After three husbands and seven pubs, Ellen Stokes left a distinguished career as a hotelier


The Royal Hotel, Granville. built for Ellen Stokes in the early 1880s, and still trading today. Picture: Granville Historical Society.

BESIDES running a popular and profitable bar, the pinnacle for a career publican must be hosting the likes of royalty – and the closest to Australian royalty is a governor general. Ellen Stokes hosted at least two Governors General during a long and distinguished career as a hotelier, which began with a “snug” inn at East Sydney during the 1860s, and ended in her hosting some of the colony’s grandest tourist hotels during the 1890s and early 1900s.

This is the story of Ellen Stokes, a landlady from Kent, who after arriving in Sydney in the 1850s, married three times and hosted at least seven pubs, of which four – Bulli’s Heritage Hotel, the Newtown Hotel, Bald Faced Stag at Leichardt and Granville’s Royal Hotel – remain trading today (2021).

Ellen Weeks arrived in Sydney at the age of 16 with her father Charles and mother Eliza, sister, Jane and two brothers Henry and Edward on the ship, Hilton, with over 430 other government immigrants in October 1855.

At the age of 24 Ellen married 21-year-old John Ford Rae in August 1863, who was making a name for himself on the gold fields around Lucknow, near Orange in NSW. Rae was a good catch. He was the manager of the Wentworth gold mines, dabbled in politics, was the Wentworth Gold Fields Post Master, and was wealthy and well-to-do. No doubt Ellen’s father would have been satisfied with his daughter’s new husband, who was also a member of his fraternal lodge, Loyal Rose of Australia, IOOFMU.

The couple was not to stay on the goldfields for long, and in 1868 they bought the Dew Drop Inn at was then Woolloomooloo and is now known as East Sydney. Ellen seemed to have taken to innkeeping like a duck to water, while also caring for five children between the ages of one and eight.

Described as a “snug inn”, the Drew Drop was one of three that traded in the area. Another two inns by the same name traded in nearby Riley Street, and Kent Street.

The Woolloomooloo inn was run James Whelan and was located on the corner of Bourke Street and “Woolloomooloo Street”, now known as William Street, before the Raes became hosts in about February 1868.

James Whelan returned as host of the Dew Drop Inn in 1869 after John was declared insolvent with debts totalling over £500. While continuing his association with mining, working as a broker, John also was the secretary of the Sydney United Omnibus Company during the early 1870s, until his death in 1875.

Ellen was left a widow when John died of consumption at their residence in Belvoir Street Strawberry Hills, aged just 33 on March 20. John’s death was to set Ellen on a career path that would eventually lead her onto hosting some of the colonies best tourist hotels. She had obviously enjoyed her short stint as publican at Woolloomooloo and less than three months after her husband’s death she applied for and received the license of the Solferino Hotel at the corner of Liverpool and George-street Sydney.

Ellen at 36 was granted the license of the hotel on July 2, 1875. Interestingly Solferino Hotel was likely named after a now deserted gold mining town near the present day town of Tabulam, in north-eastern NSW.

Thirteen months after losing her husband, Ellen, suffered another blow while hosting the Solferino, when her son, Walter died after he contracted scarlet fever. He was just 9 years of age.

Ellen would have relied on her eldest child Walter to undertake many jobs around the pub. After Walter’s death, that responsibility would have went to her seven year old son Horace. Ellen also had two daughters, Caroline, 12 and Gertrude, 11 who would have also helped with cleaning and domestic duties at the Solferino.

Ellen’s ambition and reputation as a competent hotelier grew, and she applied for the license of the newly built Duke of Cornwall Hotel in Harris Street Ultimo on July 11, 1876. The Duke of Cornwall was a grand two-storey hotel, and sadly was demolished to make way for high rise apartments in 2001.

The Duke of Cornwall, Harris Street, Ultimo, 1955. Picture: City of Sydney Archives.

Just two months as licensee at Ultimo, Ellen was fined 10 shillings for Sunday trading, and the following year she experienced another death while hosting a pub when her barmaid dropped dead after suffering a heart attack. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the death of 17-year-old Sophia Barnett on March 21, 1877:

It appeared from the evidence that the deceased had been in good health until the 19th instant, when she complained of headache, but she was not so ill as to be unable to perform her work. On Monday morning she performed her duties as usual, but had her head tied with a bandage, in consequence of suffering great pain in the temples and face. About 11 o’clock she sank down in-sensible at the bar in the presence of another servant, and expired before medical assistance could arrive. Dr. Markey made a post-mortem examination, and discovered the cause of death to have been disease of the heart. The jury found a verdict accordingly.

Whether Ellen met builder and plasterer George Green Goddard as a neighbour in Harris Street, where he had his plastering and building business, or he and his partner Henry William Stokes were contracted for work on the Duke of Cornwall Hotel is unknown. What is known is that Ellen married George Goddard in December 1878 at St Paul’s Church Redfern. However, the marriage was short.

Less than 14 months later Ellen was widowed again after Goddard, aged 41, contracted cholera and died at their Ultimo pub. But Ellen was to experience further loss, and just seven months later in September 1875, her mother Eliza, 71, was buried. With the death of her husband, Ellen focussed her efforts on her pub, and dissolved the partnership with Henry Stokes in the building and ornamental plastering business in March 1881.

Ellen had grander visions, and planned building a three storey hotel in the rapidly developing township of Granville, near Parramatta. But before her departure from Ultimo, she would have one more run-in with the law. The Sydney Morning Herald reported in March 21, 1883:

Ellen Goddard, of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel, was charged with having, on the 12th March, served a person, who was drunk with liquor, the evidence for the prosecution was to the effect that on the 12th March, at about 10.15 p.m., a drunken woman was seen to go into the defendant’s hotel, and to be there served with a drink by a girl. The defence was that the woman was served by a servant girl who did not know when she served the woman with liquor that she was drunk. Mr. Lovien appeared for the defendant. A fine of 40s was inflicted.

Ellen purchased land at 16-20 South Street Granville in 1883, and also bought an adjoining block at 2-4 Russell Street. On October 23, 1883, the Parramatta Licensing Court granted her application for a conditional publican’s license.

Police opposed the application, but Ellen had brought some high-powered support to the hearing. Letters were read to the court from prominent local and Sydney identities, including Judge C E Murray of the District Court, Henry Hudson of Hudson Brothers engineering works, wealthy land owner A S Low, the general manager of the Sydney Meat Preservation Company at Homebush, Alban Gee, Messrs John and Thomas Harris, the Honourable FA Wright, and the Reverend Canon Stephen. All provided a character reference, and several wrote of the need for a first class hotel in Granville.

John Harris was a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1877 to 1885, an alderman of Sydney City Council for more than 30 years, and mayor of Sydney from 1881 to 1883 and in 1888-89. He was a major property owner at Ultimo, who had come to Sydney with his family in1842 after his father inherited part of the estates of Surgeon John Harris, who had no direct descendants. Another of her supporters, the Honourable Francis Augustus Wright was NSW Minister for Public Works in 1883, a member of the Legislative Assembly for 21 years, and mayor of Redfern from 1882 to 1884. Ellen gave notice of her grand Granville plans in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 3, 1884:

Royal Hotel, Granville. June 2 1884. Mrs Ellen Goddard (late proprietress of the Duke of Cornwell Hotel, Harris-street, Ultimo) begs to inform her numerous friends, patrons, and the public generally that, with a view to meeting the necessity of a first-class modern hotel in the immediate neighbourhood of Sydney, she has had the above premises built and splendidly furnished with every modern and scientific luxury, regardless of expense, and whilst thanking them for their past liberal patronage and support, she earnestly solicits an increase of their favours, which will meet with the most careful attention and a vigilant regard for their comfort and convenience.

Architect Thomas Butement of Pitt Street Sydney designed the new Royal Hotel, and the builder was none other than Henry William Stokes, the business partner of Ellen’s late husband. Stokes, who had formed a new partnership in 1882 with a man by the name of Winter, continued to operate out of Harris Street Ultimo.

Stokes and Winter of Harris Street Ultimo began construction of the Royal Hotel, Granville in late 1883. On June 2, 1884 police informed the Parramatta Licensing Court that the hotel had been built in accordance with plans and specifications, and that the accommodation was first class. The court complimented Mrs Goddard on the standard of her hotel and wished her success. The hotel’s bar was one of the best in the colonies, according to an article published in May 1884 in the Cumberland Mercury. In addition to the bar, the ground floor contained four parlours, a ‘splendid roomy dining room’ and a private bar. A billiard room, a drawing room and sitting room ‘not to be equalled’ were on the first floor, together with four bedrooms and a bathroom. According to the Mercury, the second floor contained “11 of the best furnished and best ventilated bedrooms that can be found in or out of the city – also a bathroom, wherein you can have hot or cold water when you require it”. There was also a large first floor balcony extending around three sides of the building, “just suited for aspirants in the new municipality now about to be formed”.

Ellen’s father, Charles Weeks, who was living with her at the Granville pub, died in March 1886 aged 74, and in 1889 she sold land next to the pub to Stokes who built a pair of terrace houses, which have survived to the present day.

Ellen advertised the Royal for sale “owing to ill health”, in December 1890 and the following year she sold out to Joseph Evans.

Ellen’s relationship with Henry Stokes developed from client and neighbour to close friend, and she married him in April 1893. The day they were married they left for their honeymoon for London, arriving back in Sydney in January 1894 and soon after the newly weds took the reins of Leichhardt’s iconic Bald Faced Stag Hotel.

Henry Stokes was granted the transfer of the license from John Baker on October 5, 1894.

How the Bald Face Stag Hotel, Leichardt looked when Ellen Stokes was host in the 1890s. Picture: Supplied

The Bald Face Stag is one of Sydney’s oldest operating pubs. While the pub has traded on Parramatta Road since 1830, it has been rebuilt several times.

The Stokes remained at Leichhardt for three years before taking the license of the Rugby Hotel at Newtown in late 1897.

Rugby Hotel Newtown. Now the Newtown Hotel, 1912. Picture: Supplied

The Rugby Hotel, at the corner of King Street and Watkin Street, was established in 1887 as the Club Hotel. It was renamed in the Rugby Hotel in the 1890s and later renamed again, the Newtown Hotel, when it was opened by business identity Dawn O’Donnell in the early 1980s as a gay bar.

In November 1899 the owner of the Rugby Hotel advertised the pub for sale, and the following year the Stokes obtained a nine year lease on one of the Illawarra’s most popular tourist pubs – the Bulli Family Hotel. He paid out going tenant Charles Attwater £750 for the goodwill and £300 for the furniture. The Stokes paid an annual rent of £260 to the hotel owner, Frank Snudden and a license fee of £45 to the NSW Government.

Bulli Family Hotel in 1903. Now known as the Heritage Hotel. Picture: Supplied

A daring robbery occurred at Stokes’ Bulli pub on Saturday, December 14, 1901, when a robber remained inside the pub after closing and stole the bar till, cigars and whiskey. Police later found the till at Bulli Railway Station.

Ellen and Henry Stokes, who have the lane beside the Bulli hotel named in their honour, engaged in some renovation work after gaining the business.

The Bulli Times reported on June 8, 1901 that the hotel “is now undergoing thorough internal renovations at the hands of the new proprietor Mr W H Stokes, late of the Rugby Hotel, Newtown, and The Bald Face Stag, Leichhardt. Mr and Mrs Stokes have brought with them a good record for hotel management, and intend to justify it in their new quarters”.

The Bulli Family Hotel was the agency for the Cyclists’ Tourist Union of NSW and Cook’s Tourist Union during the early 1900s. The hotel’s reputation as a first class accommodation house is revealed by a Bulli Times article on June 18, 1902. The newspaper reported some of the guests at the hotel were Judge Gibson and his family, Mr O’Donohue from the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Langstaff a surveyor, Professor Cutcher RAM, and Sir Malcolm McEachern ex-mayor of Melbourne.

Stokes often provided horses and drays for his guests to visit the local tourist sites and in July 1904 two women and a boy engaged one of Stokes’ buggies to admire the fine views from Bulli Pass. On the descent, the horse bolted and the buggy struck a water trough throwing the occupants clear. Luckily, they were unharmed.

Ellen and Henry hosted at least two NSW governors general while at the Family Hotel. Governor General Hallam Tennyson was provided with coaches at Stokes’ hotel in May 1903. Accompanied by other distinguished people, Tennyson visited Bulli Pass and Loddon Falls, before returning to Sydney.

A visit by Governor General Henry Stafford Northcote in 1907 didn’t run as smoothly for the Stokes. Henry Stokes attended court in April 1908 to recover costs from WJ Richardson, JS Kirton and the Reverend PW Dowe after they hosted a luncheon for the Governor General at the Family in April 1907. Stokes was awarded 15 pounds, 10 shillings and 6 pence compensation. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday, April 27, 1908:

Sequel to Governor-General’s Visit-Just 12 months ago Lord Northcote visited the South Coast district and was entertained at the different centres. Some trouble ensued, how ever, over the Bulli arrangements, ending recently in police court proceedings. The plain- tiff in the case was H. W. Stokes, licensee of the Bulli Family Hotel, and the defendants W. J. R. Richardson, J. Kirton, and Rev. P. W. Dowe, the sum claimed by Stokes being £19 odd for supplying 60 luncheons in the vicinity of the famous Lookout. Defendants had paid into court the sum of £12 7s 6d, contending they were not indebted the balance. In evidence the plaintiff stated that he sup- plied the luncheon at the request of the defendants, who were the executive of the Governor-General’s committee. No price had been fixed, and he was out of pocket at the price charged, as he had served a first-class luncheon, in keeping with the distinguished position of the visitor. Two of the defendants maintained that the price agreed upon was 2s 6d a head, and had tendered this amount plaintiff holding out for 5s. As there was no entry in the minutes kept by the secretary as to the price being fixed at 2s 6d, the police magistrate gave a verdict for plaintiff for £3 3s, in addition to the amount paid into court, with costs and witnesses, making the total £10 10s 6d. During the hearing there were some warm exchanges between the advocates and witnesses, a good deal of feeling being shown throughout the case.

 A meeting at Stokes’ Bulli hotel formed the district’s first Rugby Union Football Club on February 12 1908. The Bulli club’s colours were maroon guernseys with white trousers, and the fee was 2 shillings and 6 pence per player a season. It was decided at the meeting to affiliate the club with the Illawarra Union as soon as possible.

The first steps to form a Bulli Surf Club were made in September 1908, with the Illawarra Mercury reported that a meeting was had at Stokes’ pub. The Bulli Surf Club and Life Saving Corps was eventually formed on February 12, 1913.

Frank Snudden, who at 57 was running a pub at Bomaderry on the NSW South Coast, sold the freehold of the Bulli Family Hotel to Edmund Resch, managing director of Resch’s Brewery Limited in April 1909. With the sale, the Stokes left the pub.

Central Hotel, Bega. Picture: Supplied

Henry and Ellen Stokes bought the lease of the Central Hotel in Bega in 1911. Henry was granted the license of the South Coast pub in May. However, the Stokes had a short stay at the Bega pub and sold their lease the following month.

The Stokes’ short stay at Bega didn’t go by without controversy though. The Farmer and Settler reported on November 21 1911:

A case of some importance to agents and to buyers and sellers of property was heard in tho Bega District Court last week, when Messrs. Brown, Sharpe and Blacker, local auctioneers, sued W. H. Stokes, of Sydney (formerly licensee of the Central Hotel, Bega), for commission on the sale of the business for £1800. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant had placed the hotel in their hands for sale within a fortnight for £1800. Within that time they introduced a local buyer at £1400, which Stokes refused, but this buyer subsequently bought through another agent for the amount asked by Stokes. The defence was that plaintiffs had not secured a buyer at his price within the time specified. Judge Fitzhardinge, taking a recent Grafton case decided before the High Court as a guide, ruled that plaintiffs were entitled to some remuneration for introducing the buyer, and gave a verdict for £30 and costs. The claim was for £42 10s., at the rate of 2½ per cent, on the sale price.

The Stokes retired to their stately home, Allendale, in Glebe. Ellen died of a diabetes related illness aged 74 at their Glebe Road home, on July 17, 1913. The pioneering landlady, buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery Rookwood, was survived by her husband Henry and her children Caroline, 49, Gertrude, 48 and Horace 43.

At the age of 72, Henry remarried Alma Sherwood in 1915. He died at the Crescent Private Hospital, Manly, aged 79 in 1922. Henry had no children.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

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Categories: Illawarra Hotels, NSW hotels, Publicans, Sydney hotels

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