers, truck drivers, and tourists.

“I don’t call ‘time gents’ – you know, the name of your website. My version is: ‘Last drinks, haven’t you got a home to go to’.

“Their reply is usually, ‘Shirl, this is our home’.”

Asked what’s the best part about running a pub; Shirley said being able to provide live music to her patrons once a month.

And the part that’s worse?

“Cleaning up the vomit in the urinals. All the rest I can handle… except that.

“We have a few characters who drink here, but my customers reckon, I’m the biggest character here.”

Shirley said that while she believes there are no resident ghosts in the old pub, she said it can get a little spooky at times.

“When you’re here alone, there are a few creepy noises coming out of the old girl. The ceiling fans make a bit of a ruckus – like a woman whaling.”

After more than 16 years at the helm of the old pub, Shirley is considering retirement.

“It’s a difficult decision to make, selling the pub,” she said.

“But after living through a couple of cyclones, and working long hours, I think it’s time. I’m planning to sell-up and move south to Tasmania.

“The further I can get away from the tropics, the better.”

Just then a few utes, carrying a half a dozen akubra wearing men, pull-up out front of the pub. They were thirsty, and Shirley’s attention rightly turns to her customers.

We finish our drinks and set our sights on our next destination – El Arish Tavern.

El Arish Tavern

Carol and Wayne Kimberley have hosted the El Arish Tavern for over 25 years. Picture: Mick Roberts

Wayne and Carol Kimberley have been at the helm of the El Arish Tavern for over 25 years, and have no plans of going anywhere else.

The couple, with their five children – now aged between 21 and 36 – moved into the pub in 1995.

Originally known as the Maria Creek Soldier’s Settlement, the community voted to rename the town El Arish, after its namesake Al Arish in Egypt’s northern Sinai which the Australian Light Horse took in 1916.

It was 1921 when the Australian government allocated 72 lots in El Arish in a ballot for returned soldiers.

However, it would be another five years before the village received a pub. The El Arish Hotel was established by Henry and Edith Dear in 1927. The Cairns Post reported on September 15 1927:


El Arish is no longer a dry area (writes our Innisfail correspondent). Time was when the swaggie tramped his weary way through the district and found no place at which he could get rest and refreshment. Some time ago, a provisional certificate was granted to H D Dear for licensed premises at El Arish. The hotel having been completed the license was allowed by Mr. A. E. Aitkin (Licensing Magistrate) on Tuesday, and the latest advices from El Arish were that business was by no means dull.

Dear hosted the pub until 1939 before his death in 1942. Jumping forward to 2020, the outside of the pub, when we visited, had changed little.

The El Arish Tavern, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
The public bar of the El Arish Tavern. Picture: Mick Roberts

Current hosts, Wayne and Carol were turf farmers at Canungra in south-east Queensland before they were offered the chance of running the El Arish pub.

“The wife’s auntie and uncle had the place, and they were getting out.

“They had the place for three years before conning us into the buying it. We thought it would be a perfect place for our children to grow-up,” Wayne said.

“We’re a mum and dad business that runs seven days a week. One of the boys continues to help run the pub.”

When the Kimberleys moved into the pub, it was pretty run down, and they immediately went to work restoring the town’s community meeting place to its former splendour.

How the El Arish Hotel looked in the 1980s. Picture: Supplied

“There were 11 single rooms upstairs that were occupied by cane cutters, Wayne explained.

“The pub had plenty of customers from the cane cutters and a couple of local sawmills.”

They transformed the accommodation upstairs into a family home, and the license was officially changed from hotel to tavern.

The taps of the El Arish provide a good choice of beer. Picture: Mick Roberts

While Wayne and Carol have plenty of pleasant memories of their long rein at the pub, there’s one occasion that they care not to remember.

“Cyclone Larry in 2006 was a pretty terrifying experience,” Wayne said.

“The 1956 cyclone apparently took the pub’s roof off, and another cyclone in 1984 also did a lot of damage. But, Larry was also destructive, and again took the pub’s roof off.”

Wayne recalls bunkering down with five people from three local families and eight dogs inside the pub on the eve of Larry.

“We were sheltering in the back section of the pub, and had boarded up the windows.

“Water poured into the main bar, and did a lot of damage, but thankfully we all escaped unharmed.”

The walls of the El Arish Tavern are jam-packed with curiosities and memorabilia. Picture: Mick Roberts
The cool, shaded verandah of the El Arish Tavern, with its lush ferns and palms, give welcome relief from the harsh north Queensland heat. Picture: Mick Roberts

Wayne and Carol’s pub puts a strong focus on food and functions.

“That’s where the industry is heading. There’s more of a focus on food and less on gambling. We don’t have any pokies.

“Our accountant once told us that we had to get pokies to have a successful business. We ignored that advice, and put our efforts into providing good food and hospitality. It seems to have worked.”

There’s no doubt the Kimberleys plan has paid-off. The picturesque pub was busy during our visit.

We enjoyed a hearty meal and a few drinks before bidding El Arish and the Kimberleys goodbye, heading further south to our last destination on our road trip – the Feluga Hotel.

Feluga Hotel 

Feluga Hotel, Feluga, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
Feluga Hotel, Feluga, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
The original Feluga Hotel, destroyed by fire in 1934. Picture: Supplied.
Hotel Feluga, C1950. Picture: Supplied
Hotel Feluga, C1950. Picture: Supplied.

The year after the El Arish Hotel was established, another pub to its south also opened for business.

Joseph Galvin established the first Feluga Hotel in 1928. However, by the following year the pub was under the management of experienced hotelier, Ethel Stallan.

Ethel Stall had previously hosted the Marine Hotel at Cardwell, and later the Mourilyan Hotel before taking the license of the Feluga Hotel. She was licensee when the original pub was burnt to the ground in 1934. The Brisbane newspaper, The Week, reported on April 11, 1934:

Feluga Hotel Burnt

TULLY, April 4.

The Feluga Hotel, five miles from Tully, has been totally destroyed by fire. The outbreak was accidental and occurred when most members of the household (including the licensee. Miss Ethel Stallan) were away at the beach. The building, which is the property of Mellicks, was insured for £2,500 fend the furniture and stock for £1,150. The police are making investigations and an inquiry will be held.

By February the following year the timber pub had been rebuilt with Ethel Stallan continuing as licensee. Stallan remained as host until 1935 before marrying Joseph Larkin and returning as host of the Marine Hotel at Cardwell.

Fast forward to 2020, Mark and Shelley Laspina took over the Feluga Hotel at an unfortunate time.

A week before the Covid lock-downs, in March 2020, the couple moved into the historic pub.

The pub, owned by Mark’s brother, was on the verge of closing, when the couple decided to “take it on” and save the landmark watering hole.

“We thought we’d help him out and get the pub re-established,” Mark said.

Feluga Hotel, Feluga, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts
The public bar of the Feluga Hotel, Feluga, 2020. Picture: Mick Roberts

The couple also had a soft spot for the old pub, with Shelley’s parents, Noel and Marline Tressider one time managers, before going on to host the Quinkan Hotel at Laura and Mt Surprise Hotel.

“We have a three year plan,” Mark said.

“We are concentrating on the food side of the business, and are serving up lunch and dinner six days a week.

“Shelley does the cooking, and the meals are reasonably priced from around $12 to $20. It’s doing really well, so far.”

A few enjoyable beers at this historic landmark, and it was time to hit the road back north to Cairns, after another enjoyable and eventful Time Gents’ road trip.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

Subscribe to the latest Time Gents’ stories


If you would like to support my work, you can leave a small tip here of $2, or several small tips, just increase the amount as you like. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs.



Instead, you can make a credit card donation towards the publication of The Time Gents website. If you would like to support my work, you can leave a $2 (Australian) donation here, or you can increase the amount after clicking or tapping into the icon below. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs and research.

Categories: Australian Hotels, Queensland hotels, review, Reviews, Road Trips

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What's Your Thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.