By MICK ROBERTS ©
AN attractive, wealthy woman in her youth, the desire of many of her customers, publican, Isabel Gray, in her twilight years lived a pitiful life in squaller, struggling to make ends meet and battling mental health issues in her boarded-up outback general store.
When outback Queensland became known for opals, a woman crowned the Eulo Queen by her admirers, dominated the economy of her town, becoming a celebrated legend throughout most of Australia.
A strikingly beautiful blonde, with grey eyes and “a ripe figure”, the Queen was extremely witty, vivacious and athletic. She could ride a horse and drive a ‘four-in-hand’ buggy as well as any man, and was excellent with a gun.
Reportedly, Isabel wore a gold belt, as thick as her arm, studded with opals the size of Victorian pennies, and she glittered as she walked.
The Queen hosted the Royal Mail Hotel at Eulo, 855kms west of Brisbane and 67km west of Cunnamulla, where she bought opals from local miners, and, as a young married woman, worked as a courtesan from her pub’s ‘private bar’.
As well as being a charming hostess, she was an accomplished card and billiards player. She outlived three husbands, and built and lost more than one fortune before dying penniless as Isabel Gray in 1929 in Toowoomba.
Thought to have been born in England about 1851, Isabel was the daughter of James Richardson, army captain, and Priscilla Wright. Reportedly well-educated in Switzerland, Isabel was sent to Australia in her late teens, probably in 1868, where she worked as a governess in outback NSW and Queensland.
Isabella Richardson married 32-year-old Scots superintendent, John McIntosh on April 29 1869 at Warialda, NSW. Their partnership was short, with her new husband dying soon after their marriage.
Isabel McIntosh, now barely 20, didn’t stay a widow long. She married 32-year-old Richard William Robinson, a station-manager of Spring Grove, Surat, about 177kms east of Eulo, on March 2 1871 at Roma, Queensland.
Richard ‘Dick’ Robinson was well-known in Queensland’s outback. He was an excellent horseman and had ridden to victory in many of the region’s race courses. On several occasions he was handicapper for the south Warrego Jockey Club, and took a great interest in anything equine.
Isabel’s career as a hotelier began when her husband, Dick Robinson gained the license of the Eulo Hotel from Samuel Luke on June 14 1881. Interestingly, he stated in a newspaper advertisement when applying for the license (as required by law) that he was married with children. This is the only reference I have found of the Eulo Queen having any children. Whether these children were Isabel’s or Dick’s from a previous relationship can’t be substantiated. However throughout her life, never are children mentioned, and I believe she had none.
The Eulo Hotel, the town’s first and only pub for many decades, was established on June 9 1868 by Felix Davies. When the Robinsons’ took control of the business, it consisted of a tap room (bar), six bedrooms and two sitting rooms, exclusive of those required by the family in 1881. The pub was a favourite with shearers and stockmen.
The legend of the Eulo Queen was born about this time. The Queenslander newspaper reported on March 3 1883 that the small township on the Paroo River consisted of two stores, a hotel, and post and telegraph office. The hotel, reported the newspaper, was kept by “Mrs Robinson, who is very attentive to travellers”.
Isabel Robinson had control of one of the town’s two general stores, and her business enterprises prospered.
By 1886 Eulo had become an important staging post between Cunnamulla and Thargomindah, and a Cobb & Co coach junction from Hungerford. The town had also become a place where opal miners from Yowah, about 100km from Eulo, gathered for leisure – and a drink.
The Robinsons’ pub became a favourite watering hole for the opal miners. The magazine, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, in a series titled, Women in Australian History, published in 1939, described how Isabel’s buyers came from Sydney to secure the best parcels of the semi-precious gem and how she began purchasing and trading opals from the miners.
She [Isabel] began to appear in the bar of her hotel covered with jewellery, the value of which was conservatively estimated at £4,000. It was at this period she came to be known as the Opal Queen of Eulo. Throughout the Far West she was toasted as the Eulo Queen. Her fame spread far and wide, and men travelled hundreds of miles to see her. With the increase in her fame she began to achieve prosperity. She appears to have had a flair for making money. She built another hotel and leased it, then opened a general store. She invested in land in the neighbourhood. The Eulo Queen was a very shrewd business woman. A few years of watching her clients behind the bar gave her an unerring knowledge of the flaws and frailties of human nature. She could sum anyone up over the first drink. Though she made a lot of money, the Queen spent a lot. She was extremely generous and gave away large sums. She never boasted of her charity to the world. If she thought a man was worth helping she was always willing to advance him sufficient money to secure an outfit. She would provide horses, wagonette, gear, tea, flour and sugar from her own store. She was also interested in minerals and speculated in gold mines. At Granite Springs she spent hundreds of pounds on a gold lease, but the results were not payable. Such are typical examples of her initiative and drive. With all her beauty and attractive personality, the Eulo Queen seems to have been a very dominant person. She ‘wore the trousers’.
There’s little doubt who wore the trousers in Isabel’s relationship with her three husbands. She had a separate estate and was financially independent from second husband, Richard. She changed the name of the pub from the Eulo Hotel to the Royal Mail about 1886, and in 1888 opened a second hotel, The Metropolitan, in the town. The magazine, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, continued its description of Isabel’s dominance in her relationship with Richard, and how she once had him arrested.
The incident set the whole district laughing for weeks. The police magistrate arrived from Cunnamulla to try a case and stayed at the Eulo Queen’s hotel. Naturally he was always served with the very best. For his dinner two roast fowls were put in oven. Mr Robinson, who had a night out, arrived in the kitchen in the morning extremely hungry. He found the fowls roasting in the oven, and arming himself with a bottle of beer, went to the backyard to enjoy a “bird” for dinner. His Worship arrived from court for his dinner and the cook found the oven empty. The Opal Queen was furious, and a hunt was set up for the culprit. He was discovered behind the woodheap with only a few bones left to show of his tasty dinner. The policeman was summoned, and there and then Isabel had her husband arrested and charged with theft. The P.M. entered the joke and sentenced the unfortunate man to 48 hours in the cells.
There was a lot more to how Isabel made her fortune though. Now in her late 30s and still an attractive woman, with a seemingly complaisant husband, the Queen began a successful courtesan business from a private bar in the Royal Mail Hotel. There in her private bar she stocked plenty of liquor, gambled and reportedly ‘intimately entertained’ groups of successful opal miners. The Queensland Times reported on October 15 1889:
CHARLEVILLE. Monday, October 14. At the Eulo Police Court, on Saturday, Mrs. Robinson, a well-known storekeeper of that town, was fined £30 for having in her possession spirits, contrary to the provisions of the Licensing Act, and £180 worth of liquor was confiscated.
With the legend firmly established, it wasn’t long before the law set their sights on the so called ‘Queen of Eulo’. The Brisbane Telegraph reported on January 22 1890:
Disorderly House at Eulo
Confiscation of Liquor
Charleville, January 21
Concerning the sly-grog selling and seizure of liquor found in the possession of Isabella. Robinson, known – as the queen – at Eulo, the bench of magistrates have confiscated the liquor seized. The evidence in rebuttal brought forward by Inspector Ahern was most conclusive that the liquor was kept for illegal sale, and was sold for defendant’s sole benefit in a private bar in one of the bedrooms of the Royal Mail Hotel. The evidence also showed that very great immorality was practised at the hotel. It is well for the community and travelling public that the police have taken action so successfully in this matter.
The license of the hotel was taken over by Isabel’s husband, Richard Robinson in 1894, and the name changed from the Royal Mail to the Empire. From about this time, Isabel began leasing her two Eulo pubs, and concentrated on other business interests.
The Eulo Queen, now in her late 40s, made for the big time in 1897 when she applied successfully for the license of one of Brisbane’s swankiest hotels. She leased her two Eulo pubs, the Empire to Frank Hickling and the Metropolitan to R. T. Westhead.
Isabel Robinson received the license for the Metropole Hotel, Queen Street Brisbane on January 12 1897, and remained their as host until April 1898. It was the depression years, and her city business venture was a dismal failure.
The Queen lost a great deal of money as host of the Brisbane hotel and returned to Eulo where she continued operating her general store.
The original mud-brick pub, established as the Eulo Hotel in 1863, later operated as the Royal Mail by Dick and Isabel Robinson from 1881 – and again changed to the Empire in 1894 – closed for business in 1898. The pub had been leased to John Frank Hickling, who died in 1898. The pub seems to have remained unlicensed from this time, and was eventually destroyed by fire in 1911.
By the year 1900, Eulo had two pubs, the Queen’s Metropolitan and Margaret Hickling’s Gladstone, servicing the heavy drinking miners, stockmen and shearers of the region.
The Gladstone Hotel was opened by Margaret Hickling, widow of John Frank Hickling, in competition to Isabel Robinson’s Metropolitan in 1900. Ironically, long after Isabel’s pubs disappeared from Eulo, the Gladstone Hotel would later be renamed in her honour. It continues to trade as the Eulo Queen Hotel today.
After a few years behind the counter at her general store, the Queen had the urge to return to her throne as host of the Metropolitan Hotel. Licensee, R. T. Westhead, who had held the license for three years, decided to go opal mining and Isabel became host in 1900. It didn’t take long before she was again in the news. The Western Star and Roma Advertiser reported on May 16 1900:
All sorts of tales are told of the quality of the liquor served up in the “wild west” of Queensland. A man named James Gardiner sued the proprietress of a hotel at Eulo the other day for £6 odd, balance of money due on a cheque. James said he went to defendant’s hotel by invitation, and that his memory was a blank after the second, drink. He subsequently woke up in the coach on the way to Cunnamulla, and found that he was minus his all. He was “an absent-minded beggar,” in fact. There was evidence forthcoming, however, which showed that the money had been “done in” in the orthodox manner, and the case was dismissed.
Meanwhile, on October 18 1902, Isabel’s second husband, Richard Robinson died of “dysentery and exhaustion” at Cunnamulla Hospital.
The Eulo Queen didn’t stay single for long, and married a much younger man on October 31 1903. At the age of 53, she married 29-year-old Tasmanian, Herbert Victor Gray.
The Queen’s new husband though seems to have been already married! The Charleville Times reported on November 12 1904 that Herbert Victor Gray had been arrested on a charge of bigamy. He was remanded for eight days, the Queen going surety for £100. As the police had no further evidence to offer, besides a certified copy of a marriage certificate said to refer to a former marriage, Gray was discharged. After this, Isabel was said to have denied Gray her bed and board.
Isabel leased the Metropolitan Hotel to Rose Morton in 1904, and returned to her role as storekeeper at Eulo. Now estranged from her third husband, she returned as host of the Metropolitan in 1907. The Queen advertised for a “gentlemanly man, able to ride, drive, play dance music, assist butchering and store, generally useful, and with good eye sight”, to help run the Metropolitan Hotel. Her new employee was also required to be aged between 20 and 30 and would be paid 16 shillings a week.
The Queen continued as host of the Metropolitan Hotel at Eulo, where she recouped her fortunes lost through her failed Brisbane business venture. However, in the early part of 1913, her license of the Metropolitan Hotel was cancelled under sections 67 and 103 of the Licensing Act. It appears that Isabel was convicted on four occasions, twice for supplying aborigines with liquor, once for Sunday trading and once for having no light in front of her licensed premises.
The Balonne Beacon reported in January 1913 that “the ‘Queen’ is no more in Eulo as far as holding a Licensed Victualler’s License is concerned”.
The Metropolitan Hotel closed for business and never reopened. This left Eulo with just one pub – widow, Margaret Hickling’s Gladstone Hotel.
The Queen became a widow once again about this time. Her estranged husband, had joined the Australian Imperial Force, but died in camp before going to France.
Now without a husband and pub, the Queen reportedly went to Europe in the latter half of 1913, where she lived a lavish lifestyle, spending the remainder of her wealth before returning to Eulo. The story goes that she took her fortune of £50,000 in cash and £50,000 worth of opal jewellery and sailed for England.
Society newspapers received by wives of squatters on the Paroo reported that the Queen was living in a mansion which she had leased fully furnished, with a full staff of servants, and was entertaining in a magnificent fashion.
On her return to Eulo, the Queen, now 65, had exhausted her fortune. She struggled to make a living from her general store, and in 1916 she was brought before the Charleville magistrate for sly grog selling.
During the hearing the Queen reportedly said she felt unwell, and a sympathetic magistrate adjourned the hearing for an hour. After a while a man rushed into the Court saying “Mrs Gray had disembowelled herself”. The Queen attempted to stab herself with a razor before she was restrained by a police officer. She recovered and eventually was fined £50 for selling liquor from her store without a license. The Brisbane Worker reported on April 27 1916:
The Eulo Queen, has fallen on evil times, and is now in hospital suffering the effects of attempted hari-kari. A short, dark, plump, pretty woman, and educated too – she had been a station governess, and then kept hotels for men of cattle and sheep. Battlers who had done in their cheques at her house – and no man who ventured there escaped but by the skin of his teeth — and returned broke were helped with tucker, the footsore were given a couple of days’ rest, and a pound-note was often passed to the hard-up. Nursing was a hobby of hers and she would stay up for a week with the sick. A curious habit of hers was to throw the bar-takings to a man she liked, asking him to carry the money to the bank, and this without even counting it. But she slipped down-ward, and the other day she was charged with sly grog-selling. The sheet called her Isabel Gray, but all the old hands know her as the Eulo Queen.
The Queen’s illegal grog selling continued from her store over the following years with police charging her with the offence again in December 1918. She was again fined £20 for her indiscretion.
Isabel placed an interesting advertisement in the Brisbane Daily Standard on January 2 1919. She advertised for a “generally useful handy man with tools, wages £1 a week, returned English soldier preferred”. Isabel added that the applicant should send his particulars, including his age, to Isabel Gray, Storekeeper, Eulo.
In an editorial published in the Brisbane Truth on July 13 1919, the newspaper raised the question as to whether “Ma Gray”, now 68, was seeking a manager for her store or was “on the look-out for a second husband”.
The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on December 4 1925.
There are few readers of this paper who have not heard at some time or other about the “Eulo Queen.” Old time shearers and others used to relate many yarns about this woman but I thought she had long since passed away. To see by a letter I have just received from ‘Darkie’ that she is still alive came as a surprise to me. The letter reads as follows: “When I recently visited Eulo I had the pleasure of meeting the once famous ‘Eulo Queen,’ who is still alive although she is now over 80 years or age. The woman who bandied a fortune in her time is now living in poverty and depends on the old-age pension to provide her with the bare necessities of life. She is camped in a hut on the banks of the Paroo River. I was cook of the outfit with which I was travelling and the ‘Queen’ asked me for some meat. On my return to Eulo we pulled up at the Gladstone Hotel, which is the only pub in the township, and here I again met the ‘Queen,’ sitting on the verandah. I asked her how she was and she said, ‘I used to sit in my own hotel in Brisbane and watch my barmaids rob me.’ From what I have heard it seems that this woman made her fortune in Eulo in the early days, but she was not satisfied and purchased a hotel in Brisbane where she went ‘broke.’ Now in her advanced years, she has returned to the township where she once had youth, fame and fortune.”
The Sydney Morning Herald reported on January 22 1926 that the Queen had closed her shop at Eulo and was living in poverty.
THE QUEEN AT HOME
Less than a fortnight ago a visitor from Sydney made his way across a hundred yards or two of rubbish-littered ground towards the Paroo, which flows by Eulo. His objective was the ruin of the old store where the Queen’s agents once sold the stockwhips and bridles and knives to the men of the west. An old ramshackle galvanised iron building is all that is left of it. And on the front is painted in black letters ‘Commercial Store’, and on the side ‘Butcher’. All but one of the windows are boarded up; and the remaining window has cracks in it, which are filled with old vests and stockings.
It appeared that nobody was at home. Much knocking and hulloa-ing, however, brought forth an aged voice in reply, and after the drawing of a rusty old bolt, the stranger was admitted. There was an atmosphere of gloom. Rubbish of all descriptions, empty bottles, and old papers were strewn about the uncarpeted boards in confusion. The Queen invited her visitor into an inner room, where she sank down into an old chair, and the visitor sat on an unmade camp bed, from the edge of which the Queen, in her deafness, could the better hear him.
There were more old newspapers all about the inner room; and on the table a pair of spectacles, a hurricane lamp, and a tin plate, with eggshells and crusts of bread on it, an indication of the last meal. And the visitor was overwhelmed with the atmosphere of squalor and decay. The Queen had on what seemed to be a coarse black shirt, doing service for a blouse; and her dress resembled rough hessian. Her poor grey old hairs were matted, and she coughed.
“I’m sorry I’m not dressed today,” she began. “But I wasn’t expecting visitors. I so rarely get them nowadays. No one bothers to come to see me now. And then I’ve had the ‘flu’.”
There was refinement in the voice, and a few minutes’ talk showed unmistakable signs of breeding and education. “Now how old would you think I am?” she continued.
The visitor gallantly hazarded the suggestion that the old lady looked scarcely more than 60. “Well, I am 75 this year,” she replied. “But I let the people round here think that I’m 95, otherwise, gossips that they are, they’d make mischief because I’m living alone. And as you know, I’ve seen better days. My father was an officer of the Grenadier Guards, and I had an uncle, too, who was a colonel in another good regiment. But I have lost touch with my people at home, though they still send me some of the London papers to read. For I’m a great reader. It’s practically all I do nowadays. I read anything I can get hold of.”
LIVING ON A PENSION
“There are no people round here that I like, and they are always causing trouble. So I keep clear of them. Sometimes I take a little walk up to the settlement, and occasionally I have a meal at the hotel. But mostly I read. My memory is still good, and so I think of the past. There were days when I was a power about here. But I made enemies, and they determined to break me. When they couldn’t break me any other, way my hotel was burned down, and my store was broken into and robbed, and what with one misfortune and another, here I am.
“And how do I live? Well, my third husband was a bad lot, a thoroughly bad lot, and the only decent thing he ever did was to die in camp and leave me a small army pension of 25 shillings a week. But I’ve still got some property, though you can’t always rely on property. And whenever I want to do anything they always make difficulties. So I’m stuck here. I wish I could get away, for Eulo now is a horrible place, a most horrible place; not what it was in the old days.”
The visitor, who was going on to Cunnamulla, 80 miles or more away, left with a com-mission from the Queen. Would he order a loaf of bread from the baker, who combined the bakery with a little fruit shop in Cunnamulla, and would the baker also send her account? The message was delivered in Cunnamulla, and on the Thursday morning the lorry that lakes out stores and a weekly delivery of bread to the people of Eulo, took a loaf to the Queen.
Now Mr. Zane Grey, the popular novelist about to visit Australia in search of human interest stories, and he wants especially to go to the Never Never country. Could he do better than go to Eulo? For the Queen’s story is a story of real life. Like Humpty Dumpty, she has had a great fall. And the greater the fall the greater the human interest.
Shortly after this story was published, 75-year-old Isabel Gray was admitted to Willowburn Mental Hospital at Toowoomba and died there a couple of years later on August 7 1929. Surprisingly, with such a high profile and countless stories published about her life, the Queen’s death was not reported in newspapers of the time.
The only mention of her sad demise, I could find, was published two years after her death, in the Townsville Daily Bulletin on April 16 1931. In the column ‘On the Track’ Bill Bowyang penned this fitting eulogy when he described how ‘Bluey’ was breasting the bar of the Travellers Rest Hotel and had the following conversation with the widowed publican:
“An’ the Eulo Queen has gone too,” I says, me chin quiverin’ with agitation. “We may sigh an’ sigh an’ wish an’ wish, but the poor old Queen will never again dish out the flowin’ pots; never again will we see her plantin’ a ‘roll’ in her stockin’. They have laid her away to sleep her long last sleep, an’ the bright light has been extinguished for ever of the queen of publicans, an’ a dinki-di, good-hearted bush woman, a true —” “What will you drink?’ asks the widow. I swallows a ‘schooner’ asks for another, an’ gettin’ it says, ‘How can yer talk of drink at such a time, as this? But knowin’ me sad feelings, seein’ me tears, an’ listenin’ to me broken voice, Missus have yer got the heart to force another pot on me?”
Isabel ‘Eulo Queen’ Gray is buried in an unmarked grave at Toowoomba cemetery; she left an estate of £30. However, thankfully a memorial to this remarkable woman can be found in the town she made famous.
The Queen’s pubs
Eulo Hotel, Eulo
- Established 1868
- Isabel and her husband became hosts in 1881
- Name changed to the Royal Mail Hotel about 1888
- Name changed to the Empire Hotel 1894
- Closed for business 1898
- Destroyed by fire 1911
Metropolitan Hotel, Eulo
- Established by Isabel Robinson/Gray 1888
- Closed for business December 1912
- Reportedly destroyed by fire, year unknown
Gladstone Hotel, Eulo
- Not owned by Isabel Robinson/Gray
- Established 1900
- Destroyed by fire 1949
- Rebuilt 1949
- Now trading as the Eulo Queen Hotel
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2023
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Categories: Queensland hotels