By Peter McCullough
Part Two (Continuation from August edition)
The Grand Hotel has dominated the Mornington skyline for the last 130 years. In the last edition of Peninsula Essence, we brought you its colourful history up to the end of World War Two.
The Downes Brothers
On 12 April, 1948 the licence for the Grand was transferred to Allan and Arthur Patrick Downes. The Mornington Post reported that in the weeks following this transfer considerable improvements had been made to the property: excellent progress had been made in having the backyard cleaned up and on one side twenty-two flower beds had been established. However the Mornington Shire Council had served a notice for the removal of several bungalows in the backyard but this presented some difficulty for Mr. Downes as the bungalows housed twelve of his staff and most of them were from Melbourne.
Another problem faced by the licensee was to police the hotel after the bars were shut; there was a back gate and the old galvanised iron fence on both sides was in a dilapidated condition with holes in many places. This may have been the excuse offered in the Mornington court in July, 1948 when Allan Downes was fined two pounds ($4) for having permitted liquor to be drunk on licensed premises during prohibited hours.
The desire to get the house in order was perhaps taken a step too far when Allan Downes decided to remove the tower which had been a landmark for 60 years. There had been speculation as to its future as it had a list and swayed considerably in windy weather. This somewhat unnerved the licensee as his sleeping quarters were immediately below the tower. The story goes that it would have cost seventy five pounds to have the tower made safe, and fifty pounds to have it removed. In August 1948 the tower was transported to the tip.
In the same month Mr. Maddern, accompanied by his architect, visited the hotel to discuss proposed extensive alterations with the licensee. By November it was reported that fifteen hundred pounds ($3,000) had been spent and the hotel modernised. The Mornington Post reported: “Many beneficial alterations have been made to the bars, while liberal bestowal of paint brightened up the hostelry. In the bars the counters have been surfaced with new linoleum, and one section has been made to give more privacy to businessmen who desired to discuss business with their clients.”
Even though Allan Downes had made a genuine attempt to clean up the backyard after taking over the licence, a fire ignited there in a heap of rubbish one night in February, 1949. The fire caused quite a blaze and guests in night attire watched the firemen at work, while other residents of Mornington were noticeable in pyjamas. The Mornington Post reported that Stan Hutchins, captain of the Mornington Fire Brigade, cut a bold figure as he dashed up the street; with one hand he was endeavouring to put on a boot and in the other he held an obstinate sock. Scaling the galvanised iron fence proved difficult for Stan as his trousers became caught and only the timely aid of another fireman saved him from an awkward predicament.
In November, 1949 the licensee was forced to hose down a rumour that the Grand Hotel had been sold to Mr. R. M. Ansett. In the same month The Argus reported that a thief had entered two unlocked bungalows at the rear of the property, which the Shire had ordered to be removed eighteen months previously; one hundred and thirty pounds ($260) worth of clothing and eight pounds, ten shillings ($17) in cash were stolen.
Allan Downes and his son Barry were made Life Governors of the Royal Children’s Hospital in July 1953; this was in recognition of money raised for the hospital. Allan’s brother, Arthur, died early in 1953 and consequently Thomas Leslie (“Bill”) Cooper took over the licence on 2 November, 1953. Previously he had been “Mine Host” at the Royal Hotel on the Esplanade.
The licence was transferred again on 1 May, 1956 to Ray and Norm Baker; in fact it was the Baker family as the hotel was run by three brothers plus their wives and parents. They all lived upstairs. When a letter from ‘Disgusted’ appeared in the Peninsula Post on 27 January, 1960 criticising the behaviour in “a Mornington hotel”, specifically the disturbance of the peace and quiet by children running around, Ray’s wife, Betty, was quick to respond. She wrote: “In your last issue ‘Disgusted’ claims that the atmosphere in the hotel is detrimental in every physical, social and moral manner. It is difficult to understand why he would ever enter a hotel himself. Surely parents of children are just as entitled to a drink as ‘Disgusted’ is. Or are we hotelkeepers expected to refuse them because they are accompanied by a child? Further, if beer is spilled on the tables, the staff in any properly conducted hotel will wipe it up.” The next transfer of the licence took place on 3 December, 1961, this time to Grand Hotels Mornington Pty. Ltd. with Harry Thompson as nominee.
In 1963 the “backyard” of the Grand Hotel (and of other shops in Main Street) was acquired by the Shire to be made into a carpark between Barkly and Blake Streets.
On 3 November, 1964 the licence was transferred to Victor John Bongiorno and his wife, Ettilia, with the freehold acquired six days later. The Bongiorno family, which included five children, lived upstairs. There were bedrooms along the front of the hotel and the family’s private living quarters were at the back. There were also two large lounge rooms upstairs, one a guests’ TV lounge and the other a private lounge for family use. Boarders occupied some of the upstairs rooms; their numbers varied but some of them were there for quite long periods.
Vic Bongiorno made many alterations in his four years at the Grand Hotel, including the addition of a popular and well-used Games Room adjacent to the Public Bar. He also built a Beer Garden adjacent to the Games Room. An old well in the open area was filled in with building rubble.
In November, 1968 it was reported that the Grand Hotel was to undertake a complete facelift, a renovation that would alter the complete appearance at the approach of the shopping centre in Main Street. The full length of the double story verandah was removed and the facade of the building was painted. Apparently there was a long-standing demolition order on the verandah and in the end the shire removed it without Vic’s agreement.
Peninsula Hotels bought the freehold from the Bongiornos on 27 April, 1970 for $135,000 and John James (Jack) Gardner of that company took over the licence on 1 July, 1970. Freehold ownership passed to K.V.Walsh Holdings on 18 October, 1972 and two days later Kenneth Vernon Walsh became the licensee. On 3 August, 1973 he applied for a permit to build a drive-in bottle shop at a cost of $41,569 at the rear of the hotel.
Bernard John Taylor
On 23 February, 1976 Bernie Taylor swapped his career in the computer industry to become proprietor of the Grand. He originally planned to stay for a month and then move someone else in but things didn’t work out so he stayed on.
Exactly two years to the day after Bernie Taylor took over, major alterations and renovations took place. The cost was $250,000 and it took eight months to complete. The main alterations were an additional saloon bar and a bistro to replace the dining area, and the public bar was enlarged. The upstairs was converted into offices and a function room.
Since 1976 when Bernie Taylor took over the Grand Hotel he has set about sympathetically renovating the facade and modernising the interior, without losing touch with the past, with major renovations taking place in 1978, 1988, 1995, 2003 and 2014.
Today in the lounge bar off Main Street the original brickwork has been exposed while furnishing the restaurant in the traditional style necessitated the manufacture of two chandeliers of the old gaslight type to match the décor. Another feature of the lounge is the preservation of two large windows which were part of the original building but were obscured by the 1919 extensions, which Bernie discovered during earlier renovations.
While the closing of the railway line to Mornington in 1981 was a setback, the development of the Wednesday market which took place during Bernie’s ten year term (1983-1994) as President of the Chamber of Commerce brought many people to shop in the town.
From the outset it was one of Bernie’s aims to reinstate the tower, and this was achieved in 1986. When Bernie applied for the permit to rebuild the tower, the Council granted it without cost as they felt it was an important project for the promotion of Mornington. All the tradesmen charged only for materials; their labour was free. Even the architect who drew up the plans for the tower did it at no cost; it was truly a community effort.
Over the years further developments have occurred. In 1988 the Cruze Club opened upstairs which led to 24 hour trading. The renovations to establish the Cruze Club significantly modified the upstairs layout. A lounge and dance floor replaced the function room, bars were relocated and some of the remaining bedrooms were converted into offices. A DJ console was constructed in the area occupied by the original staircase.
In 1991 the Pub Tab opened in a space beside the then bottle shop on Main Street and in September 1992 poker machines arrived at the Grand Hotel giving rise to the need for a Gaming Room and further changes. In June, 1994 an application for a verandah addition to the front of the hotel, and the use of a section of pavement under the verandah for alfresco dining, was approved.
Bernie Taylor’s forty five years on the peninsula have been characterised by an enormous commitment to the local community. Apart from his decade as chairman of the Mornington Chamber of Commerce, his core involvement has been with, but not limited to, The Bays Hospital, St. Macartans Primary School, Mornington Primary School, Mornington Soccer Club, Mornington Football Netball Club, Mornington Cricket Club, Volunteer Marine Rescue and the Mornington Life Saving Club. Bernie has always endeavoured to put back into the community: “We consider any charity or community request.” In dollar terms, the owners of the Grand Hotel contribute annually in excess of $125,000 to a wide variety of community organisations.
Wherever a person travels in Mornington they will find evidence of the Grand Hotel’s generosity and commitment to the community.
Bernie and Susan Taylor ensured that their three daughters were introduced to the less glamorous side of the family business in their mid-teens. They worked in all areas of the hotel: the bars, bistro, nightclub and gaming room. As a result, on 23 February, 2004, 28 years to the day after Bernie arrived at the Grand, his youngest daughter, Pir, took over as General Manager. She was the seventh female licensee of the Grand Hotel since it was built, and the first in more than fifty years.
With his daughter and son-in-law now managing the Grand Hotel (Cameron Price was named as licensee in 2012) Bernie Taylor can relax and be well satisfied with his achievements.
The Ghost at the Grand
In the early days of the Grand Hotel the licensee would put a lantern in the tower each night so that fishermen who might still be out in the bay would be able to find their way back to Mornington. One night he apparently over-imbibed and neglected his responsibility with the result that a local fisherman became disoriented and drowned.
The fisherman who died is believed to have lived at the Grand, and several incidents that have occurred over the years suggest that he still does.
Bernie Taylor recalls the night when he was talking downstairs with three of his friends; Bernie and one friend were having a glass of beer, one was having a soft drink and the fourth member of the group was having a coffee. Suddenly they heard footsteps upstairs. Two men ran to the back stairs and two to the front stairs. They went up and met in the middle of the upstairs area. No one could be found. It could have been boards creaking in the old hotel, but all were convinced it was the fisherman.
Pir Taylor-Price says that many of the staff have also had ‘experiences’ and that there are certain areas, particularly the cellar, which they avoid when working alone.
A photograph that has been a feature of the Grand Hotel for many years is that of the ‘levitating’ woman. It has been moved on several occasions on the request of staff members who have been spooked – probably because of the perceived existence of the “ghost” at the Grand.
Reference: Moorhead, Leslie -“Mornington. In the Wake of Flinders.”, Stockland Press, 1971.
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to the Mornington and District Historical Society which allowed me to borrow from an unpublished manuscript on the Grand Hotel and who were particularly helpful in providing photographs.