For years we had talked of doing “a lap around the block” and in 2017 it happened. Four days after leaving home we arrived in Charleville, Queensland on May 27, camping at the Cobb and Co Caravan Park. I was interested in the town because I have a few family connections to the area.
My mother was born in Williamstown, a suburb of Melbourne, but she was baptised in Charleville, aged two, in 1920. When you look at a map it is a long, long way to travel by train with an infant. 1700 miles (2736 km) with five train changes could take a week. My mother was baptised by the Bush Brotherhood and then remarkably she was back in Melbourne a year later.
That wasn’t the end of the Charleville connection. My grandmother was back there again in 1931. Because it had no high school my mother boarded with a family in Roma, 266 kilometres away. My grandmother married a local “overseer” in 1938 and divorced him ten years later. As a child I was not told much about this period for by then my grandmother lived by the sea and assured me she was never going bush again.
We didn’t have much time to see Charleville so decided to have breakfast in the main street. The guide book mentioned the well known Corones Hotel, stating that it hosted many aviators and other famous people so we took a walk around the block to admire the imposing building. Built in 1924 it had been restored to something of its former glory. We had a quick peek in through a door but I am sorry I didn’t know then what I know now.
Reseaching Charleville to shed some light on my grandmother’s time there, I came across the book “The Accidental Australians” by Francis Harding. It brought to life the Charleville of the 1920s and ‘30s. This may not be my grandmother’s story but the tale of Harry and Jimmy Corones is very much tied up with the history of Charleville itself.
Haralambos (Harry) Corones, 23 and his nephew Demetrius (Jimmy) arrived in Sydney in 1907, leaving a life of poverty on the Greek Island of Kythera. Working in a fish and chip shop in Sydney and then an oyster bar in Brisbane, the two young men took a chance and bought a cafe in Charleville. Forty eight hours after leaving Brisbane the Western Mail chuffed into the station. Harding describes a main street lined with white cedar trees, horses tethered to posts and swarms of flies filling the air.
The cafe, located beside the Hotel Charleville, was merely a roof over a couple of dirty tables. Harry and Jimmy were horrified but had no choice but to work with what they had. They had learnt in Sydney and Brisbane not to cook Greek food for the unsophisticated Australian palate. Instead they cooked steak and eggs, fish and chips served with bread and butter, tea and coffee with plenty of milk and sugar. Within a year they had paid off their loan and moved to better premises.
A talent scout from the brewery Castlemaine Perkins was impressed with the success the Corones had made of their cafe and offered them the lease of the Hotel Charleville. Harry became the first Greek in Australia to hold a hotel licence. The lease was for five years at six pounds a week. What guided their success was a desire for a standard of excellence unknown in the bush. Guests were picked up at the station by a horse drawn carriage and later by car. The dining room shone with polished silver and starched white linen. Harry was always looking for new experiences for his guests and so the numbers increased.
A matchmaker arranged a marriage for Harry with the daughter of a widowed Greek priest newly arrived in Sydney. Twenty seven year old Eftehia made the long journey to Charleville with her new husband to begin a lifetime of working in and running hotels. She was met with a pile of rubble as the hotel had burnt down in their absence. In the years that followed the hotel was rebuilt and Effie raised a family.
I wonder, when my grandmother arrived in 1920, did she answer a job advertisement to work at the Hotel Charleville? It would have been difficult with a two year old. Maybe she followed her original career of dressmaking or looked after a family. Whatever she did it was short-lived and she took the long journey back to Melbourne and an unhappy marriage until 1925 when she left Melbourne for good.
I digress because in 1920 the Hotel Corones had not been built. The Great Air Race of 1919 had spelt the end of Charleville’s isolation. Keith and Ross Smith landed there and stayed three months while a new propellor was being built in Ipswich. Of course they stayed at the Hotel Charleville.
Qantas Airlines was formed with Charleville at its centre. Harding points out that for two years passengers could look down at the Cobb and Co Coaches travelling below.
But what of the Corones Hotel? Harry was thriving in the Hotel Charleville but he didn’t own the freehold. He bought the old Norman Hotel opposite and commissioned the architect William Hodgen to replace it with an Art Deco edifice. It took five years to build and filled a whole block. Unlike the timber hotels which frequently burnt down it was built of brick and reinforced concrete. Leadlight windows, brass ,silky oak, Queensland maple and sycamore feature in the glowing descriptions of the hotel. Lavish balls with sumptuous food were attended by the wealthy and facilitated by the large, hardworking staff.
The Depression arrived. Towns like Charleville were supported by a wealthy pastoral industry. On the sheep stations there were cooks and station hands, governesses and maids, men for mustering, fencing and shearing. Around 1931 my grandmother arrived and found herself work on a sheep station. The early 30s saw a boom in the wool industry and people would come into town to spend money at the Corones and the little shops in the town. The Picnic Races were one of the highlights of the year with celebrations taking places for a week.
Harry and Effie worked long hours and survived the economic downturn. Amy Johnson landed on her epic flight from London, exhausted and overwhelmed by the press. She was able to rest and recover at the Corones.
Harry bought shares in Qantas and many early planes were given Greek names. The first board meeting of Qantas was held in Harry’s hotel. When planes landed to refuel, enroute to Longreach, a hamper would be packed for the passengers and driven down to the airport in the Packard, to be served with linen, silver and crystal. In 1934 Qantas announced its first international flight, carrying mail to the UK through Charleville and Darwin.
My mother married in Toowoomba 1936 and the newlyweds tried their luck on a sheep farm. My grandmother married her overseer in Charleville in 1938. My other grandmother worked as a housekeeper on a sheep station in northern NSW. They were truly “Women of the West”.
The Second World War had little effect on my parents and grandparents but Charleville was filled with American troops. It became part of the Pacific ferry route along which heavy bombers were flown to the south-west Pacific. Harry unwillingly bid farewell to one of his daughters as she became an American War Bride. Below are photos of Harry and Effie in later years.
The 1940s and ‘50s were great years for the Hotel Carones and its owners. But by the 1960s times changed, wool was no longer Australia’s greatest export, successive droughts brought farmers to their knees and people were no longer prepared to work long hours for little pay. Harry and Effie were getting old and so was the hotel. Eventually it passed into other hands and became run down. The foyer even suffered the ignominious fate of being painted mission brown!
The author Frances Harding and her husband lovingly restored the hotel to its fotmer glory but it continued to have its ups and downs in the 21st Century after it left their care. Since 2016 it has been in the hands of new owners who are working hard to get the accommodation and restaurant to the high standards that the hotel deserves.