Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 20 Squadron Officers’ Quarters Accommodation

Empire Hotel/Barrier Reef Hotel

Military accommodation

Abbott Street (cnr Wharf Street), Cairns 4870

A two-storeyed reinforced concrete building, the former Empire Hotel was erected in 1926 to replace an earlier hotel of the same name. Located across the road from the wharves, the area developed during the late 1800s as the business and administrative district of Cairns, comprising mainly warehouses, shipping agents, offices and hotels. The latter catered for local wharf workers as well as travellers arriving by the coastal steamers. Little of the district’s early buildings have survived redevelopment and today only the Empire Hotel (re-named the Barrier Reef Hotel) and the former Jack and Newell warehouse remain to perpetuate the association of this part of Cairns with its waterfront origins.

The Empire Hotel was open for business by February 1927. It was one of a number of commercial buildings erected in Cairns during the inter-war period that acknowledged the suitability of reinforced concrete construction in a tropical cyclone environment. It was a plain and modest hotel and was used for accommodation mainly by business and working people. The ground floor contained a public bar, dining room and kitchen. The first floor was taken up with bedrooms and bathrooms. During World War II the RAAF occupied the hotel as officers’ accommodation from late 1942 until mid-1945. The name was changed to the Barrier Reef Hotel in May 1960.


With the threat from the Japanese to the outlying RAAF bases at Tulagi, Vila and Noumea, and the continual bombing and strafing of the principal advanced operational base at Port Moresby, a safer forward flying boat base was needed on the Australian mainland. On 1 May 1942 the Catalina crews of Nos. 11 and 20 squadrons withdrew from Port Moresby to use the RAN amphibious aircraft base at Bowen as a safe haven. Within a week Bowen was officially established as the home of the combined squadrons and the town remained the forward RAAF Catalina base until October 1942 when No.20 Squadron moved to Cairns, followed by No.11 Squadron in November.

On their arrival in Cairns the RAAF officers of Nos. 11 and 20 squadrons were billeted at the Empire Hotel on the corner of Abbott and Wharf Street. There were also officer’s rooms allotted and kept ready at Hides Hotel and the Central Hotel in Lake Street, while the sergeants were housed in the Oceanic Hotel in Wharf Street. Other ranks were accommodated in a guesthouse and two adjoining houses on the Esplanade. These arrangements terminated when the newly completed camp for the combined squadrons was ready for occupation on the Esplanade in February 1943.


Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
CHIMS, Barrier Reef Hotel, Queensland Heritage Register place 601608, Brisbane.
Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.