The Desert Continent can be a thirsty place. The Quixote sight of windmills standing high above dry watering holes in the Outback is evidence enough of that, but if extra evidence is needed, take a peek at the bending elbows inside any Aussie pub on a Saturday night and see just how thirsty this dry land can really be.
It’s true that many Australians like a drink. Then they like another. To paraphrase Slim Dusty, they love a beer in “moderation” hoping to “never ever ever get rollin’ drunk” and as watering holes go, the Lower Plenty Hotel across the River is the nearest place to moderately bend that elbow at Yallambie. Positioned on a ridge above the Plenty River opposite Yallambie, the “Local” was built in the 1960s when the surrounding sub divisions were just beginning to gather momentum. It might seem in a drinking haze today that the pub has been there for as long as anyone can remember but, as mentioned previously in these pages, the earlier Plenty Bridge Hotel preceded it by more than 100 years.
The old Plenty Bridge Hotel was a country pub in the classic traditions of Aussie drinking, the story of which stretches way back into the 18th century and to an infamous trade in “grog” by the 102nd Regiment of Foot, the aptly named Rum Corp of NSW. Aussie pubs themselves descended from the institution of the British public house and rural tavern, with the addition over time of a number of uniquely Australian features, such as the long bar and ice cold beer setting them apart from those of the Old Country.
The weather board building at the Plenty River crossing place that formed the Plenty Bridge Hotel first opened for business in 1858 and it remained a well-known centre of community life in the district for at least a century.
There has been speculation that it may have been preceded by an earlier pre-gold rush establishment on the same site which, to put this into some kind of perspective within the larger history of Yallambie, means that the first beers were being pulled at the Plenty Bridge during the Bakewells’ continuing involvement at “Yallambee Park” and while Thomas Wragge was yet a young man.
That may be, but at any rate, much of the later life of the Plenty Bridge became synonymous with its use by the Heidelberg Golf Course as a 19th Hole and indeed, over time, the hotel would even become known by an alias, the “Golf Club Hotel”.
In 1948 however, Robert (Bob) Irwin, a former Riverina Publican, took over the hotel licence with a vision of creating a country-club style venue within the environment of the old hotel. Among other renovations, the Plenty Bridge was given a lick of paint, sun blinds were installed and Irwin added what was commonly supposed to be Melbourne’s first formal beer garden.
White coated “waiters” attended patrons within a vine clad and trellised enclosure and on a sunny day the atmosphere seemed quite fashionable.
This later life of the Plenty Bridge coincided with an Australian liquor licencing policy which, although seeming strange to the drinker of today, existed for a significant part of the 20th century. This was the era of “6 o’clock closing” when public bars were forced to close at 6pm, a mere hour after most working men knocked off for the day. The infamous “6 o’clock” swill” as it became known developed as a result of austerity measures introduced during the 1st World War but, under pressure from the local Temperance Movement in a sort Antipodean version of American Prohibition, it became permanent, remaining until long after the end of the 2nd War.
The Plenty Bridge Hotel as a pub located “almost” in the country, appears to have escaped the most notorious aspects of the regular 6 o’clock, city worker, drinking binge. As a country pub, it was one of the first places where a drink could be legally purchased on Sundays, before the general easing of liquor licencing laws and the gradual repeal of all the various state Sunday Observance Acts.
A photograph from the John Irwin Family Collection taken inside the main bar of the Plenty Bridge Hotel in the late 1940s to my mind has an echo of one of Max Dupain’s iconic bar room images of a similar era.
Dupain, perhaps better remembered for a single, quintessentially Australian image of a sunbaker he took on a NSW beach, was an incredibly prolific and gifted photographer whose subjects continue to resonate throughout the Australian consciousness. In the 1940s he was commissioned by the Australian Department of Information to document the Australian way of life and his photographs from this time remain an important record of the changing face of Australian society.
Similarly, the Plenty Bridge Hotel picture shows characters of that now largely bygone world. A time of laconic Australian men, their elbows resting lightly on the bar on a Saturday afternoon, yarning over cold glasses while their women sat across the hallway, segregated inside the so called “Ladies Lounge” in front of the fireplace with light shandies their only company.
In those days the barman acted as a sort of de facto hotel security and Mick Noonan, the head barman at the Plenty Bridge, was no exception. Robert Irwin had met Mick years earlier at the Bendigo Show where he watched him step into the ring in one of those old time, “Thorn Birds” style boxing tent displays to take on the champion. Mick took down the champion in a one sided contest after which Robert got talking to him, liked him immediately, and offered him a job as the barman in his pub. When Robert moved to the Plenty Bridge with his wife Daisy and young son John, Mick came with the family.
Another Irwin picture from this time shows Mick behind the main bar with its top shelf liquors, valve radio and cash register. Mick’s reputation as a boxer was usually enough to keep law and order in the pub but on at least one occasion history records how this reputation was briefly put to the test by a stranger entering the bar hell bent on trouble. As the story goes, Mick remained silent to a variety of insults and challenges from this stranger before carefully folding his towel and emerging from behind the bar. In the yard outside between the pub and the stables, the hotel patrons assembled in expectation, forming a ring into which the two protagonists entered. While the stranger hurled verbal abuse Mick prepared himself without a word. Suddenly, with arms and knuckles flailing, the stranger charged into the attack.
The fight that followed was brief. Very brief. It’s said that Mick simply swayed aside from the onslaught and let go with a single punch. The stranger went down and didn’t get up. Without a word Mick went back inside the hotel to resume his duties as though nothing had happened.
The story of the “Fight” at the Plenty Bridge Hotel grew in the telling and was remembered locally for years afterward.
It cemented Mick’s reputation as the law man of the PBH: “He was unruffled and not easily angered – but it was a mistake to take his quietness lightly.” (John Irwin)
Robert Irwin developed the Plenty Bridge into a thriving business that drew patrons from near and far. The Montmorency Football Club were regular drinkers. They won their first DVFL Premiership in 1951 and no doubt bent a few elbows back at the Plenty Bridge that evening.
The Plenty Bridge Hotel’s Robert Irwin was a Great War veteran who had become a father for the first and only time relatively late in life. He loved animals and any kind of sport and was still playing cricket for the RSL in his 50s. Irwin worked hard to achieve his vision for the Plenty Bridge Hotel but in the early 1950s he collapsed while on the nearby Heidelberg Golf Course. The family left the Lower Plenty Hotel in December 1951 and moved to Rosanna in 1953 where in 1958, Robert Irwin died of a coronary occlusion aged 59. He left behind his wife Daisy and son John. Remembered as a loving father and husband, Irwin is buried at the Warringal Cemetery in Heidelberg with his wife.
The Plenty Bridge survived for a few more years under a succession of new licensees, Walter Stewart from 1951 to 1954, Noel Seletto from 1954 to 1957 and William Edwards from 1957 to 1958, but it was the end of an era. The hotel was demolished in 1958, the location being cleared away and standing empty for many years before the site was finally consumed last year by a newly constructed car park. With the onset of building work in the adjacent and interestingly named Edward Willis Court, the people and the times of the Plenty Bridge are long gone and all but forgotten, the legendary fight and the last orders of the ghosts of drinkers past lingering on in a few fast fading photographs and memories.
Perhaps the final word in this story should therefore go to Robert Irwin’s only child, John, now a grandfather himself of Houston, Texas. John enjoyed an idyllic childhood at the Plenty Bridge. In the following wonderfully immediate and eloquent description, extracted from an unpublished family memoir and quoted here by permission, a window is offered into that Plenty River childhood from another time:
“My mind turns back to a child’s eye: clever, brilliant, uneducated Nan, my Tasmanian grandmother, and our walks together in the bush, her stories of fairies and the spiritual world, Nan milking the cows, separating the cream, making butter with a churn and butter pats, and curling the butter, Nan telling fortunes with cards, reading palms, her pansies and jonquils, her quick wit and ever positive nature, Nan listening to “Blue Hills” on the radio; riding my three wheel bike, on two wheels at the Eltham tennis courts while my mother played, meeting my first friends at tennis; eating ice cream opposite the Eltham tennis courts on Main Road near the street up the hill to the artists’ colony at Montsalvat, my father buying my Shetland pony Dressie (Dresden Lea) at the artists’ colony, meeting someone named Jorgensen at Montsalvat; sitting on a stool in the main bar surrounded by loud men drinking, being “shouted” lemon squashes and raspberry & lemonades; the lush beer garden brimming with guests; speaking to ladies enjoying a drink in their cars in front of the hotel; Christmas morning, 1949 when I was four and was given my first two wheel bike, Mick holding the seat as I rode with him to the dairy to get milk, learning to balance and the thrill of riding home to show my parents; Nan in the backyard asking me to get the men from the bar, and finally understanding there was a deadly snake between us; being mascot for Montmorency Football Club in 1949, the smell of eucalyptus in the rooms, the thrill of running onto the ground with the players and around the oval; my adults only fifth birthday in front of a blazing fire in the ladies’ lounge, table set with a feast, my father opening champagne and then pouring a small green drink after the meal (not for me, crème de menthe); riding Dressie in the yard with my father and later at the Royal Melbourne Show; collecting eggs in the old stables which housed a coop for chickens and ducks: playing with Billie Bush at Yallambie, his birthday party, finding peanuts in the bear’s mouth on the bear skin rug, riding his sled down the slope behind Yallambie, a special air about Yallambie Homestead and its stairs and polished banister; Laddie fighting a ferocious dog called a Queensland Blue Heeler; Nan teaching Laddie to sit up, Nan teaching Cockie, the galah, to speak, Phillip the magpie who resided on the Nan’s bed stead, Nan’s canaries, Nan keeping a fishing line in the river; my father’s fascination with animals and all that we had at the hotel—pony, retired racehorse (Tony), draught horse, two or three cows (one named Daisy after my mother), chickens (“chooks”), ducks — riding around Lower Plenty with Mick in his two wheeled jinker pulled by Tony and visiting the black smith.”