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Around for more than 170 years, the Red Hill Hotel in Chewton, Vic, has been used as everything from a morgue to a modern venue for drag queens.
STORY + PHOTOS STUART WALMSLEY | OUTBACK MAGAZINE
In the 1850s, when the diggings around Chewton in central Victoria became the richest alluvial goldfield in the world, Bonnie Robertson’s Scottish ancestors were among those who turned famine into fortune. Back then, the area was known as Forest Creek, and the 3 brothers from her paternal grandmother’s family escaped the Highland Potato Famine to the epicentre of the Victorian gold rush.
“I didn’t actually find out that connection until after we bought the pub lease, and I feel like they definitely still drink here,” Bonnie says, looking up at the spirits behind the bar of Chewton’s Red Hill Hotel, where she has been proprietor since late 2022.
Juliette Jefferys, Thea Foster and Veronica Wilson enjoying the fireplace in the beer garden.
The Red Hill was one of numerous hostelries that sprung up during the 1850s as prospectors from around the world flocked to Forest Creek. More than 170 years on, it’s the sole survivor, still perched a few metres from what was the muddy Goldfields track, now the Pyrenees Highway.
“They built the pub around 1852,” says the building’s owner Jeffrey Makin, a renowned Australian landscape painter and long-time Herald Sun arts critic. “A couple of years later, the bloke that built it found a big nugget over the back fence, and he added on the music hall.”
Publican Bonnie Robertson.
That adjoining hall is now Jeffrey’s studio, and he can be found Friday evenings at the end of the bar in a paint-smeared smock, drinking lemonade. When pressed on what it costs to keep the once-condemned structures sound, the 80-year-old replies, “You know, I’ve got rising damp and I can never remember numbers. But it’s pretty simple – when I sell a painting, I drop some cash into the pub.”
Forest Creek’s main watering hole and entertainment venue during the gold rush, the pub was also used as a morgue, court and community meeting hall. Now the Red Hill is a venue where you’re just as likely to find drag-queen bingo as a Rotary Club meeting.
Sam Wills of Old Slang Brewing at the bar.
On a chilly Wednesday night in June this year, around 20 locals gathered in the front bar to discuss concerns over speeding traffic through Chewton. “It’s really their pub, and we want it to be a community hub, listen to what people want and try to say ‘yes’,” Bonnie says. “But I also want to bring in weird, cool, special shows, as well, and the locals really don’t mind. Chewton’s been pretty weird for a long time.”
Bonnie grew up in neighbouring Castlemaine, a traditionally blue-collar town that more recently has become an enclave for creatives and alternative culture as people seek more affordable options outside of Melbourne.
“It was really working class, back then,” the 44-year-old says. “The big employers were the [woollen] mill and the bacon factory, where both my parents worked, and as soon as you finished school, everyone left. But when I came back with my kids about 10 years ago, I loved the new energy in town. There’s real momentum with that now, as more creative people have come in, but I also feel like it hasn’t lost sight of what it was.”
This nod to the past is evident during the twice-monthly Celtic and old-time jam sessions, which have been running at the pub for decades. Castlemaine-brewed craft beer pours from 6 taps, and 3 beers are sourced from Chewton’s Old Slang brewery. “It’s so great to have my beer at the local pub, and the Red Hill has always been its spiritual home,” says brewery founder Sam Wills. “People are a bit more adventurous these days and I think they don’t just want the same thing all the time.”
Ratbag Kitchen (Sarah Curwen-Walker and Rachael Cilauro) hold the culinary cooking residency, but make way for occasional pop-ups. “Our ethos is to create the classics, but do them really well,” Rachael says. “We both live close by, and it’s so beautiful sourcing from local producers and serving the people who you then run into. It really invests you in what you’re doing.”
The Red Hill Hotel in Chewton, Vic, is more than 170 years old.
Friends Veronica Wilson, Thea Foster and Juliette Jefferys dined in the beer garden in June, by the open fire, and came specifically for a Sunday-night Thai takeover. “I’ve been hanging for authentic Thai food, and I love this idea of pop-up or roving restaurants,” Veronica says.
Strolling through on a Friday evening, you’d certainly be hard-pressed to profile a typical patron. In the beer garden, the calls of Chewton’s resident black cockatoos mix with the sound of kids playing tag as their parents stay warm by the fire.
Inside, a couple of older blokes have found themselves in a photo of the 1987 Chewton Tigers footy team, while locals drink pre-mix cans at their usual spot next to a table of weekenders up from Melbourne. The dining room is packed with folk from all walks of life, including one chap wearing a feather boa. It seems the historic Red Hill is now a watering hole for people who used to feel like they weren’t welcome in a pub.