By MICK ROBERTS ©
AS soon as you set your eyes on Tasmania’s Bush Inn you can plainly see it’s a special pub.
In fact, it holds an important place in Australian history as the nation’s oldest continuously licensed pub.
There are others that claim the title of Australia’s oldest, but the Bush Inn, at New Norfolk, is regarded officially as the longest trading hotel from within the same original building, in a nation noted for its pubs.
For approaching 200 years it has served up cold ale and provided accommodation to weary travellers. Ann Bridger opened the pub in 1825 becoming the first of a long unbroken 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 probably used to hearing the promises droning from the 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 with an original skittle alley.
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.
In 1835, Kim explained, Methodist preachers, visiting from Hobart Town preached in the tap room of the pub.
Another claim to fame of the Bush Inn is that the first telephone trunk call in the Commonwealth 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.
Inspired by the beautiful rural scene, as viewed from the hotel veranda and dining room, William Vincent Wallace wrote “Scenes That Are Brightest” and the opera “Maritana” in 1838.
Broadcasting history was made at the hotel on June 29 1932 when for the first time, the opera “Maritana” was produced and broadcast over the National 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 veranda.
Kim fell in love with the Bush Inn 15 years ago when he first moved to the town from South Australia.
“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.”
* A special thanks to Kim Roberts for supplying historic photographs and an early history of the Bush Inn.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014
Categories: Tasmania hotels