Illawarra’s first clubs: ‘The bar room had a plank nailed to the wall for seating’… and beds ‘for drunken miners to sleep off their liquor’

Kembla Heights Workmen’s Club committee members, Circa 1902. Picture: Supplied.


REGISTERED clubs, with their assortment of restaurants, bars and cafes, gymnasiums, and ‘mini-casinos’, have come along way from the timber cottages, offering dominoes and newspaper and magazine libraries, that began to appear throughout colonial New South Wales during the 1890s.

Prior to this, membership of early colonial clubs was confined to the elite. The premises of the first clubs emulated British gentlemen’s clubs and accommodated the style of living to which their members were accustomed. Club entertainment principally consisted of drinking, dining, billiards, card games and a literary library.

Clubs catering for colonial working class men first appeared in the late 1880s and 1890s. They first opened in the Illawarra, south of Sydney, as workmen clubs, chiefly to cater for coal miners. They were strictly men only venues, far from what members expect of their registered clubs today.

In 1898 the Mount Kembla Workmen’s Club was described as a four roomed cottage, containing bar room, committee room, bedroom and storeroom. The building was lined with pine and the ceiling with calico:

“The bar room had a plank nailed to the wall for seating. In the corner of the room was a short piece of timber with a counter and some shelving. Committee room had three tables and three chairs covered with pieces of casing board. Bedroom contained a wooden frame about 13 feet long, across which was placed a number of casing boards, upon which was seven beds made of bagging and filled with straw, as was pillows. There was no kitchen. The beds were for drunken miners to sleep off their liquor.”

Although miners had a part in establishing clubs, the first in the Illawarra were often bank-rolled by the smaller breweries, or spirit merchants, who had been locked out of the market place by Reschs, Tooths or Tooheys.

By the 1890s the larger brewers had secured head leases on most of the State’s pubs, which gave them exclusive rights of supply. Pubs sold entirely Reschs, Tooths or Tooheys beer, and the smaller brewers struggled to find a market for their product.

In the Illawarra region, Tooths had the strangle hold on the tied house system, next came Reschs, followed by Tooheys.

It’s no surprise the big three breweries and their publicans were not amused when coal miners found a method in which they could sell liquor within their social clubs. The big three brewers refused to supply liquor to the clubs and joined a campaign to persuade the government to close the loop hole which allowed them to trade.

On the other hand the smaller breweries and spirit merchants, which had been locked out of the market place, were more than happy to supply product to the clubs.

Illawarra’s first club opened at Austinmer during 1892 in ironically the former North Illawarra Hotel. The pub had been refused a license renewal the previous year, and the owner of the premises gathered support from the local miners to open the region’s first club.

Members of the Austinmer Workmen’s Club, located at the corner of Moore Street and The Grove opposite the railway station, paid an annual subscription of 2 shillings and 6 pence. Members would pay an entrance fee and were able to buy liquor after signing a pledge to abide by the club’s rules. Because members were not paying directly for their drinks, but purchasing vouchers that would be exchanged for liquor, the law was unable to prosecute the managers of the clubs.

The club consisted of a manager, paid by the board of directors or committee, which consisted of a secretary, treasurer and president. Printed rules were given to each member, as well as a membership card, who then were entitled entry to the bar, library, and use of the club’s games and amenities.

The manager of the Austinmer Workmen’s Club was James Huxtable, who received 3 pounds a week in wages from the six directors.

The club was made-up of five rooms and had newspapers and dominoes to entertain members. Members’ vouchers or coupons were placed in a ballot box by Huxtable, which in turn would be opened by key by the club secretary. Huxtable was then required to provide the money to the amount of the coupons to the club secretary.

Huxtable was charged with sly grog selling at the club in July 1892. Licensing Inspector Thomas Grieve tested the legitimacy of the club to provide liquor at the Wollongong Licensing Court on 16 August 1892, telling the magistrates that Huxtable had no license.

John Jones, a miner, arrived by train at Austinmer before meeting an old mate, Nat Smith. Smith, a member of the club, invited him across the road, shouting him schnapps, before the local constable intervened and charged Huxtable with selling liquor without a license. The case was consequently dismissed after it was proved that Smith paid for the drinks with vouchers as a member of the club.

The Austinmer correspondent to the Illawarra Mercury reported on 20 October 1892: “‘The Club’ is anything but a blessing, but the proprietors are too wide-awake to be caught ‘napping’. Surely some amendment to the licensing act is required if only to demolish such clubs as this.”

Huxtable was eventually ‘caught napping’ when he was convicted of selling liquor to an under-cover police informant. He was charged with selling liquor without a license on 17 June 1893 and spent three months in Wollongong Gaol after failing to raise the £30 fine. The magistrates described the club as “a blind under which to carry on illicit business”.

The court was told the club was “fitted out like a public house bar”, on the shelves were porter brandy, bottled ale, cordials, and bottled rum; in a corner, on a box, was an 11 gallon keg of beer. A sign, ‘accommodation for travellers and tourists’, hung from the veranda and on the window the word ‘bar’ was painted in large letters.

The club found itself in financial strife by December 1892. The profit made on an 18 gallon keg of beer was “wiped out” by the committee men, according to local newspapers. The directors took their free pint of beer every time they visited the club. By January 1893 the Austinmer Workmen’s Club had closed, eventually destroyed by fire the following month. A coroner couldn’t say “whether the fire originated accidentally or otherwise”.

The following year, Illawarra’s longest operating registered club was opened when the Woonona Bowling Club was formed in 1894. Although primarily a sporting club, and catering for a wealthier class of men, it is believed that members were also able to buy liquor on the coupon system from their 3m by 3.7m one room cottage during 1894 to 1896. By 1898 the club boasted 21 members, their own bowling green and a weatherboard pavilion on the site the club trades from today.

Six workmen clubs were opened in the Illawarra during 1896, joining the Woonona Bowling Club. The Mount Kembla Workmen’s, The Kembla Heights Workmen’s, Balgownie Workmen’s, Corrimal Workmen’s, the Helensburgh and Lilyvale Workmen’s and the Illawarra Workmen’s Club at Wollongong were all trading by Christmas 1896.

The derelict Kembla Heights Workmen’s Club in 2000. Picture: Patricia Vidal, Wollongong City Libraries.

In contrast to Woonona Bowling Club’s primary purpose of providing sporting facilities, the main role of workmen’s clubs were as social meeting places that provided liquor for members. By the early 1900s another two workmen clubs had opened, one at Woonona and another at Dapto.

At least three workmen’s clubs were established by Henry William Fatzeus and his wife Mary Jane, who could be considered the parents of the club movement in the Illawarra. The pair was engaged by local miners – keen to establish workmen’s clubs in their villages – to manage or establish their social clubs.

Prior to pioneering the club industry in the Illawarra, Henry William Fatzeus worked as a travelling liquor salesman in the Shoalhaven and Kiama areas for Sydney wine and spirit merchant, Thomas Turner. At the age of 33, married with two young children, he left Turner’s employ to establish workmen’s clubs at Wollongong, Balgownie and Corrimal.

Henry and Mary Jane Fatzeus were also said to have had a hand in the establishment of the Helensburgh Workmen’s Club. Fatzeus’ former employer, Thomas Turner, was also a member of Wollongong’s Illawarra Workmen’s Club, and supplied liquor to four of the local clubs.

The Corrimal Workmen’s Club, established on July 17 1896, had 94 members, who paid a joining fee of 2 shillings and 6 pence, and one shilling per quarter. Henry William Fatzeus was paid 2 pounds a week to manage the club. It was a timber building, with one room fitted out as a bar with a sign above the door reading ‘The Corrimal Club, members only”. Besides a bar fitted with shelving, holding bottles of spirits and ale, the club also offered tapped beer, that members could enjoy at tables and chairs. The club also provided for several games, including dominoes, ship quoits, and bull-ring.

The president of the club was Robert Biggar, a surveyor employed at the South Bulli Colliery. The secretary was Robert Ruddock, a weighman at the Corrimal Colliery, and Thomas Brown, deputy overman at Corrimal Colliery, was the treasurer of the club. While Fatzeus managed the Corrimal Club, his wife, Mary managed the Illawarra Workmen’s Club in Crown Street Wollongong.

The Balgownie Workmen’s Club had about 70 members when it was established in 1896. It was described as being a four room cottage, one room fitted up as a bar, another room having two forms and a table, the other rooms being used for ‘strong liquor’; it had a sign, ‘Balgownie Club. Members only’. The trustees of the club were Henry Tucker (President), John McDonald (Secretary), Alfred Weekes (Treasurer), Robert Scott (Manager), Deputy of Mount Pleasant Colliery, Thomas Rose and Henry William Fatzeus.

Wollongong publicans accused the Sydney liquor merchant Thomas Turner and Fatzeus of working together to take advantage of a loophole in the licensing act. In an unlikely alliance publicans joined with temperance leaders alleging that the clubs were established not by their members, but by Turner’s spirit firm, “who got the names of members as a blind”. Turner supplied at least four Illawarra clubs with their liquor, according to media reports in 1896.

Mount Kembla Workmen’s Club manager Mary Jane Fatzeus was charged for selling liquor without a license. The son of the Mount Kembla Hotel publican gave evidence for the prosecution, saying he saw two men, who were not members of the club, drinking on its veranda. The Illawarra Mercury reported on March 8 1898:

[Police] knew the defendant; she had previously been living in Wollongong about 12 months ago where she ran the Illawarra Workmen’s Club. [Constable] Wilmott visited the Mt Kembla Workmen’s Club on February 19 with two other constables. It is a four roomed cottage, containing bar room, committee room, bedroom and storeroom. Building lined with pine and ceiling with calico. The bar room had a plank nailed to the wall for seating. In the corner of the room was a short piece of timber with a counter and some shelving. Committee room had three tables and three chairs covered with pieces of casing board. Bedroom contained a wooden frame about 13 feet long, across which was placed a number of casing boards, upon which was seven beds made of bagging and filled with straw, as was pillows,  for drunken miners to sleep off their liquor. President of the club was a Mr Peach. She had been fined 30 pounds for illegal selling liquor while running the Illawarra Workmen’s Club in Wollongong on December 21 1896. She lived in separate premises on site. Walter Jones, a coachman residing at the Newmarket Hotel Sydney, was caught drinking on the premises by police – he wasn’t a member. A witness was the son of the publican of the Mt Kembla Hotel, Mr Wilson, who gave evidence that he seen Jones and another man drinking beer on the club’s veranda.

Fatzeus was fined a hefty £100 with £10 and 10 shillings professional costs and 16 shillings and six pence court costs or in default three months in gaol.

The Fatzeus left the Illawarra for Victoria about the turn of the century where he continued in business as a tailor. Henry died aged 88 in 1951.

The Woonona Workmen’s Club and Mutual School of Arts had its origins from when William Maurice Madden tried to open a pub on the northern corner of Russell Street and the Prince’s Highway at Woonona.

Madden applied for a hotel license for premises to be erected on the corner in February 1902. The Licensing Inspector told the court that another hotel wasn’t needed in the area as the Royal Hotel was only 40 yards from Madden’s site. Two local publicans, James Sharple (Royal Hotel) and Henry Stokes (Bulli Family Hotel) gave evidence that their hotels were sufficient to cater for the public. The license was refused.

Madden took another tact and established a workmen’s club instead of pursuing a hotel license for the site. In February 1902 he gathered “a considerable number of members” and on 14 March 1902 the club was established. The Bulli Times reported on 15 March 1902:

The Woonona Workmen’s Club was opened yesterday afternoon with a membership of about 85. The officers (pictured below) are: President, Mr TR Morgan, Vice President, Mr G Haberley, Treasurer, Mr G Clarke, committee, Messrs, J Sweeney, E Lane, W Marshal, T James, C Tessimond, Steward, Mr J Doel. Madden is standing at the rear on the veranda.

The Bulli Times described the Woonona club on 24 May as being a one storey building with entrance hall, reading and committee rooms on either side, opening into a room 28 feet by 14 feet which could be doubled in size by a moveable screen, the other half being the club proper.

Journalist, George Owens, described the Woonona Workmen’s Club in a South Coast Times article on 13 December 1962:

Mr Jack Doel was manager, the annual membership fee was a pound, beer was sold at threepence a pint, and a counter lunch – bread and cheese – was served on Saturday evenings. Three rooms made up the club, two of them being a bar room and a games room. Cards, chess, draughts and dominoes were the most popular games – but there was no library. The lack of library was a factor in the subsequent cancellation of the club’s license [registration]. The third room was used by members discussing current topics over a glass of ale.

After the club was officially opened with a grand ceremony in July 1902 it immediately became unfavourable with the local police. The law often inspected Madden’s premises which prompted him to write to the Commissioner of Police to complain about excessive policing of the club. Although the club seems no more rowdy then surrounding pub, it probably was less “respectable” than its nearby neighbour, the Woonona Bowling Club. The South Coast Times reported on 1 August 1903:

A fracas at the Workmen’s Club on Saturday, two members going somewhat amuck and giving the steward a mauling. The police were called in.

Although looked at badly in the law’s eyes, the club did contribute to the community in various ways. The Bulli Times reported in March 1903 that the club donated £5 and five shillings to the Drought relief Fund and in April donated £5 to the Woonona Bulli Town Band.

The committee of the Woonona Workman’s Club, which was situated on the corner of Russell Street, and the main road [Princes Hwy], Woonona, 1902. Among those standing are Bill Madden and Harry Davis. Those seated from left to right are Jake Doel, Thomas R. Morgan, who received a medal for bravery during the Mount Kembla mine explosion, and John T. Sweeney, member of parliament for Bulli electorate from 1933 to 1947. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.

After the Helensburgh North Workmen’s Social, Literary and Athletic Club opened in 1903, it brought the number of clubs in the Illawarra to eight.

• Kembla Heights Workmen’s.
• Balgownie Workmen’s Mutual School of Arts
• Helensburgh North Workmen’s Social, Literary and Athletic
• Woonona Workmen’s and Mutual School of Arts
• Helensburgh and Lilyvale Workmen’s and Mutual School of Arts
• North Illawarra Workmen’s and Mutual School of Arts [Corrimal].
• Woonona Bowling and Tennis
• Dapto Workmen’s

Pressure from the powerful breweries, publicans the temperance movement finally seen an attempt to close the club loophole that allowed club’s to trade in liquor in the early 1900s. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 27 March 1902:

Some guidance will also be found by him in the Licensing Bill which was introduced into the House of Commons last month by the Home Secretary. Its chief interest for us lies in the provisions for the registration of clubs. Much mischief has been done and is being done by the existence of bogus clubs which are really associations for the consumption of liquor without the restraints which the law imposes upon licensed vendors. To prevent this abuse the bill now before the House of Commons provides that the proprietor or secretary of any club shall cause it to be registered. The particulars to be given are the name, objects, and address of the club, the name of the secretary, the rules for the election of members and the admission of guests, the terms of subscription, and the number of members. Of course there is no interference with bona-fide clubs, but any club whatever in which intoxicating liquor is kept for supply or sale must be registered. The particulars demanded must be furnished annually, and a club may be struck off the register if it is not conducted in good faith as such or if there is frequent drunkenness on the premises. These seem to be reasonable provisions, to which no objection can be taken except by those who would only start or join a club for the sake of evading the restrictions on the sale of liquor. It will possibly occur to some that an annual fee for registration would have a useful effect in the discouragement of bogus clubs, and in the incidental protection of licensed publicans in the enjoyment of their legal rights.

The law would take another three years to enact and would lead to the closure of all of Illawarra’s clubs, with the exception of the Helensburgh Workmen’s Club and Woonona Bowling and Tennis Club. The new liquor act also capped the number of registered clubs allowed in NSW. The Wollongong Licensing District was allowed seven registered clubs.

The Dapto Workmen’s Club closed in 1905, with the North Helensburgh Workmen’s Club following on December 24 1906. By the end of 1907 the four workmen clubs at Woonona, Corrimal, Balgownie and Kembla Heights had been refused registration to trade and they all closed.

Helensburgh Workmen’s Club, 1900. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries

Filling the four vacancies left by there closure were Wollongong Bowling and Recreation Club (Helensburgh North Workmen’s Club) on September 28 1923, Wollongong Golf Club (Balgownie Workmen’s Club) on May 5 1928, Corrimal Bowling Club (Woonona Workmen’s Club) on November 11 1930, and the Port Kembla Bowling Club (Corrimal Workmen’s Club) on March 23 1931. The cap on the number of NSW clubs (85) was lifted in 1946 and many of today’s clubs were eventually established.

By 1958 there were 1050 registered clubs in NSW. There are now over 3,000 licensed clubs in Australia (2014). As the pioneer and heartland of the club movement, NSW is home to almost half of these clubs and to 2.5 million club members. The industry body Clubs NSW claims that over 80 per cent of the population visits a club each year, underlining their status as a major social institution. Since 1990, all Australian states (except Western Australia) have permitted poker machines in clubs.

First published 2014. Updated 2021.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

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