Pubs & Pokies: A history of poker machines in Australia

pokie truck 1945 brisbane
A truck full of illegal poker machines in Brisbane 1945. Picture: State Library of Queensland


Pokie publican, Frederick Hart Pollock. Picture: Supplied.

SURPRISINGLY, way before ‘one armed bandits’ were introduced into Australian clubs, the new invention known as poker or fruit machines first made their appearance in the bars of pubs in the 1890s.

One of the earliest media references to a poker machines in pubs was in Melbourne during 1895 when Frederick Hart Pollock (pictured), of Her Majesty’s Hotel, in Swanston Street, advertised “the latest invention” for sale on Friday May 31.

Pollock was selling and exhibiting one of the machines at his pub. That same year, tote machines, invented for placing bets on horse racing were also appearing in pubs and tobacco shops.

By the following year the pokies had taken hold, sitting on the bars of pubs and tobacco shops across the colonies, offering cigars as prizes. They were attracting a strong interest from punters.

Her Majestys Hotel Melbourne October 1898 Melbourne Sportsman
Her Majesty’s Hotel, Swanston Street, Melbourne. The hotel was one of the first to introduce poker machines into the Australian colonies. Picture: Melbourne Sportsman October 25 1898.

A correspondent wrote to the Sunday Times (Sydney) Sunday January 5 1896:



Sir, — Among the many aids to gambling which are yearly introduced to the colonies I notice that American ‘poker machines’ are becoming quite numerous, especially in hotels and tobacconists’ shops. This machine, at the current rate of odds, is as great a take-down as the notorious games of “Yankee sweat” and “back-up or forfeit,” run by monte men at agricultural shows and race courses. In an hotel where I saw this machine working last week you drop a three penny-piece in a slot and strike a metal bar, when a poker hand of five cards, from a full pack, appears on the face of the machine, for which the following odds are paid in cigars : — one pair, 1 cigar : two pairs, 2 cigars ; and so on up to 50 cigars for a royal flush. During 20 minute stay in this hotel I saw the sum of 15s put through the machine, with a result of two cigars (two pairs) for the sixty hands — a clear profit of 14s 6d to the publican. Now, sir, I contend that the use of this machine ought to be stopped in licensed houses here as it was in Melbourne, as a lot of gambling takes place through players backing their hands, in some instances for large stakes.

The Adelaide Chronicle reported on Saturday February 15 1896 that “recently what are known as ‘poker machines’ have been imported into South Australia, and a number have been in use at several tobacconists’ shops and hotels in the city.

The machines are clever contrivances for showing poker hands, an ordinary pack of playing cards, only smaller, being affixed to a revolving roller. A three penny piece is placed in a slot and on the button being pressed down the cards revolve quickly and eventually show five cards. Various numbers of cigars are paid according to the value of the hands displayed —from 50 for a royal flush down to one for a pair of knaves or over. The attention of the police having been called to their use, the Chief Secretary has forwarded the facts to the law officers of the Crown for their opinion as to whether the machines are an invasion of the Lottery and Gaming Act.

club hotel winton qld 1896
The Club Hotel, Winton, Queensland in 1898. The publican was warned for having an “automatic poker machine” on her bar in 1896. Picture: Supplied.

The licensee of the Club Hotel at Winton Queensland was cautioned for using an “automatic poker machine” when she fronted the magistrate in August 1896. The licensee pleaded that the machine was in general use and was not regarded as illegal. The Bench found the charge proved ; but “believing that the defendant had not erred wilfully, imposed no penalty”.

By 1898, the authorities in most Australian colonies had come down hard on the new form of gambling. The NSW Government legislated against the use of poker machines in 1898, as did other colonial governments.


MELBOURNE, Thursday night.

John Parer, of the Exchange Hotel, was today fined £2 for using in his licensed premises a “coin in the slot” poker machine, by means of which players paid in cigars their losses on a game of poker, the hands being shown by the machine.

– Horsham Times, Friday, March 11, 1898


At the St. Kilda court yesterday, Mr. Fred. Wimpole, licensee of the George Hotel, was charged with permitting an unlawful game to be played on his premises. The police discovered a poker machine on defendant’s bar counter, used in connection with the sale of cigars. The bench found that the game was unlawful, but in the circumstances was disinclined to impose a penalty. Consequently the case was positioned for 14 days to allow the police an opportunity of gaining the consent of the authorities to withdraw.

The Age (Melbourne, Vic.) Wednesday 26 July 1899


At the Water Police Court yesterday, Inspector Potter proceeded against James Buck, of the Star and Garter Hotel, King-Street, for, by his servant, Lillie King, unlawfully promise for a certain consideration, to dispose of certain goods, to wit, cigars, by a contrivance known as a poker machine. Defendant pleaded guilty, and was fined £2, with 5s 6d costs, levy and distress. Ernest Jones was also proceeded against for using a poker machine, and fined a like amount.

-Sydney Evening News on Thursday 9 June 1898.


What are known as fruit machines, which lately have been installed in many of the hotels in Brisbane and other parts of the State are to be banned. Acting upon advice from the Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police is issuing instructions to the police throughout the State that persons having these machines installed in their premises for use by the public after August 9 are to be prosecuted.

Bowen Independent (Qld.) Tuesday 29 July 1930

Playing pokies in the pub. Picture: Supplied

With the growing popularity of registered clubs in colonial Australia during the 1890s, the fledgling industry quickly seized on the opportunity of providing the lucrative gambling machine into their premises for their members.

While pokies had been banned through legislation across Australia by the various colonial governments, the evolution and exclusiveness of registered clubs – particularly amongst the more ‘well-to-do’ – made their policing more difficult by authorities. An investigation into Melbourne clubs by an Age reporter in May 28 1904 revealed:

A club is allowed to supply intoxicating drinks to its members, but it is required to pay no licence fees. Further than this, its habitation is as sacred as a private dwelling, and the police have no right to exercise supervision. While the hotelkeeper, if he supply a thirsty customer with a drink one minute after 11.30 p.m. may be heavily fined, and for repetitions of the offence may lose his licence, the club may trade in liquor throughout the whole 24 hours, and on Sundays also, with perfect impunity. If an hotelkeeper allow a game of cards or a game of chance to be played for money on his licensed premises he is guilty of a serious offence against the Licensing Act. Members of the clubs may gamble away fortunes, and no one but the victim’s and their impoverished relatives be any the wiser. Similarly no licensed victualler would dare to work “a poker machine, a totalisator or a sweepstakes in even his own private apartments. The police have the right to enter his premises at any hour and conduct a rigorous inspection. At some of the so-called clubs all these devices for making money are openly practised and the law is powerless. There are now no fewer than 49 clubs in Melbourne. In the words of a police officer who has taken a keen interest in the subject, many of them are mere drinking and gambling dens, which lure decent men to their ruin.

The report went on to warn of the growing dangers of poker machines and gambling in clubs and called for tougher regulations or their abolition.

Drink is served to them and to their non-member friends at almost every hour during the twenty-four. The rattling of billiard balls and the changing of money over the solo whist, nap and poker tables may be heard long after midnight, and even on Sundays. Totalisators and sweepstakes are promoted in connection with every race meeting, and the whizz of the “poker machines” proclaims that the proprietors are reaping a further harvest from the most profitable way of selling cigars, cigarettes and tobacco. The evil is a growing one.

The 1906 NSW Gaming and Betting Act prohibited most forms of gambling in clubs and hotels. However the legal status of poker machines continued to remain ambiguous, despite a 1921 Supreme Court ruling declaring them illegal in hotels. 

Despite poker machines being illegal in every state across Australia, they continued to flourish inside not-for-profit clubs nationwide – particularly New South Wales and Victoria. The machines were common inside institutions with a wealthier membership base, like golf and bowling clubs. The Adelaide News reported on Saturday 20 June 1925:


It happened in an Adelaide suburb this week. It was decided that a cash register would be desirable to check the funds of a church fete and a request to the local bowling club for the loan of its contrivance met with ready assent. “There it is in the corner, and here is the key,” said the secretary. With blissful innocence the leader of the young men’s Bible class walked off with the club’s poker machine. The wise old men of the church gathered round, but the device mystified them until a later arrival recognised it and made the horrifying announcement. The wicked Instrument of the Devil was hastily and sternly ex-changed for the respectable Aid to Honesty before the flock arrived. It was a narrow escape. Members of the bowling club who attend that church now have uneasy consciences lest their wives hear the story.

1930 poker machine
A typical poker machine in the late 1920s. Picture: Supplied

During January 1931 the police warned Sydney clubs that the use of poker machines was illegal, and if the machines were not removed promptly, prosecutions would follow.

In 1931 and again in 1939, the NSW Government ordered the removal of poker machines from clubs, but the decision was reversed on each occasion after protests.

A 1932 NSW Royal Commission on ‘Fruit Machines’ found that Chief Secretary Gosling was offered bribes by Automatic Machines Ltd and other poker machine importers, and that he instructed that pubs and clubs with machines should not be prosecuted.

The growing and influential club industry had been lobbying the NSW Government for sometime to allow pokies in their establishments and to impose a tax on the machines in 1939.

The tax would raise about £100,000 for the state’s hospitals, the club industry argued. It was just the bait the club industry needed. The Cootamundra Herald (NSW) reported on Friday 20 June 1941:


SYDNEY, Friday: The State Government is expected to consider a scheme to license poker machines, following a census of those machines which is now being taken by the police. The census in the city is now complete, and the police are checking up on country machines. It is stated officially that there are at least 1000 poker machines in use in New South Wales. At one period they were removed from all clubs, on the order of the then Chief Secretary, Mr. Gollan, but they were afterwards restored, although It is still officially illegal.

Poker machines also crept into unlicensed billiard saloons during the 1930s, which had become more than just halls for playing the ball and stick game. Many billiard saloons had re-branded as “sports clubs”, and beside their tables, also had poker machines, and other gambling opportunities for their “members”. The Sydney Truth reported on Sunday 10 March 1940:


Solicitor’s Charge Of Discrimination

POLICE made capital of the fact that small ‘poor men’s’ clubs had poker machines in stalled, but they allowed big clubs, such as the Vice Regal, Tatt’s, Yachting and golf clubs to operate machines with impunity it was claimed in Campsie Court last week by Mr. C. P. White. Mr. White’s remarks were occasioned during the hearing of a case against George Weihr, 34, bookmaker, and proprietor of the Belmore Sports Club. Weihr who is a Frenchman and has been called up for war service, was charged that on March 2 at the club in Bridge-road, Belmore, he conveyed, before the prescribed time, the betting odds on the Newmarket Handicap. He pleaded guilty. Constable Roach, of Campsie, said that at 2.55 p.m. on March 2, with other police, he entered the Sports Club and on the wall was a list of the betting odds on the Newmarket Handicap, to be run at 3 p.m. “About 40 men were present when we entered,” said Constable Roach. “Betting is conducted in a fairly large way at this club.” Mr. White: I object to any exparte statements. Mr. Doolan, acting S.M. It Is the reputation of the place he is giving, not evidence against Weihr. Constable Roach added that there were two billiard tables in the room and also a poker machine. “The door was barred and it was a small peephole through which the doorkeeper looks. If he does not know you he will not allow you to enter.” Mr White: Didn’t the poker machine come from Tatt’s Club?— I couldn’t say. Do you know that all the big clubs in town have poker machines? — I couldn’t say. Mr. Doolan: They have if we believe the newspapers. Mr. White: They are not raided for machines. Why do the police try to make capital out of this machine in the poor man’s club. Haven’t you been told not to touch the poker machines? – No. Why didn’t you take this machine then?— There was no play going on. When did you last seize a machine? – Four months ago. On the question of penalty Mr. White said he hoped that the S.M. would not be influenced by the fact that the poker machine was on the premises. Mr. Doolan fined Weihr £15 and ordered him to pay £5 forthwith, and the balance within two months.


Some Dens Of Vice

SYDNEY, Saturday. — “Many billiards clubs are little better than gambling dens and last Sunday I saw a boy of 12 and a boy of 14 playing pool in one,” said the Australian snooker champion, Horace Lindrum to-day. Lindrum, who is a proprietor of one of Sydney’s billiards parlors, said registration of all billiards clubs and legislation placing them under police supervision was long overdue. “One of the finest games in the world was falling into disrepute because of the manner in which many clubs were being conducted. Unfortunately a great deal of that prejudice was justified. Poker machines, dice, two-up, crown and anchor, and Murrumbdger or betting on marbles, were only too common in many of the so-called unlicensed clubs in New South Wales.”

– The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld) Monday 15 January 1945.


George Armstrong, 71, of Main Road, Coledale, was fined £5 by Mr. J. Fleeman, S.M., at the Bulli Court yesterday, for being the keeper of a common gaming house at 53 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Coledale, known as the Billiards Club. The Police Prosecutor (Sgt. W. J. Smith) said on the afternoon of October 8, police entered the premises and found a poker machine. When later opened at the Austinmer police station, the machine was found to contain £8/18/0 in sixpences. Mr. T. Mclnerney (for Armstrong) said the premises were well conducted as a club. Sgt. Smith said he had received no complaint about this particular club before. Mr. Fleeman ordered the for feiture of the f 8/18/0 found in the machine. Armstrong undertook to remove , the machine from the club

– Illawarra Mercury Thursday 20 October 1949

police poker machine 1939
Sergeant G. Fleming (left) and Constable C. T. Magill with an illegal poker machines confiscated in Sydney in 1939. Picture: Sydney Daily Telegraph Friday 16 June 1939
poker machines destroyed 6
Destroying fruit machines, August 31 1939. The picture shows impounded gambling machines being destroyed with a sledgehammer. Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
poker machines destroyed 1939 5
Destroying fruit machines, August 31 1939. The picture shows impounded gambling machines being destroyed with a sledgehammer. Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

From 1937 the prohibition on gaming machines in hotels and clubs was again enforced, yet in 1941 a police census found hundreds of illegal gaming machines in use in Sydney clubs.

Despite gaming machines being illegal until 1956, pokies were tolerated to such an extent that at least four manufacturers were active in Sydney before 1956.

In 1953 an Australian company called Aristocrat saw that the lucrative attraction of the poker machine business and developed their first game known as the ‘Clubman’ which was replaced with the Clubmaster in 1955.

Clubs also dodged the prohibition of pokies by introducing ‘trade stimulators’ during these times. Designed to be played with redeemable tokens rather than cash, the machines were tailored to Sydney’s sporting, professional, social and other clubs, and were exchangeable for beer, cigarettes and other items.

Despite strong opposition from the United Victuallers Association, the hotel industry advocacy group, the NSW Government legalised gaming machines in registered clubs in 1956.

The Western Herald (Bourke, NSW ) reported on Friday 3 August 1956:


After State Cabinet made the decision this week to legalise poker machines, Government officials estimated revenue from the tax at between £500,000 and £750,000 a year. The Chief Secretary (Mr. Kelly) said about 1,000 clubs in NSW had machines. Tax rates will be : 6d. machines, first two machines, £40 a year; third and fourth machine, £60 each; fifth and more £80 each. 1/- machines, first two machines-, £100 a year each; third and fourth £150 each; fifth and more £200 each. 2/- machines, first two machines £250 a year each; third and fourth £375 each; fifth and more £500 each. The Premier (Mr. Cahill) said the use of the machines would be legal in non-proprietary clubs licensed under the Liquor Act in bona fide non-proprietary clubs not licensed under the Act. The Government would pay all revenue from the licences into the Hospital Fund. The Hospitals Commission would distribute the money as regular maintenance subsidies.

The pokies were quickly a hit with players even though at the time they were quite basic games. It was not until several years later that the first lights were installed in the games.

In the early 1990s several Australian States approved the release of poker machines into pubs.

After more than a century from when pokies were first introduced into Australia, when hoteliers sat them on their public bars offering cigars as prizes, the gaming machines had returned to the pub. This saw a much more widespread availability of the games in Queensland in 1992, South Australia in 1994 and NSW in 1997.

The introduction of pokies into pubs in the 1990s was a massive shot in the arm for the industry. The playing field became a little more even when publicans, who had been battling the dominance of the club industry with their pokies for almost half a century, were now better able to compete.

First published 2016. Updated 2022.

* Additional information thanks to Byron Smith

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022.

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