By MICK ROBERTS ©
The Bowles spinsters were two tough old Brisbane hoteliers who reigned over their wharfies’ pub with iron fists for more than 40 years.
Their pub, the Atlas traded at the end of Russell Street, Southbank, about where the landmark Brisbane Wheel operates from today.
The Irish sisters were noted for their pluck, and for refusing to take a backward step when challenged. Beside their ability to handle the toughest waterside workers at their dockside pub, they also became infamous for their fondness for litigation.
The Bowles sisters were familiar faces in the Brisbane courts and tempting fodder for the newspapers of the time.
Margaret (Maggie) and Mary Ann (Mollie) Bowles were 26 and 21 respectively when they landed in Australia in 1889, going first to Quilpie, and then to Charleville, where they stayed with their wealthy uncle, Frank Tully. Tully was a successful Western Queensland pioneer and pastoralist.
Maggie and Mollie were on their way back to Ireland in 1903 when they stayed at the South Glen Boarding House, in South Brisbane. When they discovered the lease of the boarding house was for sale, they bought it and cancelled their trip home to Ireland.
A few years later the sisters bought the freehold of the boarding house, which would have housed many of the men who worked on the Brisbane docks, and changed its name to the Dublin Boarding House.
When the Kings Hotel at the corner of Stanley and Russell Streets, South Brisbane came up for sale in 1907, the sisters decided to become publicans.
Coming from County Galway where poor Catholic families often clashed with their wealthy English landlords, it’s not surprising the sisters were not comfortable with the sign, Kings Hotel. Almost immediately they changed its name to the Atlas Hotel.
The Kings Hotel was established in the 1890s as the Russell Hotel and had a reputation as one of the docks’ roughest pubs.
The corner pub was known for selling adulterated liquor, trading at illegal hours, and of course fighting amongst its customers. It was a notorious ‘blood house’.
The hotel’s sign was changed from the Russell to the Kings in 1901.
Maggie, at the age of 44, was granted the transfer of the license of the old wharfies’ pub from Edward Turner Mead in March 1907, and in May, the sisters changed its sign from the Kings to the Atlas.
Two years later, they bought the freehold of the property and made a number of improvements to the old hotel, including an exclusive “private bar”. The Brisbane Truth reported on November 9, 1913:
When the Misses Bowles took up the license of the Atlas Hotel, at the corner of Stanley and Russell-streets, South Brisbane, they took up a torrid proposition. Being clean ladies, they took upon themselves the Herculean task of cleansing an alcoholic Aegean stable. They succeeded in doing so ad respectable members of the community were not slow to recognise the fact. As they advanced, they saw the necessity of a private bar, and this was last night inaugurated by all prominent residents and business people of the Southside in several bumpers of Perrier-Jouet’s champagne. The new bar, which is equal to any private bar In town, cost £500, and is replete with mirrors, cedar bar fittings of tasteful design, handsomely decorated walls, steel ceilings, and electric fans.
Except for two trips back to Ireland – and intermediate periods during the war – the sisters hosted the pub for over four decades. They owned the Atlas from 1907 until their deaths.
Mollie died aged 78 in March 1947, and Maggie in 1951, aged 88.
Maggie was one of Brisbane’s longest serving publicans at the time of her death, hosting the Atlas for 44 years.
The sprightly old landladies kept a tight rein on the operations of their pub, and it was reported that her walking stick was often used threateningly as a deterrent to unruly behaviour from the hard drinking wharfies.
Even on her death bed, Maggie was in a legal battle. In 1948 she became involved in a dispute over the lease of the Atlas Hotel to William Taylor Anderson.
After various appeals, the High Court of Australia gave a verdict in favour of Maggie. And then the old publican commenced another action for damages against Anderson. This, too, went to the High Court of Australia, and its decision – only 24 hours before she died – was against Maggie. The Brisbane Truth reported on Sunday, October 28, 1951:
ON Monday last, in Melbourne, the High Court of Australia gave a decision, against Miss Margaret Julia Bowles, well known hotel-keeper of South Brisbane; on Tuesday, Miss Bowles was dead! The court judgement and her death, climaxed a 90 years-long life that had had more than the average in court experiences; for, from the time she was a young girl in Ireland, Margaret Bowles seemed fated to have to do with evictions, and court actions, and bailiffs and fights, and such exciting episodes as most of us miss in plodding our humdrum way through life.
90 YEARS OF FIGHT!
The age-long feud between landlord and tenant played no small part in the life of 90-year-old Miss Bowles, who, incidentally, was a member of one of Queensland’s best-known pioneer families and for nearly 40 years owner and licensee of the historic South Brisbane landmark, the Atlas Hotel, in Stanley-street. In her youth, which she spent in the County Galway, Ireland, Miss Bowles – and other members of her family – were cast in the unfortunate role of tenants, and, in those days, she and other occupants of her home were forced to bar their windows to prevent bailiffs evicting them on to the street when they ran a’foul of the hated landlord.
Years later, after migrating to Queensland, she and a sister, Mary Ann Bowles, bought the Atlas Hotel, part of which was let to a man named William Taylor Anderson.
In 1948 Miss Bowles became involved in another landlord-and-tenant fight – only this time she was the landlord! Anderson was the tenant. After various appeals, the High Court of Australia gave a verdict in favor of Miss Bowles. And then the old lady commenced another action for damages against Anderson. This, too, went to the High Court of Australia, and its decision, last Monday, was against Miss Bowles – only 24 hours before she died in Brisbane.
It was pointed out that the cost of fighting such a case would be far in excess of the amount of approximately £500 damages at stake, but Miss Bowles, revealing true Irish stubbornness, fought It to the bitter end, and, on her ‘form’ throughout her life, she
probably would have insisted on appealing to the Privy Council from the High Court’s adverse judgement. The old lady showed typical Irish temper, too, during Summons Court proceedings, when she was asked whether it was true that she was worth £150,000, and owned any property other than the Atlas Hotel. “What has it got to do with you, what I am worth?” she snapped at counsel withering him with 90-year-old scorn. “You won’t have to pay any of my debts. I refuse to tell you how much I have got.”
Unusual incident in the early life of the late Miss Bowles is related by a family friend and business associate. He says Miss Bowles recounted to him how on one occasion in Ireland, the constabulary and bailiffs had gone along to evict her and other members of her family. She and the other tenants, however, lined up and sang, ‘God Save Ireland!’ and it was not long before the bailiffs joined in! That broke the ice, and the officers turned around and went home without evicting the family. It meant the sack for all of them.
He adds that as she and barrister Vince Fogarty left the Brisbane Summons Court after one of her many legal actions, in Brisbane, he commiserated with her on her ordeal in undergoing such a lengthy cross-examination. “She turned and said ‘Don’t worry about me, I was the chief witness in a really important action, long before either of you was born. It was back in Ireland — a murder case — and I was the chief witness. It was my poor brother Henry. He was a kind boy, as good and kind a boy as ever came out of Ireland, but he got into a bit of trouble once, when he shot a bailiff.” Her friend added that the old lady had told him she came from the County Galway, in Ireland – the centre of the Land League troubles. In those days, tenants were being asked to pay impossible rents, and when they could not pay, they were evicted forcibly. Thousands were thrown out of their homes in this fashion, and tenants banded together behind barred doors and windows, using pitchforks and other weapons to resist bailiffs. Miss Bowles told many graphic stories of these stirring times.
The practice of such evictions is described in “The Writings of James Fintan Lalor” as “the cruellest tyranny that ever yet held its vulture clutch over the body and soul of a country,” and “tyranny in its widest scope and worst shape.” And, In the midst of such evictions, Miss Bowles and her family did not escape, this friend said the old lady often told him. She and other members of her family were put out of their homes on one occasion, and one member was lifted out through the roof, on a stretcher. He said Miss Bowles had shown him a picture of this incident.
The old Irish landlady wasn’t going to go out a loser. From beyond the grave, Maggie had one more legal battle to fight – and win. Her legal battles continued, when Maggie’s brothers contested her will. The Brisbane Truth reported on Sunday September 14, 1952:
TWO CAME FROM OTHER LANDS TO FIGHT WILL
Courts “Followed” Her Beyond The Grave
RIGHT from the time she was a young girl in Ireland, until her death in Brisbane at the age of 88, court actions played a major part in the life of MISS MARGARET JULIA BOWLES, former licensee of the Atlas Hotel, South Brisbane. She was forever in and out of Brisbane courts, and, with typical Irish stubbornness, she pursued one particular litigation in which she was involved through the Supreme Court, the Full Court of Queensland, and, finally, the High Court of Australia. She died the day after the High Court gave its decision, in October last year. But — even that was not the end of court actions for ‘Maggie’ Bowles!
Although she is not in the courtroom, a case which commenced in Brisbane Supreme Court last week and is still proceeding pivots on the late Miss Bowles and her mental state in the few months prior to her demise — not forgetting, of course, her will, and the £45,000 estate she left. Two of her brothers had disputed certain aspects of the four codicils she made to her last, will, probate. In solemn form of which had been sought by solicitor Charles Seymour, an executor and personal friend of deceased.
One brother, Ambrose Bowles, has come from New York for the case, and the other, Joseph Patrick, has made the trip from Ireland. They are the only surviving brothers of the once-large family.
The case commenced on Wednesday, before Mr. Justice Mansfield, S.PJ., and a jury of four, after lengthy attempts at settlement had proved fruitless. After only a few hours’ evidence, His Honor suggested that another attempt should be made to have the matter decided amicably between the parties. On Friday morning Judge Mansfield again addressed counsel and suggested ways and means that might prevent a long, drawn-out and costly hearing developing. He told counsel that the jury should first be dispensed with, because, in his opinion, it would only increase the length and cost of the hearing to have one, and he suggested that the parties should compromise.
Even ‘Maggie’ Bowles herself had, before her death, shown ‘almost horror,’ when she knew her money was being used in expensive litigation during previous long cases, His Honor pointed out. Counsel then retired for a few minutes, and later announced that the jury would be dispensed with.
Ambrose Bowles and the plaintiff, Charles Seymour, also retired from the action. One of the original defendants, Peter Augustin McLaughlin, was then given leave to withdraw his defence, and to become plaintiff in the action. Joseph Bowles thus became the only defendant. When the court adjourned on Friday afternoon until to-morrow morning, McLaughlin was in the position of seeking probate of Miss Bowles’s will, and the first codicil. He also sought as much of the second, third, and fourth codicils as the court might deem fit.
Joseph Bowles is opposing probate of the four codicils.
Maggie’s last legal battle was eventually won from the grave. Her brother, Joseph, the remaining person contesting the will, lost his challenge to her will. His legacy was reduced to a trust to be paid in annual instalments.
The majority of the old Irish landlady’s fortune was left to the Catholic Church charities.
After Maggie’s death the pub had another name change from the Atlas to the View World Hotel. The historic pub was sadly demolished to make way for the Brisbane Expo in 1988.
The landmark ‘Brisbane Wheel’ at the river end of Russell Street marks the site where the Atlas Hotel once traded.
First published 2020. Updated 2022.
© Copyright, Mick Roberts, 2022
With thanks to Ross Palm and Craig Justo for additional information and images.
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