Kingston Hotel: playing its part in Australian politics

The Kingo has a significant association with what has become known as the Petrov affair, regarded as a defining moment in Australian history. Little wonder that Jill Waterhouse in her chapter about the Kingo in Early Canberra Hotels titled it 'The Spies' Pub'

The hotel is situated across the road from the Soviet Embassy, formerly the Griffith guest house which was purchased by the Russians in 1943. This proximity meant that not only was it a good vantage point for surveillance but it was also common ground for members of the intelligence community and journalists to meet informally. The Kingo is regarded as one of the 'Canberra Petrov Landmarks' because it was where Petrov met with Australian agents.

Mrs Petrov at Mascot Airport escorted by two Soviet officals. Picture: William Carty - courtesy ScreenSound Australia.

Mrs Petrov at Mascot Airport escorted by two Soviet officals. Picture: William Carty - courtesy ScreenSound Australia.

On April 13 1954, the last sitting day in Parliament before an election and just two months after the Royal visit by Queen Elizabeth II, the prime minister, Robert Menzies made a dramatic announcement that the third secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, Vladimir Petrov, had some 10 days earlier defected and asked for political asylum. Petrov handed over a large number of documents implicating several Australians as Soviet agents. The defection of Vladimir and Edvokia Petrov came to be regarded by Western intelligence services as one of the most important of the Cold War era. As a result the Soviets severed diplomatic relations in April and closed the embassy.

The Kingo had many roles in espionage at the time of the defection. A Canberra Times report referred to a meeting in the hotel car park between George Richards (deputy director of the Australian Security Service) and Petrov in which they discussed his possible defection and that of his wife Evdokia.

Rupert Lockwood, the Communist journalist and author of the infamous Document J stayed at the hotel in Room 32 from May 22-25 1954 while he wrote some other documents in the Soviet Embassy over the road.

As a result of the Petrov defection a Royal Commission on Espionage was set up. The Kingo was investigated as a possible place where clandestine activities had taken place.

Political fallout for the Labor Party

The Petrov Affair had a profound and lasting impact on the Australian political landscape.

One of the documents handed over by Petrov implicated staff members of the leader of the opposition, 'Doc' Evatt. This created considerable tension between pro- and anti-communist elements within the ALP and led to a damaging split before the December 1955 elections. Those loyal to Evatt remained in the ALP. The breakaway group was called the Australian Labor Party (Anti Communist), which later became the Democratic Labor Party.

Evdokia and Vladimir Petrov at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1955.

Evdokia and Vladimir Petrov at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1955.

Menzies used the split to win an early election. It would become the longest-running government in the history of the nation, remaining in power until 1972.

It was not until 1959 that the Soviet embassy reopened. When first secretary, Ivan Skripov, arrived to reopen the Soviet Embassy he stayed at the Kingo. That was when the front room of the Kingo was booked by ASIO and used to watch the Soviet Embassy thereafter.

Contemporary tourist guides have continued to highlight the importance of the Kingo as a hot spot for espionage activity during the Cold War.

The 36 Faceless Men

Nine years after the Petrov defection, a further political event of lasting national importance occurred at the Kingo and is known as the 'Faceless Men' episode.

At the time (1963) the ALP was governed by a Federal Executive that excluded the Parliamentary leadership (then Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam). The two were waiting outside the hotel for the Federal Executive to decide an important matter of national policy (whether to allow the USA to build a radio communications base at Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia) when journalist Alan Reid saw them and quickly had them photographed. The photograph was published by The Daily Telegraph and the term 'Faceless Men' was coined by Reid. Menzies made much of the fact that the parliamentary leadership of the ALP had no say in policy. The Liberal party circulated a one-page flyer to damaging effect.

This incident had lasting and significant national implications as later in 1963 it undoubtedly helped Menzies win the election by a sizeable majority. The 'Faceless Men' jibe was to become one of the most damaging tags ever in Australian politics.

This episode led directly to the restructuring of the entire Labor machine to its present more open arrangement. This included the ALP's parliamentary leader being represented on the Federal Executive.

A bar at the hotel was named the Faceless Men bar and continued to be a haunt for true believers until it was closed in 1994. The South Canberra branch of the ALP regularly held meetings at the Kingo.

The Kingo is unique as the only surviving inter-war brewery pub in the ACT; the product of the 1928 liquor plebiscite; and the first traditional pub built since the creation of the FCT.

Many people in the ACT community have a strong association with the Kingo through various organisations, groups and family gatherings. Many important events have been celebrated here. The place is much appreciated as something rare in Canberra - a traditional Aussie pub - and one to be treasured for years to come.

This is final part of a series on the Kingston Hotel. Read the first part - 'Inside a capital pub like no other' here; and second part - 'A trendsetter for Canberra buildings'.

  • 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.
  • To submit a piece to this column, write to history@canberratimes.com.au.