Melbourne was the richest city in the world off the back of the gold fields and a land boom. It was a hustling, bustling city that was one of the largest in the world and Melbourne wanted to showcase itself to the world. What an opportunity for a 21-year-old and his friend the ship-wreck survivor just arrived in Melbourne. This is how John Arthur Parer and William Henry Higgins made their money at the Centennial Exhibition in Melbourne.
In 1888 to celebrate a century of European settlement in Australia the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition was hosted at the Royal Exhibition Building. The focus of the exhibition was on culture, particularly music and painting. It had over 3000 paintings from around the world and claimed to be the largest installation of arc lighting in the world. The exhibition attracted a bit over two million visitors with a quarter of them attending symphony concerts. Given the cities population of about 445,000 at the time, that is a lot of out of town visitors.
The Parer Bros. and family were ruling the roost on East Bourke street heading up towards parliament house between Elizabeth and Russel Streets which was the great night district of the time. According to Maurice Walsh in Tales of Taverns in the Victoria Colony it, “was thronged by Sentimental Blokes and their Doreens dodging scores of hansom cabs, four-weel ‘growlers’ and cable trams”.
eMelbourne website describes it thus, “Bourke Street East between Elizabeth and Russell streets was the focus of street life, with bootblacks, spruikers, coffee stalls and temporary exhibitions taking up a pitch at every available corner. While the early evening crowd trod Bourke Street’s pavements for entertainment or for show, the night-time street was also notorious for public disorder, fights, brothel touts and drinking and drunkenness.”
On the 21 April 1888 the company of Parer & Higgins Co, that of John Arthur Parer and William Henry Higgins, was the successful tender for the “bar and light refreshment counter, at the south side of eastern avenue, eastern annexes with a bid of £1,250. This is not a trivial number and in todays terms that would be the equivalent of about $168,000 (based on RPI). They were required to pay 25% upfront, then six equal payments for the remainder, starting from the first day of the exhibition. The cost of set up and equipment would also be born by Parer & Higgins Co.
It was a gamble.
At the time John Arthur Parer had only just turned 21 and while William Henry Higgins was 28 only arriving in Melbourne the previous year. It was quite a leap for them to enter into such an affair. William had been working as a cellar man in the Parer Bros. Duke de la Victoria Hotel when they saw an opportunity to break out on their own with the London Hotel at the corner of Market Street and Flinders Lane. This was an old pub originally built and operated in 1841 on top of the rubble of a candle factory. In 1852 it had been rebuilt more solidly as a two-storey building. Being strategically located near the Queen’s Wharf on the Yarra river it was frequented by seafarers.
In order to raise the money for their successful Centennial Exhibition tender, they had to finish up at the London Hotel after only a year.
They had the prime spot in terms of location inside the exhibition. While they were one of three areas where alcohol was permitted to be sold, they were not restricted in the manner of alcohol or required to serve much else than light refreshments namely sandwiches and no hot food. The other venues either were selling only wine or was a restaurant that could sell alcohol. Their focus would be simply on serving liquor. The Parer & Higgins bar and light refreshment counter was located on the south side of the eastern avenue, in the Victorian court.
This burst of national fervour was launched with some 6-7000 people undertaking the celebrations within the building in typically Melbourne conditions, bright and sunny followed by cloudy and drizzle. The city streets were crowded from the early morning and gala dress was the standard. The length of Collins Street was covered in flags as people lined the streets in a dense pack to view the procession to the Exhibition building which was “gay with flags and streamers at every turret and point”.
It only lasted 6 months, but it seems the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition was to be a success, and so were Messrs Parer & Higgins Co. The gamble paid off. It wasn’t to be the last of them.
With their money Parer & Higgins bought on the 25 May 1889 the Exchange Hotel on 131 Swanston Street, then the Gippsland Hotel on Swanston Street and a few years later began building the hotels down in Western Tasmania.