Reminiscing about The Brown Owl

Back in 1944 the people of Invercargill ended 38 years of prohibition, boldly voting in the trust model, launching ILT and reintroducing legal alcohol sales. As we mark eight decades of ILT and Invercargill, it’s important to reflect on where we’ve come from.

Did you know that Invercargill had the very first licensed café in the whole of Australasia? The Brown Owl, was originally a coffee bar on Esk Street, it re-opened as a Licensing Trust establishment on July 1, 1944. Barmen served beer to the men while waitresses catered to families with food and non-alcoholic beverages. This ground breaking concept was nothing short of revolutionary.

During ILT’s 75th anniversary, we had the pleasure of revisiting the memories of one of our first employees Marjorie McMeeking.  At 15, Marjorie landed her first job as a waitress at The Brown Owl tearooms after spotting an ad in the local paper.

“I’m glad I got that job because I don’t think any other would be as good as The Brown Owl. It was the only job I ever had. I stayed there until I was 22.” recalled Marjorie.

Camaraderie has long been a hallmark of the hospitality industry and The Brown Owl was no exception. Marjorie fondly remembers the lifelong friends she made while working there.

“That’s the best part of hospitality – you’re never short of a friend. It was a really good life and I loved working there.”

Etching its name in the history books as the country’s first licensed restaurant, The Brown Owl was a concept that challenged societal values of the era. For critics, cakes and alcohol on the same table was a step too far.

“We weren’t allowed to serve the alcohol. It had to be the men. And they couldn’t do cups of tea either. If people asked for a refill of their drink, we had to go and get one of the men to do it.”

A barman named Bill Murchland caught Marjorie’s eye. “He came home from the war and got a job there. We started going out, and next thing we got married.”

The couple had four children, who were aged between 2 and 12 when Bill sadly passed away.

It seemed Invercargill wasn’t ready for this innovative model, and sadly The Brown Owl reverted back to an unlicensed tea room in 1949 and closed its doors in 1953.

Since then, The Brown Owl building has housed many businesses, before being demolished for the Invercargill Central development. It seems fitting that The Brown Owl’s innovative spirit laid the foundation for this now vibrant part of our city.

And look around – you’ll see that licensed restaurants have indeed caught on since those days.