In 1881 Harry John Ramus Gill arrived in Northcote and set up refreshment rooms on the west side of High Street, just below Arthurton Road. His business was known at one stage as Gills Coffee Palace and operated until 1897 when the premises were taken over by dealer, J. Bishop. Competition from the licensed hotels in the area was strong and coffee was not yet ingrained in Melbourne’s culture. The Commercial Hotel traded further along High Street but even closer, just a few doors away, was Anthony Henaghan’s wine shop. Wine shops operated below public bars in the pecking order and were often frequented by customers who had been refused entry to a hotel on account of being drunk or disorderly.
Coffee palaces on the other hand, started opening in the inner city suburbs of the 1880s as Melbourne boomed with wealth and metropolitan elegance. They were established as an alternative to the bawdy hotels and grog shops that began sprouting like mushrooms during the gold rush. The Methodist Temperance Movement under the influence of the Independent Order of Rechabites was on a crusade to bring morality to the city.
Gills Coffee Palace refreshment rooms operated out of a low timber building with a veranda and brick footpath. It is hard to compare the modest Northcote establishment with the grand style of inner city coffee palaces such as the Federal, Victoria and the Windsor (the last two now major hotels) but the concept and service was essentially the same. Coffee houses offered coffee and tea, light meals, and often accommodation for decent folk who did not want to sleep under the same roof where people were drinking in a public bar. Despite the name, coffee palaces usually served tea rather than coffee as the brew did not really catch on in Melbourne until the European migrants arrived in the 20th century.
Around 1898 Harry Gill moved with his mother Annie Maria and his sister Jane to Balgonie Place off Separation Street. Presumably until that time he had lived on the premises of the refreshment rooms. Ruth worked as a music teacher but after selling the High Street business, Harry listed his profession as either a traveller or as a man of independent means indicating that he was not obliged to work to earn a living any more. They were at Balgonie Place until the beginning of the First World War when they moved to 23 Helen Street. Harry died on 29 July 1916 and a notice was placed in The Argus calling for creditors to his estate to apply before the reading of the will. He was only forty-eight years old. By 1919 only Annie Maria remained in Northcote. She was there until her death aged 88 in 1932.
Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne and Suburban Directory 1864- 1974. [Microfiche]. (1974). Melbourne, Australia: Sands & McDougall.
NOTICE TO CREDITORS - HARRY JOHN RAMUS GILL (1916, October 31). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.:1848 - 1956), p. 3.