TODAY they are more commonly known as yardmen, or roustabouts, usually blokes employed by a hotel to do odd-jobs. Tasks like hosing down the front of the pub in the mornings, gardening, cleaning, and repair jobs in exchange for bed and board, and, in many cases, a cash-in-hand payment. They collect glasses, sometimes jump behind the bar to pull a beer or two, and are essential in a well-oiled pub.
In Australia they were first referred to as ‘boots’, a term brought from Mother Britain. The word came from, ‘boot boys’, an occupation in the 1830s and 40s requiring young men to clean the boots of hotel guests. Guests would leave their boots outside their room door for the ‘boot boy’ to clean, ready for the next day.
Gradually the duty of the boot boys’ increased, and as their tasks became more complicated, and as a consequence, their age increased. By the 1850s, the occupation had become simply known as ‘boots’, and their duties included odd-jobs around the hotel.
The earliest reference I can find to an advertised job as “Hotel Boots” is in September 1853 in Hobart. The publican of the Ship Inn, Mr Anson, advertised for a “boots” for his Hobart pub. There are many references to ‘boots’ in the newspapers of last century.
The Sydney Truth reported on Sunday December 27 1903:
A boy 17 years of age, named Oscar Owen, employed as ‘boots’ at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, Brunswick, walked in his sleep last night and fell through a window 30 feet on to the asphalt floor at the bottom of a narrow passage, three feet wide, between two sections of the building. He escaped with a few bruises.
The importance of the hotel boots was demonstrated in the South Australian newspaper, Port Pirie Recorder on July 17 1924:
As a result of negotiations between Pirie hotel employees and their employers in respect of an application for increased wages, both parties have come to an amicable agreement where by barmen have been granted 5 shillings a week increase, and boots, 10 shillings. Previously Pirie barmen were receiving £4 5 shillings a week with meals on the premises. Hotel boots, who were receiving £2 5 shillings a week, are now earning £2 15 shillings with a half-holiday every week. The variation only applies to Pirie hotel employees.
The Port Macquarie News revealed one of the unpleasant tasks of the hotel boots in this first hand description on January 22 1927:
‘SEVEN O’CLOCK, SIR!’
BY AN HOTEL ‘BOOTS’
If a man could invent an infallible and simple device for getting people out of bed at a fixed hour, he would make his fortune out of it. In addition, I should lose one of my most troublesome tasks; that is, waking up hotel guests who have left word overnight as to the hour they want to be roused in the morning. I like the sort of gentleman who, in response to my rap at the door and ‘Seven o’clock, sir !’ yells out ‘Righto !’ and forth with proceeds to get up. Too many of the people I have to deal with are heavy sleepers, who hate to be awakened, but who make a terrible row if I fail to do my duty properly and see that they do not oversleep. Strangely enough, one of my worst trials was a man who was travelling in alarm clocks. To hear him talk about his goods, as he was constantly doing, one would think that they were capable of rousing the seven sleepers. They were quite useless in his case, although be made endless experiments with them. He has had five of his clocks all ticking away in his room at night and set for the same time. Even their combined din made no impression on him in the morning, and he was forced to depend on me to get him awake. The job never took me less than ten minutes. A very close rival of his, who was a frequent visitor at the hotel, lost so many business opportunities through oversleeping that he made a habit of promising me a tip and giving me a free hand provided I got him out of bed at the proper time in the morning. Yet, in the mornings when I enter-ed his bedroom, determined to get him out, he would beg and pray of me to let him stay in bed and carry on with his slumbers. If he was obstinate, my last resort was a wet sponge or to pull the blankets off the bed. He often got into a tearing rage, but invariably apologised afterwards and produced the promised tip. It is not often that I allow my-self the luxury of a joke against a guest but I worked one off once, on a man against whom I had a grievance. Soon after I came here, I knocked on his door one morning, as instructed, and got an answer from him. He must have gone to sleep again for on re-awakening he had quite forgotten my call. Several times after that I had difficulty in calling him and on each occasion he reported me to the manager. I got annoyed and decided that, on the next occasion, I would make sure of rousing him. My chance came at length and instead of knocking in the usual way, I put my head into the room and said: “Will you get up at once, sir? There’s a fire!” He leapt out of bed at once and asked in a dismayed voice “Is there any danger?” “Not the slightest, sir,” I answer-ed gravely. “The cook has it under complete control. It’s in the kitchen range.” He was rather wild at first, but calmed down in the end and had a good laugh at the success of my new method of rousing him. One of our guests who was extremely difficult to rouse in the mornings, was always complaining bitterly about his sufferings from insomnia. In fact, it was the only topic on which he could talk to his fellow travellers in the hotel. He accounted for his oversleeping by saying that it was only about six o’clock that he could get off to sleep. His parrot cry was that he had heard the clock on the landing out-side his room strike every hour up to that, time. In time, his acquaintances on the road became tired of his continual complaints and they used to stop the clock after he had gone to bed. This made not the slightest difference to him, for he still swore that he heard it strike each hour, unconscious of the trick, much to the amusement of the conspirators. Then, one morning when I went in to give him a shake, I was amazed to see a moustache burnt-corked on to his face. Two of the ‘lads’ had stolen into his room half-an-hour after he had, gone to bed and, finding him fast asleep, had decorated him without in the least disturbing his slumbers. After that he never made any further complaints at insomnia.
The hotel boots was – and continues to be in many instances – colourful characters who add a little amusement in the daily tasks involved in running a pub. The following story was revealed by “Greek Fire” of Morphet Vale, South Australia in the publication, Sport on August 8 1929:
LARRY’S BILL O’ FARE
Old Liza-Clancy, the fat, good-natured cook at the Setting Sun Hotel, was always moaning about her hard luck. If anyone teased or “kidded” her, she rose to the bait like a trout. One sunny morn Larry, the hotel “boots”, floundered into the kitchen to hear the old ”babblin’ brook” growling at her crook luck. ”Pwhat in the devil’s wrong this time?” mumbled Larry. “Oh” she moaned, “the waitress do be putting wild duck on the bill of fare. The poultry man ain’t brouqht ’em and there’s only one tame, tough old mother-duck in the yard. What’ll I do, Larry? Och, ’tis a judgment on me!” Wild duck you’re afthur wantin’, is it?” cried Larry. “Why Liza, bring the tough old mother-duck in the kitchen and be afthur moanin’ over her I guarantee the ould duck will be a wild duck in five minutes!” Liza crowned Larry with the rolling pin. He’ll carry the scar to his grave.
As the pages of time turned, the age of Boots continued to climb. The job description of Boots continued for decades, and was still commonly used through the 1950s, and into the 1960s. By the 1970s the job description of Boots had been in the main replaced with yardmen or roustabouts. They were seldom young men, and, usually were retired or middle-aged men ‘between jobs’.