By LESLIE F. HANNON
TURN down any of the jigsaw streets on the northernside of Wynyard Square, run down the rock-hewn steps, slip through the twisting lanes behind the bondstores, and you are standing in chapter one of Australia’s history.
The stout chipped stone blocks of the hotels, shops, warehouses, and residential that crowd the foot paths can tell you many tales.
Their mute acceptance of the green trams, the honking lorries, and the overbearing bridge only emphasises their eloquence.
For this is The Rocks – the cradle where the rampageous infant Sydney rocked and yelled, and which it eventually outgrew and deserted.
Most refer to the area – if they know it exists – as Miller’s Point. But for the folk who live there it is still The Rocks. One hundred and fifty years have written their passing on the stones.
To-day the hub of The Rocks is the Hero of Waterloo.
One hundred and thirty-two years ago Wellington trounced Napoleonon the field of Waterloo, and when the glorious news filtered out to the Antipodes, the hostelry at the corner of Windmill Street and Lower Fort Street, Sydney Town, was renamed for the victorious – Duke. It had been called The Little Princess up till that time.
Yes, the Hero is still there, and it is still a pub. Its stones calmly face the junction through which much of the life of this continent has flowed. And the beer behind the thick fortress walls slakes the thirst of men who talk of Montgomery, and battles won.
You should make this pilgrimage yourself, but come down The Rocks with me. We’ll talk to proprietor Claude Parker, have a look around the Hero, chat to some of the regulars, listen to the never-ending vaudeville in the bar, and, if you care to, down a schooner ‘ or two.
THE three-storied Hero stands solemn and quiet astride the rising hill, under the afternoon sun. From the front door, right on the corner, you look down Lower Fort Street to the harbour. Windmill Street runs down to the left, and directly opposite, Ferry Lane drops straight to the old clipper berths.
Governor Macquarie proclaimed these streets in 1810.
On the opposite corner to the Hero stands a brownstone grocery store. It used to be the Whalers’ Arms, an inn as well known in its day as the Hero. Only a verandah has been added to the original building.
Down Windmill Street, just before you come to Bill Webb’s grocery, is the site of the still-remembered Hit and Miss Hotel. It was pulled down about 30 years ago.
If the Red Coats of the 50th Queen’s Own Regiment were to comeback for a glass of bitter they might visit the inns that tempted them, from their Fort Street barracks. The breakfast food and the tinned beans in the Whalers’ Arms would bewilder them; they would search in vain for the sawdust floor of the Hit and Miss, but the Hero’s door would be open to them, and the deep-carved initials in the cellars would know them.
There is one hotel in Australia older than the Hero, it is the Bush Inn, at New Norfolk, Tasmania. The Greengate Hotel at Killara is about the same age as the Hero.
But both the Bush Inn and the Greengate are victims of modernity. A bar of the Bush Inn has been left primitive to catch the tourists’ eyes. The Greengate – once Ye Greengate Inn-is now a North Shore showpiece of brick, glass, and concrete.
ONLY the Hero stands structurally untouched. A zealous city administration has insisted on a few feet of the hideous glazed tiles which identify the Sydney pub, but the great convict hewn stones carry these with dignity.
No saloon bars, lounges, bottle departments have been added. There is one bar for all, and it runs the length of the hotel. Some new floorboards have replaced the boot-scarred cedar, some paint and touches of varnish catch the eye, the beer now leaps to the tap under pressure – only these, and a shiny electric kettle, are new.
“I’m half Cockney and half Irish, an’ I’m proud of it,” George Wiseman tells the bar with an embracing flourish. The men from the ships, the warehouses, and the factories look up and nod encouragingly. George tells us of the years he spent in vaudeville, in travelling “tent shows, of the famous names he “knew when.” With gravel voice, he sings:
I am but a poor blind boy,
Still my heart is full of joy, Tho’ I never see the light,
Still my heart is full and bright. a tear-jerker that “knocked ’em in the
Old Kent Road.”
“That was a day or two ago,” George muses. He is 67 now, wrinkled, serene, and full of human friendliness. He could never fight, he adds, but could make himself a bit of a nuisance.
I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty…
George is at if again, and a retired miner from Durham, and later of Cessnock, joins in with a firm tenor.
Sometimes there are more nationalities in the bar of the Hero than in the Security Council of UNO. From Scandinavia to the Solomons, the sea-men call at the Hero on their way through from the Darling Harbour wharves.
There has been many, a brawl, and many a head broken, in the hotels of The Rocks, but quieter days have arrived. There is still the chance that a bunch of seamen from another shore will try the patient humour of The Rocks folk… then it’s time to go.
For they are clannish down on TheRocks. They insult each other with abandon, returning insult for insult; they threaten dire action with blood-thirsty anticipation – but it’s all in fun. Don’t take them seriously, don’t join in unless you’re asked, and don’t offer to buy drinks all round. Remember these rules, and you will enjoy an hour in the Hero.
The drinkers are not as rowdy, nor as rude, as the crowd in the average city pub. Every man knows something of the history of the place, and is proud of it.
They are no slum-dwellers. Recall the days when Princess Street and other streets were demolished to make way for the southern bridge approach, remember the fierce opposition to destruction of homes that had been “in the family” for a hundred years, and you will know that these people are proud to belong to The Rocks.
They stick together. They often marry the girl next door. Cases of inter-marriage in three generations of the same families in the same street are known.
J. (“Bill”) Webb has sold his groceries in Windmill Street for 26 years. He keeps a friendly eye on the eddies of life on The Rocks, and will yarn across the counter with city folk about the earlier days. He has dug deep into the local legends.
Bligh House, now a Fort Street residential, is “the morgue” to Bill. He knows the pieces of The Rocks that tell of Bligh, Macquarie, and Phillip.
THE exact date of the building of the Hero I can’t discover. But Waterloo was fought in 1815, and the pub was called The Little Princess before that. I know that the licence has been running continuously for 130 years. The Maritime-Services Board owns the property now. It passed with much other land into the board’s hands after the resumption of the area in 1900. Claude Parker has only been mine host for 15 months, but he takes a keen interest in his charge.
In the cellars, cut into the living rock, Claude will show you what he calls the solitary confinement cell. It is in a corner of a corridor. It would be impossible for a prisoner to lie down in it, and with the door closed it would be as black as night. Food was apparently pushed through an aperture in the battlement wall.
Governor Bligh’s secretary is supposed to have resided in the cellar apartment. The main room has a stone wash tub in one corner, and a stone fireplace and mantelshelf opposite.
The rooms carry the original cedar doors, with huge lever latches.
Claude thinks the building might have been a minor fort even before it became The Little Princess.
Upstairs there is something that’s really worth saving: A huge parlour in the English county style, packed with the furniture of generations.
The interior walls upstairs are at least 18 inches thick; the stairs are narrow, and steep.
Stone guttering and drains function perfectly.
STANDING in the Hero’s doorway we can see right up Windmill Street to where John Leighton’s windmill used to stand.
Jack the Miller’s mill drew power from flat windmill to grind the wheat from the opening hinterland. His mill has long since gone, but his name remains in Miller’s Point. He died in 1826.
And you can almost hear the tramping of the convict gangs on their way to hew out the Argyle Cut for the carriages of the new gentry.
– The Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 9 August 1947