The pubs of Cocky Bennett

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BETWEEN voyages an old sea captain was a regular visitor to the bar of Sydney’s Club House Hotel during the 1870s and 80s. Accompanying him, sitting on his shoulder – like all good seafaring captains of the time – was his trusty parrot.

Later to become known as ‘Cocky Bennett’, the bird would go down in history as arguably Australia’s most famous pub parrot.

This is a different slant on the well-told tale of Cocky Bennett, an almost featherless parrot, with a long twisted beak that squawked foul language, and amusing one liners. This is a fresh look at the almost featherless bird, a look at his pubs, and his publican custodians.

Captain George Ellis was a South Sea Islands’ trader, whose life had revolved around tall ships since the age of nine, when he was apprenticed during the early part of the 19th century.

Aged in his 70s, Ellis often called by Joseph Clement Bowden’s pub at the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh Streets, while in the port of Sydney in New South Wales. It was his local.

Ellis and Bowden had become mates after meeting while the publican was working as a police detective, travelling the South Sea Islands, making investigations into the ‘black-birding’ trade, or kidnapping of kanakas to work on the Queensland sugar cane plantations in the 1860s.

Like any good ship captain worth his weight in sea salt, Ellis had a parrot companion with him on his South Sea Island adventures. The Captain’s parrot was given to him when he was a nine-year-old apprentice, by a ship’s cook in 1809.

The bird at the time was 17 years of age, and it would remain with him on his voyages for the next 78 years. The bird reportedly travelled around the globe seven times during those years.

Club House Hotel Sydney NSW 1875
Captain Ellis favourite pub while in Sydney was the Club House Hotel. Pictured here in about 1878, this is how Ellis knew the Club House. Picture: Supplied.

Captain Ellis and his parrot were always given a warm welcome when they arrived at Sydney, particularly when they bunked at the Club House Hotel.

Joseph Bowden was 33 when he took the license of the Club House Hotel in 1872 – a Sydney watering hole notable for three large Norfolk Island Pines at its front doors.

Bowden married 31-year-old Sarah Thompson in 1875. The pair hosted the Club House Hotel until they managed to build their own pub around the corner in Elizabeth Street in 1889. Known as Bowden’s Hotel, the pair were there for less than 12 months when tragedy struck.

Joseph Bowden died at the age of 56 on July 27 1889. His 45-year-old widow was not to stay unmarried for any length of time, and by the end of the year she had tongues wagging when she married a 26-year-old former sporting champion, Charles Bennett.

Shortly after their marriage, Sarah and her new young man became guardians of a special bird that was to go down in Australian pub folklore. In a newspaper interview in 1913, Sarah explained how she became the custodian of the famous parrot.

With Captain George Ellis’ death in 1887, his cockatoo, which had spent over seven decades sailing the high seas, became the property of Sarah Bennett in 1891. The National Advocate reported an interview with Sarah on Tuesday June 24 1913:

“The captain often used to say that when he died he would leave him to me, and he kept his word,” Sarah said.

“He died when his boat was down in the Solomon Islands, in 1887, but I did not get the bird till several years afterwards. The ship was chartered to make voyages all over the world, and cocky still went with it, although the captain was dead.

“Then the ship came to Melbourne, and the captain’s nephew, who was still with her, made a special trip to Sydney to hand over the bird to me. That was in 1891, and he’s been with me ever since.”

Sarah explained in the 1913 interview the mathematics behind how the bird reached its grand age.

“The captain was 87 when he died in 1887. That makes 26 years. Then the captain had owned him for 78 years, which makes 104 years; and the bird was about 17 years old when given to the captain, making a total of 121. In appearance to-day he is wizened and black, with an upper beak nearly six inches long, curving over and sticking into his chest. This beak grows an inch or two every year, and Mrs. Bennett has to break it off when it gets too long. Instead of being thankful at being ridded of the encumbrance, the old bird resents the operation, and will speak to no one for days afterwards. He might be saying to himself, ‘If I ain’t got plumage, I’ve got a beak to be proud of’. That is probably why he becomes angry at having his claim to   distinction destroyed.”

The Bennetts bought a new pub in May 1892, with Charles taking the license of the Sea Breeze Hotel at Tom Ugly’s Point at Blakehurst, on the banks of the Georges River.

Sea Breeze Hotel Blakehurst NSW 1930 ANU
Sea Breeze Hotel, Tom Ugly’s Point, Blakehurst 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

The Sea Breeze Hotel was established at Tom Ugly’s (Dover) Point in 1875 to service the fishermen and ferry traffic. Offering picnic grounds and fresh oysters it was popular with pleasure seekers on the Georges River, and with the Bennett’s arrival it became even more popular with their new attraction, known as “Cocky Bennett”.

cocky bennett 1919.jpeg
Cocky Bennett at the age of 115 in 1911. Picture: Supplied.

Cocky Bennett’s grotesque look, with his almost featherless body and large curved and twisted beak was due to a Psittacine Circoviral disease, common in native parrots. Despite his strange looks, the cockatoo’s tricks and one liners made him the pub’s star attraction.

After the bird was offered a drink, he would screech; “One at a time, gentlemen, please” and then proceed with his antics, which included a failed attempt at flying. “If I had another bloody feather I’d fly,” was one famous line, while another was “I’ll fly, I’ll fly; my God, I’ll fly”. The bird was also known for his foul language, which was said to have “put to shame the hardiest bullocky”.

A trick that always amused patrons of the Sea Breeze Hotel, and generated plenty of money for the Kogarah Hospital through a donation tin beside his cage, was moves learnt while Cocky Bennett was on the high seas.

Cocky Bennet would move to one end of his perch, takes hold of an imaginary rope in his beak, hauling on it with regular tugs, and at the same time edging backwards along the perch.

ONE can imagine that it was taught him by Captain Ellis many years ago, and that ‘the regular movements’ accompanied some old-time sea chantey- the ‘Little Blue Devils’ or ‘Rio Grande.’ But although no one now whistles the tune, the old bird possibly still hears its echoes in the wind that blows from the open sea, and then he starts his quaint antics.

– National Advocate Tuesday 24 June 1913.

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Governor of NSW Sir Harry Rawson with wife Lady Florence, who had an embarrassing encounter with Cocky Bennett. Picture: Supplied

Many stories were told about Cocky Bennett, which became almost as well known as Robinson Crusoe’s parrot, or that of Captain Silver.

The Governor of New South Wales, Sir Harry Rawson and his daughter were two great admirers of Cocky Bennett. The Governor became a regular visitor to the cane cage of Cocky Bennet, even introducing the Australian Governor General Sir Henry Northcote to the famous bird.

Rawson’s decision to introduce his wife to Cocky Bennett though was probably not a good idea. The story goes that the Governor’s wife, Lady Florence had a rather large nose and when introduced, the cockatoo refused to speak. Cocky Bennett kept a grim silence until the Governor’s wife raised a cup of tea to her lips, then shrieked savagely: “Take your great beak out of that!”

I NOTICED in “The Weekly Times” last week an account of one Cocky Bennett, who has attained the great age of 121 years, and like the man in the advertisements of a certain spiritous liquor, is still going strong.

Cocky Bennett does not figure on the books of any insurance company, and he didn’t take part in the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

Furthermore, he was never a friend of John Pascoe Fawkner’s, and he had nothing whatever to do with the Eureka Stockade. So it will be readily gathered that he is quite unlike the majority of oldest inhabitants.

As a matter of fact, Cocky Bennett is a cockatoo, and his present domicile is the Sea Breeze Hotel, Tom Ugly’s Point, Sydney. You cannot bribe him to talk about the big flood of eighteen something-or-other, or the great drought, or the capture of the bush rangers, by “shouting” him a drink or presenting him with a plug of tobacco. But if you ply him with peanuts, or cake of superior quality, he will unburden himself of many interesting reminiscences.

His memory is wonderfully good, and he can supply you with the names – together with the dates of their coming and going – of all the licensees of the corner hotel from the year one, or thereabouts, up to the present time.

– Weekly Times Saturday 12 July 1913

Cocky Bennett at 118 in 1914. Picture: Supplied

Cocky Bennett was introduced to his fourth pub, the Woolpack Hotel at Canterbury in May 1915 after the retirement of 71-year-old Sarah from the Sea Breeze Hotel.

On retirement Sarah gave the parrot to her nephew, Alexander Wagschall, who was host of the Canterbury pub. There Cocky Bennet continued his antics, until his death at the age of 121 the following year.

Woolpack Hotel Canterbury1930 ANU
The Woolpack Hotel, Canterbury 1930; the last pub for Cocky Bennett. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

Wagschall had the remains of the parrot preserved by taxidermists, Messrs, Tost and Rohu. A stuffed Cocky Bennett remained in a glass case at the Woolpack Hotel until the late 1920s or early 1930s, when the family left the pub, and the remains were eventually donated to the Kogarah Historical Society, together with related documents.

Meanwhile, Sarah Bennett, died at her Mosman home at the age of 73 in 1917.

Like all good pub yarns, there’s one more twist to the tale of Cocky Bennett. In the 1970s a stuffed impostor Cocky Bennet reportedly turned-up at the new Sea Breeze Hotel causing quite a stir. The original weatherboard inn was demolished by owners, Tooth and Company Brewery in 1939 and replaced with a double storey brick hotel.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 reported an impostor specimen of the cocky, on display at the pub, was causing much negative debate amongst drinkers.

Sea Breeze Hotel Blakehurst 1949
The replacement Sea Breeze Hotel 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University
Sea Breeze Hotel Blakehurst Sydney 1970 ANU
The Sea Breeze Hotel in 1970 when a “replacement” stuffed Cocky Bennett made an appearance. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

First published 2016. Updated 2022.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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