Alma Hotel, 11 Hill St, Willunga

Also known as The Bottom Pub.

Willunga was a popular stop with coachmen and passengers who stayed overnight before journeying up Willunga Hill and onwards to Encounter Bay. By 1856 there was sufficient coach traffic to warrant an additional hotel.

When Willunga’s community celebrated the sesquicentenary of The Alma in 2006 it effectively was honouring the hotel’s 30-odd publicans (including the incumbent Jason McCauley) whose high standards of hotelkeeping sustained a fine reputation through the years. To survive for a century and a half reflects the excellence of those ‘mine hosts’. There are Alma Hotels in myriad locations from Broken Hill to Barcelona, from Petra (in Greece) to Paris. They are all probably so named to salute the 1854 Russian defeat by Anglo-French forces in the Crimea.

Erected prominently at Number 11 on the eastern side of Hill Street (called High Street until 1983) the Willunga Alma was built by its owner and first licensee William Toll in 1851. It opened as a public house on 18 September 1856 trading as Alma House or the Alma Inn and became the Alma Hotel in 1877. In 1892 George Webb of the nearby Willunga Hotel bought the property, his family retaining it for the next 55 years.

The hotel originally was a single storey building. An abutting two-storey structure to its south dates from about 1870 and a further northern section – the dining room – from 1974. Much of the original slate flooring and verandah is extant. In its heyday the Alma claimed 22 furnished rooms and was a popular holiday destination for families. An 1888 Elder’s auction notice in The Advertiser promoted 23 rooms including dining room, billiard room, four sitting-rooms, 10 bedrooms, a five roomed cottage, stabling on land of nearly four acres.

A garden and fernery were at the back; in front, a Bassett Memorial cypress tree was planted after 1918 to commemorate the fallen. Its descriptive plaque was missing for many years but has recently been found and is in the care of the Willunga National Trust Museum. The tree endures alongside a couple of massive gums — all home to some of the myriad corellas which Willunga residents spiritedly either defend or deplore.

Most hotels attract folklore; legend contends the Alma was haunted by the shade of Tim OBrien, said to have fallen into a nearby well after a fight with fellow patron Patrick Malone in 1888. A later publican sealed the well to discourage this reputed ghost’s nocturnal wanderings. A framed account of the saga is located in the pub’s main bar – although documentary support for this spectral yarn is hard to find.

The Alma featured prominently in the 1974 beer price wars, The Advertiser reporting tit-for-tat discounting as the Willunga Hotel responded to aggressive 15-for-12 bottle pricing from the owners of the Alma. At the height of the price war, fortunate imbibers also could buy a butcher of beer for 13 cents – almost 30% off the usual price.

The Alma is an indestructible presence in the town. Its sesquicentenary gala was celebrated with fervour. Its next milestone, its dodransbicentenary, or 175th, will presumably be celebrated in 2031 with equal local jubilation – even if pronouncing the anniversary presents a formidable challenge.

This building is on the City of Onkaparinga’s local heritage list (SA Heritage Places database #5489)

References:

1888 ‘Advertising‘, South Australian Register 14 April, p. 8. , viewed 03 Mar 2024,
1929 ‘Family Notices‘, The Register News-Pictorial 7 August, p. 8. , viewed 03 Mar 2024,
1979 ‘Quieter image for Alma‘, Victor Harbour Times 28 March, p. 26. , viewed 03 Mar 2024,
Flickr photos: ID=9708463560,9708462710,32072268767.

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