By MICK ROBERTS ©
AS soon as you set your eyes on Tasmania’s Bush Inn you can plainly see it’s a special pub.
While it claims an important place in Australian history as the oldest continuously licensed pub, evidence has recently come to light that this is not the case.
While the Bush Inn, at New Norfolk, is regarded officially as the longest trading hotel from within the same original building, evidence has surfaced that proves this is not the case. From early newspaper reports it seems the pub closed as licensed premises from 1874 to 1877.
With the exception of those years, the pub has served up beer and provided accommodation to weary travellers for almost 200 years and clearly deserves recognition for its longevity.
Ann Bridger opened the pub in 1825 becoming the first of a long line of licensees.
Back in 2006 we added to the countless number of guests that have stayed under its historic roof. Our host at the time was Barry Dabin, who directed us to a comfortable room decked out in period furniture and a huge King size bed.
That evening, searching for a nightcap, we clambered down the steep staircase to the small public bar, which, surprisingly was packed with people.
A local politician, on the campaign trail was delivering his promises to a supportive audience of blokes in sweaty Akubras.
No chance of getting a drink in there, so we adjourned to the lounge where a welcoming fire and a group of women waited contently for their politically inspired partners in the nearby public bar.
Barry Dabin took the reins of the historic pub in July 2004 after running another watering hole in Canberra. He was likely accustomed to hearing political promises droning from his crowed public bar.
“I came to Tasmania from the mainland looking for a pub earlier in the year,” Barry said between serving customers.
“As soon as we walked into the Bush Inn we knew it was the pub for us. You buy a city pub and there is one on every corner. But the Bush Inn is one of a kind. It’s a special place.
“After the pub shuts we like to sit down stairs and feel the history of the place,” he said.
Barry introduced me to the pub’s resident pub historian and regular drinker Kim Roberts.
Kim began telling me about one of the Bush Inn’s greatest claims to fame – the story of how Dame Nellie Melba sang several lyrics from “Maritana” when she stayed at the hotel on her last Tasmanian visit in 1924.
“I could go on for ages about the history of this place, but I won’t… well maybe a bit,” he said.
Kim gave us a quick history lesson on New Norfolk explaining how the township was established in 1808 when a small settlement of free farmers and convicts were transferred from Norfolk Island, to an area upstream of Hobart Town that had been identified as fine farming country.
The Bush Inn was built in 1815, and in 1825 Ann Bridger became the hotel’s first licensee, Kim said. He then showed us around the pub pointing out furniture that Bridger brought to her new business in 1825.
The Bush Inn’s original building has survived, with some of the walls supported on ‘roughly square logs’. Following Kim down stairs he showed us the original cellar, which remains mostly untouched with sandstone floors, and remarkably, a surviving skittle alley – a popular pub past-time back in the day.
Not many pubs can boast a Christening font under its roof. The font sits in the foyer of the Bush Inn, along with other treasures from the past, a reminder of when the pub doubled as a church.
In 1835, Kim explained, Methodist ministers, visiting from Hobart Town, preached in the tap room of the pub.
Another of its claim to fame is that the Commonwealth’s first telephone trunk call was made from the pub by the then licensee Captain Blockley in 1888. Remarkably that telephone is mounted on the wall beside the Christening font.
The first call to London was also made from the hotel on February 1 1939.
If that’s not enough, the pub can also boast that William Vincent Wallace wrote “Scenes That Are Brightest” and the opera “Maritana” there in 1838. He was said to have been inspired by the beautiful rural scene, viewed from the hotel veranda and dining room.
The pub’s rich history continues to mount, with broadcasting history made on June 29, 1932 when for the first time, the opera “Maritana” was produced and broadcast from the Bush Inn over the National radio network, through station 7ZL Hobart.
The records remain in the lounge bar, mounted over the fire place, and that’s where we settled in with our drinks on our first night at the Bush Inn.
The Bush Inn has three bars, five open fire places, a restaurant known as the Melba Room, 22 bedrooms and a glassed-in dining room on the verandah.
Kim fell in love with the Bush Inn when he first moved to the town from South Australia in the late 1990s.
“I just love the atmosphere here… there are no pokies and it is alive with history – a passion of mine,” he said.
Kim has meticulously researched the pub’s history and is always ready to offer a yarn or two about his watering hole.
“There are a lot of pubs making claims in Hobart now about being the oldest pub,” he said between mouth-fulls of beer.
“The Guinness Book of records is the authority on records and it recognised the Bush Inn as the longest continuous hotel licence in Australian in 1976,” he said.
“As far as I’m concerned this is it.”
However, evidence has recently surfaced proving that the Bush Inn is not Australia’s longest continuously licensed pub.
The owner of the pub, Alex Smith, sold the pub in 1873, and due to a stagnation in Tasmania’s economy the pub closed for business for almost four years.
The Bush Inn seems to have been trading up until December 1873 when the Hobart Mercury reported that its “landlord” Alex Smith, had been admitted to Hobart Town General Hospital after he was thrown out of his buggy.
The pub seems to have closed for business in 1874 and became the private residence of Samuel Smith Travers until 1877.
Octavius Blockley relicensed the Bush Inn during the first half of 1877, and it has remained continuously operating as a pub since that year.
* A special thanks to Kim Roberts for supplying historic photographs and providing an early history of the Bush Inn. For a detailed history of the Bush Inn visit Kim Roberts’ website: The early years of the Bush Inn
First published 2014. Updated 2022.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022.
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Categories: Tasmania hotels