by Russell Yeoman
In our Newsletter No. 217 July 2014 there was an article about Benjamin Oliver Wallis who was a prominent Eltham resident, publican and Councillor during the second half of the nineteenth century. He owned the house that is now the Nillumbik Living and Learning Centre at 739 Main Road Eltham. The article concluded by indicating that further research was required on Wallis’ ownership of the Eltham Hotel.
That previous article followed an enquiry from Christopher Wallis, a resident in Germany and it transpired that Benjamin Wallis was a member of the same family that came from the Cornish village of Newlyn. Christopher Wallis has now provided the results of his research complete with reference sources and it includes significant additional information on Benjamin Wallis and his connection with the Eltham Hotel.
What follows here is summarised from Christopher Wallis’ article, which starts with the background of the Wallis family in Cornwall where Benjamin trained as a mason and built a number of houses. He migrated to Melbourne in 1853 but his wife and children remained in Cornwall for a further 10 years. Later in 1853 Richard Warren engaged Wallis to build the Eltham Hotel and it opened in 1854 or 1855. The Fountain of Friendship Hotel on the opposite side of Maria Street (Main Road) opened at about the same time.
In 1858 Warren fell into financial difficulties and had to sell the hotel. Wallis bought the hotel and obtained a publican’s licence in 1861. In the 1850s the Fountain had been the more popular hotel but after that the Eltham Hotel became more popular.
The article argues that in about 1857 Wallis probably built the “Living and Learning house” for tanner John Pearson. In 1868 Pearson became bankrupt and Wallis acquired the house and he lived there until his death in 1896. For some of this time the house was in the name of Benjamin’s son Richard but he died in 1888 and ownership reverted to his father.
Much information is provided about Wallis and his family and especially his standing in the Eltham community. He was a member of the Eltham Jockey Club and in 1867 his wife Anna rode her horse Charlotte in the Annual Races. Anna was also an angler and is reported to have caught a large perch in the Yarra River. She died in 1887.
On 16th September 1886 Wallis sold the hotel to Christopher Watson (Snr). Watson died in 1887 and the hotel passed to his son Christopher Watson (Jr) who owned it for many years. It eventually passed to his son Herbert. Our Society records have to date not recorded the fate of the original Eltham Hotel although diligent research of the local press would have answered this question.
Assumptions have been made that the hotel gradually evolved from that building to the present day complex. However Christopher Wallis’ article and other recent research by Alan Sheehan shows that the hotel was demolished in 1925 when Herbert Watson was still the owner. A new hotel was built that included the façade currently standing at the corner of Main Road and Pitt Street. Many subsequent extensions have completely changed this hotel from its beginnings in the earliest years of Eltham’s development.