Featured Story

The infamous Back Bar

A different kind of scene

This story has been replicated from The Hotel Canberra Conservation and Management Plan Final Report, commissioned by the hotel in 2012 and prepared by EMA Architects.

In 1949 the hotel saw significant renovations, none more so than the addition of on a new E-shaped face-brick building behind the hotel, fronting the rear street, with a gravel drive laid on either side. This work provided the commodious new bars that were known for the next 25 years as the popular “Back Bar”.  

The 1950s were a heyday for Hotel Canberra, as much as the booming nation. With the completion of the extensive additions and renovations, none more so than the addition of a new E-shaped face-brick building behind the hotel, Tooheys started their 25-year lease on 30 September 1950. 

They had, in the Back Bar, just what they wanted and for the next 25 years it was probably the most lucrative of the Hotel’s asset. Under its first manager, Leo Bikett the Back Bar achieved popularity and at time notoriety, the clientele ranging from the sedately suited public servants in the saloon bar to the ‘riff-raff’ spilling from the tiled public bar.

The backbar was not without problems involving visits from the police, ambulances, and on 13 April 1954 the fire brigade, after embers from the incinerator blew into a pile of discarded cartons. The flames quickly reached the roof cavity, causing considerable damage.

The popularity of the Back Bar continued to reign supreme, perhaps even more so when the closing time was extended from 6pm to 10pm in 1955. Drinkers would then wander across seeking to join whatever was on at the Albert Hall, including Debutante Balls and church socials, their journey made more hazardous after the gardens and courts between the hall and the hotel were turned into a carpark in the 60s. 

So successful was the Back Bar that a new bar and lounge were added in 1965, extending along the Kaye Place frontage. The public bar with tiled walls and floors and the saloon bar, with a bottle shop between, were connected by an inside single door and both faced the car park entered from Flynn Drive. 

In 1970 manager Ralph O’Connor made the saloon bar an instantly popular jazz venue when he put Clean Living Clive’s Good Time Palace Orchestra band there on Tuesday and Thursday nights as well as Saturday afternoons. For the next three years the Back Bar was the “wildest jazz venue Canberra ever had,” inducing new audiences and becoming the local hangout for a bikie gang.

The three jazz sessions drew enormous crowds, with ‘people packed in like sheep on a truck’ so that the band, on finishing the gig, was frequently unable to get through to the door and exited via the window behind them. 

“The music was wild, the crowd was wild, the grog flowed freely and there were quite often altercations.”

You can read a personal account of these days written by Clean Living Clive's drummer, Geoff Sullivan here.

In March 1974, the Whitlam Government did not renew Toohey’s lease and made the unfortunate decision to close Hotel Canberra. When news broke that the government was not renewing their lease, Tooheys decided to close the hotel immediately.

The Back Bar was transformed from Canberra’s ‘wildest’ scene to its quietest, as a departmental reference library. A farewell in arms to the good old heydays of the 50s, 60s and early 70s.

This story would be made all the most colourful with personal anecdotes. Did you ever visit the Back Bar? We’d love to hear from you.