Croxton Park Hotel - Darebin's first hotel

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Formerly the Pilgrim Inn and the Red House

On 27th April 1844 Robert Duff was granted a license for a hotel on Plenty Road to be known at the Pilgrim Inn. It seemed an unlikely place to build a hotel; Plenty Road was little more than a track heading north from Collingwood through to the Plenty Valley. There were only a few scattered shacks dotted along the road, used mainly by shepherds and cattle drovers. Duff and his wife were to run the hotel for nine years and the hotel was to become a well-known stopping place for gold prospectors moving up to Whittlesea and beyond. Duff built his hotel in what is now modern day Thornbury, a low wooden building with shingle roof and a signboard of a pilgrim hunched over a staff. Along with shepherds and drovers, his early clientele also included prospectors moving back and forward to the goldfields in the Plenty Valley.

Duff was an intriguing character, clearly well read and literate, who indulged in correspondence wars in the Argus newspaper on various matters. He railed against horse and cattle thieves and was a frequent litigant. In 1849 he pressed charges against Michael Davies, claiming Davies had attempted to attack him during a wages dispute.

Duff was still listed as the licensee in April 1853 but passed the licence on to George McKnight later that year. On April 18, 1854 Margaret Black became the new publican. Despite the change in publicans, Duff continued to reside at the Pilgrim Inn whilst leasing out the hotel. 

The following year William McNamara became the licensee, a position he was to hold for the next two years. On 21 April 1858, Hugh Sinclair, formerly of the Bridge Inn, became the next publican. 

In April 1859 Samuel Brownlow applied for the license of the Pilgrim Inn.  After the application was opposed, Brownlow withdrew his application.

In August 1859 the hotel appeared for lease again.

“To let, the publichouse known as the PILGRIM INN, on the Plenty-road,
only four miles from Melbourne, and doing a good trade;
also about 10 acres of land attached.
Apply to Mr. Duff, Plenty Road, Northcote”

Clearly either a tenant could not be found or provided inadequate because by December Duff was again advertising the hotel for lease. This time the advert mentioned stockyards, stables and paddocks were attached.

Later the same month a stolen bridle was offered to the landlord of the Pilgrim Inn, Mr. Love. 

By April 1861 a new publican, Martin Lawler was in place. He renewed his license the following year.  Solomon Pitchforth was the next publican, taking over in 1864.  

On 30 October 1865 the Argus newspaper reported that racing occurred at Goyder’s Red House Hotel, a “…premises known in olden times as the Pilgrim Inn.”

Given the hotel had still been known as Pilgrim Inn in 1864, “olden times” seems a bit of a stretch.

Josiah Goyder clearly intended to make the former Pilgrim Inn a sporting venue, building a

“…handy little trysting ground for a little occasional suburban racing.  There was a grand-stand putup for the occasion – an accommodation rarely to be found at minor meetings.”

By the next February the Argus was predicting that the Red-House would become a popular racing destination. It seems that about this time the hotel was painted bright red.

The hotel and its private racing track not only catered for horse racing. It became a popular site for foot racing and even walking matches. By now a large oval gravel track had been laid and attracted some of the most prominent athletes of the day. In July 1866 the veteran walker Moore found himself pitted against the gifted newcomer Payne. Payne’s walking style was immediately brought into question and disputes began to break out amongst the crowd, who had been betting heavily on the match. Payne went on to win the race whilst Moore contented himself with assaulting “…a well known member of the betting ring.”

On 26th November 1867a fire broke out in the two storey building adjoining the Red House Inn. At the time the hotel was occupied by Goyder’s daughter Ann Holmes and her four children. Just after midnight Mrs Holmes was woken up by a passerby who informed her of the fire. The children were rescued from the fire which consumed the building and the bar of the hotel. 

At an inquest the following month, Mrs Holmes claimed that she may have spilt some kerosene and that may have subsequently caught fire.   The court noted that the stock and furniture were insured for £300 and the clothing for £40 and a jury found the “…circumstances connected to it to be very suspicious.”

The hotel was rebuilt as near as possible to the original structure although, not surprisingly given the jury verdict, some dispute with the insurance company. At the time of the fire Goyder had been under some financial pressure.

In February 1869 a tender was placed for the building of a grandstand and a 1½ mile course in the paddocks adjoining the Red House Hotel, now known as the Croxton Park Hotel. The project was managed by a small company, with W. C. Hitchen as the secretary. Hitchen was a well known billiards player, who, by then, was the new licensee of the hotel.

In October 1869 the Argus reported that a disappointing crowd of only 1,200 to 1,500 turned up to watch the Melbourne Hunt Club participate in a steeplechase.

In March the following year Hitchen advertised tenders for a refreshment stand at the sporting ground and in June was able to attract the Light Weight wrestling champion of England, Scott and the Peeson, the New Zealand champion, to a wrestling match at the hotel.

Despite all of Hitchen’s inventiveness in creating sporting events, including steeplechases, deer hunts, foot races, pigeon shooting, etc, in July 1870 the hotel was sold at a mortgagee sale.

“McMillan and Another v. Hitchin

NOTICE is hearby given, that the Sheriff of the colony
of Victoria will cause to be SOLD by PUBLIC AUCTION,
at eleven o’clock a.m. on Tuesday, the
5th land, at Croxton-park Hotel, South Preston.

Furniture and effects, and also the stock-in-trade
of a publican, the property of the above

By November of 1870 Hitchen was the proprietor of the Victoria Hotel, St. Kilda.

The failure of Hitchin seemed to have had little effect on the sporting nature of the Croxton Park Hotel which continued to offer a range of sporting activities. In March they had a pigeon shooting match, in January 1871 the Argus stated it was the best attendance yet at a steeplechase at the Croxton. 

The bookmakers seemed to have a very strong presence at the Croxton Park track and in December 1872 the rider of the horse Whitefoot was approached to throw the race. The offer was rejected and Whitefoot went on to win the Hurdle Race.

The next month bookie J. B. Wallis found himself in front of racing stewards, defending himself against accusations of attempting to bribe T. Grimwood to throw the Hurdle Race.  Grimwood claimed to have been offered £50 to deliberately lose the race.  In late January Wallis was expelled from the Victorian Tattersalls Association for his crime.

On 10 March 1874 Hugh Lear applied for the license of the Croxton Park Hotel. It was described as

“…a house situated at Croxton Park, Northcote,
lately licensed as the Croxton-park Hotel,
containing six rooms exclusive of those required for the family.”

From this we can deduce that the hotel may have been closed for a while.

Lear found himself in court in May 1874, after an altercation with Robert Duff, the original owner of the hotel. Lear and Isaac Bartlett got into a fight with Duff over a boundary dispute. Duff claimed to have been beaten up (he was an old man by this time), whilst Lear and Bartlett claimed he threatened them with an axe. The case was dismissed although Bartlett was fined £25 for the false imprisonment of Duff.

In July 1875, the hotels publican, John Clark, found himself charged by Fitzroy Police with dancing in his establishment. Clark argued that the dancers were members of his family and a few close friends, even though tickets were issued for the dance. The magistrate ruled that dancing within the hotel was an issue for the Licensing Courts not the law courts and the matter was dismissed.

By 1881 Lorenzo Biaggi was the licensee of the Croxton Park Hotel. In April 1882 he transferred the license to John O’Connor but by February 1883 Biaggi was back in control. The police had not contested the transfer as Biaggi had

“…been the recent leasee of the house
and had always conducted the business within the
limits of the law.”

Ironically Biaggi was later to be charged and convicted of Sunday trading. He paid a 40s fine.

In January 1885 Biaggi and Solomon Nathan appeared at the Magistrate’s Court to organise a transfer of the license to Nathan. The police objected on the grounds that the

“…applicant’s wife, who would virtually have the conduct
of the business was of a very violent temper, more especially
when under the influence of drink.”

The police failed to provide sufficient corroborating evidence and the application was therefore granted. By May the license had been transferred again, this time to Michael Ness.

In November 1885 the hotel was sold again. The new publican was Donald Dinnie, a well known wrestler. Those skills came into play almost immediately when he was charged with assaulting Edward James. James claimed he had agisted his horse at the hotel but when he arrived to collect it a week later there was no grass in the paddock. Then Dinnie refused to release the horse until he had received payment. A scuffle ensued which resulted in bruising to James. Dinnie’s account was different. He stated James arrived at the hotel drunk and sustained his injuries when he attempted to scale a fence. The judge agreed with Dinnie and the case was dismissed.

The following year James Fleming, Dinnie’s partner, was in trouble with the magistrates after he was charged by police with refusing them admittance to the hotel. Two police constables had been watching the hotel on a Sunday and after believing the hotel was engaged in Sunday trading had attempted to enter the hotel and arrest the suspects. Fleming and Mrs Dinnie had delayed the police at the entrance to the hotel for ten minutes, after which the police left the scene. The magistrate found the case sound and fined Fleming 20s.

This no doubt caused some bad blood between the Dinnies and the police as the following month Inspector Scanlan strongly opposed the renewal of the Dinnie’s liquor license on the grounds that

“…the house was the resort of larrikins, especially on
Sundays, and that the licensee encouraged them.
There had been numerous complaints from residents in
the district, and although the applicant had not been
personally convicted at the local courts, his wife and
servants had been repeatedly fined for Sunday trading,
assaults and insulting language.”

Despite a vigorous defence by Dinnie’s lawyers, the application was refused.

Dinnie must have left the hotel shortly afterwards as in May 1887 he was described as “the late lessee” of the hotel in yet another court case.   This time Dinnie was defending himself from charges of assaulting James McAlister. He claimed self defence and the case was dismissed.

In July 1889 Samuel Wade the licensee of the Croxton Park Hotel submitted an application to transfer the license to Jane Randall. The police opposed it on the grounds that Mr Randall had been convicted of Sunday trading on numerous occasions and if this license was granted it would allow Mr Randall to circumvent the law by having the license in his wife’s name whilst he ran the hotel. The court decided that Mr Wade could renew his license but that the application for a license transfer was refused.

The Randall’s refused to be deterred by this and in August the application was resubmitted. The court considered the issue and felt that whilst Mr Randall would probably benefit from having the license in his wife’s name, it was unfair to stop Jane Randall from having a license due to her husband’s liquor convictions. It was the beginning of a long relationship between the Randall family and the Croxton Park Hotel.

Under the Randall’s the sporting tradition of the hotel flourished. In May 1893 the Argus reported the results of a stag hunt from the hotel to Bundoora Park. The poor stag gave the men and dogs a merry chase, crossing Preston Road (presumably High Street), moving across Plenty Road, twice across the Darebin Creek, over Mt. Cooper and eventually brought down near Greensborough Lane.

The hotel was rebuilt in 1897.

After holding the license for many years Jane Randall passed the license on to James Henry Randall on 19 September 1901. Two years later Randall pleaded guilty to Sunday trading and was fined £5. There is no record of any licensing offences prior to that for the Randall family. 

James Henry Randall died in April 1908 and was succeeded by John J. Randall. It was about this time that the hotel found itself in a row over football. The Northcote Football Club, the Rose of Northcote, had requested to move its home ground from the Northcote Park Ground to the Croxton Park Ground. This caused some degree on consternation in the community due to the Croxton Park Ground being owned by the hotel. This dispute was to drag on for some time and cause a great deal of ill will in the community. The Randalls fought long and hard to retain the Northcote Football Club at the Croxton Park but finally had to concede defeat.

In January 1910 the old chestnut of Sunday trading again arose, John Randall successfully defending himself against the police. In 1913 Randall had a slightly harder task convincing magistrates to renew his license after police objected, claiming that the hotel was being used for illegal gambling. The Magistrates granted the license renewal but warned Randall against allowing gambling in the hotel.

The same year the Council became alarmed about the presence of a so called “beer club” existing in the hotel. It was alleged that football players from the Rose of Northcote Football Club, had been supplied beer illegally, presumably from innocuous bottles during football matches. No evidence was provided to support these charges.

On 15th April 1918 the hotel was offered for lease along with the accompanying sports ground and grandstand. The lease for the hotel was listed as being £200 whilst the sports ground was available for sale. The sale may have been triggered by ill health as John Randall was die to following June, aged only 40. He was still residing at the hotel at the time of his death.

The hotel was sold in July 1920 for £10,400. The property was described as

“Having a frontage of 150ft to High Street, by a Depth to
Kemp Street of 200ft.
The hotel is a splendid two storey structure,
with good bar, bar parlour, private parlour
excellent Billiard room, Dining-room, 2 store-rooms,
Good cellar, and 5? Bedrooms, Bathroom & c;
Also Commodious Brick Stables, and
Outside Accommodation.”

Gambling had always had its place at the Croxton Park Hotel. With a sporting track next door to the hotel and with horse racing as well as other athletic events, bookies inevitably were drawn there. In 1934 licensee Alexander Harris was able to avoid a charge of having the care of a common gaming house when SP bookie Kevin Spears was caught running his bookie service from the outside lavatory of the hotel. The police were unable to prove the Harris knew that Spears was taking bets on the premises.

On the 14th January 1936 licensee John Alexander McPhee was charged with serving beer after hours after a raid by the police. In court he was to successfully argue that he had in fact stopped selling the beer and the any beer in the possession of the men in the bar had been bought prior to 6 pm. He was still fined £5 for having the bar door open.

The hotel was to have several licensees in 1936.  In January that month John Hall was listed as being there, closely followed by John Alexander McPhee. In March Joseph A. Kelly took over. 

In March 1941 the Argus reported the freehold sale of the Croxton Park Hotel. At this time William Kelly passed on the license to Francis James Gallagher. The pair appear to have swapped hotels, Kelly moving to the Carters Arms Hotel. The next year the license passed to Elizabeth Agnes Gallagher. In 1945 Mary Kelly of the Croxton Park Hotel passed away. It seems likely that the Gallagher and Kelly families were in some way connected, and this would explain the changing of licenses between the two families.

In the late 1940s the hotel was purchased by the Steinfort family and Lou Steinfort became the publican in 1957 when his father retired from business. He was 21 years old. He remained there for many years, becoming a local institution. He also became the Metropolitan vice president of the Australian Hotels Association. 

In January 1971 Detective Rofe and two other policemen were investigating a disturbance at the hotel when one of the three men the police confronted drew a pistol and shot Rofe in the calf. There is no report of anyone being arrested for the crime.

By the 1970s the Croxton Park Hotel had earned a whole new reputation as a music venue. For a whole generation “Rock at the Croc” meant only one thing, bands at the Croxton Park Hotel. By 1979 the “Croc” was boasting live bands seven nights and week, with the highest beer consumption of any Victorian hotel.

It was in May 1979 when the Steinfort connection to the hotel ceased when the hotel was sold to Marcel Gilbert and a group of backers for a seven figure sum. It was the 22nd time the hotel was sold. By the early 1980s some of the gloss had worn off the Croxton as it slipped to no. 3 in the sales of alcohol (still an impressive position). 

The hotel has undergone several transformations over the last twenty years and still operates as a music venue as well as providing bistro facilities. 

List of known publicans

1845  Robert Duff
1853  George McKnight
1854   Margaret Black
1855  William McNamara
1858  Hugh Sinclair
1859  Mr Love
1861  Martin Lawler
1864  Solomon Pitchforth
1865*  Josiah Goyder

* Hotel changes name to the Red house Hotel

1869  Frank Johnston

1869*  William Charles Hitchin

* Hotel changes name to Croxton Park Hotel

1874  Hugh Lear
1875  John Clark
1876  James Pryor
1876  Patrick Meheron
1881  Lorenzo M. Biaggi
1882  John F. O’Connor
1883  Frederick O’Connor (the same person as above?)
1883  Lorenzo M. Biaggi
1885  Solomon Nathan
1885  Michael R. Ness
1886  Donald Dinnie
1887  Samuel Wade
1889  Jane Randall
1901  James Henry Randall
1908  John James Randall
1918  Grace Hardess
1919  A. E. Randall
1920  J. T. McNamara
1923  M. Kelly
1926  John Martin Hogg
1927  Samuel brabner
1930  E. M. Dennis
1934  Alexander Harris
1936  John Hall
1936  John Alexander McPhee
1936  Joseph Aloysius Kelly
1937  William W. Kelly
1941  Francis James Gallagher
1942  Elizabeth Agnes Gallagher
1945  Thomas Kelly
1948  L. Steinfort
1957  Louis Steinfort
1971  John Chalker
1979  Theo Gibbard
1981  Daryl Perkins

Cole, Robert K.  Index of Hotels 1841 – 1949.  (Manuscript)

Darebin Libraries.  Local History File:  Hotels.

Edge, Gary.  Surviving the six o’clock swill: a history of Darebin’s hotels.  Melbourne. Darebin Libraries. 2004.

Lemon, Andrew. Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne (Vic): Hargreen,  1983.

Swift, William George. The history of Northcote: From its First Settlement to a City. Northcote (Vic.):Leader Publishing,  1928.

various articles-  The Argus Melbourne, Victoria :1848-1945