The Sydney Inn of Long Ago: When Quaint Signs Creaked Over the Doorways

The Black Horse Inn, Richmond, showing the swinging sign in the 1860s.
The Black Horse Inn, Richmond, showing the swinging sign in the 1860s. Picture: Supplied.

Whoe’er has travelled life’s dull round,

‘Where’er his stages may have been,

May sigh to think he still has found

The warmest welcome at an Inn.”

SHORTLY after white settlement, Sydney had an assortment of public houses with quaint names and hanging sign boards.

Most early Australian inns exhibited illustrated signs, indicative of their title. There was the Black Boy in George-street, the Brown Bear at the corner of Essex-street, the Horse and Jockey at Hunter and O’Connell streets; and nearby, the Currency Lass. There was also the Whalers’ Arms, Anchor’s Weighed, the Crooked Billet, and The Land We Live In – most, like their English counterparts, displaying signs with pictures attached to outside poles, or hanging on a brackets from outside walls.

The following are stories from newspapers published in the first half of last century, giving a description, and attempting to give an explanation of the origins of many of the pubs signs.

The following story, published in the Freeman’s Journal on April 3, 1919, describes the old pub signs of Sydney.

Emu Inn, Outram & Regent Sts, Chippendale, 1913. The pub’s ‘sign’ looks as though it has been removed by the time this photograph was taken. Picture: City of Sydney

THE world over the Inn has played a prominent part in history and romance, and writers have seldom failed to introduce in their stories and descriptions. Goldsmith and his brilliant coterie foregathered at St. James’ Coffee House. Dickens made famous many Inns, and Tennyson sang of the Cock and its plump head waiter. In fact, prose writers and poets alike have made reference, nearly always laudatory, to the Inns of their choice.

Sydney in the early days had many houses of call, some with quaint names and almost all exhibiting a sign indicative of the title, which gave a picturesque effect and served the purpose of advertisement. Most of these old houses have been swept away by the inroads of change, and the swinging sign has passed into oblivion.

The names chosen now are mostly commonplace, and signify merely location – Railway, Town Hall, Central, etc., taking the place of the old-time inviting titles.

One of the early Inns of Sydney town was the Black Boy, in George-street. The Brown Bear was at the corner of Essex-street, now occupied by buildings erected by the Government in 1908. The Star, near Barrack-street corner, was absorbed by David Jones’ drapery establishment. The Horse and Jockey was at Hunter and O’Connell streets; and nearby the Currency Lass, on the site of the present Empire.

Round the waterfront nautical names naturally predominated— the Whalers’ Arms, Ship, Lord Nelson, Anchor’s Weighed, etc., being in evidence. In the vicinity of the Queen’s Wharf was the curiously named Crooked Billet, and also The Land We Live In. Opposite the Fish Markets in George-street stood the Bull and Mouth; and at Market street corner the Crown and Anchor. The Swan with Two Necks, at Park street corner, was for many years the meeting place of the Industrial Workers, now the Labor party. The origin of this name is not clear, but one landlord averred that it was a good one, as a a bird with two necks would of course swallow more than the ordinary swan with one. Behind the markets in York-street was the Flowerpot, which, with its neighbor, the Gardeners’ Arms, has long since given way to sober stores and warehouses. At Bathurst-street, where the Bank now is, was the Emu, a noted house. Another Emu reared its head in Regent street. But there was not, strange to say, a Kangaroo Inn. At least, I cannot remember such a sign.

Bath Arms, Parramatta Road, Burwood. Note the sign.
Bath Arms, Parramatta Road, Burwood. Note the ‘Bath Arms sign sitting atop a post to the extreme right of the image. Picture: Supplied.


Pitt-street was not in such favour with Innkeepers, but there were some well-frequented houses there — the Currency Lass, already referred to, and higher up the Liverpool Arms and Punch’s, the resort of rowing men; while in the vicinity of the old Victoria Theatre was, the Shakespeare. One of the old-time houses in King street was the Rainbow, and later came the Metropolitan, presided over for many years by the journalist, Frank Hutchinson. The site is now occupied by the ‘skyscraper’ building of the ‘Daily Telegraph.’

In Phillip street was the Dewdrop, a pretty name, more often facetiously pronounced Do-Drop-Inn, an invitation irresistible to many citizens. In Castlereagh-street, at Hunter-street corner, was Bowden’s Club House Hotel, with its Norfolk pine tree, round which the verandah was built; and along, nearer King-street, was the Inn of which Richmond Thatcher, a well-known pressman, was for years the proprietor. It was the favorite house of actors, journalists and ‘men about town.’

Later on it passed into the hands of Gus Wangenheim, a clever caricaturist, who made hundreds of sketches on the walls of the parlor of all the notabilities of the town.


The Haymarket portion of Sydney had a vast number of Inns, all of them with gaudily painted signs. Among the best known were the Black Swan, kept by a well-known racing men, Thomas Ivory; the Dog and Duck, Harvest Home, Park House, Steam Engine, Wheatsheaf and Square and Compass. With the exception of the latter, they have all disappeared. A fine old ‘Macquarie’ style building was the Woolpack, at the corner of George, and Campbell streets. It was built below the street level, and approached by some stone steps. An iron railing in front remained until the building was demolished in the early ‘eighties. Not far away, on the site of one of Sydney’s first gallows, was the Yorkshire Stingo; and when Mark Foy’s emporium as now was the Willow Tree.

The Hen and Chickens was in Goulburn-street; and opposite the old Devenshire-street cemetery, in Elizabeth-street, was the Rising Sun, the name of whose landlord was appropriately enough, Will Shine.

In Darling Harbor area some Scotsman had named his house the Robert Burns, and close by as admirer of Goldsmith had called his the Vicar of Wakefield. In Redfern, close to the beautiful Albert Ground, was the Cricketers’ Arms, and later on came the Australian Eleven. The Albert Ground was the scene of all the principal cricket matches, and I can remember W. G. Grace making his appearance there. After the match was over it was the practice to have single wicket games to fill in the time. One cannot realise such a “backyard” performance now, but there were many on this almost perfect Albert Ground. After one English match there I can recollect Spofforth, our Demon Bowler, and Scotton, one of the English team, running one hundred yards for a trophy – the Englishman, I think, winning. The ground was also used for carnivals, and the first Roman chariot race I ever saw took place there. Pony races were also held. One pony, I remember, rejoiced in the name of Plum Duff. Walking matches were popular then, and Topley was the champion of the time. It is a great pity such a pretty enclosure as the old Albert Ground was not preserved.


The Plough Inn, Liverpool Road, Ashfield
The Plough Inn, Liverpool Road, Ashfield. It seems the pub’s sign had disappeared by the time this photograph was taken. Picture: Supplied.

The Boundary Stone Inn was at Bourke and Cleveland streets. In front of this house was one of the last of the stones set up to mark the city’s boundaries.

The Pine Apple was in Foveaux-street, near Moore Park. I remember a curious incident in connection with this Inn. Driving in from Waverley one morning with my father, he saw a sign writer putting the finishing touches to a name on the wall. On the pavement, watching him at his work, was a fine-looking John Bull type of man. The name, strange to say, both Christian and surname, was that of my father. He spoke to the Englishman, and found he was a recent arrival from Devonshire and had just taken the Pine Apple. My father, an Irishman, was for many years the only one of his name in the Sydney  Directory; now this distinction would be shared with this sturdy farmer from Devon.

Parramatta-street, now George-street West, had a number of Inns, in the early days the Spinning Wheel and later the Turon, Huntsman’s Arms and Fountain stood there. Along the road at Camperdown were the Governor Bourke and Honest Irishman; and, on the corner of the road to Balmain, the Bald-Faced Stag. At Ashfield, Speed the Plough, afterwards the Plough; and, near the Auburn of to-day, the Cherry Gardens, Cheshire Cheese; and, further on, the Cottage in the Grove. On Shepherd’s Paddock, now Chippendale, were the Royal Oak, White Swan, Lalla Rookhand, Q.C.E., all of which are still inexistence, the meaning of the latter sign has always been a matter of discussion. One proprietor — he did not quote Shakespeare in “Shall I not take mine ease at mine Inn” – stoutly averred, and perhaps with some reason, that the letters stood for Quality, Comfort and Ease, three desirabilities always to be found at his house.


The sign on the Cauliflower Hotel, Waterloo. Picture: Mick Roberts.

The Cauliflower, on the Botany-road, is still to be seen, the only Inn about Sydney which keeps its old sign. Not a swinging one, certainly, but painted on its wall, a representation of a cauliflower, flanked by a spade and hoe. Close by was the Cottage of Content.

Botany, of course, had, and still has, its Captain Cook and Sir Joseph Banks. The latter was a favorite resort, and in the hands of Messrs. Beaumont and Waller was made attractive by the addition of a small zoo in its grounds. As a very small boy I saw there for the first time a white peacock with a magnificent tail. The impression this beautiful bird made on me was so great that I always remember Sir Joseph Banks, though half a century has passed; by this association. On the Newtown-road was an Inn which had a conspicuous sign of an enormous man — Daniel Lambert. The picture of the fat man, as we called him, was always a source of wonder and amusement to me when I passed along the road. At Waverley Tea Gardens’, now Bondi Junction, was another curiously named Inn, the Simon Pure. Rushcutters Bay had the Old White Conduit House; and on the North Shore, near Milson’s Point, was the Lily of St. Leonards, with a picture of an aboriginal girl with two beautiful white lilies — a sign which was humorous and no doubt effective, was much as it always caused comment.


Coach and Horses, Randwick, showing the swinging sign above the hotel’s lamp, 1860s. Picture: Randwick City Library.

Randwick’s leading hotel in the early’ seventies was the Coach and Horses, with its fine sign of a coach-and-four. It kept up the old tradition of a sanded floor, and its patrons were supplied with paper spills instead of matches. An early proprietor had formed a bowling green — one of the first in the colony — which later on degenerated into a quoit pitch. Parramatta had its Red Cow, White Horse and Woolpack; and on the Western-road at Prospect was a wayside Inn called the Fox under the Hill, where I once put up for a night. The old building still stands, but is not now an Inn. At Berrima the name of Sir Thomas Mitchell was kept in memory by an Inn, the Surveyor-General.

Richmond still has its old-fashioned Black Horse – and its visitors’ book, a most interesting study nowadays, records the names of a great number of well-known people who honeymooned at this favorite hostelry. Across the river at Enfield was the Governor Macquarie, which at one time boasted possession of a fine oil painting of our most enterprising and energetic Governors. Undoubtedly there has been a wonderful change in the Inns of our State since these houses flourished, but one cannot help feeling regret at the passing of the old Inns, with their quaint names and picturesque signs. While some of these signs were crude, the majority of them were painted by men of artistic training; and when we recall the career of the great Herring, whose entry into prominence was by his painting of Coach and Inn signs, we can readily imagine that to the Sydney artist of the early days the Inn sign was the opening of a gate of remuneration at least, if not the portal of fame.

– A.L.D.

Inn signs

inn sign tasmania

TASMANIA boasted some curious old inn-signs in the early days. Usually these were in the tradition of English inn-keepers, but varied according to the type of patron, where there were sailors and whalers, garrison soldiers, new settlers and men of adventurous occupation.

One signboard outside a hotel in Launceston, called the “Help Me Through the World,” had on one side, a picture of a man’s head apparently coming through the world. On the other side was another picture of the world, showing the heels and hind parts of the man, and the words, “Help Me Through the World” beneath. Another Launceston Hotel was “The Babes in the Wood!” the sign of which was a picture of robins dropping leaves on the sleeping babes. This picture had its amusing side, as the bird undertakers were depicted nearly as large as the children they were covering.

In Hobart, the old “Cat and Fiddle” inn had a picture of a cat playing the fiddle with a bow the size of a thin pole; and the “Lord Rodney Inn” carried over its front a large wooden sign in outline, the gallant admiral in cocked hat and knee’ breeches, brandishing a large sword, urging on his invisible army. Other interesting signs were “The Whalers’ Return,” “The Cross Keys,” “The Lamb and Flag,” “The Good Woman,” “The Salmon and Ball,” “The Bird in Hand,” “The Hope and Anchor,” and “The Labour in Vain,” the last named showing a white woman trying to scrub a black child white.

— Derwent (Tas).

– World’s News (Sydney), Saturday 18 October 1947.

Old Sydney Signboards

Governor Macquarie was the first to insist on distinctive names and signs on the inns in and around Sydney. On a lamp in front of the Hit or Miss was the picture of a sportsman in the act of firing at a bird, his dog at his heels, all attention.

Old Sydneyites will remember numbers of these curious signs, many of which have only recently disappeared. Most of them went out with the windmills.

There was the bald-faced Stag, kept by Abraham Hearne, on the Parramatta road, Petersham, with an immense signboard swinging in a frame over the pathway, on which was painted a stag’s face with a white blaze; and the Labor in Vain in Harrington-street, which had a picture of a black child in a tub of water, with a white man trying to scrub him white.

At the corner of Elizabeth street and Hunter street, stood the Sir Maurice O’Connell, with the sign swinging gaily in the breeze, the general mounted on his grey charger, and in full uniform. Peter Hanslow, in George street Haymarket, had the Dog and Duck, the sign being a sportsman shooting at the flying duck, while the dog was waiting to take his share in the business.

At Milson’s Point was the old white cottage, known as the Lily of St. Leonards, the “lily” being an aboriginal woman. Then there were Crowns, Red Lions, Blue Dragons, Spread Eagles, Bunches of Grapes, Apple Trees, Cherry Trees, Royal Oaks, and The Crown and Anchor, each with its oil-painted signs, all of which have disappeared to make way for public houses of the London gin palace type, where the landlords are under the impression that their customers fill better standing, as no seats are provided, how ever weary the traveller may be.


– Gympie Times (Qld.), Saturday 15 November 1902.


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Categories: NSW hotels, Sydney hotels

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6 replies

  1. The Crooked Billet was owned or leased by Alfred SHORT around 1862 or 1863, he let it to Henry John Hicking (my great great grandfather upon his marriage to Emma Short in 1866.
    I believe the original building is still there. Must make time to wander down there to have a look one day.

    • Thanks Wayne. What is the address?

    • Hi, I’ve a little more information on The Crooked Billet. The licensee was a Vernon Puzey from 1837 until his insolvency in September, 1843 and it passed to his trustee, William Long in August, 1844. One newspaper records the address as on the corner of Queen’s Place and George Streets but I’m not sure where Queen’s Place was/is? Interested to know if anyone else has the address or images. Three Puzey infants died there between 1840 and 1843.

  2. Hello – any info about James Larra’s ‘Freemasons Arms’ at Parramatta, which had a large sign, or the ‘Keep Within Compass’ in George St Sydney? Cheers, Bob

  3. Very interested to discover the history of the building on the corner of the current Princes Highway and English Street Carlton Sydney. The building housed the earliest of Inns South of Sydney!

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