Pubs of the South – The Maori Chief: a touch of New Zealand

Pubs of the South – The Maori Chief: a touch of New Zealand
Robin Grow

Numerous pubs were constructed in the 19th century in South Melbourne including in the area now known as Southbank. 

Many had interesting (and sometimes whimsical or exotic) names drawn from a variety of sources. There were military, British royalty (such as Victoria, Royal and George), Ireland (such as the Limerick Arms, the Harp of Erin), sports (the Cricket Club), groups (such as the Druids – later to become the Water Rat), and geography (Mile End Gate, Clarendon, Council Club, London Tavern). Others adopted the name of the owner or publican, such as the Freer Family. 

They ranged in size and condition from small (almost shanties) to substantial Victorian of two to three storeys, with some Melbourne architects specialising in design (and re-modelling) of hotels. 

Located in Moray St and designed by architect M Hennessy, who designed other hotels in the district such as Meagher’s Family Hotel (now Palace) and Freer’s Family Hotel (now Bell’s), the Maori Chief Hotel was licensed by John Reidy in 1867, and updated in 1875, with different (and less ornate) window forms and decorative features. 

It has remained an architectural landmark in the area, dominating the corner on which it stands (tall, three-storeyed, relatively narrow) and the high quality of its mid-Victorian detailing.

It was reputedly associated with New Zealand Maori groups who visited Melbourne in the 1860s. A huge painting of a Maori chief sits above the entrance to the hotel and the walls on the way to the rooftop (where there is a bar) are decorated with 19th century photos of Maori royalty. 

Many sub-standard hotels were delicensed following periodic crackdowns by licensing authorities, but the Maori Chief stayed open and within the one family for many years. 

It existed primarily to sell alcohol to men and, like many hotels in this era, it had its share of robberies and prosecutions for trading after hours. 

It also served as a morgue, with the ability to store bodies in the cool room, until an inquest took place, also in the hotel. It also served as a polling booth, where locals gathered to cast their vote in council elections. 

Today, it serves as a quirky local watering hole, with a decidedly Kiwi theme. •

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