There is no place like the Kingston Hotel in Canberra. Appropriate to its genuine 'pubness' the hotel is commonly known simply as 'the Kingo' and, with due deference, is referred to as such in this series of articles from now on.
The hotel was purpose built by Tooheys as a traditional Australian public house - the first after the prohibition of the sale of alcohol in the Federal Capital Territory was removed. It was also the first pub purpose-built since the FCT was created in 1908.
The Kingo has operated continuously as a pub for 82 years since opening in 1936. It is closely associated with a number of momentous national political events such as the Cold War defection of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov and his wife and also the Thirty-six Faceless men incident. These two events have resulted in the Kingo being acknowledged by the Australian National University in its online archives as one of Australia's 'notorious hotels'.
The importance of the hotel is also described on the websites of the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Archives of Australia and the Museum of Australia.
The hotel's reputation as a place for celebrations was recently demonstrated when the passing of historic same-sex marriage legislation was celebrated at the Kingo by many senior federal politicians. Many more organisations and individuals have a strong attachment to the place.
The Hotel Kingston, as it was first known officially, was built in 1936 as a result of the delayed implementation by the federal government of the September 1928 liquor poll result. This marked the end of an important phase in the ACT's cultural history and the beginning of the return to normality as far as liquor sales were concerned.
The Liquor Poll asked people to vote on four options. The final results were:
- Prohibition of possession of liquor: 5.2%
- Continuance of present law (Prohibition of the sale of liquor): 19.1%
- Sale of liquor under public control: 24.8%
- Sale of liquor on licensed premises: 50.4%.
The liquor plebiscite vote resulted in a majority preference for option 4 - the sale of alcohol from privately owned premises - as was the case elsewhere in Australia. Despite this clear result the government adopted the voters' second preference, which was the sale of liquor under public control, that is, from government-run premises.
Consequently liquor licences were issued to four of the existing government-run residential hotels (the Canberra, Acton, Wellington and Kurrajong).
These hotels had been designed and built when the sale of alcohol in Canberra was prohibited and their main purpose was residential. Licences were also issued for three temporary government run 'cafés' - in Civic, Manuka and Kingston. The cafés were to operate until the businesses were offered to private enterprise once the liquor ordinance was amended accordingly.
The Kingston Café opened on December 22, 1928. The cafes were a dismal failure, not living up to the intent of creating civilised drinking places.
Warren Denning wrote in 1938: "The main feature of the Commission's policy was to establish cafes in which drink, but not food, could be purchased and consumed. Three of these cafés were accordingly established, one at Civic Centre, one at Kingston (as Eastlake afterwards came to be named), and the third at Manuka. They were roughly furnished, sordid, primitive and filthy. They might have been expected at remote bush racecourses, but certainly not at the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth."
The liquor plebiscite vote resulted in a majority preference for option 4 - the sale of alcohol from privately owned premises - as was the case elsewhere in Australia.
The Depression placed the government in something of a quandary. Moving to a private enterprise model was impractical but it was also uneconomic to keep several of its hotels and hostels open. The government tried to sell off the two remaining cafés and two hotels (the Wellington and Ainslie) but failed, partly because of the imposition of unreasonable restrictions on any successful tenderer.
Not until April 1935 did the government manage to sell the Kingston and Civic cafes. They were sold to private operators on condition they build brand new hotels within 12 months and transfer the café licences to them.
Mr Walter Patrick McGrath paid 30,000 pounds for a hotel in Kingston and it was to be a traditional Tooheys hotel, as was the Hotel Civic. McGrath took over the Kingston Café on July 29, 1935.
Four sites were proposed for the new hotel - two in Kingston and two in Griffith. The site chosen was not in Kingston but nearer the site of the least successful of the three original cafes - Manuka. McGrath ran the Kingston café until the hotel was opened on July 20, 1936. The licence was then immediately transferred to the hotel and the café closed, at last implementing the result of the plebiscite.
A previous manager of the Kingston Café (and also the Civic and Manuka cafes) was Alexander James 'Jim' Kay - he became the first manager of the Hotel Kingston.
With the demolition of the Hotel Civic in 1985 the Kingston Hotel became the only surviving privately-built pub resulting from the 1928 liquor plebiscite popular vote and the first pub built since the Federal Capital Territory was created.
The only pub remaining when the FCT was created in 1908, the Cricketers' Arms in Hall, managed to survive until 1918 when it closed on the expiry of its NSW licence. This left the FCT with no places selling alcohol.
Although alcohol became available for sale in the FCT from late 1928, its people had to wait until 1936 for a traditional Australian pub to open. The government-owned FCC residential hotels allocated liquor licenses in 1928 were never intended to be traditional Australian pubs.
This is part 1 of a three-part series on the Kingston Hotel.
- Nick Swain is president of the Canberra & District Historical Society. For information about the group or to join, visit canberrahistory.org.au The society's nomination of the Kingo to the ACT Heritage List is currently being considered.
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