The John Curtin Hotel has played a role in much of the history of Melbourne—some of it untold and rightly to remain so. Such is the nature of pubs and their uniquely beer-soaked place in our social life. But it is part of our living history and it would be a tragedy to let a beating heart of Melbourne life be turned by property developers into apartments, just at the moment when we most need to nurture our pubs back to good health.
Known as The Lygon until the 1960s, the Curtin Hotel is no ordinary pub. Located opposite Trades Hall, it has a claim—if the beating heart analogy is to be continued—to being the left ventricle, where the real life of the labour movement was nourished.
Going back to the 1800s, the earliest activities of the Victorian labour movement couldn’t help but find a historic association with the pub across the road. The Palace of the Workers, the Workingman’s Parliament, has always drawn activity around it, so central has been the antagonistic relationship of workers and capital to the growth of Marvellous Melbourne. The union movement was given this specific parcel of land on the edge of the city precisely because it was undesirable—surrounded by brothels in what was then a red-light district. It wasn’t remarkable that there was a pub across the road: for most of the Curtin’s history there were in fact two (the Dover closed in 1980). The two buildings stood side-by-side for over a century of fun and frivolity, but also an extraordinarily rich history of political strategising. Had more of these behind-the-scenes stories found their way into the history books, they would justify heritage protection several times over.
It’s not so easy to excavate the role of the pub in Melbourne’s political life, but some is known. In 1886, when workers were organising against the notorious sweatshop clothing company Beath, Schiess and Co (the same antagonists from the famous Tailoresses Strike), the unionists found that Trades Hall couldn’t accommodate all the people who wanted to attend the meeting. The logical solution was to shift across the road to the pub. This was the same pub where, one hundred years later, the Victorian nurses would meet during their famous strike of 1986.
It is at the Hotel, during the height of the Cold War, that Frank Hardy and George Seelaf schemed up the legendary underground printing of the classic novel Power Without Glory. The Melbourne establishment did not want to see a book that exposed the power structures of the city, and so the author was made to answer the charge of criminal libel. No printers would touch the book, so it was up to Seelaf from the Butchers Union to coordinate an underground printing operation with books hand sewn by meatworkers, whilst also raising money for Hardy’s defence. It was a stunning victory for the labour movement, with much of it being organised over a beer in The Lygon.
The legendary feminist Zelda D’Aprano, who writes in her memoir of the chauvinist pub life in the 1960s, made a point of drinking with the men in the public bar of the Hotel. This took some fortitude, given the laws segregating women from these spaces. The pub itself didn’t enforce the sexist law, and these formative experiences of asserting her place in public space no doubt encouraged her to continue with the iconic political stunt actions she is well known for.
Further into the 1970s, as women were pushing for their place in traditionally male-dominated industries, one of the logistical problems presented to women was that they didn’t have toilets to accommodate them. In one instance, the Hotel stepped in to offer its facilities to allow a female refrigerator mechanic apprentice to continue with her training at the nearby trades school.
In the 1980s, Alf Bamblett from the band Stray Blacks established a regular fortnightly event at the Hotel to spotlight Aboriginal bands. Racist hostility in bars was a common experience, and so it is an important part of the story of the pub that it was a welcoming venue for Melbourne’s Aboriginal community.
The Curtin also holds an important place in the story of Melbourne’s gastronomic revolution in the 1970s. It was one of the first pubs to move away from the staple pub grub and to welcome the cuisine of the Italian community that was moving into Lygon Street. The Hotel’s kitchen became particularly famous for its steak sandwich. It is also one of the pubs that features in the contested history of how the parmigiana came to achieve its prominence in today’s established pub menu.
The compelling case for the John Curtin Hotel’s leading role in the ascendancy of the parma is that this particular pub, more so than any others in Carlton, was the hotbed of the professional gossips—that is, the political journos that covered the Trades Hall beat. As such, it is one of the iconic drinking establishments that regularly feature in the memoirs of Australian political journalists. With such intimate proximity across the bar from so many of the leading figures of politics (Bob Hawke, Norm Gallagher, Clyde Holding, Bill Landeryou, etc.), its publicans and bar workers were the most trusted lubricators of the Victorian political system.
One reporter in particular is worth mentioning by name: Vincent Basile. The first journalist in a mainstream newspaper to have a dedicated ‘ethnic affairs’ role, Basile reported on the stories of migrant experience during the golden years of The Age under Graham Perkin. Fellow Italian-speaker Bruno Coruzzi, the Curtin’s publican at the time, acted as something of a human telegraph across the Italian Lygon Street community. Coruzzi became an important fixer for Basile’s stories, which played a role in shifting the racist attitudes towards southern European migrants in particular.
During the 1980s, as unions began to move out of Trades Hall and the regular patronage of union office workers and officials dispersed, the pub across the road had to adjust to a dwindling clientele and try new things. The upstairs was gutted, and became a conference venue for hire. It is now a valued part of Melbourne’s live music scene.
With the proximity to Trades Hall though, the Hotel has never lost its subsidiary function as a free place to hold a meeting, and has hosted the full spectrum of community gatherings that could be associated with the political left: innumerable campaign meetings, and larger public events like commemorations of the world-leading Eight Hour Day.
My own earliest interactions with Melbourne’s political community were often closely accompanied with drinks at ‘JC’s’. Conversations would keep going long after the meetings, which this was part of the intention, to take politics to an informal setting to find out what people really think. It’s not all hushed conversation though, as no doubt some of the most passionate oratory in the city’s history has reverberated within these hotel walls after not even a few pints.
When I became an organiser of dance parties, we were so pleased to find a home in the John Curtin Hotel. These not-for-profit queer dance parties, ‘Orlando’ and ‘Captain Moonlite’, were always seen by us primarily as good cheer, but also served as part of an ongoing commitment to social solidarity, with the offer of a carers subsidy for people in need so they could attend. These events also put tens of thousands of dollars into various progressive causes, from marriage equality, Aboriginal rights and workers strike funds to refugee activism.
I hope that people who love this pub can come together to build a campaign to save this building * as a pub *, not just a facade. Not apartments with a wine bar below. As a place where you can walk in, pull up chairs, and start talking.
It’s not a radical notion that pubs deserve special protection. Only a few years ago when Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the British Labour Party, he advocated heritage protection for the remaining historical gay bars in London, in recognition of the role they serve to the community and the city as a whole. There’s never been a better opportunity for a test case about placing meaningful heritage protections on a pub than this threat to the John Curtin Hotel. If the Labor Party is serious about never letting another Corkman Hotel disgrace happen, then this is the time to reset the planning laws in a way that serves the strong community sentiment to protect pubs for their cultural function, as well as their architecture.
If the state government doesn’t come to the table, it needn’t be the end of the story for saving the John Curtin Hotel. There have been successful community protests to protect pubs in the past. One of the earliest pubs in our city, Mac’s (now trading as Captain Melville), was protected in the 1970s by a green ban imposed by the Builders Labourers Federation. The Bellevue Hotel in Brisbane was also protected by a green ban from construction unions: it was effective until the right-wing government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen sanctioned a notorious cowboy demolition outfit to commence their wrecking operation in the middle of the night. There’s now a lonely bronze plaque where the Bellevue once stood. The wounds of losing these historic meeting places take a long time to heal.
When it comes to venues like the John Curtin Hotel—our gathering places—we often don’t realise their role in our lives they are until the doors close for good. Pubs weave their way into the stories we tell. They link the generations and make a patchwork of the different mobs that choose to walk in through the door. They form something of our sense of belonging, even though we’ve all got our own story to tell. Pubs like the John Curtin Hotel, deserve to be fought for.