Scandal and intrigue at The Empire

The Empire Hotel, built to replace the Currency Lass in 1887.

The Empire Hotel, built to replace the Currency Lass in 1887.


A ROYAL romance with a murder conspiracy theory, a celebrity scandal, mysterious deaths, and a tragic love story ending in suicide, are the stand-out headlines during the Empire Hotel’s 35 year history.

Rising from the ashes of a Sydney pub, established in colonial Australia and named in honour of native born women, the Empire was vastly different from its predecessor, The Currency Lass.

A six storey grand hotel, the Empire opened on the corner of Pitt and Hunter Street in 1887. Those who waved their fingers at the bar of the Empire calling for ale, were far removed socially from the drinkers who had once crowded the Currency Lass.

The Empire’s drinkers were wealthier, or more middle class; those who could afford the refinery of the nearby Her Majesty’s Theatre, and those who could afford to stay in a hotel with hot running water, rather then the cramped quarters of pubs, or entertained in rowdy oyster saloons.

The Currency Lass was opened by John Sims in December 1843. It closed in 1884 after Sydney Council condemned the building. The Newcastle Morning Herald reported on June 26 1884:

Another hotel in Sydney has been closed, and this is a very old, respectable, and popular one, viz., the Currency Lass, at the corner of Pitt and  Hunter streets, noted for its good drinks and pretty barmaids. It is being condemned  and shut up, and its site will probably be occupied by a bank or some other important commercial institution. 

The Herald was partly right. The Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society secured a lease of the old Currency Lass and adjoining shops. The Evening News reported on December 22 1884: “The society will immediately erect there on handsome and commodious premises to form a continuation of those being now built upon its freehold land adjoining in Pitt-street.”

Interestingly, the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society instead built a grand six storey building on the site, gaining a hotel license for it in July 1887. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on October 20 1887.

The Empire Hotel

empire hotel pitt street sydney 1887During the past six or seven years the City of Sydney has, particularly from a builder’s point of view, very considerably changed. Old shanties have been pulled down, private residences which occupied half of the pavement have been condemned, and here and there a well-known hotel has had to make way for buildings of more modern style. As an instance, look at that very fine structure at the corner of Pitt and Hunter streets, erected upon the site of the old Currency Lass. The Currency Lass 50 years ago was the first hotel the traveller going south from what is now the Circular Quay met with in its earlier days, and on its George-street side was a vacant piece of land, upon which cattle sales were held and an occasional circus show was given; but as the neighbourhood grew the Currency Lass became of more importance; but it could not keep pace with the rapid strides made by advancing enterprise, and consequently had in its turn to give way in order that more commodious and more modern premises could occupy the valuable site. The Empire Hotel is the name given to the now hotel which is now built upon the site; the building is from plans by Mr. Kirkpatrick, a lengthy description of which has already appeared in the Herald. The style of architecture is the Queen Anne, a style which may be seen in other parts of Sydney. The building is particularly adapted for an hotel – the rooms are all lofty and possesses plenty of light, besides a perfect system of ventilation. Upon the basement floor is a well-appointed billiard-room with two of Alcock’s tables. There is also a private billiard room upstairs; the cellar adjoins the billiard-room, and is not by any means the least important apartment in the building. On the ground floor will be seen two bars – the public and private – the latter is a very large and lofty room, and the walls are picked out with some excellent stencil work, with a dado running right round; the furniture and fittings are on an elaborate scale…. The public bar, which is immediately on the corner, is also very neat and comfortable. Here the fittings are also of the best kind, and all to match. Upon the first floor is a spacious dining-room, well furnished and splendidly decorated, off which is a commodious smoking-room, where the daily papers and periodicals can be seen. A public drawing-room with piano, and furnished, in the best style, is also on this floor. On the next floor, which extends over the offices of the Colonial Mutual Insurance Company, are a number of bedrooms. Lavatories and bathrooms are on every floor, both for ladies and gentlemen. There are in all about 60 rooms, 35 of which are bedrooms. The kitchen and scullery are on the top floor, consequently no smells inseparable from kitchens can over annoy the visitor. In this department is to be seen every convenience; the dinners are sent down in lifts to the dining-rooms. In connection with the cuisine is a hot press, where all joints, sauces, and soups can be kept warm. The servants’ rooms are also on the top floor, and on the roof are the laundry and drying space. All baths have hot water supplied from a boiler in the kitchen. Electric bells are on every floor. A lift for the use of lodgers runs the height of the building; besides which a very wide staircase can be used if preferred. Mr. and Mrs. J. Curran have the management of the Empire, which is sufficient guarantee to intending lodgers that they will be made as comfortable as possible during their stay. Yesterday, at the invitation of the manager, several gentlemen sat down to an excellent luncheon, after which they were shown over the building, and one and all  were of the unanimous opinion that the Empire Hotel is second to none in the city, and is likely to secure a good share of public patronage.

The first hosts of the Empire Hotel were Jim and Ellen Curtin. Jim took over the license from A L Park, who had gained it conditionally in July. Park never hosted the Empire, with the Curtins opening the hotel in October 1887.

Jim and Ellen, who married in 1874, hosted the Temora Hotel, 418km south-west of Sydney, from 1880. Jim was 32. In turn they took the license of the Occidental Hotel at Wynyard Square, Sydney in the mid 1880s, before hosting Sydney’s newest grand hotel, the Empire in 1887. The Illustrated Sydney News reported on November 15 1887:

SYDNEY has long suffered under the reproach of thoroughly inadequate hotel accommodation. It is not that she lacks establishments, the style and management of which equal her requirements. She possesses these, but there are by no means enough of them. A stranger from the country, or visitor from oversea, is astonished to find that after he has named a handful of places, he has exhausted the list of notable houses, notwithstanding the fact that our metropolis numbers some eight hundred licensed establishments, presumably for the good housing and convenience of the public.

This well-deserved censure is, however, being gradually removed. Not necessarily from any desire to cancel the reproach referred to, but because of certain assured financial results awaiting speculative enterprise, changes are occurring in our city hotel arrangements. Palatial places, more worthy of the metropolis, are beginning to rear themselves in architectural excellence, and the transitory human element in our midst is beginning to feel much more cared for. Truly, a splendid, departure in every respect is that visible in the Empire Hotel, which was opened on the 15th October, under the admirable care of Mr. James Curtin, recently host of the popular “Occidental”. The new building is situated in the very heart of the chief business part of the city, being built on the site of the noted “Currency Lass,” at the corner of Hunter and Pitt Streets. The old “Currency”, which, before its final demolition, was conducted by Mr. Tighe, served as a historic landmark.

Wile it first-saw the light, it was a proud feature in the architectural vista, and was popularly imagined an imposing hostelry… The old hotel, growing grimier year by year, became more and more of an incongruity in the very centre of this busy hive of industry. Eventually it was condemned, and the Empire Hotel, arising from its ashes (as Byron would say, “there’s that Phoenix, again!”) now lifts a lordly front to all and sundry. And well is the edifice styled, for it is augustly built, as well as augustly named. Its architectural features at once arrest the admiring eye, for although buildings of its novel and admirable character of architecture are to be found in various parts of the city, there is nothing of the kind in close rival proximity. It is singularly adapted for a high-class hotel. The premises contain sixty large and well-ventilated bed-rooms, seven parlours, a public drawing-room, billiard rooms, a splendid dining-room, smoke and commercial rooms, two magnificent bars, and most complete lavatorial and sanitary arrangements. There is a perfect system of hydraulic lifts, and the very excellent plan has been adopted of placing the kitchen and scullery appurtenances on the top floor, so that no insidious baneful smells can offend the factory nerves of happy guests. The attendance and hotel appointments are the best and most modern, and the liquors and commissariat on the finest scale. Lovers of the royal game of billiards can gratify their cue-wielding propensities to their hearts’ content upon three of Alcock’s best billiard tables; and the many thousands of pounds which have been expended, in making the interior details of the hotel run parallel with the public wants, have evidently been invested in a way which vigorously attests a masterful appreciation on the part of Mr. Curtin of the legitimate heeds of his clients.

In the centrality of the position of the establishment, visitors, and especially those fairly unacquainted with the topographical peculiarities of Sydney, will find a distinct advantage. Within sight or bowshot of our steamers and trams, and banks and clubs, the stranger can readily dispense with an itinerary, and move freely about as if “native here, and to the manner born”. This, in itself, is no slight advantage, whilst, to “all sorts and conditions of persons”, the economy in time effected by residing” on the spot” is too manifest to require argument. Obviously, therefore, we are not surprised to hear that, notwithstanding the brief interval which has elapsed since the opening, the list of lodgers is assuming very satisfactory dimensions. Altogether, viewing the place as it stands, in regard to natural position and competent proprietorial supervision, it is impossible to imagine a more satisfactory metropolitan place of call or residence. The spirited proprietor, who has, of course, embarked in a large financial venture, deserves, and will doubtless achieve, every success. As principal of the favourite “Occidental” in Wynyard Square, Mr. Curtin was “weighed in the balance”, and by no means “found wanting”. In his enlarged sphere, controlling, as he does, the destinies of a fine hotel whose numerous advantages are second to none in Sydney, he is certain to repeat and emphasise the satisfactory experience of his past.

empire hotel advert 1904The first real incident to confront the Curtins while hosts was the discovery of a dead body in one of the hotel’s water closets. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday April 2 1888:

About a-quarter past 11 o’clock on Saturday morning a man named Hatton Strathy, 28 years of age, was found dead in a water-closet of the Empire Hotel, Pitt and Hunter streets, by a porter named George Guinn. Dr. Garrett was at once sent for, and on examining the deceased pronounced life extinct. Strathy was last seen alive by a servant at the hotel, named Bridget O’Keefe, at 9am on Saturday. Deceased was supposed to be a single man and an American. The body lies at the Empire Hotel, where an inquest will be held this morning.

The inquest later found that “Hatton de Winton Strathy, 28” died from “asphyxia arising from congestive apoplexy”.

Curtin left the Empire in 1894 after the death of his wife, Ellen and went on to host a number of other Sydney hotels, including the George Hotel, in Market Street, and the Assembly Hotel, Phillip and Hunter streets. Interestingly while Curtin hosted the Assembly Hotel, Australia’s yet-to-be first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, made a speech from its balcony in July 1898. From 1901 Curtin hosted the Cambridge Club Hotel, in Oxford Street, where he also ran a billiard saloon. He gave up hosting pubs in 1909, and became a hotel agent in 1909, before his death at the age of 62 in April 1910.

The Sydney Sportsman reported on April 20 1910:

The remains of a familiar form in Jim Curtin were laid in their last resting place at Waverley on Monday last week. He at one time was proprietor of the Empire Hotel, Pitt and Hunter streets, and later on ran the City Billiard Saloon in George-street, now in the able hands of John J. Walsh, lately of Maitland. Mr. Curtin was a quiet unassuming man, and he won many friends by his always honest and manly principles.

Actress Pattie Brown

Actress Pattie Brown

Meanwhile back at the Empire, caterer and restaurateur, 62-year-old George Baumann had taken over Curtin’s license in 1894. While at the Empire, the hotel has become a favourite with entertainers, actors and actresses who regularly performed at the nearby Her Majesty’s Theatre.

George and his wife Amelia had a wealth of experience in hospitality, having previously hosted restaurants in Brisbane in the early 1880s before relocating their business to Pitt Street Sydney.

They were a colourful family, with their eldest son, William, marrying Parramatta born actress Pattie Brown in 1881. William hosted the Globe Hotel in Queen Street Brisbane in 1886, and he later took over the management of his father’s restaurant in Pitt Street Sydney.

William became better known for his embroilment in one of Australia’s first celebrity scandals. He sued for a divorce from his actress wife, Pattie who had become well-know for her saucy, flirtatious, theatrical roles in comedies or comic opera. William was granted a divorce in 1890 after Pattie allegedly had an affair with another actor, Phil Beck, who later committed suicide on board a ship while sailing from Sydney to London in 1889. William continued managing Baumann’s Café in Pitt Street and died from complications from pneumonia, aged 48, in 1909.

Meanwhile William’s parents, George and Amelia, were hosts at the Empire during another sensation, when rising American actress, Sadie MacDonald died at the hotel under mysterious circumstances after performing at the nearby Her Majesty’s Theatre.

The United States media picked the story up, with the Chicago Tribune hinting that foul play may have been behind her death, reporting on December 1 1896 that a sensation in British aristocracy had been averted by her “untimely death”. The Tribune revealed that The Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper had become “enamoured of the frolicsome soubrette in Melbourne, and the announcement of their engagement had been made in club and theatrical circles”.

Color was given to the story, according to rumor, by the fact that the Earl had presented Miss MacDonald with diamond ornaments aggregating in value £30,000. The Earl has for some time been in Melbourne serving temporary as aide-de-camp to Lord Brassey, the naval authority.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper had become “enamoured of the frolicsome soubrette

The Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper had become “enamoured of the frolicsome soubrette”.

The Shaftesbury Earldom was created in 1672, and is consequently one of the oldest, as it is one of the most wealthy and influential, in the ranks of English peerage. The present Earl, Lord Anthony, was born on September 1869.

The cause of Miss MacDonald’s death is announced to have been a fall from a horse, a green hurtler, which ran over a precipe with her. She was hunting with a party which included her fiancé, the Earl.

Miss MacDonald was not much over 20 years. Her rise into prominence upon the stage was remarkably quick. Only a few years ago she was given her first part as a soubrette in a light farce-comedy, which came to nothing, except that it helped her to obtain employment with Hallen and Hart and later with Donelly and Girard of “Rainmaker” fame.

Two years ago, when “Off the Earth” was first put upon the road for the purpose of starring Edwin Foy, Miss MacDonald was given a prominent part. The following summer she was in the cast of “Little Robinson Crusoe”, which was brought out at the Schiller. Then she engaged with Hoyt and McKee in “A Trip to Chinatown” and last spring went to Harry Conor’s company to Australia. The production met with so much success that “A Milk White Flag” has since been brought out by the same company.

Miss MacDonald was the daughter of Mr and Mrs William MacDonald, Brooklyn, N.Y., She never married, and had managed to keep pretty free from “green-room” gossip. Once, four years ago, she came into a little notoriety because of the conduct of Jack McAuliffe, the prize fighter. They had been engaged for many months, but for some reason they quarrelled in a Broadway restaurant, and McAuliffe struck her in the eye.

A completely different version of events leading to the actress’ death was reported a day before the Tribune by the Sydney Morning Herald:


sadie macdonald 2

Sadie MacDonald, “the charming soubrette singer who appeared on Saturday night with all her wonted animation at Her Majesty’s Theatre”, died at the Empire Hotel causing a sensation.

The entire play going community of Australia will be shocked to learn of the sudden death of Miss Sadie MacDonald the charming soubrette singer who appeared on Saturday night with all her wonted animation at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The unfailing cheerfulness, amiability, and courage of this win-some girl had made her a great favourite amongst her companions on the stage. Every member of the American company feels her death as that of the loss of a sister, and the ladies are prostrate with grief. The sad event took place at 6:30 yesterday morning.          

Miss MacDonald has been staying at the Empire Hotel, Pitt-street, with Miss Geraldine McCann and Miss Nellie Butler, and started with them for Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday evening apparently in good health and spirits. It was the first night of “A Milk White Flag,” in which she was to appear as the Orphan Pony Luce, mid the excitement of the evening so far sustained her that she made no complaint either to Mr Julian Mitchell, who directed the production, or to any of her companions. After playing with all her accustomed charm and vivacity, Miss MacDonald returned to the hotel, and no uneasiness was felt about her until 4.45 yesterday morning, when she went into Miss McCann’s bedroom with the words, “Geraldine, I’m awfully sick, and have come right here to tell you” The patient complained of violent pains in the head, and added, ” I believe I’m going crazy, and I’d sooner die than do that.” Miss McCann at once hurried her to bed, and after a brief fit of delirium she became tranquil, and said she felt better. Miss McCann took the opportunity of slipping away to arouse Miss Butler, but in a few minutes the patient looked so much better that they began to think all was well. In the meantime Dr. Eichler had been sent for, and shortly after his arrival he directed Miss McCann to place the patient, who was breathing very gently, in a better position. Miss McCann accordingly placed her arm round her friend, and in her own words, “just after I did so, the dear child passed away.”

The fatal illness was directly caused by a strain to the back whilst throwing a catherine-wheel” on the stage of the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, some six weeks ago during the run of  A Milk White Flag.” This accident injured the spine, and necessitated a rest of three weeks. The actress was attended in Melbourne by Dr O’Hara, who warned her against indulging in violent exercise. Whilst Hoyt’s comedians were at Ballarat, Miss MacDonald resumed her place in the cast, but whilst dancing was seized with extreme weakness, and was only enabled to finish her part with the aid administered by a medical man.

funeral sadie macdonald empire

Sadie MacDonald’s coffin leaves the Empire Hotel.

Just before the Baumanns’ departure from the Empire in October 1897, another incident added to the notorierity of the hotel. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on August 27 1897 a young woman named Grace Flahvin, a domestic employed at the hotel, was seriously injured when a disturbance took place between a number of men, one of whom threw half a brick, striking her in the face. Besides inflicting terrible facial injuries, the brick completely crushed her. The brick thrower was charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm.

The following month the Baumanns’ association with the Empire had ended, and they retired from the hotel industry. Amelia died in 1901, and George, at the age of 84, in 1916.

Experienced hotelier, Harris Chancellor was host of the Empire when another guest died at the hotel in 1903. A lead refiner from Dapto, Edward Aulds Deere, 35, was found fatally injured on the laneway beside the hotel after falling 60 feet from the third floor window of his room. The Evening News reported on June 1 1903:

Deceased was a visitor from Dapto, and had only taken a room at the hotel on the previous evening. He was 37 years of age. Dr. Waugh, of Sydney Hospital, said that Deere was admitted to the institution with both arms and several ribs broken, and injuries to the spine. He was delirious, and in his delirium he mentioned the name ‘Scott.’  Death occurred soon afterwards. Ernest Siddley said that deceased was a native of South Australia. He was unmarried. Witness last saw him alive at 10.40pm on Friday, when they arranged to meet on Saturday morning. Deere was perfectly sober… Mary Jane Richardson, a resident of Hunter-street, gave evidence as to the engaging of a room by deceased, and the noise (heard at 3.30am on Saturday by Mrs Richardson) of the sound of a body falling heavily in the lane at the rear of the hotel. There was no evidence as to how Deere fell out of the window, and the Coroner recorded an open finding.

Chancellor had a short stay at the Empire. He fell ill in August 1904, and retired from business. He and his wife moved into Usher’s Metropolitan Hotel on King-Street after giving-up the Empire’s license. Born in Mt Gambier, South Australia, Chancellor cut his teeth as a barman at the Narracoorte Hotel, before purchasing the Frances Hotel. He later went on to host hotels in Adelaide before making his way to Sydney. He died shortly after retiring as host of the Empire Hotel at the age of 36 in October 1904. Chancellor was replaced by Western Australian publican James Jackson, who undertook major renovations at the hotel.

Tom Wheeler, 21, shot himself in the head with a revolver after firing at his girlfriend, a barmaid at the Empire Hotel in 1909. English born wheeler reportedly became enraged after Nellie Venus refused to leave her job as barmaid and declined his offer of marriage. As a result of the rejection, Wheeler went on a five day drinking spree, and walked into the bar of the Empire firing his revolver

Venus told the coroner that Wheeler fired a number of shots at her before she turned and ran. One of the shots grazed the back of her neck and she was able to manage to jump into a cab to the hospital.

William Ahrens, barman at the hotel, told the coroner’s court that he heard three shots fired in rapid succession on the night of February 27 1909. As a consequence he went to the smaller saloon bar and saw a man lying on his back with a revolver by his side. A finding of suicide was recorded.

The Empire Hotel in the 1920s shortly before it closed for business.

The Empire Hotel in about 1920 shortly before it closed for business.

The end came for the Empire in September 1919 when the hotel owner, Mutual Life Assurance Society, sold the corner property to the Queensland National Bank for £52,000. The hotel lease had another two years to run, and the Empire closed in June 1922 – but not before another mysterious death.

The manager of Simplex Flooring Company, John Martin was staying at the hotel in August 1921 when he left the bar to retire to his room. He was found critically injured after falling 14 feet to the bottom of the hotel’s lift well. He was taken to Sydney Hospital where he later died.

In yet another twist to the Empire’s history, its license was transferred from the corner of Pitt and Hunter Street to an old temperance hotel at the corner of Park and Castlereagh Streets in the city. The new Empire Hotel traded there for many years before Sydney City Council resumed the property for £68,200 in connection with the Park-street improvement scheme. The second Empire was demolished in the late 1930s to allow the widening of Park Street.

Meanwhile the Queensland National Bank spent of £39,590 renovating the old Empire at the corner of Pitt and Hunt Streets. The new banking building was opened in May 1923. The bank building was demolished in the 1970s.

empire hotel sydney demolished 1923

The former Empire Hotel (right) under renovation in 1923

The Empire Hotel

Publicans 1887-1922

 1887 – 1894 – James Curtin

1894 – 1897 – George Baumann

1897 – 1902 – Arthur Lawrence Peacock

1902 – 1904 – Harris Chancellor

1904 – 1907 – James Jackson.

1907 – 1909 – Henry Isaac Bowden

1909 – 1909 – Walter Lesur

1909 – 1911 – Rebecca Tabor

1911 – 1912 – James Kelly

1912 – 1917 – George Alexander Power

1917 – 1918 – Alfred Robinson

1918 – 1919 – Daniel Ryan,

1919 – 1920 – Francis Edward Barton Smith

1920 – C1921 – Robert Denton

C1921 – 1922 – Douglas Rogers

Hotel closed: License transferred to corner of Park and Castlereagh Streets,

and a new hotel opened by the name of the Empire.

© Copyright 2015 Mick Roberts

Categories: NSW hotels, Publicans, Sydney hotels

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Very interesting. There was another publican of The Empire in 1908, Karl Schauman. Both he and Henry Isaacs Bowden were associated with the SS Waratah disaster.

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