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Sydney’s Oldest Pub?

By on March 30th, 2011
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The Ocean Wave Hotel c1900 - originaly the Black Dog Hotel
This article was featured in the recent March edition of Bartender magazine.
By Edward Washington

Australian Bartender Magazine wishes to thanks the State Archives of NSW for the permission to use their photographic records: www.records.nsw.gov.au and also the City of Sydney Council’s Historical Atlas of Sydney resource which was invaluable to determining many of the Hotel’s names www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au

Sydney’s Oldest Pub…Well For Now Anyway

Whether the claim is ‘the oldest pub’, ‘the longest running continual liquor licence’ or ‘the oldest building ever used as a public house’ there will never be a definite answer as colonial Sydney was brimming with sly grog-shops and hotels from 1800 onwards. Furthermore, the irregularity with which liquor licences were issued would make it all but impossible to substantiate a claim of actually being the ‘oldest hotel’ in Sydney.

The State Archives of NSW is a history buffs delight and is a good place to start when researching the history of Sydney’s hotels, but at best can lead to an informed opinion about Sydney’s oldest pub and below are two such ‘bites’ of history that seem to start the ball rolling.

On August 12, 1824 The Sydney Gazette ran a small memo announcing;

Those noble and extensive premises… are now occupied by George Morris, late of the Greyhound-Inn, Castlereagh Street. Hence forth they will be known by the name of “The Australian Hotel“.

So is this the birthday of Australia’s oldest continuously licensed pub? It certainly gives a good argument and is used by the venue as proof that they hold the prize. However, in the 1820s there was no great necessity to actually hold a liquor licence in order to open a ‘hotel’ and there is no mention of a license, let alone one that has continued until today, so it can’t be used to substantiate the claim. The building certainly exists, and it’s named on many maps of the period, but is that enough?

From 1824 onwards the Sydney Gazette ran numerous compliments directed toward The Australian Hotel for its hospitality and good service, so it appears that the publicans were determined to make a go of it and business was indeed thriving. They also advertised that they offered ‘the finest alcohol’, however, again, it does not mean they had a licence to do so.

Over the years new owners of The Australian Hotel went to considerable lengths to maintain the name of the hotel when they took it over, assuring the public that the fine tradition of hospitality would continue, so it’s clear that it was running a fairly swish accommodation package for the time – but no official licence just yet.

A year earlier, in July of 1823, the Sydney Gazette had run a memo that concluded with;

Further particulars may be known on application to William Foreman, at the Sign of the Fortune of War opposite the King’s Wharf” (Modern day Circular Quay)

Firstly, this most certainly leads to the conclusion that the Fortune of War had had a sign outside its door a full year before The Australian Hotel came into existence, and the chances they sold alcohol are fairly high as many other public houses of the period that were selling alcohol are prefaced in the same “at the Sign of” manor.

During the 1800s private houses often simply hung signs outside their residence offering them as ‘public’ and relied on their reputation for drink and word of mouth to prosper. If they no longer wanted to offer themselves in this way, they simply took the sign down and announced it.

To have a house marked by a named sign can lead to the thought that the owners of the Fortune of War were certainly operating as some sort of public house (while perhaps not as fancy as The Australian Hotel) or, more likely, a ‘grog-shop’ in 1823. By 1826 the owners of the ‘Fortune’ were openly advertising that they sold alcohol, so it’s not far to think that they were doing it in 1823.

Rum and wine was often simply purchased directly from the ships that had landed and the Sydney Gazette is filled with offers of ‘fine quality rum and wine for sale’. Again, no license was usually required to buy, just the funds, so the ‘Fortune’ could have easily been operating as a ‘pub’ prior to The Australian Hotel. Furthermore the owner of the Fortune of War, William Foreman, was later involved in other ventures, included the grog-shop ‘The Jolly Sailor’, so one could pretty much conclude that rum was probably on the menu at the Fortune of War in 1823.

What’s interesting to note is that Fortune of War states that it was established as a pub in 1828, despite advertising in the Gazette that they were  selling rum two years earlier. 1828 was the first time a liquor licence was recorded as issued to the venue (countless hours of troving through the archives couldn’t find mention of it unfortunately), so perhaps the discrepancy comes because while they sold it, it wasn’t consumed on the premise.

As the issuance of licences for the sale of beer, wine and spirits prior to the 1830s was extremely hazy and often willfully administered at the Governor’s discretion, it makes it almost impossible to track accurately.

The Australian Hotel is not recorded as holding a licence at the time it was gazetted in 1824 and the Fortune of War makes no mention of holding a licence in 1823, although the assumption can surely be made that Mr Foreman had passed some grog over the counter in the same way you can assume that Mr Morris would have done so at The Australian Hotel.

In 1830, when liquor licences became mandatory for hotels, both the Fortune of War and The Australian Hotel applied for and were granted a licence to trade as Public Houses. They were in fact, listed as numbers one and two in the official document – so both hotel owners seemed determined to be properly recognised when it became a matter of law.

From all the evidence (or lack of) that surrounds this issue, you can reasonably conclude a number of points. Firstly, it can’t be proven that The Australian Hotel’s licence has been continual, although its good reputation probably meant that the business has managed to continue until today.

There also doesn’t seem to have been another hotel in the vicinity with a similar name granted a hotel license – although another hotel named ‘Australian’ had did have their application rejected in the 40s. Secondly, the site of The Australian Hotel has changed a number of times since the 1820s, making the name historic but not the building.

What makes the Fortune of War unique in this instance is that while it has been rebuilt in parts it appears to still be standing on the same site as originally built marking the Fortune of War as an icon of an era long past and something that should be treasured.

Thirdly; both the Fortune of War and The Australian Hotel are listed in the official list of houses granted publicans’ licenses in 1830, which was when the legislation determined the guiding laws for what we consider to be a Public House – The New Licencing Act of 1830.

So in the last regard, perhaps the most important, both the Fortune of War and The Australian Hotel have had their licence the same amount of time.

A Sandstone Colony to last an Age

Early colonial Sydney was a mire of sandstone quarries, hollowed out by hand in order to lay the building blocks of our fledgling city. Indeed, ‘The Rocks’ was given its name because of the valuable sandstone blocks that it produced in its hundreds of thousands. Sandstone was crucial to the building of the city and by 1900 there were some 50 sandstone quarries in operation in Pyrmont alone.

Today, if time is on your side, you can pass a few hours at the iconic Lord Nelson Hotel (est.1841). Sitting in the hallowed bar, you can enjoy her home crafted, full flavoured ales while taking some time to admire the proud, hand chipped sandstone walls that surround you. The ‘Nelson’s’ cumbersome blocks hold the marks of a generation of men long past, men who toiled endlessly in the pits under a blazing sun and often bound in chains. Those convicts and laborers that gouged the sandstone out of the ground worked from Cockatoo Island to the Hunter Valley and spent hours breaking them into shape.

There will never be a definite answer about Sydney’s ‘oldest pub’ as colonial town was brimming with sly grog-shops and hotels from 1800 onwards

Another of Sydney’s sandstone beauties is the Hero of Waterloo (est.c1845). The sandstone blocks that built this gem came from the Argyle Cut, near the now established Argyle Bar, and still hold the tired and endless gouges that were required to turn them into shape. Unfortunately much of Sydney’s historic ‘pub’ past has been lost over the years.

The threat of the Bubonic plague in the early 1900s saw many of the city’s slums and eyesore dwellings torn down. With them went numerous residences and hotels including, it is claimed, the original site of Hero of Waterloo that was said to stand at the current site of the Museum of Contemporary Art (the King’s Wharf back in the day).

In the 1920s great swathes of the city were also demolished in preparation for the development of the Harbour Bridge. The Harbour View Hotel (c1843) was one fortunate hotel that escaped in name, moving to its current location, but the regal looking Ocean Wave Hotel (est.c1830 and named The Black Dog) perished for good, lost to future generations.

As we blaze into the new age of the bar, we should pause to remember the origins of the Australian Hotel industry.

The Public House, but not as we Know It

Captain Cook Hotel c1900 (it since took over the building on the left)

Throughout the 1800s the new city of Sydney was littered with public houses, their names straight from Victorian England. Often heavily localized, the names of these early ‘pubs’ usually reflected the clientele’s trade or occupation; The Whalers’ Arms; The Quarrymans’ Arms; The Shipwrights’ Arms; The Bakers Arms; The Sperm Whale; The Farriers and The Coopers’ Arms to name a mere fraction. Other names that were used were terrifically colourful, and show the creativity and imagination that was used by the publicans, perhaps in memory of a favourite tavern back home; The Dog and Duck; Swan with two Necks; Keep within Compass, The Cheshire Cheese; The Bee Hive or the Hit or Miss Hotel.

With the heavy whaling trade that thrived outside of the Sydney Heads it is not hard to think why there were at least three venues named The Whalers Arms operating at the around the same time and only a short cobblestoned meander from one another. At least one building survives today, a grand sandstone private residence directly opposite the Hero of Waterloo (cnr Windmill/ Lower Fort Street).

In 1842 the site was listed in the city records as The Young Princess Hotel and having a licence for billiards. However, an 1842 drawing names it as ‘The Whalers Arms’, so the drawing’s date may be incorrect or the artist was perhaps drawing from memory, unaware of a change in name.

In the same drawing, another ‘Whalers Arms’ is shown in the distance, standing on the docks around from Walsh Bay (this pub also appears later in Doves” 1880 city survey map). A third ‘Whalers Arms’ is also known to have stood proudly on Gloucester St, just down from the current site of The Australian Hotel (now the location of the Sydney Archeological Site). Over the years the ‘Whalers’ on Gloucester St was captured in numerous paintings and drawings which make it appear to have been quite well known at the time – especially to the ‘ruffians’ who ruled The Rocks.

Public Houses did not have to have the word ‘Hotel’ in their title and they were far from what we might expect today. From 1796 a licence to sell wine or spirits could be obtained if your character was in good repute, had the connections and could offer the issuing body a cash surety as bond (usually around £20). As there was no regulatory body to enforce licences there was little problem in trading alcohol without one.

From 1825 however, a more sustained effort was made to regulate and police the selling of alcohol in the city and different pubs were often issued different closing hours. Trading hours were usually announced in the Sydney Gazette as a means of keeping the public informed about new restrictions put in place or a house that may have had its hours extended.

Police reports from the late ’20s show that some effort was actually expended to the end of regulating the ‘hotel’ industry with fines in the range of $100 per infringement – such as late trading or illegal sales. Public opinion also shows that the inhabitants of Sydney were demanding a more regulated ‘hotel’ trade, and in 1825 one contributor to the Sydney Gazette demandingly asked; “how many of those public-houses are little better than places of rendezvous for vagabonds, prostitutes, drunkards and the nurseries of every species of vice?” Fine prose indeed, but with citizens having to listen “with unhallowed pleasure – [it is with] horror we hear the extravagant and obscene ceremonies with which the poor heathen celebrate”. Many town residents welcomed tougher regulations as they were enforced.

The big change to the colonial ‘hotel industry’ came 42 years after the colony was established with the New Licensing Act of 1830. This act defines what we still consider today as the basic rules of governance for a Public House, albeit slightly relaxed. The rules were clear; all licensed houses have “at least two sitting rooms and two sleeping rooms, for public accommodation”, and furthermore; licences are only granted from a central authority (not local) and publicans provide both accommodation and liquor – it also saw the emergence of the ‘licensing police’.

The demand for the licence to come from a ‘central authority’ was important as it regulated the process and certified that the licences were all issued from the same governing body.

While certain houses were certainly operating prior to this as ‘public’, by taking the date of 1830 as the official time that pubs as we know them today developed, it becomes far simpler to track down licences and assess who, if any, can claim to be the ‘oldest pub/ hotel in Sydney’ – in whatever manner they are claiming. While there have been many amendments to the Act of 1830 made over the years, the basic principles are the same today.

The building claimed to be the 'first hotel in the rocks'

Some Forgotten Oldies

Whalers Arms c1900 - standing just down from the current location of the Australian Hotel

The Lord Nelson Hotel and the Hero of Waterloo are perhaps the most noted of Sydney’s historic pubs, set with their sandstone walls they have maintained a fairly traditional feel and give a good idea of days long past. Next door to the ‘Waterloo is the site of the diminutive Shipwrights’ Arms Hotel (est.1831) and two doors further is the former Hit and Miss Hotel (est. c1839). Neither of two these pubs seemed to have survived longer than a few years so perhaps the ‘Waterloo had a better trade. The Captain Cook Hotel (est.1877) is now a more modern building, but it still stands on its original site. Captured by a photographer around 1901 you can see how the pub has grown in size, enveloping Mr Boyce’s business next door. Another sometimes overlooked venue is the Observer Hotel (est.1848 as the Observer Tavern). While the interior has undergone extensive renovation and rebuilding, the pub stands proud today where it did long ago and the familiar awning is still recognizable over the footpath. The current site of the Orient Hotel (es.c1850s) was originally named as the Marine Hotel and on the opposite corner to it once stood the ASN Hotel (Australian Steam Navigation Co.) – a wonderful building that served as a pub until the 1980s.


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