The Eltham Barrel

‘The Eltham Barrel’ by Jim Allen

Back in the 1970s and 1980s can you remember the sound of Bavarian music wafting down the valley to the main road as you approached Research on your Sunday drive to the country. Possibly what you might have heard was the sound coming from the Eltham Barrel of the dance band there.

But to put it into perspective our story goes back much further than that to the birth of an unsung Architect named John Frederick ‘Jack’ Tipping who was born in Melbourne on 16 August 1923. Jack commenced his architectural career as an articled pupil in January 1940 but, like many young men, he enlisted for war service after having only managed to finish two years of his course. On completion of his service in June 1944 Tipping was discharged as a Corporal having served as a draftsman in a Field Survey Company. Using his war service entitlement under the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme he completed his training at the Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and qualified and registered as an architect in August 1948.

During the 1950s and 1960s Tipping gained further qualifications and increased his reputation while working for various architectural firms. He also undertook some residential commissions under his own name, including his home in Balwyn North and several other houses in that suburb.

Jack then took on the most ambitious project of his career, the Eltham Barrel. Situated on the slope above the main road it was entered by turning off Main Road at Research. Kalbar Road and Natalie Mews are present day streets in this area.

With the Engineer Des Hill in charge of the project the structure took the form of a giant reclining timber barrel built along the lines of a similar structure in Durkheim, Austria.

eltham-barrel-2-2
Eltham Barrel c1969 – photograph from EDHS collection

Based on 17 acres of rural land the grounds and building, (comprised of three levels), was commenced in the late 1960s and scheduled to be completed by the end of November 1968. The structure was built from recycled convict handmade bricks and Oregon timber from the Cliveden Mansion in Jolimont, which was demolished in 1968. According to a now deleted article by Wikipedia it was claimed at the time to be the largest barrel in the world with the capacity to hold 8 million litres of the German beer that was to be sold on site.

With Mr Bill Muller in charge of Swiss/Bavarian entertainment the Eltham Barrel became an instant landmark and a much loved local icon. Many fund raising activities, theatre nights and similar events were held and enjoyed by locals.

Unfortunately, all good things can’t last for ever. At 7.44 am on the morning of the 4 June 1989 the now well-known and popular venue came to an end when the siren rang out at the Research CFA. Despite the rain and fog the glow from the fire could be seen at the station. Research Tankers 1 and 2 were the first vehicles on site of the fire followed by the pumper truck from the Eltham Fire Brigade. Entry to the Barrel carpark was gained by cutting the chains on the main gate. Access to the building was then made by cutting through a burning front door with a chainsaw. Further problems were experienced with gas cylinders and lack of water pressure.

The fire was eventually contained and brought under control. Over the period of the fire 14 CFA and 3 MFB units with 100 fire fighters were in attendance. In addition to brigades there were police, ambulance, SEC, Gas and Fuel, the Arson Squad, the CFA Regional Officer and Shire Building Inspector. Damage to the Barrel and its contents was estimated to be approximately $2,000,000 and consequently it was considered beyond restoration and was never reopened.

Fortunately, the fire occurred on a Sunday morning as if it had been a Saturday or weeknight the loss of life may have been high as the venue had just commenced operating as a night-club. As it was two Research CFA members needed medical treatment for smoke inhalation and a dislocated knee.

Sadly, the Eltham Barrel proved to be Tipping’s last project as he passed away in 1969 shortly after the Barrel was completed. Nowadays Natalie Mews is a quiet residential street with no indication of the areas lively past.

In 2011 two souvenirs were for sale on e-Bay, a mug in January and an ashtray in May. The ashtray has been generously donated to the
Eltham District Historical Society by one of our members, Wayne Lascelles.

Questions still continue to this day as to the cause of the fire and as to whether it was deliberate or accidental, however no charges have ever been laid by police.

References:
Dictionary of Unsung Architects, John F. Tipping (1923-1969)
Wikipedia – Eltham Barrel Restaurant
Against the Odds, Research Rural Fire Brigade (1950 – 2000) Author Mick Woiwod
Newspaper Article ‘The Sun’, Friday 11 October 1968

‘The Eltham Barrel’  by Jim Allen was first published in the Eltham District Historical Society Newsletter, August 2016

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15 thoughts on “The Eltham Barrel”

  1. Your article suggests some doubt as to the cause. So things don’t get skewed as we all age I now several in the research cfa who were involved at the barrel in the days subsequeent to the fire and there is no doubt that the fire was deliberate. Fire had been set in other areas within the barrel that hadn’t burnt/taken that night.
    We all kept quiet about it at the time in case any subsequent court case may be jeapordised but all these years in that is looking highly unlikely

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Dave. This particular post from 2016 was a reproduction of an article that appeared in one of the Society’s newsletters. It does have a slight factual error regarding the time of day of the fire; it was evening not morning and this is reflected correctly in our ThrowbackThursday post of 24 Aug 2017. Over time there have been many inferences made about whether the fire was deliberate or not and this is much suggested on various Facebook groups. Those who know members of Research CFA who attended the fire are indeed well aware of the circumstances you have advised but as you have said, no one ever made these facts public just in case. However, as also seen in our ThrowbackThursday post, the Diamond Valley News of 13 June 1989 reported that the Arson Squad had confirmed the fire was deliberately lit. It just seems that no one was ever charged and that is probably where the mystery should focus.

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  2. I have tracked down the architect’s drawings at: Department of Health Public Building Files at PROV gives early details: VPRS 7882/P/0001 Unit 1877; VPRS 8044/P/0003 Unit 457.

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    1. This is fantastic – we have shared the following to our Facebook Page also – Check out Episode 5 of this fabulous podcast “My Marvellous Melbourne” produced by staff and students affiliated with the Melbourne History Workshop in the school of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, under the direction of Professor Andrew May. There is a detailed history and description of the Eltham Barrel, which includes an explanation of the Bavarian restaurant scene in Melbourne. It commences at 16:25 and runs for just over 26 minutes. Listen to the whole segment. It is definitely marvelous and well worth the trip back in time. http://mymarvellousmelbourne.net.au/

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