Today is such a special day for me – it commemorates the anniversary of the day I became a publican. I was 24 years old and it was the 24th September 1990 at 12pm – to be precise. Lock, Stock ‘n’ Barrel is how you bought and sold pubs back then and my dad had decided we should go down the market from fine dining at Gowings Restaurant, East Melbourne and upsize to Gowings Grace Darling Hotel. ‘Oh, and by the way,’ he said. ‘You’re it’! In the late 1980’s the Grace Darling Hotel underwent major refurbishment by a hotel chain however the concept of a themed hotel did not appeal to locals. It was all bright lights and plastic roses.
Grace Darling was a celebrated English heroine who grew up in the lighthouse off the coast of Northumberland, UK. One night a storm breaks and Grace spots people in the waves and, determined to try to save them, rows out into the storm with her father to try to rescue them. The waves were enormous, and Grace had to steady the boat while her father pulled people aboard. By the time they returned to the lighthouse, they had saved nine souls who would otherwise have perished. It was an extraordinary act of bravery that made Grace famous.
‘To me, Collingwood will always be the potholes in Gipps St, boot factories and grimy terraces, dancing at the Town Hall, the cable trams, John Wren, Jock McHale and the great players.’
-Lou Richards, former Collingwood footballer
So off I trotted to a part of Melbourne I had only visited a few times – Smith Street, Collingwood. Previously I would only venture to Smith Street to eat and drink Midori Slippers at the great Smith Street Bar & Bistro, owned by the indefatigable Max Fink, a guy who has set up and sold more successful restaurant businesses than most, and most recently known for his stunning Naked in the Sky venture. This was the mid-eighties, and Max and his team were already doing awesome things with pub food, so I knew that if we built it, they would come. And they did.
When the Collingwood Football Club won the Grand Final in 1990, it was seen as a blessing and thus a new era was born for this historic landmark. My dad Dennis Gowing died from a long battle with cancer on 6 December 1991, and for the next seven years, my brother Chris Gowing and I jointly owned and operated this historic hotel, reaping a raft of industry awards including 3AW’s Pub of the Year and a coveted Chefs Hat from The Age Good Food Guide.
During this era we turned Gowings Grace Darling into a multi-award winning culinary and entertainment emporium that featured fine food, vintage wines, prestigious artwork by Clifton Pugh and Tim Storrier, live acoustic performances by some of Australia’s finest artists including Colin Hay, Vika and Linda Bull, Stephen Cummings, Kerri Simpson, Leonardo’s Bride, Dan Warner, Nick Barker and helped launch the local career of The Waifs.
The Grace Darling Hotel was built in 1854. The two-storey building was constructed of bluestone and rendered brickwork with feature sandstone window surrounds and is of historical and architectural significance to the State of Victoria and was built in honour of the Northumberland heroine.
The hotel is of historical significance as the venue of the inaugural committee meeting of the Collingwood Football Club in 1892, at which a decision was made to form a football club to play in the new Victorian Football League in the hotel’s cellar. The use of a hotel for such purposes was not unusual, pubs serving important social and community functions in the absence of other venues and institutions in early Melbourne.
Over the past 150 years this iconic landmark has had a colourful career and is famed for being a hideout of the notorious Melbourne gangster Squizzy Taylor, a watering hole of businessman John Wren, whose life was well documented in Frank Hardy’s eponymous novel Power Without Glory.