15 June 2023

Commercial Hotel in Yass may be gone, but odds on, she won't be forgotten

| Sally Hopman
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Child looking at demolition work

Leanne Heffernan said even her daughter, Chloe, five, was sad to see the remains of the old Commercial Hotel levelled this week. Photo: Leanne Heffernan.

Sure, the old Commercial Hotel in the main street of Yass was just a building, resident Leanne Heffernan said, an empty building, home to no one, unloved and left derelict for far too long.

But it had stood on that site for more than 170 years – “and when you really think about just how long that is, how many times the sun has risen and set on those once sturdy red brick walls, it really is mind-blowing”.

When Ms Heffernan this week posted some images of the last vestiges of the old pub, which was burnt down in the early hours of 21 May, she had little idea of the sort of response it would evoke.

Hundreds of people commented, with many posting that she said in words what they felt in their hearts – like they’d lost an old friend.


The Commercial Hotel fire at the height of the blaze seen from the other side of town. Photo: Fiona Northey/Facebook.

“When the announcement was made in 1913 that a brand new city was going to be built, and would be named Canberra, the Commercial had already been there for about 65 years,” Ms Heffernan said.

“How many local men enjoyed a beer in the Commercial before they joined the Army and were shipped overseas to war? How many of those young men never returned? How many strangers met in that pub and walked out as friends? How many people met in that pub and fell in love, went on to get married and have kids, and then watched those kids grow up and start going to the same pub with their own mates?”

Ms Heffernan, who has lived in Yass for 16 years, said the Commercial was already closed by the time she moved to town so she couldn’t really claim a connection – but she did. “That’s the thing,” she said. “It wasn’t just a pub. I never went inside there but I still find it really sad what’s happened to it.

“It’s a piece of history of this town, that’s why it’s important.”

She also believes the building could have been a great asset to the town – “but now any chance for it to be preserved and restored to its former glory is gone forever, and that is an absolute shame”.

READ ALSO She’s had her day, let’s call time on the old girl of Yass

Ms Heffernan said she wanted the Commercial to be remembered as it was in its prime, not in its death throes as a derelict eyesore.

In her posts about the Commercial, some people criticised its fans of “sooking” about the building, while more lamented the loss of yet another piece of Australian history.

For the Mayor of Yass, Allan McGrath, it’s a chapter in the town’s history he would like remedied, the sooner the better.

“When I drove past there today,” he said on Tuesday (13 June), “she really was on her last legs. If you think about it, being there for a century and half is a long time. She’s outlasted the longest living resident in Yass.”

Councillor McGrath said he understood the owners of the site were “still considering their options”.

“The focus at the moment is to clean the site up. The fire came as a shock to everyone,” he said. “From what I understood, the plan was to restore the historic old bulding. Like what they did with the old Sir George in Jugiong,” he said. “What they did there has really transformed that village.

“But it’s up to the owners here to decide what to do. You can encourage people but you can’t coerce people. But there will need to be some heavy rethinking involved now.”

Sepia photo of old pub

The old Commercial Hotel in her prime – when you’d rely on your horse to get you home. Photo: File.

In the early hours of 21 May, more than 40 firefighters from Fire and Rescue NSW battled for more than five hours to extinguish the fire in the main street.

By the time first reports came in about 2 am, the fire had already spread quickly through the derelict two-storey building, with firefighters at the scene requesting urgent assistance as it threatened to engulf adjoining properties.

On 30 May, Yass Valley Council ordered that the remains of the hotel be demolished, giving the owners 14 days to do so. This followed a structural assessment report which indicated that the hotel, which dates back to the 1840s, was in an unstable condition and required demolition.

READ ALSO Photographer captures memories of last drinks at Yass’s old Commercial pub

Describing the fire as “suspicious”, investigators were at the scene on the afternoon of Monday 22 May.

The following day, Sydney man Shyhiem Whilliams was arrested in Yass. He appeared in Queanbeyan Local Court on 26 May, accused of setting the Yass hotel on fire. He was granted strict bail over concerns he could harm himself while in custody.

Mr Whilliams appeared via audio-visual link from the Goulburn Correctional Complex for the bail mention after he was ordered by Goulburn Local Court to be taken to and detained in a mental health facility for assessment. His case is next scheduled for mention on 21 June.

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