Way before Sydney’s Hilton Hotel offered beds to travellers, there was the notorious Bull’s Head Inn

The Hilton Hotel, George Street, Sydney, and inset, a 1842 artist impression of the Bull’s Head Inn. Pictures: Supplied and State Library of NSW.


SPEAKING at the officially opening of the Sydney Royal Arcade in 1882, a council alderman described the Bull’s Head Inn and surrounding shops as “massed filthy dens and cesspits”, and their demolition to make way for the new arcade, as a “great sanitary boon”.

Now the site of the Hilton Hotel on George Street, the Bull’s Head Inn was one of Sydney’s many notorious watering holes.

When Governor Lachlan Macquarie tried to take charge of Sydney’s feral liquor industry in 1810, there were countless spirit houses trading along George Street. Macquarie aimed to civilize Sydney Town’s 49 legal liquor licenses registered in 1809 through tougher laws and restricted trading hours.

George Street Sydney 1842 looking south
George Street Sydney 1840s. Picture: State Library of NSW.

Sydney’s inns sold everything from wines, porter and spirits, to liquid blacking vinegar and essence of anchovies for fish sauce. A strong stomach to swallow the dubious ingredients in grog sold from these establishments was essential, as was the stench that greeted customers as they jostled for a drink in the cramped spirit houses along George Street.

Spirit and beer houses dotted the unpaved, unaligned thoroughfare that would one day become Sydney’s principle retail street. George Street was described as “the main artery through which the vital stream of commerce flows to the remotest parts of the Colony” in 1848. The busy roadway, much like today, extended from Dawes’ Point in the north, to the old Toll Bar, to the south, a distance of just over three kilometres or two miles.

“The newcomer cannot fail of being surprised with the bustle and animation that pervades this street; numberless Omnibuses in constant motion, Hackney Carriages, Coaches, Gigs, Waggons, and every description of vehicle, from the humble hay cart to the regular four in hand, passing and re-passing; with now and then the huge bullock dray, laden with wool or other produce, and drawn by eight or ten immense bullocks, wending its devious way to the Merchant’s Stores; gives character to the scene, and stamps it Colonial.”

Pubs of early Sydney Town were far from the quaint little inns, gentlemen were accustomed to in Mother England.

This is the story of a notorious, but colourful pub that started as a spirit house, providing little more than a place to drink, and which evolved into a two storey, stone and brick hotel, providing accommodation and entertainment to colonial Sydney. This is the story of the evolution of the Bull’s Head Inn, and its many interesting characters.

In an article titled “Romantic Inns” on March 29, 1935, The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin gave an insight into the Bull’s Head Inn:

George Street Sydney in the vicinity of the Bull’s Head in the 1840s. Picture: State Library of NSW.

“The Crown and Thistle, the Dog and Duck, the King’s Head, the Blue Lion, the Golden Fleece, the Good Woman, the Lord Nelson, the Beehive, the Black Swan, the Pine Apple, the Horse and Jockey – these and countless others were, the old inns of Sydney, a romantic Sydney, no longer in existence. Not the least important of these hostelries of the [18]30s of last century was the Bull’s Head, the exterior of which is shown in Charles Chauvel’s new film, ‘Heritage’, which has been chosen by the Commonwealth Government as the best film made in Australia. The Bull’s Head was situated in George Street, midway between Market and Park Streets. This old house was licensed in Macquarie’s day; as early, in fact, as 1817. It was there before the alignment of George Street, and stood on its original site until as late as 1882, when it was demolished. The Royal Arcade now occupies the site. Perhaps its best known host was Miles Fieldgate, a well-known figure to town dwellers and visitors from the Hinterland about the 30s. Old Miles was familiar enough to the pioneers in ‘Heritage’, who travelled from the Great Plains beyond the Blue Mountains and halted their bullock teams in his yard. Familiar, too, was he to the young immigrant girls who so timorously entered the waggons of their young husbands, and slowly left Sydney town behind them, as, in easy stages, they made their way across the mountain barrier to their now homes in the interior. Such was life in New South Wales a century ago. Such were the men and women who blazed the trail, the pioneers who laid the foundation of that heritage we enjoy today.”

The Bull’s Head Inn and an adjoining shop were built on the east side of George Street, a few blocks south of Market Street by Robert McIntosh, a military officer, on land granted to him by the Crown. The land was later inherited by his son James.

The first host of the Bull’s Head was Miles Fieldgate, who arrived in Sydney as a convict on the ship Hillsborough. When the ship arrived in Sydney on July 26, 1799 she disembarked just 205 of the 300 male passengers who had set sail from Gravesend, England in October 1798. An outbreak of typhoid had killed 95 of the convicts.

Twenty four year old Fieldgate was assigned work on the lower reaches of the Richmond River before he was given a conditional pardon in June 1803. He was working as a baker in a “desirably situate” weatherboard building in “Spring Row, near the end of South Street” near today’s Circular Quay, Sydney by 1807.

In 1812, at the age of 38, he married Ann Jones at Windsor, before he was appointed Clerk of Sydney’s public market, as well as pound keeper, and a police constable in April 1814. That same year, Fieldgate’s wife had left him. He placed the following advertisement in the Sydney Gazette on September 24, 1814:

“I hereby caution the Public, against trusting my Wife, Ann Fieldgate, she having eloped from her Home without Provocation; and I will not hold myself responsible for any Debts she may contract. Miles Fieldgate.”

The fate of Fieldgate’s wife remains a mystery. No records of Fieldgate having children could also be found.

At the age of 42 Fieldgate turned his attentions to innkeeping and was granted a license for the Bull’s Head, located opposite the Sydney Markets, in George Street in 1816. There were 50 licenses granted to sell liquor in Sydney that year, including seven in George Street.

Just two years later, competition for thirsty customers intensified along George Street with the amount of licenses doubling.

Fieldgate fell ill in March 1822 and he advertised the Bull’s Head Inn for sale. He died aged 48 on 23 May 1822.

The Bull’s Head continued trading as a general store, including the sale of liquor, for the next three years by a Mr Jones. Records show that George Humphries was at the bar of the inn during the late 1820s. The Sydney Gazette Tuesday reported on 10 August 1830 that “some villains made an attempt to affect an entrance to the back premises of Mr. Humphries, of the Bull’s Head, in George-street, but being disturbed by the vigilance of the Police, were fortunately disappointed of their expected booty”. Robert Williams was eventually convicted of stealing a pair of candlesticks.

The license of the Bull’s Head Tavern was taken over by James Dargan in 1831. By this time there were 40 public houses licensed in George Street.

The Dargans, James and his wife Sophia were 26 and 24 respectively when they took the reins of the Bull’s Head, both were natives of the Colony. James was well equipped and experienced to run what was probably one of the busiest and rowdiest pubs on George Street in 1831. He had spent time in prison for stealing and had previously run a pub.

In 1829 when their first child Eliza was born, he had the “Irish Arms” in Sydney Road, Parramatta. By 1831 the couple had moved to Sydney Town where they hosted the Bull’s Head Inn for the next four years.

The Sydney Monitor reported on 20 February 1833 that Dargan started a new coach called the Defiance, to run from Sydney to Parramatta and back daily from the Bull’s Head.

Dargan advertised the “old-established public house, opposite the Market Place” to be let in January 1834 just before it was demolished to make way for the widening of George Street. The Maitland Mercury Tuesday 13 December 1881:

“At the commencement of the present century the land from Market street extending southerly to what is now called Park-street [along George Street] was occupied as premises by four persons and that George-street was then in some parts a narrow roadway, and subsequently when built upon as “Sergeant-major Row” – the “row” being the range of low one story verandah buildings, lying much below the level of the street… The “row” was pulled down, and the present buildings erected by Abraham Pollack. The adjoining block was occupied by Macintosh, the third by Barnett, and the corner of Market and George-streets by Blaxland, Charters, and others. The survey of the town was in progress as early as 1829, but the present alignment of George-street was not proclaimed until 1833 or 1834, and widened George-street easterly about eight feet.”

The widening of George Street and the subsequent government resumption of 2.5m of McIntosh’s land enable the family to rebuild the old timber inn and adjoining shop into an imposing two storey brick and stone building.

Artist impression of the Bull’s Head in 1842. Second large double storey building from left. The ‘bull’s head’ can be made out on the awning above the door, two windows inward, on the far right of the pub. Picture: State Library of NSW.

With a large Bull’s Head on the facade, the new Bull’s Head Inn had large windows facing George Street, and became a landmark pub for almost another half century.

The last publican of the Bull’s Head Inn was Sarah Florence Valentine. The license, lease, fixture and furniture of the Bull’s Head Inn were auctioned in March 1872, and the pub closed for business soon after that time. Valentine went on the host the Elephant and Castle in nearby Pitt Street.

After closing as a tavern, the Bull’s Head became a livery and bait shop. The building was demolished to make way for the Royal Arcade in 1881 before, almost a century later that too was replaced by the Hilton Hotel.

The Royal Arcade, George Street, Sydney, 1882. Picture: Illustrated Sydney News, Saturday 25 November 1882

Bull’s Head Inn, Publicans

1817 – 1826 – Miles Felgate (Fieldgate)

1827 – 1828 Mr Jones.

1829 – 1831 – George Humphreys.

1831 – 1833 – James Dargan (Dargin).

1836 – 1839 – Thomas Douglas(s).

1839 – 1842 – James Reynolds.

1843 – 1845 – Thomas Douglas(s).

1846 – 1852 – Thomas Molloy.

1852 – 1853 – William Howard.

1853 – 1854 – John Nicol.

1854 – 1855 – William Ward.

1855 – 1857 – William Henry Watkins.

1857 – Louis McDonald.

1857 – 1859 William Henry Watkins.

(No license found 1860 – 1862)

1863 – 1865 – George Samuel Marsden.

1866 – 1867 – Albemarle Layar

1867 – 1868 – William Tollis.

1868 – John D’Arcy.

1868 – Thomas Valentine

1870 – William Tollis

1870 1871 – – Rowland Buckridge.

1871 – Maurice Ickerson

1872 – Sarah F. Valentine

First published 2013. Update 2021

© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2021

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1 reply

  1. Great article. Another publican worth mention is Mrs. Simes.
    In March 1851 an insolvency auction for Thomas Malloy the Bull’s Head was held, including the lease/licence. [ref: SMH 12/03/1851, p4] Honoria Simes (possibly Mrs. Thomas Simes of the Pilot Inn) then held the licence which was transferred to William Howard later that year. [ref: Empire 10/12/1851, p3]

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