By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE workers camps that sprang up for the men building the government railway south of Sydney during the mid to late 1880s became notorious for their violence and heavy drinking.
The camps, which also included men employed to improve facilities in the National Park, were occupied by tough navvies, who drank like fish, fought like tigers, and, apparently – according to the following 1887 newspaper story – had tendencies to wander about almost naked!
A visiting magistrate documented the lawless camps that surrounded Sutherland, on the southern outskirts of Sydney. He reported that inside the bar of the Railway Hotel were 30 men “sodden with drink, who had the appearance of madmen. Some were partially clothed with rags, others naked to the waist, with bruises over their bodies; in many instances covered with clotted blood. Noses broken, eyes blackened, and otherwise disfigured frontispieces.” The Sydney Evening News reported on July 23 1887:
Unemployed Amusements, Bacchanalian Riots, Debauchery, Drink, and Destitution, Chained to a Fence.
By a visiting magistrate
I arrived at Sutherland (a railway station on the Illawarra line) on Thursday, and was astonished to see a large body of men congregated at the Railway Hotel, which is situated about 100 yards from the station.
I was never so much surprised, and I may say disgusted, as I was at the sign I witnessed. Nor would any one conjecture that proceedings of such a diabolical character could be seen in any civilised community.
In fact, question whether those who did not see it would believe that the very lowest type of humanity would be guilty of such proceedings; and how men, many of whom had been apparently well educated and of respectable parentage, could lower themselves to such a state of brutality, which was both disgusting and unwarrantable.
There were present at the pubic-house about 100 men, who are known as the unemployed, but who are engaged on the relief works at National Park. The occupation in which they are supposed to be engaged is clearing this park and forming roads, or otherwise attempting to beautify this place of public recreation.
On the ground in front of the public house some dozen men were lying in various places, in all sorts of positions, and clad in various garments. The only clothing of some were hats and trousers, their, bodies, being quite nude. Others had bare feet, with portions of trousers on and no head gear. Others had a sleeve of a shirt on, without any other portion of the garment. One had two sleeves of a shirt and the back of same on, the breast and front portions having been torn from the garments.
The whole of the bodies of the men showed signs of filth and loathsomeness; as if they had never seen water; their faces were bruised and torn – either one or both eyes blackened and swollen up, and, as the police informed me, were ‘hopelessly dead drunk,’ and were quietly camped, and a ‘very good job, too,’ said they.
At the bar of the public-house were about thirty men sodden with drink, who had the appearance of madmen. Some were partially clothed with rags, others naked to the waist, with bruises over their bodies ; in many instances covered with clotted blood. Noses broken, eyes blackened, and otherwise disfigured frontispieces.
The floor of the bar was covered with beer. The outside and rear of the house were a mass of filth and dust, for which I may say that the landlord was in no way responsible. The men outside the house were either fighting or wanting to fight, and the coverings of their bodies were similar to those already described. This district is under the supervision of two police officers, both of whom are efficient and good men.
The hotel keeper, Mr. W. Hanley, is a man of genial temperament, and conducts his business, as far as he is able, in a proper manner. But what are the two policemen and one landlord to do against about 3000 of these people who are on these relief works? The police stated the way they manage is, if the men get drunk, they let them camp on the ground. If they are in fighting humor, they let them fight, and look on, and see fair play and a clear ground if possible, if they resort to any other misdemeanor or beastiality they handcuff them, and chain them up to the railway- station gate for twelve hours. By that time they are repentant, and about sober.
The pay day is on a Wednesday, each fortnight. Last Wednesday the large sum of £3000 was paid the people – the previous pay was £5000. The affair is a complete waste of public money, for in three or four years the undergrowth will spring up, and will be as wild as ever. For many years to come this park will not be used, excepting once a year for military display ; the distance from the metropolis being too great for the place to be taken advantage of by the citizens. One remarkable, yet amusing feature of the crowd I met there was that each one said of the rest that they never met such a ‘lot of blacklegs, thieves, dirty, drunken sweeps as men located here;’ and one of these said to me that’ seven workmen would do as much as three hundred of these unemployed, and he was sorry he ever came amongst them, and would get away as soon as possible.”
This “party” was about 55 years of age, and at the time I was speaking to him was fairly sober. Two hours after he was stripped to the waist, without hat or boots, roaming about Wanting to fight “some one, anyone,” but, could not get a match on unless he was prepared to “shout” or treat his proposed antagonist to a drink ; but, whether fortunately or unfortunately, he was out of funds and could not get a fight on. Two other pugilists fought several rounds, then shook hands, had a drink and a lapse of say half an hour, then there would be another contest, another drain “of fighting beer,” then a final battle, and both camp on the ground wounded and bleeding, and I may say dead drunk.
THE publican of the Railway Hotel at Sutherland at the time was William Bramley, and not William Hanley, as stated in the story. Bramley purchased three blocks on the eastern side of the Sutherland Railway Station and built the first brick general store and a hotel, which he named the Railway Hotel in 1887.
Hanley, who hosted a pub at nearby Waterfall, complained to the Evening News that they had got the story wrong and he was not host of the Sutherland pub. His hotel at Waterfall was much more respectable than the Railway Hotel at Sutherland, he said. However, later reports dispute those facts, and Hanley’s Heathcote Hotel at Waterfall Railway Station was allegedly notorious for similar reasons to the above.
Hanley later established the Centennial Hotel at Helensburgh, a few months after the above story was published.
The Railway Hotel at Sutherland later was renamed Boyles Sutherland Hotel after its owner Ted Boyle, who took over the hotel in 1901. In 1937 the pub was demolished and replaced by the present building, on the Old Princes Highway, and is currently listed as a heritage building.
First published 2013. Updated 2021
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021
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