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Kelly, Margaret Elizabeth (Margot) (1894–1983)

by Pamela Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Margaret Elizabeth (Margot) Kelly (1894-1983), restaurateur, was born on 15 March 1894 at Enoggera, Brisbane, third of five children of English-born Walter Pamley Emerson, drayman, and his wife Catherine, née McNair, from Scotland. Apprenticed to a dressmaker at W. J. Overell & Sons, Fortitude Valley, Margot was responsible for picking up pins from the floor with a magnet. She also studied cooking, millinery and fashion at a technical college. In her early twenties, assisted financially by her father, she opened a small clothing boutique. On 7 April 1928 at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Charleville, she married Edward Charles Patrick Kelly, a licensed victualler. Helping him to run the Hotel Charleville, she reputedly always referred to him as `Mr Kelly’.

The Kellys moved to Brisbane and during World War II ran the National Hotel. Margot Kelly’s dining room became well known for its hospitality and the quality of its food. According to Alexander McRobbie, General Douglas MacArthur, when in Brisbane, preferred to eat his meals at her establishment rather than at Lennons Hotel, which had been requisitioned by the United States Army. Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN (later Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh), was also a guest when in port. The Kellys invested in a mineral resources company and bought a house at Surfers Paradise named Maison de Rêve.

After her husband died in 1949 Mrs Kelly moved to the Gold Coast. She bought several properties, including the site in Hanlan Street, Surfers Paradise, where in 1954 she opened a restaurant named the Hibiscus Room. It became the most elegant place on the coast to dine. Frequented by well-to-do holiday-makers and visiting celebrities, it set the tone for Surfers Paradise’s increasingly sophisticated self-image. Kelly ruled her domain with a rod of iron. The musician Ron Roman, who came from Sydney to perform at the Hibiscus Room, described her as `a very tough boss—but also a very lovely lady’.

Determined to create an impression of the `good life’ on the Gold Coast, Kelly made an `appearance’ every night in the restaurant, dressed in a formal and elaborate gown, a hibiscus in her carefully coiffed hair. She was famous for her taste and style, in a place not generally known for either attribute. Her standards never slipped: she regularly checked the silver cutlery for cleanliness and shine and the food for quality and presentation. By 1980, however, both Kelly’s age and the restaurant’s dated décor were beginning to tell. A review on 3 January in the Courier-Mail attacked the standard of food, service and furnishings, and complained: `If the Hibiscus Room is part of Surfers’ past, its prices are firmly in the present’.

Kelly sold the business later that year; the building was soon demolished to make way for a high-rise development. Always secretive about her age, she lived the last years of her life quietly in her Isle of Capri home. In her eighties she was still chic, with impeccable hair and make-up. Childless, she died on 25 September 1983 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. Her obituarist in the Gold Coast Bulletin described her as the `legendary lady of Surfers Paradise’.

Select Bibliography

  • The Gold Coast Story (1966)
  • A. McRobbie, The Surfers Paradise Story (1982)
  • A. McRobbie, The Real Surfers Paradise (1988)
  • J. Marston (ed), 150 Years in Paradise (1993)
  • A. McRobbie, 20th Century Gold Coast People (2000)
  • Gold Coast Bulletin, 14 Aug 1983, p 28, 28 Sept 1983, p 13, 7 Oct 1983, p 4.

Citation details

Pamela Murray, 'Kelly, Margaret Elizabeth (Margot) (1894–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-margaret-elizabeth-margot-12723/text22943, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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