1937 First beer garden in Australia. Or not.

Raffles Hotel claimed to have Australia's first beer garden. Image from 1938 - State Library of Western Australia

Pub beer gardens are a familiar part of our Aussie lifestyle. So it may surprise you to learn that we didn’t have any until the 1930s. The Canning Bridge Hotel in Applecross, south of Perth, claimed to have the first beer garden in Australia. It was rebuilt in 1937, “designed on the most modern lines” and renamed Raffles after the famous hotel in Singapore. The beer garden purportedly echoed that of its Singapore sister. The Perth Daily News wrote:

To the north of the hotel building it commands magnificent views of the river.

It is a large grassed area, fringed by shade houses containing palms and other pot plants. Colorful creepers grow on the shade houses.

On the grassed area are a number of rustic tables, each is under a large colored umbrella – an over-size on the large beach type. Tables and chairs are on colored concrete slabs, and a stretch of lawn separates the tables.

In the centre of the area is an aviary and a dove-cot. From the hotel, music will be relayed to the area. At night the Beergarden’s colorful setting will be enhanced by special lighting.

However, the article provoked a response in the West Australian less than two weeks later, claiming that two beer gardens had recently been under construction in Willuna, a town in Western Australia’s Goldfields-Esperance region. It seems the Commercial and Weeloona hotels had both opened outdoor drinking areas in September of 1937, a couple of months ahead of Raffles.

Even they may not have been the first. There are claims that an outdoor area of Muller’s Café in the Dargo, Victoria, goldfields where Italian miners gathered in 1865, was effectively Australia’s first beer garden. In 1914, the publican at the Woodbridge Hotel in East Guildford, Perth, had opened “the lawn” where patrons could watch a variety of amusements including the antics of the local hunt club. While, in January 1937, there were reports of a murder resulting from a “fracas in a beer garden” attached to a Brisbane city hotel.

The concept of the beer garden originated in Germany, particularly in Bavaria, and was carried by immigrants to America as early as the 1860s. It took a long time to arrive in Australia. In the 1930s, well-travelled society hostesses endeavoured to recreate the German biergarten as a theme for lavish parties but, particularly in the conservative states of Victoria and South Australia, it took some time before the idea was expanded to pubs.

It was different in Sydney. The city’s first beer garden was established in 1938 at Petty’s Hotel in York Street. The event was reported as far away as Melbourne, where The Herald wrote:

To be modelled on the latest Continental lines, the garden will be divided into two sections – one for residents and one for the public. It will be situated on the York Street frontage, which, for more than 100 years, has been occupied by lawns and paths. The garden has been planned by the manager of Pettys (Mr. L. Pearce) who recently arrived from England. Seating accommodation will be provided for 200 people and tables will be shaded by colorful awnings.

It was almost a decade before Melbourne saw anything comparable. In 1945, the Lord Mayor, Councillor Connelly, boldly suggested the establishment of a Continental-style beer garden in the Alexandra Gardens, as well as the extension of drinking hours until 10.30 pm. He also rashly commented on the need to “brighten up” the city’s Sundays. These proposals engendered a storm of controversy, with church leaders and temperance organisations uniting to condemn the Lord Mayor’s proposals saying they were “dangerous in the extreme to the community at large”.

The first beer garden in Melbourne didn’t open until 1947 at “one of Melbourne’s oldest hotels in South Yarra”. The article in The Herald treated it as very hush-hush. “Sh-sh! Melbourne has a beer garden,” read the headline. Given the mention of a nearby park, readers could identify the hotel as the Fawkner Club in Toorak Road. The same year, the first pub in South Australia to provide garden surroundings for its drinkers was the Port Noarlunga Hotel, 30km south of Adelaide.  In Brisbane, the Breakfast Creek hotel claims to have been the first to introduce beer garden dining – but they’re not sure when. “In the late 1940s or early 1950s,” they say.

By the early 1950s, beer gardens were becoming established Australia-wide. Even in stuffy old Melbourne, you could grab a beer in the sunshine at many suburban hotels, at the army barracks, at the Caulfield races and even at the Show. And we’ve never looked back.

The Surfers Paradise Hotel beer garden was legendary. Image: Have you seen the old Gold Coast – Lacey Lee Reedman

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