Coffee Palaces in Australia: A Pub with No Beer




Coffee houses, coffee palaces, temperance movement, international exhibitions

How to Cite

Noyce, D. C. (2012). Coffee Palaces in Australia: A Pub with No Beer. M/C Journal, 15(2).
Vol. 15 No. 2 (2012): coffee
Published 2012-05-02

The term “coffee palace” was primarily used in Australia to describe the temperance hotels that were built in the last decades of the 19th century, although there are references to the term also being used to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom (Denby 174). Built in response to the worldwide temperance movement, which reached its pinnacle in the 1880s in Australia, coffee palaces were hotels that did not serve alcohol. This was a unique time in Australia’s architectural development as the economic boom fuelled by the gold rush in the 1850s, and the demand for ostentatious display that gathered momentum during the following years, afforded the use of richly ornamental High Victorian architecture and resulted in very majestic structures; hence the term “palace” (Freeland 121). The often multi-storied coffee palaces were found in every capital city as well as regional areas such as Geelong and Broken Hill, and locales as remote as Maria Island on the east coast of Tasmania. Presented as upholding family values and discouraging drunkenness, the coffee palaces were most popular in seaside resorts such as Barwon Heads in Victoria, where they catered to families. Coffee palaces were also constructed on a grand scale to provide accommodation for international and interstate visitors attending the international exhibitions held in Sydney (1879) and Melbourne (1880 and 1888).

While the temperance movement lasted well over 100 years, the life of coffee palaces was relatively short-lived. Nevertheless, coffee palaces were very much part of Australia’s cultural landscape. In this article, I examine the rise and demise of coffee palaces associated with the temperance movement and argue that coffee palaces established in the name of abstinence were modelled on the coffee houses that spread throughout Europe and North America in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Enlightenment—a time when the human mind could be said to have been liberated from inebriation and the dogmatic state of ignorance. 

The Temperance Movement

At a time when newspapers are full of lurid stories about binge-drinking and the alleged ill-effects of the liberalisation of licensing laws, as well as concerns over the growing trend of marketing easy-to-drink products (such as the so-called “alcopops”) to teenagers, it is difficult to think of a period when the total suppression of the alcohol trade was seriously debated in Australia. The cause of temperance has almost completely vanished from view, yet for well over a century—from 1830 to the outbreak of the Second World War—the control or even total abolition of the liquor trade was a major political issue—one that split the country, brought thousands onto the streets in demonstrations, and influenced the outcome of elections. Between 1911 and 1925 referenda to either limit or prohibit the sale of alcohol were held in most States. While moves to bring about abolition failed, Fitzgerald notes that almost one in three Australian voters expressed their support for prohibition of alcohol in their State (145). Today, the temperance movement’s platform has largely been forgotten, killed off by the practical example of the United States, where prohibition of the legal sale of alcohol served only to hand control of the liquor traffic to organised crime.

Coffee Houses and the Enlightenment

Although tea has long been considered the beverage of sobriety, it was coffee that came to be regarded as the very antithesis of alcohol. When the first coffee house opened in London in the early 1650s, customers were bewildered by this strange new drink from the Middle East—hot, bitter, and black as soot. But those who tried coffee were, reports Ellis, soon won over, and coffee houses were opened across London, Oxford, and Cambridge and, in the following decades, Europe and North America. Tea, equally exotic, entered the English market slightly later than coffee (in 1664), but was more expensive and remained a rarity long after coffee had become ubiquitous in London (Ellis 123-24).

The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine. Both were safer to drink than water, which was liable to be contaminated. Coffee, like beer, was made using boiled water and, therefore, provided a new and safe alternative to alcoholic drinks. There was also the added benefit that those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert rather than mildly inebriated (Standage 135). It was also thought that coffee had a stimulating effect upon the “nervous system,” so much so that the French called coffee une boisson intellectuelle (an intellectual beverage), because of its stimulating effect on the brain (Muskett 71). In Oxford, the British called their coffee houses “penny universities,” a penny then being the price of a cup of coffee (Standage 158).

Coffee houses were, moreover, more than places that sold coffee. Unlike other institutions of the period, rank and birth had no place (Ellis 59). The coffee house became the centre of urban life, creating a distinctive social culture by treating all customers as equals. Egalitarianism, however, did not extend to women—at least not in London. Around its egalitarian (but male) tables, merchants discussed and conducted business, writers and poets held discussions, scientists demonstrated experiments, and philosophers deliberated ideas and reforms. For the price of a cup (or “dish” as it was then known) of coffee, a man could read the latest pamphlets and newsletters, chat with other patrons, strike business deals, keep up with the latest political gossip, find out what other people thought of a new book, or take part in literary or philosophical discussions. Like today’s Internet, Twitter, and Facebook, Europe’s coffee houses functioned as an information network where ideas circulated and spread from coffee house to coffee house. In this way, drinking coffee in the coffee house became a metaphor for people getting together to share ideas in a sober environment, a concept that remains today.

According to Standage, this information network fuelled the Enlightenment (133), prompting an explosion of creativity. Coffee houses provided an entirely new environment for political, financial, scientific, and literary change, as people gathered, discussed, and debated issues within their walls. Entrepreneurs and scientists teamed up to form companies to exploit new inventions and discoveries in manufacturing and mining, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution (Standage 163). The stock market and insurance companies also had their birth in the coffee house. As a result, coffee was seen to be the epitome of modernity and progress and, as such, was the ideal beverage for the Age of Reason. 

By the 19th century, however, the era of coffee houses had passed. Most of them had evolved into exclusive men’s clubs, each geared towards a certain segment of society. Tea was now more affordable and fashionable, and teahouses, which drew clientele from both sexes, began to grow in popularity. Tea, however, had always been Australia’s most popular non-alcoholic drink. Tea (and coffee) along with other alien plants had been part of the cargo unloaded onto Australian shores with the First Fleet in 1788. Coffee, mainly from Brazil and Jamaica, remained a constant import but was taxed more heavily than tea and was, therefore, more expensive. Furthermore, tea was much easier to make than coffee. To brew tea, all that is needed is to add boiling water, coffee, in contrast, required roasting, grinding and brewing. According to Symons, until the 1930s, Australians were the largest consumers of tea in the world (19). 

In spite of this, and as coffee, since its introduction into Europe, was regarded as the antidote to alcohol, the temperance movement established coffee palaces. In the early 1870s in Britain, the temperance movement had revived the coffee house to provide an alternative to the gin taverns that were so attractive to the working classes of the Industrial Age (Clarke 5). Unlike the earlier coffee house, this revived incarnation provided accommodation and was open to men, women and children. “Cheap and wholesome food,” was available as well as reading rooms supplied with newspapers and periodicals, and games and smoking rooms (Clarke 20). In Australia, coffee palaces did not seek the working classes, as clientele:  at least in the cities they were largely for the nouveau riche.

Coffee Palaces

The discovery of gold in 1851 changed the direction of the Australian economy. An investment boom followed, with an influx of foreign funds and English banks lending freely to colonial speculators. By the 1880s, the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy boomed and land prices were highly inflated. Governments shared in the wealth and ploughed money into urban infrastructure, particularly railways.

Spurred on by these positive economic conditions and the newly extended inter-colonial rail network, international exhibitions were held in both Sydney and Melbourne. To celebrate modern technology and design in an industrial age, international exhibitions were phenomena that had spread throughout Europe and much of the world from the mid-19th century. According to Davison, exhibitions were “integral to the culture of nineteenth century industrialising societies” (158). In particular, these exhibitions provided the colonies with an opportunity to demonstrate to the world their economic power and achievements in the sciences, the arts and education, as well as to promote their commerce and industry. Massive purpose-built buildings were constructed to house the exhibition halls. In Sydney, the Garden Palace was erected in the Botanic Gardens for the 1879 Exhibition (it burnt down in 1882). In Melbourne, the Royal Exhibition Building, now a World Heritage site, was built in the Carlton Gardens for the 1880 Exhibition and extended for the 1888 Centennial Exhibition.

Accommodation was required for the some one million interstate and international visitors who were to pass through the gates of the Garden Palace in Sydney. To meet this need, the temperance movement, keen to provide alternative accommodation to licensed hotels, backed the establishment of Sydney’s coffee palaces. The Sydney Coffee Palace Hotel Company was formed in 1878 to operate and manage a number of coffee palaces constructed during the 1870s. These were designed to compete with hotels by “offering all the ordinary advantages of those establishments without the allurements of the drink” (Murdoch). 

Coffee palaces were much more than ordinary hotels—they were often multi-purpose or mixed-use buildings that included a large number of rooms for accommodation as well as ballrooms and other leisure facilities to attract people away from pubs. As the Australian Town and Country Journal reveals, their services included the supply of affordable, wholesome food, either in the form of regular meals or occasional refreshments, cooked in kitchens fitted with the latest in culinary accoutrements. These “culinary temples” also provided smoking rooms, chess and billiard rooms, and rooms where people could read books, periodicals and all the local and national papers for free (121). Similar to the coffee houses of the Enlightenment, the coffee palaces brought businessmen, artists, writers, engineers, and scientists attending the exhibitions together to eat and drink (non-alcoholic), socialise and conduct business.

The Johnson’s Temperance Coffee Palace located in York Street in Sydney produced a practical guide for potential investors and businessmen titled International Exhibition Visitors Pocket Guide to Sydney. It included information on the location of government departments, educational institutions, hospitals, charitable organisations, and embassies, as well as a list of the tariffs on goods from food to opium (1–17).

Women, particularly the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were a formidable force in the temperance movement (intemperance was generally regarded as a male problem and, more specifically, a husband problem). Murdoch argues, however, that much of the success of the push to establish coffee palaces was due to male politicians with business interests, such as the one-time Victorian premiere James Munro. Considered a stern, moral church-going leader, Munro expanded the temperance movement into a fanatical force with extraordinary power, which is perhaps why the temperance movement had its greatest following in Victoria (Murdoch).

Several prestigious hotels were constructed to provide accommodation for visitors to the international exhibitions in Melbourne. Munro was responsible for building many of the city’s coffee palaces, including the Victoria (1880) and the Federal Coffee Palace (1888) in Collins Street. After establishing the Grand Coffee Palace Company, Munro took over the Grand Hotel (now the Windsor) in 1886. Munro expanded the hotel to accommodate some of the two million visitors who were to attend the Centenary Exhibition, renamed it the Grand Coffee Palace, and ceremoniously burnt its liquor licence at the official opening (Murdoch). By 1888 there were more than 50 coffee palaces in the city of Melbourne alone and Munro held thousands of shares in coffee palaces, including those in Geelong and Broken Hill.

With its opening planned to commemorate the centenary of the founding of Australia and the 1888 International Exhibition, the construction of the Federal Coffee Palace, one of the largest hotels in Australia, was perhaps the greatest monument to the temperance movement. Designed in the French Renaissance style, the façade was embellished with statues, griffins and Venus in a chariot drawn by four seahorses. The building was crowned with an iron-framed domed tower. New passenger elevators—first demonstrated at the Sydney Exhibition—allowed the building to soar to seven storeys. According to the Federal Coffee Palace Visitor’s Guide, which was presented to every visitor, there were three lifts for passengers and others for luggage. Bedrooms were located on the top five floors, while the stately ground and first floors contained majestic dining, lounge, sitting, smoking, writing, and billiard rooms. There were electric service bells, gaslights, and kitchens “fitted with the most approved inventions for aiding proficients [sic] in the culinary arts,” while the luxury brand Pears soap was used in the lavatories and bathrooms (16–17).

In 1891, a spectacular financial crash brought the economic boom to an abrupt end. The British economy was in crisis and to meet the predicament, English banks withdrew their funds in Australia. There was a wholesale collapse of building companies, mortgage banks and other financial institutions during 1891 and 1892 and much of the banking system was halted during 1893 (Attard). Meanwhile, however, while the eastern States were in the economic doldrums, gold was discovered in 1892 at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and, within two years, the west of the continent was transformed. As gold poured back to the capital city of Perth, the long dormant settlement hurriedly caught up and began to emulate the rest of Australia, including the construction of ornately detailed coffee palaces (Freeman 130). By 1904, Perth had 20 coffee palaces.

When the No. 2 Coffee Palace opened in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 1880, the Australian Town and Country Journal reported that coffee palaces were “not only fashionable, but appear to have acquired a permanent footing in Sydney” (121). The coffee palace era, however, was relatively short-lived. Driven more by reformist and economic zeal than by good business sense, many were in financial trouble when the 1890’s Depression hit. Leading figures in the temperance movement were also involved in land speculation and building societies and when these schemes collapsed, many, including Munro, were financially ruined. Many of the palaces closed or were forced to apply for liquor licences in order to stay afloat. Others developed another life after the temperance movement’s influence waned and the coffee palace fad faded, and many were later demolished to make way for more modern buildings. The Federal was licensed in 1923 and traded as the Federal Hotel until its demolition in 1973. The Victoria, however, did not succumb to a liquor licence until 1967. The Sydney Coffee Palace in Woolloomooloo became the Sydney Eye Hospital and, more recently, smart apartments. Some fine examples still survive as reminders of Australia’s social and cultural heritage. The Windsor in Melbourne’s Spring Street and the Broken Hill Hotel, a massive three-story iconic pub in the outback now called simply “The Palace,” are some examples.

Tea remained the beverage of choice in Australia until the 1950s when the lifting of government controls on the importation of coffee and the influence of American foodways coincided with the arrival of espresso-loving immigrants. As Australians were introduced to the espresso machine, the short black, the cappuccino, and the café latte and (reminiscent of the Enlightenment), the post-war malaise was shed in favour of the energy and vigour of modernist thought and creativity, fuelled in at least a small part by caffeine and the emergent café culture (Teffer). Although the temperance movement’s attempt to provide an alternative to the ubiquitous pubs failed, coffee has now outstripped the consumption of tea and today’s café culture ensures that wherever coffee is consumed, there is the possibility of a continuation of the Enlightenment’s lively discussions, exchange of news, and dissemination of ideas and information in a sober environment.


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Author Biography

Diana Christine Noyce, Freelance

Freelance food historian