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Why is the Matthew Flinders Hotel a local institution?


The Matthew Flinders Hotel in 2023 with Motel in the background

If you’ve got a couple of young kids then you’ve probably been to the Matthew Flinders Hotel on the corner of Batesford and Warrigal Roads.


It’s the only place for miles around Ashburton where you can eat a decent meal in peace, enjoy an alcoholic drink, have an uninterrupted conversation with your friends, and maybe even feel like a person rather than a parent. That’s because it has an indoor playground. And a bowling alley. And arcade games. Maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead there when you used to be cool but that place is gold when you're a parent.


The Matthew Flinders Hotel bills itself as a ‘local institution’. This is absolutely true. It is. But what does that mean?


Let’s find out.


In the beginning


Opening in 1968, the Matthew Flinders Hotel was deliberately built because of a confluence of unique factors that all occurred in Victoria in the mid- to late 1960s:

  • Women were now allowed to drink in public bars. Prior to 1965 they either had to drink in the ‘ladies lounge’ or sit out in the car waiting with the kids;

  • The final death throes of the Sunday Observance laws meant people could now legally drink in pubs on Sunday;

  • The end of the dreaded 6 o’clock Swill meant pubs now stayed open until 10 pm and could offer food as well as drink;

  • The State Government began to allow pubs and hotels to acquire entertainment licenses. These were previously only the domain of non-alcohol aligned establishments like churches and dance halls;

  • The State Government linked liquor licensing fees with the quantity of beer a venue sold; and

  • The Federal Government dropped the drinking age from 21 to 18.


All of this change created new business opportunities for companies in the hospitality sector. In the case of the Matthew Flinders, its first part-owner, Commodore Motels, a mid-size operator of the emerging hotel/motel market that catered to car drivers who were in need of a drink and a place to stay, entered an agreement with Carlton and United Breweries Limited (CUB) to build and manage hotel/motels together. Its other part-owner at the time, Kevin Blake, remains a mystery to me; I can not find anything about him at all.


The Commodore CUB alliance meant that CUB bought the freehold of the land and built the buildings but did not operate the establishment. Commodore held the liquor license and would operate the hotel/motel on their behalf on a lease-back basis.[1]


Commodore and CUB went on to build large, barn-like establishments around Melbourne suburbs. One of them was the Matthew Flinders Hotel in Chadstone. These establishments became known as ‘beer farms’ or ‘beer barns’.


The Beer Farms of Melbourne were a massive hit with the newly liberated and predominantly male patrons. Nobody checked ID back then so as long as you didn’t look too young, you could drink there. Although I don’t have access to any corporate information on this, one newspaper article reported that in the first quarter of 1968, Commodore’s profit revenue increased by 25 per cent in six months. They expected the receipts from the Matthew Flinders to exceed all the other Group’s takings combined.[2]


A Hard Earned Thirst means … you can only drink Victoria Bitter


The key to the success of the beer farms was that until well into the 1980s, Australian beer drinkers were fiercely loyal to locally made beer. In Western Australia, you were only allowed to drink Swan Lager or Emu Export. In Queensland, it was XXXX. NSW had Resch’s, Tooth’s or Tooheys. In Victoria, there was Victoria Bitter, Fosters and Carlton Draught. All brands owned by CUB. Competitors entered the market, most notably Courage Beer in 1968, but aside from the novelty factor peaking interest, Victorian beer drinkers quickly returned to the CUB fold.

CUB had a monopoly on all the Melbourne beer farms. So why was the Matthew Flinders Hotel expected to be the most successful?

This was because it was perched right on the edge of the dry area around Ashburton, Ashwood and Chadstone. There was not a rival pub for miles around.


The Matthew Flinders Hotel opens


The Hotel opened on 8 April 1968 with much pomp, complete with a flag-waving ceremony. It could fit 1,000 people in the main bar, with 500 more in the Flagship Room. In its bowels, it had seven miles of piping built-in to distribute the beer across forty outlets (pictured below).



According to John Larkin, the author of 1973’s Australian Pubs (where these pictures are from), ‘beer, beer, and beer is what the Matthew Flinders is all about. Rivers of it. Flowing from a score of kegs, squirting from forty nozzles, and down 1500 gasping throats.’


Who decided to call it Matthew Flinders is lost in time but there were tokenistic efforts to live up to the name and a few nautical trappings: a replica of Matthew Flinders’ log in the lobby, and a cannon purportedly from his ship that pretty girls draped themselves over for photographs.


In its first two months of operation, the Matthew Flinders exceeded all expectations. Revenue from it lifted Commodore’s profits to an unprecedented peak. Within a few years, the pub was selling 250 18-gallon kegs and the drive-thru 3,000 dozen bottles of beer a week. It paid $54,000 to $57,000 of annual licensing fees back to the Government.[3] This amounts to about $800,000 today so one can only image how much money it was raking in for CUB and Commodore.


As a venue, the Matthew Flinders proved popular for large wedding receptions and as a restaurant. As one former local resident noted,


‘my mother went there on every family occasion to have their Porterhouse Steak. Yet before it opened she signed the petition to stop it being built. Like all of the other young mothers, she hated that there would be a pub so close to their men.’


It was an ominous warning sign of what was to come.

In 1970, Commodore Hotels sold its stake in the operation.[4] The new management decided it was time the Matthew Flinders Hotel joined the Pub Rock Revolution that hit Australian pubs in the 1970s.


When AC/DC came to town


The combination of entertainment and liquor licensing within one establishment fed a uniquely Australian era of music that is now called Pub Rock. This great post from Graham at 4TheRecord, an Australian music blog, tells you all about it. Here’s what he says:


‘A typical pub rock venue was intense and confronting, a potent mix of lust, spit, sweat, and tattooed muscles flexing, jam-packed with men playing mean, fat guitars and swilling jugs of beer on stage, as punters crammed in for a session of drinking, and fist-pumping pub rock, it was brash, unapologetic, and inherently Australian.’


A mid-1970s advertisement for the Hotel

The Matthew Flinders Hotel management booked an array of gigs throughout the 1970s. Bands like the La De Dahs, Johnny O’Keefe, Redhouse, Hollywood, Avalanche, Stars, Swanee, and Shadowfax joined bigger acts like The Angels and Cold Chisel to play on its stage.


Everyone who went to the Matthew Flinders Hotel in January 1975 remembers seeing AC/DC play there. Even if they were nowhere near it they still say they were today.

This was when the band had moved down from Sydney and all lived together in East St Kilda, when they played mostly covers and before they released High Voltage, when Bon Scott was the lead singer, and when Angus Young dressed in the school uniform he had actually worn to school the year before.


‘They had an incredible sound,’ said one musician. ‘I was fascinated at how they got it.’

‘I'm pretty sure I was one of the youngest there to see AC/DC free on the Saturday arvo,’ said another former attendee. ‘The only free gig they did. There was probably 200 people in there? Tables were played on, drinks spilled. The band got into a fight and then kept playing! It was a great intro to live music seeing bands play on Saturday afternoons for free.’


Tana Douglas, AC/DC’s novice roadie at this time wrote about one of the Matthew Flinders gigs in her memoir, Loud (available electronically at Boroondara libraries):

‘One of Melbourne’s most notorious pub venues was the Matthew Flinders Hotel,’ she wrote. ‘While Angus was technically of legal drinking age and could be in a bar, [Matthew Flinders] Management decided to run with the underage schoolboy hype. It created a lot of publicity, so there was frequently a police presence there. The funny thing was that Angus was a teetotaller. He was actually quite shy but when he put on that uniform, he turned into someone else.’[5]


‘Living local sure helped with the great music in those days, good times I will never forget,’ wrote one punter.


Building code and regulation violations


Although everyone remembers the gigs fondly, a negligent attitude to under-age drinking was not the only blind-eye Matthew Flinders management turned in the mid-1970s.


According to 4The Record, it was standard practice for:

‘Hotel owners to deliberately ignore fire and crowd control codes, cramming 2,000 punters into spaces licensed for 250, turn down the air-conditioning systems to create sub-tropical humidity designed to boost beer sales, mostly consumed by the jug not the glass/can, because it was virtually impossible to get to and from the bar frequently without being crushed or swept up in a roiling melee.’


Records at the Public Records Office show the Matthew Flinders Hotel proved no exception. The venue failed several building inspections, including by failing to provide the required seating for the capacity of the venue, failing to display “Exit” and “No Exit” signs, and reconfiguring doors so they opened inwards instead of outward, essentially trapping patrons inside.


Handwritten draft of warning letter sent to Matthew Flinders Hotel management in 1976

Correspondence from the Health Department showed management proved rather reluctant to make the changes demanded of them.


Because I’m T.N.T. … watch me explode


At the same time, the combination of a largely male clientele packed into a tight space, very loud, aggressive music, and the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol was a powder keg for violence.


In an area already reputable for Friday night fights, the Matthew Flinders exploded on a regular basis.


‘My brother always came home from Matthew Flinders with a torn shirt and blood everywhere,’ wrote one former local resident. Agreed another, ‘my brother would go there, always get in a fight, he’d come home with blood on his shirt, every time.’

‘I got into a lot of fights there,’ another former resident confirmed. ‘We would get jumped by other guys in the car park.’


‘There were a lot of fights,’ agreed another. ‘But it was like that everywhere back then.’

The bouncers were also notorious. They were all associated with Bob Jones Karate School and had no qualms about using their skills on any misbehaving punters.


In 1974, Ronald White sued the Matthew Flinders Hotel for his treatment by two bouncers after they allegedly broke his ankle when they threw him out the door. ‘He was being kicked by two of the bouncers, in the hips, stomach, chest and leg,’ said Ian Kinkead, the Deakins drummer who was playing that night. ‘I’ve been playing for 12 years in bands at hotels and I’ve seen a lot of bashings and fighting, I think this was one of the worst.’[6]


Bikie gangs also came. ‘I remember I was walking across the car park on my way to the bar when about 20-30 bikies came through looking for a rival gang. I think it was between Coffin Cheaters and Grave Diggers but can’t be sure. I stood between the cars frozen until they left,’ remembered one former customer.


‘It was rough,’ one female attendee said. ‘The food was OK but I hated going there. Once I saw people having sex in the corner.’


The Zagame Family


In 1984, the liquor license for the Matthew Flinders Hotel changed hands again to a company called Whiskey Sales Pty Ltd. They bought up a few other licenses that year but their enterprise didn’t last long because by 1986, the Zagame Family took over.


These days the Zagame Family is more known for its luxury car business but in 1971, family patriarch Victor Zagame began acquiring local pubs. His idea was to develop a more corporate approach to the hotel business by focusing the large-format venues on family restaurants, sports bars, plush gaming lounges and drive-through liquor outlets.


Victor placed his 22-year old son Bobby in charge at the Matthew Flinders. Bobby Zagame oversaw an extensive renovation and extension of the hotel that cost $11 million.[7] He hoped this would go some way to eliminate the hotel’s rough reputation. ‘It now has more of the style of a wine bar than a pub,’ he told The Age optimistically in 1986.[8] He renamed the large dining area Bobby’s Bistro and decorated it ‘in refreshing pastel tones’, according to the article.


Zagame family plans for the renovation of the Matthew Flinders Hotel in 1984

Bobby overhauled the menu to reflect his continental origins and it now included fresh lobster and Moreton Bay bugs. He also renamed the sections of the Hotel. Downstairs was a more casual dining area called Arnold’s Deli, with 1950s décor and its own pianist.


The gaming rooms became Zagames and the nightclub was called Amadeus (after the 1984 movie of the same name, or the composer Mozart, or both?). It was, according to one person on Reddit, ‘the place you go when you’re underage and have no fake ID.’


Amadeus Nightclub c.1986

By the 1990s, crackdowns on underage drinking, drink-driving, health and building code regulations had stymied the pub music scene and the excessive drinking culture in Melbourne’s beer farms. Fortunately, the Matthew Flinders still had a thriving drive-thru liquor service that doubled as a newsagent and limited grocery (the Zagame family started out in the fruit and vege business), the 21 room motel, plus its restaurant, bistro, gaming lounges, TAB outlets and a room for Keno.[9] It was second only to Dan Murphy’s as the state’s largest liquor retailer.


After a few years, a new revenue stream appeared on the horizon.


Pokies.


The Zagames embraced them with open arms.


Let the good times roll


Pokies first arrived in Australia in the 1950s but casinos were largely banned until 1973. Then Governments realised how much money they could make from gambling revenue and began liberalising the laws around gambling.


The Armoury gaming room at the Matthew Flinders

In Victoria, the Kirner Government introduced legislation to install up to 10,000 gaming machines in hotels and licensed clubs in 1991. The primary purpose was to stop up to $400 million in gambling money crossing over the border into NSW every year. Of course, Australians have been gamblers since the white settlers came but remember this was also a time of the ‘recession we had to have’; when interest rates were peaking at 17%; and people were losing their jobs and houses.


Perhaps they did not know then what we do now about gambling and addiction.

Perhaps.


Anyway, if Bobby Zagame had any awareness about the social consequences of making gambling more accessible in suburbia he certainly wasn’t showing it. In collaboration with gambling giant Tattersall’s, he decided to install 105 new gaming machines at Zagame’s.[10] He hoped to make about $5.7 million a year, with his business receiving a 25 per cent cut.


Bobby tested the new machines by paying people $100 a day to gamble. Most of them found it very dull.


‘I’m sick of it already,’ one woman said. ‘But at least you can smoke at this job, not like all those others these days.’

On 6 August 1992, the Victorian Gaming Minister, Mr Roper, dropped the first coin into the slot of the poker machines at Zagame’s.[11] He went on to win 50c.


Opening day of the pokies at Zagames, 1992 (courtesy of The Age)

The queue at Zagame’s had already formed at 10 am and by noon, it stretched to 400 people. As people streamed in, they flocked to the machines. Many had no idea how to play.


They proved very willing to learn.


A year later, Bobby Zagame was coy about how much money Zagame’s Tattersall pokies made. As 100 players sat at machines behind him, The Age quoted him boasting that he ran the top-performing gaming venue in Victoria.[12] The entire state’s turnover of revenue approached $100 million per week.


From here on, Bobby Zagame became publicly tight-lipped about the success of the Matthew Flinders as a pokie venue. Within a few years, the State Government raised betting limits from $2 to $5 and allowed 24 hour pokie venues to open. Concerns about pokie machine addiction began to gain press coverage.

1990s era pokie machine

According to psychologists, racetrack gambling addicts sought arousal but pokie machines had a calming and pacifying effect on their clientele. People, particularly women, used them ‘to escape’ or because they ‘take up time’. It seemed the move of gambling from centralised city-based locations to the suburban venues like the Matthew Flinders had made it too accessible.


‘Driving the long distance to Crown Casino is a deterrent,’ one psychologist said in 1998. ‘They [addicts] say that with the pokies on every corner it reminds them of the time before, so they go in. They get in the mode. On the machines they block out other things and lose themselves.’[13]


By 2004, the Government had moved to restrict the number of new machines and limited opening hours to 20 instead of 24.


A bad reputation… is hard to shake


Although Bobby Zagame and his staff worked hard to turn the Matthew Flinders Hotel into a family and gambling-friendly establishment of the new millennium, it still suffered from outbreaks of violence serious enough to attract media attention. These were spaced just far enough apart to ensure the Hotel’s decades-old reputation as a rough and tumble place could never really be shaken off.


In December 2000, aspiring winter Olympian and former sprinter Shane Naylor allegedly punched a drunken patron outside the Hotel.[14] A few years later, the body of 55-year old Kyriakos Lilikakisa was found in a room of the motel. A chronic gambler, Mr Lilikakisa had been trying to enter the room with a prostitute when three men jumped him and violently assaulted him. Their murder charges were reduced to manslaughter and they received five and seven year prison terms.[15]


By this time, the Zagame Family had sold the liquor and gambling licenses of the Matthew Flinders to the Geelong-based Taverner Group. It had no effect on patron misbehaviour. That year, a teenage gang robbed Hotel patrons at gunpoint and fled with $4,400.[16]


A few years later, the land and holdings were sold to its current owners, the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (ALH). This organisation comprised of a partnership between Woolworths supermarkets and Bruce Mathieson, a wealthy Gold Coast-based millionaire intent on turning that 'm' in millionaire into a 'b' through pokie revenue.


Blow up the pokies


In 2007, public backlash over pokies saw the new State Government implement regulations restricting the number of machines to 10 for every 1,000 residents.


In the Monash Council area alone that year, gamblers had put $128.7 million through 1,185 poker machines, the second highest amount in Victoria.[17] The change forced the removal of 160 poker machines from Monash and the reduction of the Matthew Flinders’ machine numbers from 80 to 46. At the time, the hotel was the most lucrative pokie venue in the Council’s jurisdiction and one of the most profitable in the entire state.

Pokie machine in 2023

ALH fought back. After a protracted battle with the Monash Council, it succeeded in moving 16 machines back to the Matthew Flinders. 'More machines would not contribute to a rise in problem gambling in Monash,’ argued ALH spokesman Ross Blair-Holt. ALH were ordered to pay the Oakleigh-Carnegie RSL, where the machines had come from, $4,000 a month and provide $25,000 for ‘problem gambling counselling’.


How much counselling you get for that is anyone’s guess but the RSL were intent on using the money to revitalise themselves into a pokie-free and family-friendly venue.


Meanwhile, even as Chadstone began to gentrify around the Hotel, the violence problem persisted. In 2009, local residents complained about hoons fighting each other and doing burnouts and doughnuts in the carpark at all hours of the night.[18] Later that year, two men met an Indian student at the hotel and robbed him of his mobile phone.[19] A few months later, a 2 am fight outside the hotel between patrons ended in assault charges. In September 2010, a young man accused a bouncer of a vicious assault that almost killed him.[20]


The Matthew Flinders Hotel today


Eventually, reports of violent incidents connected to the Matthew Flinders Hotel began to peter out. A large portion of the site was redeveloped into a Dan Murphy’s (a Woolworths-owned entity) and the pokie machines – now a $15 billion a year industry with 45% of the Victorian sector controlled by Bruce Mathieson and his daughters – are relegated to the sports bar. Woolworths quietly removed itself from ALH and its association with pokie revenue by spinning off its portion into the Endeavour Group. Endeavour’s website touts a strong social responsibility message.


Gaming entrance

According to figures from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the venue is one of 15 in Monash and makes around $15,000 a day in pokie revenue. But that section has a separate entrance. You can go for a drink and a meal and not even know pokies are there.


At the present time, the Andrews Government, who allowed Bruce Mathieson to exceed the 35% cap on ownership of pokies venues by deciding his daughters were not connected to him, is resisting national moves away from cash-only pokie machines and initiatives devised to limit the losses of pokie machine punters.


Ironically, some of the live entertainment at the Hotel is now bands that cover the music of the original bands that played there back in the 1970s and 80s. It also has a thriving function room that regularly hosts singles events.


It seems the Matthew Flinders Hotel has finally shaken off its violent past. Yet much of its colour stems from the flashing lights and whirring noises of its pokies.


So when you read it is a ‘local institution’, now you know a little more about what that really means.





Thanks to those I spoke to about this article and also the team of people who digitised back issues of The Age. What an epic task but it's opened up so much 20th century history!



References

[1] "CUB Buys a Commodore Motel," Canberra Times, 4 July 1967. [2] "Wild Cat Pages," The Bulletin, 9 March 1968. [3] Larkin, John, 'Beer Farms,' in Australian Pubs (1973). [4] "Defection from Courage 'Small'," Canberra Times, 14 March 1970. [5] McCabe, Kathy, "Tana Douglas Documents Her Life as Australia’s First Female Roadie with AC/DC in Memoir, Loud," Herald Sun, 29 January 2021. [6] "Bouncer Broke My Ankle, He Says," The Age, 12 November 1974. [7] Hutchins, David, "Black Singlets Are Losing to Pastel Shirts in Struggle for Pub Clients," The Age, 21 January 1987. [8] "Stylish New Image for the Matthew Flinders," The Age, 13 August 1986. [9] Childs, Kevin, "Hundreds Find Work Is a Gamble," The Age, 19 June 1992. [10] Ibid. [11] Minter, Elizabeth, "Tattersall's Machines Roll at Last," The Age, 7 August 1992. [12] Conroy, Paul, "Tattersall's Gives Tab Run for Its Money," The Age, 17 April 1993. [13] Johnston, Chris, "Las Vegas," The Age, 12 April 1998. [14] "Sprinter Faces Court," Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2002. [15] "Murder Sentences Outrage Victim's Children," ABC Premium News, 11 February 2005. [16] Silkstone, Dan, "Teen Led Gang of Robbers, Court Told," The Age, 26 June 2003. [17] Miller, Andrew, "Monash Cuts Pokie Numbers," Waverley Leader, 18 December 2007. [18] Carnovale, Michelle, "Residents Tired of Pub 'Hoons'," Waverley Leader, 28 July 2009. [19] "Police Beat Crime Stoppers," Waverley Leader, 22 September 2009. [20] "Will I Ever Recover?," Waverley Leader, 5 October 2010.

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