The many faces of the Geraldton Beach Hotel
Hotel, tavern, bar. We know them all simply as ‘the pub’. Where generations have gathered to celebrate, commiserate, and everything in between. It’s a place where romances blossom, business deals are sealed, and long-standing friendships are made and tested.
In this series Pub Crawl Through Time, the Geraldton Guardian explores the colourful history of Geraldton’s favourite watering holes. In part two, we visit the Geraldton Beach Hotel. The GBH, known for live sport and skimpy barmaids, has its origins in a progressive move for the Victorian era.
The wife of a successful baker would have been a good lot in life in 1860s Geraldton. But when her husband died unexpectedly, Bridget Dow was left in a tough spot.
What could she do? Build a pub of course!
Opened as the Shamrock Hotel in 1872, what is now the Geraldton Beach Hotel would be unrecognisable to Mrs Dow. She sold it two years later to James Hanlon, who immediately made changes, building a stable and storage rooms.
The building was a basic structure with a single floor, and it wasn’t until Robert Johnston took over in 1898 that the building we now know took shape.
In what was a colossal undertaking for the time, Mr Johnston added the second floor, containing 10 bedrooms with a back and front balcony. The dining hall was converted to a saloon bar — a place for the well-to-do patrons to drink fancier beverages — while the dance hall was refurbished to replace the dining room.
In perhaps one of the first recordings of the “Dero Gero” attitude, a reporter for the Geraldton Murchison Telegraph wrote of the renovation: “Ventures of this description offer silent reproof to those croakers who are only happy when airing pessimistic views on the future of Geraldton.”
The new dining room received national press in February 1910, when a cook shot two patrons having dinner on a Friday night.
A dozen men were enjoying a meal in the hotel’s kitchen, when Thomas Williams, apparently angry about the mess they had made, “ran amok” according to newspaper reports. One of the diners, Bernard Leix, was shot in the chest, the bullet missing his main artery by “a hair’s breadth”. Another diner, A.R. Morrison tried to grab the revolver from the cook, but it went off in the struggle and he took a bullet to the hand.
Both men made full recoveries, and the cook was charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm.
That wouldn’t be the first time death knocked on the door of the Shamrock.
One patron got the fright of his life on Christmas morning 1953. Con Toskos found a man he thought was asleep on the toilet at the back of the pub. After throwing a bucket of water on him failed to rouse the man, Toskos realised he was dead.
Police identified the man as 49-year-old Haakon Thomsen, a woodcutter from Oakabella, and concluded he died of natural causes.
The mid 20th century was a turbulent time for the Shamrock Hotel, as publican Nicholas Pilatis was fined a total of £5047 and 16 shillings — about $268,000 today — between 1947 and 1952 for numerous violations of liquor licensing laws, and avoiding tax.
The Geraldton Guardian published a damning report in 1951, when Pilatis was hauled in front of a magistrate to answer to accusations he had watered down bottles of gin.
Inspector of liquor Sgt J. Firth found a bottle in the public bar which he told the court “was cloudy and contained a number of winged insects,” and was 50.8 degrees under proof — a reduction of about 29 per cent alcohol by volume.
Sgt Firth then went to the store room where he found another bottle which was 35 degrees under proof.
Pilatis arrived barely in time to speak in his own defence against a charge of adulterated liquor, for which he was fined the equivalent of $542.
The mid-70s saw the name, which had lasted nearly a century, change to the Colonial Hotel. The beer garden and a small bottle shop were added, while the front of the building remained much the same until the late 90s, when it was painted blue and again renamed the Geraldton Beach Hotel.
Brian King bought the pub in 2000, and has managed it since selling in 2008. He regrets the 150-year- old pub has been “left behind” in the time he’s known it.
“It’s been let go since (2008). The people who bought it went broke and it’s deteriorated. Now it’s about to be sold again, so the new people will hopefully do something with it.” Mr King said.
The “old-style pub” Mr King said is impractical to run to its full capacity. The original public bar — where manager Jason Moylan was married — is rarely used now, with what would have been the saloon bar now used as the main bar, joining the beer garden.
However, some older features, such as the hotel check-in desk and pressed tin ceiling remain popular with punters.
“We’ve had many people say, ‘if it ever get’s knocked down, can I have your roof?’,” Mr Moylan said.
Readers of the previous installment of Pub Crawl Through Time will be familiar with the tunnels which lead into the cellars of old pubs, used to transport beer kegs. Mr King and Mr Moylan believe a tunnel leads to their cellar from the foreshore, and continues to the Geraldton Hotel.
“They say they used to bring the kegs way back by boat and dump them in the tunnel,” Mr King said.
Whatever the rumours say, the Geraldton Beach Hotel has been an icon of Geraldton for 150 years. With new owners incoming, who knows what this article could look like in another 150.
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