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Hannah Maclurcan (1860–1936)

by Beverley Kingston

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Hannah Maclurcan (1860-1936), hotelier, was born on 17 October 1860 at Tambaroora, near Hill End, New South Wales, fourth child of Jacob Aaron Phillips, a London-born Jewish storekeeper, and later hotelier, and his first wife Susan, née Moses (d.1866), from Scotland. The family had moved to Queensland by 1862, where Jacob became the proprietor of hotels in Toowoomba and the Brisbane area.  Hannah later told her children that her father put her in the kitchen of one of his hotels at an early age and she gradually worked through the dining room to the office so she knew the organization thoroughly. He sent her, aged 15, to manage his Osbourne Hotel at Sandgate.

On 25 March 1880 in her father's house in Brisbane Hannah married with Presbyterian forms Robert Watson Wigham, an English-born banker. They had two daughters. In 1883, while returning from England in the Roma, they were caught in the tidal wave caused by the eruption of Krakatoa. ` We sailed through the debris of the explosion--sea covered with pumice stone, floating bodies, human and animal', she wrote later. On 2 July 1887 in the manse, Leichhardt Street, Brisbane, Hannah, now a widow, married Donald Boulton Maclurcan, a retired master mariner, from Devon, England, also a hotelier. With him she managed the Criterion and later the Queen's hotels at Townsville. Two children were born in the next two years. She published her first book, Mrs Maclurcan's Cookery Book: A Collection of Practical Recipes, Specially Suitable for Australia, at Townsville (1898), helping the printer to set the type, which she bought herself, and reprinting when it sold out in a couple of weeks. There was also a London edition, a copy of which was presented to Queen Victoria, and later editions were published in Sydney and Melbourne. In all there were twenty editions of Mrs Maclurcan's Cookery Book, with revisions or enlargements from time to time, the last appearing in 1930.

In England again, she published The 20th Century Cookery Book: A Thousand Practical Recipes for Everyday Use (1901). That year Hannah and her husband took over, from Mrs Mary Hayes, the lease of the Wentworth Hotel on Church Hill, near Wynyard Square, Sydney, in time to capitalize on the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York in May and June 1901. The lease for £735 per annum was for an establishment which, though licensed, functioned mainly as a boarding-house with thirty-two bedrooms let at 28 shillings per week each. Donald Maclurcan died in 1903 and the lease and licence were transferred to his widow. Though Hannah could and did take over the kitchen when necessary, she began transforming the Wentworth into a grand hotel. In 1912 a limited company was set up with Hannah as managing director. The freehold of the property was acquired and two more floors were added, increasing the number of bedrooms to eighty-three. In 1920, after the acquisition of adjoining property, 'a palatial ballroom' decorated 'in the style of the Georgian period' and capable of accommodating a thousand dancers and diners was built. To publicize the hotel, in addition to her books, Hannah contributed a cookery column to the society magazine The Ladies Sphere. She encouraged art exhibitions, charity functions, and fashionable weddings at the hotel. The Wentworth ballroom, 'one of the finest in the Southern hemisphere', was said to be a favourite haunt of the Prince of Wales when he was in Sydney in 1920.

Her hotel was renowned for its fine cuisine especially the cold buffet luncheons served in the Palm Court, 'Sydney's Premier Café'. She was perhaps the first Australian celebrity cook writer (and perhaps also the earliest to be accused of passing off others' recipes as her own). Mrs Maclurcan's cookery books showed some evidence of her Queensland origins, with occasional recipes using tropical fruit and seafood, but by the 1920s they reflected the stodgy depths to which Australian middle-class cooking had descended.

She shamelessly courted titled and celebrity visitors and generated publicity through her glossy, in-house Wentworth Magazine, edited by Winifred Hamilton and illustrated with pictures of wedding receptions and other significant events taken by leading society photographers. As well there were Mrs Maclurcan's much promoted antiques with which the hotel was furnished, her famous floral arrangements, her cars, and her collection of Pekinese dogs. The magazine fostered such writers as Mabel Forrest, (Dame) Mary Gilmore, Nettie Palmer, Jessie Litchfield, Marjorie and Roderic Quinn and Camden Morrisby, and gave space to poetry and theatre and book reviews.

By 1928 the Wentworth had its own parking station with space for 400 cars a day and a 'modern car laundry and filling station' under the management of G. Underwood Grimes. Next year a 'chic and delectable little stall' selling curios, lingerie, hosiery and 'toiletry trifles a man may have forgotten to pack' was established in the lounge. The Depression, however, brought a decline in occupation rates and a reduction in the tariff as well as the demise of the Wentworth Magazine.

'Madame' retired as hotel manager in 1932. Her place was taken by her son Charles Dansie Maclurcan (1889-1957) who, although an electrical engineer (he used the flat roof of the hotel for his pioneering experiments in wireless transmission), had been a director since 1916. Her daughter Evelyn Clara (b.1888), Mrs Postle, also served on the board. Hannah continued as managing director.

As a retreat from the hotel, she acquired Bilgola, the house built originally as a weekender by W. B. Dalley at Bilgola Beach, and there lived in style. She travelled to the United States of America most years to study developments in hotel management and add to her collection of curios and antiques. On 17 August 1931 at St Nicholas's Church of England, Mordialloc, Melbourne, she married English-born Robert Lee. His occupation was described as 'gentleman', hers as 'domestic duties'. She died on 27 September 1936 in St Vincent's Hospital and was cremated. Her husband, two daughters of her first marriage and the son and daughter of her second survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • Illustrated Souvenir Programme of the Visit of T.R.H., the Duke and Duchess of York (Syd, 1901)
  • C. D. Maclurcan, The Story of the Wentworth Hotel (Syd, 1946)
  • S. Addison, A Good Plain Cook (Brisb, 1985)
  • B. R. Austin (compiler), A Bibliography of Australian Cookery Books Published Prior to 1941 (Melb, 1987)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • B. Kennedy, Sydney’s Own: 25 Years of the Sheraton Wentworth (Syd, 1991)
  • Wentworth Magazine, July 1925, Dec 1930
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 Apr 1932, p 4.

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Maclurcan, Hannah (1860–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Phillips, Hannah
  • Wigham, Hannah
  • Lee, Hannah

17 October, 1860
Tambaroora, New South Wales, Australia


27 September, 1936 (aged 75)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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