News / History

Beer continues to flow at Brunswick’s historic pubs 

A new edition has been produced of the history of Brunswick hotels

Elisabeth Jackson inside the front bar at The Retreat Hotel.

Mark Phillips

THE prospectors who joined the rush for gold in central Victoria in the middle of the 19th century were a thirsty mob. 

Barely had they made it out of the town of Melbourne than they were already looking for a place to have a refreshing beer. 

And more often than not, their first stop was in Brunswick.  

It was to cater for diggers on their way to the goldfields that some of the area’s earliest pubs were built, says the president of the Brunswick Community History Group, Elisabeth Jackson. 

Brunswick’s very first pub, known when it opened in 1842 as the Retreat Inn dates back even earlier than the Gold Rush, and is still pouring beers today near the corner of Sydney and Glenlyon roads.  

It is among 23 existing or former pubs within the suburb’s 10.6 square kilometres of area, meaning that in their heyday at the turn of the 20th century you were never more than half a kilometre from a fresh beer in Brunswick. 

Not all of those pubs are still operating as licensed venues today, but their architecture has been mostly preserved and now a new version of a history of Brunswick’s hotels provides fresh insight into the role they have played in the community’s development over almost 200 years of European settlement. 

Get more stories like this delivered to your inbox

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

HTML Button Generator

Brunswick’s Hotels, published by the Brunswick Community History Group, is an updated version of the 1991 book bearing the same title written by Laurie Cunningham, a local historian who died earlier this year. 

The book was republished in 1995, 1997 and 1999, and the new version updates the changes since then which have seen several hotels redeveloped as apartment buildings and others shift focus from their traditional working man’s clientele.  

It will be launched on Saturday, July 6, at The Wild Geese, formerly known as the Sarah Sands Hotel, propped at the southern entrance to Sydney Road. 

The new edition has been overseen by Brunswick Community History Group president Elisabeth Jackson, who said an update was long overdue. 

“In about 2000 all the pubs began to change their character, so we’ve tried to reflect that,” she said. 

“They went in different directions. Some became apartments, some became live music venues. And a couple of them became pokie venues.” 

Brunswick pubs (clockwise from top left): The Sporting Club Hotel, Grand View Hotel, Edinburgh Castle, and Victoria Hotel.

The development of Brunswick’s pubs runs parallel to the story of early colonial Melbourne in the 19th century. Following the Retreat Inn, the earliest hotels like the Sarah Sands, Brunswick Hotel, Cornish Arms and Edinburgh Castle date back to the 1850s Gold Rush. 

“This was one of the routes to the [gold] diggings,” said Jackson. “And people would stop there to have a drink, stay overnight, have a meal.” 

Over the next couple of decades, several Brunswick pubs were built to cater for the area’s growing workforce who sought work in local clay pits and brickworks. These included the Quarry Hotel in Lygon Street, and the Phillipstown (later the Butchers Arms and later still the Carrington) in Union Street. 

The third and final wave of development of Brunswick’s pubs was during the land boom of the 1880s, when enormous wealth poured into Melbourne and the city’s population grew rapidly. 

During this period seven elaborate three storey hotels were built, most of which are still standing relatively untouched today, including the Grand View in Pearson Street, the East Brunswick Club in Lygon Street, the Railway in Albert Street, the Lyndhurst on the corner of Albion Street and Holmes Road, and the last of the Sydney Road pubs to be built, the Moreland (later reduced to two storeys). 

While the Retreat is Brunswick’s first pub, the Edinburgh Castle which first opened in 1854 is the oldest original building, even though its bluestone structure has been hidden behind an art deco facade since 1939. 

Jackson said that up until the start of this century, Brunswick’s pubs were part of the fabric of the suburb but they began to decline in popularity as the character of the area changed. 

“They were traditional working class pubs,” she said. 

“Blokes would go along after work and have a few beers and they’d drive home in the Kingswood. They’d go there and have a counter lunch and listen to the races on a Saturday. People’s social life was centered around the pub in a lot of cases. 

“But then in the decades until the late-1990s, by that time, there were drink driving laws and you didn’t go to the pub and have a few beers. Most of the industry left Brunswick, so there weren’t tribes of workers going off to the pub.  

“And it all gentrified a lot more. It just wasn’t appropriate to have that traditional pub anymore.” 

Some hotels have been reinvented as music venues, others have been converted into apartments or retail outlets but a dozen or so continue as pubs in one form or another. Of all 23 pubs in the book, only one – the True Briton which operated in Ewing Street until 1929 – has been demolished. 

Elisabeth Jackson outside The Retreat Hotel in Sydney Road.

Brunswick’s Hotels is a slim 60 pages with a new introduction written by Jackson. At least two pages are devoted to each pub, including a present day or historic photo and details of its original owner and subsequent landlords. 

There are also snippets of history from within the walls of the pubs. There is at least one murder: underworld figure Brian Kane, who was shot dead at the Quarry Hotel in 1982. 

One fascinating story recounts how the landlord and two drinkers of the Union Hotel were fined for illegal Sunday trading in 1911. One of the patrons was a future Prime Minister of Australia, 26-year-old John Curtin, who at the time lived nearby. 

Another humorous story involves the Hotel Railway, which for several decades up until World War Two would illicitly set up a keg of beer in Phoenix Street each Sunday to cater for parishioners on their way home from worshipping at nearby St Ambrose Church

There is also plenty of trivia, such as a cricket ground originally occupying the rear of the Retreat, and the landlord of the now-closed West Brunswick Hotel between 1958 and 1963 being the Essendon football legend John Coleman.  

Jackson, whose present day local is the Union Hotel, worked as a barmaid at the long-closed Carrington Hotel when she was a university student in the early-1970s.  

More recently, she has led several tours of pub history in conjunction with the Sydney Road Brunswick Association. 

Copies of Brunswick’s Hotels will be available for purchase for $20 at the launch on July 6 and at Brunswick Bound bookshop after that. 

Support independent local journalism

We are an independent hyperlocal news organisation owned and run by the people in your community. With your support, we can continue to produce unique and valuable local journalism for Brunswick and the inner north of Melbourne. 

Latest stories: