OFTEN A thankless job, involving mundane tasks, yardmen were – and still are in many bush and regional pubs – an indispensable cog in the works of a successfully operating hotel.
Usually knock-about blokes employed to do odd-jobs around the pub, and sometimes known as roustabouts, their duties varied considerably. Chores like hosing down the front of the pub in the mornings before opening, gardening, cleaning, and repair jobs were often done by the yardman in exchange for bed and board, and, in many cases, a cash-in-hand wage.
Not as common as they once were, yardmen were – and in many instances, still are – an essential part of a well oiled pub. They perform a variety of jobs, like returning empty glasses, tapping kegs, general cleaning, jumping behind the bar when needed, and in the days of smoking in the bar, constantly emptying ash-trays. They were ‘jacks of all trades’.
In Australia they were first referred to as ‘boots’, a term brought from Mother England. 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 responsibilities 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 most 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. From this year 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 entered 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 myself 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 answered 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.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported the following account of a yardman, who worked in a Western Australian pub, on Saturday, December 11, 1954:
How A Novelist-poet, Turned Yardman, Saw Drinking In The West
By SEAFORTH MACKENZIE
WHEN I was in Western Australia, seeing out the wet and fruitful winter of 1954, I worked for a while as yardman at one of the two pubs in my home village.
HOTELS in Western Australia close, technically and actually, at 9pm. Now that 10pm closing is to be introduced in New South Wales, my observations in the West might have some interest here.
A yardman, most of whose time is spent in strenuous sobriety well behind the front-bar fighting lines, has as good a chance as any to see just what goes on, just how this after-dinner closing time does work, supposing it works at all.
Well, it does. It works, I thought, like a charm, as we in New South Wales are now going to have a chance to realise.
In the West all closed bars south of, say, Geraldton and west of a vertical line drawn down from about Northam open with a cool and hollow sigh at 9am sharp, and close no less sharply but with a sigh, less hollow than wearily content, at 9.20pm.
By 11 o’clock at latest the boss has gone over and locked away the day’s tills, the barmen (often referred to amiably and in rudely off-colour pun as “bloody bar stewards”) have washed counters, glasses, towels and driven away in their late-model cars; and the yardman has yet again failed to get ahead of himself on tomorrow’s rush-hour shift: the period of inexorable pressure between five and nine o’clock in the morning – between lighting the hot-water boiler, and laying down the last beaten but indomitable door-mat facing Main Street.
THESE things, and a mere 12 hours’ uninterrupted trading, make a pretty general pattern of what goes on on the profitable side of most W.A. hotel bars.
On the losing side there was a vague pattern, too, and it’s this that is soon to interest our town and country communities in New South Wales: to interest and, I believe, to prove how sensible has been the outcome of the recent “likkerendum,” as a friend dubbed it.
Perhaps the pattern will emerge best from simply stated facts as any wide-awake yardman could see them.
My bar was often crowded especially on Sundays at and after noon. Most of the crowd were strangers, of two sorts: tourist-bus travellers or visiting sportsmen, footballers (in winter) and more particularly darts players.
Few hotels in the cities and the bush are without their darts boards at either end of the public bar, and the game, with its accent on individual skill and luck, ranks second in passionate pursuers only to horse-racing, of which, because-of the two-hour time-lag between here and the West, interested followers get double measure, thanks to the wireless.
Over there, the keen punter’s day begins at 10am and doesn’t end until after 5pm. Race days and bus days are busy days for all, on both sides of the bar counter.
BUT more often the place was half-empty or empty quite. My two barmen read me out of everything readable I had in no time; their bar was immaculate above floor-level; they gazed through the windows at the main street of a village which is the centre of a very populous and large district whose people know when they want a drink, and when they don’t; or rather, where they know they can get a drink, if they like, when the whole day, and dinner and the washing-up and putting the kids to bed with a story, are all over and done with.
In particular, I think people here will like to know that from about six till half-past seven in weekday evenings there was seldom anyone but thirsty travellers to be seen in the bar or the lounge.
At half-past five the drift homeward begins; at eight o’clock “the boys” drift back, some nights but not others, for slow beers and quick scores on the boards under the swan-neck electric lights.
This time they probably bring mum and other ladies of the family with them, and these foregather round the lounge-room fire in winter, or in the inevitable beer-garden when the weather turns warm, then hot, then scorching as summer builds up to its February climax.
In summer, too, sometimes the older kids come along as well, to play in the crowded garden or drink lemonade at the bright tables under the bright umbrellas in the soft light falling on the buffalo-grass lawn. All this is the daily pattern of late closing.
The proposed 6.30-7.30pm closed period will, I feel sure, be as unnecessary in NSW as it is over there, once people – particularly, of course, city people, who are in effect the only really frantic drinkers in New South Wales -realise that it need not be a provocation, and is quite unnecessary.
THE only drunkenness I saw worth giving a second look was in men who were notably not hotel-bar drinkers – who went into the bars primarily because their hoarded and secret bottles couldn’t talk back to them.
Lonely men, poor perhaps, and unable to afford repeated “shouting” but urgent for the company their own habits denied them more and more; for in a community which can drink in comparative liberty and peace during its whole waking day the drunk is no popular figure, not even when he’s funny.
It follows that there were few, if any, hangovers to “cure” (I would say “rebuild”) the morning after, but rather a quite noticeable air of matutinal health and well-being which, I’m ready to bet, we shall see here within another year, provided our some-what wowserish lawgivers in high places don’t find a way of profitable recantation of their kind permission to you and me to drink more sanely in 1955.
Even if you did stay in the pub between six and eight in the evening, for reasons of your own, there were shops still open where you could get a solid meal between drinks.
This, too, is going to be an agreeable eye-opener in Sydney; and food, of course, is the arch-enemy of inebriation.
My little township was a cheerful place in the winter nights; one or two local constables, too, off duty after their day’s work, enjoyed themselves as much as anyone.
THAT earlier mention of Sunday, repetition of which I have saved until last, deserves enlargement.
In the concrete footwalk in Barrack Street, Perth, a few yards on the river side of the Town Hall, is a brass plate which tells of the felling of a tree at about that spot to mark the founding of the Swan River Settlement in 1829.
As the law now stands, any hotel in the State distant 20 miles or more from that commemorative plate must open on Sunday between the hours of 12 noon and 1pm, and between 5 and 6 in the afternoon.
No bottles may be sold to the public, and if the licensee were caught trying to take a single bottle of beer off the premises he (or she) would lose the licence.
Bartenders, however (and I’ve never grasped the apparent anomaly here, except that these men and women, wherever they live, are counted as resident staff) can openly take out on a Sunday as many dozen bottles as they can afford, load them into their inevitable cars, and drive away after 6 to none knows what destination.
Needless to say, this is seldom done; if it is, the destination is usually “home and mother.”
These hours were no visitors’ book opening time. All were admitted, even those natives who have citizen rights and their wives.
The two hours, widely separated, passed very quickly, I admit, although because Sunday was an ordinary working-day for me, I had little chance to use them myself, except for observation.
A SECOND anomaly, and a third, emerge: the licensee or his or her spouse is required to be on the premises, so that in W.A. your publican gets little chance of taking his wife out, any day of the seven; and, should he or any other citizen be able to make a dash to Perth for a change of scene and diet, he doesn’t get a drink to improve it. Perth pubs on Sundays are as forbidding as Sydney’s.
But if you will consider the overall picture, you will agree that N.S.W. wives, mothers and children, whose menfolk like their one or two drinks a day, are almost certainly in for a happier life if all goes as I think it must.
Because, I almost believe, those couple of drinks will stay that way, and not get together in the haste of a too-early “Time-Gents Please” and breed (by the process of the cube root) drunkenness, illness, misery, poverty, divorce, murder and even death.
So mote it be!
As the pages of time turned, the age of Boots continued to climb. The job description ‘Boots’ continued for decades, and was still commonly used through the 1950s, and into the 1960s. By the 1970s though the job description had been in the main replaced with ‘yardmen’ or ‘roustabouts’. By this time they were rarely young men, and usually were retired or middle-aged blokes ‘between employment’, paid to do odd-jobs around the pub.
Do you know a pub yardman like Kevin “Vinny” Vincent from the Cooktown Hotel in far north Queensland? We interviewed Vinny back in 2019. You can read about him at Time Gents HERE. We’d love to hear about about your yardman. Scroll down to the comments section.
Subscribe for the latest Time Gents stories
PAYPAL BAR TIP
If you would like to support my work, you can leave a small tip here of $2, or several small tips, just increase the amount as you like. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs.
OR DONATE BY DEBIT OR CREDIT CARD
Don’t have PayPal? Instead, you can support my work by leaving a $2 debit or credit card donation here, or you can increase the amount after clicking or tapping into the icon below. Your generous patronage of my work and research, however small it appears to you, will greatly help me with my continuing costs and research.