1870s First Darwin hotels

Terminus Hotel, Darwin. Image:Facebook

The Northern Territory has not dealt kindly with its historic hotels. The oldest of the Darwin hotels still standing, the Victoria Hotel, has been closed since 2014.  All earlier pubs have been demolished over the years.

The first Darwin hotels opened in the early 1870s, soon after the establishment of the settlement. Darwin, which was initially known as Palmerston, was founded in 1869. In 1871, gold was discovered at Pine Creek, 225km to the south, making Darwin an important staging post for the goldfields. New hotels catered for the influx of hopeful miners and for workers engaged in the construction of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Palmerston.

Initially, the Northern Territory was administered by the government of South Australia. In December 1873, the Licensing Bench sat “for the purpose of considering applications and granting licences”. There were applications from three publicans and two wine bar proprietors in Palmerston and one publican in nearby Southport. Newspaper advertisements at the time show the Telegraph, the Esplanade (formerly the Temperance) and the Northern Territory Hotel all touting for business. They were soon joined by the Great Britain and Mr Bieber’s Royal Hotel.

The Royal, according to The Northern Territory Times and Gazette, was to be a cut above the competition:

[It] bids fair to become the leading establishment of its kind in Palmerston. A spacious bar, fitted up in first-class style, occupies the front of the building. There is also a fine large dining-room and several bedrooms, all of a lofty and roomy character. One bedroom has been fitted with a large iron tank fixed in the roof, which, when filled with water it is intended shall be used for the purpose of a shower bath.

The Times continued its praise of The Royal after the hotel’s opening in December 1873, enthusing that “the opening of an establishment like Bieber’s Royal Hotel shows that civilization is advancing in the Northern Territory”.

The days of these early Darwin Hotels were numbered. The Telegraph, evidently the oldest of them, was pulled down in 1878. The Royal didn’t last long either. In March 1881 it was destroyed by fire shortly before it was due to be demolished. The Terminus, evidently rebuilt in 1885 and no doubt modified in later years, lingered on until the 1930s but the fate of several others is unclear. An 1883 entrant to the Darwin hotel scene, the Palmerston Club Hotel, was also demolished in the 1930s.

Victoria Hotel, Palmerston – State Library of South Australia B72713/15

The demolition of the Terminus and the Club hotels left the Victoria Hotel as the only one trading in Darwin. The first two-storey hotel in Darwin and the first to be constructed of stone, the Victoria was built for Mrs Ellen Ryan in 1890. Originally it was to be named The Royal. As the finishing touches were being made to the building, the Times described it as “a decided ornament to the main street of the city”.

Some months elapsed between the completion of the building and the granting of the licence and Mrs Ryan then made a request that the hotel’s name on the licence should be changed to the North Australian Hotel. In 1896, George Henry James took over as publican and changed the name to The Victoria. Mrs Ryan returned as the licensee in 1902.

In 1915, the Northern Territory passed from South Australian to Commonwealth control. The pubs were promptly taken under government control in an effort to regulate alcohol consumption. This lasted until 1921, despite the famous Darwin Rebellion protest in 1918 which was, in part, triggered by beer prices.

In his blog article Road trip: Pubs of the Northern Territory, Mick Roberts recounts much of the Victoria’s colourful history. The pub survived many ups and downs, including the government takeover, cyclones, union boycotts and many changes of ownership. Sadly, it closed in 2014, with the business struggling and in debt. The building remains, but the doors are (as of 2023) yet to re-open.

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