By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE unique central and north Queensland tendency of displaying stuffed crocodiles in pubs is said to have originated in Rockhampton, where the reptiles were once common, and fearless hunters were always on the ready to supply hotel hosts with specimens.
The legendary Indian fisherman, ‘Super Ali’, reportedly began the vogue of supplying crocodiles – commonly and incorrectly called alligators at the time – for display purposes.
Super Ali, whose home was on Alligator Creek, Yaamba, killed a croc, which was crudely stuffed with hay and exhibited in a hotel at a pub on the corner of Quay Lane and Denham Street, Rockhampton in 1861. It was said to be the first “public exhibition of an alligator”.
No doubt it was a curiosity to most people, and soon the pub received the colloquial name of Alligator Hotel.
Natural rivalry soon induced Rockhampton publican John McGregor, who kept the Ulster Arms Hotel, to summon two of his employees to capture and kill a large crocodile to display in his bar. The pair reportedly returned with a monster, 18 feet in length, and the croc became an attraction for many years before ending-up in Sydney.
There the fashion grew for north Queensland pubs to have stuffed crocodiles in the bar or over the doorway of pubs.
At the turn of the century, croc hunter, Robert Lee and his sons made quite a name for themselves in the Townsville region. Lee captured a 16 feet reptile in the Alligator River near Townsville in 1901 and sold it to the owner of the Market Hotel for exhibition.
One of the more famous pub crocodile exhibitions was at Emu Park, near Rockhampton. The 5.8 metre (19 feet) stuffed crocodile was on show at the three pubs at Emu Park for over half a century.
The crocodile was caught in the Mills fish trap in Zilzie, and was preserved and first put on display at Emu Park’s Grand Central Hotel. The Rockhampton newspaper Capricornian reported on Saturday, December 4, 1909:
THE EMU PARK CROCODILE
To the Editor
Sir,—About three weeks ago a gentleman at Emu Park sent his son early in the morning, when it was low tide, to his stake net fish trap at Zilzie to get any fish that might be in it. On his arrival the lad saw an immense crocodile inside the trap. He hastened back and told his father, who at once went to the trap, and, with a pea rifle, shot the reptile in the eye. The bullet penetrated to his brain, and killed him. They disembowelled him and stuffed his inside with straw. The hide was so tough that no sailor’s needle could pierce it, and they had to punch holes in it to enable them to sew it up. It was brought to Pettitt’s hotel and placed on the side verandah. On Monday last I bad a look at him and measured him. He is, 19 ft. 2in. long from his snout to the end of his tail. His girth at the thickest part of his body is 6ft. 6 in. His head from snout to neck is 2 ft. 6in. long. His neck is just a crease in his hide. On account of the shortness of the neck a crocodile cannot very well turn round. He had in his lower jaw fifteen teeth on each side, all straight except the two in front, which are slightly curved inward. In his upper jaw he had eighteen teeth on each side like -the lower straight ones. He had four feet – two on each side – webbed, with claws like a cat when she extends them, but very much larger. He has a dermal armour covering his back from the neck down to the end of the tail. It consist of bony-plates or scutes placed in parallel rows across and down his back, first three then four; next ten rows, of six and eleven of four each, then a long row of two each, tapering to a single row to the end of his tail. People here call these reptiles alligators. There are no alligators in Queensland; they are peculiar to South Africa. The Queensland reptiles are true crocodiles. The so-called bottom canine teeth fit into a socket in the upper jaw. His teeth were about an inch long. The bony sockets in which they were inserted showed he must have ‘shed’ his teeth and got new ones three or four times during his existence. It is said that in some parts of Queensland these crocodiles attain a length of 30ft. “Big Ben,'” which was caught in the Fitzroy River not far from Yaamba many years ago, was 22 ft. long.
I am, &c X
Rockhampton, 30th November, 1909.
The host of Emu Park’s Imperial Hotel, George Pettit, who had taken over the pub in 1904, purchased the croc for exhibition.
Built in the late 1880s, the Imperial was located on the north side of Hill Street, about two blocks east of Archer Street.
James Bryce Begg, a Scottish immigrant, who was an undertaker at Mt Morgan arrived in Emu Park with his wife, Catherine and their two children in the early 1900s.
A furniture dealer, Begg, at the age of 49, decided on becoming a publican in 1911. He purchased the Imperial Hotel at Emu Park from George Pettit. And with the pub, Begg also inherited the famed stuffed crocodile.
While his career change seemed the right move at the time, Begg’s decision to become a publican would prove an unwise choice for a bloke who tended to over indulged in the bottle, which will be explained further into the story.
The Begg family became successful business people in Emu Park and by 1912 they owned all the property on the north side of Hill Street, from Pattison to Archer Streets.
The family embarked on a new business venture in 1912 when they built a new hotel at Emu Park. The Imperial Hotel was leased and eventually was destroyed by fire in 1925 (More here: Imperial Hotel, Emu Park).
Jim and Catherine Begg purchased a boarding house on the north-west corner of Pattison and Hill Streets in 1912. There they built on the site the Grand Central Hotel.
A pub, known as the Railway Hotel, had traded at the corner from 1890 before it was destroyed by fire in 1905 and replaced with the boarding house. The Beggs demolished the boarding house and in its place built the Grand Central Hotel by moving the Mt Usher Hotel from Mt Morgan to the site.
When the Beggs moved into their new Grand Central Hotel in 1913, the 5.8 metre croc found a new home. The hotel was considered one of the most modern of its time with “freshwater baths, upstairs sanitary conveniences, electric lights throughout, stables and a motor garage”.
Jim’s Begg’s wife Catherine was the first licensee of the hotel. Jim though would have little to do with the management of the family business, with the former undertaker succumbing to his battle with the bottle.
Interestingly the Grand Central was managed by the couple’s 16-year-old son, Bryce. It was the start of a long career as a hotelier for the young man, who went on to also manage the family’s two other hotels, the Imperial and Pine Beach, at various times.
Jim Begg’s life came to a tragic end on January 5, 1922. He died at the age of 60 while on the train to Rockhampton Hospital after cutting his own throat with a razor in the upstairs room of the Grand Central Hotel.
Catherine, when passing her husband’s hotel room late in the afternoon had heard a strange noise, and looking through the doorway saw him on the bed covered with blood. When he temporarily regained consciousness, Jim reportedly told his wife: “I am sorry I did not make a job of it. I am tired of life and family troubles.”
An inquiry found his death was a result of suicide, due to acute alcoholism and a cut to his throat.
Catherine Begg continued as licensee at the Grand Central until 1926 when the hotel was leased and the family entered into yet another new business venture.
The Begg family owned the Grand Central Hotel until 1941, and it later became a boarding house known as the Beachcomber. The pub was eventually condemned and demolished in 1977.
After her husband’s death, Catherine Begg, now 53, purchased a house with magnificent ocean views at the northern corner of Pattison and Granville Streets, Emu Park. However, she had no intentions of hanging-up her hoteliers apron and retiring.
The wealthy widow had the palatial house converted into a hotel.
The site had a long history of hospitality, and had previously been home to the Brighton Hotel. In fact, the site was where Emu Park’s first pub had traded.
The Brighton was built on the site in 1871. In 1879 it was renovated and renamed the Blue Bell Hotel before it was demolished and rebuilt between 1886 and 88, to become the Grand Hotel, until it was destroyed by fire in 1908 (More here: Grand Hotel, Emu Park). A sprawling house was later built on this site.
Surrounded by Norfolk Island Pines, the house was converted by Catherine Begg into a hotel in 1926. The widow gave her third Emu Park hotel the sign of the Pine Beach.
With her move, Begg’s 5.8m stuffed croc found its third pub home. At first the croc was displayed on a timber bench at the hotel, before it was mounted on the outside wall, near the door of the bar.
There the stuffed croc would see out its existing days, except for a brief period prior to World War II when it seems to have been put into storage.
Catherine’s son, Bryce Begg, and his wife, Mary managed the Pine Beach Hotel during the 1930s when large military camps, with hundreds of soldiers, swelled the small tourist town’s population. Rumours that soldiers were planning to ‘kidnap’ Begg’s treasured croc as a prank caused the publican to place it in storage in 1937. The Rockhampton Evening News reported on April 12 1937:
The Military Camp And The Alligator
(Special for the “News” and “Herald” by G.W.)
The recent campaign to stimulate recruiting for the Commonwealth Defence Forces has had its effect, according to official statements, and one result will be that the numbers in camp this year will exceed any camp since citizen training was suspended. Whether or not actually 600 troops will go into training, one thing about which there can be no challenge is that this year trainees from Mackay, Maryborough, and Mt Morgan will reinforce the Rockhampton units. It was this circumstance that led to the accumulation of deep corrugations upon the noble brow of Mr Bryce Begg, of the Pine Beach Hotel, when your correspondent came upon him during the quiet hours of Sunday afternoon. Mr Begg was gazing intently at the veradah roof, and making diagrams and calculations in his notebook. Only that I knew such a thing has never occurred at the Pine Beach, I would have guessed that Mr Begg was trying to figure out in what manner some recreant boarder had lowered his port-manteau and himself from the balcony, and made good his escape without paying his reckoning. Not, mind you, that the clientele of seaside hotels always do pay “on the nail,” as the saying goes. But when they “take the knock” they do it boldly, leaving by the front door and having the hotel to motor them and their luggage to the station.
* * *
But I diverge from my story. The reason for Mr Begg’s concentration was his examination of the famous Emu Park alligator’ and its moorings. For it had just come to his knowledge of the 600 soldiers who would be at Emu Park next week. Bryce Begg makes no claims to being a generalissimo, but he knows enough about military tactics to be aware that weight of numbers will tell in the long run, and that the best strategy is to find out what the enemy is thinking of doing, and do it first. Now ever since the military encampments have been held at Emu Park unofficial campaigns have been mapped out and launched by the soldiery to remove Begg’s alligator from its moorings over the front door of the pub, and to transport it to the camp. For what reason the ‘gator was wanted in camp has never been clearly divulged; but the underlying idea probably has been to place the reptile between the sheets of the least popular member of the High Command so that, coming home from the Officers’ Dinner at the Hotel Riviera, he would receive the scare of his life. But although the troops have attacked the alligator with every movement known to the military text book — frontal attack, flank movement, rearguard action, tunnelling, and air raid — he has remained impregnable as the fortress of Verdun. His tough hide has resisted a succession of bayonet charges, so that new recruits have been hard put to explain how their bayonets came to be twisted like a piece of copper wire. Always the alligator has won. The soldiery has been repulsed, and left Emu Park resolved to re-enlist for the sole reason of beating him before their campaigning days were over. According to the official explanation the big camp this year, with Mackay, Mt. Morgan, and Maryborough joining with the Rockhampton troops at Emu Park, is due to the exigencies of the training schedule. It is, of course, an essential part of military strategy not to let the enemy know what you are up to. But Mr Begg knows as well as the 42nd Battalion General Staff that the reinforcements are being thrown into the Emu Park sector this year for the sole purpose of conquering the Pine Beach alligator. Hence Mr Begg’s preoccupation when this author came upon him on Friday afternoon. The fact of the matter is that the alligator is to be removed before the arrival of the soldiery. Hence when the troops surge over the top in numbers sufficient to overpower any body-guard that may be on duty, and eager to remove the prisoner to the camp, all they will encounter will be vacant space. How Mr Begg proposes to get the alligator away from the spot he has occupied for so many years to the defiance not only of the 42nd Battalion encampment, but of Rockhampton’s East Street Exquisites and their girl friends coming home from the New Year’s Eve dance at Ryan’s, is a secret that he would not divulge even to this author. Nor would he tell where he proposed to secret the saurian during the time the military were at Emu Park. For it occurred to the non-military mind of your correspondent that with Mr Begg doing all the donkey work of getting the alligator down from his present perch, it would be an easy matter for the military to overpower the local defence force at Pine Beach, seek out the whereabouts of the ‘gator, and lug him over to the camp and into the officers’ mess in double quick time. But Bryce was not influenced by these arguments. The alligator, he said, would be planted where he would be jolly hard to find. Moreover, he begged of me not to underrate the defensive measures which the, Pine Beach could marshal at a pinch. “I’ve worked all that out,” commented Brigadier Begg. “Let me see now — there’s 600 of them all told. Most of them are strangers who don’t know the run of the place, and those who do won’t bother to advance much further than the bar. As against their 600, there’s myself, Bob McDougall— who’ll fight harder for the ‘gator than he would for the pub — the cook — who’s mighty handy with the chopper — and Mum; she’s been in business for twenty-five years and no-one’s ever pinched anything from her yet, and I don’t see how even six hundred soldiers can get away with her alligator. At a last pinch I could call on Arthur Finlay to help in the rout “But don’t you think Arthur is, a bit past this kind of thing; he’s such a small chap, too?”, I objected. “Get that out of your mind,” Mr Begg reassured me. “Why, Arthur’ll probably be the best scrapper of the lot. Usen’t he to referee the fights, in the Mount years ago. He ought to know more about fighting than all the rest of us put together.” And so I left Emu Park yesterday feeling that all would be well with the Pine Beach alligator, and that when the camp is over he will be found grinning down from his nest over the portal as he has done this many a year.
Bryce and Mary Begg continued to manage the Pine Beach Hotel through the war years, until the pub was sold to C. M. ‘Dick’ Tennent in 1944.
Catherine Begg, who was now 82, retired and relocated to Yapoon where she died in 1961. Her son, Bryce Begg died at the age of 80, two months after his wife, Mary, in 1978.
And the destiny of the stuffed croc? Well, it seems it was remounted on the front wall of the pub after the war. The Brisbane Telegraph reported on February 24 1951:
THE live crocodile seen in the sea at Yeppoon has given a few people a fright, but a dead one at the neighbouring seaside resort of Emu Park has terrified many more. It is a huge specimen that has been stuffed and pegged to the front wall of the hotel. They’ve lost count of the number of people who have come out of the bar after a hectic session, have caught sight of the croc, and have bolted down the street.
The fate of the monster croc remains a mystery.
A representative of the Emu Park Historical Society tells me that he believes after being exposed to the elements for almost half a century on the outside wall of the Pine Beach Hotel, the old croc had deteriorated to such an extent that it ended up as land fill at the local tip.
If that is the case, this is a sad ending for such a majestic beast that brought so much joy and curiosity to Emu Park pub goers.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022
* Supplied pictures: Emu Park Historical Society
Do you know what happened to the Pine Beach Hotel’s croc? Leave your comments below, or send us an email: email@example.com
Free subscription to Time Gents stories
PAYPAL BAR TIP
If you would like to support my work, you can leave a small ‘bar 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.
OR DONATE BY DEBIT OR CREDIT CARD
Don’t have PayPal? Instead, you can make a secure credit or debit card donation to support my work. You can leave a $2 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: Queensland hotels