11 March 2014

Marvellous Melbourne and temperance palaces

I have read Home Away From Home: celebrating 125 years of the Victoria Hotel (2007) by Katherine Sheedy. Marvellous Melbourne had gone through a period of amazing growth, based in significant part on the gold discovered in central Victoria in the early 1850s. By 1860, as we discovered looking at Hoddle’s carefully laid out city plan, the city had reached its final form - with the main N-S and E-W streets bisected by parallel lanes in between. The population had reached 140,000 and since no convicts were brought to this state, all of these citizens were free men and women.

Gold had funded the lavish spending on public buildings, public gardens, private houses and flats, schools and churches. Banks and businesses commissioned impressive buildings for themselves, while theatres and music halls commissioned less impressive but more glamorous centres for their audiences. Then in 1880, Melbourne invited the world to visit this city’s World Fair and its spectacular home, Exhibition Building. A member of royal commissions on employment and tariff protection, ex-Scotsman James Munro was largely responsible for this enormous and successful project. We will come back to him shortly.

The Melbourne World Fair was attended by a million people, not all of them locals. Sheedy says the city was so flush with gold, wool and wheat money that citizens saw themselves as living in the wealthiest city in Australia (probably rightly) and the equal to London and Paris (probably wrongly). 

The first Victoria Coffee Palace in Collins St
with covered verandas on the facade.
Later demolished

Two things happened in the 1880s that changed the face of Melbourne. Firstly the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy boomed, land prices rose rapidly and the state government poured money into urban transport infrastructure. Secondly anti-alcohol sentiment was getting organised. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, for example, was a powerful voice in the temperance movement where alcoholism was seen as largely a male problem

This is exactly when the Victoria Coffee Palace Co. opened for business. This hotel was next to the Town Hall, then in the city’s main street, Collins St. Sheedy has a photo of their first building, a three storey place with decorative lacework veranda across the façade, and tall trees in the front. It was modest and elegant. In 1883 electric lights were installed in the hotel's public rooms, to replace gas.

The newspaper of record in 1886, The Argus, wrote glowingly of how the Victoria Coffee Palace was being modernised. The long article suggested that the other colonies would soon follow the lead of Victoria in the establishment of gorgeous coffee palaces.

It had been the next state’s premier, treasurer and successful businessman, Hon. James Munro, who had been a driving force behind Melbourne’s temperance organisations. He used his power to build and finance temperance hotels where travellers could stay without being tempted by the demon drink. Munro was a director on the Victoria Coffee Palace, the Grand Coffee Palace (Grand Hotel) in Spring St and the Federal Coffee Palace (Federal Hotel). Munro also had shared in similar places in Geelong and Broken Hill.

These later coffee palaces became fine, family-friendly environments that were the cornerstones of the Victorian temperance movement in Australia. Any existing liquor licences were surrendered. But this trend was not invented in Australia, as Ms Sheedy had mistakenly suggested in her book. By the 1850s it was possible for the teetotal business traveller to stay at a temperance hotel in any large city in Britain, and the great majority of the smaller towns as well.

The well designed Victoria Coffee Palace enjoyed full occupancy rates, with pleasant bedrooms, a great entrance lounge and a handsome staircase. To celebrate the opening of the first Australian Parliament after Federation in 1901, the hotel was enlarged and modernised. Even the plumbing was everything that the modern Edwardian business person could hope for. Then another enlargement was needed by June 1912 to accommodate the ongoing demand. 

WW1 was a tragedy for individual families, of course, but it was also a tragedy for the city’s economy. Business slowed down; and people spent less on luxury goods and services. Nonetheless a new and larger hotel building was required which opened in Jan 1915. And the Roaring Twenties meant refurbishment was needed yet again.

By 1924, the concept of temperance was passe’ so the hotel’s name was changed to The Victoria Palace, to be more modern, more jazzy, less moralistic. By this time, the hotel had 250 employees, including porters, bellboys, chefs, kitchen staff and dozens of housemaids. 

By the late 1920s, the hotel had two splendid dining rooms and two less swish cafeterias. Then in the mid 1930s, there were three faster, cheaper meal areas and one lovely, old fashioned dining room for leisurely socialising all evening. Porters journeyed by cable tram to meet guests at Spencer Street Railway Station and by train to Port Melbourne to meet overseas liners.

Hon. James Munro
was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1874,
 ran his companies: the Federal Bank and the Federal Building Society,
opened the coffee palace in 1880,
and became state premier in 1890.

Hotel business was brisk at night when late suppers attracted Melbourne’s theatre-goers from the Athenaeum and from nearby concert halls. And on very Special Occasions, business was brisker still. When King George VI was crowned in 1937, the celebrations in this country were held at the Victoria Palace. When Queen Elizabeth II visited, a state reception was held at the same hotel for 1,700 important guests. During the Spring Racing Carnival in Melbourne each year, there were so many guests that people had to be turned away. In 1956, when Australia had the Olympic Games for the first time in history, the hotel accommodated hundreds of overseas visitors. It was the main meeting place for the I.O.C., including its formal functions and banquets.

In 1967 the restaurant gained a liquor licence. The Hon James Munro and the other original directors must have been rolling in their graves. Later the Liquor Control Commission approved the company's application for a residential licence and the Cocktail Room on the mezzanine floor commenced the service of drinks to hotel guests and their friends.

The Windsor Hotel in Melbourne was completed in 1884 and sold on to James Munro who doubled the size of the hotel in 1888. Like the Victoria Hotel, Munro operated the Windsor as a centre of temperance and renamed his new institution The Grand Coffee Palace. He spared no money making the staircase and sculptural programme very posh, but alas Munro was declared bankrupt in February 1893. A new owner had to take over the Windsor Hotel, to help pay off some of Munro’s debs.


I enjoyed Home Away From Home: celebrating 125 years of the Victoria Hotel, (by Katherine Sheedy with Sarah Rood and published by Carolen Barripp in 2007) enormously and found the photographs to be very valuable. Only two elements irritated me. Firstly there is no index of key words at the end of the book, something I rely on. Secondly the chapters are set out by theme (eg food, drink, staff etc), not in chronological order. So the reader is forced to go back through the hotel's history anew, in every chapter.

Readers may also enjoy a book that covers James Munro's projects, The Land Boomers by Michael and Stephen Murray Smith, Melbourne University Press, 1988. Plus there is a wonderful paper on the build heritage of the temperance movement in Britain that was written by Andrew Davison.

The Windsor Hotel, Spring St Melbourne
after 1888.


Hermes said...

Great post.Never heard of The Melbourne World Fair

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:

This is a fascinating post and also, in some senses, a very topical one with the release of 'Grand Hotel Budapest' [not, incidentally filmed at all in Budapest]. Clearly the Victoria Hotel has played a significant part in the development of Melbourne as a major city and it has been interesting to read here of how it has adapted over the years to the changing times.

Student of History said...

Temperance movement or not, I am betting that most residents in a big city hotel would want to have a drink after work or at dinner. If Munro was an otherwise successful businessman, how did he expect to make profits?

Hels said...


I already knew of every World Fair held between 1851 in Crystal Palace.. until the last of the inter-war years. Including Sydney's (1879) and Melbourne's (1880).

But I knew very little about the rise of the temperance organisations in the mid-late 19th century. Fascinating!

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

The growth of Grand Hotels in the late 19th, early 20th centuries seems to have gone on in all big cities, yes.

The Hotel Windsor in Melbourne was/is another. This luxury hotel was completed in 1884 and sold the hotel to James Munro who doubled the size of this already grand space in 1888.

Because Munro also operated the Hotel Windsor as a Coffee Palace, I will add a photo to my post.

Hels said...


Munro was a mega wealthy land developer who did eventually get himself declared bankrupt. But not, I think, because of not serving alcohol.

A terrible financial crash hit the city 1891-3 with the failure of several major banks. Munro lost all his land and his companies couldn't repay debts of 620,000 pounds sterling in 1893!!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The issue of temperance was such a big issue back then that it is sometimes hard to imagine now. The U.S. had the full effect, with temperance rallies and songs, Carrie Nation and her destroying axe, Prohibition, moonshiners, revenuers, etc.

And of course other issues, especially women's rights, were packaged with the temperance issue and fought for on party lines, so that it was difficult to be for one and against the other.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels [again]:

Thank you. The Windsor looks absolutely splendid. Clearly Melbourne had/has some remarkable late nineteenth century architecture.

iODyne said...

Is that the book that the hotel has in each room? I have stayed there numerous times - country people are the traditional customers of The Victoria - and I have read the book so many times I have never actually needed to buy it. Must get one before the history goes south due to it being an Ibis group hotel now.
Do yourself a favour and check out the mezzanine area of the foyer with cabinets full of Limoges, and the total Art Deco spacious Ladies rest room. A couple of heyday pics left at Vic History. So sad those ironlace verandahs are lost.
(btw, at Walking Melb I am Joan Batman).

Hels said...


yes indeed. It is (now) surprising what a powerful influence the temperance movement had on politics, architecture, female suffrage and other areas of life totally unrelated to church teachings.

But I wonder how many men truly believed that they should never EVER drink beer in all their lives. I say beer because Australians were not wine or spirits drinkers back then. The idea of going into a pub, after work and before going home, was practically mandated (for men) in Australian history.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

the gold rush started in Victoria in 1851 and didn't end until at least 1870. In that time more gold was sloshing around Melbourne than in any other city I can find, and more British immigrants (temporary or permanent) came to Melbourne than any other city anywhere.

Of course it had to end, and did with a hideous crashing sound in 1893. But in the meantime, amazing later-Victorian architecture had already been built.

Hels said...


copies of the book were on sale at the hoel's reception desk when I stayed at The Victoria last year.

And yes :) I always poke my nose around Victorian architecture and was a bit surprised to see the 20th century elements added after the war. But I love your photos and wish they were bigger and clearer. It must have all been very splendid.

the foto fanatic said...

The Temperance movement was a powerful force all over the world for a while. Why did it collapse?

A friend, now overseas in the hospitality industry, worked at the Windsor for a while and loved it. Maintenance becomes an expensive but necessary part of running such an old building.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

Another good question, thank you. The Temperance Movement in Australia seemed to aim at reducing male violence and inattentiveness to families, not cutting alcohol out of the Australian landscape altogether. So coffee palaces were built as big, beautiful, family friendly alternatives to pubs, not replacing pubs.

The Temperance movements achieved their major success during WWI, when they were successful in having hotel bars close at 6 pm for the first time!! So to me, Temperance didn't seem like a police-backed, desperate attempt to flush out every still in the country and to gaol the "criminals".

Student of History said...

In class today I had another look at Caledonian House in High St Maryborough which was built in 1871 as a Temperance Hotel. Was it ever glamorous and well patronised?

Hels said...


Good question. Within four months of gold being discovered in 1854, Maryborough's population exploded, and decades of building projects were started. Including dozens of hotels! Caledonian House in High St certainly started life as a temperance hotel but I cannot find a single glamorous photo of the building during its heyday.

This is presumably because:
a] the gold rush had peaked and faded by 1871, so why keep building very large, rather luxurious pubs, either alcoholic hotels or otherwise? And
b] 1871 was too early for most of the truly grand temperance hotels, especially in rural towns.