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The ‘South’ – Gone but not Forgotten

On June 26, 1971, The South Australian Hotel in North Terrace closed its doors for the final time, marking the end of an era and bringing to a sad conclusion almost 100 years of Adelaide social and community history.

During the last year’s 50th anniversary celebrations of The Beatles’ legendary visit to Adelaide, “The South” – as it was known – was remembered as the place where the famous pop group stayed. But the iconic hotel has played a much bigger and more colourful role in the history of our city than hosting just that one group of famous visitors.

Photo from the State Library of SA. The South Australian Hotel at the very height of its fame. Photo by Max Dupain, taken in the early 1950s

Photo from the State Library of SA. The South Australian Hotel at the very height of its fame. Photo by Max Dupain, taken in the early 1950s

The story has its beginning in 1879, when a public house was first erected on the site in North Tce. It wasn’t long before that original building proved to be inadequate and was demolished to make way for a much larger and more impressive establishment, which opened in 1894 as The South Australian Hotel.

With its proximity to the Adelaide Railway Station, the new hotel did a brisk business, and by 1900 further additions followed, including the three storey verandas. Soon the hotel boasted 72 rooms with hot and cold running water, seven luxurious suites (each one tastefully decorated), a grand cedar staircase, a magnificent dining room complete with crystal chandeliers and, eventually, air conditioning (a rare luxury in those days) and 24-hour room service.

SA hotelier Louisa O’Brien.

The original dining room was able to accommodate up to 200 guests and became the centre of Adelaide’s social life. The balconies offered the perfect setting for weddings, afternoon teas and other important social events. During the 1920s, however, The South’s reputation as the premium hotel in the young city began to fade, its fortunes declining as more modern establishments opened, and gradually over the next few years it fell into a state of some disrepair.

In 1934, the lease was taken over by a very ambitious and determined woman, Louisa O’Brien, who came from a family of hoteliers. She immediately set about restoring the once grand hotel back to its place as the finest in the city.

Legend has it that on taking control on June 18, Louisa swept in and sacked the entire staff. Within 48 hours, she had repainted the interior and hired new staff, including Louis (Lewy) Cotton as head waiter.

The grand staircase in the hotel’s foyer in 1971.

Lewy, who went on to hold the position for more than 30 years, took over the running of the sparkling new white and gold dining room, which seated up to 600 people.

Over the next three decades, The South was recognised as one of the great hotels of the British Empire.

Guests from all over the world stayed there, including author H.G. Wells, dancer Anna Pavlova, film star Marlene Dietrich and, of course, the famous mop-tops, The Beatles.

Under Lewy’s watchful eye, the dining room gained an enviable reputation as the finest place to dine in Adelaide.

Louisa was at her post in the hotel every day and could be seen directing staff and tending to the needs and wants of her guests. In summer, she would sit by a window in the foyer and greet guests personally as they arrived. According to former staff, she could be curt and acerbic, but to guests she always appeared considerate and kind.

Louisa died in December 1957 in her beloved South Australian Hotel and was buried in the North Road Cemetery. Beth, her daughter, had been groomed to succeed her and Lewy continued on as head waiter. The hotel thrived throughout the 1960s, with the highlight of that decade being The Beatles’ stay in 1964.

Louis Cotton, the head waiter at the hotel.

Then in 1971, The South was bought by Ansett Transport Industries. It was decided by faceless executives who lived in another city to demolish the iconic building to make way for the more modern, yet strangely unspectacular, Gateway Hotel.

Adelaide lost almost 100 years of its history when the bulldozers moved in to tear down the walls of the much loved and admired hotel.

The South had been the very centre of Adelaide’s social life for decades, playing host to dozens of celebrities and VIPs.

It was the choice of brides for their wedding reception, preferred by well-to-do matrons for bridge afternoons and favoured by industry leaders and members of Parliament for important business lunches.

For those with a love of history and nostalgia, it is still missed to this very day.


If you enjoy these stories of Adelaide, a quick reminder to pick up a copy of the book “The Best of Bob Byrne’s Boomer Columns”, featuring a collection of my newspaper columns that have been published in the Boomer magazine in The Advertiser on Mondays.

You can purchase a copy at the Remember When Shop at;

15 Responses to The ‘South’ – Gone but not Forgotten

  1. Debbie Neil January 26, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    Sad loss of the grand and majestic South Australian Hotel in 1971. Sad, as the state has lost another grand icon with a rich history. My family history had a connection with the South Australian Hotel, namely Elijah Alexander and son’s who owned the majestic establishment. My great great grandmother was wife to Elijah, whose name was Lucy. Elijah and family are buried in the Main North Road Cemetery and the immense headstone stands also with grandeur. I cannot seem to find any photos of Elijah and family, which would not only be fantastic for my family tree, but also in memory of Elijah and his service to the South Australian people. I really think he deserves some notability also. RIP Elijah, you and the South Australian won’t be forgotten. xo

    • Darryl THOMPSON January 28, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

      A few details on Elijah’s time at the SAH that I have collected.

      In 1899 another major upgrade of the South Australian Hotel was undertaken to plans developed by architect Alfred Wells. This redevelopment produced the façade that is mostly remembered today.

      THE above First-class FAMILY HOTEL, having upwards of Seventy Bedrooms, and being immediately opposite the Railway Station and Parliament House, offers superior Accommodation for Visitors and others. Special Terms to Commercial Travellers and Permanent Borders.
      E. ALEXANDER, Late of Largs Pier Hotel, Proprietor
      Register, Thur 23 Mar 1899, p.8i.

      SOUTH AUSTRALIAN HOTEL NORTH-TERRACE. TO INTERCOLONIAL VISITORS AND THE PUBLIC GENERALLY. The Proprietor wishes to notify that during the Extensive Alterations and Additions the Comfort and Convenience of Visitors will not be interfered with in any way. Business will be carried on as usual Temporary Private Entrance on the West Side.
      Register, Thur 28 Sep 1899, p.8h.

      The South Australian Hotel again is under the control of Mr. E. Alexander, having been taken over by him from the trustees of the estate of the late Mr. B. Roennfeldt. Mr. Alexander contemplates spending £5,000 in improvements to the building, which is to be redecorated. The electric light is to be installed throughout and an electric lift inserted, and the dining-room, which is the largest in Adelaide, will be extended to a length of over 200 ft. The Largs Pier Hotel is conducted in conjunction with the South Australian on the interchange system.
      Advertiser, Wed 13 Aug 1903, p.6b.

      • Debbie Neil April 6, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

        Thank you Darryl Thompson who kindly added information from his collection on Elijah Alexander and the SAH. 🙂

    • Alexandra Jane Burridge September 2, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

      Hiya, yes I am a descendent of the Alexander family who built and owned the South for the first few decades of its life. I’ll tell u what my family handed down to me for the record. I was brought up by my maternal grandmother Marna Jeane Alexander, an amazing, strong, charismatic and inspirational woman, who was the widow of Wilfred Wilson Alexander. Wilf was son of William Ernest Alexander and grandson of Elijah Alexander. Marna and Wilf were both born in 1909 and married in 1936. Marna told me the Alexanders “built” the South Australia Hotel in the 1880s. Prior to that it was a very small Club building, the South Australia Club? Marna talked a lot about life at the South in her time. She told me William Ernest Alexander retired at age 24! When I asked what he did after such an early retirement, she said “played tennis and rowed”. Marna said The Alexanders always had a table set aside for their use in the dining room at the South and dined there frequently. She talked a lot about Louis Cotton the Maitre d’Hotel of the dining room, so that article about Mrs O’Brien hiring him should probably say “re-hiring”. I’m not 100% sure he was there in the Alexanders’ reign but I am about 98% sure because of the stories. I have an old picture of the “South” with Alexander’s South Australia Hotel clearly emblazoned on the facade. It is one of my nostalgic treasures and always sad to me that no one mentions the pivotal role the Alexanders played in the first decades of this iconic institution. I think that situation came about as we were a damaged family with the scion, Wilf Alexander, killed in a plane crash in the RAF in the Second World War in 1942, and his only child, my mother Jennifer Burridge (nee Alexander) dying at age 20 after childbirth when my younger sister Belinda was born. Belinda and I were lucky to have our education and early life expenses covered by our inheritance which was built from earnings of the South half a century earlier. Please feel free to contact me for more colour. I would like this story to come out. Part of the glorious history of Adelaide.

    • Alexandra Burridge November 13, 2018 at 7:21 pm #

      Hiya Debbie. Did u see my comments re SAH?

  2. Hels November 22, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    The tragedy of destroying our Victorian architectural heritage for some cookie cutter version of modern ugliness is a lesson that never seems to be learned. I have seen grand cedar stair cases and wedding-suitable verandas in other hotels, but rarely.

    I wrote about the Beatles in Australia and New Zealand recently, but none of my photos came from Adelaide. If you have a photo from the 1964 tour in Adelaide, I would love to add it to my post.

    Art and Architecture, mainly

    • Jerry October 27, 2016 at 5:56 am #

      This I have to agree. The quality from 100 plus years ago shines with their intricate constructed architecture with each piece having a relationship with the lines and elements of it’s neighboring pieces.

      The modern constructions from the 1950’s 60’s 70’s and 80’s don’t have any style or sense of sophistication that exists in the 19th century counterparts. Clean lines means blank and sterile.

  3. Carol Twopeny September 3, 2019 at 12:48 pm #

    My parents loved The South, and it was a v big treat for us to go with them for a special occasion. Apparently, the 3 price band…piano, bass and I think violin played signature tunes for couples when they arrived for dinner, which meant others were aware of who was dining there that night.

    as time went by, we too went to the South, for wedding receptions, engagement parties or dinner parties. We never left disappointed!
    I also remember when the ashes series was played in Adelaide I would go into the foyer where English cricketers o Wally Hammond, Len Hutton, Denis Compton et al were having coffee and a smoke before going down to the Adelaide Oval . I was able to walk in and ask for their autographs. Also, the Oliviers, who were performing at that beautiful Theatre Royal. They walked through the back lane to the stage door of the Theatre Royal, where once again, I gathered their autographs.
    Subsequently, my late husband John Twopeny was appointed as the South’s architect in about 1960
    He said that it needed lots of TLC, especially behind scenes.
    It was a charismatic building, and so many stories about Louis, and Louisa,
    Yes, it was a v sad day when the bulldozers moved in, but, perhaps it was just too difficult for the new owners to do do a updated restoration within the facade of the original building.

    • vanessa June 28, 2020 at 12:43 am #

      my beautiful nanna was the piano player and she would tell us about playing for various celebrities and others…such a terrible shame to think this hotel was bulldozed…should never have been allowed .

  4. Martin Bowler October 17, 2019 at 7:35 pm #

    I used to work at the Gateway Inn from 1977 until 1984 and my head porter was Des Moran who used to work at the South Australian. Des had many stories about the South Australian and lamented its demise he talked about Louie with both admiration and..well not quite fear but certainly respect. I would like to know if anyone has copies of photographs of the Gateway as I can find nothing on line.

  5. Virginia Pericleous April 25, 2020 at 6:27 pm #

    Hi, my father Peter Athans, an 18 year old newly arrived migrant from Greece at the time, was a waiter at the SAH. He knew Mrs. O’Brien and Louis Cotton very well. He worked there from 1948-1949. She was pivotal in his life. Mrs. O’Brien helped my father get a job in Myer’s women’s shoe department and later became guarantor for my father when he wanted to purchase a house in North Adelaide. She also suggested my dad change his rather complicated Greek name to what it is today. He speaks very fondly of Mrs. O’Brien, Louis and of the time he spent there. He continued to dine at the SAH well into the 60’s. I just showed him the photos on here and he loved it!

  6. Graeme Edwards January 2, 2022 at 1:44 pm #

    I worked at “The South” in the early 1960’s as a drink waiter and knew the descendants of Louise O’Brian reasonable well. She had three daughters; the eldest, Mrs Bentley (never knew her first name) was an old lady and lived in a unit by “The Medallion Room”. Beth O’Brien had married James Byfield and together they were the managing directors of the hotel (the manager was a Scotsman by the name of Gibson). The youngest daughter; June, had never married to my knowledge and also lived at the hotel. She was a total alcoholic and spent her life drinking scotch in the service bar.

    The head waiter, Louie; was originally from Russia and was totally illiterate. When he first arrived in Australia way back whenever, there were no migration checks as there are today. Louie was asked to spell his Russian surname but as he couldn’t spell, was unable the comply. The migration clerk was seated near a shipment of cotton bales, hence . . . this is how Louie received the name of “Cotton”. He was an old man back in the 60’s and had already served “The South” for many years. He also lived in a room onsite.

    The dignitaries that stayed at “The South” during my time there included entertainer Marlene Dietrich, speed ace Donald Campbell (some stories to be told there, a magnificent man) and of-cause, The Beatles.

    Some other staff names I recall were: Billy Bok, Ray Chigwidden, Doug Prior, Peg Hillier . . . just to name a few.

  7. craig henderson August 27, 2022 at 3:22 pm #

    I am trying to find out the room numbers that the beatles stayed in the hotel in 1964 i know it was on the first floor can anyone help ?

    • Graeme Edwards September 17, 2023 at 5:15 pm #

      I was present at the Beatles press conference in ‘The Blue Room’ (the windows faced out onto North Terrace) & I remember quite a lot about their stay but sorry; I can’t help you with the room numbers.

  8. felicity November 8, 2023 at 7:03 pm #

    My spouses Mother was a hairdresser, employed by Barbara Hockley, who ran a hair salon in the basement there. Am trying to find out any further info. Nothing mentioned anywhere about it.

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