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.

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.”

Emu Inn, Chippindale C1910

Emu Inn, Chippindale C1910

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 sign.


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

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 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 whitepeacock 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.


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 thecolony — 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.

 – Freeman’s Journal (Sydney) Thursday 3 April 1919.


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