The Duracks 47 year reign at the Newmarket Hotel, Surry Hills

Surry Hills Hotel, Surry Hills. Picture: Mick Roberts


THE remaining historic inner-city pubs of Sydney hold countless sad and tragic secrets.

After the Great War many soldiers returned to Australia’s shores dealing with personal psychological traumas. This is the likely explanation behind the terrible tale of Andrew Robert McCloskey, who in 1920 shot and killed himself in the Surry Hills Hotel’s basement toilets. At the time of the suicide the pub was trading as the Newmarket Hotel and was hosted by the Durack family.

The Duracks, who were at the helm of the Newmarket Hotel for almost half a century, were also hosts when eight years earlier, notorious Sydney career criminal, George Cooling held-up the pub at gun point, leaving a bullet embedded in the bar wall.

A small inn by the name of the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ was established on the corner of Elizabeth and Campbell Streets by Irishman, Andrew Higgins in 1844. A career publican, Higgins’ first Sydney pub was the Golden Fleece on Brickfield Hill, George Street, for which he gained a license in January 1834.

Later that year he had the Cherry Tree at the corner of King and Castlereagh Streets, and from 1836 to 1838 he was granted the license of his first ‘Cheshire Cheese’ on Parramatta Road. He was given approval to remove the license from Parramatta Road to the corner of York and Markets Streets Sydney in 1838, and he hosted that pub until he fell into financial difficulties in 1841.

After re-establishing himself financially, Higgins was granted a license for his third ‘Cheshire Cheese’ at the corner of Elizabeth and Campbell Streets on May 6 1844, and from that day – for almost 180 years – a pub has traded on the corner.

Higgins remained host of the Elizabeth Street pub for less than two months before the license was transferred to James Cavanagh, who operated the inn until 1848.

Interestingly, Higgins was granted the license of his fourth ‘Cheshire Cheese’ on George Street South in April 1850.

As the Elizabeth Street inn, known as the Cheshire Cheese was still trading, Higgins was forced to name his new pub the “Old Cheshire Cheese”.

The fate of the old colonial publican with a fetish for pubs by the name of ‘Cheshire Cheese’ remains a mystery, as he left Sydney for the United States and the Californian gold rushes in the early 1850s. He reportedly died in California in 1859.

Another early prominent publican of the Cheshire Cheese on Elizabeth Street was James Jessett, who gained the license in 1859. With his wife, Harriet, they remained as hosts throughout most of the 1860s. The couple both died in 1873 while hosting the Naval Brigade Hotel in Lower George Street – Harriet in February, and James in December.

The Sydney Empire newspaper reported that a physician found that the 44-year-old publican died from an attack of “Asiatic cholera brought on by eating heartily… of cucumber salad, with beer”.

Arguably, the hotel’s most famous publican though is Thomas Durack.

Tom Durack would host the landmark pub for almost 40 years before his death in 1919 at the age of 80. He was a member of the pioneering family who blazed the cattle trail across the top-end from Queensland to Western Australia in 1879. 

Born in County Clare, Ireland, Tom Durack arrived in Australia at the age of 17 in 1856. With his wife Mary and children, Tom moved into the Cheshire Cheese Hotel in the late 1870s, gaining the transfer of its license from Daniel Locke in September 1880. He was 41.

At one time or another Durack’s four daughters and five sons worked at the hotel, including his daughter, Fanny – a world champion swimmer, competing and awarded gold in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Fanny broke the world record for 100 metres at Stockholm, and was Australian champion from 1908 till 1919.

Fanny’s presence behind the bar of the Newmarket Hotel was enormously good for business. In badinage with customers across the counter she reportedly was also a champion, with her quick whit. A muscular woman with formidable strength, when a drunk got fresh with her, she had no trouble throwing him off the premises.

Fanny Durack, who besides achieving the status of Olympic swimmer, worked behind the bar of the Newmarket Hotel. Picture: National Library of Australia

The Durack’s inn was frequented by dubious characters during these times and Fanny was more than often involved in keeping the peace in her father’s bar.

The owner of the hotel, a Mrs A. E. Simpson, had the old inn completely rebuilt in 1892.

The Cheshire Cheese was demolished and Durack, who leased the hotel, was granted permission to trade from a temporary bar while a new three-storey brick structure was constructed on the site.

The new hotel was completed in March 1893, and Durack was granted permission to change the name of the hotel to the Newmarket.

The Newmarket Hotel, Elizabeth and Campbell Streets, Surry Hills, opened for business in March 1893. Picture: City of Sydney Archives.

While host of the Newmarket Hotel, Tom Durack had an encounter with one of Sydney’s most notorious criminals.

George Cooling had a string of convictions when he held-up the Newmarket Hotel at gun-point in 1912.

Cooling’s first conviction was a fine for playing cricket on the Sabbath (Sunday) in 1896, and his life of crime and hatred of police constables steadily evolved from that time. The Sydney Truth reported on August 30, 1925:

As a boy of 13, Cooling, like many another Sydney youngster, was a cricket enthusiast. His love for cricket was greater than his respect for the Sabbath, He played on the day of rest once too often, and in the early days of 1896 he earned his first and lightest penalty — 10 shillings. In default 24 hours’ imprisonment, for playing cricket on Sunday.

In May of the same year he was given his first taste or penal discipline when he was sent to a reformatory to mend his ways. He did not reform. Instead, he set a bad example to his fellow boarders by climbing the walls and regaining his liberty. At Ryde a constable met Cooling, who, in consequence, cooled his heels in the cells for two months. When he was released he mixed with bad company and his friends led him into more trouble. For robbing in company he spent three months in the cells.


In the dying months of last century Cooling developed a trait which has remained with him through his career — a violent dislike for constables. His physique made assault a pleasure, and battering in a constable’s helmet was fascinating to him. His first offence in this direction cost him £5, or three months. For damaging the constable’s uniform he earned 21 days, and for his riotous conduct the S.M. treated him to £1 or seven days.

The year 1901 found Cooling in gaol for assault and robbery. This was his first experience of the Darlinghurst dock, and he left it with a three years’ sentence hanging over his head. He was released before his term was up, but prison routine so appealed to Cooling that he went back almost immediately on a two years’ sentence. He served the whole of this sentence, and a few months after his release, towards the end of 1905, he went back to gaol for another three years. His record shows that to him riotous behavior, indecent language, and malicious damage are pastimes for Saturday afternoons. In a sly grog joint the police found Cooling in 1910, and he parted up with £30 from his ill-gotten gains.


Then came his signal triumph as a crook. The police knew him as a dangerous character, and the six-foot, 14-stone giant was kept under close supervision. He qualified as a real gunman when he raided the old Newmarket Hotel in September, 1912. He called in casually one afternoon Just after three o’clock, while old Tom Durack, then aged 72, was reading his paper in the bar. Tom heard someone go to the till and rattle the coins, but for a moment he did not look to see who was there. He thought it was his son Con who kept the sweet shop next door. He turned and looked. And there was a masked man with his hand in the till. ‘Robbery! Robbery!’ shouted out Durack, and he closed with the intruder. His daughter Katherine came running to the scene, and assisted her father against the thief. But Cooling, for it was the underworld giant, drew his gun,. and fired two shots which missed both the old man and his son Con, who came running in when he heard the struggle in progress. The police found the bullets embedded in the wall.


For that an unsympathetic judge gave him three years’ hard. On account of good behavior, a thing unknown to him before, he was released on a license, but got into trouble for stealing, for which six months was ladled out. He went back to serve the balance of his three years. In 1919 he was declared an habitual criminal. Cooling is a married man, but has lived apart from his wife for some time now. For the past six months he has not turned his hand to work, but has lived in that mysterious way in which denisens of the underworld exist. The devil looks after his own. Cooling is of that cruel and cunning type which makes the worst type of crook.

The Newmarket Hotel C1913. Picture: City of Sydney Archives. Inset: Notorious criminal George Cooling, 1912. Picture: NSW Police Gaol Photos, State Library of NSW.

Cooling was still appearing before the courts during the 1930s on charges of assault and robbery. However, his fate remains a mystery.

Not surprisingly the Duracks armed themselves with a gun for protection after the Cooling incident. One of the sons of Tom Durack reportedly fired two shots over the heads of three men who were causing trouble in the pub during October 1914.

The men entered the bar and called for drinks, but as one of them was drunk, Tom refused to serve them. They then began swearing and one bloke hurled a syphon of soda at Tom’s son before the warning shots were fired, and the men took to the streets.

Brewery giant, Tooth & Company, which had purchased the freehold of the property from the deceased estate of Mrs A. E. Simpson in March 1909, called for tenders to rebuild the hotel for a third time in 1913.

The new hotel was designed by Sydney architects, Halligan and Wilton, and completed by builder, H. J. Thompson the following year. Interestingly, it was also the third hotel the Duracks had hosted from the same corner site.

After Tom Durack’s death in 1919, his widow, Mary Durack, with the help of her son Frank, continued as licensee of the Newmarket Hotel for a number of years until her retirement in 1926.

The Newmarket Hotel, Surry Hills, 1939. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

It was during this time that the sad suicide of Andrew Robert McCloskey occurred at the hotel.

McCloskey had recently returned from Europe, where he fought in the Great War as a private, when he attacked his girlfriend before first attempting suicide in 1918. He was living in Riley Street, Surry Hills with Gertrude O’Neill when an argument between the pair ended in violence.

In a fit of jealousy 26-year-old McCloskey is alleged to have slashed his girlfriend with a razor before attempting to cut his own throat. Both survived the attack.

Less than two years later in 1920, McCloskey walked into the basement toilets of the Newmarket Hotel and shot himself with a revolver. Hearing a gun-shot, Frank Durack, who was managing the hotel for his mother, rushed to the toilets where he found McCloskey in a pool of blood.

The 28-year-old war veteran had walked into the lavatory and shot himself through the head. Death was instantaneous.

The Duracks continued as hosts for another six years, chalking-up a record 47 years as hosts. A presentation was made to Mary Durack on the eve of her retirement.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Alderman P. J. Stokes, made a presentation on behalf of her friends, and in his remarks he referred to the absolute clean record of the publican. At the time Mary Durack had been almost half a century in the one hotel, and when the license was transferred the Licensing Magistrate complimented her on this fact. Mary Durack died in Stanmore in 1937 at the age of 80.

The Triple Ace Bar, Surry Hills. Picture: Mick Roberts

The Newmarket Hotel traded as the Triple Ace Bar in the early 2000s, until its sign was changed to the more palatable ‘Surry Hills Hotel’ in 2016.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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