Mentone Hotel: A Brief History

Mentone Hotel c1910. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

The town of Mentone came into existence when the railway was extended from Caulfield to Frankston during 1881-2. A rudimentary station was created in a rather unpopulated spot between Cheltenham and Mordialloc, both well-established villages at that time. At first the trains stopped at what was called ‘Balcombe Road’, a station named after the unmade track that led into Alexander Balcombe’s grazing land which the new railway crossed. Smart developers changed that name to ‘Mentone’ by 1884, in an attempt to give the place a Mediterranean aspect, so they could sell land to those who wanted to live near the seaside, and dream they were residing in the ‘Riviera of the South’, as Davies called it in his promotions.

These developers, mainly Matthew Davies, built up this Riviera aspect, and also built classy edifices, including large mansions and public facilities. The Coffee Palace (now Kilbreda College) with its high Italianate tower, built in 1887, faced those alighting from the steam trains at Mentone Station, and by 1889 there was a new construction at the end of Mentone Parade. It overlooked the cliffs and the beach below. This was the Mentone Hotel that provided locals with a ‘watering hole’ closer to the new town than Mordialloc’s or Cheltenham’s long-established public houses, including the Royal Oak on Mentone’s northern fringe. Mentone Hotel, near the beach, faced the south-easterly coastline in the direction of Aspendale. Its tower was a signature feature, allowing patrons to view the bay and its shipping, as well as observe a generous stretch of the shoreline stretching from the nearby cliffs to the beaches in the distance.

Mentone Hotel Company built the large public house and the firm was wound up when the hotel was ready for business in 1889. The architect was Charles Figgis who lived in Mentone Parade at the time and designed other Mentone structures in the Land Boom 1880s. The finished edifice had an aspect of Spanish appearance and looked very different from other local buildings, most of which were built in traditional ‘Victorian’ architectural style. Its design still remains unusual for our bayside locality in the modern era, with no other structure in the district resembling it in any way.

The spacious premises were used for many gatherings and even hosted a meeting of the District Court in 1901 when an inquest was held into the death of a young woman whose body was found in the shallows on Mentone beach. The magistrate returned an open finding, as no concrete evidence could determine how she died. Another young woman made a controversial statement to one of the young fellows who gave evidence because he knew the deceased. She implied he knew more about her death than he was stating to the presiding magistrate.

In passing it should be noted that over the years many tall stories have circulated about a tunnel from the beach under the cliffs and Beach Road into the dungeons below the hotel. Supposedly, it was used for various nefarious activities, including smuggling contraband liquor and other goods into the pub. These tales are complete nonsense; no tunnel exists or ever did exist. And if any importing of goods from boats in the sea near Mentone had been happening it could hardly have been secret, given the ease with which observers could have spotted the ‘pirates’ from the cliff tops nearby. Another titillating story that has gone the rounds is that Kilbreda’s Brigidine nuns once had their headquarters at Mentone Hotel, a yarn with a salacious nuance about it. The nuns did live in the hotel in 1904, but only for a week. Six of them came from their previous convent in Echuca to open a new college. But the Coffee Palace that their Order had purchased was not available for occupation until the legal transfers were completed. So the nuns were domiciled at the pub for one week . The bar trade probably did not increase as a result of their presence.

Brigidine Convent formerly the Mentone Royal Coffee Palace, c1905. Courtesy Shirley Joy, Kingston Collection.

In its early years the hotel quickly became a centre for social activity in competition with Mentone’s other large building, the Coffee Palace near the railway station. Of course there were local people who complained about a hotel being built in their town. From 1889 through the next decade the local papers carried letters for and against the hotel’s presence. But the advantages of such a classy social centre won the support of most locals, as more and more social occasions occurred in the hotel’s comfortable downstairs rooms, designed for that purpose.

The cricketers and the footballers frequently held ‘smoke nights’, meetings and presentation nights there, taking some of the business away from the Coffee Palace and also the Recreation Hall near the Mentone oval. On hot summer days the hotel did a lively trade as beach-goers had a conveniently close venue for a drink or a meal. The residential upstairs section with multiple rooms attracted holiday-makers who stayed for several days or even for some weeks during the summer months. Local growers provided the pub with produce needed in the kitchen, such as milk, cream, butter and a whole array of vegetables and fruit. The manager placed advertisements in the local papers in Dandenong and Mornington asking farmers for supplies of poultry for the pub kitchen. In the early 1900s the hotel had its own small market garden plot near the corner of Charman and Balcombe Roads. The gardener brought fresh food to the hotel daily using a horse and cart. People who stayed at Mentone Hotel were generally quite well-off, but some were of dubious character as in the case of an outwardly urbane gentleman who arrived early in 1901.

Kitchen at Mentone Hotel, 1987. Courtesy City of Kingston Leader Collection.

Frank Scudds had just become the licensee and was glad to welcome a distinguished-looking man who booked in for a fortnight’s residence. He wined and dined for a week, usually going off each day for business dealings, representing a well-known English firm, as he informed Mr Scudds. It was assumed that his bill would be settled at the end of his stay. When the weekend arrived this ‘Mr Barnes’ approached Scudds and said he had an important meeting in the city and would be home that evening on the 8 p.m. train. He asked the hotelier would he order a cab to wait at Mentone Station for his return to the hotel. Frank Scudds was only too pleased to comply and also cash a cheque for five pounds as ‘Barnes’ said he had carelessly left himself without ready money on a day when banks were closed. That night no cab arrived until well after the appointed time when finally the cabbie appeared and told the hotel owner that no person resembling the mysterious ‘Mr Barnes’ had got off any train at Mentone that night. ‘Mr Barnes’ never did return. Scudds informed the police, only to be told that a man answering the description given had been operating in other areas, using the same tricky plan. Some months later ‘Mr Barnes’ was arrested and sentenced to gaol for numerous crimes of obtaining money by false pretences.

F M Scudds, publican. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

Scudds had more pleasant experiences than the Barnes incident during his licenceeship. In the early 1900s he sponsored athletic contests that were held on open land near the hotel, in roughly the area now occupied by St Bede’s Front Oval. The feature event was the Mentone Gift, a sprint over approximately 100 yards. Over the road from the hotel, McCristal’s Mentone College for boys had dozens of pupils and some ran in events that Scudds promoted. At least one student won the Mentone Gift, Val Crowe, off 8 yards, in 1902.

Incidentally, the man who preceded Scudds as licensee had a son who served in the Boer War. He was Lt T H Germaine who went to South Africa in 1900. His father retired from running the hotel at this time and was replaced by Frank Scudds in 1901

Scudds was a prominent Mentone figure at this time. He played cricket at Mentone, one day taking five wickets for 25, and he was later club president, He also played lawn bowls at Mentone, catered for functions at the rink, and found time to be on the Patriotic Fund committee and its recruiting group during the Great War. When St Patrick’s held parish balls in the Skating Rink Scudds was always the first up on the dance floor and showed excellent dancing prowess. Frank was generous to the local community. For several years he provided free picnics at the Mentone racecourse for the primary schools, with many prizes for the children just before they broke up for Christmas holidays.

He was unsuccessful in an attempt to sell the hotel licenseeship in 1915, when an auction failed to reach the reserve price of six thousand pounds, but eventually he sold out for an undisclosed sum in 1920. It changed hands again by 1924 when a purposeful businessman named Schifferle took it over. He organised a refurbishment of the building and created a rather grand entrance off Beach Road where it remains today. Into the floor tiles near the door he had his name spelt out in ‘Old English’ lettering. ‘Schifferle’ is still walked over, ninety years later, by patrons, most of whom cannot decipher the old owner’s name or understand why it is there.

During the 1920s the hotel was booked out during the summer holiday months. At the time people came from the inner suburbs for beach holidays at Mentone, often staying in holiday shacks and at guest houses, or the pub if they could afford it. In this era the local Standard News often published the names of holiday-makers, including those at the pub. In 1926 it was proudly reported that Bill Ponsford, the Australian Test Cricketer, had brought his family to the Mentone Hotel for a holiday at the beach.

Of course not all the activities in this part of Mentone were as innocent as the simple enjoyment of the beach. For many years there was an SP bookmaker who attracted punters to a small clearing hidden in the ti-tree scrub on the cliff top over the road from the pub. Men would walk over from the bar to bet on the Saturday races and listen for results on a radio, or be informed by phone from people at the racecourse. This gambling grew a lot between the wars and continued strongly after World War 2. The bookie had a ‘cockatoo’, a mate keeping a sharp lookout for the police who might be arriving to catch the SP man who was pursuing an illegal activity. The gang in the ti-tree had a swift routine if the alarm was yelled by the ‘cockatoo’. In minutes the whole betting set-up would be whisked away and the participants out of sight. There was an occasion when one man was too slow and the vice squad grabbed him. Asked why he was wandering in the scrub, the man replied that he had lost his glasses while going for a walk and was looking for them. The police let him go. This unofficial betting which pre-dated the establishment of the TAB in 1961 continued for many years. In the 1940s and 1950s some of the St Bede’s senior boarders relieved their Saturday afternoon boredom by sneaking over the road for a bet while the Brothers were not watching. Of course Mentone Hotel had no direct link with the gambling in the ti-tree, but it probably had more patrons because the betting was there.

Aerial view of Mentone Hotel, foreshore and surroundings, 1922. From The Weekly Times, January 14, 1922.

For many decades after the pub was built there was a water-filled horse trough outside the hotel on the Mentone Parade side. It sat just off the side of the road so that horses could be allowed to drink from it while their owners imbibed stronger liquids inside. A century ago, nearly all travel and cartage was done using horse-drawn vehicles. Horse troughs were vital for those driving drays, carts and carriages, as well as those who rode horses to get around the district. There were many horse troughs in public locations so that horse owners did not need to return home each time their animals began to wilt from thirst. But the trough at the pub was used for other purposes. Old timers speak of the occasions, fairly frequent, when an annoying drunk would be half-carried out of the pub and shoved into the horse trough amid noisy laughter and yells of rage from the wet victim. In an age of motor vehicle dominance the horse trough has gone, so other less comical, and often more violent, incidents occur when young blokes have had a little too much to drink.

Mentone Hotel featured in a whimsical article that appeared in the Mordialloc City News in February 1938. The following was the big story:

‘Sad Day for Mentone.’
‘January 31, 1938, will go down in history as Black Monday; on that day at approximately 5-30 p.m. the Mentone Hotel ran out of BEER. We have been through a war and a depression, some of us have even got married, but those things no way approach the disaster of Monday, 31st.
This report should have been published last week, but apparently the shock which our reporter received on being handed a pot of ginger beer was too much for him as he only confessed his shame this week.
Kings have lost their thrones for lesser reasons than this, and a repetition of such a tragedy will necessitate an increase in the cellar accommodation at the local pub if peace is to be maintained in this law-abiding community.’

Our pub did not ever run out of beer in its halcyon days during World War 2 and just after it. From about 1950 until 1962 the hotel changed its name to ‘The Edgewater’ after a plush American east coast attraction. Unfortunately, this coincided with a period when our pub was frequented by some of Melbourne’s underworld. In 1962 Frederick Harrison, wanted by police, was tracked down and arrested by police in Parkdale, while, later, Norman Bradshaw, another law-breaker, died in a plane crash in the bay near our shores. For a time bikie groups frequented the hotel, adding to the suspicion about it not being a congenial social venue. Thankfully, that era has long gone, and our hotel now hosts ordinary local residents including families out for a birthday party or a sporting celebration. For decades the hotel patrons have enjoyed incidental live sport to watch while they have a drink. It occurs on the oval over the road.

Sports Day at St Bede’s. Mentone Hotel in Background. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

St Bede’s, from its inception in 1938, has always used its Front Oval for a multitude of sporting events. The annual Sunday athletics sports carnival day was foremost for many years, but there were also countless games of football and cricket, as well as marching practice, religious pageants and other events. The hotel did not open on Sundays until recent years, but on other days drinkers could stand on the side verandah area near the bar and watch events just over the road. At times they joined in the applause or the barracking. This writer was a regular cricketer for the SBC Old Collegians back in the sixties and seventies. When batting, I also heard impatient shouts of ‘Have a go, you mug’ from blokes touting beer glasses, watching from the verandah viewing area which we cricketers called ‘The Members Stand’. On one occasion, Jim Exton, a skilful left-hander, smacked a couple of sixes into the hotel verandah group, causing mayhem and plenty of spilt beer. Few local cricketers have had such a vocal band of critics as those who played at St Bede’s. There was a cricket match to formally baptise the newly-formed St Bede’s Front Oval in 1938 and a couple of Sheffield Shield players took part. One of them, Bill Johnston, later a Test player, was reputed to have hit an enormous six that hit the hotel tower near the top and broke the blue lamp which originally crowned the structure. This feat has certainly grown with the re-telling over the years. It was probably a six that hit the hotel structure somewhere, but the blue lamp may well have been the victim of some vandal with a .22 rifle.

Hotel viewed from Mentone Parade, 1987. Courtesy Leader Collection.

During the World War 2 austerity regulations there was rationing and beer was not always freely available, but the Mentone Hotel seemed to do well, catering for locals and the beach-goer patrons. In 1942 Americans troops were stationed for a time in Melbourne and at Balcombe south of Frankston. When they were on leave quite a few attended Mentone Races on the course near Lower Dandenong Road. Others spent their pounds and shillings at places like our pub. The Yanks found the Australian money (pounds, shillings and pence) difficult to deal with and this allowed ‘smart alecs’ to rook the Yanks by short-changing them, or not explaining accurately how much various notes and coins were worth.

In the early 1950s there were several tragic deaths on Beach Road near the hotel. Fred West, who had been a key player in Mentone Football Club’s 1928 premiership team, was knocked down and killed on Beach Road in 1953, just down from the pub near the Warrigal Road intersection. Several St Bede’s students, playing on the college Front Oval about this time, saw another man hit by a car and thrown into the air before landing on the road. He later died. In 1950 a woman was run down and killed as she crossed Beach Road on her way up from the beach. There were other similar tragedies. A long overdue pedestrian crossing was eventually installed, while the lower speed limit introduced in recent decades has reduced the incidence of pedestrian mishaps.

The decades after the war saw the Mentone Hotel do business in its normal way, but the building was ageing and by the 1970s it was looking a bit run-down. There was a renovation program in 1974 that created the current bistro area and updated the verandah and bar area facing Mentone Parade. Further updating of the bistro section took place in 2010.

The 1960s and 1970s produced big changes in Victorian society. Car ownership grew rapidly, resulting in suburbanites heading for country and interstate holiday trips. Mentone was no longer regarded as a summer vacation resort. Adding to this fall from grace, Mentone’s beach virtually disappeared by the 1970s as sand was shifted by wave action and ended up further out to sea or down at Mordialloc. Some blamed the sea wall for this, while others declared that the deepening of the sea channels at the Heads was the reason. Whatever the cause, the Ports and Harbours Authority used a large dredge that remained offshore from Beaumaris to Mordialloc throughout 1977-8 and pumped thousands of tons of sand from about a kilometre out in the bay on to the degraded beaches. This brought back the beach-goers, and local businesses, the hotel included, gained more customers.

Other factors affected pub trade. Clubs, such as those of the RSL, began to provide more venues for dining out; the hotels had stiff competition. Poker machines in NSW financed plush clubs and cheap holidays, attracting Victorians away from the bayside towns that were once vacation destinations. Then, in 1992, poker machines were legalised in Victoria, but only in clubs, not hotels. This sucked the life out of the pub trade for a while. By the early 1990s Mentone Hotel was on the verge of closing, its trade so poor that the brewery refused to supply draught beer for a short period, meaning that drinkers were given stubbies or cans to consume in the bar or beer garden. Seasoned drinkers hated this, and many went elsewhere. Up until this time pubs had depended almost completely on a solid bar trade, even in the days of 6 o’clock closing. But society was changing. The demand was now for a more sophisticated licensed venue, with a better menu as well as entertainment.

There was talk about the Mentone Hotel being converted into units, but this or other more dramatic options were made difficult because of the opposition of members of the Mordialloc Historical Society in conjunction with local councillors. In the late 1980s the property was sold to a wealthy owner of venues, such as hotels at Beaumaris and St Kilda. He spent large amounts, said to be in the millions, on renovating and improving the hotel as an ongoing business. The residential section was converted into offices and meeting areas, while the bars and adjoining bistro were improved. Pokies were eventually allowed in hotels. Mentone’s pub did not install pokies. Instead it created a TAB facility in house and this attracted those keen on a bet. These days there are not only Melbourne gallopers to bet on. Trotters, dogs and an array of country and interstate race meetings can also lure the punters. This TAB facility has attracted some groups of punters, mainly men, who follow the races while socialising over a drink with mates. It has helped to keep Mentone Hotel going over the difficult times since the 1990s. However, our hotel is not going to survive, despite this,

As 2014 draws to a close it seems the end of the Mentone Hotel as a viable business has come. With just one week’s notice, it was announced that the weekend beginning on Friday 14th November was to be the last for normal hotel trading. Many young people crowded into the pub on the occasion of the last Wednesday function. But the decision to close is final, despite many protesting voices. So far no information is available that reveals what will happen to a Mentone icon that has hosted entertainment for 125 years. The building has a Kingston heritage classification, so demolition would provoke opposition at the local level. Mentone residents who have an awareness of local heritage will watch anxiously to see what becomes of the grand old lady of Beach Road.

Staircase in Mentone Hotel, 1987. Courtesy Leader Collection.

Leo Gamble
30 December 2014
  1. Brighton Southern Cross 1888-1900.
  2. Moorabbin Shire News 1900-1925.
  3. Mordialloc-Chelsea City News 1926-1994.
  4. Leader local newspapers1990s-2014.
  5. Interviews with Gerard Ryan, Mentone Hotel Manager, who gave much of the information used in this article.
  6. There were also discussions with several older residents, including members of the Mordialloc Historical Society.
Article reference:

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