Melbourne’s first pubs sprang up not long after European settlement began. These early establishments, often of primitive wattle and daub construction, were not to last. But several pubs founded during the heady gold rush days are still trading. The Duke of Wellington, on the corner of Flinders Street and Russell Street, is acknowledged by the city council as Melbourne’s oldest pub. Designed by Richard Dalton for Timothy Lane, a local businessman, and completed in 1850, it originally operated as a boarding house.
On 30 June 1853, an advertisement appeared in The Argus:
DUKE OF WELLINGTON HOTEL
RICHARD DALTON begs leave to inform his friends and the public that he has obtained a license for those spacious premises situate at Flinders-street, corner of Russell-street, lately in the occupation of Mrs. Smith, as a family boarding house, and the property of Mr. Councillor Lane.
To professional gentlemen, mercantile men, and gentlemen engaged in business, this hotel affords peculiar accommodation. Its retired and beautiful situation facing the Yarra, and its close proximity to the business parts of the city, render it a residence not only to be desired but coveted.
N.B. The best of wines and spirits always on hand.
Dalton died within a year of opening his hotel and his wife became the licensee. In 1862, the Duke’s licence was obtained by Louis John Michel, the first man to have discovered gold in Victoria. Michel held the licence until the mid-1870s. It wasn’t all smooth sailing – like many other Melbourne publicans, he was hauled into the magistrate’s court several times for illegal Sunday trading.
Melbourne’s oldest pub has had its ups and downs. Over the years, the licence for the hotel changed hands many times. Michel was not the only one of its licensees to run into problems with the law. There were disputes over the ownership of adjoining land, upon which the hotel had encroached. There were further prosecutions for Sunday trading. And, in 1897, Mr Fielder Ware received a fine for a misdemeanour that was no fault of his own. As reported in Sportsman:
Mr. Fielder Ware, the licensee of the Duke of Wellington Hotel, Flinders-street, has had to pay the penalty for another’s shortcomings. A lodger named Griggs met a couple of the “nymphs du pave,” and invited them into a sitting room to have a drink. Mr. Ware was lying down, and the barmaid who served Griggs was not aware that the women were on the premises. Constable Hallett was on the qui vive, and the result was that Mr. Ware was fined £5 5s., one of the magistrates, we believe, dissenting from the finding.
Fielding Ware held the license for some 15 years from 1888. Then followed another merry-go-round of proprietors. In 1910, the host was Mr W. H. Quintrell who proudly advertised that the hotel had been “refurnished and redecorated throughout”. He was soon replaced by Alf Wesley who was, in turn, replaced by W. Davies, then D. Lynch, then by Thomas S. Kerr.
At some point in the early 1900s, the Duke of Wellington had been acquired by an investment group known as the Melbourne Trust. In 1912, the Trust bought the two shops next door, providing scope for considerable improvements and extensions to the hotel, including remodelling of the interior to provide 24 bedrooms and a sitting room for guests. But the pub’s reputation took a dent in the 1920s, when the licence-holder, one Bertha Bols, was charged with passing off local whisky as Scotch and with breaches of the health regulations.
The Duke of Wellington was bought by Carlton and United Breweries in 1930. In 1931, they installed Clarrie Robertson “late of Albury” as the licensee in. He remained as publican for at least two decades. Clarrie served as president of the Licensed Victualler’s Association. Under his stewardship, the Duke of Wellington continued its close association with football. While, in Fielding Ware’s days, the pub had associations with the Essendon Football Club, in the Robertson years it became a favoured venue for “smoke nights” for the Melbourne and Richmond clubs. In the 1990s, the licensee was ex-Richmond footballer, Brian Roberts, immortalised by his catch cry “Have an ale with the Whale”.
The hotel was fortunate to survive grand plans by the brewery to knock it down and replace it with a multi-storey hotel. First proposed in the post-war years, the scheme was to have the new hotel completed in time for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It didn’t happen. While the pub has been extensively renovated over the years – most recently while closed between 2006 and 2013 – the exterior of the original corner building remains largely unchanged. Now known just as the Duke, Melbourne’s oldest pub lives on.