SongWays Bridge Mall Inn
Bridge Mall Inn in 1933 and 2017 - Source: Victoria Police Museum & Georgina Williams
Originally named the North Grant Hotel and built from timber during the gold rush in the 1850s, the first building burnt to the ground in 1893. By 1894 a new building rose in its place, ‘blood and bandage’ style mannerist Victorian in architecture. Dominating its awkwardly narrow block with entrances at both ends of the building and rising to three storeys on the Peel Street side, this is the building we still see today. Between 1934 and 1960 it had a name change to Centenary Hotel.
Its history is long and exciting including the 'capsizing' of an 11- year-old boy in 1882 when he stepped on a lady's skirt train in a crowd while listening to Prout's band performing from the balcony.
click on images to enlarge
North Grant Hotel 1859 Source: State Library of Victoria; Sketch of North Grant Hotel 18?? Source: Ballarat Historical Society
Its history also includes a 1930s murder (one of the rooms is still known as 'the murder room') and more recently and famously for being the centre of a hugely vibrant and experimental Ballarat music scene in the late 1980s and 1990s. It was here at the Bridge Mall Inn ('The Rat' or 'The Bridgey' as it was affectionately known by punters and performers) that some extraordinary music-making went down. Out of this time came The Mavis's, The Dead Salesmen, Epicure, Boxing Tostados, The Fat Thing, The Five O'clock Shadows and Immaculata to name a few bands. Why here? Why then?
Boxing Tostados Poster, 1992 designed by Peter Sparkman, Source: Peter Sparkman
Champion Rubies Poster, Source: Kiri Smart
In the 1980s Ballarat High schools decided to support music for teens to kill boredom and restlessness in a cold town with not much for young people to do. Their idea was simple: teach everyone to play an instrument and then encourage them to join a band playing any kind of music. They set up performance nights and competitions. As these teens grew up, licensing laws changed allowing pubs to stay open if they served food or provided live music. This was a dynamic combination for Ballarat – pub owners wanting any kind of live music (initially in exchange for free beer) and young people ready to play. The Bridge Mall Inn also had an incredibly supportive bar manager and fellow musician in Paddy O'Driscoll (Paddy O).
Paddy O'Driscoll 1998 & Roof Top Party 2001 - Bridge Mall Inn, Photographer and Source: Tim Bignell
One of the characterising features of this time was that live music was happening throughout the week. It was massively supported, it was a kind place to be, kids were 'having a crack' in bands that were virtually popping up overnight. The range of music on any given night was extensive: from goth to experimental electronica to folk, world music, spoken word performing over banjos, ska, punk, fire breathing and even chainsaws – and that's just scratching the surface.
The Dead Salesmen Crowd Shot 1998, Immaculata 1998, The Fat Thing 1997 (bottom left & right)
Bridge Mall Inn, Photographer and Source: Tim Bignell
Bands like Powderfinger and The Waifs came back again and again. There were a multitude of nationally touring bands that had the Bridge Mall Inn firmly set as a great place to play because of the receptive crowds and publicans (through a number of iterations) who were welcoming and would often put on drinks afterwards upstairs. They didn't get paid in plenty but they all knew it was a great place to play and so they kept coming back. Some punters remember that the publicans were required to bring out food for everyone at 10 pm. Up-and-coming Ballarat bands got a chance to support the larger touring acts, which was a great way to get experience and to elevate their standard. Fans from Melbourne used to travel up to Ballarat every couple of months just to hook into the scene as the bands didn't take themselves as seriously up in Ballarat. 'Kick on’ became a new Ballarat lexicon – a phrase that could act as verb, adjective or noun.
Graham Stables 1998, Did Someone Here Say Ballarat? launch; Garth Horsfield 1998; Immaculata 1998; Epicure Elevator CD launch 2001; The Dead Salesmen 2001, Dom Santamaria Epicure, 1999
Bridge Mall Inn Photographer and Source: Tim Bignell
Rex Hardware was another innovator who headed up a team from 1992–1996, broadcasting live to air once a month from the Bridge Mall Inn to local radio station 3BBB. Many of the people from this era went on to tour regionally, nationally and internationally; run festivals and set up or book for other venues across town including The Camp Hotel, Grainery Lane, The Mallow, The Eastern, Suttons House of Music, Karova Lounge and Babushka.
Banana Arcade 5th Anniversary Live to Air on 3BBB FM from the Bridge Mall Inn 1993 'The art Ensemble of Ballarat'
Video archives courtesy of Rex Hardware