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Last beers at Blues' birthplace

The University Hotel, Carlton Football Club's birthplace. (Photo: Carlton Media)
The University Hotel, Carlton Football Club's birthplace. (Photo: Carlton Media)

The University Hotel, located diagonally opposite Borsari’s Corner on Lygon and Grattan Streets, has long been considered the birthplace of the Carlton Football Club. Without question, the old inner city watering hole was where the first annual meeting of the committee was held on the 17th day of May, 1865.

But after more than 150 years, The University Hotel is no more, with last drinks to be called within the week.

In that time, the bar’s remaining barrels are to be emptied, together with what’s left of the bottle shop supplies - with a bank and fast food outlet touted amongst the potential future occupants of 272 Lygon. 

University Hotel Venue Manager Shaun O’Shea said that the property owners had advised his colleague and self-confessed Carlton supporter Andrew Treganowan that the lease would not be renewed “and as far as I know it will no longer be a pub”.

“It’s sad for the people involved, particularly Andrew, as I know he’s put a lot of work into the University Hotel,” O’Shea said.

“From a historic football perspective it’s also sad and what’s happening is unfortunately not just happening to us but to the whole of Lygon Street.”

A street view of The University Hotel. (Photo: Carlton Media)

News of the University Hotel’s tragic demise comes less than three years after The Hotel Astor on Lygon and Elgin Street corner - for years the place where four-time Carlton premiership ruckman Peter 'Percy' Jones so capably officiated as mine host – closed its doors.

Carlton supporters with any sense of history have a final chance to do as this correspondent did, in raising a pot of Carlton to Carlton and to the framed Dark Navy Blue guernsey - which, for now, still hangs from the wall of the main bar.

Fixed to that frame is a plaque which simply reads:

“The Carlton Football Club was founded here at the University Hotel, on 17th May 1865. Ben James was elected as Carlton’s first secretary and James Linacre was invited to be president.” 

That item of memorabilia is the only tangible reminder that on a Wednesday evening in autumn 151 years ago, the good gentlemen of the local district convened at the place to formally establish the greatest of all Australian football institutions.

“A lot of people who file into the bar find that this (the site of the club’s founding) is news to them,” University Hotel publican andself-confessed Carlton supporter Andrew Treganowan told me in an interview a few years ago. 

“A lot of them read the plaque and say ‘Oh right, Carlton was founded here’. In the old days, when matches were played at Princes Park and supporters came back for a beer, the story was more widely known because there was more of a territorial association.” 

A more sinister tale relating to the University Hotel involves the Carlton bookie William ‘Pop’ Kent, who was downing an ale at the pub on Cup Day 1949 when he met a 29 year-old woman Jean Lee and two male acquaintances Robert Clayton and Norman Andrews - all of whom were invited back to his house in nearby Dorrit Street. 

Club historian Tony De Bolfo raises a glass to the enduring memory of The University Hotel and the Carlton connection to it. (Photo: Carlton Media)

While what exactly happened at the Dorrit Street premises may never be known, of no doubt is the fact that Pop was pronounced dead at the Royal Melbourne Hospital before midnight, and his drinking partners who tortured poor ‘Pop” for his raceday earnings were in custody at Russell Street by dawn. 

The trio were later convicted for Pop’s murder, and put to death two years later, with Lee the last woman hanged in Australia. 

And so the University Hotel is no more. But what does it all mean? 

Well, for those of us with an empathy for the old dark Navy Blues the sad reality is that the team’s next victory won’t be toasted there, nor the next one or the next.

But for as long as the bricks and mortar remain, the story of where it all began endures.