Three years ago, Judy Bourne and her daughter Katharine Mathews made a pact. Still heart-broken after losing two much-loved men in their family, they resolved to return to Goulburn and restore their hotel’s railway heritage.
“We would give it a year,” Judy says, finishing a quick bite to eat after serving lunchtime customers of the Southern Railway Hotel in Sloane Street, Goulburn.
Her son Jason Bourne died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2000. His father John and Judy sold the Astor Hotel and moved to Paddington, Sydney, from where John commuted back to Goulburn weekly to oversee the Coolavin Hotel. He had bought both pubs in 1985, then ran the Astor and leased the Coolavin to John Falchi.
John’s passion was hotels. His other son Andrew had run the Coolavin for a while, and Katharine cherishes memories of growing up around the hotels they owned, including the Astor.
“Dad took us to work with him at 7 in the morning,” she says. “It was our job to empty the poker machines and count the money. We were in primary school and he would drop us off at school. Every afternoon we were at the hotel until whatever time. In a small business, your family revolves around it seven days a week. We were working in the functions area upstairs, that was my job after netball, I would fold 100 serviettes into a fan. It was our life.”
John’s death in 2012 struck a double blow, leaving Judy and Katharine with painful memories of Goulburn.
“I know my dad was an amazing man,” says Katharine. “I just absolutely adored him. He was one of a kind, a character. He taught me to treat everyone the same, whether it was the cleaner, or a politician. I would hear him coming, always whistling. He could tell a joke. I don’t think I heard the same joke twice.’’
Jason’s death had already turned their lives upside down. “We had to have a break, it was so hard to have that interaction with people after such a heartbreaking loss. And in a town where everyone knew him as well.
I avoided the town because it was coming back to those memories.”
Three years ago, the two women realised they had to either sell the Coolavin or return and give it everything they had, which is what they did.
Up to that point, the pub’s business centred on one bar and beer. It needed a refresh. They began thinking about Goulburn again, its history and hotels’ market, and what theme would work best for their new venture.
“My mum is English, so we love that character and warmth and history of an English pub. Mum has travelled a lot back to England,” Katharine says.
“I began doing research, and the council rates were still in the name of Southern Railway Hotel. We thought we would take the hotel back to the original reason of why it was built, and its location. A lot of railway workers used to drink there so we decided to go with that theme.”
Near the railway station and named in the late 1870s Clifford’s Hotel, then the Railway Hotel, it became the Southern Railway Hotel. Previous owner Ernie McDermott changed it to the Coolavin. Judy and Katharine restored the Southern Railway name.
“Mum and I are quite impulsive and like to get things done quickly,” Katharine says. “We had to say stop, and really take our time, before every table had been bought, before sourcing things, it had to stay with the theme.”
Reading NSW State Records and Archives, visiting St Clair Villa’s archives and the Goulburn Rail Heritage Centre, they began gathering material, photos and coupled together a restoration team. Rail enthusiast dealing in old rolling stock and rail memorabilia, Mario Mencigar, provided train items which line the pub’s interior.
At a little collectables shop in Verner Street, they befriended owner Megan Fielding, who sourced old suitcases, lamps and crockery, and ultimately joined the staff. Signwriter and artist Brad Davis, who fashioned tables from old doors and painted new signs, joined up too. He told Judy signage could be cheaper if produced from a computer. Happily for him, she insisted on the traditional hand-painted variety. Renowned heritage builder Mark Guthrie made railway sleeper furniture for the beer garden, framed weathered sleepers behind the bar and built tables and installed the train furniture.
“We have thrown ideas around and really worked well together,” Katharine says. “We trust each other and respect each other’s opinions. To get those train booths seats, you can’t go into a hospitality store and buy some, every process takes so much time.”
Judy’s grief has eased from returning to the life of a man she met when she was 13. In Sydney at high school, he travelled from Crows Nest and would wait for her to get off the bus at North Sydney Girls School every morning. Later, when he was 18 working as a providore, John was aboard a Spanish cargo ship in dock when the captain invited him to sea. For nine months he worked as an engine boy.
Later still, back in Australia, he worked for his father Arthur (also a hotelier) at a Petersham hotel, before he and Judy struck out on their own at Windsor.
All this was history three years ago when the two women from out of town attempting to rebuild new lives struck negative comments from Coolavin Hotel regulars fearful their old pub would be modernised. “If we moved a clock it was like, ‘where is that going? You aren’t getting rid of that!’ ” Katharine says.
“We have been cautious and doing the changes slowly and the response has been amazing. It took them quite a while to see we were not going to modernise the hotel. It has been amazing that customers have come on the journey with us, they have taken ownership and it has created this special sort of atmosphere,” Katharine says.
In time the men dropped their guard a bit, she says. “To have people who used to work for us at the Astor, to have men sit at the bar and cry over stories or laugh with me about the stories with Dad and how special he was, it is really special. He had this effect on people – he was such a genuine guy. He told jokes like you wouldn’t believe, that to me has been amazing too.
“I see men in the pub who have been through prostate cancer. Someone else finds out they have it and pull them aside and they talk, it’s sort of like counselling. It is beautiful.’’
In time, women and younger men began arriving, mingling with the rusted-on older blokes, who set an example of how to behave in a bar. A few beers can fuel youthful aggression, while an older, wise head’s cold-steel stare can take the heat out of brewing conflict. “If there is a fight about to break out, one of the older men will sit in between the two younger ones and say, ‘everything OK here?’ ” says Katharine.
John, who had lobbied the NSW Government for poker machines in hotels, and was the industry’s spokesman in Goulburn for years, would speak for any hotel singled out in the local media for drunken misbehaviour. He left his family a legacy of how to handle people and issues.
“For me to get back into it (the hotel business) I have a sense that I’m back around him,” Katharine says. “And it’s my brother too. He was involved in pubs as well. Initially it was hard, but yes, this has definitely made it better.”
Now living in Queensland from where she works full-time on wages, marketing and other aspects of the Southern Railway Hotel’s business, Katharine says years driving from Sydney with her mother and stopping at Bowral for collectables, reinforced her belief about Goulburn’s future.
“I think Goulburn struggles with an identity. I think Claire and Steve (Ayling) from Mendelson’s (restored 1840s hotel) have been trying to push heritage, to get Sloane Street to be what we are known for. This is what Goulburn has to spend a little bit more time on. It is so sad to lose this heritage, so sad to lose the history of these beautiful buildings,” she says.
Visiting St Clair’s Villa, she marvelled at the former Odeon Theatre’s grandeur and despaired it was flattened. “Imagine if we had that now? It is a point of difference, if we looked into it, that could be our drawcard to bring people to town,” she says.
Many of the old-fashioned Australian pubs were losing their character by installing modern restaurants and gaming rooms, whereas the Southern Railway Hotel, while keeping nine poker machines, is downplaying gambling and promoting heritage in its two-storey, 17-room pub, an early-opener with a wrought-iron verandah.
Black-and-white photos of Goulburn’s roaring rail era adorn the dining room, including the railway station’s wonderful refreshments room. From a staff of seven three years ago, the hotel now has more than 20 people working there, and a community of believers in history re-born.