With a streetscape dotted with pubs, a history of Broken Hill isn't complete without looking at the town's fascinating drinking culture.
The number of drinkers in Australia is among the highest in the world per capita, so it’s a good job that Broken Hill has plenty of grand hotels, pubs and drinking dens to satisfy a thirst the size of the outback – along with plenty of tall tales to raise a smile from even the most seasoned barfly.
In 1885, as the first wave of miners clocked off their shifts, they had the arduous task of having to choose between one of two pubs in town. But as the mining boom exploded, that task became infinitely more complex – within a few years, the number of pubs had swelled to over 70.
As drinking culture skyrocketed, so too did opposition. The Temperance Movement, which frowned on any scurrilous behaviour, arrived in Broken Hill to set up the town’s first ‘coffee palace’ – an attempt to ensure that workers brought their pay packet home to their family, rather than deliver it wholesale to the nearest publican.
They built the renowned, three-storey Palace Hotel, now regarded as one of the most iconic ‘palaces’ of the outback.
However, it was always going to be a tough battle to come between thirsty miners and their grog, and within only three years, the Movement admitted defeat, and the Palace became a regular drinking den.
That said, there’s little that’s ‘regular’ about the Palace. One of its key features is a secret tunnel that runs from the basement through to the Central Mine a few blocks away. As a quick and easy way to grab some daytime drinking, it was no secret to the miners, but the disappearing workforce was certainly a mystery to the mine managers for many years.
As the home of true Australian unionism, it’s not surprising that politics played a part in the town’s drinking history. During regular strikes in the early 20th century, it was standard policy to ensure that ‘scabs’ (those who broke picket lines) were refused a drink in all bars and hotels. In addition, for over 50 years the price of most commodities in town was regulated by the Barrier Industrial Council (BIC), as a way to ensure that workers could afford the basic essentials of life. Beer was, of course, one of those essentials.
The BIC also had a hand in the legendary ‘beer strike’ of 1941, after publicans insisted on raising prices and the town responded by refusing to drink. The resolution tabled at the BIC meeting called the price increase “a direct attack on our living standard” and mandated that all union members stay out of all pubs until the owners capitulated.
By the late 1960s, the consumption of beer in Broken Hill was four times the state average. Yet, despite the rise, women remained banned from all bars in town, relegated instead to an adjacent lounge or ‘parlour’. This continued until the 1970s, when protests across the country eventually forced a much-needed change in legislation.
There are now just over 20 pubs and clubs in Broken Hill, and, unlike the customers of their heyday, many of the best remain standing.
The Palace Hotel is now owned by a small consortium of local families and managed by Esther Le Rovere. They have already restored the Palace to much of its former glory, however Esther believes that its closure for many years was actually the very thing that saved it. “Part of the reason the Palace is so wonderful is that it missed the renovations of the 1980s and 1990s, where pubs were demolished or were painted white, and filled with glass and chrome,” she says. “I would hate to think that as we took it forward into a new life we were insensitive to what exists here.”
She’s also conscious of the debt owed to a certain Queen of the Desert, and the ongoing renovations will also see “a dash of Liberace” added to the bathroom in the sensational ‘Priscilla Suite’.
Steve Sliwka grew up in Broken Hill and recently moved back to renovate the Old Royal Hotel. “I love the building,” he says, “and I wanted to preserve it irrespective of whether I could make a business out of it. It’s too important to let go.” He believes that the restorations of both the Royal and Palace are just the beginning of what he describes as “a new pub culture” emerging in the town – and his own aspirations for a new brewery museum also play a part in that.
“I have full confidence in Broken Hill as a great destination. There’s so much we can do, and if we can capitalise on what we’ve got, I can pass away a happy man.”