13 October 2023

Riverina Rewind: Remembering the sticky floors and loud music of an iconic Wagga pub

| Michelle Maddison
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The old Red Lion Hotel. Photo: Bidgee, Wikimedia Commons.

Driving westwards along Edward Street, you will notice some modern grey apartments (the Mill Residence) on your left once you pass the old Murrumbidgee Milling Company buildings.

Many living in Wagga before 2012 will remember a vastly different sight on this corner. Where these residences now stand was once the site of one of the city’s oldest drinking establishments, the Red Lion Hotel.

The original Red Lion was a small, single-storey pub facing Edward Street. it was opened in 1879 by George Gray, who lived in an even smaller cottage that adjoined the hotel.

In 1908, a new hotel was built on the site of the old Red Lion (although for many years, the original pub building, dwarfed by its replacement, was still standing).

Erected on the corner of Edward and Flinders streets, the new structure was made of brick and contained 14 rooms.

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Now named the Federal Hotel, the roof was iron, the ceilings were steel, and the halls were paved with fancy tiles. The doors in the main entrance and the fanlights were fitted with graphene, which, in 1908, was a new and unbreakable window material. A balcony wrapped around two sides of the hotel, providing (in 1908) a splendid view of the park, the river and all the prominent parts of the town.

The Federal operated until 1928, when there was another name change, and it became the Imperial Hotel, referred to by locals in later years as ”the Impy” or ”Impie”, and by some as ”The Metric” when Australia changed from the imperial system in 1966.

The beautiful balcony was retained until 1955, after which the building was remodelled and its facade modernised. At that time, the balcony was removed (replaced by an awning) and the brick front rendered and painted cream. By all accounts, the pub had a fantastic beer garden out the back. It was there that numerous local musicians entertained punters, especially on Sundays.

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In the 1970s, it became the unofficial home of the Wagga Wagga Rugby Union Club, and it was during this era that Phil Jackson was the licensee.

In 1995, the hotel came full circle and once again became the Red Lion. Although small, it was still one of the most popular local pubs. There were multiple levels to the dancefloor, the drinks were cheap, and the carpets sticky!

There was an upstairs club named The Den, notorious for people diving off the stage.

In the 2000s, a room upstairs to the right was known as The Lava Lounge. Here, tables and booths were packed together, and the pumping music from the dancefloor outside made it one of the noisiest spots in the building.

pub and unit block

Then and now – the Red Lion Hotel and the Mill Residence that now stands in its place. Photo: Bidgee, Wikimedia Commons/Chris Roe.

The Red Lion closed its doors for the last time in 2005. It was to be reopened as part of the Mill redevelopment, but four years later, the developer went into receivership. So, on its corner, once full of life, laughs and loud music, the hotel languished.

On Saturday, 13 May, 2012, under the cover of darkness, cranes driven by a demolition crew moved in and this hotel, which had stood for more than a century, was reduced to rubble in just a few hours. As the bricks and walls were torn down, people swore they could smell stale beer, a classic trademark of the pub.

While the bricks and mortar may be long gone, the Red Lion/Federal/Imperial Hotel is definitely not forgotten, and still lives on in the minds and hearts of many.

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