By MICK ROBERTS ©
NOT many pubs could claim a ‘king’ as their ‘yardman’.
Broome’s Continental Hotel in the Kimberley region of Western Australia has that distinction.
Aboriginal elder, ‘King Mackie’ was the ‘boots’ or ‘roustabout’ at the Continental Hotel for over 25 years, collecting glasses, emptying ashtrays, and generally doing odd-jobs around the iconic frontier pub.
In fact, the leader of the First Nations’ Yawuru people during the latter and early part of the 19th and 20th centuries was there – in what was the backyard of the pub – way before it served up its beer to Broome’s multicultural inhabitants.
Established as the Weld Club Hotel in 1900 by Filipino immigrant Filomeno ‘Francis’ Rodriguez, the Continental has been trading on the site overlooking Roebuck Bay for over 120 years. The present pub is the third on the site.
Rodriguez was born in the Philippines in 1864 and came to Thursday Island as a pearl diver in the 1880s. His father was a Spaniard and his mother, a Filipina.
Rodriguez made his fortune when with his crew collected 17 tons of mother of pearl shells on Turtle Island on his way to Cossack, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, from Thursday Island.
Now a ghost town, Cossack is located 1,480km north of Perth. It was the birthplace of Western Australia’s pearling industry and was the home of the colony’s pearling fleet until the 1880s, attracting a large Asian population, including Malays, Japanese and Chinese.
Rodriguez came to Broome in 1885 with the first contingent of Thursday Island divers. At the age of 26, he married South Australian born Maud Miller at Cossack in 1890. She was barely 14 years of age.
With Maud’s parents, the newly married couple lived on board the schooner Ivy, on which two of the Rodrigueze children would be born.
Following the move of the pearling industry to Broome in the mid 1890s the population of Cossack dwindled. Like many others, the Rodriguez family relocated to Broome, a town where Europeans or white people were the minority.
Kevin Lawton’s book, “A walk down Johnny Chi Lane” described Broome during these times as more reminiscent of Asia than Australia; where pearl shell mattered more than human life, and where lanes were “lined with noodle stalls, opium dens, hawkers and prostitutes.
At the age of 36, in 1900 Rodriguez built a two-storey timber and corrugated iron hotel at Broome, known as the ‘Weld Club’. Next door to the pub, which he named after the Governor of Western Australia, the Filipino pearler also built a single storey home for his family that would eventually grow to 10 children.
There’s little wonder Rodriguez allowed Aboriginal elder, King Mackie to remain camped on the site of his new hotel. Besides Aborigines, the pearler employed many Asian men, including Malays, Filipinos, Chinese and Japanese, as divers. He was likely familiar with Aboriginal laws and customs, and knew that it would have been unwise to kick the elder of his traditional lands.
King Mackie was described in a contributed story to Smith’s Weekly on September 18, 1926, as “unofficially on the staff of the Continental Hotel”. He lived in a mia-mia or shelter near the back entrance of the pub, where he did “odd jobs” and sold “a few boomerangs that wouldn’t come back”. His principal “bacci” or tobacco “producer” the newspaper reported, was posing for visitors “passing through to Singapore with horn rimmed spectacles and kodaks”.
The First Nations’ elder once welcomed the Governor of Western Australia, Sir William Robert Campion to Country during an official visit in 1926.
The Smith’s Weekly story amusingly revealed that the Broome identity enjoyed “the butt end of the fag” that Sir William disregarded during his visit. King Mackie also presumably rode a motorbike, and was pictured doing so in the Sydney Mail on December 21, 1927.
King Mackie remained the odd jobs man at Rodriguez’s pub for over 20 years before his death at Lagrange Bay, about 200km south of Broome, in 1933. His age was unknown. It was reported that when asked his age, King Mackie would answer: “long time”.
Francis Rodriguez would become a pearling master of renown, owning 14 luggers and a 112 tonne schooner. During his active connection with the industry, he recovered several large pearls, one of which, weighing 92 grains, was a perfectly shaped drop, which was valued at £2,000.
Rodriguez’s pub wasn’t the only watering hole in the frontier town of Broome.
When the Weld Club Hotel opened, it joined the Roebuck Bay Hotel servicing the thirsts of the heavy drinking pearlers. The Roebuck had been trading since 1890, and continues serving-up thirsty customers in Broome to this day (2022).
In 1904, another pub joined the Weld Club and Roebuck, when the Governor Broome Hotel became the third drinking hole in Broome.
Rodriguez suffered a major set-back in September 1905 when a fire completely destroyed the Weld Club Hotel, along with his family home, located next door.
The entrepreneurial pearler made plans to rebuild, and the following year the Hedland Advocate congratulated him “on his enterprising spirit” re-establishing the pub. The newspaper reported on March 17 1906 that a schooner had arrived at Broome for the rebuilding of the Weld Club Hotel.
During the pub’s reconstruction the Westralian reported that despite “white carpenters” tendering for its rebuilding, Rodriguez gave the job to Asian carpenters.
Interestingly, Rodriguez’s never rebuilt his hotel as a two storey structure, and it was completed as a single storey pub, with verandahs slung around its outside, in June 1906. The pearler’s new pub, constructed of iron and timber, was also given a new sign, and renamed ‘The Continental’.
Soon after its opening, the Hedland Advocate reported on June 23 1906 that a banquet, celebrating the discovery of the first bore water in the Kimberley, was held at “Rodriguez’s Continental Hotel”.
The old pearler lost his eldest boy fighting in France during the Great War in 1917. Percy Rodriguez, who had reached the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, was said to have been the first white male born in Broome.
Rodriguez had leased the Continental Hotel to a long list of licensees over the years before, at the age of 55, he returned as host in 1919. The Nor-West Echo reported on October 4, 1919:
The Continental Hotel, after many vicissitudes of fortune, has reverted to the control of its original owners (Mr and Mrs F. Rodriguez), whose name is a guarantee that the business will soon revert to its wonted popular state.
The couple had only been at the helm of ‘The Conti’, as it became affectionately known, less than two years when tragedy struck. Maud Rodriguez died at the pub on June 21, 1921. The Nor-West Echo reported on June 25, 1921 that the hostess of ‘The Conti’ had taken an epileptic fit. She was just 43.
The deceased lady had lived most of her 46 years in Broome, where she was deservedly popular. She married Mr F. Rodriguez over 30 years ago and has reared a family of ten children, to each of whom she devoted a full share of motherly care and attention. She was an exceptional helpmate to her husband, from whom during their long married life she was never absent for more than a few weeks. It was due much to her capacity for business and devotion to her husband that Rodriguez’s successful business was built up. In the early struggling days Mrs Rodriguez accompanied her husband on his schooner to the pearling grounds, keeping the fleet’s books, stores accounts, etc. Starting business in a small way, the happy couple were able to add a fresh lugger to their fleet as each child was born. Deceased was always closely associated with every charitable movement, and during the war rendered invaluable assistance to Red Cross, Comforts, and other funds.
The year after the death of his wife, Rodriguez, at the age of 58 retired as host of ‘The Conti’. The license was taken by Edith Maud Smith, of Broome. Smith had a short stay, and by the following year Jack Currie, who later became the secretary of the Broome Club, was managing the pub.
Well-known Broome identity Harry Dyson leased the pub from Rodriguez in 1925. He had been a long-time resident of Broome, and previous to becoming licensee had been a pearler and fishery inspector. He often was engaged as a Japanese interpreter, especially during the 1920 Broome race riots.
A series of riots involving Japanese and Indonesian communities took place in Broome in December 1920. At the time of the riots, Broome – a town of around 5,000 people – had an ethnically diverse population with whites, a minority of 900.
The exact origins of the start of the conflict was unclear, but at the end of the riots, five Indonesians, two Japanese and one police officer had been killed, and 60 people were injured.
Less than 12 months after taking the license, the publican of the Continental Hotel, Harry Dyson was found dead, floating in the sea near Broome in May 1926. He reportedly left a note which pointed to suicide. The publican left a widow and three children.
Rodriguez was declared bankrupt in 1928 and was forced to sell the freehold of the Continental Hotel for way below its value. Another well-known retired pearler and former Broome resident, 77-year-old Captain Frank Biddles reportedly bought the pub from the Rodriguez estate for a bargain £2,000.
Reports at the time valued the pub property as much as £6,000. Biddles, who was living in Fremantle, never hosted the pub, and immediately leased the hotel.
Born near Mt Barker, South Australia, in 1851, Biddles went gold prospecting in Gympie, Queensland, in 1869. Unsuccessful in his gold hunt, he ventured into sugar growing on the Mary River, and later managed the enterprise near Port Darwin of an Adelaide company, which was encouraged by the South Australian Government in promoting the sugar industry in the Northern Territory.
In 1886 Biddles was attracted by the potentialities of the pearling industry, and operated in King Sound, based in Broome, with several luggers. He retired a wealthy man in 1902, and was living in Fremantle when he purchased the Continental Hotel in Broome. However, shortly after buying the Broome pub, the old pearler died in Fremantle at the age of 81.
Rodriguez, who established the pub, died at St John of God Hospital, Subiaco on January 4, 1943 at the age of 78. He was living at Claremont at the time, and left nine adult children to mourn his loss.
By January 1950, three pubs continued to service Broome – The Conti, Roebuck and Governor Broome. The Broome Licensing Court heard at the time that “the standard of hotels in the Broome area left much to be desired. However, the difficulties under which licensees were working were appreciated”.
A large dance floor and stage was constructed in the yard of the Continental Hotel in 1952. The Northern Times reported on November 13 1952 that the newly built dance floor was well tested during “a gala occasion”:
A huge bonfire was lit at the front of the hotel at about 7.30pm mainly for the benefit of the children but of course the bigger kids enjoyed themselves also around the blaze. After the flames of the bonfire had subdued, the adults adjourned to the hotel, many of whom were dressed in very original and funny costumes. The main event of the evening of course was the ballet of the Hairy Fairies which was uproariously received and were called upon for encore which was duly done minus the grass skirts — much to the merriment of the onlookers. Dancing was done on the recently constructed dance floor and a very tasty supper was served to the merrymakers. Thanks are due to ‘mine host’ Rowley, Mrs. Brown and the hotel staff who helped greatly to make this evening one long to be remembered.
Publican of ‘The Conti’, Allan Wilson died of heat stroke while working at the pub in January 1954. Wilson was taken to bed by his wife after she noticed he was looking unwell. The temperature was reportedly almost 45 degrees Celsius in the shade when the 46-year-old publican fell unconsciousness and died of heat stroke.
Cyclonic winds of over 160kmh killed two women in Broome during 1957, and did widespread damage. During the storm, the verandahs on two sides of the Continental Hotel were completely destroyed by the gale.
In his book, ‘Australian Pubs’, John Larkins described the original corrugated iron Continental Hotel, with its cooling verandah slung along its front, as “a great, ugly edifice, but oh, so charming”.
In the early 1970s, writer, Larkins and photographer, Bruce Howard went on a 40,000km pub crawl around Australia, telling their wives, “Don’t wait up!”
With Larkins wonderful words, and Howard’s fabulous photos, they chronicled an amazing snap shot of Australian pub culture.
Larkins and Howard visited Broome on the eve of the demise of the old Conti, as the finishing touches were being made to its replacement. Larkins wrote:
“There could have hardly been a more Australian pub than the old tin Continental at Broome. A great, ugly edifice but oh, so charming. One day they decided it had lived too long. So they began to build a smart new pub behind it, but they used their imagination – the interior decorators came from Perth and sat in the old bars to absorb the atmosphere. And finally they created a new pub which looked almost as ancient as the original. In a country where so many old places are being ruthlessly destroyed, it is a refreshing sight.”
Characters drinking in the Continental Hotel, 1972. Pictures: Bruce Howard
Maybe so, but it’s difficult to recreate ‘charm’, or replace the atmosphere of a pub that evolved in a truly frontier Australian town.
Broome today is a resort town, offering sunset beach camel rides, a restored Chinatown, overlooking Roebuck Bay where cruises can be made to pearl farms.
The “new Conti” is now part of a resort hotel complex, with tropical gardens, glittering pools and diverse dining option. Today’s Conti even offers patrons ‘drag-bingo’ – times have certainly changed in the old pioneering pub.
I suppose we should be grateful that the Conti pub has survived – at least in name.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022
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