Quirindi’s Imperial Hotel lost its magnificent balcony – twice!

The Imperial Hotel showing its first balcony, circa 1898. Picture: Supplied

By MICK ROBERTS ©

WHEN Adam ‘Jack’ Swale walked into the police station confessing to swindling the Tamarang Council while shire clerk in 1912, it ended the career of one of Quirindi’s best known citizens and most successful businessmen.

Swale had a brief, but notable career as host of Quirindi’s Imperial Hotel, where he was publican when its balcony collapsed in 1901 injuring over 100 people gathered for a sporting presentation. Although rebuilt, a modernisation project in 1952 would see the pub’s balcony lost for a second time.

Women shrieked and men shouted, as the balcony, 4.5 metres wide and 18 metres long, almost entirely collapsed under the weight of the large crowd during a sporting presentation in 1901.

Horrific scenes followed at the pub, located in the North West Slopes region of NSW.

Beams rafters, galvanised iron, and railings became intermingled with men and women, when the structure fell to the ground with a tremendous crash. It was a miracle no one was killed, with many rendered unconscious, and people seriously injured, including the publican and his wife.

A sketch of the disaster, Imperial Hotel, Quirindi. Picture: Sydney Mail, August 17, 1901

The hotel, which had been a scene of festivities, became, in the space of a few minutes, a scene resembling “an ambulance on the battle field”.

The Imperial Hotel was less then five years old when the balcony fell, raising questions as to the building’s structural integrity.

The hotel’s first publican, James Epstein, described at the time that cracks had appeared in the walls soon after its construction.

Epstein told newspapers that the large floor space of the balcony was perfect for gatherings such as sporting presentations. But, he was so concerned of a possibility the balcony collapsing in the year 1897, that he arranged for a planned annual polo banquet to be instead held inside the hotel.

The Imperial Hotel was owned by wealthy grazier, Robert John Pollock and leased to Swale at the time of the accident in 1901. There was some talk that Pollock would be required to rebuild the hotel after questions were raised over the building’s structural integrity. However, an inquiry later found the pub was structurally sound and the Imperial survived. It continues to trade to this day (2022).

Pollock was 60 years of age when he had the pub built in 1895.

Born in County Derry, Ireland in the year 1835, Pollock sailed for NSW on October 8, 1863, in the ‘Ocean Empress’ landing in Sydney on January 26 of the following year.

On arrival, he was engaged under the Chief Stock Inspector before selecting land at Castle Mount on the Quirindi run, in 1866.

In November, 1868, Pollock was married to Mary Nelson, and a family of six sons helped the family build an extremely successful farming empire, with a focus on Merino sheep.  

Pollock never hosted the Imperial Hotel, and on completion of the building in 1896, he immediately leased it to experienced publican, James Epstein.

Pollock lived a long and prosperous life in the Quirindi district before his death at the age of 91 in 1929.

The first publican of the Imperial Hotel, James Epstein, was a Russian Jew, who arrived in Australia as a young man. By the 1880s, he found himself in the North West Slopes region of NSW where his long career as a hotelier got off to a shaky start.

At the age of 26, Epstein was fined £30 for selling liquor without a license at Coolah, about 150km to the south-west of Quirindi, in 1890. From here though, Epstein went on to host many pubs, including his first, the Golden Fleece Hotel at Scone from 1891 to 1896.

At the age of 32 – and still unmarried – Epstein gained the license of Pollock’s two-storey brick hotel on Henry Street, Quirindi, in May 1896. There were four other pubs trading in the town at the time.

Epstein had a short stay as host at Quirindi. The ambitious publican had bigger fish to fry, and had a plan to host more profitable pubs in the city of Sydney.

After his marriage to Hettie Braggett in 1899, the couple went onto host the Royal Standard Hotel at Castlereagh and Bathurst streets, Sydney. From the Royal Standard, they would go onto have three children together, and host a number of landmark Sydney pubs that continue to trade to this day.

Following the Royal Standard, James and Hettie Epstein would host the Fortune of War at The Rocks, Sydney, and later the Masonic Hotel at Petersham.

The Epsteins also hosted the Imperial Hotel at Paddington for over a decade. While at the Imperial, during the Great War, his license renewal was controversially opposed by police on the grounds that he “was a naturalised British subject of enemy origin”. 

Epstein told the magistrate in May 1916 that although he was born in Prussia, which was part of the German empire, he considered himself a Russian, his mother having gone over the Prussian border for his birth. Epstein’s parents were Russians, he explained, and belonged to an old Russian family. His license application for the renewal of the Imperial was approved.

Curiously, the German-born owner of Epstein’s Paddington pub, Edmund Resch, who also happened to own Resch’s Brewery at nearby Waverley, would later be interned during the war years.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, during World War I Resch contributed generously to the war effort and made up the difference in pay for about 60 employees who had enlisted. But despite his success, economic contribution and being a citizen of the British Empire for more than 50 years, he was arrested and interned at Holsworthy in November 1917, where he remained until the end of the war in 1918.

Epstein meantime went on host the Town Hall Hotel on Oxford Street, Paddington through the 1920s, from where he retired at the age of 69 in 1933. Hettie Epstein died in 1936, and James, at his Bondi residence, at the age of 75, in 1939.

Of all the long line of publicans of the Imperial Hotel, one of the more notorious was Adam ‘Jack’ Swale, who took the license of the Quirindi pub in May 1899.

Swale was born in Melbourne and arrived in Sydney by steamer at the age of 20 in 1883. He married Caroline Zartmann at Quirindi in 1888, and through the 1890s was secretary to the Quirindi Jockey Club. Swale, as secretary, built the town’s race meets into one of the most successful in country NSW.

At the age of 36, Swale in May 1899, became licensee of the Imperial Hotel, and moved into the pub with his wife Caroline and two boys – six-year-old, John, and two-year-old Richard.

It was at the Imperial in 1901 that the publican became widely known after the collapse of the balcony. The Queanbeyan Age reported the balcony collapse on August 14, 1901:

Imperial Hotel, Quirindi, the morning after disaster. Picture: Sydney Mail, August 17, 1901

The Quirindi Accident

The president of the Quirindi Polo Club had presented some of the prizes won at the Gymkhana, and was just handing the championship polo cup to the captain of the winning team (Weetalah), when an ominous crack and quiver of the balcony gave the first intimation of the terrible scene which was to follow. A second afterwards the balcony swayed.

Women shrieked and men shouted, but before any attempt could be made to escape the structure collapsed. An awful scene followed. Beams rafters, galvanised iron, and railings became inter-mingled with men and women, and the whole fell to the ground with a tremendous crash.

Many were rendered unconscious; streams of blood trickled from the mass of stricken humanity and broken timber, indicating that very serious injuries had been sustained.

The report of the disaster had been heard all over the town, and in a few minutes hundreds of willing hands rushed to the rescue. Wounded women and men were pulled out of the wreck and carried tenderly into the hotel, where the three local medical men and Dr Scott, of Scone, attended to their injuries.

The hotel, which a few minutes before had been a scene of gaiety, was in the space of a few minutes rendered like an ambulance on the battle field. The rooms were filled with fainting and injured women. Fortunately no one was killed, but many were very seriously injured.

Telegrams were sent to neighbouring town for medical aid, and arrangements were made for a special train to convey doctors to Quirindi.

There are three local doctors who were soon on the scene and Dr Scott, of Scone, was present at the time but he was injured.

The Imperial Hotel, is a new building, but has been considered unsafe for some time past by the police, who reported to the Bench at last Licensing Court.

Members of many of the leading families of the State were present. It was an awful sight to see people trying to get away from the debris. Many were lying out in the middle of the road in front of the hotel badly hurt, and other persons were limping about severely maimed. Amongst the injured were the landlord of the hotel, Mr. Swale [who broke his leg] and his wife, and the matron of the Quirindi Hospital.

Several Sydney visitors were amongst those injured, including Mr. T. Willis, a press representative. Mr. Epstein, a publican now of Sydney, in conversation with a press representative is reported to have said:-

“I was the first landlord of the Quirindi Imperial Hotel, and, although the building is one of the finest of its character on the Northern line, and faithfully built, I expected a collapse would eventually occur. The cracks which appeared in the walls soon after its construction were a warning. These apparent defects were, in my opinion, not structural, but the result of a heavy building being placed on the black soil of the locality, which shrinks and expands considerably according to the weather. The balcony where the accident occurred was 15ft. wide, and I recollect how it would tremble when tramped on heavily. As its length was 60ft., and its height 14ft. to the awning, the large floor space was very convenient for such a gathering as took place on Thursday night. But so impressed was I of the danger that, in the year 1897, arrangements were made on my instigation to hold the annual polo banquet inside the main building instead of on the balcony.” The injured persons received every attention, and as far as can be learnt none of the injuries are likely to terminate fatally.”

Imperial Hotel, Quirindi disaster. Picture: Daily Telegraph, August 12, 1901

The Sydney Mail had a reporter at the sporting event, who described how 18 persons suffered broken legs, 49 were seriously inured, whilst a large number sustained minor injuries – only 30 escaped unscathed. For the full newspaper story visit the Time Gents’ story: The Balcony Disaster at Quirindi

An immediate crackdown on the structural integrity of Quirindi’s pubs followed, with the local licensing sergeant undertaking an inspection, with an obvious scrutiny given to the balconies.

At the Quarterly Licensing Court in October 1901 Senior Sergeant Oldfield reported that no improvement had been made to the Imperial Hotel since the balcony had collapsed.

Without the balcony, he said the building was in a dilapidated condition.

The Bench instructed the Inspector to notify the licensee that it would be necessary to replace the balcony, uniform with the rest of the building, or the license would be cancelled.

The following month tenders were called for general repairs, and to build a new balcony and colonnade at the Imperial. 

Adam J. Swales left the Imperial Hotel in 1902, becoming the shire clerk of the Quirindi Council, and later, in 1907, he was employed in the same position on the Tamarang Council.

The terrible memories of the 1901 balcony collapse at the Imperial Hotel must have came flooding back to the Swales when less then a decade later when the audience seating at Wirth’s circus, showing at Quirindi, collapsed.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on June 28, 1910 that during the show the seating collapsed, with several people injured. Adam and Caroline Swale were amongst the number who fell, but were uninjured.

Two years later, Swale’s standing in the community would take a massive hit when, a few months short of his 50th birthday, he was sent to Goulburn Jail for 18 months for embezzlement.

The former publican pleaded guilty at the Maitland Circuit Court to embezzling £508 10 shillings and 7 pence while in the employ of the Shire of Tamarang.

Swale said he deeply repented his wrong doing. He said Quirindi’s business people had promised him employment, which would enable him to again prove himself a worthy and respectable citizen, if the court was lenient. His lawyers asked for the charges to be dismissed under the first offenders’ act, Swale saying that if he regained his position he would do his best to make restitution. It was not to be. The Warialda Standard reported on April 12, 1912:

His Honour said he could not judiciously extend the provisions of the First Offenders’ Act to Swale. The money was not embezzled on the impulse of the moment, but accused was guilty of 183 offences in a period of a little over 12 months, for each of which he could have been prosecuted. Accused was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labor in Goulburn Gaol.

Caroline Swale died at the age of 61 in 1926, while Adam J. Swale died at Hornsby in 1936 at the age of 70.

A Tooth & Company brewery map, showing the locations of Quirindi’s six pub in 1926. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
The Imperial Hotel, Quirindi, 1928, showing the replacement balcony. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

A long list of publicans leased the Imperial Hotel during the Pollock family’s ownership between the years 1896 to 1935.

After the pub’s builder, Robert John Pollock died in 1930 the family sold it to Toohey’s brewery – which had had a long ‘tie’ on the Imperial – in 1935.

Toohey’s undertook extensive alterations to the ageing pub in the 1950s, which would mean the loss of its balcony for a second time.

In 1952, the magnificent balcony, replaced in 1902, was again removed – this time though, not by an accident, but to prepare for an extensive modernisation plan.

The Imperial Hotel, Quirindi, 1949, just prior to the loss of the balcony for the second time. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
The Imperial Hotel, Quirindi, 1970. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

During 1955 the Imperial’s public bar was extended, a new lounge and saloon bar was added, along with a beer garden. The pub was also connected to a sewer system, and new inside toilets were added at an estimated cost £35,000.

When the renovations were completed in October 1956, interestingly Toohey’s Brewery did not replace the balcony with a cantilevered awning – as was normal practice at the time.

As a consequence, Quirindi’s Imperial Hotel has remained without a street awning ever-since.

The Imperial Hotel, Quirindi, 2021. Picture: Imperial Hotel Quirindi Facebook Page.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022



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Categories: Australian Hotels

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2 replies

  1. Fascinating history. We stayed at this great pub in 2020 in their camping area out back.

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  1. The Balcony Disaster at Quirindi. – TIME GENTS

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