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Many visitors to Rockhampton on viewing the fine building known as the Criterion Hotel, at the corner of Quay and Fitzroy streets, must have wondered what the “pub” that first stood on that site was like. It was probably much inferior to even the worst similar buildings of the present day, however distant from civilisation they may be.

The Bush Inn was the name given to the hostelry, and certainly there was nothing ostentatious about the title. Richard Parker, who probably built it with his own hands, had been living in Gayndah for some little time, whither he had migrated from Sydney some months previously. Gayndah at that time (1857) was the outside town of most importance north of Maryborough and Ipswich, though Gladstone was also making headway, but that snug little town was somewhat out of the course of those who with flocks and herds were steadily pushing northward.

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Parker must have heard of the arrival of the Archers at Gracemere and also that Richard Palmer was starting the erection of a substantial store on the River Fitzroy. Though there were no newspapers at that period north of Brisbane, information was carried from one person to another with fair accuracy. A new arrival in any place was greeted with acclamation and the question “what’s the news ?” soon set his tongue going, and so even trivial events were soon disseminated from place to place and from one person to another. Parker with his experience of the country opened up “on the Sydney side”-a familiar expression in those days to designate the locality-must have reasoned that where a store was erected a hotel would soon be needed, and so he made tracks for the banks of the Fitzroy.

It was a lonesome uninviting locality, enough in those days, for though a splendid river flowed serenely away to the sea, the banks were covered with mangroves except for the little spot cleared by Richard Palmer’s men to enable them to land the timber for the store, and also the goods to fill the store with. There was also a shed near the Belle Vue Hotel, where the Archers placed their wool for shipment, or as a shelter for their man.

By 1862 the hotel had assumed a good appearance, and Mrs. Watt decided to get a spell from hotel-keeping. She quickly found a customer in John Ward, an energetic old fellow, who mixed up in all kinds of speculations. The Bush Inn was not a title that suited Ward’s aspirations, so he renamed it “The Criterion Hotel,” which it has remained ever since.

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The entrance to the public bar was from the corner of Fitzroy street and Quay lane. The coffee-room was towards the river, and was approached through a garden, the billiard-room being at the end of the room, bordering on Fitzroy street. The rapid manner in which hotels changed owners in the early days was quite startling and rather confusing. For one thing there seemed to be much greater mortality among hotelkeepers than any other section of the community, and thus change of ownership became imperative. The Criterion proved no exception to the general rule, for in the 67 years of its existence it must have had 20 landlords.

John Ward took possession in 1862, and before the year had closed had transferred the license and goodwill to Thomas Nobbs, who was an importation from Sydney. A big lusty fellow with a very capable and energetic wife, under whose admirable management the Criterion soon won a good many amongst the western pastoralists and visitors generally.
Meanwhile Mrs. Watt took an active interest in her husbands butchering business. But he had very indifferent health and about 1865 joined the great majority leaving a widow and two step-daughters. In 1866 Mrs. Watt married John Cramp, who had been her late husband’s business manager. The same year John Cramp became the landlord of the Cambridge Hotel but in a few months moved to the Commercial Hotel, corner of Quay and William streets, which had been vacated by Host Hant, who had gone to Bowen.

The Cramps had not been long in the Commercial when the lease of the Criterion Hotel expired, and Mr and Mrs Cramp decided to go back to their own property, or rather that of their children. This was about the end of 1866. Thus Mrs. Cramp was back in the hotel first started by her husband 10 years previously. The Cramps retained possession of the hotel for some years, and in the seventies the oldest daughter Miss Parker, married Mr. G. S. Curtis, then a rising young auctioneer and real estate agent. Mrs Cramps health began to fail, and she too passed away, after a very strenuous pioneering life at age 37 years. Mrs. Cramp was always a popular business woman, but her activities outran her strength, particularly at a period when few of the comforts and enjoyments of life were to be obtained in Rockhampton.

The writer is not quite certain in what order the landlords who followed John Cramp came, but Mrs. Laurie probably followed Mr Cramp, and she gave place to Fred A. Morgan, who took possession about 1879. Then came Mrs. Eaton, Sizer, Coleman, and George H. Bitch, the last of whom kept the place for a long period.

About 1890 Mrs. Curtis, who still owned the Criterion, was induced to erect the present fine three-storied building of brick and stone. When completed it was undoubtedly one of the finest hotels in Queensland, and for many years was considered quite ahead of the times. It then secured and has since retained a high reputation extending practically from Melbourne to Thursday Island.

It is somewhat remarkable that this first hotel to be started in Rockhampton, when the site of the city was simply bushland, long before the town was surveyed, is the only hotel property in the city that has remained in the possession of its original owners-the present being the grandchildren of the original Mr. And Mrs. Parker, who took possession of the piece of crown land belonging to the Government of New South Wales in 1857.

The foregoing rather lengthy sketch of the famous Criterion Hotel may be considered justified from the fact that the place has always maintained its position, as the first hotel in the town both for outward attractiveness and for its internal arrangements and management.

The Turnbull family are proud to have been owners since 1991 and are continually seeking new avenues to ensure the longevity of this Australian Icon. Four generations of the Turnbull family currenlty reside at ‘The Cri’.