Barton’s bar: the flash Irish cabman and his Kiama pub

Fermanagh_Hotel_Kiama_1880 circled
The Fermanagh Hotel when it was known as the Kiama Hotel in 1880. The large building with the post supported veranda (circled), opposite the church, on the corner of Shoalhaven and Teralong Streets. Picture: Supplied.


DESCRIBED as a “flash looking little cab driver”, Irishman Jimmy Barton and his wife Elizabeth established what is today considered Kiama’s oldest operating business.

Kiama is a coastal town, south of Sydney, NSW. Trading today as the Kiama Hotel on the corner of Teralong and Shoalhaven Streets, the Bartons licensed ‘The Fermanagh’ on April 6, 1853, making it the seaside village’s third public house.

Less the Bartons would realise at the time that their watering hole would continue to flourish for another 170 years (2021).

Barton named his pub after his birthplace, the county of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. It was a wise choice for the inn’s ‘sign’. The majority of the population of Kiama was of Northern Ireland origin and the familiar name of Fermanagh, no doubt, attracted many an Irish settler for a ‘long beer’ or two. Barton wasn’t always a publican though, and the Fermanagh, which he established, wasn’t his first pub.

This is the story of Jimmy and Elizabeth Barton.

As a Teenager, Jimmy sailed from Liverpool England on the 860 ton ship Helen in April 1841. He was one of 298 immigrants and 15 passengers aboard a journey that would see eight adults and five children die before they landed in Port Jackson on July 21 1841.

Prior to embarking on his lifetime adventure to the colonies, Jimmy was a farmer on his father’s property in Kesh – a small village on the Kesh River just a mile from Lower Lough Erne. In the 2001 Census Kesh had a population of just 972 people.

Work was hard to come by when Jimmy arrived in an economically depressed Sydney Town in 1841. Just 19, he was determined to succeed though, and he found himself plying Pitt Street driving cabs.

Two months before he arrived, another Irish settler, who would later become his wife, landed in Sydney Town. Her name was Elizabeth Armstrong.

Elizabeth, the 18-year-old daughter of a farmer also from Fermanagh, arrived in Sydney aboard the Orestes with her brother Robert on the evening of May 14 1841. Of the 280 emigrants aboard the ship, 16 had perished, while five births were recorded during the journey.

Elizabeth’s big brother Robert, 27, would have been responsible for the care of his teenage sister. Elizabeth, though seems to have been left to fend for herself after Robert took work as a merchant seaman.

Just a year after arriving in Sydney, Elizabeth was destitute. She was found in Liverpool Street by a constable “almost perishing with cold and hunger”. The Australasian Chronicle reported on Thursday August 18 1842 that the constable took her to the general hospital, where she was refused admittance without the order of a magistrate; “she was consequently kept in the watch house all night, and the next morning brought before the police bench in a very weak state, and was then sent to the hospital by a warrant of the sitting magistrate”.

Meanwhile Jimmy was battling the fierce competitiveness of Sydney cab driving. He was brought up before Alderman Macdermott, at the Police Court, to answer the complaint from a grocer, Mr Creagh, who charged him with “using obscene language to common women in front of his premises”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on March 10 1845:

The defendant admitted the charge; but pleaded in defence that he had used the words complained of in order to drive the females away from Creagh’s door. The Bench considered that there was no substance in the defence set up, and ordered the defendant to enter into sureties to be of good behaviour for twelve months; himself in £40, and two sureties in £20 each. The defendant was also informed that a recommendation would be made in the proper quarter to have the license of his cab cancelled.

Despite these threats, Jimmy continued driving his cab around Sydney Town, until someone tried another more unscrupulous way of putting a stop to his business. Jimmy advertised a £10 reward to find the culprit who “maliciously cut and destroyed the carriage” of his cab in June 1845.

Jimmy, now 23, ended up in front of the magistrates again later in the year when he was charged with assaulting a customer. The Australian reported on September 4 1845:

James Barton, a very flash looking little cab driver, was brought up charged with an assault on Ruth Robinson, whereby a very beautiful bright eye, appertaining to the said Ruth, was seriously damaged and discoloured ; — and further that the said Barton did take a fire shovel, and beat her over the back with it. The assault was alleged to have been committed on Friday afternoon, and arose out of a claim for 6s. for cab-fare, which the fair prosecutrix denied was due.- Mr. Dillon appeared for the cab-driver, and Mr. Nichols on behalf of the black eyes. A mirthful looking demirep, named Maryanne Fisher, was called to prove the assault, but, the   insinuations of Mr. Barton in the shape of sherry cold, and brandy hot, had so impaired her memory of the transaction, that all her reminiscences were in favour of the cab-driver. Mr. Dillon then made a most grandiloquent speech on the Ruthless cruelty of the case against the cabman, and having convinced the Court for half an hour, called various witnesses to prove that Ruth was the aggressor. A Mrs. Hunt, and a Miss Eliza Thompson were also called, and by a strange coincidence, their stories were all found alike, and stranger still, both on that morning and the previous one, whilst waiting at the Police  Office – all these three young ladies were seized with a simultaneous weakness, and had adjourned to a public-house, where the flash-cabman, with a generosity almost unknown in his profession, stood treat (or as Mr Dillon wished to construe it, treated them well.) In spite of the number of witnesses, the Bench still were of opinion that a violent assault had been, committed, and consequently fined the defendant in the sum of 40s., and 7s costs.      

There seems to have been a campaign to rid Jimmy and his cab from the streets of Sydney after a plot was uncovered that led to him charged with striking a customer with his whip.

Daniel Murphy was committed to take trial for having committed wilful and corrupt perjury by stating that Jimmy had struck at him with his whip at the corner of Pitt and King Streets about 11pm on April 28 1846.

Thumbing his nose at all this, the 25-year-old “flash” Irishman continued driving his cab around Sydney Town, eventually marrying the “destitute” Elizabeth Armstrong in the spring of 1847.

Despite her brother deserting her, Elizabeth, 24, had managed to survive and was fending for herself when she eventually met up with Jimmy.

Robert, however, was destined for the road gangs. He was sentenced to 10 years for killing a prostitute in 1848. The Sydney Chronicle reported on February 1:

DREADFUL MURDER. – In a former number we gave, under the head of “Brutal Case of Assault,’ a few particulars respecting a most savage and un- provoked attack upon a defenceless woman, by a man supposed at the time to belong to a coasting craft. Since our last issue, the unfortunate woman, whose name was Margaret Campbell, has, after lingering for four days in the greatest agony, expired on Saturday morning last. An inquest was held on the body the same day, at Benham’s public house, corner of Phillip and Hunter streets, when the following facts were elicited:-Prisoner, whose name is Robert Armstrong; went home with a woman of bad character on Tuesday evening last-when in the house, he admired a South Sea Island war club which was there, and wished the woman to give it to him. She refused, when the prisoner became importunate, and endeavoured to take it away. The woman struggled with him, and he began to ill use her, when one or two women came to her assistance, and prisoner was turned out of the house. How he became possessed of the club afterwards is not known, for he left it behind him; but certain it is, that a short time afterwards he had some argument with some other women, amongst whom was the luckless deceased, whom he began to beat with the club. The police came up, and he was seen by several persons to strike the deceased repeatedly with the weapon. He then made his escape, but was ultimately secured. Another man, named Egberry, was in his company at the latter part of the disturbance; but none of the evidence went to fix him with taking any part in   it. Egherry was consequently discharged, whilst a verdict of “wilful murder” was returned against   Armstrong, the Coroner expressing his opinion that never had a more brutal or unprovoked assault come within his professional knowledge.

Armstrong was charged with murder, but found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to 10 years on the roads, the first three in irons. He died in 1869 in Sydney.

After his marriage to Elizabeth, Jimmy dumped the cut-throat cab driving business and took to the role of publican. He replaced James Greenwood as the licensee of the Odd Fellows Arms, located “opposite the Military Barracks”, South Head Road, on June 20 1848. The pair remained hosts there until March 1850.

Jimmy and Elizabeth made their way south to Kiama in 1850. At Kiama they purchased several properties, including a block of land at the corner of Teralong and Shoalhaven Streets. It was here Jimmy built the Fermanagh Hotel, which was eventually licensed on April 26 1853. The pub was said to have 11 “spacious and airy rooms, fitted up in first rate style, a detached kitchen, excellent vegetable garden, stable yard, wood yard, and fenced garden”.

After three years as hosts, the Bartons farmed their Kiama property at Primrose Hill, leasing the Fermanagh to George Scott in October 1856. Various publicans hosted the Fermanagh, until the freehold was sold to Henry Crozier in about 1860.

The Bartons moved from Kiama to Queensland in 1862. Newspaper shipping intelligence reveal “Mr and Mrs Barton” arrived in Brisbane from Sydney on July 7 1862 aboard the steamer Telegraph, in company with “Miss Barton and Miss E Barton”. No records can be found that show Jimmy and Elizabeth had children; although by this report it seems they may have had two daughters.

The Bartons opened a general store on the corner of Wickham and Brunswick streets, Fortitude Valley in 1862 where they traded up until August 1865 after a fire destroyed their shop. Jimmy, now 43, began chaff-cutting from the property after the fire, but eventually reverted to his old profession of driving cabs after falling on financial difficulties in late 1868. He was forced to sell several properties, and, like his cab driving days in Sydney, again landed in trouble with the law.

The Brisbane Courier reported on September 2 1876 that Jimmy, now aged 52, was summoned for demanding more than the proper fare for a cab ride. He was fined 20 shillings, with three shillings six pence costs.

Jimmy lost his wife of 29 years in June 1877. Elizabeth’s death came the same month as he was fined again for breaching municipal by-laws for over-charging for a fare from the railway station to Wickham Street Brisbane. In June 1877 he pleaded guilty, telling the court that his fare kept him waiting over a quarter of an hour. He was fined £1, and three shillings and six pence costs.

Elizabeth died aged 51, and was buried in the Toowong Cemetery, near Brisbane. Jimmy died two years later. The Queenslander newspaper reported on February 1 1879 that James Barton, cabman, died aged 52 in the Brisbane Hospital of “Bright’s disease” – a historical classification for kidney diseases that would be described in modern medicine as acute or chronic nephritis. He was buried in the Toowong Cemetery on January 14.

Jimmy’s old Fermanagh at Kiama was demolished in 1889 after it was purchased by George Tory, who rebuilt the pub into a grand two storey brick hotel. It continues to trade on the same site today as the Kiama Hotel.

Originally published 2013. Updated 2021

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

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