Hobart’s Historic Drinking Holes

This used to be a real wharfies’ pub. It was nicknamed ‘The Blood’ because fishermen used to brawl outside.

Two clergymen walk into a bar... It sounds like the start of a joke but, according to local folklore, in the 1830s the priests from Hobart’s St David’s Cathedral would dart over to Victoria Tavern, via a secret tunnel, for a snifter of rum before continuing to condemn the demon drink from the pulpit.

The Tasmanian capital’s history as a harsh, far-flung penal settlement, a struggling colony and then a rough whaling port means this is just one of the stories about its venerable watering holes. I meet Elizabeth Fleetwood, a local historian who runs a tour company, on the steps of the cathedral and we head across to Victoria Tavern, one of Hobart’s oldest pubs. Nicknamed ‘The Vic’, it was an Irish pub in its heyday – the 19th century – but has since undergone several changes. We slide into a dark wooden booth as a band sets up in the corner of the bar.

I order a beer while Fleetwood relates tales of the Irish workers who, aggrieved by how they were treated by the British, used to come in and wipe their feet on a Union Jack, a replica of which is under strong glass on the pub’s floor. 

Pubs and taverns have been an essential part of life in Hobart from the outset. When the colony was founded in 1803, convicts drank from the army’s rum supply, which was rationed to them to help them overcome the loss of family and friends they had left behind in England. Similarly, in the 1830s, the settlers drank to forget their hardship. Later, the dockside pubs were a hub of legal trade in seal pelts and whale oil, along with illegal trade in stolen goods.

Leaving The Vic, we amble downhill to the docks, passing ghosts of pubs past. Now converted into offices and shops, these well-preserved sandstone buildings hark back to an earlier time.

At the base of the hill on Murray Street is Customs House Hotel. Established in 1846 and still operating, it is a favourite of the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race crowd. Though the yachting fraternity might be a respectable lot today, sailing once tended to attract the rogue element in these parts.

In the 1840s, Customs House (now Parliament House) was built across the road from the hotel, and this was the first stop where sailors docked to declare their cargo and pay duty on it.

“Those old sailing ships were dangerous places,” Fleetwood says. “As they came into the harbour, a barrel of rum would ‘accidently’ fall over the side, quickly followed by another. The sailors would dock, claim there had been a storm and declare the ship’s depleted stock, reducing the duty owed. Meanwhile, small boats would row out and collect the barrels.”

We head to the southern side of the dock to what was once the city’s most notorious pub, The Esplanade. It had such a bad reputation that a notice in the local police station directed new recruits to it as the first port of call when searching for unsavoury types. Today, it is an Irish Murphy’s, and another beer proves a fine accompaniment to Fleetwood’s stories of one of the pub’s past owners, Ma Dwyer.

Old Ma was a former prostitute who ran a brothel upstairs and had a penchant for wearing a mink coat and sneakers. She also ran the city’s Shopping List between 1940 and 1955, where you listed the items you needed and she procured them. Usually, they were sourced illegally from the docks with the help of the notorious Appleton Brothers, a one-family cartel.

Fatty Appleton could carry two beer barrels at once, one under each arm, photographic proof of which exists at Knopwoods Retreat, a popular pub a few doors down. The pub was named after the Reverend Robert Knopwood, a man apparently so gravely ill that in one year he required 4,000 gallons of ‘medicinal’ rum.

The pub opened as the Whalers’ Return in 1829 before taking the name of the raunchy reverend, whose taste for the finer things in life extended to the ladies. Parting company with Fleetwood, I pop in for a pint and find myself perched at the bar, eye to eye with a replica of Knopwood’s death mask. Behind me, Appleton holds his barrels aloft, his glare more challenging than celebratory.

“This used to be a real wharfies’ pub,” says the current owner, Kate Cawthorn. “It was nicknamed ‘The Blood’ because fishermen used to brawl outside its sandstone walls.” These days, it’s a far more genial place and its booths are packed with locals and travellers.“We still get some older drinkers who remember when the coolroom was the ladies’ lounge, where men could enter by invitation only,” Cawthorn says.

That’s what is so special about Hobart’s pubs. They don’t wear their history heavily but stand as museums to the drinkers of old, now frequented by a new breed of revellers clutching beers by fashionable microbreweries. While harbourside pubs in Sydney are peopled with tourists keen for the views, Hobart’s pubs retain the feel of an intimate local, although visitors are always welcome.

As I call it a night, the dockside pubs are full to the brim with patrons and the fishing boats are clumped against the timber docks. Unlike the early days, I don’t have to run back to my hotel for fear of being mugged by a shady figure lurking in a dark alley.

 

Words by Paul Chai - Published in Voyeur December 2010
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 247,000
Area 1,357 km2
Time Zone GMT +10
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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