Facadism: The People’s History of the John Curtin Hotel

The John Curtin Hotel is a staple, we’ve seen Bob Hawke with a pint, young student politics enthusiasts in oversized suits, and the champions of live music gigs.

I love pubs. I love the carbohydrates, the beers, the chips, the garlic bread and the pizza. I love the new friends and the sports on the television. This week was the first week I’d noticed the sale sign on The Curtin with my own eyes, and don’t get me wrong I heard the news… But I hadn’t noticed the sign across the facade.

The Politics

The name of the pub, formally the Lygon odes its name to one of the most influential former Prime Ministers, and a wartime statesman. John Curtin was a former socialist Australian Prime Minister, who lead the “No” campaign during the 1916 referendum on overseas conscription while a part of the Labour Movement. Curtin was a radical anti-conscriptionist and was even imprisoned for not showing to his mandatory medical examination.

Labor anti-conscription advertisement against the 1916 Overseas Conscription Referendum. Source: National Museum of Australia

Curiously, Curtin was even the State President of the Australian Journalist’s Association and changed careers after an unsuccessful candidacy for the seat of Balaclava in the 1914 federal election. Curtin was an interesting character, as the secretary of the Timberworkers Union while writing and publishing for socialist newspapers of the time.

John Curtin served as Prime Minister during the bulk of World War II and the War in the Pacific, establishing the 1934 University Commission to exempt University Students from war service. Curtin was described as anti-imperial, and his stance towards the British Empire was that imperialism was late-stage capitalism.

“Men and women of Australia…we are at war with Japan. This is the gravest hour of our history. We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them.”

John Curtin

The Curtin stands across from the Victorian Trades Hall, home of the Victorian workers who won the first 8-hour working day in the world in 1856, the former home of the National Union of Students, and even the Melbourne International Comedy Festival today. The Hotel stands in front of the home of the Victorian Labour Movement and was opened 10 years before the rebuilding of the Trades Hall we see today. The Curtin was known as Hawke’s second office, and has poured pints for politicians and unionists since the 1860s.

From 1882-1883, workers striked against Beath, Schiess and Co for uses of sweatshops which lead to the formation of Australia’s first women’s trade union. The strike revealed the public opinion of anti-sweating and the push for the short-hour movement. This was all organised at The Curtin over a beer.

It was the walls where Frank Hardy and George Seelaf schemed the underground printing of ‘Power Without Glory’ through the hand sewing of pages by meat workers of the Butchers Union. ‘Power Without Glory’ was a book that was far too taboo for publishers and printers, as it revealed the power structures of the Melbourne establishment. Seelaf was the delegate of the  Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union, and the distribution of the book was settled over a beer at The Lygon.

Power Without Glory First Edition
Source: By May be found at the following website: http://www.abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=10183526056., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5674735

The Curtin was a pub that didn’t enforce sexist laws and allowed women in for a drink in the public bar. In fact, at the time there was an instance of the Hotel offering its facilities to a female refrigerator mechanic apprentice so that she could study at a nearby Trade School that wouldn’t accommodate for female students.

Alf Bamblett, a strong respected leader in Melbourne’s Aboriginal Community played with his band Stray Blacks played fortnightly when pubs were hostile to First Nations people. The Curtin was a welcoming place for First Nations people at a time when majority of public bars were an unsafe space. The Curtin was a venue that welcomed Bamblett, who is recognised as one of the founding community members who was present for most formings of Victorian Aboriginal services such as VALS and VACSAL.

The Music

In our online blog, Catalyst’s connection to independent music is like a wine pairing. Recently, Editor Savannah Selimi reviewed Big Thief’s new album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. But Big Thief’s gig history aligns with The Curtin, as it was the venue of their first Australian tour as well as hosting King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. The venue was nominated in the Music Victoria Awards category for Best Venue (Under 500 Capacity) in both 2016 and 2017, and rightfully so. The live music of The Curtin is an entirely different aspect of the venue’s great social importance and heritage.

Heritage Protection

As of this week, The National Trust of Australia is nominating to have the historic pub protected on the Victorian Heritage Register after citing its significance to Victorian and Labor Party history. This draws a larger question into what we believe is valuable to be registered as Heritage and what the reduction of Melbournian facadism is causing to our state identity. The planning rules of The City of Melbourne almost always allow heritage listening for buildings to be gutted for residential apartments.

Currently, in Victoria, there are two concepts of heritage registration with 2,500 places registered with the Victorian Heritage Register, while councils operate with heritage overlays that could see further old buildings removed of its character and social importance.

One example of the latter is the industrial site, ‘Hoffman Brickworks’ which was recently announced as a planned residential apartments and shared urban garden. On the project site, the vision statement says ‘the design intent was to create a literal interpretation of the existing Brick Pressing Shed in terms of shape, bulk, scale and materials’, but this draws a larger question as to why architectural history is more important than social history. For example, the architectural package presented by MGS architects shows a floor plan to entirely revise the historical site with brick and corrugated iron to give the apartments a historical feel, while also gutting its history with another inner-city apartment space.

Source: Hoffman Brickpress Website ‘THE VISION’

This concept mentioned in Uncommon Sense: Save The John Curtin Hotel, hosted by Amy Mullins states that city councils are beginning to wake up to the reasoning behind public outcry, and the need to protect heritage buildings for social reasons. With the interviewee Felicity Watson Executive Manager of Advocacy at the National Trust of Australia urging “There have been places that have been meeting places for many many years, but its sort of been slow to take shape and I was pleased to see that the City of Melbourne is already looking at upgrading the protection”.

Watson went on to say that interiors of Heritage Listed buildings can not be protected under the current legislation, while commenting that she was angry about the demolition of The Palace Theatre on Bourke St, being incredibly valued by the community. Only the facade has been included in the development, with the inside of the theatre being ‘gutted’ by developers.

Image of the Palace Theatre on Bourke Street behind the Metro Tram Line

Currently, the Melbourne council is looking at studying a precinct of buildings surrounding the Trades Hall for its historical connection, but it is deeply disappointing to not see a range of buildings of importance that are not listed for protection until there is a threat.

In 2016, the horror story of a demolition company destroying the iconic 159-year-old Corkman Irish Pub illegally only pinpoints the legal and governmental systems that have flawed protection over pubs and hotels. The plans were to convert it into an apartment building up to 12 storeys high without the approval of the Victorian Heritage Register. The demolishing of the pub not only destroyed iconic architecture but the innards of a Melbourne University catch-up place for law students and alumni. The Victorian government passed new laws with five-year jail terms and increased fines for developers who demolish heritage-listed buildings however, it did not adjust the state protection for other pubs in Victoria.

It’s time to not only protect The Curtin, but begin to change the optics of how Government legislation treats heritage buildings of social importance to art, music politics and film. After the devastating destruction of the Corkman and The Palace, to the ongoing campaigns of the Nicholas Building and beyond, we can’t let our social history become another apartment complex.

Article Written by Jasper Cohen-Hunter
Header Image taken by Jasper Cohen-Hunter

Brooks, R 1983, ‘The Melbourne Tailoresses’ Strike 1882-1883: an Assessment’, Labour History, no. 44, p. 27.

Ettling, A 2022, Save the John Curtin Hotel, Overland literary journal, viewed 3 April 2022, <https://overland.org.au/2022/02/save-the-john-curtin-hotel/>.

Mullins, A 2022a, Segments: Uncommon Sense: Save The John Curtin Hotel — Triple R 102.7FM, Melbourne Independent Radio, www.rrr.org.au, viewed 3 April 2022, <https://www.rrr.org.au/on-demand/segments/uncommon-sense-save-the-john-curtin-hotel>.

― 2022b, Segments: Uncommon Sense: Save The John Curtin Hotel — Triple R 102.7FM, Melbourne Independent Radio, www.rrr.org.au, Triple R 102.7 FM.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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