DURING the 1920s and 30s, a pub on the NSW South Coast became the centre of social life for coal miners in the little town of Bulli.
The Bulli Family Hotel, now trading as the Heritage Hotel, opened for business in September 1889, and remained a miners’ pub until the town’s colliery extracted the last of its black diamonds in the 1980s.
The following two reminiscences give a glimpse of what drinking in a coal mining pub was like pub in the 1930s.
The Friday night scene at Bulli pub’s closing time, according to William Evans was always attended by children. He explained in his reminiscences – penned in the 1980s – how bang on 6pm the front doors of the pub were slammed shut, and how through a side door the police sergeant entered the bar, moving among the drinkers. “Right oh boys. Break it up. Sink it and get going.” Out the drinkers would stream, continuing their “voluble arguments” on the footpath.
The miners and Bulli Family Hotel
By William Evans*
BULLI lies at the centre of a large coal mining area and the miners of that time eked out a bare existence at the coal face some miles underground.
Public transport was non-existent and many of the men walked each morning to the pit top, possibly two or three miles, followed by a further walk down the tunnel of about the same distance which brought them to the coal face where they spent all day hacking the coal from the seam and loading it into small skips which were hauled to the surface by the pit ponies.
Each skip bore a leather tag on which was impressed the number of the miner who filled the skip. At the tunnel mouth the skip was weighed and the miner was paid according to the amount of coal dug out by him.
The day’s work completed, the miner walked to the pit top and then to home or to the pub, caked with coal dust and dog tired.
They were a clanny crew, strong in their ideas of right and wrong and were mostly very law abiding. Some of them were very heavy drinkers, many were devout church going teetotallers but each respected the life style of the other.
On Fridays and Saturdays the local pub was full and so were the men. Quite often their loud arguments were settled by viscous fist fights in the back yard of the pub but the fights always finished with a handshake and return to the bar. They invariably settled their disputes between themselves and the local constabulary had little cause to intervene.
The Friday night scene at pub closing time was always attended by the kids. Right on six o’clock the front doors were banged shut but through the side door we could see the police sergeant moving among the drinkers. “Right oh boys. Break it up. Sink it and get going.” “Sarge. She’ll be right.” Out the drinkers would stream and continue their voluble arguments on the footpath.
The pub was an almost completely male world but a few of the local women sometimes worse for wear, joined the squabbles. Quite often some of the fighters spent the night in the local cooler probably much to the relief of their women folk who waited at home for the old man to come lurching in.
On some Friday evenings the Salvation Army Band played outside the pub and the service was always helped by some good humoured advice from the drinkers. Then with a flourish and a ‘boom, boom, boom’ off the band would go marching down the street with us bringing up the rear.
Johnie Bolton* wasn’t much to look at but he must have been made of iron. He was renowned as one of the hardest toilers in the pit (coal mine). From the time he ‘knocked off’ until six o’clock he was in the pub getting full, but on Friday nights he really gave the grog a bashing.
On a number of occasions he crawled along the gutter on his hands and knees for some distance before struggling to his feet to stagger home to his ‘missus’ for a fight, which could be heard around the district, putting on a performance which usually attracted a large audience.
Apart from his hard drinking he smoked to excess, ate the wrong things or not enough of the right things, swallowed enough coal dust to give silicosis to an elephant and lived to a ripe and healthy old age.
Johnie got drunk every Friday night almost as an act of faith but his star turn was not wife beating. The pub was at the top of the hill and at the bottom the road crossed over a narrow wooden bridge which spanned the swamp [over Slacky Flat].
Johnie was cocked-eyed and on leaving the pub he wheeled his bike down the hill to the bridge where he attempted to mount while the bike was on the move. On many occasions he wobbled into the swamp but he always came back to the starting point and tried again until he succeeded in getting across. When he succeeded he acknowledged the cheers of his mates with a low bow and then rode a zig zag course home.
The miners played football in the same spirit as they worked and when opposing the men from other pits they gave no quarter and sought none. They hit hard knocks without complaint; when the game was over they adjourned to the pub with their opponents and at the threat of outside interference they closed ranks.
The miners were tough and their children were the same. The men accepted their way of life and they sought no other. The boys accepted without thought that they would start at the pit as a clipper immediately they left school and the girls looked forward with little enthusiasm to the life of a miners’ wife.
* The late William Evans’ reminiscences were penned in the 1980s and recalled his days of growing up in Bulli NSW during the 1930s. The names of people have been changed to protect their identity.
Bernard the German scattered the bar with his bag of tricks
By Jack Devitt*
BULLI, like many small towns, had it’s ‘characters’, especially when the population was static and transport rather limited. We were a close-knit community. Some of those unforgettable people, who come to mind, were Tom Serack- who was Dr. Palmer’s gardener, Digger Round, Benard the German, Bandy Sam, and Billy and Sam Gahan, to mention but a few.
As far as I know, very few knew the surname of Bernard the German, who was a tinsmith by trade, but did most odd jobs around town. He lived alone in his neat little cabin on the creek bank in a gulch in the mountain behind where Corrie Park Estate now stands. He grew his own vegetables, had a few fruit trees and only needed the basics to supply his needs. His hobby was collecting snakes, some of which he often carried about in the sugar bag he invariably had slung over his shoulder – his general carry-all.
Rather a morose character, he liked his pint of beer, which he drank alone at the Woonona [Royal] pub, then went on his way minding his own business.
Some of the young blokes often chided him, but he generally took little notice until one day he most likely had had enough, so upended the sugar bag and a couple of wrigglers emptied the bar.
It was reported that grown men fought one another to get to the door. They left Bernard in peace from there on in.
* The late Jack Devitt’s reminscences of Bulli and Woonona, on the South Coast of NSW in the 1920s.
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