When Temperance met Commerce: Coffee Palaces of late 19th Century Australia

Paul van Reyk

Published in Petit Propos Culinaire 121, November 2021

‘The Echuca Coffee Palace, situated at the south end of High Street, on the west side, is a new addition to the architectural features of the town. It consists of a two storied, commodious brick building, and has been erected with the view of catering to the wants of residents and visitors who desire board and lodging, but who prefer the privacy of a boarding establishment, to hotels … The building contains altogether 26 rooms for the accommodation of the public …  The dining-rooms are large and airy, the sitting rooms, comfortable and cosy … As the weekly and daily charges are moderate, the Echuca Coffee Palace should be a boon to working men, a convenience to travellers and visitors, and a source of comfort to all.’

By the 1880s Echuca, established in 1850 on the Murray River between the states of Victoria and New South Wales, was the largest inland port in Australia, with a direct rail link to Melbourne and the hub of the burgeoning paddle steamer trade. Described by the Australian Handbook of 1875 as ‘the entrepot of the intercolonial trade’, its permanent population of 1700 was regularly swelled by sellers and buyers in the cattle, wool, and red-gum timber markets.[ii] These ‘travellers and visitors’ were well-accommodated in several hotels listed in the Handbook. So what was different enough about the Coffee Palace to merit this article in the main body of the regional newspaper? Unsaid but commonly understood by this time was that a ‘coffee palace’ was alcohol free: no sales and no consumption on the premises. The origin of the palaces was the temperance movements both in the United Kingdom and in Australia.

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