The Palace Hotel, Broken Hill

New South Wales, Broken HillThe Palace Hotel, Broken Hill

227 Argent St, Broken Hill Phone: 08 8088 1699

On Saturday March 19th 1988 the punters of NSW headed to the polls to elect a new state government but way out west in Broken Hill, something far more important was on the cards: the 24th running of the St Pats Race Day.

Begun in 1965, this race meet was already an icon of the outback. It was a fund-raiser for the local catholic schools and had grown into a weeklong festival also featuring a major volunteer-run charity night at the track with games like Crown and Anchor, Unders and Overs, and One to Six.

These were the days of epic corruption down in Sydney. Barry Unsworth’s Labor government had seen its Prisons Minister gaoled for selling early prisoner releases, its chief justice in the clink for perverting the course of justice and a host of senior cops caught up in corruption charges and investigations.

The Libs were led by Nick Greiner who promised to clean up the halls of power and to rescind the tough guns laws proposed by Unsworth as a response to the Hoddle St massacre.

Meanwhile on the Wednesday before the election around a dozen members of the NSW Gaming Squad secretly checked into Mario’s Palace Hotel on Argent St in Broken Hill.

Come Friday night and Paul Mullins was supervising one of the ten gaming tables at the charity do down at the track, just like he’d done each year for the past ‘too many’. Paul was a real estate agent and was he nervous. All week there’d been strong whispers that the night was going to be raided and he knew that if he was arrested and convicted, he’d lose his licence to practise.

The committee had met mid-week and decided the night should go ahead. The local cops claimed they’d also heard rumours but nothing official.

A bit after 9.00pm Paul was tapped from behind on the shoulder by a plainclothed D and the raid was on. Sitting in his office on Oxide St a few weeks back, Paul tells me about the bust.

“There was no aggro, no disrespect. We weren’t handcuffed. Just told we were under arrest for ‘Conduct illegal game’. The got nine of us, all the blokes running the tables. They rang the local cops and told them to bring down some paddy wagons but (club president) Barrie (Collison) said there was no way he’d be getting into any wagon so they told him to drive himself up to the cop shop and they’d arrest him there. All very civilized”

They were all finger-printed, height measured, mug shotted, charged and processed at the Police Station across from the Palace Hotel and allowed to go home.

Next morning news of the bust pushed coverage of Nick Greiner’s election win onto the second page of the Barrier Daily Truth. If there was disgust at the arrests at this charity event there was total town outrage that police ‘from away’ had infiltrated the city and imposed out of town rules.

Broken Hill had always looked after its own, always made its own rules, always enforced its own particular codes. It’d been that way since anyone could remember.

Way back in 1916 when hotels throughout NSW were mandated by law to close at 6.00pm, Broken Hill, said, ‘get nicked’ and all pubs continued to open until 11.00pm. A delegation of senior cops was sent from Sydney by Premier Joe Cahill in 1953 but returned to the Emerald City saying they were powerless out west to enforce the law. Broken Hill kept drinking any damn time it chose! A year later, no doubt partly due to the recalcitrance of Broken Hill, almost 40 years after being introduced strictly as a war measure, six o’clock closing was abolished in NSW.

Even more famous was the two-up game in Crystal Lane behind the Palace Hotel. ‘The game” was run for decades and it hosted premiers, federal ministers, off duty cops and pretty much every man who ever visited the Hill. But no women or anyone under 18. Miners but no minors. These were the rules. Broken Hill rules and Broken Hills rules ruled.

A silhouette of a bloke leaning on a pole was painted at the corner to mark the lane. It’s still there. Right on the lane’s curb was an unmarked door on which you’d knock and have an eye-level sliding hatch open, a voice would ask what you wanted and enquire whether you were over 18. If you passed, you’d walk to the next steel door and then past the café and into the game. The steel door also remains but, sadly, that with the sliding peak-hole has disappeared.

On the back wall hung a red curtain and Greg, who now owns the bakery on the site reckons no-one ever really noticed the curtain or wondered why it was there.

He lifts up a secret trap door in the floor just behind where the curtain used to hang, and I climb down the stone steps to the hidden cellar.

If anyone can dig a secret emergency escape tunnel into an adjoining shop it’s gotta be miners, but Greg reckons it was never used, never needed. There was never a bust, never any cops ‘from away’ causing grief.

The local cops knew all about ‘the game’. If anyone caused trouble and was worse for wear from the bouncers, a call would be made, a paddy wagon with its back door open would arrive in the lane, the offender would be bundled in for a ride to the edge of town and a sobering walk back. Case closed.

But in 1984 a bloke who Greg knows was called ‘Scott’ had a blue with three other fellas. He knocked them all down, but they were the wrong people to brawl with.

‘The mafia from Mildura sent up a guy to sort Scott out but he went to the wrong house and beat up the wrong people. Scott fled town for a few years (but he’s back now) and the cops said, “That’s enough” and closed down the game’.

A bloke in the pub at Silverton later tells me his name wasn’t ‘Scott’, that his parents also had to leave town and that none of them has every returned. So many mirages out here!

So back to the end of the 1980’s and Broken Hill is without its two-up and without its race night so mayor Peter Black heads to Sydney with a small posse arguing that two up is so much part of the culture in the Hill that a special law should be made to allow it to be played.

Peter confided to me that he’d missed the St Pats raid because a dinner had run late and he was driving to the gambling night with his guest when the bust went down. That guest in the car that night was the South Australian premier, John Bannon.

Both sides of politics united to support the Gaming and Betting (Broken Hill) Amendment Act of 1992 with just one dissenting voice, old reliable Fred Nile.

The Act passed but no grudges held and when Fred came to the Hill, Blackie threw him a civic reception. He found the pastor ‘a very interesting and reasonable fella’, but no he didn’t take him to ‘the game’.

And that, brings us back to the Palace Hotel, where the Gaming Squad hid and where Australia’s only legal year-round two-up game starts every Friday night at 9.00pm.

(Hard to escape the irony that this is the same day and time that Paul Mullins had the tap from the Gaming Squad back in ’88.)

You’ve not been to a pub with legal two-up before but there’s a hell of a lot other stuff that makes the Palace special. Many interior scenes for Priscilla Queen of the Desert were filmed here and all the walls and most of the ceilings are painted with extraordinary murals. Priscilla memorabilia is everywhere. All the rooms are in top shape but the Priscilla Suite is the most over the top, amazing room you’ll ever wake up in. From the mirror ball in its reception area to the crazy chaise lounge in the bathroom to the bath itself to the pink robes to the golden fittings and tea set to the lamp stand to the massive bed to the tiger print air con unit to EVERY SINGLE DETAIL, this is just, well, fabulous. If you’re riding two up or with a partner, splurge on this. It’ll make memories!

A single room with set you back $55.00, a standard queen room with shared facilities is just twenty more and one an ensuite costs $125.00. All rooms have air-con, heaters and a ceiling fan. If noise is an issue for you, ask for a room down the side towards the back. All up there’s 46 rooms including a couple of dorms. The shared bathrooms are very clean and spacious with plenty of hot water but go easy, this is drought area.

Bikers aren’t charged the usual fee to use the lock up garages around the back but I left the bike on Argent St with no problems.

The pub’s restaurant is at the side. You can get dinner everyday and lunch Thurs to Sunday but the bar snacks in the front bar are a better bet. Only go for the garlic aranchini if you’re on your own, wishing to ward off vampires or your ride mate is sharing.

The bar is open from 3.00pm Monday through Wed and from the noon other days.

If you need an earlier drink the Barrier Social Democratic Club is right across the road.

The Palace is managed by Helen and her offsider Tonya for a group of local businessmen who rescued the pub 6 years ago after it’d been closed for three years. They’ll quickly fix any issues you may have and give you a great sheet on the history of the pub.

The Palace Hotel at Broken Hill is a must visit pub in a must visit town. Everyone has a story, all you need to do is show interest. In Broken Hill seems everyone has an epic and you don’t need to be a miner to dig it out of them. Plonk yourself down in any of the pubs or clubs and strike up a conversation with a local. You’ll get tales and stories like you’ve never heard because there’s no place like this place. Go there!

The Palace Hotel.
227 Argent St, Broken Hill
T: 08 8088 1699

Rating: 5 Helmets
Value: 160
Unique Character: Off the scale.

Full disclosure: Contrary to usual industry practice, I was not offered nor did I seek any discount or special deal whilst staying at any establishment mentioned in this review. My usual thanks to my HR dept.