18-22 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (Carlton Club Hotel)

This building has had a fascinating history. This building was once the Carlton Club Hotel, but later in 1978-1988 it was Mama Seka’s Key Club and also in the same building Squizzy’s, a place for lesbians in 1981-1983.

Google image – Dec 2020

The Carlton Club Hotel (1853)

“The Carlton Club began operating in 1853 on the south side of Gertrude Street close to Nicholson Street. Its description in 1856 is of a hodgepodge of buildings: ‘an iron house with 14 rooms, a brick bar, a wooden house at the rear with 12 rooms, stables and a yard’. Owned by a Mrs Cruse, it was leased to James Baynton Cox for 21 years. By the 1860s it had been named the Carlton Club. By the 1880s onwards it is described as a ‘brick hotel of 20 rooms’ with an annual rating value of around 200 pounds. As with many hotels it was extensively remodeled in the late 1910s”, Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Jill Robertson 2008.

The pub has several different publicans over the years including Robert Wilson (1855), William Watkins (1857) who was also the owner, W P Escott (1861), William Watkins (1862), Mrs Maxwell Haines (1872), Mrs Mary Haines (1883), Charles Brown (1884), John Neven (1887), William Kaye (1888), Daniel McLennan (1890), Edward Brown (1891), Mrs M Browne (1892), John Doherty (1893), Marshall Hutton (1897), N H Rendall (1902) and Mrs M Kemp (1903). Source: Hotels in Fitzroy up to 1906, History of Architecture, Nicola A Piccolo, University of Melbourne.

Mama Seka’s Key Club (1978-1988) / Carlton Club Hotel (1976-1989)

The Key Club was the first venue in Melbourne where patrons could be openly gay. Prior to this meetings used to occur in a few pubs which were either quiet on a particular night or where they turned a blind eye. So this venue was massively important to the LGBTIQ community.

Mama Seka, operator of Melbourne’s first gay establishment the Key Club, pictured with Michael Jarmyn and Paul Mathews from The Laird which opened as a ‘men’s bar’ in the 1980s.(Supplied: Ivan Polson) ABC News

Seka Sumonja moved to Australia from the former Yugoslavia in 1956 escaping communism. She “wanted to join her mother and brother in Australia. The fare was 300 pounds – “I am not a 10 pounder”. “When I first arrived I went on a tram up Swanston Street, it was seven pennies, and then came back. I was just exploring. But I realised nobody had asked me for an identification card and I thought ‘yeah, that’s where I am going to live'”. Ms Sumonja’s first job in Australia was working at the lady Dugan Red Cross Home in Malvern for four years with her wage topped up with stints at a Chinese restaurant at Camberwell Junction for another nine shillings. She worked hard and bought a house and then “found a husband in church on Orthodox Christmas Day”. They were married four months later and their happiness lasted 31 years until he lost a three-year battle with lung cancer”

“Ms Sumonja was always keen to get into pubs but started at the bottom including at Young and Jacksons. “Kitchen, serving meals, waitressing, barmaid, cellar. I did everything before I decided I could run a pub. And then it took five years to convince my husband to buy a hotel. We bought the Carlton Club in Fitzroy in 1976 and ran it to 1889″ Ms Sumonja an the Carlton Club proved successful, even though she had a policy of telling anyone who ‘wobbled’ through the door they were in the wrong bar. There was also the legend of crime king Squizzy Taylor. “It was before my time, well before my time, but we had the photos and details and there were plenty of stories. I didn’t judge him too harshly but I didn’t prize him too highly”. Over the years, Ms Sumonja and her husband also tried their hand at farming, other pubs and a move to Queensland to help with the lung troubles. The Newlyn Hotel was bought in 1989 but continuously leased out” until 2014 when she started to manage the Newlyn Hotel herself at 80 years of age.

The above two paragraphs are sourced from ‘The Local, Highlands Newsletter‘ in 2014. What is fascinating is they do not at all mention the club she ran at the Carlton Club Hotel and the importance of it to the LGBTIQ community.

Ms Seka at 80 years at the Newlyn Hotel (2014) – Source: The Local, Highlands Newsletter

Nightowls Club Hotel (1993)

St Vincent’s Hospital (2008)

The building still stands as shown at the very top and is used as part of the hospital’s dialysis unit. Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, Jill Robertson 2008.

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