Rockhampton’s Criterion Hotel has been a landmark on the banks of the Fitzroy River since 1890.

Story By Kirsty McKenzie

If it's a wise man that builds a pub in a mining town, then Robert Atkinson Parker had the foresight of a genius. In 1857, he established both the Bush Inn and a general store on the banks of Queensland’s Fitzroy River in the fledgling township of Rockhampton, Qld. His aim was to service the needs of the small community, which had begun when the Archer brothers established the first station at nearby Gracemere two years earlier. But all Parker’s wildest dreams must have been realised in the latter part of 1858 when an estimated 15,000 hopefuls passed through Rockhampton on their way to the gold fields of Canoona, 60 kilometres to the north.
The gold rush turned out to be a bit of a fizzer, but from unsuccessful miners who stayed on to farm in the area, Rockhampton received the impetus it needed to become a major river port. In the 1880s, the discovery of gold at what was later described as the richest single gold mine in the world at Mount Morgan, 38km to the west of Rockhampton, cemented the town’s future. Quay Street, where the Bush Inn stood, flourished with the construction of many fine buildings that ensured three blocks of the riverfront street enjoy National Trust status today.
Among them is the Criterion Hotel, a grand old dame of a pub, built on the site of the Bush Inn and opened in 1890. Robert Parker’s daughter, Dorinda, and her husband, George Curtis, had long entertained notions of “an elegant establishment” on the site. Curtis was the leader of the northern Queensland separatist movement and perhaps they had visions of a new seat of state on the river when they commissioned English architect James Flint to design the three-storey neo-classical revival building with its bell tower, colonnaded verandahs and hooded windows to protect the rooms from the fierce tropical sun.
Although the separatist movement fizzled with Federation in 1901, the hotel has been a landmark ever since and always a family-run establishment. The Curtis family was friends with Henry Smith, the owner of one of Rockhampton’s first motorised cabs and in 1928 they sold him the pub. The Smith family employed various licensees, including Henry Morgan, one of the brothers of the famous gold mine, and Jessica and Charlie Bloxsom, who ran it as a “coat and tie” establishment in the 1950s and ’60s.

This story excerpt is from Issue #84

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2012