Inner East Review
Tuesday, 5 December 2023

Pub with a chequered history awaits its fate

Updated August 9 2022 - 12:55pm, first published 12:00pm
Cherry Tree manager Toby Kingsley ... hopeful the pub can renew its lease. Photo Morgan Hancock
Cherry Tree manager Toby Kingsley ... hopeful the pub can renew its lease. Photo Morgan Hancock

Cremorne residents are anxiously awaiting news about the Cherry Tree Hotel, after the Balmain St building was put on the market at the end of last month.

With an asking price of $6.5 million, there are doubts a buyer would continue the pub's lease after its current three-year term.

The building has no heritage protection, and with its art deco facade may retain little of the original structure, but in its story the 166-year-old hotel holds a rich history of the local area.

As one of the last watering holes in a rampantly developing area, under its current management it has become "the heart and soul" of the suburb, according to Cremorne Community Inc president Gary Shadforth.

Built in or before 1856 on a site that apparently once held a cherry orchard, the pub had had 11 licencees by the turn of the 20th century and already seen its share of drama and tragedy, including an 1875 fire that badly burnt one of the landlord's children and killed his young sister-in-law, who was trying to save them.

According to Cremorne Community Inc, the Cherry Tree was historically "the epicentre of a community that needed to be resourceful".

Cremorne, largely built up with workers cottages in the 1880s, was "a rich neighbourhood in social terms [but] never in economic terms," and over the years crime flourished there.

Squizzy Taylor was famously sent to jail for stealing 10 shillings from the pub's till in 1908, and in 1954, 27-year-old alleged standover man Johnny Willoughby was shot dead outside it in a dispute with an SP bookmaker.

In the 1980s, Kath Pettingill's notorious son Denis Allen called the Cherry Tree his local, turning "a small slice of Cremorne into a gangland ghetto," according to crime writer John Silvester.

Sports journalist Scot Palmer, who at one stage ran the pub with Ron Barassi, described Allen as an "unstable character with a gruesome background in murder" and wrote about the danger and difficulty of ridding the place of him and his drug trade.

In 1989, as Cremorne began to gentrify, the Cherry Tree underwent a major renovation which took the hotel upmarket and saw a giant globular skylight installed in the lounge.

But by 2014 when Chris and Penny Hodges took over, it was "in pretty bad nick" and without a kitchen, long-term manager Toby Kingsley says.

The Hodges had been running the Great Britain (now Harlow) on Church St for 18 years and according to Chris, "pretty much packed up our belongings and invited our staff and our customers to come and join us".

Having carried out some renovation of their own, building a wood-fired pizza oven and installing fresh beer lines, the new operators found in Cremorne "a crowd of people hungry for a [decent] pub", Kingsley recalls.

As the landscape around it continued to undergo heavy redevelopment, the Cherry Tree's significance grew.

Once "the roughest pub in Richmond", it has become an easy-going meeting place, which deepened its links with the community during the pandemic when staff drove around the neighbourhood giving away toilet paper and delivering groceries, firewood and school lunches.

"I've watched people from both sides of the bar form enduring friendships and develop a strong sense of place," Chris Hodges says. "When they say the old corner pub is part of the fabric of the community, it's a tangible thing. You can see it, feel it, touch it.

There is talk among locals about forming a consortium to purchase the place, which has been advertised as a possible development opportunity.

With some well-heeled patrons in the mix, it could be a real possibility, Kingsley says.

Teska Carson agent Matthew Feld said last week there were "all sorts of people" looking at the property and it was too early to predict its fate.


Jenny Denton


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